secretly adjusted his zhenqi, readying himself for any moment.
At that moment, the sound of instruments could be faintly heard in the distance. Among the solemn palace music, a eunuch yelled out, "His Majesty has arrived." The one holding most authority in the world, the only master of Qing, His Majesty the emperor walked with the empress came forward. With bright smiles, they stood next to the dragon throne.
"We wish Your Majesty a very long life."
The Qing subjects all knelt down, while members of the envoys bowed. The tense atmosphere had been replaced by somberness.
The emperor sat up high, the empress next to him. The prince too had his own seat two steps below his parents. For an occasion like this, the other princes wouldn’t be here. The emperor scanned his subjects and said, "You may rise."
They did, and the feast officially began. The envoy from Northern Qi went up first and sang their praises along with some recitals of the friendship between the two nations. Dongyi’s Yun Zhilan came up next and expressionlessly said a few words.
The empress smiled and quietly murmured to His Majesty, "This one from Dongyi is quite haughty." This exchange couldn’t not be heard by anyone else, so it was rather direct.
"He is the head disciple of Sigu Sword. If he couldn’t be haughty, he probably wouldn’t have to courage to swing his sword either, especially not here."
The palace girls served up food, and the various officials began to eat. None dared to say anything. His Majesty hadn’t spoken yet, so all were quiet.
Fan Xian uncomfortably lowered his head and inconspicuously observed the people sitting across from him. The table which was vacant a moment ago was now occupied by an old man. Despite his age showing on his face, his eyes were clear, and his wrinkles seemed to be hiding countless wisdom. The old man wore a cloud-like white robe which hid his short stature. Without question, that must have been Zhuang Mohan.
Fan Xian hadn’t seen him take a seat. "So," he reasoned, "he must have arrived with the emperor. If that was case, then the rumors must be true. The empress must favor this Zhuang Mohan, who stayed in the palace the entire time."
While Fan Xian secretly observed the old man, both the emperor and empress were observing him. The empress took a small sip of liquor and said, "That young man is Fan Xian, the future son-in-law."
His Majesty smiled, "He certainly is handsome, with a quite a reputation in poetry, not to mention today in court, where two shaoqings complimented his talents. I am most curious as to why the prince would go out of his way to establish good relations."
The empress’s smile was a bit forced, "Perhaps the prince understood the importance of having good relations? Besides, Fan Xian is soon to be the prime minister’s son-in-law."
"Oh, good relations?" His Majesty didn’t quite smile, nor did he look at the empress. Instead, His Majesty stared at his son sitting below, "Looks like he finally gets it now."
While there was just a hint of dissatisfaction, the empress felt His Majesty was in a good mood today, since he rarely gave such a direct evaluation of the prince. She said happily, "As he grows up, he’ll come to realize things."
The emperor only smiled without saying anything.
Only a short while after the main feast, Fan Xian was drinking nonstop. Whether it was due to his nervousness or something else, no one knew. The alcohol served was more or less the same type as yellow wine; it wasn’t very strong and tasted sweet and sour. Drinking it, Fan Xian didn’t feel like it was too much. But in the eyes of the various officials present, Fan Xian was drinking like a wild animal. Even Zhang Zigan had enough and warned him, "Sir Fan, you mustn’t drink anymore. Should you misbehave in front of His Majesty, it would be a major crime."
Hearing he was being called "Sir Fan", Fan Xian realize he was being reminded. After all, this was not Liujing River but the most solemn Imperial palace, and he wasn’t here to drink but to be a civil servant. Fan Xian smiled on the inside and adjusted his zhenqi, moving all his drunkenness onto his face. Slight confusion clouded over his eyes. He lowered his voice and said, "I’m not going to lie to you, sir, I’m actually this nervous. So it would be better for me to drink some now in order to relax."
Seeing Fan Xian’s drunken state, Zhang Zigan could only smile uneasily, "The prime minister claimed to be sick, and you father also isn’t here, leaving you under my care. If you really drink yourself into a mess, how am I supposed to explain?"
