The older General Yu had his suspicions but there was nothing he could do for now. He could only observe the two of them and try to find out some more over the course of the day. Well, considering that, he was actually happy that he had accompanied his son today. If he hadn’t, he never would have noticed that something was up. Then maybe the marriage might fall through without them seeing it coming.
Now, they were at least warned. Maybe they could even come up with a plan on how to counter this. Although he loved his son, Yu Huang Rong wasn’t getting any younger. It was about time he finally settled down with a wife and fathered a child or two. They couldn’t let him get away any longer or it would be too late.
General Yu knew that he couldn’t be too impatient though. His son was smart. If he showed that he had figured something out, he might come up with yet another plan. So, for the time being, he had to pretend that everything was alright. Thus he made some light conversation with Mister Zhang, trying to gauge if this man knew about what his son was planning.
Unfortunately, he didn’t know Minister Zhang very well. Right now, he felt that he wasn’t any different from when they were at court but he couldn’t say for sure. Maybe he should observe him as well to make sure of this. If other people were involved in this scheme, it would make things much more difficult.
As for the two people behind them … Their conversation gave nothing away. It truly was as if Yu Huang Rong had only come here to give somebody face and wanted to show off their good relationship. Knowing his son, he was sure that his conjecture wasn’t wrong though. No, Yu Huang Rong was planning something. His instinct as a General told him as much.
In that manner, the other participants arrived and the room filled slowly. When the last seat had been occupied, one of the long-standing teachers of the Academy stepped forward.
Zhang Shi Lan couldn’t help but sit up straighter when he saw him. He himself had also been taught by this person back when he attended the Academy. Being in this place again and seeing him once more brought back a lot of fond memories.
He knew that not all the students coming here were really interested in the teachings and some only attended because it was what their families wanted but he was different. He had always loved to listen to the scholars and this teacher had been one of his favorites. He could talk for hours on end on a subject and if the students were willing to listen, they would be able to return home that day with many new insights.
Yu Huang Rong glanced at his lover and his gaze softened. Obviously, Zhang Shi Lan really admired the Academy very much. Thinking about it like this … He wasn’t quite sure why he hadn’t taken up any position here. With his reputation as a scholar, he should be good enough for that, shouldn’t he? And if he wasn’t old enough for them to consider letting him teach anybody, he should at least be able to help with something else and work his way up. Or were there some further limitations he didn’t know about?
The older General Yu glanced behind him and noticed his son’s thoughtful gaze. It made him wonder just what was going on. What was his son thinking about this deeply? He was looking at that Zhang Shi Lan again.
He also glanced over and found Zhang Shi Lan focused on what the old man in front of the room was saying. General Yu raised his brows. Actually, this child seemed pretty good. He should be a scholar, shouldn’t he? And he seemed to take this very seriously. That was good. He really wondered what had made this person agree to make some deal with his son. Shouldn’t he be more honorable? Or maybe he was in circumstances that didn’t leave him any other way? Could it be his family was in trouble so he had used the opportunity at the matchmaking pavilion when he met his son and begged him to help? Had his son shamelessly used another person’s plight for his own gain and roped him into helping him prevent his marriage?
If that was the truth, he’d give his son a good beating! Such a serious child that would put in so much effort. His son should have treated him better and tried to learn something from him. He’d bet that this Zhang Shi Lan wouldn’t leave his mother alone at home with her worries and then let his father bear the brunt of her wrath. No, this boy would certainly patiently deal with everything. Just look at that face!
General Yu nodded to himself. Yes, yes, a person with that type of face couldn’t have any hidden thoughts. His eyes were much too clear and his smile was very pleasant. The one behind all this was definitely his own son! He would probably need to apologize in his stead later on.
Meanwhile, the teacher in the front had started to speak. “Welcome to our Academy. Today, the brightest of our students, as well as the scholars that are honoring us with their presence, will compete in several disciplines that are being taught in our Academy.” His old voice sounded raspy and he cleared his throat before he continued to speak. “All of today will be devoted to knowledge in any form. Thus you will find the competitions in the subjects at different places.
“In the East palace of the Academy, there will be an archery and riding competition. A poetry competition will be held in the lakeside pavilion of the South palace. Competitions in dancing and musical skills can be taken part in at the South palace’s Jin and Li courtyards. The West courtyard will test the scholars on calculation and astronomy while the scholars will be asked to write an essay in the North palace’s enclosure. The subject this time was given by His Majesty himself.” He cupped his fists in the direction of the imperial palace to thank the Emperor, his whole wrinkled face radiating happiness.
