Joy of Life - Chapter 252[Updated at: 2021-01-12 01:47:52]
Chapter 252: Carry on the Torch
Translator: Nyoi-Bo Studio Editor: Nyoi-Bo Studio
In the woods, two people were walking on the stone-paved path of the palace. In the sky was a full moon. Fan Xian’s back was entirely drenched, chilling him despite it being a summer night. He sighed and patted his chest—there was still some residual fear—and complained to Haitang: “You guessed I was the… author. Then why didn’t you say something to me? That emperor of yours almost scared me to death.”
Haitang laughed. “It’s your fault for fooling everyone for so long.” She rolled her eyes. “Say, if it wasn’t about your identity as the author, what could His Majesty possibly say that would make you so afraid?”
Fan Xian didn’t even think about his answer. He smiled warmly and asked, “What do you think?”
The corner of Haitang’s lips curled up just so slightly, but she didn’t say anything. Fan Xian tilted his head and saw there was a charming silver glow to her long eyelashes, while her eyes, the most striking feature of her face, were exceptionally bright in the night. There was no denying that the moonlight was magical. Its silver haze seemed to be able to turn any ordinary-looking woman into a living fairy.
Fan Xian didn’t feel much, however, and simply put his hands behind his back and continued to walk slowly. “You got me this time. But, I’m not looking for payback. You should know why.”
“You want me to help you with something.” Haitang smiled. “While I don’t know what, I suspect it has to do with the south, which is why you want an outsider like me to help you.”
“Correct. You and I… are both hypocrites.” Fan Xian smiled in a strange way, partly to mock himself. “Which is why we could be more direct when talking with each other. The thing I need your help with might happen, or it might not. Regardless, when the time comes, I’ll send someone to inform you.”
Haitang looked at him and said suddenly, “I heard you are extremely fond of that Prime Minister’s illegitimate daughter, so much that you even refused to take in the maidservant your grandmother sent you from Danzhou.”
“I don’t like you probing around what happens in my family,” Fan Xian turned around and said seriously. “Enough of this.”
Haitang smiled and nodded. “Actually, I’m just curious. What kind of man is moved when he meets a woman, but feels uncomfortable when he meets a man? Who believes that an unmarried woman is a pearl, but a married woman is disgusting. Who believes that women are made of water, while men are made of mud. Who thinks women are valuable and men are contemptible…”
A long string of words later, Haitang looked into Fan Xian’s eyes and said gently, “I’m very curious. The world has always respected men. Sir Fan, what are your thoughts?”
Fan Xian only smiled in return.
Haitang suddenly put on a serious expression. “Mister Fan, on behalf of all women in the world, I thank you for defending us against injustice.”
Fan Xian was silent for a moment. Suddenly, he said, “I am… fundamentally different from most people in this world.”
Exiting the palace gate, Haitang, to her surprise, discovered that the grand tutor was still waiting outside. Fan Xian didn’t react to seeing the emperor’s teacher; he had known beforehand.
Haitang saluted the grand tutor. She then turned around. “Sir, I shall come send you off in two days.”
Fan Xian knew what she meant. He nodded to her and got on the grand tutor’s carriage.
Watching the three carriages gradually disappear into the night, Haitang’s bright gaze suddenly became disturbed for an instant. She thought about what the handsome southern official said before he left. Different from others? Well, in others’ eyes, Fan Xian was certainly unique. But Haitang didn’t know what Fan Xian considered unique about himself.
The carriage stopped outside a quiet yard. The troops who were assigned to guard the envoy only now realized the young genius from Southern Qing, for his last visitation in Northern Qi, was here to see this master. As everyone thought back about that night’s poetry battle, stories of which had been spread across the land, they became uneasy, not knowing what Fan Xian was thinking. But seeing as they were outside a courtyard of such civility, they soon calmed down.
The Tiger Guards got out of the lead carriage and secured the few crucial checkpoints.
Fan Xian and the grand tutor of Northern Qi got out of their carriage together, hand in hand. While they didn’t appear to be friendly with each other by any means, there wasn’t any malice either. The surrounding company only saw the always-proper grand tutor whisper something to Fan Xian before the two of them entered the courtyard.
Fan Xian signaled his Tiger Guards not to follow.
Having arrived at a house in the yard, the grand tutor bowed deeply toward the inside. He then turned to Fan Xian and said, “Mister Fan, the master hasn’t been feeling too well as of late. Please do not talk for too long.”
Fan Xian politely saluted this great scholar. He adjusted his clothes and gently pushed open the door. He saw an old man writing something with a little brush.
