Today was a day for releasing statements. Fan Jin Chuan had just finished delving into a pile of legal cases when Prince Wei sent someone to summon him over.
He saw that no other official business needed his immediate heed, so he followed the person out. When they reached the place, De Wang came out and ushered him in. Prince Wei, Zong Yue, was sitting in the hall waiting for him.
Thinking of last night’s accidental encounter with Prince Wei, Fan Jin Chuan was indescribably uneasy, but still bowed and took a seat at the lower table.
“Why did Your Highness call this lowly official over?”
“This prince plans to leave Taizhou tomorrow.”
Fan Jin Chuan didn’t think much of it and merely took it as Prince Wei informing him as the host.
“This lowly official wishes Your Highness a safe journey.”
Zong Yue grunted his acknowledgement, his attitude unclear. “This prince has one more matter.”
He looked over.
“You should know why this prince made this trip.”
Fan Jin Chuan had pondered over it in private. Although it seemed that Prince Wei had gone here on behalf of the Jianping Emperor to check on his officials, in fact, even he could distinguish truth from falsehood. If he took Prince Wei’s attitude into account, for Fang Feng Sheng and Prince Wei to walk in the same direction wouldn’t be a mere delusion of his.
However, that day, Fang Feng Sheng had assured that she had no plans leaving with the other, so he had also taken that into account.
“Is Your Highness talking about Advisor Fang? This lowly official had asked him before. After all, a good ship needs a good sail to match. Advisor Fang has scintillating wit uncommon in any generation. This lowly official also thinks that settling and being subservient to this mere county yamen is somewhat wronging him, but when I asked him about it, Advisor Fang said that he had no intention of leaving this place.”
Fan Jin Chuan nodded and went on, “This lowly official has something else to say, but doesn’t know whether or not it’s appropriate.”
He cupped his hands in salute and gave a bow. “Your Highness is not an ordinary person after all. Every word and deed will attract public attention. It’s better to avoid committing taboos.”
“What is Lord Fan referring to?” Zong Yue fiddled on the prayer beads in his hand and asked with unclear implication.
“Your Highness should understand this lowly official’s meaning.”
Zong Yue looked at him, and although Fan Jin Chuan lowered his head, his manner was neither obsequious nor supercilious.
A grim smile appeared on his face until it spread to the bottom of his eyes.
“Who would have expected that you, Fan Zi Jin, would learn to assume the air of an official?”
Fan Jin Chuan hesitated and retreated.
Only after he left did Zong Yue irately sweep away the teacups on the table down to the floor.
All this, Feng Sheng didn’t know. She only knew that Prince Wei left with his men the next day.
Zong Yue’s departure let her breathe a sigh of relief. The oppressive feeling this person gave her was too intense. His temper was too somber and unpredictable.
In the twinkling of an eye, it was the end of the year, and Taizhou’s first snowfall finally descended.
Everyone was at rest this time of the year, and all there was left for them to do was prepare for the New Year.
On the twenty-fifth day of the twelfth lunar month, the local officials were granted a breather from the official seal. They would resume using the official seal on the fifth day of the first month of the coming year. The first month was also the period where officials had the most rest. After the fifth day of the first month, the tenth day of the first month would be the Lantern Festival,1 yet another holiday. This time, they could rest for ten whole days until the twentieth day of the first month, when the Lantern Festival was over.
In the county yamen, there was nothing to prepare, but Feng Sheng was in high spirits and asked Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu to cut some paper-cut window decorations to have installed everywhere. She also led Fan Jin Chuan to write the ‘fortune’ character and some rhyming couplets.2
The two of them felt exceedingly festive that they not only wrote a lot of auspicious couplets and the ‘fortune’ character for the rear court, they also wrote some for the yamen’s minor functionaries and clerks to take home. It could be considered their way of celebrating.
On New Year’s Eve, they had a New Year’s Eve dinner in the evening. As there were only few people in total, they clustered at the same table regardless of their identity as master or servant.
In addition to Fan Jin Chuan and Fang Feng Sheng, there were also Xiao Qi, Zhi Chun, Zhi Qiu, Uncle Yu and the others, as well as several gatekeepers and servants of the front and rear court, and some yamen runners on duty, though some had their own tasks and were unable to come.
“Worthy Brother Fang, I offer you a toast.” Fan Jin Chuan’s eyes were bright. One could tell that he was in a pleasant mood.
Feng Sheng lifted her wine cup, tilted it towards him, and downed the cup in one gulp.
“During the Lantern Festival back at the capital, this one was always a solitary shadow. This year is much more joyous than usual.”
Feng Sheng smiled and sighed a bit in her heart.
In the past, prior to her marriage, it was only her and her father at home. Although there were only few of them, it was very comfortable. Later on, she married into the large Sun family, but she had been mourning. She deliberately avoided celebrations and was holed up in peace, but it was too eerily quiet.
