While the older General Yu and Minister Zhang worried about the matters of their sons, the two people in question had already arrived at the venue of the essay writing competition. Since they have led left later than quite a few of the others and then spend time first talking with the old teacher before they made up outside, there were already many scholars seated and guests standing around, talking in hushed voices about who they deemed to have the best chances to win.
Zhang Shi Lan and Yu Huang Rong also stood to the side and Zhang Shi Lan couldn’t help but start explaining who the scholars were and what kind of impression he had of them.
Yu Huang Rong nodded slowly, trying to remember as much as he could. From now on, he’d have much more to do with the world of scholars so he should make sure that he didn’t stay ignorant of these matters. The sooner he learned, the less trouble he would be making for Zhang Shi Lan and the fewer people may talk badly about them after their marriage. If he could prove to the scholars that he deserved Zhang Shi Lan, then even though they might think that it was a pity that he wouldn’t have any children of his own, they at least wouldn’t feel that Zhang Shi Lan’s talent was wasted on him.
Seeing that his lover actually showed interest in what he said, Zhang Shi Lan couldn’t help but remark a few more things. Some of the other people waiting for the beginning for the competition that weren’t too well-versed regarding these people or this kind of competition couldn’t help but step closer and listen in on what Zhang Shi Lan had to say.
They didn’t disperse when he finished with what he had wanted to say either. Instead, they used the opportunity to ask the questions they had. After all, what was there to be embarrassed about if even the famous General Yu let this scholar explain?
“So is it really that special that His Majesty chose the topic for the competition? I thought that that would be the norm.”
Zhang Shi Lan looked over at the person that had spoken only to notice that they were actively looking back at him. Was he supposed to answer that? His gaze darted to Yu Huang Rong who lightly nodded at him and inconspicuously patted his arm where the others couldn’t see.
Zhang Shi Lan took a deep breath and then nodded. He didn’t feel too comfortable talking about something like this, especially not since one of the teachers of the Academy was close by but since he had already been asked it also wouldn’t be polite to pretend he didn’t know.
“Well, it isn’t unheard of that the Emperor chooses topics for competitions. Usually, His Majesty would do so for the competitions that are held to recruit Ministers for the court or other important officials.
“Today’s competition is different from these competitions insofar that it is mostly used to give the scholars an opportunity to compete among themselves and talk about some subjects the Academy and its teachers deem interesting or important at this specific time. Because of that, it is most often the Academy itself that will issue the topic for the competition. His Majesty might choose one but that is rather rare.
“In fact, it only happened three times under the late emperor’s reign and if I am not wrong, this should be the first time under the current emperor’s reign. Thus it is an immensely important occasion for the Academy and all scholars taking part in the competition. His Majesty might very well ask after the results of the essay competition.”
“Ah, so it’s like that.”
“Does that mean that the winner will be given a position at court?”
Zhang Shi Lan smiled noncommittally. “I wouldn’t dare to presume to know what His Majesty intends to do. Choosing a topic for the competition is already showing favor to the scholars. Regardless of whether a position will be given or not, I am sure that everyone will already be grateful that His Majesty paid this much attention to them.”
The people continued to discuss, finally drawing the Academy’s teacher over. He looked at the men that were standing in a circle and finally looked at Zhang Shi Lan.
The scholar couldn’t help but lower his gaze before he cupped his fists and bowed. “Teacher Su.”
The teacher smiled at Zhang Shi Lan’s greeting. “Ah, if this isn’t Zhang Shi Lan. How do you do? It’s been a while since I saw you the last time. Will you take part in the competition as well?”
“Oh, that …” Zhang Shi Lan glanced at the tables that had been set up. If he was honest, then he really wanted to try his hand at this. He was curious about what kind of topic the emperor had chosen and whether he’d be able to write a good essay on that. At the same time, he knew that the teachers would look at the essays after the competition if the emperor didn’t demand to see them. They would discuss some of them in the days following the competition and interested scholars could ask about their own essays specifically, debating the topic further. He longed to do that.
Unfortunately, he was here as a guest today. Yu Huang Rong was with him and they had a plan to fulfill. He couldn’t be willful and sit down for the competition. “That …”
Yu Huang Rong stepped closer before he could say anything more and cupped his fists. “I’m sorry to interrupt. It’s just …” He turned to Zhang Shi Lan and smiled. “I know you promised to show me around the Academy today and you’re the type of man that would honor even the smallest promise but please. This is very important for a scholar. I wouldn’t want to be the reason you miss out.
“In fact, I’d like to watch one of the competitions anyway and it wouldn’t do to talk while the scholars are writing, would it? So you may as well accept and write an essay yourself. Who knows? If you win and His Majesty compliments you, I’ll be able to brag that it was my achievement to a certain degree.”
Zhang Shi Lan gazed at him deeply before he looked back at the teacher. “That … I guess if General Yu has nothing against it … To be honest, I’d really like to give it a try.”
“Then you should. Don’t bother about me.”
“Mn. Thank you for your understanding, General Yu.” Zhang Shi Lan cupped his fists and bowed. Looking at Yu Huang Rong’s expression, he knew that his lover didn’t like to see him do that but right now, he felt like doing it. After all, Yu Huang Rong was doing him a favor and it meant a lot to him. Why shouldn’t he show that?
He turned back to the teacher with a smile. “Teacher Su, thank you for your reminder. I’d like to take part.”
“Mn.” The teacher nodded happily and then motioned over to an empty table. “Then you’d better sit down. It won’t be long before the topic is being announced.”
“Yes.” Zhang Shi Lan bowed again, gave Yu Huang Rong another look and then strode over to the table. He sat down, arranged his robe and then looked over the brush and ink that had been prepared on the table.
It made him think of Yu Huang Rong’s present the other day. Up until now, he had only used that brush to write letters to Yu Huang Rong, making it feel even more special to him. In the future … Well, after they were married, he might as well use it for other things. But until then, it would be just for the two of them.
After the teacher’s reminder that it wasn’t much time anymore, the audience fell quiet and found spots to sit down. A tensed silence engulfed the venue and some of the scholars couldn’t help but look around, trying to see from where the eunuch would come that would bring in His Majesty’s decree.
Yu Huang Rong ignored them. He only looked at his lover who didn’t seem perturbed at all as if this was nothing out of the ordinary. Sitting at this table, his writing utensils prepared, all eyes on him … This seemed to be what he had been born for. Yes, Zhang Shi Lan had to become a scholar. Anything else would be a waste. Previously, he had been too rash in trying to help but after this was over, he’d talk it through with him and if there was any way for him to help him achieve his goal, he would do so. Whether it was their marriage or anything else, nothing should impede him on this path.
Yu Huang Rong smiled with satisfaction at that thought. Just then, the other guests tensed even further and all eyes went to the path leading up to the venue. It seemed the eunuch with the imperial decree had arrived.
The Academy’s teacher, the scholars, and the guests all stood up, cupping their fists and bowing to receive the decree. The eunuch glanced at all of them before unfolding it and raising it for everyone to see.
“His Majesty decrees: The Academy has produced many famous scholars and thus rendered meritorious service for Our Chen country for several generations. As a sign of Our appreciation for the Academy and the young scholars of Our country, We have decided a topic for today’s competition: The union of two hearts and the bond of marriage.”
In the audience, Yu Huang Rong almost burst out laughing. Excuse him, but that guy had certainly not done this out of any kind of appreciation. He probably just wanted to see the scholars ponder this with deep thoughts while he was looking forward to Zhang Shi Lan’s reaction. Luan Xin was really … Ah, even after ten years, he hadn’t grown up.