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It was a secret banquet located on a pleasure boat upon the Liujing River, just as before. The outside of the pleasure boat looked exceptionally elegant, but without the gaudy romance-novel feel there had been on the other side of the river. At that moment there were neither clouds nor rain over the river. The scene was bathed in a majestic pale red light, and under the light winds, the waves softly lapped the riverbanks as if the river were breathing. Compared to the other side, where one could hear faint sounds, this pleasure boat, arranged by the Second Prince, seemed a much more serene and worldly place.

Fan Xian and Li Hongcheng, Crown Prince Jing, chatted and laughed as they walked to the riverbank. With their bodyguards leading their horses, the two men helped each other onto the boat. There was a smile on his face, but deep in his heart, he sighed. This prince seemed to be a thoroughly elegant man, but he did not know why he was not content to act as prince in peace. Why did he feel the need to provoke such affairs within the Kingdom of Qing?

On the slightly wet boards of the boat, Fan Xian's feet were just about to step onto the side of the ship when he suddenly heard the sound of a string being plucked. He did not feel somber at all. He instead felt pure-hearted and cordial as the song arose. "Leaving the clear water and green hills, I came to a cottage with a bamboo fence. The wild flowers bloom on the edges of the road. Wine is brewed in vessels in the village, and I drink to complete intoxication. Even though drunk, the mountain children do not mock us, chrysanthemums stuck randomly in my white hair."

A smile curled the corners of Fan Xian's lips, and he entered alongside Li Hongcheng. As he listened to the song, he felt more and more curious as to what kind of person this Second Prince was.

The beaded screen parted, Fan Xian saw only a young man wearing a blue-green jacket, sitting in an odd fashion upon a chair. His head was slightly tilted to one side, and his eyes were lightly closed, with a look of satisfaction on his face as he listened to the song of the woman singing in the corner.



Without having to ask, he knew that this young man was the Second Prince of the Kingdom of Qing, son of the Emperor and Imperial Consort Shu.

The Second Prince was sitting in an odd position indeed. He was in a half-squat on top of the chair, looking a lot like a peasant resting in his field. His blue-green jacket covered his legs, but more oddly, looking at his drunken expression and elegant facial features, one suddenly felt a feeling of refined tranquility, as if he had long tired of the comings and goings of this world, and was reflecting purely on the song.

Fan Xian's first thought on seeing the Second Prince was: "This man gives me a familiar feeling." His second thought was: "This man is exhausted, and so is his spirit." His third thought was: "This man's thoughts are deep." He had his belief in his ability to look a man in the eye, but it was still an awkward scene. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Li Hongcheng had long since quietly taken a seat, and Fan Xian was standing in the middle of the room, looking at the Second Prince, unsure of how to address him.

The Second Prince seemed to only care about listening to the music, and had completely forgotten about his own guests. Of course, considering his status, it was only natural that he would make Fan Xian wait.

The tune finally came to an end, and the songstress carried her guqin in her arms, bowed sincerely to the three men in the room, and quietly withdrew to the rear chamber.

And the Second Prince, squatting on his chair, still seemed to be lost in the music. He remained there for a long time. His eyes were still closed. His right hand, hanging in the air, slowly moved to the side to feel a plate of grapes left upon a small table; pinching the grape stalk between his fingers, he took a bunch. Suspending them in mid-air like a child, he raised his head, parted his lips and teeth, and unhurriedly bit at a very green grape. He chewed for a moment, and then swallowed. His throat trembled pleasurably as he swallowed; it seemed that he even found eating a grape to be a thoroughly satisfying experience.

Fan Xian was neither nervous nor angry. He watched the Second Prince with a smile on his face. His eyes were calm, but he did not let the Second Prince get away with any petty tricks. He tried to figure out from looking at him what kind of person this Second Prince was.

A long while later, the Second Prince sighed, slowly placing the grapes back onto the plate before he finally opened his eyes. He seemed to have only just discovered that the guests he had invited had arrived on the boat. There was the unavoidable flash of a smile in his eyes, and his lips curled into a slightly-embarrassed grin.

Fan Xian's heart skipped a beat. That familiar feeling was getting more and more intense.

The Second Prince calmly regarded Fan Xian, who stood before him, before he suddenly spoke. "Since you've arrived, why don't you take a seat?"

Crown Prince Li Hongcheng sat to one side, smiling as he sipped his tea, saying nothing to help Fan Xian. With a gentle smile, Fan Xian bowed and cupped his hands in salute to the Second Prince. "Since Your Highness is seated, I did not dare take a seat without making my salutations."

The Second Prince smiled as he looked at Fan Xian. "I have never welcomed you; you need not salute me."

Fan Xian laughed. "Your Highness need not welcome your servant; your servant must salute Your Highness."

The Second Prince smiled and shook his head, wiping his grape-juice-stained hand willfully on his blue-green jacket. "It is only you and I and my brother Hongcheng upon this boat. Furthermore, you are my younger sister's husband; there is no need for such talk of servants and Highnesses."

Fan Xian chuckled, cupped his hands in salute, and did not say anything more, going back to sit down next to Crown Prince Li Hongcheng. Since the Second Prince was fond of trifling with scholars' feelings – even though he wasn't very good at it – taking a seat would be fine.

