There were many things in this world that made no sense, but to be considered a good son after simply saying a few words struck the soon-to-be 17-year-old Fan Xian as particularly nonsensical. The royal palace was indeed greatly different compared to other places. The judgments of the lofty nobility always seemed very random, and relied on their own particular preferences.
Although Fan Xian was not aware of the family relation between Lady Liu and Yi Guipin, it did not stop him from realizing from Lin Wan'er's words that Yi Guipin was a most favored concubine. Otherwise, she could not have given birth to this eight-year-old prince, raised under the Emperor's instructions to cultivate himself mentally and spiritually and to avoid all things effeminate.
Chatting idly in the palace, Yi Guipin seemed to genuinely like Fan Xian, and she looked more and more pleased. Fan Xian was aware of the need to be tactful, and he told a few jokes that he remembered from his previous life, in response to which the palace hall suddenly erupted with the sound of laughter that tinkled like silver bells. Fan Xian discovered that the concubine Yi Guipin had a thoroughly open and candid temperament. He did not know how she could keep this kind of disposition within a palace where she could not show her face, and he felt a measure of surprise and appreciation for this.
After they had exchanged a few pleasantries, the sun had already risen. "And the Third Prince?" asked Lady Liu with a smile. Yi Guipin sighed. "That child is still utterly afraid of strangers. As soon as he awakes he withdraws to the back of the palace hall and refuses to come out. He can only be convinced to show his face when it's time to eat." Lady Liu tutted and laughed. "Of course, the Third Prince is still shy with us."
Despite the differences in their status, Lady Liu and Yi Guipin had a sisterly relationship, so their speech did not seem particularly formal. Yi Guipin extended a slender forefinger. The fingernail, painted a beautiful red color, was pointed at Fan Xian. "Isn't this one from your family shy too?"
At that moment, a bashful smile crept across Fan Xian's face as he responded to Guipin's words.
"Very well. Sister, will you and Ruoruo keep me company?" Yi Guipin was seemingly aware that Lady Liu did not wish to see the Empress and the Eldest Princess, and decided to ask her to stay a while as a guest. "Those ones in the palace would be happy if I simply had Xing'er lead Fan Xian inside."
Lady Liu's brow creased slightly, and she spoke with respect. "That will not be possible. Today we received an imperial command to enter the palace. I fear visiting concubine Guipin first will no doubt provoke the ire of the other consorts, so I must enter the place. To not visit the others would be disrespectful, I fear." Hearing this, Yi Guipin sniffed and cleared her throat. "I can see that you do not wish to go. The summons was for Fan Xian. Stay here and chat with me, I shall make sure that no one in the palace makes any thoughtless remarks."
Yi Guipin was a cheerful woman with a touch of naiveté. But in her anger she appeared very imposing, and so the entire palace would quiet down. Fan Xian cleared his throat. "Aunt... mistress, I am happy to go by myself. Stay with your cousin and talk a while."
Hearing him say this, Lady Liu agreed, and the palace girl named Xing'er escorted him out of the hall. Reminding him of some matters that he should take note of, and not seeming to notice that Fan Xian was giving her the cold shoulder, she spoke with a voice like a mosquito. "Everything in the palace has been put in order. Someone will be there to greet you at each palace, so you don't need to worry too much."
Fan Xian felt a shiver, and as he responded, he turned around to see that his little sister had followed him out and was looking at him with an encouraging expression. For some reason, he felt warmer. He smiled. "The mother-in-law meeting the son-in-law. The more people see of me, the more they like me, to say nothing of my own handsomeness. It cannot be very difficult to handle a few complaining women in the palace."
Once the Emperor's potential son-in-law had left Yi Guipin's room, Lady Liu had said a few words of warning to Fan Ruoruo, and then gone into an inner room with Guipin. Yi Guipin looked her faintly in the eye. "Four years ago I urged you not to listen to advice from the palaces. Now, Fan Xian still lives, but you put a chill in Count Sinan's heart. You are truly intelligent. Why did you get involved in such a mess?" Lady Liu was at a loss for words, and said nothing for a long while. Her expression gradually showed more and more hidden bitterness as she spoke softly. "You are aware, as mothers, must we not think of our children? The Third Prince is young, and you can still stay out of it. In a few years, perhaps you will understand why I made the mistake that I did then."
Xing'er was a fair-faced young girl, probably around 13 or 14 years old. As Fan Xian walked alongside her in the palace grounds, he found that she kept her head lowered. He couldn't help but ask. "Can you see where you're going?" Xing'er giggled, revealing her teeth like fragments of jade. "Master Fan, we do not talk within the palace." Fan Xian forced a smile and shook his head. He knew that palace customs were strict, but he had not imagined that even this young girl would be keeping to them so strictly.
Fan Xian followed behind Xing'er, looking over the clothes she wore as a palace maid. His gaze fell upon her still-undeveloped waist, and quickly moved to the buildings of the palace grounds. There was a smile on his face, but his mind moved quickly as he tried to commit all of the myriad paths and views to memory in preparation for the future.
They went through flowers and trees, stepping on stone and grass. The palace was large, but they would eventually reach their destination; although there were many halls, not was all of them were so great as to inspire awe. Looking on the quiet courtyards, Fan Xian sighed deeply, following Xing'er the palace maid. This was the residence of Concubine Shu, the mother of the Second Prince. It seemed that she was particularly fond of peace and quiet, and her courtyard was decorated simply yet elegantly. Save for a few blossoming trees, there were no other decorations. The path was covered by bamboo with hanging screens, which covered everything inside, but the hanging screens could not hide the smell of burning incense.
