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During the New Year festival, in accordance with palace customs, each prince and princess was given a gift by the palace. This year's gifts were different from the norm. Firstly, the Crown Prince received the first gift. This was only natural, but it was much more generous than it had been in previous years: it was a book from the Emperor's own collection. The next was the Second Prince's gift, which was of a higher level. And the Great Prince, defending the distant border, received a bow and arrow. Most importantly, accompanying this imperial bow was an order to return to the capital at the end of the summer to accept the title of king.

The officials of the capital were confused. They were unsure what His Majesty was thinking. It appeared that the Crown Prince's position was still secure, so why summon the Great Prince back to the capital? This prince had spent the entire year on the edges of the kingdom leading troops; although he was not the son of the Emperor's first wife, he was still the eldest son. If he were to return to the capital, it was possible that the situation behind the scenes would not be entirely stable.

Among the imperial gifts was another eye-catching decree. It bestowed a gift upon Fan Xian, fifth-level academician of the Imperial College, currently hidden away in the Cang Mountains, in accordance with the customs regarding the son-in-law of the Emperor. The officials all presumed that this was for the sake of the reputation of the young lady of the Lin family.

There were plenty of dealings and visits to be made at the end of the year when the families of the officials and the gentry all sent gifts to one another. People who had known each other for a long time also visited each other, and two sets of envoys also made their way to the Cang Mountains carrying generous presents. The gifts were divided into those from the Eastern Palace - the palace of the Crown Prince - and those from the estate of the Second Prince. The target of their gift-giving was Fan Xian.

Everyone presumed that, if after the metropolitan civil service examinations, Fan Xian was constrained by his title of "Prince Consort", he would find it hard to rise through the ranks of the bureaucracy, and so His Majesty would order that he be given control over the palace treasury. So before this occurred, both the Crown Prince and the Second Prince rushed to redouble their efforts to entice him. But they did so covertly, believing that no one would discover the envoys they had dispatched bringing gifts.

"What did Number Two send?"

The Emperor of the Kingdom of Qing leaned upon a soft couch, clad in black robes, his face tranquil. The handful of wrinkles on his well-kept face were particularly apparent; his eyes peered calmly at the snowflakes outside his study, which looked like goose feathers.

Chen Pingping cleared his throat and adjusted the blanket covering his knees. "It is a poem from the previous dynasty," he said respectfully.

The Emperor smiled, but there was a hint of mockery in that smile. "It appears my second son is fond of trite and vulgar literature, but then again, so is everyone. Fan Xian writes a poem every time he opens his mouth, and has far exceeded the poets of the previous dynasty. That was an inconsiderate gift."

He continued on with his questioning. "What did the Crown Prince send?"

"A case of green jade Mahjong tiles." Chen Pingping stroked his smooth jaw. Following His Majesty's gaze, he looked out upon the blanket of snow upon the palace, squinting slightly. "Fan Xian was quite fond of them."

"Fan... Xian. It appears that he desires to be an idler, showered with riches and honor." His Majesty spoke quietly. "The Crown Prince has sent a fine gift. I do not know who in the Eastern Palace had the idea to send it." [1]

"It was most likely Xin Qiwu," said Chen Pingping, smiling. "I do not know what Fan Xian is thinking, but I do know that Princess Chen and the younger master of the Fan family both love to play mahjong."

The Emperor's eyebrow rose slightly. "And how has my dear Chen been recently?"

Chen Pingping spoke carefully. "Having Fan Xian, who knows her condition well, taking care of her, she is likely happier than she was in the palace."

"No one can truly be happy within the palace." The Emperor smiled. "Have you really decided to send Fan Xian to Northern Qi?"

Chen Pingping sat in his wheelchair. His head still uneasily lowered, he spoke respectfully. "Yes, Your Majesty. As Your Majesty agrees with my suggestion, I shall make arrangements. If Fan Xian does not take care of matters for the Overwatch Council, then it will be difficult for him to truly take control of it in the future, in service of Your Majesty."

There was a sudden cold silence between the two men. The Emperor looked coldly at Chen Pingping, and after some time, he spoke quietly. "Do not forget that he is the lifeblood of the royal family. How can you take such a risk?"

There was a long silence. Chen Pingping smiled uneasily and defended his plan. "My lord, the issue is that he can never become the lifeblood of the royal family. I am your servant, and I plan to ensure that his future is secure." He paused a moment before continuing. "If he takes control of the palace treasury, he will no doubt become the object of the princes' enticement. I presume, my lord, that you do not wish to see that happen. Thus it would be better to send him away and allow him to lie low. Hiding in the Cang Mountains is not possible."

The Emperor looked coldly at the cripple before him. This was his faithful dog in the bureaucracy. But how long had it been since he had called him "my lord"?

"Very well." The Emperor slowly closed his eyes, and seemingly for a moment, the snow and wind in the palace disappeared without trace.

Chen Pingping sat calmly in his wheelchair, waiting for a long while for the Emperor to speak. "But you must be aware that Count Sinan and Prime Minister Lin will not agree to these arrangements. When they arrive to discuss courtly matters, I shall no doubt be greatly vexed by them."

"Ready the imperial carriage!" The young eunuch's clear voice reverberated from the eaves of Xingqing Hall. With a clatter, the imperial eunuchs and palace maids spilled out from the hall, carrying the Emperor's sedan chair, waiting upon His Majesty's every need, moving toward the palace hall.