In truth, the first few words the two of them exchanged had no particularly deep meaning to them, but Fan Xian felt it was still quite marvelous. Because the Second Prince spoke particularly slowly, and the rhythm of his speech every time he opened his mouth was half the speed of the average person's, any conversation with him would arouse sudden feelings in the listener. And what Fan Xian found even more interesting was that the longer he looked at the Second Prince, the more familiar he felt. But he didn't know where this feeling of familiarity came from. He was certain that it was not because of his relationsihp with Wan'er.

"This boat was built with my own money. What do you think?" The Second Prince seemed to have some fervant desire to know how Fan Xian felt about the boat. Fan Xian forced a smile, only now sizing up the decorations on the boat. He found that whether it was structure, or the green flowerpots in the corners, or the art and calligraphy hanging on the slanting walls, this pleasure boat did not seem like a pleasure boat at all, but more like a library. He couldn't help but shake his head and laugh. "Your Majesty, this pleasure boat is thoroughly peaceful. I don't know if 'pleasure' is the right word for it."

The Second Prince smiled gently, and raised his head to look him in the eye. "Silence is good."

Fan Xian suddenly felt that this conversation was slightly boring and arduous. He was about to fix Li Hongcheng with a look that suggested he was asking for help when Crown Prince Jing spoke just in time.

"I say, can the two of you not speak so wearily?" Li Hongcheng laughed as he changed the subject.

The Second Prince chuckled. "Do you see?" he said to Fan Xian. "Do not presume that the sons of the royal family are boring people. In any case, you and Wan'er are already married. We are family. We should see each other more often from now on."

Li Hongcheng interjected: "Even if it were in a princely palace, you are the Second Prince. Meetings would likely be dangerous."

The three of them all knew that some months back, Fan Xian had been attacked on Niulan Street by assassins from Northern Qi on his way to attend dinner with the Second Prince. The three men looked at each other, thinking of all the things that had happened over the past few months. They could not help but become aware of an indescribable feeling, and at once, all three began to laugh.

After their laughter had subsided, the lid had probably been taken off that incident. Fan Xian laughed bitterly. "Your Highness," he said to the Second Prince, "though you did not set up a Feast at Hongmen, it is quite terrifying when going to dinner means facing such danger." [1]

The Second Prince and Li Hongcheng were somewhat stumped by the words "Feast at Hongmen", but they did not show it on their faces. Naturally, they had never heard the tale, but hindered by their status as nobles, they did not wish to ask about it. The Second Prince smiled. "Do not call me 'Your Highness'. Just like Wan'er, you may call me 'second brother'."

Fan Xian's face did not change, but he felt somewhat vexed. Getting too familiar... seemed like it would have its problems. Seemingly having guessed that he was worried about something, the Second Prince dangled his hands in front of his knees, and smiled, still half-squatting. "There's no need to be too cautious about everything. Wan'er was the baby of the palace. Remember, now you have one more older brother, still on the western border playing with his cavalry. I am still hidden away inside the Imperial Academy, editing books. As for the Crown Prince, the third brother, it's only right you be closest to him. How can you be so distressed about having a few extra relatives?"

Fan Xian laughed. These royal relatives, of course, were a great source of troubles. "It is my great fortune," he said. "But not calling you 'Your Highness' feels rather improper to me."

The Second Prince laughed bitterly. "Ask Wan'er what she calls me when you get back home."

Their pleasantries finished, the feast began. On the table were some fresh seasonal vegetables and elaborate appetizers. Fan Xian ate happily. He had long had a plan drawn up, so after they had gotten to know each other, he was able to relax a little. At the table, the three chatted about the comings and goings of various people within the capital, and of the works of luminaries of the past; it was a pleasant conversation. Sure enough, the Second Prince was greatly influenced by Imperial Concubine Shu. In matters of literary research, he and Fan Xian echoed each other to a large extent. Sitting to the side, Li Hongcheng made a few choice interjections, but they could not avoid bringing up the topic of Count Sinan's glorious success that year. Although there were some inappropriate topics of conversation between the Second Prince and Fan Xian, the atmosphere remained convivial. Fan Xian nevertheless tried to avoid the topic and save face, speaking of stories from Danzhou and things he had learned by the wayside.

When the banquet had concluded, having each gotten something out of it, the Second Prince and Fan Xian parted happily.

The Second Prince did not see him off. All this time, still squatting on his chair, he seemed to have kept this position without moving. His shadow, still watching Fan Xian and Li Hongcheng, disappeared in the boat doorway. Finally, he sighed gently.

"Your Highness," asked one of his followers respectfully, "what are your thoughts on young Master Fan?"

The Second Prince smiled. "My sister's husband is too cautious. He has not a drop of the arrogance and violence of young men raised in the Kingdom of Qing. In truth, I am skeptical that the young master Fan, who gave such a raucous poetry recital in the palace hall, was the same one that I met today."

Having said this, he lowered his head, as was his habit, and his finger stretched out to the side to feel for a bunch of grapes. Seeing this, his follower knew that His Majesty was thinking on most important matters of state, and did not dare disturb him. He hurriedly and silently departed.

Some time later, the Second Prince slowly raised his head. There was confusion in his eyes. In truth, he had not been considering grand matters of state at all. He had been thinking about Fan Xian's phrase "Feast at Hongyan". As a child, he had read the classics together with his mother, but he still could not remember any story about a "Feast at Hongyan".

"My sister's husband is a learned man indeed. It seems I must go back to my books."

With his white teeth, the Second Prince chewed at the green grape he held in his mouth. The juice was sour and sweet.

[1] "Feast at Hongmen" is a Chinese idiom named after a historical event in 205 BC, which means to set up a banquet with the aim of murdering a guest.

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