The people around him excitedly discussed military affairs. None of them took notice of Fan Xian's calm silence. Instead, the head official smiled at him, and suggested that he should come outside with him for a moment. Somewhat apprehensively, Fan Xian left the room, and came to a secluded place. Deep within the courtyard, there stood a stone table with two stone chairs. The official indicated to him that he should sit. "Everyone is rather joyous," he asked with a smile, "and yet you remain unmoved, sir. Why?"
The official's name was Ren Shao'an. He had once been a distinguished man of letters, and had later become a nobleman, rising steadily to a position within Taichang Temple. His circumstances were not unlike those that Fan Xian found himself facing at that moment. Fan Xian was unsure whether Master Ren was offended by something, and so he sighed, unsure how to respond. "It was only natural that the imperial household should be victorious in such a matter," he replied with a weak smile, "so this is no great surprise."
"Why is it only natural?" asked the official Ren, curious.
Fan Xian had no unique insight into the military affairs of the kingdom. He had no choice but to try to dodge the topic. "His Majesty is wise, the officers and soldiers are obedient, and Northern Qi lacks confidence, so it is only natural that we were victorious."
Master Ren looked at him and smiled. "It has only just occurred to me that this battle between the two nations is inextricably linked to the assassination attempt on your good self, Master Fan."
Fan Xian was taken aback. It had only just occurred to him as well. One of the excuses for this military expedition was an attempt by Northern Qi to infiltrate the Kingdom of Qing and assassinate the son of a major minister. He could only think of all the dead bodies that must be piled up along the rivers of the northern border. In every region, wives would be waiting for their husbands in empty bedchambers. For some reason, it made Fan Xian's heart ache. He sighed. "A sage has no choice but to take up the weapon of the soldier." He knew that although the Kingdom of Qing had known peace for many years, beneath the surface, its martial spirit had never receded. So every day, he made sure to hide it, but he gave no thought to the idle chatter between himself and Master Ren, so he had spoken freely.
Master Ren seemed to admire his words. He nodded. "Although that may be the case, we have gained much in this instance. There have been many years of peace in the Kingdom of Qing, and we deserve it."
Fan Xian was not an inflexible pacifist; he smiled in acknowledgement of the fact. "Although our victory in war belongs to the officers and soldiers and His Majesty," continued Master Ren, "this has been planned in secret by the royal court for many months. It must have been a thoroughly exhausting effort."
Fan Xian immediately understood another meaning behind Ren's words. He realized that Master Ren was suggesting that the bureaucratic system of the royal court had considerable power over military affairs. After all, Fan Xian had lived two lives; he knew that waging war relied on logistics. "Much credit must also go to the court ministers," he said with sincerity.
Master Ren smiled. "The Prime Minister will soon be your father-in-law," he continued. "When you have time, you should go and pay your respects to him. It is only proper."
"You're right. Thank you for reminding me, good sir." Cold sweat trickled down Fan Xian's back. He wanted to marry Wan'er as soon as possible, but he had still yet to pay his respects to his own future father-in-law. This was indeed inexcusable. But... this was supposed to be a fair and aboveboard relationship between the Lin and Fan families. Why did Master Ren have to talk to him in secret?
Just as expected, Master Ren spoke. "I hope that you will visit the Prime Minister's manor. You would not want to alarm too many people."
Fan Xian fearfully accepted the order.
In the royal court the next day, in thoroughly flattering language, the military received commendations. The Overwatch Council also received praise for their capabilities in information-gathering. But, in a move which many did not expect, Fan Jian, Count Sinan, Minister for the Treasury, stepped forward to suggest that this victory was all down to the careful planning of the Prime Minister. He had put the affairs of the nation ahead of the affairs of his own family, controlling logistics to provide ample rations and fodder for the army, and had truly provided a great service to the nation. There was a hubbub among the gathered ministers, who could not understand why a political opponent would be so kind, but when they recalled the approaching marriage, they suddenly realized why.
Even more unexpectedly, the Prime Minister's long-time ally, Guo You, Director of the Board of Rites, raised an objection. And most unexpectedly of all... Chen Pingping appeared in the royal court, and when the Emperor asked him about the matter, he sat in his wheelchair and replied simply: "This was all the Prime Minister's work."
With this, the political opponents who had been using Wu Bo'an and collaboration with Northern Qi as a pretext to attack the Prime Minister had seemingly quieted down. With the Emperor's consolation, Lin Ruofu could stand firm again. A rumor circulated throughout the palace that due to the upcoming marriage with the Fan family, the Prime Minister had turned to the Second Prince. The Second Prince, who originally had no support within the royal court, had suddenly become a powerful figure.
But no one knew that behind all this was an idle chat between Master Ren of Taichang Temple, soured by the loss of his hopes, and Fan Xian, the eighth-level Functionary of Taichang Temple.
Having made a good impression on his father-in-law, Fan Xian finally felt a bit more at ease. Although he was still greatly worried that the Prime Minister would discover that his second son had been killed by someone under Fan Xian's command, he did not avoid him as he had been doing over the past two months.
His duties at Taichang Temple did not require him to attend every day; he simply had to attend for roll call every ten days. One afternoon, Fan Xian came to the palace by carriage.
