Joy of Life - Chapter 253

[Updated at: 2021-01-12 01:47:52]
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Chapter 253: The Long Pavilion, the Ancient Road, Tossing the Handkerchief

Translator: Nyoi-Bo Studio Editor: Nyoi-Bo Studio

Fan Xian gripped the tome, not knowing what to say. His meeting with Zhuang Mohan two nights ago turned out to be his last. Although on that night, he had discovered that Zhuang Mohan’s health had declined since last year, Fan Xian never thought this leading scholar would depart this world so suddenly.

In his final words, Zhuang Mohan gave his last literary work to Fan Xian, a gesture which contained complex meanings.

Gradually, all the Qi officials learned of the shocking news, and a mournful atmosphere began to spread among the crowd. Most of the officials cast their glances at Fan Xian, glances which were filled with caution, hate, and suspicion.

Fan Xian knew what those Qi officials were thinking: that he was the one responsible for Zhuang Mohan’s only downfall. Now that the old man was gone, even Fan Xian felt a bit sad. He intentionally took in the complex emotions behind every single glance aimed at him.

As Fan Xian was still in thought, the carriage finally arrived from the city gate, drawing all the attention to the back of the envoy. This carriage was slightly misshapen and creaking, a sign it was carrying a heavy load. The servant who had originally delivered the news led Fan Xian to that carriage. In a shaking voice, he said, “Sir Fan, in his last wish, the Old Master asks that you bring back this carriage and take good care of the contents.”

The crowd had yet to recover from the news of Zhuang Mohan’s death, and now they had become even more sorrowful. But at the same time, they couldn’t help but be curious; what exactly did Zhuang Mohan give Fan Xian?

Fan Xian was standing, facing the bright sun, which caused him to squint. Even so, he was shaken when he saw what the carriage was carrying.

As was said, through reading one could find beautiful women, houses of gold, and sumptuous feasts.

While the carriage did not contain any beauty or jewelry, it was filled with books—Zhuang Mohan’s lifetime collection, most likely. Just based on Zhuang Mohan’s status, it was easy to guess that they were all rare books without even flipping through them.

The servant then gave Fan Xian a booklet. “Sir Fan, this is the Old Master’s hand-written catalog. It also contains important steps on how to preserve the books.”

Fan Xian sighed and closed the carriage. He read through the booklet carefully. In the current age, despite great advancements in printing technology, printing books remained a challenging task. The number of books aside, Zhuang Mohan’s act of giving his books alone moved Fan Xian. He then heard the servant say, “The Old Master gave you his books hoping you could preserve them during your life.”

Fan Xian knew the servant had said that on his own. Even so, he sincerely gave the servant a solute. “Brother, please rest assured. Even if I, Fan Xian, perish, these books shall continue to be passed down in this world.”

The officials of Northern Qi had gathered around and saw all the books in the carriage. As they had all gone through civil examinations, all of them knew the value of those books. Never would they expect Master Zhuang to give his valuable collection to an official from the southern nation. Other than surprise, some of them were also slightly jealous.

The grand tutor knew his master’s intentions and sighed.

Book-giving was a formality. In doing so, Zhuan Mohan wanted to show his intentions in a more symbolic manner. No matter how much pride each civil official of Qi had, from this point on, no one should take Fan Xian lightly. At the same time, Fan Xian’s place in the eyes of all academicians finally received some sort of proper acknowledgement.

Fan Xian turned to look at the grand tutor. “It is only right that I return to Shangjing so I may pay my respects to Master Zhuang.”

The grand tutor could not hide the pain in his eyes. Only the thought of going back to pay his respects to Zhuang Mohan filled his mind. Fan Xian’s offer gave him some consolation, and he agreed. However, Minister Wei Hua approached. He gave a salute and said, painfully, “The world weeps at Master’s passing. But everything regarding the envoy’s departure has already been set. I am afraid you may not go back into the city.”

After a moment of silence, Fan Xian gazed towards Shangjing’s gray walls, as if he could see a faint purple light floating in the sky above. He tidied up his clothes and bowed deeply towards the city in the manner of a disciple.

The grand tutor was slightly surprised that Fan Xian was bowing in this manner. This showing of extreme respect calmed the grand tutor somewhat, and he returned a salute.

Firecrackers sounded. Nobody knew if it was sending off the envoy or for Zhuang Mohan. Pieces of paper flew in the sky, while the slightly pungent smoke dissipated after a brief moment, showing the world’s impermanence.

