As he pondered, Fan Xian called to him from far away, saluting as he quickly walked toward him. He had not intended to make the Crown Prince wait; he had simply been delayed while discussing business at Qingyu Hall with the keeper of the bookstore. The two young men sat at a table, sipping tea, and began to talk.
The first one to speak was of course Fan Xian; he had to express his gratitude for matters that evening. Hearing his thanks, Crown Prince Li Hongcheng smiled. "At the time I thought that we'd only known each other for a few days, so how could you be willing to rent out all of the Drunken Immortal Tavern to entertain me – so I wondered what could you have been thinking? But it didn't matter. That idiot Guo Baokun is the worst among my retainers. He's only there because his father is smart. And if you were the one who beat him up, how could you have an ulterior motive?"
Fan Xian knew that the Crown Prince was talking of his court case. He laughed at himself. "Is that not a lack of experience? If I had known that it would be that easy to beat people in the capital, I would have beaten him right there at the prince's mansion."
Li Hongcheng was taken aback, and hurriedly waved the small fan in his hand. "That would not do. If you take things too far, there is no way I can defend you."
Fan Xian laughed and thanked him again, then asked who had invited him to come there that day. Li Hongcheng muttered to himself for a moment before speaking. "I can't hide it from you. Due to the relationship between our two families, I must explain some thing. Originally, the Second Prince wanted me to trick you in to meeting with me, to find a way to meet you naturally so as not to provoke your anger. But that would still be tricking you, so I wanted to say that tomorrow the Second Prince will be holding a banquet on the Liuhe River. You are the guest of honor; I am simply there to be company."
Fan Xian frowned. "I really don't understand. The Second Prince is of such respected status, and I am merely a scholar; why have I caught his eye?"
"Do you really not understand, or are you simply pretending not to?" Li Hongcheng tapped his nose and laughed. "All this game-playing will be your downfall."
Fan Xian laughed awkwardly, but did not respond.
Li Hongcheng noticed that there were no servants attending them anywhere inside the reception pavilion. "There's something else," he said earnestly. "When I first met you, I took a liking to you, and I can't bear to keep you in the dark. It seems to me that that would inevitably lead to distance between us, as I'm sure you'll agree. Now, His Majesty is in the prime of his life, but anyone who does not keep a long-term view of things will encounter difficulties, and so all eyes in the court are on the princes. The Eldest Prince is a natural fighter. But he is leading troops far away. Even though I am a child of the empress herself, my behavior has always been rather improper. Though my estate is impartial, to tell you the truth, among the princes, the Second Prince and I have always been on good terms."
Fan Xian was rather shocked. How could things be so different from what he had expected? In the works of historical fiction he had read in his previous life, written by the writer Eryue He, princes always had complex thoughts behind simple words. He wished he could better control his behavior, and not act in such a way that people gossiped about him. How could there be someone like the person in front of him, one who had always spoken honestly? This business of being a bastard child who usurped his legitimate brother was greatly taxing. How could one not go stark raving mad?
Noticing that his words seemed to scare Fan Xian, Li Hongcheng smiled awkwardly. "Do you dislike my bluntness? I'm speaking the truth. I don't know why either. It's good to see that you don't want to get caught up in that sort of trickery. I'm enticing you on behalf of the Second Prince. It's a bit like getting married - always a business of mutual consent."
Fan Xian was stunned. He looked into the Crown Prince's clear eyes, as if he wanted to see something hidden emerge from them. He could not figure out whether the Crown Prince was a true-of-heart nobleman, or simply used plain speaking as a strategy to get people on his side. But either way, the Crown Prince had clearly made his stance clear. Stark raving mad or not, insignificant Fan Xian had no power within the capital, and no allies. He did not dare tell the prince what he really thought. He smiled. "Just to be clear, why does the Second Prince want to see me?"
"For your wedding in October." Li Hongcheng still seemed to be very frank. He looked at him and smiled. "After the imperial exams next year, if it appears you have the capability, His Majesty will grant you the authority to supervise the estate. When it comes to us, this is a good thing. First of all, there is a lot less money coming in, and there are some inconvenient matters that need dealing with. Furthermore, I believe Count Sinan has been in charge of the Treasury for many years. He will definitely understand when the new takes over from the old, and he will certainly need to audit the accounts, and if that is the case, perhaps there will be some unexpected happy surprises."
