"The captives, that’s the first thing we need to take care of." The rashness displayed by Xin Qiwu during the negotiations between the two countries had already disappeared. The shaoqing said emotionlessly, "Per His Majesty’s orders, we must retrieve our captured soldiers at all cost. The rest are minor things. Why don’t we concede on this point?"
Below, another official answered him, "The men from Northern Qi and its tribute nations that we’ve captured number over twenty-four hundred in total, while about a thousand of our men are being held captive. Going with His Majesty’s order, we can get all our soldiers back, even if we trade two soldiers for one.
"Right." Xin Qiwu nodded; he was satisfied with his subordinate’s rate of work. He then said, "As for the issue of redrawing the boarders, His Majesty was clear on that as well. We must not give up even an inch of the territories we’ve gained in battle. If Northern Qi want land, they must trade the plains of Qianlonggang."
Qianlonggang was situated to the northwest of Qing and was the only enclave connected to Qing. If Qing could take it back, then security would be ensured.
The lower-ranking officials recorded their superior. Someone said in irritation,, "But Northern Qi won’t budge on the matter at the moment, almost as if they would fight to the death over it. They are willing to pay in money and horses, just not that piece of land.
The main registrar from the negotiations was obviously an impulsive one. He slapped the table and exclaimed, "We already have control over it! What would they have us do?! Give it back?!"
Xin Qiwu nodded. "While Sir Xiao is a bit direct, that’s about the gist of it." He scanned his subordinates with a cold gaze and heavily put down the teacup in his hand. He said, "My fellow officials, do not forget: these lands were obtained by our brave soldiers through sword and spear, through blood and flesh. What those soldiers paid for with their lives we cannot give it back. As for ourselves? We’re only talkers, so we cannot give up on the authority of Qing. We must struggle and bargain with the other side with however miniscule amount of silver we have to offer."
The person who spoke before continued, "Your Highness is absolutely right, but according to the secret reports by the Northern Qi envoys who went to the capital, the Northern Qi empress is beginning to reconcile with our emperor due to failures in the war. The empress’s own younger brother had already been condemned and sent back. If we demand too much right now, relations with them may split again in the future; another war may break out, something His Majesty would not want. Everyone knows, if Northern Qi really is that united, it’ll be like a centipede with a nasty bite."
"It’s been too long since Northern Qi sent envoys to the capital. That report may not necessarily be useful." Xin Qiwu had a headache. While they had the advantage of home soil and being the winders, the other side was in their own capital. Taking advantage of the information network, which was not yet exterminated by the Imperial court, they could obtain firsthand intel regarding Qing’s reactions. On the other hand, for Qing to obtain info regarding Northern Qi was very difficult.
Someone came forward with an idea, "Why don’t we ask His Majesty to lend us the help of the Overwatch Council? Those from Northern Qi are tougher than what we have in the other organizations."
The various officials brightened up as they agreed. Even though they were all afraid of the Overwatch Council, they had no objections if it was to unleash this rabid dog upon an enemy. Unexpectedly, however, Xin Qiwu yelled out, "You think the main registry and I haven’t thought of that?! The emperor wouldn’t allow it, so what can I do? You want me to cry about it in His Majesty’s sleeping quarters?"
The officials saw truth in that and calmed down. Deep inside, however, they all agreed, "If it’s to obtain intel on Northern Qi, why not cry to him?"
The hall became quiet. Although the people of Qing all believed their nation to be one of the strongest, their emperor was still without a successor to the throne. Therefore, they couldn’t help but live in the shadow of the great Northern Wei. Northern Wei, despite losing half its territory to Northern Qi, was still a terrifying force to be reckoned with should another war break out. Without any strong sources of persuasion, the negotiation seemed to be stuck in a quagmire.
"I will go to the palace again tonight and seek His Majesty’s opinion," Xin Qiwu said with a frown. He glanced down at Fan Xian, who had been sitting quietly. Despite being a deputy, Fan Xian certainly did not appear to be one. For the past few days, regardless of negotiations,, he always sat smiling, never saying a single word; no one knew what he was thinking. Xin Qiwu, under the orders of the prince, asked for Fan Xian in hopes of allowing him to establish some political authority. The brat had been obedient in not taking the spotlight so far, but sitting speechless was far from proper.
Xin Qiwu thought for a moment before asking gently, "Sir Fan, what are your thoughts on the matter?"
Fan Xian slightly tightened his fists in his sleeves, but his face remained calm. He replied, "I believe Northern Qi is merely bluffing. Suppose they really do have the strength to keep on fighting, they wouldn’t be in a hurry to send their envoys."
