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Still making his way through the palace, Fan Xian saw a number of the other concubines, said a few words to them and received their blessings, and could not help but feel rather bored. But he did not show it on his face in the slightest; this was the palace, and who could say which figure this or that eunuch reported to, or which palace maid, gathering willow branches, was someone's trusted confidant? If they had seen the frustration on his face, they would have relayed it to their masters, and their masters would whisper it into the Emperor's ear. And what then? Even if he had drunk tea and chatted with His Majesty, he could still find himself in trouble.

But when he thought of the figures he was about to visit, Fan Xian calmed himself. With some gloom and painstaking effort, he met their glances with smiles, as though he looked forward to meeting them. Yaohua Palace was much larger than the other palace courtyards. It clearly showed the status of the person who lived inside: the Empress of the Kingdom of Qing, mother of the nation.

Fan Xian had not expected his audience with the Empress to have concluded so simply.

The Empress had a gentle smile upon her face, and her words put Fan Xian at ease. Looking on the Empress's beautiful and noble features, with her eyes as serene as still ponds, Fan Xian responded with sincere respect. An absurd feeling welled up in his heart. The elegant and exquisite bearing of this woman put him at ease with every movement she made. And yet, four years ago, she had wanted him dead!

He kneeled before her, his forehead touching the floor as he kowtowed. Fan Xian left Yaohua Palace with an uneasy look on his face; his meeting with the Empress had begun simply and ended quickly. Since he could conceal his mood as if there were nothing out of the ordinary about it at all, the Empress, watching Fan Xian, felt not even the slightest unease. Fan Xian smiled; the corners of his mouth were slightly open, but his heart was cold. Perhaps he had overestimated his own importance; perhaps the attempt on his life four years ago was of little importance to the nobles of the palace.



He waited at the gate of Guangxin Palace, the court eunuch who had followed the whole time cautiously and solemnly behind him, not daring to utter a word. The palace maid Xing'er also stood out. She spoke in a low voice. "Please enter, Master Fan."

Fan Xian raised his eyebrows. Was it not against custom for him to enter unescorted? If the Eldest Princess were to have him murdered, then who would intercede? Was that not what had happened to Lin Chong?[1] But he knew that there was nothing to be scared of now; the eunuchs and palace maids were afraid of the Eldest Princess for no reason, and nothing more.

The Eldest Princess, Li Yunrui, had a somewhat masculine name. But she was a weak and delicate person, so it was only a facade. She had many different positions: true controller of the royal purse, former lover of the Prime Minister. She was the most capable political advisor of the Prime Minister, she took precedence over the concubines, and she was the beloved daughter of the Empress Dowager.

And for Fan Xian, she held two more roles: first, she was his personal enemy who wanted him dead; second, she was also his future mother-in-law.

There was a chill through Guangxin Palace. By day, the palace gate would not be closed. Anyone who stood outside the gate could see the white plum blossoms planted within, the secluded and heat-loathing orchids, the yet-to-bloom daisies. Within the palace, one could see a number of white muslin curtains lightly fluttering; the whole thing had the purity and softness of some fairytale world. Fan Xian looked coldly upon it all. It was as if he had been infected by the atmosphere of the palace. A palace maid in her twenties appeared at the gate and gave a slight salute to Fan Xian.

Her eyelashes were long, and although her expression was cold, her words and her movements were still thoroughly polite as she respectfully welcomed Fan Xian inside the palace.

The white muslin took him somewhat by surprise as he walked through it. There was even more fine silk in Guangxin Palace than there had been in the rear garden of Prince Jing's mansion. There was something unusual about the decorations that surrounded him. It seemed inconsistent with the stately atmosphere of the palace; it was more like this was the bedchamber of a little girl. Behind the layers and layers of muslin curtains was a low daybed, upon which reclined a woman wearing a light pink cheongsam skirt, propping her chin up on her arms. Naturally, her waist showed slightly, and her countenance was picturesque, yet with a look of tender shyness.

This was the first time that Fan Xian had laid eyes on the Eldest Princess, his mother-in-law. And just like so many of the other times when people had first laid eyes on Li Yunrui, the Eldest Princess, he was stupefied, unsure whether the woman before him was real or whether she was a character from a painting, or some kind of water nymph.

The Eldest Princess was 30 years old, but she had the air of a shy 16-year-old maiden. Her countenance, and the long black hair that reached over her hands on the daybed, was enough to excite the yearnings of all the men in the world. Fan Xian was stunned. Sixteen years of training his mentality in Danzhou allowed him to remain calm in the face of this wondrous meeting, but he still could not deny that his mother-in-law, although she resembled Wan'er, was much more beautiful than her own daughter.

Though Fan Xian remained calm, he did not want to call her his mother-in-law; it seemed calling her this way would not be appropriate for a woman of her natural beauty. The Eldest Princess fixed Fan Xian with a look that seemed indecipherable; shyly provoking his affections, her delicate lips parted as she spoke. "Please take a seat. I have something of a headache."

