The spring winds brought people joy and urged on the horses. Fan Xian, who had been resting on Cang Mountain for an entire winter, finally decided to leave with his family. Altogether, they packed into six carriages, and that was only for a portion of the luggage. When descending the mountains, the likes of Guo Baokun were nowhere to be seen, and there were no other unpleasant happenings. All of the female family members seemed to be drunk on spring breeze.
Fan Xian was in excellent spirits. To him, this "hibernation" in Cang Mountain was a much-needed adjustment; he made much improvements in both martial and spiritual aspects. Gazing far ahead, he could see the foot of Cang Mountain was already turning green, and the sky seemed to be full of signs of life.
The sky was currently clear, but there were some dark clouds in the distance. Strangely, behind them, blue sky and white clouds could still be seen, giving viewers a sense of a heavy dark layer.
With the clopping of horse hooves, the carriages meandered down the mountain path. Having gone around the shaded side, the group was suddenly showered by intense sunlight. Piercing through the clouds, it was almost intimidating.
Turning his eyes back down to the earth, Fan Xian smiled to his wife. "Staying in the mountains for so long, you must be pent up."
Lin Wan’er asked, "Pent up about what?" Fan Xian wasn’t quite expecting that. "While the mountain is good, the sights are only snow and trees. Eventually you get tired of seeing them. Wan’er, do you miss the bustling life back in the capital?"
Lin Wan’er smiled meaningfully. "In the capital, it’s either the palace or one of the various courtyards. Besides, you know I didn’t live too long in the prime minister’s manor. I never had many chances to go outside. While the life in the mountains is a bit dull, it’s more comfortable than the sight of those palace walls." Knowing her husband cared for her very much, Wan’er felt a sense of warmth in her heart. She giggled, "Also because the mountains had you."
Before Fan Xian could react, Wan’er became shy and turned her face away.
Fan Xian laughed and thought to talk about something else. "After the spring examinations are over, I guess the Imperial court will send me on a diplomatic mission to Northern Qi."
It became quiet in the carriage. Only the sound of horses and the wheels could be heard coming in from outside. After a while, Lin Wan’er said, "Don’t worry, I will be in the capital."
Fan Xian thought for a moment and said, "I think I’m bringing Wang Qinian. If anything comes up, first ask father for advice. If Fei Jie is still in the capital, you can also go to him for help. I already conveyed everything to Teng Zijing. Of course…" He smiled. "Nothing should happen."
Once they returned to the capital, they discovered the remnants of the colored lanterns and the paper scraps from firecrackers. In the streets, people walked around in new clothing, intoxicated by the festive atmosphere. Fan Xian regretted going to the mountains and missing out on the lively festival.
Arriving at the Fan manor, there was more ruckus as they had to unload everything. The couple saluted their parents and met up with relatives. Fan Xian discovered that the Fan clan was exactly as they say. While no relatives held a high position in the Imperial court, they all seem to have a place in the various government buildings and led very comfortable lives.
Days later, Fan Xian first led Wan’er back to her manor and greeted his father-in-law and bid farewell to Dabao. Then he went to visit King Jing. With no time to rest, he was treated twice by vice-minister Ren Shao'an of Honglu Temple and vice-minister Xin Qiwu of Taichang Temple; as the two were officials who had been through much with Fan Xian, he could not refuse them.
Soon, it was the second month of the lunar year. The various aspiring students already entered the capital.
Those with money stayed at inns. Some lived with relatives. Those without money made do in the bookstores in the suburbs of the capital. Eventually the dormitories of the Imperial college opened to accommodate those students without a place to live.
The examination was held by the Board of Rites, and students were to take it on one of the three days of the second month: the ninth, twelfth, or the fifteenth day. When Fan Xian got there, the time was already close. But fortunately, his position didn’t hold much substance; it was something His Majesty came up with. The Imperial college never had any intention to assign him anything anyway so naturally he had no need to go to lectures; it was a quiet life.
Occasionally the other students would come to his room and look at him with greedy eyes, resembling a pack of hungry wolves.