The envoy began to slowly move west. Seeing that heavy book carriage departing with Southern Qing, the Qi officials sighed. With faces full of sorrow, they returned to put on mourning clothes and then hurry to Master Zhuang’s manor. The empress dowager and the emperor should have already arrived, so no one dared be tardy. Meanwhile, the grand tutor and several great scholars taught by Zhuang Mohan almost fainted from weeping.

The envoy continued onward. As Shangjing’s grand walls began to disappear behind the mountain forest, the envoy had arrived at the first courier station outside the city. According to the rules, they had to spend a night here and resume their journey back the next day. Fan Xian slowly got off his horse and walked towards the station. As he passed the carriage full of books, he couldn’t help but look at it, although he forced back his desire to get in.

He walked to the carriage painted red and gold. Bowing, he said very respectfully, “We have arrived at the courier station. Princess, please rest here.”

Some moments later, a faint voice said, “… Sir, please carry on as you deem fit. I wish to sit alone for a moment.”

This was Fan Xian’s first time hearing the princess speak. Her voice was a bit hoarse, which Fan Xian found strange. The curtain of the carriage entrance then lifted and a palace girl came out, her eyes red. She walked to Fan Xian and said quietly, “Her Highness isn’t feeling too well. Please wait a moment.”

Fan Xian, showing concern, said, “Her Highness needs much care. It’s not surprising she isn’t used to long journeys. Frequent rest is needed.”

Seeing this southern official’s handsome face, the palace girl for some reason developed a strange sense of trust. She told Fan Xian, “The Princess once studied under Master Zhuang. Hearing the news today has saddened her greatly.”

Now Fan Xian realized what was happening. His gaze toward the carriage now contained a hint of sympathy. Crying for her teacher’s passing, this princess didn’t appear to be an arrogant person. As a member of the royalty, being unable to go pay her respects was indeed a sad thing.

Fan Xian sighed. He may or may not be thinking about his own background. He gave some directions to the palace girl and then summoned the Tiger Guards and important envoy members to make some arrangements. After that, he entered the station alone.

The station knew who was passing though. The staff had cleaned the place spotless and conducted themselves according to palace rules. After checking the place, Fan Xian passed through the main room and silently exited through the back door. He disappeared into the tall sorghum field behind the courier station.

Moments later, most of the envoy had entered the station. The officials from the Board of Rites were all busy, and no one noticed where Fan Xian had gone.

Outside the courier station were still two carriages with people inside. The first was occupied by the princess. People knew Her Highness was mourning and dared not to bother her. The other carriage held a handsome devil—no reason for Qi officials to care. Only the Tiger Guards and the Council officials guarded those two carriages under Fan Xian’s order.

A hand lifted the window curtain on the second carriage and beckoned. It was a hand so pale it appeared cold. The Overwatch Council official walked to the window and asked, “Sir Yan, what are your orders?”

Yan Bingyun’s handsome yet exceptionally chilling face appeared in the window. He asked quietly, “Where did the Commissioner go?”

In this envoy, only he addressed Fan Xian as “the Commissioner”. The Council official looked at Yan Bingyun and replied, “I don’t know.”

Yan Bingyun frowned, as if something was inconvenient to say. He hesitated for a bit before asking, “Along the way, was there a woman dressed in light green following the envoy? She likes to ride on a red horse.”

The Council official shook his head. Yan Bingyun showed no expression and put down the curtain. Having made sure Miss Shen did not take the risk to come see him, he relaxed a bit. But for some reason, he also felt a bit gloomy.

Outside the sorghum field, there was a lonely pavilion next to an ancient road that had been abandoned for ages. On the road was a carriage, and two girls stood under the pavilion.

A gust of wind blew past. There was a slight rustle among the sorghum stalks. Fan Xian walked out and slowly approached the pavilion. With warm eyes, he looked at the girls and said quietly, “I didn’t think the only time for us to have a proper talk after coming to Shangjing was the time for me to leave.”

Si Lili curtsied. Her voice was somewhat shaky as she said, “Sir Fan.”

Fan Xian only gave a look to Haitang, who was standing to the side, not saying anything. Haitang smiled and put her hands in her pockets. Dotting the cracked ground with the tips of her feet, she floated off to a distance, leaving the pavilion to this special couple.

Once Haitang left, Fan Xian’s warm expression suddenly turned serious. He said, “After you enter the palace, you must be careful. The empress dowager isn’t a simple person. Fooling her won’t be easy.”

Si Lili looked at him, a lingering tenderness in her gaze. She said softly, “Only telling me to be careful; don’t you have anything else to say?”

Fan Xian smiled, but he did not embrace her frail shoulders. He said, “Since you are so adamant in remaining in Northern Qi, why try to soften me up now? Do all women find joy in toying with men’s feelings?”

