Yu Huang Rong and Zhang Shi Lan left the venue after the essay was finished. The scholar didn’t talk and Yu Huang Rong couldn’t help but look over and examine his expression.
Before they met at the matchmaking pavilion, he had often thought about this face but they hadn’t known each other well. The few expressions he had seen on Zhang Shi Lan’s face could’ve been counted on both hands: There was the thoughtful expression he had made back when he took part in that poetry competition, the happy smile he showed when talking to like-minded scholars, the shy and slightly embarrassed face he made when the two of them had first met at the banks of the Fen Hua River, a rather neutral expression that was used in everyday situations, and a gentle one that was reserved for when he dealt with children or small animals that needed a lot of patience to talk to.
These are the kinds of expressions Yu Huang Rong had often fantasized about while he was at the border. He had wondered how Zhang Shi Lan would look at him if they really became a couple one day, how we would look on their wedding day, how he would watch him with those gentle eyes should he ever fall sick, how that shyness would creep into his gaze when they talked while lying in bed together.
There had been all sorts of things that he thought of in those dark moments. In the end, those were all just fantasies though. He also knew that but he could only imagine what he knew, so since he had never seen Zhang Shi Lan showing an unpleasant expression, he really hadn’t been able to imagine that. He had actually never wondered how this person he loved would look if he ever cried or was dissatisfied with something. Now, he felt that he knew though.
Zhang Shi Lan had been dissatisfied when he talked so intimately about his relationship with Luan Xin, he had shown a hesitant expression when they were working together in the matchmaking pavilion, he had obviously been worried when talking about the future and all the things that could go wrong. And right now, what he showed was an expression that hovered somewhere between being sad and resigned. His lips that were normally curved in a gentle smile, had turned into a straight line, the lower lip slightly pursed. His brows imperceptibly knitted together and his gaze was kept on the ground. Slightly thoughtful, slightly regretful. There seemed to be some things going through his mind that weren’t to his liking.
Yu Huang Rong furrowed his own brows and finally reached out, taking his hand. “Are you angry?”
Zhang Shi Lan looked up, his expression shifting into one of surprise. “What? Angry?”
Yu Huang Rong hesitated but then nodded. “I watched you during the competition. You were writing a lot and then finally, you looked like you were dissatisfied somehow. You’ve been looking like that since then. Are you … angry that Luan Xin chose such a topic? Do you feel that he made fun of the scholars or something?”
Zhang Shi Lan took a long look at Yu Huang Rong’s face, wondering if he should scold him again for using the emperor’s name so casually. In the end, he only sighed and tugged at his lover’s hand, making him follow him to the edge of a small lake.
The two of them sat down, their hands still joined and looked out at the surface that was shimmering in the light of the afternoon sun.
“I’m not angry.” Zhang Shi Lan leaned back and looked at his lover, his lips curving up although it wasn’t the same smile as usual. There was a bit of melancholy in there. “I don’t think he was making fun of the scholars either. In fact, I think the topic His Majesty chose was quite good. It was … unexpected but that does have its benefits.”
Yu Huang Rong raised his brows. “Aren’t you too easy-going? The other scholars looked like they had swallowed a fly. And you’re really saying it’s a good topic?”
Zhang Shi Lan laughed. “I can understand why they thought like that. They studied for many years and now that His Majesty has shown interest in the competition, they probably hoped that he would take a look at what they wrote. Then he’d see what they had to say about the topics that would be able to change the situation of our Chen country and might take notice of them, granting them a position at court or at another important place. They also might have thought that they would be able to have a big influence on things. They wanted to show off what they were best at, hoping for topics they knew a lot about. But then this happens. It’s understandable they reacted like that.”
Yu Huang Rong nodded. “I can imagine that. But it’s … What’s so good about it then?” He really couldn’t understand. Obviously, Zhang Shi Lan also took his studies very seriously. Could it be that he thought differently about this because he didn’t want to have a position at court? But even then … Shouldn’t he want to show off in front of so teachers of the Academy?
Yu Huang Rong couldn’t understand. Did he still not understand the world of scholars? Was showing off not something they should do? Or could it be that such a topic was even more suitable for it? Could it be that because it was a topic the others weren’t prepared for but that he had thought about he would be able to shine even brighter?
Yu Huang Rong narrowed his eyes, trying to see through matters. On the surface, the thought made sense. If the other essays were bad and his was at least decent, that would show that he was a good scholar. But on the other hand, if a topic was too uncommon, then the benefits of writing a good essay on that topic might not be the same as writing a good essay on an important topic. After all, even the Academy should be considering topics that were beneficial to the growth of their country. So even if they noticed Zhang Shi Lan, that might not bring any benefits.
