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Far away from the shores of the lake could be heard the sounds of a mahjong game in full swing. Two old men glanced at each other and shook their heads.
"Fan Xian’s opinion was correct. The second one didn’t stand a chance, but in this government, many are unable to see it clearly." King Jing waved his hand and continued speaking, "The son I have is different from me, never aspiring to do what I’ve done. This worries me."
Fan Jing looked at him and said, "Hongcheng and the second prince are getting far too close for comfort."
King Jing began laughing coldly to disparage the conversation and shoo it away. "I think the second prince studied too much for his own good, and it has in turn made him dumb. Screw him! And Wan’er’s mother is a crazy bitch; I can’t believe he is allied with her. There is no possible way to suggest nothing bad will come of this. And as for my son? Pah! He is a complete imbecile, too."
Fan Jing was smiling and said, "the second one’s mother you cannot screw. Shu Gui Fei is a woman of the emperor, but in regards to the crown prince’s mother, feel free to screw her. I won’t stop you."
King Jing snorted as he out loud, and snorted, "Hongcheng’s mother has been dead for several years, though I can only suppose that she is waiting for me in hell. You old man, haha, finally speaking dirty again. Back in the day, you were in and out of a whorehouse everyday, but now you have totally changed."
He lightly tapped the arm of his chair and took a look at the familiar view around him. When he was done, he turned around and said, "Do you remember that house? It was King Cheng’s manor. The three of us practically grew up in that manor when we were young. Your mum looked after me and my big brother despite not being able to take care of you, her own true son, regardless of how dirty you became."
Fan Jing wistfully revisited the memories of his childhood. King Cheng was the birth father of the emperor, but the man himself was not one for authority, and he lacked the drive of ambition. His family was a distant relation to the Fan family, but his mother would come to the manor to look after the children, giving her the identity of someone of a lower class.
"No one could have suspected things would turn out this way." Fan Jing smiled and said, "I think my mother in Danzhou is proud to have raised us to be who we are."
"When we three were arguing, I would always team up with you to go against my big brother, but we’d still always lose." King Jing spoke coldly now, saying, "Even though it was kid stuff, he hit hard. You should most certainly know that."
Fan Jing did not reply. King Jing had dared to speak ill of his brother, but he knew he would never do the same to the emperor. Fan Jing now just laughed, and said, "back in the day, somehow Cheng Pingping was always aiding the emperor in matters. The emperor was older than you, and Chen Pingping was stronger than me. It is fairly obvious why we were unable to win."
King Jing shook his head and said, "Yes, and that is why I did not want to fight them. I simply wanted peace. Like that time they investigated the second prince,
and Fan Xian knew it clearly; it was because the emperor had run out of money. But they had their kids go sort it out, which was a cruel thing to allow."
Fan Jing was the shangshu of the Ministry of Personnel, so being aware of such events in the palace obviously fell under his purview. Bearing a wry smile, he said, "do not blame the emperor. We really are running out of funds. Every department needs that money. The Empress Dowager is still here and the Emperor would not dare treat the eldest princess harshly. Of course Fan Xian was willing to take on such a task, and I earnestly believe that he has what it takes to handle it. Although Chen Pingping’s demeanor is becoming increasingly strange, I know he would not allow any harm to come to Fan Xian. There is no reason for us to concern ourselves with such issues."
King Jing looked at him, and after a while, boorishly responded, "you are just like before! You continue to hide everything and be dishonest right to my face. Even now you won’t tell me the truth."
Fan Jing laughed and did not say anything.
King Jing’s birthday feast came to a close, and the Fan family, split into several different carriages, were now returning to their manor. Fan Xian was bringing both his wife and sister into his house, and something plagued his mind to the point of annoyance. "Where has he run off to? You are his sister-in-law, and you are his big sister, couldn’t you two both keep an eye on him?"
Lin Wan’er showed her tongue in response. If Fan Xian had wanted her to play mahjong with Fan Sizhe, she may have been willing, but to take care of a child in a normal manner? Never. Despite her age, she still possessed the mind of a child herself. Listening to Fan Xian speak, she began stroking her tummy. As she did, she wondered to herself, it’s been a while; why has nothing happened yet?
Ruoruo was two months younger than Wan’er, but her maturity was considerably higher. She had been taking care of Fan Sizhe over the years, mostly by herself. A few months ago, however, the call for a future marriage came from the palace, and her heart began leaping like the nervous frolic of an antelope. Ever since, the only thing that had been on her mind were the preparing to leave home. She knew that Fan Xian was not being polite with his question, and she knew that he was mostly referring to her, and so she muttered, "Understood."