"I have come to pay my respects to the imperial consort."
"Master Fan, please be seated."
There were no unnecessary pleasantries. Fan Xian and Concubine Shu sat, separated by a hanging screen; there was no omen to it. Suddenly, Concubine Shu spoke in a clear voice. "Ten thousand sorrowful autumns always a guest. Master Fan, in your youth you spent most of your time in Danzhou. Could it be that you feel that you are merely a guest in the capital?"
Fan Xian was stunned. He answered firmly, and with this as a starting point, he sat and pontificated with the imperial consort; they spoke of countless verses of various scriptures, until they both found their mouths feeling parched, after which they said nothing, but felt a quiet, mutual understanding. Fan Xian had some lingering fears. He had not expected that the Second Prince's mother would be such an intelligent woman with such exceedingly ferocious knowledge. He almost found it difficult to deal with. He could not help but wonder what sort of princely son such a woman could have raised.
"Do not worry." Concubine Shu was a gentle sort, and through the bamboo hanging screen, Fan Xian could see a wooden hairclip on her head, its simple neatness quite incompatible with the ostentatious palace. "Wan'er has grown up in the palace. Before His Majesty adopted her as his daughter, we idle women treated her like she was one of our own. There is no one in the palace who does not feel a fondness for her. Seeing as you wish to marry this most precious jewel of the palace, we cannot help but watch carefully."
Fan Xian felt a trickle of cold sweat go down his back. Although he already had an understanding, only today did he really get a feel for his fiancée's position within the palace. Concubine Shu was gentle and mild, and seemed quite satisfied with Fan Xian's style of conversation. Having spent the midday with him, she allowed Fan Xian to leave, but before they separated, she spoke to him quietly. "In the palace we are fond of reading, and His Majesty has gathered some precious books for me. I have allowed the people of the palace to choose some of these precious books to copy. Master Fan, as you are now going to visit the other concubines, I shall have someone send one to Yi Guipin."
Fan Xian felt a shiver go down his spine. He knew that this was a generous gift; he knew that the imperial consort was sending this gift on behalf of the Second Prince. He did not say anything, and with a deep respect he departed.
After leaving Concubine Shu's courtyard, Fan Xian wiped the cold sweat from his brow. Xing'er, the palace made who acted as his guide, felt somewhat familiar with him, as she bounced along on tiptoe, she turned around to look at his face. "Are you not warm today?" she asked with curiosity.
Fan Xian forced a smile and shook his head. He had assumed that his visit to the palace today was a matter of etiquette; he had not expected to find himself even more nervous than if he were taking the imperial exams. He presumed that the concubines were curious as to who Lin Wan'er would be marrying, and so would want to look into Fan Xian's literary and martial abilities. Carrying on, the two came to the mother of the Great Prince, Ning the Talented. Fan Xian knew that although her status was not high, and was only the rank of "talented", he learned from Wan'er that this was because she was from Dongyi, and so Fan Xian took pains to show her the utmost respect.
Ning the Talented was approaching her forties, but she was still very attractive. Her face had the softness that women from Dongyi had. Over the past few years, the Great Prince had been fighting the barbarians on the western border. She had no other children, and inevitably felt somewhat lonely. Luckily, Lin Wan'er had frequently come to her palace to play, so her feelings toward Lin Wan'er were not the same as the other concubines. She regarded Fan Xian with her elegant, almond-shaped eyes and spoke coldly. "So you're Fan Xian." Fan Xian knew that this woman had saved the Emperor's life on the battlefield, and had raised a prince who was a fine warrior. She was indeed a formidable woman, but he felt no great surprise and replied calmly. "I am indeed, your grace."
"Hm." Ning the Talented looked Fan Xian up and down, and to his surprise she said very little. "Treat Wan'er well," she said coldly.
Fan Xian liked this feeling of efficiency. "Do not worry, your grace," he responded happily.
"What happened at Niulan Street was odd indeed," she said, taking measuring of him. "I cannot believe that you were capable of killing an eighth-level master," she harrumphed coldly. "You look so thin and weak. It does not look as if you had a martial upbringing." Fan Xian was taken aback. Could it be that just as he had triumphed as a scholar, he also had to triumph as a warrior? But she was a forty-year-old woman. There were differences between masters and servants, and differences between men and women. She would not go so far as to attempt to attack him, would she? "But since Ye Ling'er has admitted that she cannot match you, then I shall reluctantly accept it too. Very well, in that case, go along to the other palaces. Don't dawdle." Having said this, Ning the Talented said nothing more and ushered him outside.
Fan Xian rubbed the back of his head and stared at the closed wooden door. His Majesty was truly a fortunate man to be able lie next to such a colorful set of women. There was the cheerful and naive Yi Gupin, the gentle and smart Concubine Shu, and then there was the uncivilized Ning the Talented? But he had known beforehand that Concubine Shu had been a thoroughly intelligent woman. Perhaps Ning the Talented was coarse on the outside yet delicate on the inside. And then there was the enigmatic Empress. For His Majesty to live in harmony for so many years in the palace with all these women showed that the Emperor of Qing was a man of quite some skill.
To say the least, Fan Xian pondered whether or not he had such skills.