Walking out of the book chamber, Fan Xian breathed in the fresh winter air of Cang Mountain. He stretched lazily and followed the sound of Mahjong and quickly found his wife playing with some other ladies. Seeing the jade-green tiles rolling around in those soft, white hands, the sight struck Fan Xian’s heart.
Then he saw his sister. The second prince had given them a poetry collection from the previous dynasty, and Fan Ruoruo was immersed in reading it. This sight also struck Fan Xian’s heart.
Just as he thought, being too famous wasn’t a good thing. Getting fat isn’t good news for a pig, and getting famous isn’t good news for a person. Fan Xian smiled bitterly. Since the banquet, both the eldest and second princess didn’t directly contact him, but vice-minister Xin and Li Hongcheng frequented Fan Manor. Even after hiding in the mountains, Fan Xian could not stop them from sending gifts.
On the last day of the lunar year, the group on Cang Mountain went back to the capital. In those few days, Li Hongcheng caught the news and begged to come back to Cang Mountain with Fan Xian. While Fan Xian dared not bring Crown Prince Jing, he was forced to bring along Rou Jia.
Rou Jia was the first one to notice Fan Xian blanking out in his room. The young girl asked, "Brother Xian, do you want to play cards?"
Being called "Brother Xian" reminded Fan Xian of "Brother Bao" from Dream of the Red Chamber. He waved his hand and said, "Go ahead. I shall go for a stroll."
"Stroll" came out a bit unnaturally. Catching that, Rou Jia made an adorable pout. Lin Wan’er had to intervene. "My dear, why don’t you come and play a few rounds?"
"I’m going to pass." Fan Xian refused even more firmly. As he left the game table, his foot touched something fluffy. Not knowing what to make of it, he looked down and discovered a box. Inside the box slept three plump kittens on top of some straw and shredded rags. With their closed eyes and wrinkled noses, those kittens were very cute indeed.
Fan Xian gasped. "What are these kittens doing here?"
Lin Wan’er, also seeing the box, picked it up and put it on the game table. She smiled, "Auntie Teng was worried we would get lonely in the mountains, so she had someone bring us these three kittens today."
Fan Xian got closer and saw that there was a yellow kitten, a black one, and a white one. Aside from their colors, they were identical otherwise. Fan Xian laughed. "Oh you lot, you don’t even know how to feed yourselves, much less keep some cats." He picked up the black one and held it in his arms. The sensation from this little ball of fur was very interesting. When he gently petted the kitten on the back of its head, it opened its eyes and lazily looked at him before falling back to sleep. It didn’t seem to mind being held.
"Do they have names?"
"No. Let’s go with Little Yellow, Little Black, and Little White for now."
"Oh, I like the sound of Little White."
After dinner, Fan Xian sat in the main seat. Sizhe sat next to him. The brothers received the reports from the capital. Towards the end of the year, the Fan clan owned suburbs in the capital, as well as the Danzhou estate and some other pieces of land. They all had to report their taxes. Lady Liu at Fan Manor in the capital always took care of these primary matters. Now that she had become the head wife, it was even more appropriate for her to take care of these matters. But this year, after having done so, she picked the biggest couple of expenditures and asked Mister Cui to write a letter reporting them to Young Master Fan.
Fan Xian could understand Lady Liu's intentions, so he didn’t immediately react. Rather, he was even more attentive of the reports. Occasionally he would interject to ask some questions.
The third housekeeper finished his report obediently. Fan Xian closed his eyes and thought for a while. He then opened them and looked at Sizhe. "Do you think there will be any issues?"
Fan Sizhe scratched his left cheek, where there were three moles. He shook his head. "No problems, big bro. But mother always took care of those expenditures. Why is she having us look over it this year?"
Fan Xian gave a faint grin. Fan Sizhe was talented in some areas – to the point of being a little tyrant even – but in other areas he was like a blank sheet of paper.
The third housekeeper then respectfully said, "The yearly goods should have arrived in the capital before the coming year, but because of heavy snow to the east and north, they arrived some days late. Other than the fruits and grains from last time, the letters included the various meats, wild game, and floral tea sent from Danzhou. The Lady had prepared to send three more cartloads, enough to last all of you until spring."
"There's no need for that much, we could just settle for the new and interesting stuff. One cartload would be plenty." Fan Xian then added, "Grandmother’s floral tea – remember to bring a lot of that." He had often spoke to Wan’er and Ruoruo about his life in Danzhou, mentioning that fragrant tea countless times.
