Teng Zijing smiled. "Your brother may be rude and unreasonable, but there is no evil in him. Lady Liu would not give him such a task.
"Her son is not fit to be a scholar or a fighter," he continued. "It seems he is only good for eating, drinking, and bragging. Lady Liu holds him in contempt."
A bitter smile crept across Fan Xian's face. "Because she does knows her son cannot support her, she is plotting against me... she's a tough one. Lady Liu... she wants everyone to think that the Count's baseborn son is just a useless, spoiled braggart and nothing more."
"Perhaps you were unaware," said Teng Zijing, "but something always happens whenever your brother leaves the house. So when Lady Liu had him follow you, she didn't need to plan anything. He would get you in to trouble all by himself."
"You mean, just by having him causing trouble around me, I would appear to the outside world to be the spoiled son of rich parents."
"Correct." Teng Zijing smiled. "Lady Liu's plan is simple, but it seems very effective."
Fan Xian laughed. "Lady Liu is very interesting... she knew that everyone would tarnish Sizhe and me with the same brush. Very interesting indeed. I just didn't think that Crown Prince Jing would be at the same restaurant."
"You acted correctly, young master," replied Teng Zijing. "Though you might have offended some of the scholars with your words, but scholars are always quick to take offense. The people of the capital may think you are arrogant, but it's better than thinking that you are some good-for-nothing."
"Is public opinion that important?" Fan Xian laughed. "Is the Fan family really in such high demand? Is Lady Liu a pure and simple-hearted woman after all?" He looked at Teng Zijing. "These are all problems, but really, they're not my probems."
Teng Zijing was curious. "Young master, what do you consider to be your problems?"
Anxiety crept across Fan Xian's handsome face. "My problems are that I still don't know what my bride-to-be looks like, and whether she's really on death's door."
The carriage stopped in an alley by the side of Tianhe Avenue. All along the road, the government departments were still open for business, the eaves of the buildings swooping like phoenixes, heading towards the horizon. At the far end was an unremarkable square building. It seemed terribly somber.
Fan Xian had not let Teng Zijing follow him. Although it seemed that he had already made the firm decision to stay by his young master's side, Fan Xian did not fancy himself as some kind of leader of men. After all, he was his father's servant - there were some things he could not allow him to know.
Next to a vendor's stall selling candied berries, he scoped out the Overwatch Council. He bought a stick of the candied fruits, and gnawed at it as he walked towards it, his toothache subsiding.
He walked into a bookseller's shop along the way, taking a look around. The books were various classics and histories that he'd read countless times. He approached the shopkeeper. "Do you have Story of the Stone?" he asked in a low voice.
A strange smile appeared on the bookseller's face, and he replied in the same whisper. "Follow me, sir."
With no particular attempt at stealth, they walked into a side room, and the bookseller retrieved a set of books, handing them to Fan Xian. Fan Xian took them and looked at them. They looked a lot like the version he had bought from the old woman earlier. Satisfied, he nodded, and handed over the money.
"Keep them here for now. Someone from Fan Manor will be along to collect them later." His sister already had a copy at home. The books felt unpleasantly heavy, so he intended to let servants from the house pick them up a while later.
"Fan Manor?" asked the shopkeeper, somewhat embarrassed.
"Count Sinan's estate, yes." Were there any other Fan Manors? He still didn't know how large the Fan clan was in the capital, if Count Sinan was simply head of a minor branch, or whether it was only over the past decade that, thanks to his grandmother, their prosperity had led them to become the most prominent branch of the Fan clan.
The shopkeeper respectfully complied, wrapping up the book and placing it under the counter.
Fan Xian asked a few questions about the bookseller, and the answers the bookseller gave him made him feel uneasy. The bookseller saw that the customer had not immediately left after buying a book, and the chance to chat to a customer made him smile.
As they chatted, a faint sound made Fan Xian's ears prick up.
As he smiled and chatted with the shopkeeper, he shifted his zhenqi around, and his ears immediately became more sensitive, until he finally recognized the sound he was scouting out in the quiet environment of the bookshop.
The sound of breathing, different to any normal person's breathing.
The breathing was weak, long, and distant. It was clearly someone who knew how to control their zhenqi. Fan Xian knew that it was someone his father had sent to protect or observe him. He frowned.
The bookseller saw his customer suddenly frown. Although he thought it was a handsome frown, he assumed he had said something wrong, and couldn't help but feel anxious.
Coming out of the rear door of the bookshop, Fan Xian made sure that he had escaped the two footmen behind him. He was quite pleased with himself. He recalled the things he had learned from Fei Jie when he was young. Other than the art of poison, he had learnt how to lose someone who was on his tail - it seemed it had finally come in handy.
Following the crowds as they walked along the flagstones on Tianhe Avenue, he looked at the buildings on both sides of the street. They were an interesting sight, particularly the space in front of the buildings, where there stood a channel for gently-running water. If you wanted to enter the government offices, you had to walk over a small wooden bridge above the water.
The gentle waters were like a mirror, reflecting the shadow of the bridge and the branches from the trees that hung over the street. It was quiet and beautiful, and peach blossoms would occasionally float past on the wind, landing on the surface of the winter and being carried slowly along.
He walked along the side, looking at the flowing water beneath his feet, and a satisfied smile crept across his face. In the few days since he had come to the capital, he had found that all sorts of things were greatly different from what he had originally imagined, and he was tired out. Feeling refreshed by spring in the capital, his spirit had been lifted.
As he came to the door of the Overwatch Council, he looked at the limestone building and scowled. It wasn't a pretty building, he thought, and it didn't fit in with the interesting-looking buildings with their swooping eaves and strong walls. He couldn't help but admit that the building matched Fei Jie's not-too-pleasant-looking face.
When he walked in, he noticed that the officials and the "pedestrians" who walked by were all staring at him strangely.
He looked at himself carefully, making sure that there was nothing about him that might have drawn anyone's attention, and lifted his head high - but the strange looks from people around him had still not subsided.