“Is that so?” Zong Yue, occupying the main seat, sneered.
“If Your Highness is skeptical, it can be confirmed by checking the genealogical records at the Fang family’s ancestral hall. But this scholar is curious. Why is Your Highness so persistent about this scholar’s identity? Is it true that, as Your Highness said, this scholar was mistaken for this one’s sister? Then, this scholar wants to know, where did Your Highness encounter this one’s sister? One must bear in mind that a woman’s reputation is as important as the sky. Your Highness, please don’t sully a woman’s reputation. Although this scholar is just an ordinary person, this scholar will certainly seek justice for this one’s sister.”
The topic had been circled back to Feng Sheng. Where exactly did Zong Yue meet Fang Feng Sheng? Why was he so insistent about her?
Could Zong Yue admit it?
Of course not.
“……You, a dignified prince, shamelessly attempted to seize a subject’s wife……
“……If His Majesty were to know of this matter, how disappointed will he be with the third prince! If the people outside were to find out, how will the third prince be any different from a tyrant who robs weak women……”
From outside marched in an imperial bodyguard, bowing his head and reporting, “Your Highness, Prefectural Magistrate Du is here, along with the former Left Admonisher under the Left Secretariat of the Heir Apparent1, and the current Taizhou County Magistrate, Fan Jin Chuan.”
“Let them in.”
The imperial bodyguard retreated.
Not long after, Du Ming Liang entered with Fan Jin Chuan.
“Have come to meet the Third Highness.”
Fan Jin Chuan arched his hands in salute, raised his head, and with unconcealed bewilderment, saw Fang Feng Sheng standing across from him.
“Worthy Brother Fang?”
“How did you——”
Feng Sheng appeared helpless as she explained, “Third Highness and I had some misunderstandings. Now that it’s been settled, I’m planning to leave.”
The soft clang of a teacup rang from above, causing everyone to look over.
But, it was Zong Yue who had slammed the teacup back on the small table.
“Worthy Brother Fang, walk slowly and wait for this brother. After meeting the Third Highness, we shall drink together.”
“Then I’ll go outside and wait for Brother Fan.”
Fan Jin Chuan nodded.
Feng Sheng feigned ignorance and cupped her hands in obeisance, “Then, Third Highness, this scholar will retire first.”
De Wang wanted to cover his face in exasperation.
He had observed the entire development, witnessing with his own eyes how this person obstructed His Highness absolutely without restraint that he couldn’t even utter a word. His Highness didn’t say anything to let her go, but she unabashedly did and said whatever she willed.
De Wang snuck a glance at Zong Yue. Things had developed to such an extent that even he wasn’t sure whether the person in front of him was the bold and presumptuous Fang Feng Sheng or not.
Feng Sheng glanced meaningfully at Fan Jin Chuan and withdrew.
Seeing Fan Jin Chuan’s eyes remain fixated on the door, Du Ming Liang couldn’t help but cough.
Fan Jin Chuan snapped back to his senses, smiled at Zong Yue at the main seat, and said: “This subject would never have imagined that upon going to Yangzhou to visit friends, this subject would actually run into Your Highness.”
Du Ming Liang explained: “Zi Jin2 was on his way to take up his post in Taizhou and passed through Yangzhou to bring a word of greeting for this teacher. Who knew that Your Highness would arrive just before he was leaving? This lowly official called him back thinking that Old Chuan was familiar with Your Highness, and considered inviting him as a companion to host a banquet for Your Highness. But, who would have thought that he, a pedant, would invite someone else to drink in front of Your Highness?”
He turned to Fan Jin Chuan and admonished, “What kind of person are you? His Highness is here, yet you remain negligent.”
Fan Jin Chuan was slightly flustered, yet he still put forth: “There’s a rule in court that a courtier cannot befriend a prince. If this subject still held the post of Left Admonisher, this one could have utilized the name of lecturing a prince to befriend Your Highness. But now that this one is a local official, it’s better to avoid such entanglements.”
These words elicited awkwardness among those present. It was unknown whether or not this had an effect on Zong Yue, but Du Ming Liang was undoubtedly embarrassed.
It was indeed true that courtiers could not befriend princes, and that they should wholly shy away from this taboo. Was this the case of cursing a bald donkey to a monk’s face3? Moreover, the person who spoke was precisely Fan Jin Chuan, which evoked further displeasure.
The whole court knew that Fan Jin Chuan was a severely obstinate and pedantic person.
