Because there was still a grand court session tomorrow and all the princes had to attend, they didn’t leave the palace after the family banquet.
Zong Yue sent Consort Li back to Xianfu Palace, then took De Wang and De Cai with him to the fifth residence at the northwest wing where he had lived prior to establishing his own manor outside the palace.
The Forbidden City at night was particularly bleak. The palace walls were clearly erected in great numbers, yet they gave people a sense of empty solitude. Snow blanketed both sides of the corridor, radiating a cold glow under the illuminating moonlight.
De Cai had wanted to say something several times, but ultimately decided against it. The words unuttered seemed to have plagued him all the way from Xianfu Palace to here.
Zong Yue glanced at him and asked, “What do you want to say?”
“This slave finds His Majesty’s attitude strange. Your Highness obviously did nothing in Yangzhou.” It was basically just that, save for a trip to Taizhou and a visit to Fan Jin Chuan. Yet, the Jianping Emperor praised Zong Yue greatly. Although he didn’t explicitly say it, all were to express his great satisfaction for his ability to carry out a task.
These things were unknown to others, but as Zong Yue’s trusted aide, it was impossible for De Cai to be ignorant. If this was to be regarded as doing a task well, then De Cai really had to doubt whether or not His Majesty was doing it on purpose in front of others.
This wasn’t considered a happy occasion for Zong Yue. The Crown Prince occupied the position of heir apparent, and his younger brothers matured each passing day with their own growing influence. After all, a prince who desired not to be the crown prince wasn’t a good prince. No matter how honest and virtuous the Crown Prince appeared to be, with numerous capable pairs of hands coveting his seat, he was also in straitened circumstances, and Prince Wei, who was a part of the ‘zealous crown prince party,’ was wrong regardless of his words or deeds.
If he said and did the right thing, the Crown Prince still wouldn’t take their relationship to heart and instead divert the focus of attention to himself. If he otherwise said and did the wrong thing, then it would be even better. Other princes could leverage his blunders to disadvantage the Crown Prince.
Since childhood, having been born in this Forbidden City, he had borne witness to much of the fluctuating warmth and coldness of human relationships, and had similarly encountered too much concealed malice. Zong Yue’s reticence wasn’t aimless, rather, it was a habit fostered out of survival.
However, this time, the Jianping Emperor evidently wanted Zong Yue to jut out as a target. If this kind of attitude persisted, Zong Yue would become the target of countless arrows.
What even De Cai could perceive, how could Zong Yue possibly not?
“What imperial father wants is precisely that this prince does nothing.”
While Zong Yue was still walking forward, De Cai’s footsteps halted, and shock took over his face.
Therefore, it was only his Consort Mother, that fool, who presumed that winning his imperial father’s favor would pave him a bright future. Little did she know that a monarch’s schemes were far too deep to be fathomable.
He had sent him to Yangzhou, which, on the surface appeared as though he was carrying out a task, but in reality, he was weeding out the Crown Prince’s connections. Once he returned, he praised him incessantly, casting a mist on the public’s eyes so he could stick out to block the shots for the Crown Prince.
After all, the Crown Prince was the crown prince from the central palace. Empress Chen and the Jianping Emperor had been married since young, and others couldn’t easily influence their deep feelings. However, the Jianping Emperor was in his sixties, and the Crown Prince was in the prime of his life. This wasn’t a good sign, especially since a few of the Crown Prince’s connections were not at all content with their lot.
However, the Jianping Emperor had no desire to abolish the Crown Prince’s position, so he put appropriate pressure on him, which served as an admonishment and a shield. Prince Wei was there to distract everyone’s attention, as well as to veer away the arrows aimed at the Crown Prince. After all, with one more opponent, everyone wouldn’t dare make rash moves without thorough deliberation.
One stone, several birds.
If Zong Yue was not mistaken, for a long time to come, he would be the Jianping Emperor’s much-loved son.
