At a garden located south of Yangzhou City, Prince Wei, Zong Yue, stood by the window, his handsome brows furrowed.
De Cai was standing behind him, his head hung as he reported, “Gentleman Fang has already left Yangzhou City, but the Jinyiwei1 aren’t moving. The Huang family had planned to pin down Gentleman Fang as their son-in-law. Huang Jin Fu originally wanted to catch the couple in the act, but who would’ve thought that his daughter would spend the entire night only playing Go with the other? The specifics of which are unknown, but it seems that they haven’t reached an agreement.”
Zong Yue remained unspeaking.
De Cai hesitated for a moment, his head still lowered. “Your Highness, you’re already in the middle of the game, and many pay attention to your every move. During your initial visit to Yangzhou, Chen Zhou and his men also came to Yangzhou under a secret decree. Now, Gentleman Fang isn’t at all discreet enough and might attract the Jinyiwei‘s attention. Why get involved? If this persists, you might waste all your efforts hiding in Yangzhou the past year, and you might even arouse His Majesty’s suspicion……”
De Cai immediately shut up.
Zong Yue’s hands were clasped behind his back. One hand was very slowly twisting the prayer beads one by one.
After a while, he scoffed, “You think there’s anything we can do to hide from imperial father? After that night, imperial father will only deem that I acted rashly and won’t think much of it.”
De Cai was abashed. He recalled His Highness’s unexpected move that day, as well as His Highness’s trip to Yangzhou the beginning of last year. When they embarked to Taizhou, he had only assumed that His Highness went because of Gentlemen Fang. Never would he have thought that this……
Prince Wei, Zong Yue, was notorious for being incapable of keeping a wife, as both his wives had died shortly after marriage. Prior to his wedding to the second princess consort, the palace was quite preoccupied with his marriage affairs. However, after the second one’s death, the Empress, who had always concerned herself with his life’s most important event, no longer dared to interfere in such matters.
Everyone knew that Prince Wei had very little interest in women, so little that he was so close to becoming a monk. He excelled at Buddhist studies because the Empress Dowager practiced Buddhism, and so did His Majesty, but his devotion was at an appalling degree. He almost seemed as though he would love, more than anything, to sequester in a Buddhist temple all year round.
Over time, rumors surfaced that Prince Wei liked men, and that his devotion to Buddha was all pretense. He merely preferred cloistering in Buddhist temples because within them resided several Buddhist monks, all of whom were male. Even Master Xuan Qing, one of Prince Wei’s good friends, was rumored to be Prince Wei’s lover, because although Master Xuan Qing was a monk, he possessed a face as clear as jade and was extremely handsome.
These rumors were too filthy, so no one dared to wantonly publicize them, but they inevitably left an impression to those whose ears were peeled.
Thus, in this matter, Prince Wei was actually using his own name as a bargaining chip, not hesitating to lay his shortcomings bare for the Jianping Emperor to see. As a prince, you could idle away, oppress people, and do whatever you wanted; however, the only thing you couldn’t do was involve yourself with things such as cut-sleeves,2 because the imperial family had always placed great importance on heirs. Having no heir was already a drawback, being a suspected cut-sleeve even more so.
Well, now, it ceased being a mere suspicion. After that night, when Prince Wei marched into Fang Feng Sheng’s room with his clothes disheveled, perhaps in the Jianping Emperor’s mind, this son was already a cut-sleeve.
That——was that His Highness’s great undertaking?
De Cai couldn’t help but relate it to last year’s trip to Taizhou, which was ostensibly to check on Fan Jin Chuan in the Jianping Emperor’s stead, but the underlying purpose was inevitably subject to suspicion. Could it be that His Highness had already devised today’s move back then? And that he, to Fang Feng Sheng……
De Cai had balked in his analysis, and his brain was in utter disarray.
“Have you sent the person I asked you to send?”
“That Bao-shi reached Taizhou’s county yamen not too long ago.”
Zong Yue grunted his acknowledgement and ordered, “You, go to Taizhou……”
After hearing Zong Yue’s command, De Cai’s expression was completely appalled. “Yes.”
“Worthy Brother, you’re finally back. Your return was delayed, so I thought you……”
“Thought I what?” Feng Sheng probed with a wide smile.
“Thought something had happened to you.”
After all, with what she had accomplished so far, Feng Sheng had pierced the eyes and hearts of many. Ever since she left for this trip, Fan Jin Chuan had been deeply worried and sick at heart.
“What could possibly have happened? My lord, don’t worry too much.”
As the two conversed, they headed to the rear court. Feng Sheng had intended to check on Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu, but Fan Jin Chuan tailed after her.
“My lord, is there nothing going on at the front court today?”
Then, a voice rang out from afar, “Shuan’er, you’re back? No more official business?”
It was an old woman.
She looked to be over forty years of age, wearing a blue lined coat and skirt with a cloth handkerchief wrapped around her head. She was clutching a long broom in her hand. As she spoke, two little servant girls briskly came running.
