Some time passed before Fan Xian finally got up from the snow. His movements were sluggish; he appeared to still be recovering from his emotions from before. This "firestick" had been well-protected. Having spent many days putting the three parts back together, Fan Xian discovered all the parts were in excellent condition; even the scope. Only now did Fan Xian realize how stupid he was for kicking that chest.
Fan Xian knew nothing of military matters; it took him many days just to get familiar with the weapon. As for actually training to use it, he discovered that reality was shockingly different from what he had imagined—when you find sunshine in your dream, you learn that the dream is fake.
How to judge distance; how to aim; how to ensure everything runs smoothly; this was all knowledge that nobody in this world knew. Without a teacher, Fan Xian could only try to find out himself. The further away he was from his target, the harder it was to hit. As for the effects of the wind, that was an even more difficult problem.
Fortunately, he had many good points to compensate for such difficulties. Firstly, he was very calm; almost as calm as Wu Zhu. Secondly, he was very steady; his overpowering zhenqi enabled his body to maintain the same posture for long periods of time. Most importantly, he was patient; he had the patience of a seasoned hunter. That was due to his encounters in his previous life and the "naps" from his current life. As long as he had the energy to do so, Fan Xian believed that he could hide motionless for an entire day.
After getting up from the snow, he felt the cold had turned his body stiff and numb. By slowly circulating his zhenqi, he recovered his numb limbs and turned to look at Wu Zhu who had been standing like a flagpole. He shook his head, "If I’m up against Yan Xiaoyi, I might not be able to shoot before he kills me with an arrow."
Wu Zhu said coldly, "You have no need for that."
Fan Xian didn’t really understand what Wu Zhu meant. Troubled, he sat down holding the sniper rifle. "I know very well that my true strength is above rank eight, but below nine. You’ve been keeping the fact from me because you didn’t want me to get arrogant. But if I have to deal with some ninth-ranked masters in the future, it would be better for me to have a weapon no one knows about."
Wu Zhu said, "By my standards, your rank is still seventh."
Fan Xian chuckled at himself, "A seventh-rank, killing Cheng Jushu? Trading palm strikes with Gong Dian?"
Wu Zhu continued, "Gong Dian ranks eighth, Cheng Jushu ranks seventh at most. Perhaps… while I spent the past dozen years in Danzhou, the quality of martial arts has gone down across the world."
Fan Xian frowned and dusted the snow off his hips. Although he didn’t say anything, Wu Zhu’s words still gave him a strange feeling. As to what was strange, Fan Xian couldn’t explain. He shook his head, "I must become strong, or else I can’t protect those around me; Wan’er and the royal family and Eldest Princess. And Ruoruo? Don’t forget, she is also a poor child who grew up without a mother."
Wu Zhu was silent.
Fan Xian smiled. At the moment, the snowy mountain was bathed in the gentle and clear light of the moon, illuminating his flawless face. Watching Wu Zhu’s black blindfold, which had gathered a few specks of snow, Fan Xian suddenly had an idea and did what he never dared to do growing up.
He took a step forward, carefully reaching out his hand to remove Wu Zhu’s blindfold. His movement was extremely gentle.
Wu Zhu took a step back, which brought him precisely to the edge of the cliff without any distance to spare. Fan Xian’s right hand stopped awkwardly in midair, inches from Wu Zhu’s face.
"Time to return." Wu Zhu took the sniper rifle from Fan Xian and disappeared into the darkness.
Staring into the place where Wu Zhu disappeared, a sense of sadness gushed forth from Fan Xian’s heart. Such a strong and peerless person who remembered only a fraction of his past; what would he be like in the future?
The mountains do not care for the passage of time. Every day, Fan Xian woke up at dawn with great self-discipline to train in martial arts. At night, he would make some time to train in sneaking about at night with Wu Zhu. For the rest of the days, he mostly lived a comfortable life with Lin Wan’er and his younger sister. As the girls gathered in the yard to compete in poetry, paint, sing, and play cards, days passed.
Ye Ling’er and Rou Jia also dropped by and stayed for a bit. Naturally, they held a small-scale poetry gathering. Rou Jia seemed to have gotten over her sadness from Fan Xian’s marriage. With watery, pleading eyes, she asked to hear Fan compose a few poems. Not fooled in the slightest, Fan Xian escaped at the first opportunity.
Toward the end of the year, Fan Sizhe finally got away from his ethnology studies and rode his carriage up the mountains to ask his sister-in-law to play Mahjong. In his eyes, finding Lin Wan’er at a game table was like akin to a peerless swordsman finally finding a worthy rival. Human lives could be lonely like snowflakes.
