As they got into the carriage, the roads were quiet. After a while, Fan Ruoruo began to giggle. "What's so funny?" asked Fan Xian.
Fan Ruoruo tried to stifle her laughter, eventually calming down. "I just thought about what you said earlier. It was really mean."
"What did I say?" Fan Xian had said a lot at the restaurant, going completely against his usual principle of keeping a low profile. It felt improper.
"That bit about - you know, how they play around all day, all skin and bones, holding those fans, and was that really strength?" Fan Ruoruo imitated his tone of voice, and couldn't prevent a smile from creeping across her face.
Fan Sizhe laughed foolishly, but once he realized that neither of his siblings were paying him any attention, he was puzzled.
Fan Xian laughed bitterly. "Strength of character is a good thing, but it's not something exclusive to scholars. When I saw the snooty looks on their faces, it didn't sit well with me. They spend the whole day slacking off and getting into pointless debates. They don't take the imperial exams, or sit and keep records with Guo. Those bigwigs like to keep a foot in both camps. They just like the image of being a scholar. They have no real prospects."
Hearing this, Fan Ruoruo couldn't stop herself from laughing. No one spoke like her brother did, and maybe there was nobody else who could understand what he meant.
"When you were talking to Crown Prince Jing earlier, you certainly had some misgivings." Fan Ruoruo wanted to know what her brother's true opinion was on the scholars.
"No misgivings. It's just that I spoke too gently." Fan Xian smiled. "I'm not against that sort of establishment, and I don't think that scholars shouldn't go there. But I've always felt that brothel patrons are brothel patrons. If you want to go to a place like that and still act like you're a scholar, then it's like being a whore and building a monument to your virginity."
"Don't be so rude," said Fan Ruoruo bashfully. In her view, her brother could be counted as a gifted scholar - how was he not scolding himself with this sort of talk?
Fan Xian laughed out loud. "There's nobody else here anyway." He looked at his sister with a sudden seriousness. "Remember, whoever you marry, make sure it's not a scholar."
Ruoruo could not keep her calm expression any longer. "What sort of nonsense is that?"
"That He Zongw
ei, what is he doing now?"
Fan Sizhe chimed in. "He's a student at the Imperial College, he was born poor, but they say he is a student of Zeng Wenxiang, the grand academician of the archives. He's always had some recognition for his talent, he's written a few verses... everybody reckons that he'll be at least third rank at the imperial examinations next year."
Fan Xian frowned. "He seems honest and considerate," he said to Ruoruo, "but I think he's hiding something. I don't like people like that. Be careful, don't get involved with him."
Fan Ruoruo nodded without the slightest hesitation. As she saw it, Fan Xian was her brother and her tutor, the person she relied on most.
Fan Xian thought about He Zongwei some more. Since he was already a well-renowned scholar in the capital, if he wanted to ingratiate himself with the influential families, he had plenty to choose from. If it weren't because of his relationship with his sister, he wouldn't have appeared - did he want to leave a good impression? He smiled. Being able to discover his identity in so short a time, and discover his place in Ruoruo's heart - this so-called scholar really was remarkable.
He turned his head and glanced at Fan Sizhe, who was leaning on the window of the carriage, looking out. He felt a slight chill in his blood. "You and Sizhe should go home first," he said to Ruoruo. "I want to take a stroll around the capital."
Fan Sizhe lifted his head from the window, his face somewhat vacant.
Fan Xian looked at him, and thought back to when he was 12 years old and faced with his own assassination. Then he thought about how his rival was merely a 12-year-old child, dragged into these dangerous affairs, and he couldn't help but sigh. "You're so young... I don't know what to say."
Fan Sizhe hid behind his sister, somewhat scared. He had always been daring, but for some reason, every time he saw Fan Xian's gentle smile, he felt afraid. "What are you saying?"
Fan Xian had originally thought that the fight in the restaurant was deliberately caused by the young boy to make him look bad in the eyes of Crown Prince Jing. If he wanted to know what the opinion of the prince's office was when it came to him inheriting the Fan family's property, it had worked - because the restaurant was one he had chosen, and the incident was something he had provoked. But when he looked at Fan Sizhe's blank expression, he doubted his own judgement. Could it be that everything that had happened at the restaurant really was an accident?
The carriage moved slowly on. Fan Xian knew that of the six bodyguards who followed him and his siblings, and least two of them were men from the Liu clan. He said nothing.
Fan Ruoruo remained quiet, her head lowered, saying nothing. As she thought on these family matters, she felt gloomy.
The carriage reached the street where Fan Manor stood, and Ruoruo led her little brother into the manor. Fan Xian continued on with his tour of the capital. At first Fan Ruoruo had wanted to go with him, but there was something he wanted to do later, and he had to refuse her with a smile. He looked into Fan Sizhe's eyes, and told him that he was not to speak of anything to do with Dream of the Red Chamber; he was unsure whether he would heed his words.
Teng Zijing sat in the carriage, looking at his young master. He wasn't sure when he had decided to follow this 16-year-old boy. He was certainly a promising lad. Perhaps the spring weather in Danzhou had lifted his mood; perhaps he had been influenced by the youngster on their travels to the capital; perhaps the two had reached some sort of agreement.
Fan Xian thought a while, propping up his chin on his hand. "I asked father to send you. I didn't think you'd have to get us out of trouble so soon. Don't blame me."
Teng Zijing laughed. "Young master, you are out of the ordinary," he replied respectfully. "It is naturally of great benefit to me to follow you."
Fan Xian smiled. "How am I out of the ordinary? Back in the restaurant, I was mouthing off like any clueless youth."
Teng Zijing tried to figure out what he meant. "Young master," he replied carefully, "I understand what you are thinking. I believe this matter has nothing to do with you."
The carriage had stopped, and the cool breeze entered silently, refreshing their minds. Fan Xian looked Teng Zijing in the eye. "I also hope it has nothing to do with him," he said gently.