Si Lili smiled, no longer as delicate as she had appeared when Haitang was present. She said, “Sir, aren’t you the same? Even though I insisted on staying, for you to hurry to say that, are you afraid I would demand you to take me back?”

A sense of teasing flashed in Fan Xian’s eyes. “You may one day rule the Northern Qi palace. Why suffer with people such as me?”

Si Lili laughed, “It would be nice if there were a place for me in the palace. I dare not entertain overly extravagant wishes.”

Fan Xian shook his head. Suddenly, he said, “Lili, you are different from other women.”

“Oh,” Si Lili responded calmly. “Perhaps it was because I traveled to many places at a young age. Compared to those women who spend all their days inside doing embroidery and writing poems, I am not as conservative.”

Fan Xian was silent. He knew Si Lili was right. In this world, most women stayed in their homes; not many had Si Lili’s experience, or Haitang’s freedom. Fan Xian looked at where Haitang had disappeared and then said to Si Lili, a bit sternly, “I believe in your abilities, but I still want to warn you: do not underestimate those who appear old and dull.”

The atmosphere was becoming stagnant. A long time later, Si Lili curtsied deeply. She then said softly, “Sir, you may not believe it, but I really enjoy talking with you, just like in the carriage on the way to Qi.”

Fan Xian stared at her, not knowing how much of what she said was true.

Si Lili smiled faintly, her beauty bright without equal. “Sir, I am very grateful that you cleansed my body of the poison. That… is the truth.”

“I am not Chen Pingping,” Fan Xian said. “I believe, even when it comes to interests, there could be milder methods. Besides, I do not want the emperor of Qi to be poisoned because of you… Of course, looking at it now, Chen Pingping’s plot had no chance of success from the very beginning.”

Si Lili blushed slightly. She knew this man, who was closest to her and standing in front of her, had already guessed something.

Fan Xian continued softly, “Living in the palace, you must take care. The Overwatch Council, even with all its reach, cannot control you. Whether or not the agreement between us will work all depends on us.”

Si Lili replied seriously, “Please rest assured.”

Gazing at this woman’s beauty suddenly put Fan Xian in a slight trance. After recollecting himself, he said, “You wait for information. Stay safe. I believe that, pretty soon, someone will help you avenge your family.”

Si Lili suddenly raised her head, looking at Fan Xian in slight disbelief. Fan Xian didn’t care for the joy in her eyes and took out a slip of paper from his sleeve. “Contact me through this person. Once you memorize the contact information, destroy this slip of paper.”

Fan Xian suddenly smiled. “I permit you to abandon our agreement, but I definitely do not accept you selling me out. This contact is one-way; it will do you no good to expose him to Northern Qi, so you better not take the risk.”

Seeing this young official’s strangely sweet smile made Si Lili a bit afraid for some reason. She hurriedly nodded.

“And, if…” Fan Xian was quiet for a moment before continuing suddenly, “If one day you no longer want to stay in Qi palace, let me know, and I’ll take care of it.”

“Thank you, Sir.” Si Lili finally showed some sincerity and reluctance in her voice. She knew they would part ways after this, and said, “With this goodbye, who knows when we will see each other again? The thought of that hurts me, as if it’s cutting into my innards.”

After saying that, Si Lili quickly turned around and left the pavilion, leaving behind Fan Xian to frown and ponder about what meanings could be hidden behind “cutting into my innards”.

Seeing the carriage depart on the ancient road, Fan Xian didn’t show any expression, although he sighed deeply on the inside. He then punched one of the pavilion’s pillars. The pavilion was already about to collapse due to not being maintained for so long. Fan Xian’s punch made it creak even more loudly.

A shadow floated down from the roof. Who else could it be but Haitang? She landed lightly next to Fan Xian, smiling sheepishly. “I didn’t eavesdrop.”

“If you were,” Fan Xian said, “I’m going to become a mute.”

Haitang smiled. “Sir Fan, you are leaving the Great Kingdom of Qi. I don’t know when I will see you again.”

Fan Xian thought about his sister back home. He sighed. “It won’t be too long, I think… Where’s that famed teacher of yours?” He changed the subject. “Coming to Northern Qi without visiting that Great Grandmaster was truly a shame.”

Haitang thought about it for a moment and decided to not hide anything from Fan Xian. “Three days before you entered Shangjing, Master received a wooden plank and left. No one, including the empress dowager and me, knows where he went.”

“During my stay in Shangjing, you hid a lot of things for me.” Fan Xian was looking at a single tree near the end of the ancient road. “I have to thank you for that, so… Regarding the goods heading north, I am currently talking with Chang Ninghou and Shen Zhong. If that emperor of yours needs to borrow silver from me, Shen Zhong must be taken care of. Despite him looking ordinary, he is anything but.”