Zhang Shi Lan smiled at his lover’s expression and reached over, nudging his forehead. “You! You’re thinking like somebody at court. I’m not doing this to get into the Academy. I’m doing this because I love studying. And this topic is very good for that. It’s not something I would’ve considered from that perspective. It made me think. That is what makes it a good topic.”
Yu Huang Rong scratched his temple. “How did you know what I was thinking?”
Zhang Shi Lan’s smile turned indulgent and his finger slipped down to his lover’s brows. “You furrow them. And you narrow your eyes. You always do that when you’re thinking these kinds of thoughts. There’s really nothing that can be overlooked.”
Yu Huang Rong’s whole face flushed red. He had always thought that he was quite good at putting up an unreadable expression that would make his enemies wonder just what he was thinking about. Who could have known that his face was actually an open book? Thankfully, Zhang Shi Lan had told him so he could work on it.
Zhang Shi Lan laughed when he saw Yu Huang Rong’s expression shift. “You’re not making it better. Actually, I don’t think you’re normally like this. In the past ten years, I’ve seen you often enough. When you were with soldiers or when you were talking to people in the street, then your expression wasn’t that open. I wouldn’t have known what you were thinking at all. But … It’s a bit different now.” He shifted his hand and interlaced his fingers with Yu Huang Rong’s. “Maybe it’s that you’re so much in love with me that you let your guard down around me. So you’re showing everything on your face.”
Yu Huang Rong gave a low chuckle. “I guess there should be careful then if I want to keep a secret from you.”
“What kind of secret do you want to keep for me? Aren’t we going to be married soon? There’s no need for secrets, is there?”
Yu Huang Rong looked around, making sure that nobody was there to see them before he leaned down and pecked his lover’s lips. “And what if I have a surprise for you? I’d be ruining it myself. I can’t let that happen, can I?”
“You, ah!” Zhang Shi Lan wanted to pull his hand back but Yu Huang Rong tightly clasped it in his own.
“I’m being serious. Don’t you think I’ll try to surprise you every now and then? Wouldn’t you like that?”
Zhang Shi Lan looked away but he still squeezed Yu Huang Rong’s hand. “Think about that after we’ve married. Right now, we don’t even know if we’ll be able to stay together. What’s the use of talking about surprises?”
Yu Huang Rong leaned over and kissed his cheek. “What are you even saying? Naturally, we’ll get married. So there’ll be many, many, many opportunities to surprise you.” He reached up and gently brushed through Zhang Shi Lan’s hair. Yes, they would definitely get married in the future. There was no way he’d let this person get away.
While Yu Huang Rong and Zhang Shi Lan had been at the essay writing competition, the older General Yu and Minister Zhang had made a round through the grounds of the Academy. They first went to see a bit of the poetry competition but then also went to witness the proceedings of the competitions in astrology and mathematics and finally even headed over to where the riding and archery competitions were being held. Only then did they start to make their way over to the venue of the essay writing competition to find out which topic His Majesty had come him up with.
Just when they were walking down the path to the venue, talking about some of their previous experiences with such competitions, the older General Yu scanned the surroundings and saw his son and Zhang Shi Lan walk down on a path not too far from them. The two of them had probably just come from the competition and were on their way to somewhere else.
The General’s eyes couldn’t help but constrict when he saw them. He had already tried to sound out Minister Zhang but so far, it seemed as if this man had no idea about what was happening with their sons. So it seemed he would have to shift his target to the younger generation to see what this was actually about.
Now that the culprit wasn’t far, he couldn’t help but take a second look. Ah, this son of his, he really was prone to making trouble! What was so bad about getting married that he went to such lengths to get around it? He really couldn’t understand.
Yu Huang Rong and Zhang Shi Lan finally arrived at the little lake where they sat down, making the General raise his brows. What were they doing? Could it be they wanted to discuss their plans there? He would have liked to get closer to find out but there was no way to do that. His son wasn’t just anyone. With his attainment in martial arts, there was no way to sneak up on him to listen in on his conversation. Even when he had let his guard down, he wouldn’t be that careless.
It was a bit regretful but the General could only watch his son from afar. Looking at Yu Huang Rong and Zhang Shi Lan, he couldn’t help but feel that the two of them seemed rather close. Not at all like somebody trying to use the other for an evil plan and somebody who was being coerced because of some bad circumstances. No, they were sitting side-by-side in what seemed to be a pleasant mood, even smiling at each other. It really was hard to see anything but two friends in them.
General Yu furrowed his brows. Could it be that he had been wrong? Was he interpreting too much into this? He didn’t know for sure but he felt that it wouldn’t be wise to fixate on either of the two options. He had to stay open to both of them.
Just when he wanted to nod to himself and turn around, he saw Zhang Shi Lan reach out and nudge Yu Huang Rong’s forehead. His brows raised. Ah, it looked like they really were friends. Very good friends. He never would have thought he’d see his son in this kind of situation.