Because of his pedantry, he had repeatedly incurred His Majesty’s wrath, but he was nonetheless spared from punishment because His Majesty cherished his talents. However, a person with such a character was bound to be unpopular in officialdom, so he dwelt on a cold bench in the Hanlin Academy4 and never entered court for all six years, only doing idle work with no signs of advancing.
This time, he was sent down from a sixth-rank Left Admonisher under the Left Secretariat of the Heir Apparent to the local government as a seventh-rank county magistrate. In many people’s eyes, it was a demotion.
If not, why else would an emperor’s good close subject5, a pure and honorable Hanlin, vacate his post and end up in a place like Taizhou to serve as a county magistrate?
Taizhou was a good place, but being a Taizhou county magistrate was not.
Moreover, based on Fan Jin Chuan’s credentials——a distinguished jinshi6 at seventeen, ranking third overall at the court imperial examination and titled tanhua——such a talent placed in successive dynasties would have been first raised in the Hanlin Academy for three years, and then ushered to the established route: be appointed as a clear and noble official, advance as one of the emperor’s closest ministers, and finally join the cabinet.
They had never seen one who was assigned outside the capital, more so as a seventh-rank county magistrate.
Therefore, such a person, amongst others, whatever he said and did would not faze anyone.
At least, Zong Yue was still unfazed.
He remained aloof as he dismissed, “No need to hold a banquet. This highness has been on a long journey and is also a bit tired. You all can retire.”
After waiting for Du Ming Liang and Fan Jin Chuan to both retire, De Cai trod in and knelt down by Zong Yue’s feet.
“Your Highness, this slave was negligent and actually forgot to check the genealogical records of the Fang Clan.”
“Get up, this matter has nothing to do with you. If not for this matter, how can you casually check someone else’s genealogy at will?” After a pause, Zong Yue asked, “In your opinion, were her words false?”
De Cai stood up and intoned, “Since she dared say it, she must have prepared for it. Based on her earlier claims, this slave could guess that Fang Yan’s son, who had supposedly died young, was her playing the role of two people. Initially, this slave had thought it strange that the time Fang Feng Fu disappeared from sight was exactly when rumors of the daughter marrying emerged, but this slave overlooked this matter.
“And it was said that the brother and sister are twin siblings. Because they’re twins, they’ve been weak since birth and rarely made an appearance. But everyone outside knew that Fang Yan had an extremely intelligent son who had passed the prefectural imperial exam at twelve and was then titled a distinguished talent. On the other hand, his daughter’s reputation was not as prominent. Outsiders only know that such a person exists, but few people have seen her.”
Zong Yue remained unspeaking.
De Cai asked, “Your Highness, should this slave order another person to investigate again?”
“No need. Even if you look into the past, it’s all just hearsay. Fang Yan was the head of the Fang Clan, and adding a few strokes to the genealogical record took no extra effort.”
De Wang interjected, “You can interrogate the Fang Clan.”
De Cai looked at him as if he were a sweet fool, “Without evidence, how can I interrogate them when His Highness needs to stay low-key? The last time I went, I had already beaten the grass and frightened the snake7, so even if the Fang family knew something, they’re bound to hide it for her.”
“This slave can’t figure it out. Was that really Fang Feng Sheng? Then, her Adam’s apple, even if a woman disguised as a man, can it be faked?”
Zong Yue maintained his silence, but De Cai answered for him: “The world is vast; nothing is too bizarre. Some peddlers who wander around and engage in all sorts of tricks have extraordinary means, so a simple disguise won’t be too difficult.”
“But, how come she was so bold, daring to say those words in front of the master?”
Because she was confident that Zong Yue wouldn’t unveil her.
Mentioning this matter, Zong Yue’s face slightly darkened again.
“Go and find out how she and Fan Jin Chuan actually met.”
“Who would have thought that this foolish brother and worthy brother would be so fortunate as to meet here?”
“Exactly. I didn’t expect to run into Brother Fan, either.”
After leaving the government residence, Fang Feng Sheng and Fan Jin Chuan found a restaurant.
There was a private room with a table of food and wine, enough for them to drink and chat.
“Just now, I noticed that Worthy Brother seems to have some hidden trouble. What happened?”
Fang Sheng was actually a bit confounded that Fan Jin Chuan was this thoughtful. Her impression of this person was that he was much too upright and much too pedantic to meddle with such affairs.
“Brother Fan noticed? There is indeed something.”
“Can you tell this foolish brother? I might help with Worthy Brother’s worries.”
Feng Sheng peered at him and said, “It’s nothing, really. It’s just that, the third prince is interested in me and wants to invite me to be a protege in his manor.”
