Share your thoughts on the comments and express some love on Novel Updates. Thanks!
De Wang ordered the imperial bodyguards to chase after her, but when they raced outside the main gate, there wasn’t even a trace of the person’s shadow.
When he came back to report, Zong Yue’s face grew a little colder.
“There’s always a way to figure out the identities of those who leave the government residence. Go and investigate!”
“Yes, this slave will go now.”
At this time, Du Ming Liang, Magistrate Du, had already welcomed them from inside, saluting from afar.
Zong Yue collected his emotions, recovered his usual stoic visage, and strode inside with the other party.
De Wang was very efficient. As soon as Zong Yue sat down on the main seat at the third hall, he returned and whispered to Zong Yue’s ear.
Du Ming Liang discerned the anomaly and gathered his courage by raising a cautious question: “Third Highness, what’s the matter?”
The hand beneath Zong Yue’s sleeve fiddled with the prayer beads, and he uttered indifferently: “It’s nothing. Just bumped into an old friend and heard that he is the nephew of Lord Du’s personal advisor……”
“Advisor Hou? This lowly official has already sent someone to call him here.” In the government residence, only Hou Fei carried the title of advisor, and Du Ming Liang was heavily reliant on him.
When Hou Fei arrived, Du Ming Liang was having tea with Zong Yue.
Zong Yue occupied the main seat, while Du Ming Liang didn’t sit on the right side but instead accompanied him at the lower left side. This way of seating was unusual. Hou Fei’s eyes flashed and he clasped his hands in ceremony.
“Advisor Hou, this is His Highness, the Third Prince.”
“This scholar has come to meet His Highness, the Third Prince.”
“Advisor Hou, His Highness has some questions to ask you. You should answer them truthfully.”
Zong Yue shot a cursory glance at De Wang.
De Wang smiled as he elaborated: “Lord Du need not be so formal. Just now, the master noticed a person outside the main gate, and this person had the chance to meet the master before. He is brimming with talent and is well-versed in Buddhist teachings, so the master originally wanted to invite him as a protege1 in the manor to discuss Buddhist teachings with. However, when we sought him out again, he was already gone. Who would have thought that we would meet him here? Unfortunately, the other party left in too much of a hurry, so I asked the servants below to inquire around and learned that this person is Advisor Hou’s junior. That’s why Advisor Hou is here now.”
“It’s a great thing to be favored by the Third Highness. Advisor Hou should quickly order someone to find that junior of yours.”
Cold sweat trickled down Advisor Hou’s forehead. He bowed and complied, “This scholar will retreat and order someone to bring him here.”
“Young Sir, what happened? That seems to be Gentleman Fan.”
Feng Sheng gazed out the carriage window and saw Fan Jin Chuan treading back with Xiao Qi and another servant, appearing as though he was turning back for something.
She wanted to call out to the other person, but recalling that there was a tiger eyeing her like his prey from behind, she could only urge Uncle Yu to hurry up and leave.
After traveling a long way off, Feng Sheng gradually calmed down, caressing the prayer beads under her sleeve with a frown.
She was uncertain whether the other party had caught sight of her beads or not. Then again, she wasn’t at all vigilant against the possibility of chancing upon that third prince again. But it was useless to mull over it excessively, and other thoughts had already conquered her head.
To her surprise, that pedant Fan Jin Chuan was one of Court Elder Song’s disciples, and the place of his assumption of office was actually Taizhou.
When the carriage reached the inn, Feng Sheng rubbed her brow and disembarked.
Before she could even steady herself, Zhi Qiu arrived with someone in a hurry.
It was Hou Fei.
“Go in and talk.”
After briefing her about the situation, Hou Fei asked worriedly, “Feng Sheng, what exactly did you do to offend that third prince? That eunuch’s words may have seemed ordinary, but his crafty smile implied otherwise. It was never as simple as wanting to invite you into the manor as a protege. Does he know that you’re a woman? How were you even acquainted?”
Feng Sheng stared at him and said with a smile, “Uncle Hou, you’re just confused.”
Hou Fei, who was pacing back and forth, halted his tracks.