Taizhou City was contingent on salt and flourished from taxation. Salt ships flocked the place and merchants were as ubiquitous as cloud banks.
The people were prosperous, and were therefore more than willing to eat, drink, and make merry. So every year, the lantern market in Taizhou City bustled alive during the Lantern Festival.
As early as the day before, peddlers had set up lantern stalls, and merchants along the street had also hung colorful lights in front of their doors to boast of the whole city’s celebration. On the day of the Lantern Festival, it wasn’t at all dark, and all sorts of lights illuminated outside. All the yamen runners in the county yamen had been dispatched, including those from the Military Inspectorate. Today, those people were deployed to guard the whole city. On each street corner sat water jars filled with water, lest a fire broke out because of some thoughtless individuals.
“Worthy Brother Fang, shall we also go out and take a look?”
The entire county yamen was deserted, and only a few old yamen runners remained to watch the gate. With that kind of bustling excitement outside, Feng Sheng naturally wouldn’t stay confined in her room. She had already ordered Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu to change her clothes to prepare to leave and join the fun.
When she heard Fan Jin Chuan’s voice, she trotted out from inside.
Tall and slim, she was dressed in a blue robe, her paper fan shaking lightly, exuding an indescribable and casual elegance.
Compared to Fan Jin Chuan, Feng Sheng’s height was more than half a head shorter, but in the south, where men were generally not tall, she was not considered short.
Such a her was extremely in line with the male aesthetic currently popular to women, with a sheer scholarly style, cultured and refined.
“Brother Fan, Brother Fan, what’s wrong with you?”
Fan Jin Chuan snapped out of his trance, only to find a fan waving before his eyes and Fang Feng Sheng eyeing him curiously.
“Nothing, I’m just worried that something will happen with so many pedestrians on the street.”
There weren’t actually quite many. Not far out of the county yamen, one could see a sea of people on the street fronting them. The crowd slowly advanced forward and clamored about.
“I’m afraid there will be even more people at the lantern market. But didn’t you and Assistant Magistrate Liu come up with good protocols? Yamen runners patrol every street, so nothing will happen.”
Saying that, Feng Sheng noticed that Fan Jin Chuan was silent again.
“Brother Fan, you’ve been strange lately. Is something on your mind?”
“Young Master, look at that lantern.” Zhi Qiu pointed to a small stall not far away that hung dozens of colored lanterns, including a few eye-catching lotus flower lanterns.
Feng Sheng’s eyes were not on the lotus flower lanterns, but on the jade rabbit lantern suspended at the corner.
The lantern’s entire body was pink and white. The only red color was the longevity peach clasped in the jade rabbit’s hands. Looking at the hand-sculpting, it couldn’t be considered meticulous, but for a while, it triggered a rush of memories in Feng Sheng’s thoughts.
“Feng Sheng wants it? Father will buy it for you.” The man clad in blue approached the stall, took down a jade rabbit lantern, and placed it in his daughter’s grasp. “Carry it carefully. Don’t spill the candle inside.”
“Thank you, Father. Dad is the best.”
“Don’t wander around. The lantern market is crowded.”
“Want it? Young Master will buy it for you.” Feng Sheng’s whole face was full of intent to pamper.
Zhi Qiu, who was wearing a double-bun, smiled very happily and was the first to run to the lantern stall.
Yes, Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu had reverted back to dressing as women, a matter that had completely caught Fan Jin Chuan unaware. Xiao Qi later on told him that Zhi Qiu was originally a woman, and he then realized that he was probably the only one in the entire county yamen who was still in the dark.
But if Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu were women, then, had he misunderstood Worthy Brother Fang for the so-called splitting peaches and for liking men? However, Fan Jin Chuan was not the least bit happy about it. If Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu were women, and Worthy Brother Fang didn’t like men, then……
Anyway, these days, Fan Jin Chuan’s mood was like a boat braving the wind and waves. Suddenly tranquil, then once again agitated. Not once could his mood settle. Otherwise, his mind wouldn’t be so unhinged when facing Feng Sheng.