After a while, Haitang said, “This is secret between you and I.”

Fan Xian stared into her bright eyes and said, emphasizing each word, “In this world, other than my brothers-in-law, I really haven’t seen many pure idiots. How many people do you think we can fool? Duoduo, with you helping me so much both in broad daylight and undercover, don’t think your senior disciple wouldn’t notice.”

Haitang frowned. “What are you trying to say?”

Fan Xian smiled, “I’m saying, since you and the emperor want to free yourselves from the empress dowager’s shadow, you must not only rely on struggles within the palace, nor must you rely on me, an outsider, to provide much money. After all, Northern Qi is a grand nation. Taking complete control of it would take several years of effort.”

Haitang grinned. “I believe you are mistaken about something.”

“Oh?” Fan Xian laughed. “What are you worried about?”

Haitang seemed to be talking about a different matter. “I’m a good student. I respect my teachers.”

Fan Xian suddenly said, “Zhuang Mohan died.”

Zhuang Mohan had students all over the world, and was revered by all. Other than the one incident last year, he was flawless. Even Haitang respected this old man very much. Since she had been waiting in the countryside, she wasn’t there to learn of the old man’s passing. Hearing it now, she couldn’t hold back her shock and sadness. She was speechless.

For the moment, loneliness and sadness filled the pavilion.

A long while later, Fan Xian broke the silence. “Xiao En died. Zhuang Mohan died. All the big-names will eventually die. A good and respectful student you may be, but I believe, you should also have prepared for this day.”

Haitang stared into his eyes. “Sir, you seem to be hinting at something.”

Fan Xian smiled. “The strong desire of young people to take on a leading role; I understand it very well.”

Haitang laughed, and the gloominess of Master Zhuang’s death was lifted just so slightly. “How come many grave topics sound much lighter coming out of your mouth? How come many dark topics become so bright after you say them?”

“The dark night gave me black eyes, but I use them to seek the light.”[1]

Haitang tilted her head. “I remember you said that you use them to… roll your eyes at the world.”

“This world?” Fan Xian said. “This world is theirs, and also ours. But in the end… It’s ours.”

A thick cloud floated over, covering the sun completely. But the sun was shining too brightly, and its rays still peeked out from the cloud’s edges, like the golden borders embroidered by a goddess. A gust of wind blew from the plains, past the ancient road, past the pavilion.

Fan Xian looked at Haitang. “Duoduo, thank you for all your help.”

Haitang finally took her hands out of her pockets. A bit unnaturally, she curtsied toward Fan Xian like an ordinary girl. “You’re too polite.”

Without hesitation, Fan Xian took a step forward and embraced Haitang, who, for some reason, did not avoid it. The hug was over as soon as it began. With an earnest smile, Fan Xian said, “To be honest, if you and I can really become friends, I don’t think that would be such a bad thing at all.”

Haitang gently brushed her hair. There were no signs of awkwardness on her face. She smiled. “Likewise.”

Standing under the tattered pavilion, beside the ancient road, Haitang watched Fan Xian disappear into the distance. She leaned her head to the side, thinking back on the recent days in Shangjing, and smiled. She thought this young gentleman from the south was indeed interesting. His eyes were sharper than others. After he return to Qing, some very subtle changes would occur.

She sighed, clearing away the sadness from Zhuang Mohan’s death. Then she realized she had forgotten one thing—the Haitang Poem Club from Story of the Stone; was it related to her or not? Out of habit, she reached up to tighten the handkerchief on her head, only to grab thin air. She immediately knew what happened and felt her cheeks turn hot. Though she kept her face from showing it, that hug earlier still made her nervous—she didn’t even notice that thief had taken her handkerchief.

Fan Xian was crossing through the sorghum field, a smile of pure happiness on his face. This trip to Northern Qi finally had a rather wholesome conclusion, and he, since having been reborn, was able to meet some interesting people, like that block of ice named Yan Bingyun, and the flower named Haitang, who appeared bland and unrefined. Other than some conflicts of interest and differences in beliefs, he enjoyed talking with Haitang very much.

The emperor needs to have a son, Ku He needs to eat meat, the cripple Chen needs to go to the bathroom, and Fan Xian needs friends.

He put the handkerchief in his chest pocket and parted the sorghum stalks in front of him. Looking at the smoke rising from the courier station in the distance, he began gently singing, “Toss it, toss it, toss the handkerchief…”

[1] Fan Xian quotes Chinese modernist poet Gu Cheng’s poem “A Generation”, considered an accurate representation of the younger generation during the Chinese Cultural Revolution seeking knowledge and future.