As the Fan siblings gathered, Fan Xian, being the young master, could not forget his wife’s older brother. Teng Zijing’s wounds had healed, so Fan Xian asked him to bring Dabao over. The traveling party was protected by Wang Qinian's group, so there probably wouldn't be any problems.
One day after lunch, Fan Xian asked servants to prepare a carriage. Together with Lin Wan’er, they descended down the mountains to welcome Dabao. A short while later, they saw the traveling party. After the carriage and carts stopped, Teng Zijing quickly went forward to greet Fan Xian and the ruling Lady. Lin Wan’er knew this man was Fan Xian’s first aide when he arrived in the capital, so she was exceeding kind to reply. But she couldn’t help by be distracted by the carriage.
Needless to say, that was Dabao calling Fan Xian. Fan Xian couldn’t help but smile as he saluted. He then went to greet his chubby brother-in-law, whom he hadn’t seen in months. Fascinated by the mountain landscape, Dabao opened his mouth and laughed. "There's not nearly as much snow back in the capital."
Snow fell heavily in the Cang Mountains. Much of it accumulated on the roads. Looking at the snow on her brother’s hair, Lin Wan’er walked up and brushed it off. She then put the fox pelt cloak she brought onto him. "That father of ours, seriously. He knew it’d be cold in the mountains, why didn’t he prepare more clothes?"
Fan Xian only smiled. The prime minister was a man, and there weren’t many women in Lin manor. As much as the prime minister treasured Dabao, he couldn’t cover every aspect. Fan Xian then turned to ask Teng Zijing, "Did anything happen on the way here?"
"No." Teng Zijing answered, "Although, when entering the mountains, we ran into another traveling carriage. They saw we came from the prime minister’s manor and let us pass first."
Enjoying the snow and avoiding summer heat; these were the favorite pastimes of the elites in the capital. In some areas leading up to the mountains, there were even soldiers stationed to guard the passes. Hearing there were no major incidents, Fan Xian made some more small talk and prepared to go back.
At that moment, the sound of horses could be heard behind them. A short while later, a traveling party of carriages came up in an aggressive manner. They were currently at a fork in the road, so for the moment everything seemed extremely crowded.
"That’s them." Teng Zijing said somewhat uneasily, "Young Master, I spared you some details because I didn’t want you to get angry."
The leading carriage driver saw the pileup and began swearing. Fan Xian squinted in that direction and recognized Guo You’s carriage. Fan Xian smiled, thinking about something.
Eventually the leading carriage driver realized he was shouting at people from the prime minister’s manor. The standoff suddenly became less heated.
"Even if you are from the prime minister’s manor, you shouldn’t block the path. We already made way for you once. Can you hurry up?" A voice came from the Guo carriage. Fan Xian recognized its owner.
Immediately, a rich son came out of the carriage. He pointed at Teng Zijing’s party and scolded, "Why are you still in the way? Prime Minister Lin is still in the capital. What are you lot doing in the Cang Mountains?"
"Guo Baokun?" Fan Xian was overjoyed and waved.
Hearing somebody call out to him in such a friendly manner, Guo Baokun thought it was someone he was close with. So he turned with a warm smile. Upon seeing Fan Xian, that smile froze on Guo Baokun’s face, making him look incredibly awkward. There was some nervousness and fear in his eyes. "Who is that? That’s Fan Xian…"
During the poetry gathering, at capital court, and in the Imperial palace; Guo Baokun had alienated Fan Xian numerous times. To Guo Baokun’s misfortune, Fan Xian was one who stirred up the capital. Every time there was conflict, Fan Xian would pay it back in full. Now that Fan Xian had married that girl, the extravagance of their grand wedding made Guo Baokun accept his bad luck. Until now, all he had hoped for was to never run into Fan Xian ever again. But who knew fate could be so cruel?
Looking at Guo Baokun, Fan Xian thought, "This fellow’s luck is so bad it would make both mortals and gods cry. Why must I run into him again?"
Seeing Guo manor’s traveling party descend the mountain like fleeing rabbits, Fan Xian flexed his wrists. Lin Wan’er walked over and lowered her voice, "Why do you chase them away for no reason? His rank aside, he is still a civil servant close to the prince. Not to mention Cang Mountain is not Fan… ours. If other people find out about this, they would sure to call us uncivilized."
"I didn’t chase them away," Hearing his wife, a mischievous smile appeared on Fan Xian’s flawless face. "I only said I’d go visit him at midnight for some tea. I didn’t know they’d run away."