Now the whole capital knew that he would be marrying the young lady of the palace, and in addition, Fan Manor had spent a great amount of money, so the imperial bodyguards turned a blind eye. Fan Xian and his sister strolled inside, with no intention to see the flowers of the garden. They only intended to go along the cobblestone path straight into the small pavilion. Fan Ruoruo was rather surprised. "Brother, you seem very familiar with this path."
Fan Xian smiled. "I have a good memory, did you not know?" Secretly, he smiled to himself. Over the past weeks, there had been a few evenings where he had snuck through the garden; it would have been difficult for him not to become familiar with it.
Unfortunately, according to custom, this future son-in-law of the Emperor still could not see Lin Wan'er, so he sat downstairs drinking tea while Ruoruo went up to see her. He was not worried. When night fell, he could see his fiancée, so he was happy to hold off for now. After a while, two people came back downstairs. When he saw the young woman behind Ruoruo, Fan Xian's eyes sparkled. She had beautiful eyes and fine eyebrows. But she did not seem coarse, and instead was rather spirited. It was Ye Ling'er, only daughter of the captain of the garrison, Ye Zhong.
She thought it rather odd to see a strange man waiting downstairs. Fan Xian stood up to greet her, smiled, and cupped his hands in greeting. "Miss Ye, it has been a long time."
As he spoke, Fan Xian realized that something was amiss. When he had seen Ye Ling'er, he had been in disguise. He was pretending to be a doctor. Although today he had come to visit without any disguise, as soon as he said that it had been a long time since their last meeting, he feared that Ye Ling'er's suspicions would be raised.
Unexpectedly, Ye Ling'er regarded him meekly and curtsied. "It is good to see you, master Fan."
Seeing that she knew who he was, and that she was not surprised by what he had said, Fan Xian knew that Wan'er had told her of his secret meetings with her. He smiled. "Wan'er is lucky to have your company. It must be terribly boring on her sickbed. I wanted to thank you."
"You are too kind, master Fan," said Ye Ling'er coldly.
Fan Xian saw that this girl did not seem to like him at all, but that she was not angry either; he could only imagine that this was thanks to his own handsome face. He could make all the women of the land feel a fondness toward him. So he smiled and saluted her again, and then turned to Ruoruo. "So, how are things?"
Fan Ruoruo smiled. "You are worried. Miss Lin said..."
Fan Xian suddenly waved his hand and smiled. "Let us go home to discuss family matters."
Hearing this, Ye Ling'er was suddenly angered. Fan Xian was such a narrow-minded sort, she thought. His meaning was clear—did he really mean to say that matters between the Lin and Fan families were not to be discussed around someone of the Ye family? Her anger spilled over. "Master Fan, you must not bully people through your words and deeds."
Fan Xian was surprised. He wondered why she had said that. He had no mind to deal with Miss Ye's temper and her unfathomable anger. Taking his sister's hand, he led her outside.
As they walked out of the pavilion, Ye Ling'er and the servant girls also came out. When she saw Fan Xian pulling Fan Ruoruo along by the hand, she smiled coldly.
Fan Xian did not understand, and continued to lead Ruoruo by her slightly-cold hand as they waited for the carriage. Ruoruo's face changed to an awkward expression. In truth, a close brother-sister relationship such as theirs was rare in this world, and Fan Xian had not taken much notice of it. Looking at her face, Fan Xian finally realized something. How could that girl try to intertwine herself with them? He and Ruoruo were close, so he suddenly became angry, and he turned around and frowned at Ye Ling'er. "Miss Ye, have you no one in your household to teach you anything? Is that why you wander around the capital and Dingzhou?"
Ye Ling'er had not expected that her absent-minded smile would result in such an attack. "Why are you criticizing my upbringing?"
"Who said that?" Fan Xian smiled gently. "No one around here said that."
Seeing his shameless behavior, Ye Ling'er became even angrier. "So you don't wander around the capital either? You want to get married, but you don't have the morals for it, and yet you have visited Taichang Temple a number of times. Don't tell me there is no one in your household to teach you either?"
Some cracks of anger began to appear in Fan Xian's gentle temperament, but he doubled down on it. He knew that if he got angry, she would get even angrier, and so he spoke even more gently. "I have come to ask after my fiancée, as is acceptable and proper. You are a good friend of my Wan'er and you visit her often, and I have thanked you for it. I only hope that you will take note of my words, and do not attempt to meddle in the relationship of our households."
Ye Ling'er pursed her lips as she heard such provocation. "I do not know what Wan'er could possibly see in a playboy like you," she scowled.
Fan Xian sighed. "How am I a playboy?"
"You are neither a scholar nor a soldier," she spat. "And so you are just that; a playboy."
Fan Xian smiled, somewhat embarrassed. "I hate to boast, but I am known throughout the capital to be a fine scholar and a soldier. I have composed seven-step poems, and I have killed men in seven steps. Excessive praise will make me complacent. Young miss, your words today have made this clear to me, and I must express my gratitude."
Seeing his pretentious act, Ye Ling'er considered his reputation, and she stomped her foot angrily, unsure of what to say. She bit her bright-red lips, and reached for the dagger on her waist. After a moment of thought, she drew it, and threw it at the ground in front of Fan Xian with a clatter.