“Old Madam, there really is no need for you to do all this work……” Before their voices waned, the two caught sight of Fan Jin Chuan, and they hurriedly bowed their heads. “My lord, this servant was really unable to stop Old Madam.”
“Stop me from what? I’m idle anyways, so I might as well work.”
“Mother, listen to the maids. The county yamen had assigned all the maids in the rear court. The servants do the work, so we don’t need you to do it.”
Bao-shi shifted her sight to Feng Sheng. “This young brother is? Looks quite handsome.”
Although Feng Sheng was a little startled, she still bowed with her hands folded in front of her chest. “I’ve met Old Madam. I’m the lord’s private advisor surnamed Fang.”
“You’re Advisor Fang, ah?”
Her last syllable was pronounced quite queerly. Feng Sheng couldn’t resist glancing at Fan Jin Chuan, but Fan Jin Chuan failed to notice it. He was engrossed in introducing Feng Sheng to Bao-shi and advising her to stop doing rough jobs.
It wasn’t good for Feng Sheng to stay long, so she returned to her own courtyard, saying that she had to first unpack her baggage.
Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu were very happy about Feng Sheng’s return, but this didn’t stop Zhi Qiu from spouting off about Bao-shi.
From Zhi Qiu’s mouth, Feng Sheng now knew that Fan Jin Chuan’s mother was surnamed Bao.
Although Zhi Qiu had a crafty disposition, she was rarely at odds with anyone. This was the first time Feng Sheng had seen her have such a strong opinion about someone.
She listened to the general idea, then roughly understood where the conflict between Zhi Qiu and Bao-shi lay.
It turned out that soon after Feng Sheng left, Bao-shi brought Fan Jin Chuan’s betrothed, a girl named Man’er, with her.
Fan Jin Chuan was guilty because he had taken an official post and couldn’t be filial to his mother, so Bao-shi’s arrival overjoyed him. However, Bao-shi was an old lady from the countryside, not a woman or daughter from even an ordinary scholarly family. She was very assiduous and homely, and didn’t seem to have grasped the demeanor expected of a county magistrate’s mother, causing others to mock her behind her back.
For instance, she had been here for half a month, yet she still treated the county yamen‘s rear court as she did the Fan family’s residence in the countryside. She liked to sweep the floor with a long broom she had personally assembled. She also wanted to send all the rear court’s servants away because she thought there were too many of them, until Fan Jin Chuan explained to her that their monthly pay was part of the county yamen‘s specified expenditures, so she dropped the subject.
Another instance was the discord between her and Zhi Qiu.
Fan Jin Chuan and Fang Feng Sheng were not the only ones dwelling in the rear court. In fact, they inhabited the area where the family members of the county magistrate were supposed to reside. The adjacent sides were the places where the assistant magistrate’s and the main bookkeeper’s family members lived.
Probably because Fan Jin Chuan had given Bao-shi earnest exhortations beforehand, she didn’t intrude upon other people’s places. However, she broke into the small courtyard where Feng Sheng lived as if it were her own place.
On the second day of her arrival, she charged in, prattling about how this courtyard had the best orientation and position, and asked why she was placed in the rear courtyard.
Bao-shi didn’t know that this courtyard, as per convention, should belong to the county magistrate’s wife, right next to the courtyard where the county magistrate lived. However, Fan Jin Chuan wasn’t married, and when they first selected their own courtyards, they each just picked one without so much heed.
When Bao-shi arrived, the front courtyard was occupied, so she could naturally only pick the rear. Based on where elders like old madams were typically located, they lived right at the rear, signifying care for themselves for the rest of their allotted lifespan; however, Bao-shi didn’t understand this. She only felt that the residence was far from her son’s, and that she had to walk too far.
At first, she requested Zhi Qiu and the others to transfer to another place, saying that she wanted to move in. After learning from Fan Jin Chuan that Advisor Fang occupied the place, she began nitpicking about how ‘a mere advisor has two maids following him, while the master could have all the maids by his side, but prefers only a single manservant.’
These were Bao-shi‘s exact words, as relayed by Zhi Qiu, who would always gnash her teeth in anger whenever she spoke of Bao-shi.
“Truly haven’t seen anyone as meddlesome as her!”
“In the end, Old Madam is the lord’s mother. You should speak with more respect,” Feng Sheng softly admonished.
“Yes, Young Master.”
After a while, Fan Jin Chuan sauntered in.
“Worthy Brother.” He entered the door with a bitter smile. This bitter smile was probably pertinent to Bao-shi.
“My mother lived in the countryside all her life. Don’t mock her.”
“How can I mock her? Old Madam is an elder after all. Simplicity and diligence are virtues.”
“That’s good. By the way, did Worthy Brother meet a friend during the trip? I wonder what kind of friend actually drew Worthy Brother to Yangzhou without saying farewell.”
“A fellow student from back when I was studying. By the way, I heard that my lord’s betrothed is also here. Did Old Madam come here for my lord’s marriage?”
Hearing this, Fan Jin Chuan’s face became unpleasant on the spot.