That old man was the current master scholar, with students all over the world. Northern Qi’s grand tutor and Southern Qing’s great academician were both his proud disciples. Before Fan Xian came onto the scene, no one could match this old man in scholarly matters. Even after Fan Xian’s victory that night, no one believed Fan Xian matched the old man in areas other than poetry.
Because this old man’s name was Zhuang Mohan.
There were neither servants nor bookboys inside; only the old man in a loose, long robe writing incessantly. Occasionally he would stop to stare at the paper with a frown and to flip through the books nearby, as if trying to find some seal. Compared to last year, Zhuang Mohan seemed to be in much worse shape. His headful of gray hair was still tied back tightly, but the age spots on his cheeks had grown darker; an ominous sign.
Fan Xian did not want to bother the old man. He approached quietly and peeked over the old man’s shoulder. To Fan Xian’s surprise, on the old man’s desk was Danbo Bookstore’s Banxianzhai Poetry Anthology! The blank spaces of the anthology were filled with notes. Could this world-leading scholar be taking notes on the poems Fan Xian memorized?
With his withered finger, Zhuang Mohan pointed to a line of the anthology: “There are no rivers to one who has crossed the ocean, and no clouds to one who has scaled Mount Wu”. He kept tapping on the page and said, somewhat painfully, “This doesn’t work. The aesthetic of contrasting words is empty; the latter half of the line really doesn’t work. Tell me, Fan Xian, what does this mean?”
A moment of silence later, Fan Xian’s gentle voice rang out, “Mount Wu is a sacred mountain in the southernmost region, surrounded by clouds yearlong. It rains in the evening and it is cloudy in the morning. All who have beheld this sight will no longer be amazed when seeing clouds in the sky anywhere else. Those two words offset the next two lines. It’s about loyalty.”
“I see…” Zhuang Mohan smiled bitterly and pointed at a thick book on the corner of his broad desk. “I could have guessed that. It’s just that I could not find reference to this ‘Mount Wu’ surrounded by clouds anywhere. So it turns out it’s a sacred mountain to the south. No wonder I didn’t know.”
Seeing that Zhuang Mohan did not realize he was making things up, Fan Xian knew this old man was a gentle and generous person. Fan Xian smiled and helped Zhuang Mohan grind ink. Fan Xian saw, filling the blank spaces of the pages, Zhuang Mohan’s handwriting. Zhuang Mohan was also famous for his calligraphy, which was undisputed in quality. But now the old man’s hand was shaky, and his handwriting had waned.
“In olden times, King Chen held a fabulous feast. Ten thousand casks of alcohol were enjoyed… What is that a reference to?” Zhuang Mohan asked without looking at Fan Xian.
Fan Xian felt awkward. When he published the anthology, he had purposely taken out that poem by Li Bai. Why was this old man asking about it again?
Zhuang Mohan sighed. “Since I was a young boy, I never forgot the things I saw and heard. As you can imagine, I took pride in that. On that day, you churned out poems like the rivers and seas. Inevitably, my self-esteem took a hit…” The old man laughed at himself. “But thankfully, because of that, I was able to remember all the poems you said. That was how I noticed a lot of them were missing once the anthology came out. Child, I’ve no clue what you’re thinking.”
Hearing Zhuang Mohan call him “child” gave Fan Xian a strange feeling. He tried to explain. “King Chen was a prince, surnamed Cao. Back in the day, he held a grand feast…”
“Prince Cao?” Zhuang Mohan raised his head, there was disbelief in his murky eyes, “But… there have been no dynasties with that name for millenia.”
Fan Xian inwardly sighed and said, “It’s something I made up. There’s no need for you to bother yourself thinking about it.”
“That won’t do!” In certain areas, Zhuang Mohan could be described as stubborn. He flipped through the pages, pointing to another poem. “‘Xiao Xie’s fine, black hair’. Who is this Xiao Xie?”
Fan Xian was turning various shades of pale. A while later, he responded, “Xiao Xie was a disappointed lyricist. His works were too vulgar to be well known, but he has some fame among the common folk.”
Time passed. Just as Fan Xian was running out of ways to reply, Zhuang Mohan finally sighed and rubbed his eyes. Throwing down his brush on the inkstone, he said, slightly dejected, “The oil lamp is burning out. I can’t keep up like I used to.”
The two committed themselves to this absurd task before they got the chance to greet each other. Now, Fan Xian rolled down his sleeves and bowed with extreme courtesy. “It is good to see you again, Master Zhuang. Why have I been summoned here today?”