In the past few days, the envoy from Northern Qi were quite miserable under the hands of Honglu Temple. Seeing Fan Xian being drunk, they looked at each other and decided to take revenge. Those of the envoy all knew the reason behind Honglu Temple’s viciousness, which was thanks to Fan Xian’s plotting. While they didn’t know exactly what it was he plotted, they hated the way Fan Xian stayed silent and only occasionally showed a plotting expression on his handsome face.
Now that the negotiations were over, regret would accomplish nothing. Chang Ninghou smiled shadily and stood up. He saluted His Emperor sitting up high, "Your Majesty, both sides had worked hard over the negotiations. May I raise a toast to the officials of Honglu Temple as a sign of friendship?"
While he spoke, the envoy from Dongyi knew what he was plotting. But they only observed and did not chose to get involved.
Perhaps it was due to them sitting up high, neither the emperor nor the empress noticed Fan Xian and therefore was unaware of Northern Qi’s scheme. With a chuckle, His Majesty gave the permission. Even the prince added in, "Enemies on the court, friends off the court… although, still enemies at a feast."
The prince was merely expressing himself; he didn’t know how the situation would develop. The various officials of Honglu Temple, on the other hand, became worried. They had already accepted Fan Xian as one of their own, they did not want Northern Qi to intentionally get him any drunker. But due to them sitting far away, they had no way of helping.
With a smile, Fan Xian drank with the various officials of Northern Qi. Inside, he felt uneasy. Recently, the eldest princess began making a move on Danbo Bookstore, raising the price of paper in order to lower the price on books. Such a simple two-step method made Zhang Sizhe and the shopkeeper quite dispirited. But Fan Xian knew the actual scheme was yet to come. And what he was about to do today requires the help of alcohol.
It was difficult to not get drunk, but it was even more difficult to pretend to be drunk. This was the first strong feeling since the feast began. Northern Qi’s side was about done. Six of the eight members already collapsed. Finally, even Chang Ninghou no longer cared for his position and passed out still hanging onto Fan Xian’s arm.
Up to now, His Majesty had been chatting with the empress and Zhuang Mohan. He smiled and said to himself, "It’s been a long time since the palace was this lively."
Zhuang Mohan had been silent, only giving out the occasional reply when asked questions. He appeared to have just noticed Fan Xian who was holding up Northern Qi’s Chang Ninghou. Zhuang Mohan asked, "That young sir over there, would that be Mister Fan?"
Zhuang Mohan could hardly believe his eyes. This young genius who became famous for a mere three poems turned out to be a drunkard.
His Majesty also seem to be irritated at the sight. He raised his voice and yelled out, "Fan Xian."
Everyone in the palace had been paying attention to what went on around the dragon throne in case something happened. When His Majesty spoke, the entire palace went quiet, except for Fan Xian, still yelling out "Victory! Victory!"
It seemed to be a southern thing to say; this little Sir Fan Xian really drank too much.
"Fan Xian!" Seeing how sloppy the brat became, the prince also scolded angrily. After all, Fan Xian being a deputy was the decision made by the Eastern Palace. It was the only reason why he was allowed to be here. Fan Xian embarrassing himself today wouldn’t translate well for the prince.
Having detected the abnormal silence around him, Fan Xian stupidly stood still and looked around with confused eyes. But his handsome face still carried a trace of wildness.
"Who’s calling my name?"
The Qing officials around were all well-acquainted with both the Fan and Lin households. Hearing what Fan Xian just said, they wanted to stuff his mouth and throw him in a carriage and send him right back to Fan manor.
To the surprise of everyone, His Majesty, hearing a reply which only should be heard in a restaurant, wasn’t angry. On the contrary, he laughed and said, "It was I."
Hearing the emperor speak was enough to make anyone come to their senses, regardless of a real or a fake drunk. Fan Xian quickly bowed and apologized, "I… I deserve ten thousand deaths, I… drank too much."
He let go of Chang Ninghou who had been holding onto his arm. The official from Northern Qi collapsed onto the ground. Seeing his miserable state, the Qing officials were all quite satisfied and smiled. The only two people from Northern Qi who were not drunk quickly got Chang Ninghou back to his seat, while the palace girls came to give him a tonic to clear intoxication.