“A protege? When I left the capital, I heard that His Majesty had decreed to permit the Third Highness to enter court. He had also built a manor outside the palace, so it’s not impossible to invite some proteges.”
Proteges and personal aides were often paralleled together, but they were actually two different types of people.
Proteges were leisurely literati accommodated by high-ranking families, accompanying them to talk about all things imaginable, to play go and qin, and to occasionally devise strategies along with others. Personal aides were literally of the same function, but were in general more valued by their master.
However, many high-ranking families raised more than one or two of these people. Calling them personal aides was too offensively conspicuous. They only tried to muddle through under the guise of being proteges, pretending to be elegant and attempting to get away with it.
“Worthy Brother is reluctant?”
Feng Sheng did not answer.
“Can this foolish brother ask why Worthy Brother is reluctant? When Third Highness enters the court on an errand, Worthy Brother ought to have a great future if you follow closely by his side.”
“Descendants of heaven have enough riches to cover the sky, but dangers abound in their splendor.”
Fan Jin Chuan was suddenly enlightened, and he then praised, “Worthy Brother has great wisdom.”
“I’m not worthy of Brother Fan’s praise. I’m merely self-aware, nothing else.”
“Then, what did the third prince say? Did you tell him you were unwilling?”
Feng Sheng laughed bitterly, “How can I dare refuse outright when confronting such a person? I haven’t thanked Brother Fan for helping me out today.”
“What are you going to do then?”
Feng Sheng didn’t say anything, poured him a full cup of wine, and poured one for herself.
As they drank, Feng Sheng continuously filled their cups.
Fan Jin Chuan stared intently at Feng Sheng and said, “If Worthy Brother doesn’t mind, I have a method for you.”
“This foolish brother will take office in Taizhou, but this foolish brother was in the Hanlin Academy all year round and has never been in touch with local affairs. Since Worthy Brother Fang has a literary family background, and even the Third Highness wants to invite you as a protege, there must be something about you that’s extraordinary. If Worthy Brother doesn’t dislike it, you can act as my private advisor for the time being. There will naturally be an excuse for the Third Highness.”
Feng Sheng never anticipated this Fan Jin Chuan to be so lovely. She had been thinking of a pretext to stick by Fan Jin Chuan’s side, but he actually delivered himself to her door.
Seeing Feng Sheng preserve her silence, Fan Jin Chuan was slightly perturbed and grabbed her arm: “But, is Worthy Brother unwilling? It’s just an excuse for the time being. If Worthy Brother isn’t willing, then you can leave on your own after dealing with Third Highness. In fact, for Worthy Brother to be unwilling is just as expected. Worthy Brother is so intelligent and outstanding, and clearly hasn’t yet given up on the imperial examinations. However, it won’t be so bad to be this foolish brother’s advisor. Although this foolish brother’s personality is a bit dull, this one can write excellent essays and has been repeatedly praised by His Majesty. With this foolish brother’s guidance, someday, Worthy Brother will gain twice the effect for half the work when preparing for the imperial examinations.”
“Wait, wait, wait, wait. I’m a bit puzzled about what Brother Fan just said. Then, does Brother Fan want me as an advisor or not? One moment you say I can leave voluntarily, and the next you entice me with your essays so that I’ll stay.”
1 左赞善 (zuǒ zàn shàn): lit. to assist towards goodness; Left Admonisher in the Left Secretariat of the Heir Apparent 春坊 (chūn fāng) under the Household Administration of the Heir Apparent (詹事府). He is responsible for giving moral and social guidance to the Heir Apparent.
2 子晋 (Zi Jin): Probably Fan Jin Chuan’s courtesy name.
3 对着和尚骂贼秃: lit. to curse a bald donkey to a monk’s face (idiom); fig. to scold sb indirectly; to criticize obliquely
4 翰林院: Hanlin Academy was an academic and administrative institution founded in the eighth-century Tang China by Emperor Xuanzong in Chang’an. 翰林 Hanlin refers to academics employed as imperial secretaries from the Tang onwards.
5 近臣 (jìn chén): lit., close underlings: Members of the Imperial Coterie, throughout history an unofficial, categorical reference to Emperors’ most intimate attendants, especially palace eunuchs.
6 进士及第 (jìnshì jídì): lit. “distinguished jinshi” were graduates ranked first class in the court exam, and usually only the top three individuals were qualified for this title.
7 打草惊蛇: lit. beat the grass to scare the snake; to inadvertently alert an enemy; to punish sb as a warning to others (idiom)