With a sharp noise, Fan Xian opened the fan in his hand and started stirring up the still-cold spring air. The students took the hint and backed off. Fan Xian smiled at them,. "Everyone, I am still young, I wouldn’t take on a responsibility as important as teaching. Should you continue to bring this up, you will embarrass me."
The students took note of Fan Xian’s interesting way of speech. For someone of his reputation, a fifth-ranked official at the age of seventeen, Fan Xian wasn’t the type to look down on those below him. That took away some layers of intimidation. Someone joked, "Sir Fan, you were the one who mentioned style at Yishi Inn, and now you are here waving a fan."
Fan Xian laughed, "So what? I simply enjoy messing around. You shouldn’t hold what I say against me."
All the examiners and related personnel had been chosen. Fan Xian’s age and rank alone were enough to be somewhat intimidating, but he was still far from matching those important roles. Nevertheless, his fame as a poet had spread far and wide. Even though he swore to never compose poetry again, few took him seriously. The students always wanted to bait something out of him. Should they really obtain something, it would be an unexpected reward for them.
The "Banxianzhai Poetry Collection" was already a national bestseller, which was why all the students from outside the capital were all curious about this young man. Some were more straightforward than others, and managed to find the location of Fan manor. But upon arriving at the gate, staring at the stone lions, even they couldn’t gather the courage to knock when they saw what kind of household Fan Xian came from.
Only a few days into his stay at the Imperial College, Fan Xian followed the Fourth Bureau to check up on the various students who had come to the capital to take the examination. He discovered much suffering among the poorer students. Despite the Imperial court ordering all the books stores and local temples to accommodate them, life could still be difficult for some. Some of them didn't even have enough money to buy food.
Remembering Wu Zhu’s story back in Danzhou, Fan Xian was slightly shaken. He took some silver out of the book department’s budget and asked the shopkeepers at Qingyu Hall to make those poor students’ lives more comfortable. While not an earth-shattering act of kindness, Fan Xian still wouldn’t let those students know he was their benefactor. Upon returning home, Fan Xian complained about this situation to his father, who had been promoted to Director of the Board of Rites.
Fan Jian was a tad surprised that his son cared for such matters. Other than feeling glad, he was more assured regarding Fan Xian’s safety and future.
On the seventh day of the second month, two days before the examination, Fan Xian felt bored and snuck out from the Imperial College. He really couldn’t put up with those students who weren’t diligent yet still brought him poems. Some of those students were old enough to be his father, which made things quite awkward.
Outside the city walls, Fan Xian watched the clear water in the moat and began to relax. In fact, until recently, not very many people in the capital knew what he looked like, so it was very liberating for him to walk in the streets, especially under the red walls of the palace. He eyed those walls and the intimidating guards standing on them, "So what? I snuck in once."
The tower in the far corner belonged to the Imperial troops; it was where Yan Xiaoyi launched his arrow from.
Fan Xian withdrew his gaze and shook his head. Yan Xiaoyi had been relocated to the north as a general. If he were to go to Northern Qi, he would have to pass through Yan Xiaoyi’s domain. Naturally, Fan Xian did not want to expose himself as the assassin on that night.
He arrived at Tianhe Avenue, not too far from the palace. The flowing waters to the side were still warm, while the golden characters on the building gate shined. Fan Xian pretended not to notice and passed by.
"Say, Sir Fan, to think it would be so hard for me to see you. You sure have become a celebrity in the capital."
Fan Xian turned around with an embarrassed smile. Crown Prince Jing sat on top of his horse, smiling at Fan Xian. Fan Xian saluted him. "It is an honor to see you, Prince. I only wanted some peace and quiet. It was sheer coincidence which brought me to you."
"Not coincidence." Li Hongcheng waved his horsewhip, "I chased you all the way from the Imperial College."
Fan Xian was a bit startled, but immediately regained his composure, "What is the matter, Prince?"
The prince smiled, "Today, someone wishes to invite you out for a feast."
"Who?" Fan Xian asked bluntly. Something seemed wrong.
"The Second Prince." Li Hongcheng replied.
Fan Xian shook his head in frustration. This second prince, who had never made contact before, now made his move. There was no way Fan Xian could get out of this one.