His Majesty scolded, "I know you drank too much, or else I would condemn you for misbehaving in front of the emperor."
With difficulty, Fan Xian forced himself to stay in a bowing position. He explained, "Not to excuse myself, but these guests had come from afar. If I don’t show them a good time, I won’t fulfill my duty as the deputy."
"Look at that," His Majesty turned to speak to the empress, "Still claiming not to excuse himself. It wouldn’t be impossible for him to say I made him drink."
The empress knew the emperor held a soft spot for Princess Chen, but she didn’t know if His Majesty would do the same for Fan Xian out of association. So she merely smiled, neither speaking for nor against Fan Xian.
"Fan Xian." This was the third time the emperor had called out that name. The various officials all listened closely, noticing something in His Majesty’s tone. Seemed like the Fan household had some special connections with the royal family.
His Majesty said blandly, "Your household has some special connections with me. In my eyes, you’re but a member of a younger generation, not a civil servant. When I speak, you should keep your sharp mouth shut! Did you think I didn’t know what was said at the tavern? Young one, do you really think you could look down on everyone just because your mouth is sharp?"
It was a lecture on the surface, but there were some hidden compliments. The officials present weren’t stupid and understood.
And as expected, His Majesty said lightly, "Taking advantage of this clear night near the end of summer, with both the ruler and his subjects together, Fan Xian, with your reputation in poetry, compose a poem to atone for your misbehavior."
The officials all knew His Majesty was trying to save Fan household’s dignity and also take the chance to show what kind of person this eighth-ranked functionary was. However, they feared that Fan Xian would let this chance go to waste due to his drunkenness.
Fan Xian was in fact a little out of it, but he heard His Majesty’s words clearly. He saluted and said, "Your Majesty, I can only compose some inferior sentences, I dare not disgrace myself in front of Mister Zhuang Mohan."
As soon as he said that, all eyes were on the old man as they realized this wasn’t just letting Fan Xian show off; it was also in order to prove to Northern Qi and Dongyi that Qing also has the talent to rival Zhuang Mohan!
Fan Xian’s reputation as a poet had echoed throughout the capital for months. It was only due to his reluctance to compose more did his fame die down a bit. Hearing Fan Xian bring up Zhuang Mohan, the various officials believed he and His Majesty had plotted this from the beginning to deal a blow to Northern Qi.
Actually though, Fan Xian was only guessing; his experience in his previous life was not enough to see through the emperor’s intentions. However, based on the literature practices of Qing, Fan Xian believed His Majesty would not settle for being treated as a barbarian by Northern Qi.
Since this Zhuang Mohan arrived in the capital, he had been staying in the palace. Despite the empress and various Ladies admiring him, His Majesty was bound to feel unpleasant. For some reason, there were no great scholars in Qing, so a copier like Fan Xian had been pushed onto the stage.
Fan Xian knew he didn’t guess wrong, for with his sharp eyesight, he was able to see His Majesty’s gaze, which was deep and full of admiration.
At the same time, His Majesty was warning Fan Xian, warning him to come up with a good poem and not to lose Qing’s dignity.
"Then you compose a poem and have Mister Zhuang Mohan judge it. If it’s not good, then you shall drink as punishment." The empress smiled. She knew what the emperor was thinking and helped out Fan Xian.
Now that things had developed to this point, what else could Fan Xian do? He walked back to his seat, disregarding his drunkenness, and drank another cup. Tasting the sour wine, he frowned hard.
The Qing officials knew he was performing under pressure, so they counted silently. After counting to fifteen, Fan Xian’s eyes flashed. With a bright smile, he went off, "In front of the wine, I sing a song. A lifetime really is not that long. Life is like the dew before the rising sun. Bygone days did not bring me much fun. You are the talented ones in your prime. I think of you all the time. For you, I am willing to bow, quietly chanting my poem up ‘til now.
My distinguished guests will come for dinner.
I will entertain them with a flute, a drum, and a zither. The bright moon shines all around. But how and when can I take it down? How joyful we are to chat and eat during our reunion? I am grateful to you for your help on several occasions. The moon is so bright with a few stars around. Some crows and magpies fly southbound. They circle around the same tree thrice. Which branch do they perch for the night? No mountain is too steep and tall. No sea is too deep for my cause. Learn from Master Zhou for valuing all talents. Then people will come to my corner with enthusiasm."
Every time Fan Xian come up with a poem, it was as if he was beating someone up. As soon as the poem came out, all was quiet.
The poem he just recited out belonged to Cao Cao. Fan Xian did some editing, taking out a few verses, before chucking it out. Coincidentally, the story of Master Zhou also existed in this world, and winning over people’s support happened to be in accordance to the emperor’s wishes. It’s just that Master Zhou actually became an emperor himself.
A long silence later, in the great palace hall, people cheered, "Fantastic poem!"
The emperor was pleased. He turned to Zhuang Mohan and asked quietly, "What does Mister Zhuang think of this poem?"
Zhuang Mohan’s expression was indifferent. In his life, he had experienced such scenario countless times, and judged countless poems, which was how he came to be respected by all across the land. Even many of His Majesty’s own subjects read his works. Most importantly, people looked up to his demeanor, his insight, and of course, his knowledge.
"It was a good poem." Zhuang Mohan said quietly, picking up a peanut, "A good poem indeed. There was some breakage, but its content is its strength. For poets, the intention comes first, while content is of the most importance. Fan Xian was able to achieve both. Never had I thought that Southern Qing could produce such talent."
Fan Xian smiled, he didn’t feel anything special about this old scholar, but he didn’t like how Zhuang Mohan had acted. He made a shallow salute and went back to his seat with staggering steps.
Some officials were still bickering among themselves regarding the poem. Under normal circumstances, it should have ended here. But today’s atmosphere was strange. Someone said coldly:
"It was improper for Mister Zhuang to say ‘Southern Qing’. As a great scholar known throughout the world, you were unable to see Sir Fan’s abilities. There are many scholars in this country, and Sir Fan is among the best of the best. Not to mention he was able to compose within fifteen counts. I really don’t know, in Northern Qi, who can accomplish the same?"
That was very inappropriate as well as disrespectful, especially at a national feast. The emperor of Qing did not expect such a literary matter progress so far. His Majesty frowned, not realizing where such insolence came from. But whoever it was, they were speaking on Qing’s behalf, not committing a crime.
Fan Xian stopped in his tracks and saluted Zhuang Mohan for real this time. Zhuang Mohan coughed twice and was helped up by a young eunuch. He looked at Fan Xian calmly and said, "Young Fan’s name has already spread to the Qi capital. I have often read his ‘I have come five thousand kilometers to visit the sad autumn’."
Suddenly, Fan Xian noticed a hint of sadness in the old scholar’s gaze, as well as a determination which seemed to cut off all paths of escape. Suddenly, Fan Xian was greatly shaken as he felt a danger he hadn’t detected until now slowly approach. Despite the alcohol, he sharply turned and found that face which started it all.
Guo Baokun, who suffered a punch from Fan Xian. Guo Baokun, the one who was close to the prince. Guo Baokun of the palace also received the right to come to the feast. But it was obvious that the prince had no idea he would say all that. Both the prince and Fan Xian squinted at Guo Baokun’s somewhat prideful face, not knowing what he was up to.
Fan Xian felt danger, but he kept smiling.
Again, Zhuang Mohan coughed twice. After saluting the emperor, he said lightly, "This old man came from the great Qi, but his heart belongs to the literature of the world. I wish not to damage the friendship between the two nations, but there are certain things I must say."
His Majesty gradually calmed down. "Please go ahead."
As His Majesty spoke, the empress raised her cup. She was about to say something but stopped herself.
"In a sharp gale from the wide sky, apes are whimpering, birds are flying homeward over the clear lake and white sand, and leaves are dropping down like the spray of a waterfall, while I watch the long river always rolling on. I have come five thousand kilometers to visit the sad autumn. And with my hundred years of woe, I climb this height alone. Ill fortune has laid a bitter frost on my temples, heart-ache and weariness are a thick dust in my wine." The entire hall was absolutely silent. No one knew what shocking things this great scholar would say next.
"The first four verses of that poem was superb."