Fan Xian himself knew that he was being a touch unreasonable. It wasn’t fair to insist that a sixteen-year-old girl become a babysitter every single day. In a bid to comfort her, he said, "Don’t be upset; I was just saying."
The three of them entered the house, and the maid quickly offered them tea. Fan Xian selected the white teapot and took a sip before asking in curiosity, "Where is Si Si and Si Qi?"
Wan’er laugh and said, "Both of them went with us to King Jing’s manor, so it would be best if we let them rest first."
Fan Xian responded, "Those are some high-class maids; they are treated with greater respect than many mistresses of other families are!"
Wan’er, hearing Fan Xian speak, was reminded of something. She asked, "that person is like Si Si?"
Fan Xian was given a shock, and tea sprayed from his mouth and hastily replied, "what are you
you talking about?"
Ruoruo frowned her eyebrows and said, "Si Si’s personality is not unlike Qing Wen. She is pretty casual, and everyone seems to like her."
Fan Xian did not say anything in response, but he did remember that he had not yet written the 77 remaining chapters of Dream of the Red Chamber. Qing Wen would not have a good ending. The problems regarding Si Si and Si Qi had been giving him a headache. He thought that he should have recruited Si Si as a maid earlier. He had grown up with her, and so his master-to-servant relationship was considerably deeper than most, but Wan’er wanted to recruit Si Qi as well; if he was to recruit Si Si. It’s what Wan’er had insisted upon.
Everytime he thought of this, Fan Xian felt that the entire situation was absurd, but at least it was one that was founded on some remote sense of happiness.
Fan Xian and Si Si’s relationship had a firm and long-lasting basis, but with Si Qi, it was slightly more complicated. He had drugged her numerous times, so he found it difficult to imagine what it would be like to share a bed with her.
Si Si had grown up now, if she did not make a decision soon, he was afraid that she would never get married.
Seeing Wan’er sleepy face, Fan Xian squeezed her cheek. It was so soft and felt remarkable to touch. He gestured to Wan’er, and it was a signal that she understood. She left the room and brought along the maid, leaving Fan Xian and Ruoruo be.
"Do you know what I admire the most about you?" Fan Xian was pouring the tea for his sister as he asked.
Fan Ruoruo tilted her head slightly and used her silky hands to take away the clips in her hair. She ran her fingers through her raven black locks and it descended like a velvet fountain.
She wet her fingers inside the teacup and rubbed her forehead with the tea. With a look of annoyance, she pleaded to Fan Xian, "Big Brother, I am going to worry myself to death! Please don’t make fun of me."
Using tea to massage one’s forehead was an effective method to calm down. Fan Xian made use of this trick numerous times, and it looked as if Ruoruo had picked up on it. But Fan Xian tended to use cold, leftover tea, opposed to Ruoruo’s usage of fresh, warm tea. There was no considerable difference, though.
"I don’t plan to make fun of you." Fan Xian sighed and continued, "Sister, you really are quite calm. Like today, when we were in King Jing’s manor discussing the marriage. It was already quite difficult for me to pretend it wasn’t such a big deal, but there you were, at the center of this affair, fully composed; you really are cool."
Ruoruo’s personality was a gentle one, but there was a reason she kept her calm when discussing her future. She looked at her big brother and smiled, saying, "When my big brother isn’t home, I am scared. But when my big brother is, I’m not scared. Everything is all because of my big brother!"
Those three "big brother"’s felt like three mountains weighing down Fan Xian’s ears. He looked troubled and said, "The emperor himself arranged this marriage. King Jing was happy about it, and so was our father. Even though the crown prince is a little adulterous, he is quite possibly the smartest man in the capital. To back out of this marriage would
marriage would be extremely difficult, and your unwavering belief in me adds a crushing weight upon my shoulders."
Ruoruo nibbled away at her lips for a moment, but then said, "well, I will do whatever you say."
Fan Xian thought for a while, but then looked upon her with a serious expression. He asked, "do you remember that woman Si Lili?"
Ruoruo looked at her big brother’s face and with surprise, nodded and said, "That woman who wanted to kill you?"
Fan Xian smiled and responded, "That’s right. I always thought her to be different from most women. No matter what she did, for better or for worse, she always stuck to her own volition and beliefs. She would do things her way and nobody could change that. It’s an admirable trait. The day we left the northern Qi Kingdom, I asked her why. She said that it was perhaps because when she was young, her family was mostly dead and she had to live alone with nowhere to go and no one to listen to. She went through a lot more than most women could ever endure over the course of their lives."
