But strangely, the Count had never intervened in her scheming. Whether this decision was made rationally, or out of deference to the Liu clan, it made little sense either way.
Fan Xian smiled sweetly. "It is good to finally meet my father's concubine."
Lady Liu also smiled, but an indescribable expression flashed in her eyes. Hearing this child call her 'concubine' rankled; most people would have called her his second wife.
There was a world of difference between 'concubine' and 'second wife'.
"Come along," she said, smiling, "you've come a long way. What have you been doing dawdling under these eaves? If anyone saw you, they'd think that Fan Manor was inhospitable."
Inhospitable? There were certainly some people they didn't want to be hospitable to, thought Fan Xian. He knew that she was reminding him of his own status as an illegitimate child, but at the same time, he admired the beauty of her words. He wasn't prepared for a war of words with the woman; he knew full well that she had been in the manor for a long time, and it wouldn't have been worth it to spar with her verbally. But, considering that they were at cross-purposes with each other, why did he have to back down?
It seemed that she wasn't some fool with sinister intentions, as he had imagined her before. So now he felt somewhat confused - why had she tried to kill him four years ago?
As he followed her into the hall, he made sure not to stay too far away. Her unique scent reached his nostrils, and he inhaled. It was quite a pleasant aroma.
In times like these, one may have trivial thoughts. Fan Xian felt rather pleased with himself, and he smiled as he made small talk with Ms Liu.
The noblewoman and the young man both played their part, putting on a facade of a mother and son.
The tea arrived. It was genuine Wufeng tea - a fine variety. The refreshments had also arrived - fine flaky pastries from the south. After talking about the journey, how the lady of the house was faring back in Danzhou, the seaside scenery of the town he had just left behind, and what was worth seeing in the capital, the two found that they had nothing else to say to each other - at the very least, nothing polite.
So, going by what seemed to be a quiet mutual understanding, Lady Liu and Fan Xian sat in silence. Both were aware that the other person was not easy to deal with. There was no sense in sounding out each other with clever words; it was best that they both stayed silent.
The awkward atmosphere of the room had convinced the servant-girls to keep quiet out of fear, even making sure that they stepped lightly as they came by to refill the tea.
But neither Fan Xian Nor Lady Liu felt awkward; once in a while they would grasp their teacups and look at each other, their gazes soft and gentle but hiding daggers underneath.
Lady Liu was perturbed. She had discovered that this was no ordinary young man before her. To her surprise, the situation had not stopped him from responding freely, without the least bit of nervous restraint. He seemed mature and earnest, perhaps even more prudent than his father.
It seemed to her that she should not have listened to advice she had received four years before, which had made her hasty to see him as an enemy without good cause. Now it appeared something of a mistake. It would be difficult to resolve this situation.
As they sat in silence, Lady Liu suddenly got the feeling that it was weakening her position. After all, she was his elder. She cleared her throat. "Your father is now an official at the Treasury," she said. "Have you come to the capital to prepare for next year's imperial examinations, or will you be going straight to the Treasury for work?"
Fan Xian smiled. "I shall do as Father says." He paused for a moment. "But I'm not sure when he'll be back."
He was telling the truth. There were a few people he wanted to meet with in the capital. Lady Liu was one of them, as was Fei Jie and his little sister Ruoruo. But the person he was most interested in meeting was definitely his father.
He was very curious as to how Count Sinan had caught the eye of his mother, the head of the illustrious Ye family. In his mind, he thought of the dead woman as his mother, but never much considered Count Sinan to be his father. This was perhaps a quirk of the male mentality.
"Your father will return shortly."
As she said this, there was a slight clattering outside the door to the inner courtyard. The servant girls hurried to greet whoever it was, but the noise came too quickly, and the servant girls were unable to bar the way. A young woman walked in.
She wasn't particularly pretty, but she was exceptionally neatly-dressed, with what seemed to be a somewhat delicate and faintly indifferent disposition. The indifference was not that of an ice maiden - a loathing for the impure things surrounding her - but rather of someone who had yet to discover their own self-confidence, and so created an apathetic demeanor, feeling at odds with the world around them.
Fan Xian's heart skipped a beat. It wasn't becoming of a young noblewoman to have such a cold exterior.
The young woman looked Fan Xian in the face. Her cold expression softened until it finally melted away entirely, and a slight blush began to spread on her cheeks. She opened her mouth to speak, but stopped. She took a step back and slightly rearranged her garments. Curtsying, she spoke in a gentle, clear voice that seemed both polite and boastful. "Good day, brother."
Fan Xian smiled, and held out his hand to support her. "Ruoruo, there's no need to be so polite."
The two exchanged glances and faint, earnest smiles. They had exchanged letters for many years. In this world, each was the person the other one knew most deeply.
But the sound of a clumsy child immediately broke their tender reunion.
"Hey, are you Fan Xian?"
Fan Xian turned to face the youngster who had entered. He was rather chubby, and the left side of his face was covered in unsightly moles. His face seemed full of resentment, and he stared at Fan Xian with a slight disgust.