The conversation at the table had turned from matters of bureaucracy to matters of literature. Naturally, they could not avoid talking about last year's astounding poetic performance by young Master Fan. Fan Xian pretended to be holding his wine cup up to his lips, but if this young fellow dared say anything bad to him, he was preparing to spill it, understanding the air of frustration.
To his surprise, Shi Chanli stood up, his face the color of peach blossom, his words sickeningly sappy. Tears were flowing from his eyes. "I have been reading the Banxianzhai Poetry Anthology for many months. How can I read any other poet again? How can I ever have the courage to put pen to paper again? Though some of the poems are odd, with young Fan before me, how can I control myself? It is a tragedy. A tragedy!"
Fan Xian beamed, thinking of those loveable people who criticized leaders and comrades, not paying attention to their own rest.
Hou Jichang took some exception. "Poetry and literature are irrelevant. How do they help statecraft and politics?" Having said this, he turned to the previously-snubbed Fan Xian for help. "What do you think, Master Fan?" He suddenly couldn't stop himself from looking him in the eye, and he suddenly yelped. "It's you!"
Fan Xian was startled again. How could they have recognized him? The exam hall was not brightly lit, and apart from Yang Wanli - who had dared to look directly at him and speak to him with his eyes - no one dared to scrutinize the faces of their examiners.
Hou Jichang's next words came quickly. "I brushed past Master Fan on my way to buy wine."
Fan Xian thought back. So he was the student with the two jars of wine. He didn't know why, but with this trivial thing, Hou Jichang quickly became much more friendly toward Fan Xian and began to talk to him warmly. Not only did Fan Xian feel it was a little strange, but it also left Shi Chanli scratching his head.
"Master Fan, as you are of the same clan as the young Master Fan, there's no harm in telling us your thoughts on the Banxianzhai Poetry Anthology."
"I can't say anything that you haven't already," said Fan Xian cheekily, embarrassed about boasting in front of other people.
No one expected Shi Chanli to be angered by this remark. He put down his chopsticks. "Could it be that Master Fan is the same as that Master Zhuang? I had always prized Zhuang Mohan's moral quality, but he turned out to be a silly old thief. Even if Master Fan had read books of poetry since his youth, he still wouldn't be able to make such fantastic and ridiculous remarks."
Fan Xian was taken aback. He finally realized that he already had a firm standing in the eyes of the scholars of the Kingdom of Qing. He was somewhat embarrassed, and unsure of what to say. Rather tipsy, Shi Chanli laughed as he scolded him. "Two young noblemen, both surnamed Fan, and yet there is such a gulf between them!"
At that moment, roused by Cheng Jialin, Yang Wanli finally awoke. Seeing Fan Xian's handsome face, he was shocked, and quickly stood up and saluted him. "Master... Master Fan... you're here?"
"Master Fan? Which Master Fan?" The others around the table couldn't help but feel confused. They didn't know why Yang Wanli was so nervous.
Yang Wanli laughed bitterly. "This is the one I was talking about – the Master Fan who allowed me to take the exam... Brother Shi, didn't you love the Banxianzhai poems? You should pay him your respects."
Shi Chanli finally realized that the one he had chided was indeed Fan Xian! His complete shock made him jump up from his seat. Feeling incredibly awkward, Hou Jichang and the previously-unflappable Cheng Jialin stood, their mouths agape, not knowing what they should say to convey the entirety of their respect and admiration.
Fan Xian had long been an established author in the eyes of the land's scholars, and then he had married the Prime Minister's daughter and become a fifth-level academician of the Imperial College at the age of 17. No matter how you looked at it, he was the target of every scholar's envy. And his Banxianzhai Poetry Anthology had become popular throughout the nation. His name emerged over the lands like a red sunrise.
"What?" laughed Fan Xian, a little embarrassed. "Is it that shocking to see me in the flesh?"
Hou Jichang was the first to come to his senses. He laughed bitterly. "Master, you are indeed that Master Fan. We were rude earlier."
Shi Chanli's eyes shined, and he bowed deeply to Fan Xian. "We did not expect that Yang's good fortune would allow us to meet Master Fan personally. We are truly lucky."
Fan Xian shook his head and laughed. "The exams are finished, and I did not want to stay in my mansion the whole time, so I decided to go out for a walk. I knew that Yang Wanli was staying in this tavern, so I came to find him. But I didn't realize my luck. Sitting at this table and listening to your high-minded discussions, I know this trip was not made in vain."
The scholars could not help but feel their embarrassed sweat drip from them. Thinking back on how they ran their mouths in front of one of the land's most eminent scholars, they felt ridiculous. Even the proud and arrogant Hou Jichang forced a smile. "It's all Wanli's fault; he was drunk this whole time."
At that moment, Cheng Jialin finally mumbled an introduction. "Master Fan, my name is Cheng Jialin." When he thought of how it seemed he could get closer to one of the palace's favorites, Cheng Jialin, scholar of Shandong Road, felt inexplicably nervous, and he spoke haltingly.
