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.