Fan Xian spoke those words with such gentleness he made Lin Wan’er laugh. She said, "Oh you, who in the capital doesn’t know it was you who beat him up? Go visit him at midnight? Of course he’d run away. He couldn’t match you in fame or prowess. What other choice did he have?"
Fan Xian chuckled. "I, too, feel bad for him."
Teng Zijing also brought letters. In them, Count Sinan sounded somewhat worried, as if something had happened at the Imperial court. But from the contents, it didn’t appear to involve the Eldest Princess, so what could it be? He then opened Wang Qinian's letter and put the two letters together. Everything made sense now.
"Letting business run politics. Now it’s the Council. How long is this going to continue for?" Looking at the dark, snowy sky outside the window, Fan Xian shook his head.
He knew that eventually, the duty of going as an envoy to Northern Qi would fall upon him. His performance at the feast that night was overboard; escaping to the mountains wouldn’t be enough to calm the waves.
Reason number two was Chen Pingping, his mother’s former comrade whom he had never met. Director Chen very much wanted Fan Xian to take over his position in the Overwatch Council. But Fei Jie had confirmed that taking over that position would be harder than becoming prime minister. Fan Xian’s fame and talent weren’t enough to shake the Council’s thousands of dark agents.
The Overwatch Council was not the regular Sixth Bureau. Those without competency could only get by momentarily; they could not gain lifetime control. What the Council itself and the emperor wanted was long-term stability. That was the reason why Chen Pingping left the duty to Fan Xian. If Fan Xian could successfully rescue Yan Bingyun, it would earn Yan Ruohai's favor. When he returns to the capital, there is bound to be a promotion. And with Fei Jie and Cheng Pingping’s arrangements, Fan Xian would at least earn support from more than half of the leaders.
The problem was his father. Fan Jian wanted his son to peacefully take over the palace treasury and become exceptionally wealthy.
Between the two sides, Fan Xian knew he didn’t have much say on the matter. Ultimately it depended on what His Majesty thought. Thinking about this emperor made Fan Xian frown. If he really took over the Overwatch Council, it would only confirm a certain terrifying thought.
Being the envoy to Northern Qi was a gilded opportunity. But Fan Xian knew he was only a piece of brass; gilded or not, brass cannot turn into gold. While he was still unaware of the riskiest part of the Overwatch Council’s plans, he guessed this envoy wouldn’t be unusual.
Outside the window, snow mixed with the wind. Toward the end of the long hallway, the faint sound of laughter could be heard. There was also the red light from candles, providing a warm sight in this snowy night.
Taking the two letters, Fan Xian ripped them to tiny pieces and threw them out the window where they mixed with the powdered snow, lost forever. A gust of wind blew in, chilling the room.
The dim candlelight brightened a bit.
"Close the window, it’s freezing in here." Wan’er had gone to bed early. She peeked out half her face from under her blankets. With just her eyes showing, she said to Fan Xian, "Time to sleep. Let them do as they wish. My older brother is behaving, there’s nothing to worry about."
Smiling, Fan Xian walked next to the bed and slid his hand under the blankets as if it were natural. As he gently palmed his wife’s ample bosom, he began to talk about a completely different topic, "I know Dabao will behave, but you should know what that younger brother of mine is like. If I don’t keep an eye on him, one of these days he'll bring Dabao into the mountains to hunt bears again."
Despite being married for some time now, Lin Wan’er was still not used to her husband’s hand reaching out at her so leisurely. Her face turned bright red, and her eyes looked like they were about to shed tears. She caught the hands on her chest, "You’re misbehaving again."
"My wife is calling me to bed, how should I behave?" Fan Xian chuckled. With a reverse palm strike, he extinguished the candle, leaving the couple in the quiet and dark room. After the rustling of clothes, Fan Xian was only wearing an undershirt. As he got under the blankets, his chilled body made Lin Wan’er shiver. She said, "You sleep so late every single night. No one knows what you’re doing at the table."
"Is that a complaint?" Fan Xian teased his wife, who had yet to turn sixteen. A girl younger than him, who grew up treasured by her parents, was now his wife. Every night they indulged in pleasure. Fan Xian had no idea if she could endure it all. As he thought about it, he began to fondle Wan’er chest. This sense of fullness behind a slick, thin fabric was pure bliss.
Lin Wan’er moaned lightly and buried herself in Fan Xian’s embrace.
Fan Xian lowered his head and met her lips with his. The two bodies slowly entwined, almost burning up, raising the room temperature.
