The situation was tense in the north. It was far beyond any justification the Northern Qi kingdom could come up with about secretly meddling in the politics of the Qing Kingdom. Both sides had amassed troops at the border, and with small skirmishes breaking out in the various vassal states, it seemed as though they were on the brink of war.
Dark clouds floated over the northern Qing Kingdom, but it was midsummer in the capital, and the people wandered around, at ease, peaceful and content, enjoying the safety and prosperity of a golden age. Fan Xian was one of those people. Even though the aftermath of the incident on Niulan Street had still not been resolved, there had at last been an explanation for concerning himself and those who died . And in the process of resolving this matter, he had learned a great number of things. Although every step he had taken had depended on the strength of the Overwatch Council, he had come to understand a lot about the workings of the Council, and when it came to the things that Fei Jie had said before, he had direct knowledge of a number of other things.
Summer was hard, and the lawsuit between the Fan family and the Guo family had finally been settled. Many people saw it as a trifling matter. Since Fan Xian had been appointed Functionary of Taichang Temple, it was clear that he was going to marry a princess of the palace, and the insignificant Guo family didn’t dare disturb the palace with their affairs, so they had quickly withdrawn their accusation - and with that, Fan Xian had finally been allowed to leave the capital.
Daring to leave the capital so soon after that horrible business had occurred took gall But now he had plenty of guards following him around. There were the old hands of Fan Manor, as well as guards from the Overwatch Council. Now Fan Xian had a secret identity - a commissioner of the Overwatch Council. Like Wang Qinian, a number of other new recruits in various areas had been placed under his control.
Early that morning, before the blazing sun had risen, the three children of the Fan family squeezed into a carriage. Protected by bodyguards and by Wang Qinian, they sped out of the capital, arriving at a country estate owned by the Fan family, not far from the city. This was not a summer vacation. It was an act of worship.
The guards had already arranged fruits, incense, and other offerings within the graveyard. Fan Xian looked over the still-new gravestones in silence. He was filled with many feelings. The notions he held since his rebirth, notions that he had thought of as stable, had unexpectedly become quite muddled.
The bundles of ritual paper money that they had lit as an offering to the dead gave off thick smoke. Unable to handle the fumes, Fan Sizhe quickly retreated to the carriage, and Fan Ruoruo was trying her best to bear it, her eyes squinting and half-closed. She pulled her brother to the tomb by his sleeve. She knew that the three bodies in the tomb, now resting eternally, were the three guards who had died protected her brother, and so her heart was filled with gratitude. As she had learnt from the letters her brother had sent her in her childhood, it was not unbecoming to offer tribute to those of lower status than oneself.
In the smoke, a group of new guards stood silently behind Fan Xian. They didn't know whether it was the smoke or the fire that had made their eyes red, but as they looked at the young master's back, they felt something different about him. After some time, a guard spoke kindly. "Young Master, you have shown true kindness in paying tribute to these brothers of ours but there is a lot of smoke; perhaps we should return to the estate."
The fumes were really stinging Fan Xian's eyes. He smiled as he rubbed at them, and returned to the carriage. In the carriage, Fan Sizhe was looking over the last month's accounts from the Danbo Bookstore. When he saw his brother and sister approaching, he shifted over, and suddenly spoke in a low voice. "Brother, isn't this just a way to bribe the people and win their hearts?"
Fan Xian's was in a somewhat gloomy mood, but he smiled slightly and paid his brother no attention, simply raising a hand to tousle his hair. "Why you! Always having to believe that there are some true things in this world," he said. "Heartless people are not necessarily true heroes..." Fan Ruoruo softly continued his sentence. "A true man is one who loves his children."
Fan Xian looked at his sister with some surprise. "You..." Fan Ruoruo lowered her head. "You said it a little while ago," she explained. "I remembered it." Fan Xian felt rather glad that his sister was so intelligent. "The phrase you've remembered was a quote from a person surnamed Zhou."
Fan Sizhe looked at them and grumbled. "Oh, dropping author names again? When are you going to come up with the last dozen chapters of Story of the Stone?"
Fan Xian wasn't exactly in the right frame of mind, but the word 'authors' had left him feeling inexplicably distressed. Explaining who was behind his writing was really rather unnecessary.
He felt slightly angry and ashamed, and so he continued to lecture Fan Sizhe. "You might be able to win over the people's hearts, but feelings come naturally. What sort of monster would not have feelings? Living in this world without caring about anything, neither for one's family, not for life or death; even if you were an immortal, what would be the point?" Fan Sizhe shook his head, saying in rebuttal, "You're not an immortal, so how do you know how immortals feel?" Fan Xian shot back quickly. "I'm not an immortal; I'm just a person, so I know that people can't live forever. It's a pity."