Everyone was stumped. Then they suddenly noticed the error in his speech, and couldn't help but laugh. Cheng Jialin's face went red, and he mumbled something nobody could hear. Thankfully this peal of laughter had diluted some of their shock.
Hearing that young Master Fan had come to find him, Yang Wanli couldn't help but feel puzzled and somewhat overwhelmed. "To what do we owe the honor of your presence, young Master Fan?"
Thankfully, all of them behaved appropriately. Mostly out of wanting to keep him to themselves, they all stayed quiet so as not to let any of the other scholars drinking in the tavern know that the young Master Fan that they had all talked about for days on end was right beside them in this very establishment. Otherwise, there would no doubt be chaos.
Fan Xian had originally only come to get in touch with Yang Wanli, but he had not expected such a situation. Naturally he did not want to say much. He smiled. "Anyway, it seems that a jacket connects me with Brother Yang." He turned to Shi Chanli. "And half an umbrella connects me with you, brother. And to you, Brother Hou," he said, turning to him, "it seems we were fated to brush past one another. So, brothers, there are a few things I wish to call your attention to."
As he said this, Cheng Jialin, who he had not mentioned by name, was worried. Hou Jichang also could not keep a calm expression. The scholars did not expect great prospects for their careers. To have Fan Xian - the proctor of the civil service exams - appear before them roused their suspicions; what he had to say was no doubt of the utmost importance.
Fan Xian paused for a moment, weighing his next words. "Court examinations are on the first of March. You should prepare yourselves."
They were shocked, and within their sleeves, they could not stop their hands from trembling. Though the words sounded normal, they had a hidden, startling meaning. Fan Xian was a favorite of the royal court, and he had the Prime Minister and Count Sinan behind him. If anyone knew in advance the names that would be on the list of third-rank candidates, Fan Xian would be one of the people with that authority. Since he had told them to prepare for the court exams, then that meant... they had passed!
Fan Xian put a finger to his lips in a gesture to silence them. He smiled. "It is not certain. I have just come to remind you."
Hou Jichang was somewhat despondent. "Minister Guo is imprisoned. Surely there will be changes to the list of names."
"Brother Cheng and Brother Shi - I cannot remember if your names are on it," he replied quietly. "But Brother Hou and Brother Yang, yours certainly are." Hou and Yang were both elated, and unable to contain their pride, they stood up and bowed deeply to Fan Xian, knowing that the young official had chosen them personally. As long as they had the ambition, their future was bright. Cheng Jialin and Shi Chanli were somewhat disappointed, but as Fan Xian had said he couldn't remember, they still comforted themselves with the thought that the next day might still end well.
The tavern was clearly not a suitable place for conversation. Yang Wanli respectfully asked Fan Xian to come to his room and offered him tea. After a while, he finally spoke. "Master Fan, I have no money, no authority, no mouth, and no face. I truly do not know what I could have done to deserve your attention, nor do I know why you chose to take such a risk in informing me."
"No money, no authority, no mouth, and no face" was a saying among scholars who felt powerless and miserable about their lack of social connections. Fan Xian smiled and shook his head. "As the exam system is now, everyone knows that while the list of third-rank names has not been released, it has already mostly been decided. As for why i came here today, it is because I feared that you would abandon yourself to despair, cast aside your books, and give up everything. If you lost face in the hall, I would perhaps lose face too. You should know that outside that exam hall, many people saw me let you in. There is no harm in telling you that I have taken a few risks in this matter, but there was no harm in it."
Today, the examiners of the capital were all anxious. When Fan Xian said there was no risk, the scholars were inevitably astounded.
Now, these clever men naturally understood Fan Xian's meaning. They looked at each other, and Hou Jichang bowed. "You have my deepest gratitude, master." Yang Wanli also bowed, and even Shi Chanli and Cheng Jialin got up and bowed.
Fan Xian looked at the four scholars, who were all some years older than him, and he couldn't help but feel rather strange. He laughed. "I am not my father-in-law, nor am I Minister Guo. I have money, and in the future I shall have more money, so do not worry. I only care about your scholarship and your morals. As for what happens after the court examinations, and entering the court to become officials, as long as you are loyal and diligent in matters of state, and work for the good of the nation, then I will know I have not misjudged you, and I will be pleased."
His words were warm, but there was a great coldness underneath. The four of them were scared, and responded sincerely. Changing the subject, Fan Xian asked why He Zongwei had not attended the exams. They told him that an elder in his family had died of an illness. He sighed and took his leave.
As he left and climbed into the carriage, Fan Xian frowned as he spoke with Teng Zijing. "Why do I feel so unaccustomed to such things?"
Wang Qinian, ever the comic foil, piped up from inside the carriage. "Because, master, deep down, you are a scholar, not a master."