Fan Xian looked around, slightly uncomfortable. The Eldest Princess was talking nonsense; in the entirety of the expansive Guangxin Palace, there was not a chair to be seen. In his bewilderment, he heard the Eldest Princess gently speak again. "Master Fan, I hear that you are an accomplished physician. Wan'er's health has improved greatly these past few days, all thanks to you."

Fan Xian quickly bowed in response. "Your Highness is mistaken in her praise. It is the imperial physicians who have seen to her with utmost care; I have simply suggested a few folk remedies."

"Oh?" The Eldest Princess extended her slender fingers and rubbed her temples, which turned red as she brushed them with her fingertips. "Is there a folk remedy for a migraine? My head has pained me so lately."

Fan Xian had heard from Wan'er that the Eldest Princess suffered from chronic headaches; he had also heard the Crown Prince mention it the last time he was on vacation at the country estate. But Fan Xian also took note of how the Eldest Princess was referring to him and to herself; with just these few words, she had seemed particularly affectionate toward him. Fan Xian smiled. "There are many different kinds of headache. My master's lessons were in themselves a kind of headache."

They were weak words, but amusing; the Eldest Princess smiled a weak and charming smile. Fan Xian knew that his connection to Fei Jie was no great secret within the capital, and there was no way he could conceal it from the Eldest Princess, so he decided it was best to bring it up.

"Is there really no way to treat it?" The Eldest Princess could speak of nothing else but headaches, and her face was filled with delicate weakness. "I have been in absolute agony for days."

Fan Xian lowered his gaze slightly and tried to calm his spirit. "I have studied a number of forms of massage. Although this would only treat the symptom and not the cause, it would have a comforting effect."

The Eldest Princess's eyes lit up. "Then try it, quickly," she said gently.

Fan Xian forced a smile. "I... don't know if that would be appropriate."

The Eldest Princess stifled a giggle. "Who would have thought that the renowned and talented Master Fan would be such a stickler for customs? Leaving aside the expedient treatment of maladies, in a few days you will be my son. What do you have to worry about?"

Fan Xian watched her maiden-like demeanor, and then remembered her true age. Such a thing would have brought about some feeling of disgust in him, but as he looked at her soft and smooth cheeks and her delicate brow, he found it hard to feel any antipathy. But when he heard the word "son", he felt a chill in his veins. His face remained calm as he responded. "How could I disobey the commands of my elders?"

A eunuch brought a copper basin filled with fresh water. Fan Xian carefully washed his hands and slowly came to the Eldest Princess's side. He sighed deeply and calmed himself, trying not to let his gaze fall on the slightly exposed pale skin of the nape of her neck beneath the Eldest Princess's long black hair. He steadily reached out his hands and placed them on her head.

His fingers ran through the Eldest Princess's hair, which ran gently past his fingertips, tickling them slightly.

Fan Xian thought it best to close his eyes, and imagine that he was just like Wu Zhu, his eyes covered by a length of black cloth, his fingertips feeling along the Eldest Princess's hairline, then moving gently upward, his thumbs pressing her temples, his forefingers rubbing her brow, confirming the position of the space between her eyebrows.

He pressed it forcefully. The Eldest Princess was apparently unprepared, and she groaned softly, unsure whether it was her headache or the pressure.

Fan Xian remained calm, relying on his knowledge of the acupuncture points of the human body, slowly and steadily rubbing her head. Every touch of Li Yunrui's head with his fingers was steady.

"Hm." The Eldest Princess frowned, unsure whether she was being rash. She hadn't expected this young man's hands to work so well. His fingers seemed to bring about a tiny flowing stream, which massaged at the source of her pain, and with each press of his fingers she loosened more and more. Her thoughts gradually relaxed, and she grew sleepy.

"Did Fei Jie teach you this too?" Her eyes were half closed, and she leant on the daybed, her crimson lips parted slightly, speaking without thinking.

"Master Fei taught me how to manipulate acupuncture points." Fan Xian's fingers were still smoothly and steadily moving across her flesh, and his voice did not tremble in the slightest. "But I learned this massage method myself." A long illness can turn a patient into a doctor, they say, and in his previous life, as he had lain in his sickbed, he had in the beginning fostered extravagant hopes of being able to stand up again one day. So that cute nurse had often helped him massage his feet and the rest of his body. Eventually he had given up hope, but he still remembered the methods of massage.

"It's rather nice," said the Eldest Princess as her eyes began to close under the young man's gentle, relaxing touch.

There was silence in Guangxin Palace. The Eldest Princess's eyes were shut, her long eyelashes rested on her fair skin, trembling slightly. Suddenly, she spoke. "If you are to marry Wan'er, you must forget that incident four years ago."

Fan Xian's fingers stopped moving, pausing on a point below her ears. It looked nothing out of the ordinary. But it was a potentially fatal acupuncture point.

[1] Lin Chong is a character in Water Margin, who is tricked into entering White Tiger Hall with a weapon in his possession and is arrested.

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