The sedan chair was sealed tight; the wind and the snow that filled the air could not penetrate it. The Emperor closed his eyes, resting his chin on his hands, pondering. His palms gently touched the small burning stove. A moment later, he sighed, opened his eyes, and looked over the all-too-familiar palace. Weary of the scene, he shook his head gently.

In the main hall, eunuchs holding horsetail whisks came out, loudly proclaiming "The Emperor approaches!"

The gathered officials, who had already been waiting a long time, adjusted their garments and kneeled to the floor, calling out "Long Live His Majesty!" The Emperor glanced at the bureaucrats before approaching the Dragon Throne and sitting down. "Come forth," he said.

Hearing his command, the officials stood back up, although some of the high-ranking officials and nobles, who lived comfortable lives in the capital, had inevitably put on some weight, and so their movements were sluggish. It was a comical sight.

"Other matters have been settled. Spring is approaching, and after the Imperial Examinations, the agreement drafted with the northerners will go into effect." The Emperor seemed clearly displeased, and he leaned on one side of the Dragon Throne. "Ministers, has a suitable envoy been chosen?"

There had been rumors over the past few months that the Prime Minister's new son-in-law, Fan Xian, fifth-level Academician of the Imperial College, was to be dispatched as envoy to Northern Qi. Prime Minister Lin Ruofu had always presumed it was officials of the royal court who opposed him making mischief, so he had long been fully prepared.

Originally, there had been mutual animosity between the Lin and Fan families at court. One was a steadfast supporter of the Emperor's faction, while the other had unclear connections to the Eldest Princess. After Fan Xian had entered the capital, everything had been acutely transformed. The Prime Minister had broken his ties with the Eldest Princess, and Minister Fan had become his relative by marriage.

Assistant Minister Fan Jian of the Ministry of Revenue had stepped back somewhat. He glanced at the line of people in front of him, and found that Prime Minister Lin Ruofu was also looking at him. Their gazes met, and the two men smiled.

"I commend my report unto Your Majesty. I thought that when vice-minister Xin of Honglu Temple was negotiating previously, all matters were settled to the great benefit of the nation. He is a fine talent, and if vice-minister Xin were to be dispatched as envoy, it would be most suitable."

The first one to hurriedly reply was a disciple of Prime Minister Lin Ruofu, Ren Shao'an, a vice-minister official of Taichang Temple. Because today's court discussions were on the topic of the return visit, everyone wanted to hear his opinion, so he and Xin Qiwu, vice-minister of Honglu Temple, were both in attendance in the palace hall.

Xin Qiwu was somewhat taken aback. How could he have been recommended? Of course, he understood, the Prime Minister did not wish for his own son-in-law to be sent to an enemy country hundreds of miles from his daughter. Although there were no issues of safety, the road was long and high through the mountains. After the civil service examinations, Fan Xian would certainly be promoted; if he were immediately dispatched as envoy afterward, who knew what changes could occur in the court months later?

In truth, the Crown Prince's opinion was similar to that of the Prime Minister's. Now that there was none of the Eldest Princess's madness behind him, the Crown Prince's understanding of issues had grown. He presumed that Fan Xian would stay behind in the capital and soon take control of the palace treasury, and at the same time, he could step up his efforts to win him over. This was the correct approach, and if he could use it as a pretext to take hold of Assistant Minister Fan Jian and restore ties with the Prime Minister, that would be even better. Besides, the imperial examinations were approaching, and the Eastern Palace still relied heavily upon Fan Xian.

In light of this, it seemed that no one was going to bring up the matter of dispatching Fan Xian as envoy to Northern Qi that day in the court. After all, offending the Fan and Lin families, even if you were a senior figure or a high official, would arouse the ire of those two men, which could very well be unbearable.

So the hall was silent for a short while. It seemed that the ministers had all approved the suggestion of dispatching Xin Qiwu to Northern Qi. Even Xin Qiwu had begun to prepare for the order to go in place of Fan Xian.

The Emperor frowned. It seemed he had not expected this would happen. He set the small furnace in his hand gently upon a small table by his side, covered in yellow satin.

At that moment, someone emerged from the ranks of the ministers and spoke quietly and calmly. "I suggest that Fan Xian, academician of the Imperial College, is dispatched as envoy to Northern Qi."

The gathered officials had never expected that someone would be willing to offend the Fan and Lin families. Numerous glances centered on him, and discovered that the source of these words was Qin Heng, an attaché of the Bureau of Military Affairs. Qin Heng had a military background, and so he was not afraid of the glares of the bureaucracy. But the officials did not understand; even if you were from the Bureau of the Military Affairs, was there really any need to offend the Prime Minister and the Fan family?

Hearing this suggestion, Prime Minister Lin Ruofu's expression did not change. He was thoroughly calm. Count Sinan could not help but smile. Hindered by their connection to Fan Xian, the two old foxes naturally found it unsuitable to speak, but officials with connections to them spoke up on their behalf. After a period of discussion in the hall, one official spoke calmly.

"I do not believe it is appropriate. Young Master Fan is not yet 17, and has not the slightest experience in official affairs. Sending him as envoy to Northern Qi as a representative of imperial power to establish diplomatic connections is a great task. Although Young Master Fan is greatly talented, he is still inexperienced. I fear that he will find it difficult to shoulder such a responsibility. By contrast, vice-minister Xin is of steady bearing and is a thoroughly suitable choice. He should have no trouble in journeying to Northern Qi."

Xin Qiwu sighed, knowing that he would have to make a decision. He stepped forward from the ranks and bowed as he asked for orders. "I wish to offer my service to the nation."

[1] The "Xian" in Fan Xian’s name can mean "leisure" or "idleness".

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