In the prior years, the young emperor hadn’t paid too much attention to the Academy. He hadn’t slighted them when they asked for something and allocated them enough funds and personnel but he had obviously lacked any deeper interest. But this time, he had sent out a royal edict, asking them to pay close attention to everything and making sure that their students and esteemed guests would learn well. He had also announced that he would be sending over a subject for the literary competition to show his interest and enthuse the talents to further their studies. And without fail, a eunuch had hurried over this morning and delivered the subject.
All scholars of the Academy were ecstatic. Did this mean the emperor finally acknowledged their hard work? Did he want to pay more attention to them from now on? This truly was a matter worthy of a celebration! Ah, they could only hope that their students and the scholars they had invited would live up to His Majesty’s expectations …
The old teacher looked around, his gaze lingering on a few faces for a moment. Nobody knew yet what the subject was that His Majesty had sent over since it was only supposed to be announced right before the start of the competition. Thus they didn’t know either who would be knowledgeable on this subject matter. But he could see a few bright heads that should be able to deal with it whatever it was.
He nodded to himself and then motioned to the staircase. “I am sure that everyone is eager to try their hand in the field they are most gifted in so I won’t say much more. If you haven’t been to our Academy in a while and need somebody to guide you to the place you would like to visit, don’t hesitate to ask our students.”
He smiled kindly and then stepped away, prompting the guests to get up. Some lingered around, making polite conversation with some of the other guests or going over to the teacher, trying to inquire for some more information.
Yu Huang Rong glanced at Zhang Shi Lan and raised his brows in question. He could see that Zhang Shi Lan wanted to go over as well but his lover wasn’t moving and just glanced over. “You don’t want to go over?”
Zhang Shi Lan’s lips parted and he finally shook his head. “What would I go over for? I don’t have the right status to speak to him.”
Yu Huang Rong clicked his tongue. “You’re known as a scholar in the capital and you’re a former student of the Academy. What’s with going over to greet him? You don’t even have to say much. Just let him know you’re here.”
“Ah, come on now.” Yu Huang Rong turned away and walked toward the old man, not even bothering to tell their fathers.
Zhang Shi Lan anxiously looked from Yu Huang Rong to the two men in front of them and finally went over to his father and the older General Yu. “Father, General Yu. I’d like to accompany …” He paused, not sure what to say. If he called Yu Huang Rong General Yu, then wouldn’t that be awkward? But if he called him Yu Huang Rong, then wouldn’t that seem too intimate?
Minister Zhang raised his brows. He had never seen his son this hesitant. Well, then again, Shi Lan had seldom had to do with people of higher status.
The older General Yu gave a knowing smile. Ah, this really was a good youth! Much better than his own son who only knew how to make trouble. Look at how he had just run off without telling him and even left his friend in such a situation! “Ah, I hope you’ll be able to show Huang Rong around a little. He only ever learned in the barracks and didn’t attend the Academy. Who knows if he won’t get lost if he goes off on his own?”
Zhang Shi Lan raised his gaze and nodded. “Mn, of course, General Yu. Then …” He bowed again and then hurried after Yu Huang Rong as fast as he could without drawing too much attention.
The older General Yu shook his head. “That son of mine … He is really good at making trouble. Whereas your son …” He sighed. “Ah, he seems really dependable.”
Minister Zhang gave a noncommittal smile. “He has his own shortcomings but he is filial.”
“Mn.” General Yu nodded. “Well, since I can rely on him to take care of my son how about us old people? Minister Zhang knows more about the Academy than I do. Would you mind if I tagged along?”
Minister Zhang nodded. “Of course not. Is there something General Yu is interested in among the competitions?”
The General smiled. “I only know about archery and riding. It can’t be wrong to look at something else and further my knowledge though. Please just decide on what you’d like to see.” He motioned at the staircase and then followed Minister Zhang down while glancing a last time at his son.
Ah, he would have liked to be able to keep an eye on him for a while longer but for now, he’d first find out whether this Minister Zhang knew something or not and what Yu Huang Rong could have used to rope that Zhang Shi Lan in. Then, he’d probe his own son further.