In a moment, he sighed heavily, “Yes, I’m just confused. You’re the only daughter your father has. He treated you like a jewel, and now that something happened to your father, if you ever……”
“Was Uncle Hou trying to protect Feng Sheng by refusing to see Uncle Yu before? Were you afraid I’d seek you out after setting foot in Yangzhou, neither overlook nor spare you2, and incur disaster upon myself? In the end, you simply poured cold water on me; you desired for my tenacity to wither, for me to settle meekly in Shaoxing.”
Hou Fei pinched his beard, squinted at her, and chuckled helplessly: “Nothing can be hidden from you.”
Feng Sheng breathed a sigh of relief and smiled even more brightly, “Regarding how Feng Sheng and the third prince met, there were things that happened along the way that I can’t explicitly say, so I’ll tell Uncle Hou when I have a chance in the future. As for this third prince——”
She poised herself up and plodded forward and back, peering out the window at the bustling pedestrians.
“Great Zhou learned from the previous dynasty’s mistakes and did not adopt a system of separation and feudalism, but the princes are still under strict supervision. Besides, he’s a prince. If I’m invited into his manor as a protege, what can I do?”
When she uttered the line, ‘what can I do’, she turned and faced Hou Fei with her mouth curled upward, apparently not taking it to heart.
“But in the end you’re a……”
He swallowed the remaining word, ‘woman’, when his eyes confronted Fang Feng Sheng’s calm gaze.
“I still feel that this person’s intention isn’t completely out of good will. It’s better to avoid him if you can. But……”
Hou Fei trudged a few more steps and said, “If you really want to investigate your father’s case, this man will be a good ladder for you. The third prince has been idle, studying Buddhism with great attention. All other princes have already been sent to court on official business, but only he seems to be in no hurry. This time, His Majesty was distressed and passed a decree commanding him to enter the court. But, with such a character, I’m afraid it won’t give you much help.”
Feng Sheng blinked, “Didn’t Uncle Hou tell me to go back and stop investigating further?”
“Will you listen to what I have to say?”
Feng Sheng snickered, “Of course I won’t listen.”
When Hou Fei saw her express herself like this, he felt as though time had turned backwards, his eyes laden with reminiscence and recollection.
After a while, he sighed, “If you can, I hope you will never interfere in this matter, but if you insist on not listening, this third prince might be able to help you step a little higher.”
“If it were before, perhaps I would’ve considered this third prince, but now-——”
“I’ve got other plans! Alright, Uncle Hou, let’s go.”
Hou Fei eyed her questioningly.
Feng Sheng wanted to laugh again. It was her first time witnessing the always calculating and astute Hou Fei like this.
“I’ll help you get rid of this person first.”
On the way to the government residence, Zhi Qiu asked worriedly, “Miss, you know why the third prince is looking for you, so why are you still going?”
Feng Sheng nudged her forehead: “One, I’m the one who brought this to Uncle Hou, if I don’t go, he won’t be able to deliver; two, as long as I don’t admit it, the third prince won’t lay bare the entanglement between us; and finally, I have to thank Uncle Yu. With Uncle Yu helping me with this, who dares to say I’m not a man? You think they will strip my clothes off me to check?”
Zhi Qiu’s gaze fell on Feng Sheng’s neck and her bleakness transformed into a smile: “This servant actually forgot about this. Uncle Yu is truly amazing. The disguise technique is so exquisite. If someday this servant can make one for myself and Zhi Chun, this servant will no longer worry about pretending to be a man but not looking like one.”
“Who said you needed to improve your male disguise? Besides, acting like a man isn’t something a mere fake Adam’s apple can compensate.”
It would have to take years and years of blending into a man’s identity, from walking, to sitting, to sleeping, and even to speaking. Fang Yan had also raised Feng Sheng as a son, and she often wandered around in boy’s clothes to perfect this skill.
At that moment, the carriage stopped. Feng Sheng straightened her expression and said, “You stay outside with Uncle Yu, I’ll go in with Uncle Hou.”
Hou Fei led Feng Sheng all the way to the Bin Xing Pavilion on the right side of the third hall, a place where the government residence specialized in receiving honored guests.
There were more than ten imperial bodyguards rooted outside the door, and when they saw him lead the person inside, they reached out a hand to bar him.
De Wang emerged from inside, “His Highness will only see this Gentleman Fang.”
Hou Fei looked at Feng Sheng with concern in his eyes, arched his hands, and left.
De Wang led Feng Sheng in and kept peeking at her in between walks.