Fan Xian said nothing. His eyebrows drooped but he did not seem disappointed in the least. Instead, it seemed as if he did not want to be regarded as a threat. "It's rather early," he said quietly. "The wedding isn't until October. I won't be able to get hold of things until next year or perhaps the year after that."
"You're right. That's why tomorrow is just a meal." Li Hongcheng looked at him earnestly. "How am I to repay you for your gift last time? You know, I'm telling you this now because I have great trust in you... perhaps once you have met the Second Prince tomorrow, you will have changed your mind."
Fan Xian laughed. The struggle between the Second Prince and the Crown Prince might not start in earnest for another decade. Getting someone as unremarkable as himself involved in it seemed to be making a very early start of things. He agreed, and saw the Crown Prince out of the manor. He returned to his father's study and sat on a chair by a desk. He stared at the brushes in the brush pot, furrowing his brows, deep in thought.
He had chosen Crown Prince Jing to cover up his business of assaulting Guo Baokun, and that gave Crown Prince Jing the opportunity to involve him in his own matters, because if one wanted to survive in the capital, one had stand behind someone. His father had always stood behind His Majesty, but he also said the future was a matter for the young.
Fan Xian wanted to stand behind someone, not necessarily behind the Second Prince, but... definitely against the Crown Prince. The reason was simple. Four years ago the empress had wanted him dead. Four years later, people in the palace still wanted him dead. And deep within the capital, it felt like he was an ant who could be crushed at any time.
Could that ant climb a tree?
The Second Prince had invited him to the Liujing River. Fan Xian had faked a smile when he heard the name of the place. Recently, he had been spending nights with Wan'er, and although they were sometimes sweet, there was little physical contact between them. After all, she was his fiancée, so she was bashful, and it would not be good for him to be too pushy. He thought of that night where he had touched her skin, smooth as jade, and he thought of her name, Si Lili, and his heart began to pound. He remembered that in his previous life he had read that intestines had been used as condoms in Europe in the Middle Ages. He started to wonder how one might manage that. But then he thought of something else. On the day that they had filed the lawsuit, why had that woman just suddenly happen to leave?
Law and order had always been well-kept in the capital, save for a few recent incidents caused by the Brute of Fan Manor. So the Fan estate's carriages were only accompanied by four guards, who slowly headed toward the western side of the city under the bright spring sunshine.
After they had passed Wangchun Gate, they walked down Niulan Street where he had beaten Guo Baokun. Fan Xian opened the curtain on his carriage and laughed. Teng Zijing was among the four guards. Three of them had been there that day, and when they heard the young master's laugh, they naturally knew why he was laughing. They laughed along with him.
There weren’t residences on Niulan Street, but there were a number of stores which had not long fallen into disrepair, so it had received another name: Bankruptcy Street. It was quiet there, no matter day or night, and there were no pedestrians. One might call it the best place to hold someone up and give them a sound beating.
Fan Xian looked outside, seeing the wide expanse of canopy tree leaves over his head. As he looked at sunlight above him, he wondered how he should act after meeting with the Second Prince. The Second Prince was likely to have a clear understanding of Count Sinan's power, and it was unlikely that he would make any excessive demands on him. He reckoned that this desire to meet came from a wish to lay the groundwork for events that might occur ten years from now.
As they continued on, Fan Xian suddenly frowned. He wasn't sure why, but something didn't feel right. As if there were something odd about his surroundings. Looking around the carriage, everything seemed calm, and there was nothing unusual.
Suddenly, his nose twitched, and he smelled a faint sweet smell.
It was the smell of "Kurenjian", a poison that the western barbarians extracted from frogs, and liked to use for their poison arrows!
"Get out of here!" shouted Fan Xian. He had already taken the lead and leapt from the carriage, grabbing hold of a guard next to him, and although he could not see who it was, the training he had received since childhood had left him with an acute sense of smell. But as he could sniff out this rare scent, that meant that the arrows were close by, and that the assassination attempt was about to begin!
In the moment that he leapt from the carriage, someone had thrown a large rock from somewhere down the end of an alley. It whistled through the air and firmly struck the carriage. The carriage splintered into countless pieces!