He watched as Feng Sheng purchased two lanterns. A servant girl pushed a lantern in her hand, and the two little maidservants were jubilant upon receiving theirs. While Worthy Brother Fang was observing them with mirth, Fan Jin Chuan felt an inexplicable sourness in his heart.
“Young Sir, what’s wrong with you? At first, out of concern for Advisor Fang’s shameful habits, you always kept a watchful eye on Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu, afraid that they would lead Advisor Fang astray. Now that you know Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu are women, why are you still looking at them this way? Could it be that——”
In apprehension, Fan Jin Chuan reproved him, “What drivel are you saying? I was just looking at the lantern and found that the handiwork wasn’t too bad.”
With that, he stepped forward. That same moment, Fang Feng Sheng grabbed a lantern from the stall. It was the jade rabbit lantern.
She paid the stall owner and turned around with the lantern.
“Worthy Brother, you’re……”
“Doesn’t Brother Fan think the lantern is pretty?”
Fan Jin Chuan studied the adorable-looking rabbit and hesitantly agreed, “It is quite pretty.”
“Does Brother Fan like it? Want one too?”
Feng Sheng curved back and gestured to purchase, but Fan Jin Chuan held her back. “Worthy Brother, most of the pedestrians on the street carrying lanterns are women and children. If we ourselves carry lanterns, it won’t be so elegant and tasteful……”
His embarrassed appearance made Feng Sheng laugh.
“Alright, I’m teasing you.” She swept her eyes all over Fan Jin Chuan’s body and took note of how solemn and orderly his scholarly attire made him appear. “I really can’t imagine what you’d look like carrying a lantern. I better not damage your prestige as an honorable county lord, so as to avoid seeming improper.”
Fan Jin Chuan was flustered and wanted to say something, but Feng Sheng had already turned around and fluttered away.
Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu hadn’t seen such excitement in a long time and were high-spirited.
Feng Sheng was also in a hard-to-come-by mood as she led her two maidservants to gawk at stalls hither and tither. Along the way, they bought sticky rice dumplings, candied chestnuts, dragon’s beard candies, tuckahoe pies, dough figures, and candied hawthorns on sticks.1 All these, Feng Sheng had claimed she was buying for the two maids, but it was actually her who seemed to like them better.
They weren’t the only ones munching on. Fan Jin Chuan and Xiao Qi were also stuffed a handful of snacks.
As a child himself, Xiao Qi was just fine, but when had Fan Jin Chuan ever experienced such an occasion? Looking at the things in his hands, his head was swimming.
“Brother Fan, carry this for me. I’m going to check out that sugar painting seller.”2
She shoved the jade rabbit lantern into Fan Jin Chuan’s hand. His other hand contained two dough figures, on his fingers hung a few square paper bags, and under his armpit lodged a painting.
He paced a few steps to catch up. “Worthy Brother, don’t buy any more. That sugar painting isn’t easy to hold. I really don’t have the free hand to hold it.”
“I’ll buy just one more. Look at how remarkably true-to-life the phoenix is painted. By the way, Brother Fan, what’s your astrological sign? How about letting the master paint one for you too?”
What was supposed to only be one painting became two.
One phoenix and one ox.
Feng Sheng placed her gaze on the ox in Fan Jin Chuan’s hand, then shifted to his greatly embarrassed face. She couldn’t help but laugh.
“Don’t be annoyed, Brother Fan, I’ll take it for you.” She reached out and took the sugar painting.
At that moment, a noise blared out in the distance. Feng Sheng strolled that way and said, “Come on, let’s go see what’s happening.”
Fan Jin Chuan, however, looked down at his hand and couldn’t resist stroking it.
1 Festival stall goodies (from left to right): sticky rice dumplings, candied chestnuts, dragon’s beard candies, tuckahoe pies, dough figures, and candied hawthorns on sticks
2 Sugar painting: