Before Tao Mo could come up with a plan, Hao Guozi brought news that resolved the issue.

“A ghost marriage?” Tao Mo was taken aback.

Hao Guozi nodded and said, “That’s what the envoy from the Tong household said. Mr. Tong said that Miss Tong never married in her lifetime and was afraid of being lonely in the underworld. Coincidentally, Mr. Cai was also without family, so he is willing to pay for a ghost marriage, burying them side by side.”

Tao Mo could tell that Mr. Tong’s claim of Miss Tong never marrying and Mr. Cai being without family were all lies. What he truly wanted was to fulfill his daughter’s final wish. It was for the best; if they couldn’t share a bed in life, they could share a grave in death, fulfilling their wishes. “This ending can be considered imperfectly perfect. I just don’t know if Miss Tong and Cai Fengyuan will truly be aware in the afterlife.”

Hao Guozi said, “You’ve had a tumultuous life in this world, perhaps you can find each other in the next.”

Tao Mo was surprised and asked, “Do you believe in the afterlife?”

“Hehe, don’t all the monks, I mean, the wise and venerable monks, say so?” Hao Guozi said, “There must be some truth to it, otherwise why would so many people believe?”

Tao Mo lowered his head and said, “If only it were true.”

“Hmm?”

“My father lived a virtuous life. If there is indeed an afterlife, he would surely be reborn into a good family, enjoying wealth and prosperity for a lifetime. He would never encounter an unfilial child like me again.”

Seeing the sorrowful expression on his face as he spoke, Hao Guozi quickly changed the subject, “Young Master, the Lunar New Year is just a few days away. How are you planning to celebrate?”

Tao Mo thought for a moment and said, “I’ll leave it to Old Tao to decide.”

Hao Guozi tugged at his sleeve and ran off, saying, “Let’s go ask him.”

“Ask who?”

“Old Tao.”

“Do you know where Old Tao is?”

“I don’t know. Do you, Young Master?”

“I do.”

“Where is he?”

“…Turn around and go straight ahead.”

A ghost marriage was not an auspicious event, especially with the Lunar New Year approaching. The Tong household kept the affair extremely secretive. Tao Mo and Gu She only learned of it when they received the red eggs sent by the Tong household.

At this time, Tanyang County was fully immersed in the joyous atmosphere of celebrating the new year. Both Miss Tong and Cai Fengyuan were forgotten, pushed to the back of everyone’s minds.

The county yamen gradually grew quiet.

The servants gradually returned home, leaving only two homeless individuals behind. By New Year’s Eve, there were only five people left in the county yamen.

Old Tao called the two remaining servants to the hall and prepared a separate table for them. Although it was two tables, it felt livelier than when there were only three people.

Tao Mo ate in silence.

Old Tao and Hao Guozi tried their best to cheer him up, telling jokes and making him laugh. The servants, who were initially reserved, became more relaxed after a few cups of yellow wine.

Tao Mo had been teased by them several times, but finally managed to smile and join in the drinking.

After a few cups, he no longer distinguished north from south.

Hao Guozi and the servants also couldn’t hold their liquor and sat there, slurring their words.

Seeing that four out of the five people were already gone, leaving only one person to keep watch, Old Tao reluctantly sent them stumbling back to their rooms.

The night passed without incident.

When the door opened again, it was already the new year.

Tao Mo woke up at noon, his head throbbing from the hangover, and walked to Old Tao’s door. Just as he was about to knock, he heard Hao Guozi shout at the top of his lungs, “Young Master, Master Jin is here to offer New Year’s greetings!”

Tao Mo’s head was buzzing from the shout, and it took him a moment to respond, “Who is Master Jin?”

Hao Guozi turned and glanced at the expressionless Master Jin, smiling, “He’s the one you invited after three visits.”

“Three visits?” Tao Mo suddenly turned around. Although he was ignorant, he had heard of the story of Liu Bei’s three visits to Zhuge Liang’s thatched cottage to invite him out. “Master Jin?”

Master Jin smiled wryly and said, “Has the master remembered me? I thought I would have to find another job.”

Tao Mo awkwardly covered his forehead and ran down, saying, “I had a bit to drink last night.”

Master Jin ignored him and handed the basket he was carrying to Hao Guozi, saying, “These are snacks made by the mistress herself. If the master doesn’t mind…”

“I don’t mind, I don’t mind…” Tao Mo quickly interrupted him.

Master Jin said, “Then, thank you, Master.”

Tao Mo saw that he was about to leave and hurriedly said, “Since you’ve come all this way, why not stay for a meal?”

“I’ve come all this way?” Master Jin could barely contain his smile. “If I remember correctly, I’ve been coming here every day, except for yesterday.”

Tao Mo realized his mistake. “Yes, yes, I just wanted to invite you to have a meal.”

Master Jin looked at him suspiciously. Did he have something he wanted to discuss at the dinner table? With that thought in mind, Master Jin allowed himself to be persuaded to stay.

What was originally a table for three turned into a table for four, making it slightly livelier.

However, Old Tao and Hao Guozi both noticed that when Master Jin ate, his gaze was not focused on his bowl but on Tao Mo, his expression full of curiosity.

Old Tao and Hao Guozi exchanged a knowing glance.

Hao Guozi served a dish to Master Jin and said, “Master, have some more. You’re too thin.”

Master Jin paused while chewing and threw back the bean sprouts Hao Guozi had served, saying, “Eating too many bean sprouts naturally makes one thin.”

Hao Guozi exchanged a glance with Old Tao.

Old Tao smiled at Master Jin and said, “This chicken soup has several nourishing herbs in it. It’s very replenishing. Master Jin might as well give it a try.”

Master Jin looked at him inexplicably and said, “I’ve already had three bowls.”

Tao Mo saw that both Hao Guozi and Old Tao had made an effort to welcome Master Jin, so he couldn’t just sit there silently. He said, “This meat is delicious. Master Jin, try it.”

Could it be that the hidden message he wanted to convey was in this braised pork? Master Jin looked at the plate of braised pork furthest away from him, hesitantly picked up a piece with his chopsticks, put it in his mouth, and savored it slowly.

Hao Guozi and Old Tao both had puzzled expressions.

Tao Mo asked, “How does it taste?”

Master Jin shook his head and said, “I haven’t tasted it yet.”

Hao Guozi quickly switched the plate of braised pork to in front of Master Jin and said, “Take your time and taste it.”

Master Jin took a bite and felt that the meat was fatty but not greasy, and the taste was just right. However, he couldn’t come up with anything else. As he was pondering, he suddenly saw someone enter from outside—it was Cui Jiong.

“Assistant Cui.”

Everyone stood up to pay their respects.

Cui Jiong quickly returned the gesture. He had come to offer New Year’s greetings and had intended to visit after having his lunch, but he unexpectedly ran into them at this awkward moment. Therefore, without waiting for Hao Guozi to serve tea, he found an excuse to leave.

Although he came and went in a hurry, it sparked a realization in Master Jin. Could it be that Tao Mo was implying something about the profits of the yamen?

It should be noted that a county official’s responsibilities extended beyond criminal cases and also included tax collection, grain requisition, disaster relief, education, and other duties. Tanyang County was prosperous and did not require disaster relief, and with the prevalence of litigants, there was no need to worry about education and enlightenment. However, in the realm of tax collection and grain requisition, there was a significant amount of profit. The people reaping these profits were not the successive county officials; although some officials might have been involved, the mastermind behind it all was Cui Jiong, who had been in Tanyang County for over a decade. He had cleverly pocketed these profits without leaving a trace. Some litigants were aware of this, but they turned a blind eye to it, allowing him to continue. However, in recent days, shortly after Tao Mo took office, Cui Jiong received a large sum of silver as a token of gratitude from merchants. Although Master Jin didn’t know what Cui Jiong had promised in return, from his perspective, it was excessive. Putting aside his enigmatic thoughts about Tao Mo, even as a newly appointed official, it was unknown how he would react. Cui Jiong’s rash actions might have backfired.

Master Jin pondered in silence. Cui Jiong’s timely arrival—could it be that Tao Mo intentionally gave him a hint? If that was the case, then Tao Mo probably didn’t want to take action against Cui Jiong just yet. Perhaps he only wanted to use Master Jin’s words to make Cui Jiong slightly more cautious, much like the braised pork: oily but not greasy.

With this thought in mind, Master Jin believed that he had understood Tao Mo’s true intentions. He put down his chopsticks and smiled, “This braised pork is indeed cooked well. It’s oily but not greasy, melts in the mouth without a trace.”

Old Tao caught on to his insinuation but didn’t understand its meaning. He could only use his gaze to ask Tao Mo.

Tao Mo had no idea that a plate of braised pork had sent Master Jin’s thoughts racing. He simply thought that he genuinely liked it and smiled, saying, “If Master likes it, feel free to have more.”

“No need, no need. Everything should be done in moderation,” Master Jin raised an eyebrow, indicating that he had already understood.

Tao Mo looked at him with regret and took a bite, saying, “It’s a shame to waste the leftovers.”

At this point, Master Jin fully “understood.” It turned out that the newly appointed county magistrate also wanted a share!

“Of course, of course.” Having been a master for a long time, Master Jin was indifferent to such matters. He neither respected the magistrate for his integrity nor despised him for his greed. To him, integrity or greed, they were all his employers. He simply had to take care of his “duties.”