That time, it seemed that even the New Year wasn’t exciting, as there was a knot in her heart that none could mend. Now, upon coming here, she had to conceal her identity, and fewer people were around to celebrate, but she particularly felt more moved.
Her mood also seemed different from the past, a lot more sanguine.
Listening to Zhi Qiu incessantly bickering with Xiao Qi, Feng Sheng smiled and raised her cup for a toast. “Brother Fan isn’t young. It’s time to marry and have children. The later generations will be more and more prosperous, and the future will certainly be more lively year after year.”
Fan Jin Chuan faltered for a bit and asked, “What about Worthy Brother?”
“Ah, me? A real man is a man of character. What’s the point of discussing family matters if one’s lofty aspirations are unrealized? I’m different from Brother Zi Jin. You’ve already established yourself, but I haven’t.”
“I’m in no hurry. No hurry at all.”
Feng Sheng seemed to make light of his words. She gazed at Zhi Qiu and the others and slanted her cup in the air towards them, smiling and interjecting remarks every so often, assuming an air of a fair county official in charge of important affairs.
Fan Jin Chuan’s eyes, however, were fixed on her.
In the Forbidden City, the family banquet at the Qianqing Palace was very exuberant.
Normally, Zong Yue was always low-key when facing people. However, this year, the Jianping Emperor wasn’t modest in showering him praises time and again, though none were about any specific matter. Anyway, Zong Yue was pleasing to the eye, so everything else was pleasing to the eye. Previously, such exposure had always belonged to the Crown Prince. In the recent years, as the Crown Prince’s age kept increasing, the Jianping Emperor’s praises for him had also been decreasing, but he nonetheless never lagged behind others.
For a time, Zong Yue was the focus of attention, provoking incessant jealousy from several of his brothers.
However, even if they turned green from envy, all were still discreet. On the surface, they could only repeatedly propose toasts to bury the dislike in their hearts. Therefore, the wind blew even more favorably towards Zong Yue’s direction. Those imperial clan members could surmise that the princes began seeing Prince Wei in a different light, especially in the presence of the much colder and more desolate Crown Prince.
Empress Chen sat upright on the phoenix seat and studied Zong Duo sitting there clutching a wine cup in his hand, wordless and overcast. She sighed helplessly in her heart.
She flashed a smile and spoke to the Jianping Emperor, “Your Majesty, this concubine has a joyous matter to report to you.”
As soon as the Empress spoke, those below quieted down. Even the sound of singing and dancing seemed to have dwindled.
“What is it?”
Maintaining her smile, the Empress looked down. “There is joy in the East Palace. The Crown Princess is pregnant.”
Today’s family banquet, apart from the imperial clan members, the womenfolk of each family also accompanied their husbands. Naturally, it was inevitable for there to be womenfolk from each prince’s family.
Among the princes, the Crown Prince was the eldest and was in his thirties. Now, there were two imperial grandsons and three imperial granddaughters in the East Palace. Unfortunately, none of them were born from Song-shi. Before that, Song-shi had been twice pregnant, but she had miscarried both of them. None had expected her to be with child once again. Factoring in the ordeal she had endured during her past pregnancies, it wasn’t much of a joyous occasion.
Regardless, the Jianping Emperor paid particular attention to the birth of a legitimate child.
The Jianping Emperor stroked his beard and appeared pleasantly surprised. “Really?”
“It’s naturally true. It’s been more than three months. For fear that the fetus was unstable, no one dared to spread it around. It wasn’t until the Crown Princess’s fetus was sitting stable that we decided to report it to Your Majesty.”
While the Empress spoke from above, the eyes of the crowd below gathered on Song-shi’s body.
In particular, Tao liangdi3 and Ma liangdi, who were sitting behind Song-shi, each mothering a young imperial grandson, had indescribably complicated gazes.
“Good. If Song-shi can safely give birth to an imperial grandson this time, We4 will reward heavily!”
The Jianping Emperor was pleased, so everyone was naturally pleased, such that the subsequent dances and music were all the more jubilant.
This time, the public’s great attention had switched targets and returned to the Crown Prince. In the end, the reason why Crown Prince was the crown prince had something to do with Empress Chen’s finesse. She occupied the position of the main wife, and her scheming and ingenuity had never once fallen behind. No wonder that, in recent years, despite the abounding flowers blooming like a piece of brocade in the imperial harem, with a new crop of people replacing the old, Empress Chen’s position was all but wavering.
These princes, who were all younger brothers, toasted their eldest brother, the Crown Prince. Even the youngest fifteenth prince was not left behind.
The second prince, Prince Wu, was born from a noble consort. Apart from the Crown Prince, he was also one of the most valued by the Jianping Emperor. Noble Consort Hu and Empress Chen had been contending for decades and had always been at a stalemate. The Crown Prince expecting a legitimate heir was naturally not very good news to him.