Fan Ruoruo raised her head and gently said, "You used to say that to travel a thousand miles and study a hundred books, that is what would benefit one’s life."
"That is correct. That is why I was willing to become an ambassador to the northern Qi Kingdom, for on that road, I could study whenever I pleased." Fan Xian looked into his sister’s gentle eyes and quietly said, "it is a rare thing to do, to travel around the world and take in the many sights that this world can offer. This is especially true for a mistress such as yourself, who has only ever remained within the capital."
Fan Ruoruo began mocking herself by saying, "Except from living in Danzhou for one year during my youth, the furthest place I have gone to in my whole life outside the capital is Cangshan. To see the Wu Du river and the glorious meadows of the northern Qi Kingdom is something that may never come to pass, just like you said."
"Do you want to see such places?"
Fan Ruoruo gave a delayed response, but vigorously nodded her head.
The way in which Fan Xian had been teaching his sister and developing her maturity was working quite well. The reason she was different from most noble ladies was because every time she heard her brother tells stories, she felt compelled to do as he did. She wanted to visit the places he had been, to meet the people he had met. The women of the Qing Kingdom had the freedom to traverse the capital and elsewhere however they pleased…up until marriage, that is. For as soon as they were taken for marriage, they would be locked up in the manor for the rest of their days. Even if they travelled with their husbands, there would be a great lack of freedom for them on such ventures. To be taken as a wife was not unlike receiving detention for the remainder of their lives. When she thought of how her life may indeed end up wasted in such a manner, her heart was not willing to resign to such a fate.
Fan Xian sighed deep in his heart. If he had opened the windows when she was young and allowed her to see the beauty of the world around them more often, he thought things may have turned out differently. And now, for the predicament for the predicament she was in, Fan Xian felt compelled to find a way for her to escape what faced her. He needed to find another door she could take.
"Before you marry the crown prince, I will think of a way for you to be sent away." Fan Xian squinted, saying, "all is wrapped around my finger, and going according to plan. Seeing my father and King Jing’s reaction, I know I will be able to find a way out for you."
Ruoruo was a talented woman and was quite smart, so she understood exactly what Fan Xian was thinking. She was shocked to learn of what he was planning, and so she said, "Wait… you want me to become a disciple of Ku He?"
Fan Xian lightly tapped her head, and as his fingertips brushed through her soft hair, he said, "Ah, I see you get it now."
Ruoruo’s mouth widened and her face revealed utter shock. She thought it was unbelievable. After a while, she pulled herself together and asked, "How would such a thing possible?"
"Well, why would it be impossible?" Fan Xian raised his eyebrows and said, "Ku He is only willing to recruit you, and this is something quite remarkable. And from where you hail is of no concern. Besides, you are a talented woman and would be much welcomed. Taking on another student adds to his prestige; how could he not?"
Ruoruo thought this was a joke. She lowered her head, looked down and mumbled, "I don’t know how to fight…"
"Every road is entwined." Fan Xian attempted to boost her morale a little, and provide her some extra courage. "You are a talented woman; you know how write poems. Learning to fight will come quick and easy. Ku He is a grandmaster and of course will understand this reasoning."
Fan Ruoruo quickly lifted her head to look at him with a bubbly expression as she said, "Where did such good luck come from?"
Fan Xian laughed and shook his head. "I have and I will deal with all these matters; it comes from me. In a few days, I will take a fish from the kitchen and put some paper inside it."
Fan Ruoruo’s face was still bearing a wide smile and she excitedly spoke, "So everything is prepared then?"
Fan Xian froze and after a while, with a wry smile, he said, "I won’t hide it from you, but when I was in the northern Qi Kingdom, I was indeed preparing all this. I thought that if you were willing to marry Hongcheng, then I would not have to continue such preparations. But if you weren’t willing, then I would of course have to continue."
"Northern Qi Kingdom?" Fan Ruoruo smiled, looked at him and said, "It looks like this Hai Tang lady was quite close with you."
Fan Xian knew he could not provide a suitable explanation for this, for if he could indeed convince that legendary grandmaster to take on another student, it would only be due to the strength of his bond with Hai Tang. But Fan Xian had paid a good price for this, for how else could he convince a man who was almost as powerful as an emperor to cooperate with him? Unwilling to burden his sister with worry, he chose not to explain.
"Do you want to go study in the northern Qi Kingdom and go travel? Studying abroad is fun." Fan Xian asked his sister directly.
Fan Ruoruo looked down and contemplated it deeply. It was a grand question; she did not give an immediate response.