The other officials all heard of this Sir Fan and his achievements in poetry and fighting. Furthermore, they had all admired the way Fan Xian seemingly stayed put for the past few days. Therefore, they were eager to hear what he was about to say. Unsurprisingly, they were disappointed after hearing Fan Xian tell them such generic things. Regardless, they couldn’t do anything on the surface but agree.
However, Xin Qiwu believed Fan Xian was merely trying to appease everyone and be done with it. "You are absolutely right. But the intentions of the nations has been mixed. It’s like each nation is its own entity, and occasionally emotions will get the better of reason. Deputy Fan, do you have any evidence?" Xin Qiwu believed Fan Xian had something which would surely impress the officials at Honglu Temple.
Fan Xian secretly admired Xin Qiwu for saying "each nation is its own entity." He thought about it for a moment before saying, "The key is Zhuang Mohan. We here all know what kind of reputation he has. If Northern Qi didn’t really want to negotiate, they wouldn’t pay the hefty price of including Zhuang Mohan in their envoy."
The officials at Honglu Temple were all from learned backgrounds, so of course they all knew who Zhuang Mohan was. After hearing Fan Xian’s reasoning, they all realized that really was the case. But that wasn’t persuasive enough.
Xin Qiwu frowned. "If only we know the reason for him being here. Perhaps that would help."
The case files from the Overwatch Council were clear on that. Zhuang Mohan came as part of the envoy because, first of all, the emperor and empress of Northern Qi wanted to lower themselves, and secondly, this Zhuang Mohan held a reputation as being a saint of sorts and wanted to mend the relationship between the nations, and third, because of as-yet-to-be-revealed personal reasons that Zhuang Mohan’s hadn’t revealed. While Fan Xian looked down on the demeanor of this "saint," he didn’t underestimate him. However, he couldn’t just explain these reasons to the officials either. He said quietly, "Perhaps there would be some clue if we could see him."
The official registrar shook his head, "As per custom, , normally you could only see someone like him during a royal banquet. If we were to request an audience, there would be nothing we could do should we be turned down." Suddenly, his eyes brightened. "However, since Deputy Fan’s fame in poetry has already spread everywhere, you could arrange a poetry gathering. I don’t believe Zhuang Mohan would refuse."
That startled Fan Xian. He had only plagiarized three poems, two of which were composed by Ruoruo; how can that spread "everywhere"? Fortunately, Xin Qiwu helped him out, "This Zhuang Mohan has always been known to be prideful; he was praised by poetry and essay and song, truly a prodigy. He wouldn’t lower his pride just to see Deputy Fan. In my opinion, Northern Qi invited him for the royal banquet, where his reputation would be useful in persuading His Majesty."
That made sense to the officials.
After the meeting had been dismissed, Fan Xian took some time to show Sir Xin the files he and Ruoruo had "organized". Flipping through the papers, Xin Qiwu’s eyes brightened, as he wasn’t expecting Fan Xian to write such things. While the files contained certain absurdities, they more or less made sense in pointing out the current political situation in Northern Qi.
"Very good!" Xin Qiwu exclaimed. "With this, we could negotiate with more backbone. It’s just that… Deputy Fan, why tell me all this in private?"
Seeing his superior’s suspicion, Fan Xian smiled, "Some of the content is too preposterous. They are only what I think, so I dared not to share it in public. It would be more appropriate for only Your Highness to consider."
Unable to contain himself, Xin Qiwu began reading through the files while still standing in the hallway. Gradually, his brows knotted together. After a long time, he sighed, "Mister Fan, there are many things in here that not even the Imperial court knows."
Fan Xian felt a chill; he wasn’t able to fool Xin Qiwu in the end. But what he had been through over the past decade—from Danzhou to the capital—steeled his demeanor. His smile remained unchanged, "I would not say anything unnecessary."
To feign understanding of something as unpredictable, such was the way of the civil official. As expected, Xin Qiwu did not question any further. Rather, he smiled warmly, "If the negotiation is a success, I shall personally write a recommendation to His Majesty to guarantee you a grand merit."
Fan Xian excused himself with a grin.
After Fan Xian had gone out of sight, the color on Xin Qiwu’s face changed in a flash. He was close to the prince, and was therefore aware that Count Sinan held a portion of His Majesty’s personal sovereignty, but this power has never showed itself in Qing’s political stage, unless… Fan Jian used it now because of Fan Xian? Ultimately, Xin Qiwu did not connect Fan Xian with the Overwatch Council. It was, after all, His Majesty’s personal organization, which not even the princes could interfere with, never mind the illegitimate son of a civil official.
Sitting in his sedan chair, Xin Qiwu propped up his chin, deep in thought. After the sedan chair had come to a stop, he stared at the tall, red palace walls and thought, "The prince was correct regarding the Fan household. We could only try to win them over, not try to beat them."