The room became quiet. A while later, Zhuang Mohan abruptly forced his withered body to bow down to Fan Xian.
Fan Xian was so shaken up he forgot to help support the old man. Zhuang Mohan occupied one of the highest positions in the land. How could he bow to Fan Xian?
Zhuang Mohan straightened himself, his wrinkly face bursting into a smile. “It’s been a year since my visit to Qing. My whole life, I conducted myself according to morals. Sir Fan, last year I tried to frame you, and my heart has never been at rest. I have called you here today to apologize for my crime.”
Fan Xian was silent. Needless to say, he was aware of why Zhuang Mohan would agree to Eldest Princess’s request to act so despicably and sacrifice his dignity, which he had built up over decades. It was all because of what Xiao En had explained in the agreement. This kind of brotherly bond was what Fan Xian lacked the most at the moment.
“Xiao En died.” Fan Xian looked at the old man who had withered so much in a mere year.
Zhuang Mohan only smiled at Fan Xian without saying anything.
Fan Xian smiled back, knowing that had been unnecessary. Zhuang Mohan had, after all, been through many things over the course of many decades; how could he not know?
“Everybody must die sometime.” Zhuang Mohan seemed to be talking to himself and Fan Xian at the same time. “That is why we must live well. My brother lived a meaningless life. He killed so many, only to come to such an end…”
Fan Xian didn’t quite agree with that. “In this world, one’s fame and accomplishments are built upon the most terrible crimes.”
Zhuang Mohan shook his head. “Do not be that kind of person.”
Not “can’t”; it was a very direct “do not”. Any outsider would find the conversation between these two abnormal. Their lives were simply too far apart, and their only previous meeting had been an underhanded plot. Even so, these two could express their thoughts so directly.
Perhaps it was what they call the power of books.
“Why do you say that?” Fan Xian was a bit cold.
“I am very confident.” Zhuang Mohan suddenly laughed, but there was a deep sadness hidden within. “I am confident I lived a much happier life than my brother.”
Fan Xian looked into the old man’s eyes. “But you must be aware that, without Xiao En, you might have never gotten your current position back then.”
Zhuang Mohan stared back. “But you are still unaware, when death is approaching, you shall discover that power or position or riches are all simply passing smoke.”
Fan Xian was very calm and persistent. “No, when death is approaching, you may regret your whole life, regret that you never experienced anything, never indulged in anything… You are only someone who managed to obtain something ordinary people could never manage. That’s the only reason you feel that way.”
Zhuang Mohan shook his head helplessly. “You are still young; you have yet to know what it’s like to be able to smell death closing in day by day. How would you know what you’re going to think about when that time comes?”
“I know,” Fan Xian said almost mechanically. “Trust me, I know.”
Zhuang Mohan seemed to be getting tired and changed the topic. “I didn’t think someone who could write something as deviant as Story of the Stone would still be dirt under my brush.”
Fan Xian smiled bitterly. “I also didn’t think rumors could spread faster than birds could fly.”
Zhuang Mohan’s eyes suddenly showed concern, “Sir Fan, you must be careful after you return to Qing. Story of the Stone… touches upon many taboo topics.”
Fan Xian was silent. He knew that. In his moment of youth, he didn’t want those words to not have a chance to appear in this world, so he wrote them down. Now that he was heavily involved in political affairs, he was very aware of how easy it would be for someone to use the book to target him. Furthermore, there was also the coincidence that even he was shocked by, and which forced him to remain cautious. Unfortunately, the emperor of Northern Qi turned out to be a fanatic; there was no way for Fan Xian to keep a secret anymore.
But Zhuang Mohan shouldn’t be this concerned for him. This puzzled Fan Xian.
Zhuang Mohan seemed to have guessed what was troubling Fan Xian and smiled. “Sir Fan, other than my selfish request to confess my crime to console myself, I also want to thank you.”
“Thank me?” Fan Xian frowned. Zhuang Mohan shouldn’t know that Fan Xian prolonged Xiao En’s life by one day.
“I thank you on behalf of all academicians in the world,” Zhuang Mohan smiled, “When you first entered the Overwatch Council, you exposed all the cheating that had been occurring during examinations. The ripples stirred up by that event shook the rest of the world. His Majesty has also expressed desires to reform our examinations. Your deed will benefit so many poor students for many years to come. Sir, you may not see me as much, but out of reason, I must thank you.”
Fan Xian grinned, laughing at himself. “It’s all scholarly business. Is this really needed?”