One must know that Prince Wu had the ability to leap ahead of the Crown Prince. This was because Princess Consort Wu had given Prince Wu two legitimate sons. They had just toasted, yet the two could detect a hint of sharpness.
Under these circumstances, Prince Wei was the easiest to bring out. The entire imperial harem was well-aware of the relationship between Empress Chen and Consort Li. Prince Wei had been raised at Empress Chen’s knee since his childhood, and from start to finish was regarded as a part of the Crown Prince’s party.
However, Zong Yue’s character had always been subdued. Which prince, upon reaching adulthood, did not establish a manor, was not conferred the title of ‘Prince of the First Rank’, and did not join the imperial court to carry out tasks? It was only him. Even after establishing his own manor, he shied away from imperial court duties and cloistered in his manor all year round to study Buddhism, leading to people’s conjectures that a monk would hail among the princes.
He had annoyed the emperor time and again. Even the thirteenth prince, who was only ten years old, was bestowed the title of ‘Prince of the First Rank’ the year before last. However, he alone was left out and was told that, only when he joined the imperial court would he be granted the title. Now that Prince Wei had finally joined court, his first task was still so delicate that Prince Wu, who had always been fond of provocation, naturally wouldn’t let him off.
“It’s also that Old Three’s past two wives had bad fate, not even leaving Old Three an heir and dying just like that. Don’t fault elder brother for saying this, but Old Three, you’re no longer young. Imperial father gives importance to legitimate children. You should also quickly let imperial father bestow you a marriage. Immediately produce a legitimate son so imperial father will be pleased.”
“This matter cannot be forced. Second brother need not worry about it.”
Zong Yue indifferently left after that sentence and returned to his own spot. Prince Wu made a mess of things, and the brothers below, all younger than them, had not enough right to interrupt. Each could only toast to the Crown Prince and return to their own places.
Prince Wu sat beside the Crown Prince. He observed the singing and dancing that had started over, and the Jianping Emperor turning away while conversing with imperial clansmen. He then clenched his wine cup and smilingly spoke to the Crown Prince, “Does imperial elder brother know what Old Three’s task is? Big brother5 asked him, but he was so mysterious and wouldn’t even say anything. It was said he had gone to Yangzhou, but the task imperial father had assigned him remains unknown. It seems that he will go back to Yangzhou after spending the Lantern Festival in the capital. “
The Crown Prince forced a smile. “If second imperial brother doesn’t know, how can this brother know?”
“Old Three and imperial brother have always been close. How could you not know?”
“Old Two, since you want to know, why don’t you ask him yourself? What’s the point of asking this humble one!” After that, he snubbed Prince Wu again, but Prince Wu’s words more or less unsettled him.
Once the banquet was over, the Crown Prince accompanied Empress Chen back to the Kunning Palace.
After entering Kunning Palace, he told Empress Chen, “Empress Mother, Old Three really isn’t young anymore. It’s not proper to have no one by his side. Didn’t you see during the family banquet? All had family surrounding them, yet his side was empty. Don’t you think he needs to be bestowed a marriage? Tao-shi has a younger cousin who is beautiful and dignified. How about giving her to Old Three?”
Empress Chen shot him a disdainful look. “Did Tao-shi whisper something in your ear again? Her Tao family has already produced a crown prince’s liangdi, yet still want the position of a princess consort? Before Tao-shi married into the family, her fate was too weak and somber. This time, you’re asking Empress Mother to confer another one from them? He has a hard life, fine, but don’t implicate this palace; your imperial father might complain. This palace has twice acted as a matchmaker, and both times, the person died. If Prince Wei marries again, this palace absolutely won’t meddle or intervene. Leave this matter to your imperial father himself.”
The Crown Prince was a little embarrassed. “Tao-shi didn’t tell subject-son anything. Subject-son just feels that Empress Mother is the mother of the nation. There is no one by Old Three’s side, and it won’t be good for Empress Mother’s reputation. Since Empress Mother doesn’t want to meddle, then let’s leave it alone.”
The Crown Prince also shouldn’t stay long. After which, the mother and son chatted for while more and then retired.
The Empress rested afterwards and thought for a while about the matter of Prince Wei’s wife. As the Crown Prince had mentioned, as a prince, it was indeed a bit unsightly to have no one in the rear court.
However, she still had to weigh and consider how to handle the matter. After all, a slight move in one part might affect the situation as a whole.
2 New Year Decor: paper-cut window decorations and rhyming couplets and the ‘fortune’ character.
3 良娣 (liáng dì): lit. excellent sister-in-law: Related Lady of Excellence, designation of a category of concubines of the Heir Apparent.
4 朕 (zhèn): we (imperial use); this is the illeism the emperor uses
5 Prince Wu is still talking about the Crown Prince. He refers to him as both imperial elder brother 皇兄 (huáng xiōng) and big brother 哥哥 (gēge) in this dialogue.