Mindful of the long history between their two families, the Crown Prince invited Fan Xian to make himself at home, then went on to greet some other guests - after all, a number of luminaries had come today.
But Fan Xian was unaware of the undercurrents beneath the calm surface. He strolled around, and among the seemingly disordered seats he found a remote spot in keeping with his own temperament and sat down. He saw wine on a small table, grabbed a cup and emptied it into his mouth, pursing his lips.
There were no commoners in sight. All conversation seemed to involve the literary classics in some way. He sighed and looked up at the sky. He was secretly thankful that the sun was not too fierce, otherwise he would not have caught sight of some of the beautiful women at this annoying poetry contest, who wanted to hear some melancholy verses and soak up the sun's rays.
The scholars seemed to be seated however they pleased, but were encircling a small table on the grass, so not many people were looking toward the periphery. A few young nobles around the edges looked at his face; they had also been personally welcomed by the Crown Prince, so they greeted him with curiosity. He was prepared for them to ask about his background.
None guessed which house this handsome young man – smiling wholeheartedly, laughing, and confidently chatting away – was from. They chatted for a while, and he couldn't help but feel they were rather dull, so he withdrew from their idle chitchat and waited quietly for the contest to begin.
This day was not like the past few days; the sunshine was gentle, the willow trees swayed lightly, and the occasional spring wind lifted up their collars. The spring evening winds were neither cold nor fierce, and touched them gently like invisible hands. It was a comfortable evening, and the sunlight was the kind that made one want to sleep. Fan Xian did not wish to seem impolite, so he continued to smile, forcing his eyes open, listening to the poetry and watching as cups of wine were served to guests. But the gentle spring breeze and the warm sunshine made it increasingly difficult for him to feign interest in the poetry, and he found himself nodding off.
He caught a few lines: "On the road to Leizhou in my dream, I was met with the following scene. I was no hermit begging for money, I laughed at myself..."; "the wine was strong, the old man was drunk, his cup embossed with patterns..."; "the people of Dongyi drift about, but one capable man stayed behind..."
Fan Xian pinched at himself to keep himself awake. Even though he didn't much like reciting poetry, at an event like this, he couldn't act like the scruffy young man he was when he was 16 in his past life. So he smiled, staring in a somewhat stupefied way at the scene before him.
As he stared, he caught sight of someone who seemed almost familiar. A group of people were sitting on the comfiest spots by the side of the lake – it was Guo Baokun and He Zongwei, whom he had run into a few days before. Fan Xian frowned. Crown Prince Jing no doubt knew of the tussle that had occurred between the Fan and Guo families; why did he see fit to invite them both here?
It seemed like they noticed Fan Xian staring at them. Guo Baokun turned his gaze away from the beautiful women across the lake. When he saw Fan Xian, his expression changed, and he was unable to maintain his scholarly elegance. Unthinkingly, he threw the ostentatious folding fan he was holding onto a table.
Nearby, a scholar from the College of Supreme Learning was giving a lecture on the classics, so not many people noticed Guo Baokun's reaction.
Guo Baokun's companions followed his gaze, and noticed Fan Xian hiding away in a corner. They all became angry. There were so many distinguished scholars here, all without bodyguards; if that brat from the Fan family decided to start another fight, who would stop him?
But Fan Xian smiled as he looked at them and nodded as if he were greeting friends.
The table murmured among themselves, and gloomy smiles broke out among them. Guo Baokun's permanently-downturned face seemed almost pleased. Only He Zongwei seemed to take exception.
They didn't know what the girls were doing under that white silk, but a woman had been continuously going back and forth with copies of poems that the women had written, and reading them aloud for the scholars to judge.
The crown prince laughed. "Although women are no match for men," he said aloud, "literature is not the same as the brute force of combat. Do not worry, gentlemen, there is no chance you will be outdone by those feeble women."
The crowd agreed, and laughed and chattered among themselves. Someone came up with an idea: write a poem on a topic, and the best three poems would be taken to the opposite side of the lake.
A scholar on Guo Baokun's table turned his gaze and cupped his hands in salute. "I am but an untalented poet, but may I suggest that the topic be the waters of this lake?"
"Very good. Today's blue-green ripples float like gold..." someone began to write.
"That'll do well. As I look out on the beautiful lake and mountain landscape..." someone else set out their poem.
Guo Baokun stared in Fan Xian's direction. "I didn't realize young master Fan would be here today," he said loudly. "Why don't we let him start?"
Fan Xian had come on his father's orders. He was to make an appearance in front of the people of the capital and nothing more. When he heard that they wanted him to write poetry, he smiled. "I'm really not that great," he said, shaking his head. "Please feel free to ask someone else."
Seeing him back down, Guo Baokun felt all the more that Fan Xian was all looks and no brains. He laughed coldly. "The other day in Yi Shijiu you were mouthing off, saying how you didn't care for scholars, but now you're so stingy with your advice. You really do think a lot of yourself."
Hearing this, the people present finally realized that the two young men had a history of enmity with each other; the poetry was only an excuse to start a fight. Most of the people in the mansion were guests of Crown Prince Jing. Although they didn't know who Fan Xian was, they saw that he seemed to be friendly with the crown prince, so a few began to wonder whether he was a son of the Fan clan, but none of them guessed that he was the son of Count Sinan.
Watching the people around him discuss things, Guo Baokun took a sip of tea and laughed sinisterly. "Brother Fan here only just arrived in the capital a few days ago. I think we should all hear what he has to say."
The people at the contest weren't idiots; they immediately realized Fan Xian's identity. When they looked at him, they felt a twinge of pity, a slight trace of disdain, and a number of other complicated feelings.
Fan Xian's expression did not change from the faint smile he had worn before, but he continued to refuse to compose a poem. When Crown Prince Jing saw his smile, he felt all the more unable to gauge the depths of this young man. A strange look flashed across his eyes, and he spoke to broker a compromise. "Poetry can only be written willingly, and brother Fan clearly does not wish to write today. Gentlemen, you will have to write yourselves."
Fan Xian leaned lazily on the small slanted table, looking at the people milling about, listening to their average-at-best prose. It was all rather boring. To an observer's eye, he looked rather impudent. Someone could not help but sneer. "The young lady of the Fan family is well known in the capital for her poetry. It is rather surprising that young master Fan is so silent."
Guo Baokun spoke quietly. "Well, he wasn't raised in the manor," he laughed, "of course he's different from the rest of them." Though he had spoken quietly, he made sure to let everyone around him know. Although the Kingdom of Qing had blossomed culturally, the status of illegitimate children had remained as low as ever. Fan Xian's status was a sensitive subject. When people heard his carefully-chosen words, a strange atmosphere pervaded the grounds.