“How could a man dare talk about marriage before he even stabilizes his career? My mother just likes to worry blindly. I have no desire to talk about marriage, especially at this current juncture.”
Having mentioned this current juncture, Feng Sheng abstained from delving deeper into the subject of marriage.
After a moment of wordlessness, Fan Jin Chuan cheered up and said, “My mother said that since it’s her first time meeting you, and knowing how much you’ve helped me, she’ll cook a table of food in the evening. She wants to invite you to eat with us.”
“How can I trouble Old Madam so much?”
“She’s idle and loves to cook. When it’s ready, I’ll send Xiao Qi to invite you over.”
After which, the two had nothing left to say, also because they didn’t know what else to talk about and were somehow indescribably a little awkward. Fan Jin Chuan also seemed to fear that Feng Sheng would bring up his betrothed again and swiftly took his leave.
After she left, Feng Sheng asked Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu, “Have you met the lord’s betrothed? Does she look pretty?”
Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu could not figure out why Young Master would suddenly ask this. They stood gazing at each other for an instant, with Zhi Qiu answering, “This, Young Master, this servant really doesn’t know how to describe her. You’ll know when you see her.”
When Feng Sheng saw Man’er that evening, she finally understood Zhi Qiu’s sentiment.
Man’er was quite beautiful, with big eyes and a face the shape of a goose egg. She had an exquisite figure, neither fat nor thin.
However, she appeared to be a little bashful, a little timid, and a little too scared of strangers. Her outfit was also too plain. Well, it wasn’t plain, rather, it was totally how one would expect country folk to dress.
It wasn’t that Feng Sheng despised these country folk, but she felt that one’s attire should adapt to local circumstances. Fan Jin Chuan was now an official, so despite coming from a poor background, she should also give their faces due consideration.
When she first saw Man’er, she was surprised to see her wearing a blue dress with loose flower patterns and a lotus colored cloth handkerchief on her head.3 However, she had to conceal this impression in front of others. Until she saw Bao-shi, she finally understood why this manner of dressing was so familiar. It was an exact replica of Bao-shi‘s style.
Perhaps because Man’er was a young woman, the fabric of her dress was adorned with a few more loose flowers, and the cloth handkerchief that wrapped her hair was a little brighter in color.
“Man’er, come and sit too.”
“Still can’t, mother.” Man’er seemed to have prepared the table of dishes. Wrapped around the front of her physique was an apron, which she had clutched with both hands, inidicating just how nervous she was. When Bao-shi beckoned her over, she looked like she wanted to shirk by retreating.
Bao-shi badgered, “What are you afraid of? We don’t have a lot of rules in the countryside. Besides, Shuan’er is your man, and this Advisor Fang is Shuan’er’s private advisor, not an outsider.”
“Mother, you should stop calling your son by his nickname.” Fan Jin Chuan blushed and coughed twice, “Even if you do, don’t call it in front of outsiders. Also, Miss Man’er and I haven’t yet married, so how could you make her address you ‘mother’ like this? Mother, you……”
“Advisor Fang is an outsider?” Bao-shi peered at Feng Sheng with ill-concealed bemusement.
Fan Jin Chuan also glanced at Feng Sheng and anxiously countered, “Mother, I’m not saying that Worthy Brother Fang is an outsider, just that this is something we should say in private.”
“You and Man’er are to be married. You always say that you’re busy as an official, unable to fulfill your filial duties to your mother. Man’er, this child, is filial and even took the initiative to serve me at home. She’s filial to me, so what’s wrong with her calling me mother?”
It was a very awkward situation. Feng Sheng didn’t know what to say, so she could only look down and lower her head. Fortunately, Bao-shi changed the subject and urged Man’er to sit down again, thus ending the strife.
1 锦衣卫: Jinyiwei, lit. embroidered uniform guards. The Embroidered Uniform Guard was the imperial secret police that served the emperors of the Ming dynasty in China. They were given the authority to overrule judicial proceedings in prosecutions with full autonomy in arresting, interrogating and punishing anyone, including nobles and the emperor’s relatives. I could’ve translated it as “imperial bodyguard,” but they weren’t just ordinary bodyguards, as previously stated. They existed only during the Ming Dynasty and later disbanded when rebel forces overthrew the dynasty.
2 断袖 (duàn xiù): “Cut Sleeve” is notable for being a full-length narrative on homosexuality in China; the title alludes to Emperor Ai of Han’s same-sex relationship with Dong Xian. Emperor Ai was also famous for being the most effusive homosexual emperor of the Han dynasty. Traditional historians characterized the relationship between Emperor Ai and Dong Xian as one between homosexual lovers and referred to their relationship as “the passion of the cut sleeve” after a story that one afternoon after falling asleep for a nap on the same bed, Emperor Ai cut off his sleeve rather than disturb the sleeping Dong Xian when he had to get out of bed.
3 Don’t know why, but I just wanted to include this image of Fan Bing Bing wearing one in the Legend of Wu Zetian.