The housekeeper smiled. "The tea already arrived today. The latter two loads are food and some small goods. Those are for in case you two young masters wish to stay until spring."
Fan Xian heard it clearly and inwardly complimented Lady Liu for her flawless caretaking. He asked the housekeeper to take a rest and receive his payment.
Spring arrived. As a fifth-ranked scholar, Fan Xian had to return to the capital to assume his position; he couldn’t hide in the mountains forever. And after the examinations in the fourth month, an envoy would be required for the negotiations between two nations; a secret trade of captives must take place as well. Everything seemed to be happening all at once.
If Fan Xian were to have a say in the matter, he would have exchanged the captives last year. The soldiers and generals aside, Fan Xian was most worried about that Yan Bingyun, whom he never met but admired in secret. Being the head spy of Qing, who knew how much he suffered whilst imprisoned by an enemy nation for over half a year?
Fan Xian was willing to serve this nation, but not the Imperial court.
At night, after he finished his regular training, he dragged his fatigued body back to the mountain estate. His night clothes were dirty from snow and mud, so he put those in a bag he had prepared. He then tossed the bag aside.
While training, he had lain in the snow, alone. Under the pale moonlight, he aimed at his targets. His eyesight froze into a straight line as he stared at the rocks in the distance, black rocks protruding from the snow which had remained still for millennia. Other times, he would take aim at the rabbits dashing rapidly through the snow. All of this chipped away at his stamina. Not to mention that a few days ago, Wu Zhu gave "that" to him and disappeared. In the past few training sessions, there was no one to talk to; no one to oversee him. This feeling of loneliness reminded him of his past life.
It was all silent in the mountain estate. Only the main bedroom remained lit; that was Wan’er awaiting his return. Smiling, Fan Xian walked towards the light. It had been sunny for a while during the day, melting the snow on the stone platform. Fan Xian walked around the puddles which reflected the moonlight. He leapt over the rails. Suddenly, something alerted him and he stopped abruptly.
Presently, he stood at the other end of the hallway, right outside Ruoruo’s room. His ears perked up and he frowned. He sharpened his gaze. He turned and pressed his palm against the door and released just a small amount of his zhenqi. The wooden door was forced open from the shock, and Fan Xian drifted inside like the night breeze.
On the bed, the blankets were in a mess. Ruoruo was nowhere to be seen.
Calmly, Fan Xian reached under the blankets and discovered that, other than the spot near the bed warmer, the rest had all already gone cold. Ruoruo had been gone for a long time. His heart was slightly shaken – could this be the work of some unknown enemy? He steadied himself and turned around, his hand brandishing his thin dagger. He was ready for a night raid.
Outside the doorway, Fan Ruoruo was holding a lantern. Seeing her brother standing by her bed wielding a blade, she called out to him in surprise. Fan Xian, seeing her safe and sound, felt his entire body and nerves relax. He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. Moments later, he asked, "Where did you go? Are you alright?"
Ruoruo had covered herself with a silver-colored blanket, but under that she was only wearing her sleepwear. She looked at Fan Xian, as if not realizing what he meant. After a while she forced a smile, "You’re scaring me, asking that while holding a dagger."
Fan Xian smiled in apology and put back the dagger. He walked toward her and held her shoulders, "You're the scary one. I was walking outside and it was abnormally quiet, I couldn’t even hear you breathe. You had me worried to death."
"You sure can talk. You are the one running around outside in the dead of the night, and you're saying I was the one who scared you?"
"Where did you go exactly?" Fan Xian asked. Fan Ruoruo blushed and lowered her head, "Sometimes it’s best if you don’t ask for details."
Only now did Fan Xian realize. "There’s a toilet inside. The mountain winds are harsh at night. Don’t catch a cold."
"I know." Ruoruo smiled shyly and pushed him out the door, "Wan'er is still waiting for you."
Outside, Fan Xian gently rubbed his cold fingers. Judging from the temperature of her bed, she had been gone for a while; definitely not to the bathroom. She must have gone somewhere right after he left the mountain estate.
Thinking about that, Fan Xian couldn’t help but treat this as a great mystery. But he forced back his desire to find out. Everyone keeps secrets, and it’s important to respect their right to do so—Fan Xian had taught Ruoruo that back in the capital. Now, as her elder brother, he must lead by example.