Zhuang Mohan did not laugh, his murky eyes were spiritless. He hadn’t done much regarding Xiao En’s return, and more importantly, he didn’t want to sink the entire nation into chaos. But he knew that, in this world, there were not only scholars. There were also politicians, schemers, warriors. Sometimes, their ways of doing things were even wilder and more direct.
He looked at Fan Xian, ready to say something, but then decided otherwise, since it involved Northern Qi’s inner political affairs.
Much later, Fan Xian left Zhuang Mohan’s residence. Fan Xian would never visit him again.
The summer heat was blasting in full force. Judging by the months, the hottest days should have already passed, but with Qi being in the northeast, the weather was still exceptionally hot, even with autumn approaching. The drizzling rain which frequented spring and early summer was nowhere to be seen. There was only the sun shining overhead, forcing people to strip down until they couldn’t strip anymore.
Outside Shangjing’s southern gate, a bright yellow royal carriage disappeared through it. Once again, the greenish gray city walls became the most noticeable feature to those outside the city.
Fan Xian squinted in that direction, feeling uneasy. For the Qi Emperor to send off the Qing envoy in person was a very improper thing to do. The Qi officials could not stop the emperor no matter what, so they could only gather a lot of the higher-ranking ones to come along. Even the grand tutor came. The Qing envoy was being honored plenty.
Earlier, the emperor was holding Fan Xian’s hand while engaging in idle chitchat, unwilling to stop talking about things related to Story of the Stone. They attracted the attention of so many people— after great difficulty, the eccentric emperor was finally persuaded to go back. Now, outside the city, there were only Northern Qi officials. Fan Xian scanned them and saw Wei Hua. However, he did not see Chang Ninghou or Shen Zhong.
Fan Xian felt his back was soaked; he didn’t know if it was from his fear of the emperor, or from the sun’s heat.
It was not yet time for the envoy to depart. Fan Xian looked at the fanciest carriage at the front. In it was Northern Qi’s Great Princess. Fan Xian could faintly see she was a beautiful noblewoman, but he didn’t know what her personality was like. But Fan Xian wasn’t worried about the journey back. Having interacted with Haitang, he had become more confident in his ability to deal with women.
A cool breeze blew by, and Fan Xian relaxed for the moment. He tugged at his tightly-buttoned shirt, wondering what kind of weird weather would bring about such a breeze. Turning around, he saw Wang Qinian waving a fan nearby with a face full of sadness.
Fan Xian couldn’t help but laugh. “It will only be a year. Why are you crying like this? Your wife and children will be under my care. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Once the envoy departed, Yan Bingyun would go back too, meaning that Qing’s Overwatch Council would have no one leading its spy system in Northern Qi for the time being. Therefore, the Council decided, Wang Qinian was to remain in Shangjing until the Council sent someone to take his place half a year later.
As the commissioner, Fan Xian held special status and didn’t need to go through the normal procedures to decide on such things. Wang Qinian, however, wasn’t expecting to stay behind, and was understandably unsettled and disappointed, even though he knew this experience would benefit his standing greatly.
“Sir, I cannot go a day without your presence.” Wang Qinian reluctantly looked at Fan Xian.
Fan Xian grinned, “Don’t start conflict with Northern Qi. Act wisely and play safe. I’ll be waiting for you back in the capital in a year.” He too, had grown used to Wang Qinian’s company. But most importantly, Wang Qinian was his only aide in the Council. Unfortunately, there was no other choice than to have Wang Qinian stay behind.
Suddenly, a horse dashed through the city gate. Riding on it didn’t appear to be an official, but a servant. All the attention was on him now. How could a civilian have been allowed through?
Fan Xian had sharp eyes and saw the face of the grand tutor darken; there was sadness in his eyes.
The servant rode up to the group and immediately got off his horse. In a crying voice, he said something to the grand tutor and gave him a cloth roll. He then pointed at the city gate.
The grand tutor wobbled, as if having received some shock. Looking at the approaching carriages, he sadly shook his head and looked back at Fan Xian. In his eyes, however, there was surprise.
He took a deep breath and walked towards Fan Xian. Fan Xian, not knowing what was going on, got off his horse to receive what the grand tutor had to give. Unraveling the cloth quickly, he discovered it was a book. On the cover was old and slightly shaky handwriting which read:
Banxianzhai Poetry Anthology: Annotated by Zhuang Mohan
The grand tutor gave Fan Xian a silent look of complex emotions and said, “Sir, Master Zhuang leaves this to you.” Having said that, another layer of sadness was added onto his voice.
“Master Zhuang… has passed.”