Clouds clear; rain stops; mist dissipates. Flowers blossom and wilt; there’s a time for everything.
It was still snowing outside the window. But it was warm as spring under the blankets. Wan’er, embarrassed, meekly buried her face in Fan Xian’s chest. Fan Xian affectionately looked at his wife and gently stroked her lips. For some reason, he remembered the chicken drumstick from the temple.
"Your… Your hands are not clean." Wan’er turned her head.
Fan Xian smiled warmly. "Unclean? Where? My Wan’er is clean everywhere."
Lin Wan’er was afraid her husband would say some even more embarrassing things, so she changed the topic. "So, are you going to Northern Qi?"
Fan Xian embraced her tighter and asked her in return, "Will you follow me for life?"
"Eh?" Wan’er’s expression couldn’t be seen in the dark, but hearing her husband ask such a question must have made her nervous. In this world, divorce was unheard of. She asked, "Why do you ask?"
Fan Xian now realized his question was not appropriate, so he explained, "It just slipped out." It was something he carried over from his previous life. Although he exchanged vows with Wan’er, there were still certain things he wanted to hear from the mouth of a cute girl.
"Slipped out?" Lin Wan’er was suspicious. She asked weakly, "Were you thinking about Sisi?"
That made Fan Xian remember Sisi whom he had intentionally left at Fan manor. According to Teng Zijing, she was living quite well. But as for the mess grandmother made, he had to deal with that eventually.
He consoled Wan’er, "How could I be in the mood to think about that? If we want to get through the business of life, we must plan far ahead. Besides, you know your mother doesn’t like me very much."
It was a new phrase that fell on Wan’er ears, warming her heart. Satisfied, she said, "I’m married to you, what other choice do I have?"
"Then that’s that." Fan Xian smiled in the dark, his lips holding a gentle curve. He said lightly, "Some esteemed ones in the capital are holding a big Mahjong game. I don’t know if I can join."
Wan’er smiled, "Fighting dirty, I’m no match for you. Playing table games, you’re no match for me." That was the phrase Fan Xian used to trigger Zhuang Mohan to throw up blood. It had spread far and wide in the capital.
The snow and wind picked up. Fan Ruoruo could not sleep. She stood holding an umbrella, staring into the darkness and carefully keeping her distance from the edge of the pavement. On her face was a smile which lacked any emotion. Her heart was empty. The brother she admired the most was already married. Where did her future lead? Brother had said that she should be like Sizhe. She could find some things, emotions, or even fine arts to dedicate her life to. But she herself couldn’t find such a thing.
Snow fell upon her umbrella, and onto her heart.
Wu Zhu, forever wearing his blindfold, silently appeared behind her. His emotionless voice rang out next to Ruoruo’s ear, "Can you keep a secret?"
At dawn the next day, after Fan Xian returned from his training, he was surprised to find Dabao wearing the fox pelt cloak and looking down the cliffs of the estate. Worried that he’d fall, Fan Xian quickly walked towards Dabao and asked gently, "Dabao, what are you looking at?"
Dabao innocently grinned. He pointed downward and said, "Little Xianxian, there, big white bird."
Far away in the mountains, mist was rising. There, several white cranes, with black necks and tails, were foraging. Occasionally, they raised their heads and called out in their crisp voices. Between the calls, they would spread their wings and dance about. It was a beautiful sight.
Fan Xian was somewhat stunned. In such cold weather, those cranes remained in the mountains; could there be hot springs somewhere? Cranes are birds of freedom. They do not enjoy confinement. Watching the cranes in the distance dancing without restraint made Fan Xian inhale deeply. It brightened his spirit.
"Dabao, do you like those birds?"
Fan Xian was surprised. He asked with a smile, "Why not? Isn’t their dance pretty?"
Dabao rubbed his lips, "They’re always jumping around. It Make Dabao restless."
Fan Xian laughed and slapped his older brother-in-law on the shoulder. For some reason, this third talk with Dabao was the most relaxed. Perhaps it was because Dabao really was like a child, so there was nothing for Fan Xian to watch out for.
While the crane dance was beautiful, watching them was truly tiring.
"Dabao, have you been having fun these past few days?"
Dabao frowned ever so slightly, as if not knowing how to answer the question. Nevertheless, he tried his best, "Was… Was… good. Play Mahjong… Little fatty throwing tantrums. Pretty… fun."
Fan Xian chuckled. He stared at the dense snowy forest below; he stared at the mist in the distance and the cranes within that mist; he stayed silent for a long time.