Feng Sheng asked, “What is eunuch looking at?”
De Wang was slightly bewildered, gave her another quick glance, and smiled as he asked, “Miss, you really don’t remember me?”
Feng Sheng stopped and pointed the fan at her nose, “Miss? Is Eunuch talking about me? Although this young man looks a little handsome and has thus been admired by young ladies since childhood, this is the first time I’ve been called a miss. Since you serve by His Highness’ side, this young man will pretend this never happened. One should know that a scholar would rather die than be disgraced!”
De Wang was taken aback.
Just then, a voice bellowed from inside, “What’s taking so long? Get in here!”
De Wang hastily walked in, followed by Feng Sheng.
Feng Sheng still felt herself palpitating as she affronted Zong Yue’s imposing presence.
This man was too volatile. Feng Sheng had at least three encounters with him, and in all three, she each displayed a different side of herself. But one thing was for certain, although this man’s temper was unpredictable, he was always able to aptly restrain his emotions so that others couldn’t perceive his inner turmoil.
Based on her previous experience, she had envisioned him to be so enraged that it wouldn’t be surprising if he swallowed her up. However, he was instead leisurely leaning against the wooden armchair, one arm propped on the armrest with a teacup in hand, half-looking at her.
The corners of Feng Sheng’s mouth stiffened a bit as she faced those rippling eyes, but she swiftly cupped her hands in obeisance, bowed, and shouted a greeting to the Third Highness.
There was no call from above, so Feng Sheng could only remain bent.
Commoners had to kneel when they saw an official, but those who bore scholarly merits were spared from kneeling. They could instead bow as a salute. However, to show respect, when facing a person of noble status or an elder, one could only straighten up if the other person acquiesced.
“What is the Third Highness inviting this scholar for? This scholar heard that the Third Highness had the chance to meet this scholar, but this scholar has really never met the Third Highness.”
“Still claiming that you haven’t met this highness?”
“This scholar has indeed never met.”
“Fang Feng Sheng, how dare you! It’s fine if you don’t kneel when you see this highness, but you still pretend you know nothing.”
After that cold shout, De Wang had already wanted to kick her head outside, but Feng Sheng instead stood with fortitude.
“Is Your Highness addressing this scholar? This scholar’s surname is indeed Fang, but this one is not Fang Feng Sheng. This scholar’s surname is Fang, given name Feng Fu, courtesy name Shen Yan, preparing for the imperial exams on the twenty-third year of Jia Long. The court has already allowed scholars to meet officials without having to kneel.”
“Fang Feng Fu?”
Feng Sheng nodded.
Zong Yue stood up and paced over.
“Courtesy name, Shen Yan?”
Feng Sheng nodded again.
“A scholar preparing for the imperial examinations on the twenty-third year of Jia Long?”
Zong Yue surrounded her in a half-circle, seemingly scrutinizing, so she held her head high in retaliation.
Zong Yue sneered, and his gaze fell on Feng Sheng’s Adam’s apple.
Feng Sheng seemed a little vexed, cupping her hands and expressing, “Your Highness, this scholar doesn’t know why you and this Eunuch appear to be familiar with this scholar. Although the person and name seem similar, this scholar is not the Fang Feng Sheng you mentioned, but this one’s sister’s maiden name is Feng Sheng. However, this one’s younger sister is already married and is a woman from the back residence. Has Your Highness met my sister? How were you acquainted?”
As Zong Yue glared at her, Feng Sheng did not retreat nor yield.
Just when she wanted to say something, Zong Yue suddenly sat back on the chair: “Didn’t even know Fang Yan had a son like you.”
Feng Sheng’s eyelids jumped and asked, “Your Highness knows my father?”
“Happened to have met him once.”
“Then, it’s not surprising that Your Highness is uninformed. This scholar was frail since young and seldom showed this one’s face in front of others. The doctor said that this scholar would live no more than fifteen years, and in order to recuperate from illness, this scholar lived in seclusion at the mountains with a miracle doctor for many years. There were even false rumors that this scholar died young, so Your Highness must not believe them.”
1 清客 (qīng kè): lit. proteges of the powerful who stay with their benefactions like parasites. As you can see, this is a very specific type of guest that’s almost basically a leech.
2 不依不饶: not to overlook, nor spare (idiom); unwilling to forgive; to treat severely without listening to excuses