After saying that, Fan Xian suddenly thought of Wu Zhu, and was filled with an intense uneasiness and blame for himself. He was worried that when Wu Zhu grew old, he'd become a silent and lonely old man - but as long as Wu Zhu continued to escape away into the night, Fan Xian had no way to find him.
The carriage left the clan graveyard, following the widest path through the fields of crops, arriving at the country estate after some difficulty. The carriage arrived at the foot of a slope that surrounded the estate, and the people within the estate came out to greet them. It was not just tenant farmers who lived there, but also some of the more estranged families of the Fan clan who could not stay in any of the many expensive properties in the capital, moving instead to farms on the outskirts. They did not own the fields, and were not willing to suffer the indignity of working the land alongside the other sharecroppers. Although Count Sinan was not willing to part with his money for sake of his poor relatives’ comfort, he could not watch them starve either, and so these clansmen looked after matters on the farm in exchange for a small stipend.
Curiously, Fan Jian made no mention of Fan Xian being made a legitimate son; Fan Xian assumed that he had forgotten it, but he still had some doubts that he was unable to resolve. In the capital, and in that moment, no one looked at Fan Xian with the contempt usually reserved for illegitimate children. It was also known within the Fan clan that the clan's future riches also depended on this handsome young man, and so he was treated with the utmost respect.
Taking the tea that an older person handed to him, he drained the cup in one gulp and nodded in all directions. Then, led by the house guards, Fan Xian strolled to a small courtyard in the woods on the western side of the estate. This was Teng Zijing's courtyard. After he entered, he found that Teng Zijing had already risen and was waiting courteously for him from within. "Young Master," said Teng Zijing uneasily, "I would have gone out to greet you, but Hou San'er would not allow me to."
Fan Xian did not follow through with the formalities, taking him by the arm as he assisted him into the main hall. "Don't blame Hou San'er, I'm telling you." Hou San'er was a bodyguard who had recently come under Fan Xian's command and who had entered the estate before him. Fan Xian looked at Teng Zijing's stout-looking face. "How's your leg been recently?" he asked.
Teng Zijing chuckled. "Fine. I can move it now. I'll probably be able to return to the capital in a few days."
"If you're not finding it easy to recuperate here, you might as well go back and recuperate in the capital." As he spoke, Teng Zijing's wife and daughter entered to greet their master. Standing to the side, Fan Ruoruo handed them some money, and pulled Teng Zijing's five-year-old daughter aside to ask her some questions, then carried her outside, leaving the men in the room.
Fan Sizhe was still looking over the accounts, and when Teng Zijing greeted him he merely grunted. Fan Xian had no choice but to look his brother in the eye as he listened to Teng Zijing's explanation. "I was staying here since my wife and child are here. Once I've recovered properly, I will return to the capital to serve the young master."
The two of them had been through the same life-or-death experience, and so their speech appeared rather direct. Fan Xian nodded. "You live a fine life - wife, kids, and a heated kang bed," said Fan Xian in admiration. "Why don't you stay and enjoy it?" Teng Zijing laughed. "When it's as hot as it is today, the kang is even hotter."
The weather in Danzhou was exceptional, with warm winters and cool summers, so no one used a kang bed. But after coming to the capital, he had only lived through a spring and a summer, so Fan Xian hadn't had the chance to sleep on a kang. As he listened, he sat down on the kang, and found it to be thoroughly cool and comfortable. He shifted his gaze, thinking about spending the days in the Cang Mountains after his marriage. It seemed like they had to find a way to set up a kang.
Teng Zijing had not realized that his young master's thoughts had turned to the snowy mountains he would be living in after October. "Master, stay a while and eat some fruit, then you can return to the manor. There's not much good to eat around here, and if you dawdle too long and return to the capital too late, I fear you might not be able to enter the city gates."
Fan Xian laughed and waved his hand. "I told Father to send word before I came here. Today the three of us will be staying the night in the estate, and we'll return tomorrow. The past few days in the capital have been quite stressful, and it's hard to find an opportunity for peace and quiet. Though we won't stay around for long, I'm sure it's okay for us to be around for an evening." Teng Zijing realized that he was planning to stay overnight, and quickly called his wife in, asking her to prepare the guest room and hot water, among other things. Although life on the estate was not grand and glamorous, there were a lot of people living there. Once they heard that the young master of the Fan family was planning to stay the night, a dozen or so middle-aged women all sprang up to attend to him, and before long, everything was in order. Fan Xian looked around, and whispered in Teng Zijing's ear. "Make sure the people following me are staying in the places closest to me."