As he sat high upon his Dragon Throne, watching his ministers' performance below, an imperceptible smile formed on the Emperor's lips. He waved a hand to allow Xin Qiwu to withdraw, and spoke gently. "Gentlemen, do you all believe that Xin Qiwu is the most suitable man for the task?"
"Yes, Your Majesty." The gathered ministers bowed, their words elongated, using their whole breath to show respect.
Qin Heng, the attaché of the Bureau of Military Affairs who had suggested Fan Xian as envoy to Northern Qi, looked at the Emperor a little oddly before quickly returning his gaze. Now that all the ministers deemed Fan Xian an inappropriate choice for envoy, he reckoned that His Majesty could change his mind.
"Ministers, I do not agree with your views."
The hall was suddenly silent. Only the Emperor's gentle voice reverberated through the palace. "It is said that one cannot make use of jade without cutting it. Gentlemen, I preresume you still remember Fan Xian's graceful bearing in the hall on that day. Although he is a civilian official, he also had the bravery to slaughter his would-be assassins at Niulan Street. How can we allow such brilliance to go to waste in the quiet corridors of Taichang Temple or the Imperial College?"
Hearing this, the ministers understood that the Emperor had long held this view. But they did not understand why His Majesty insisted that Fan Xian go to Northern Qi.
The Emperor looked coldly at the gathered officials and continued. "He is inexperienced. Thus, we must provide him with experience. Fan Xian will go. This assignment shall be given to him."
If the Emperor - the Son of Heaven - said so, then it was so.
The gathered ministers did not dare speak up. Only on the faces of Fan Jian and Lin Ruofu did some trace of anxiety show. As his father and father-in-law, they were unable to hide it. This reaction was only natural. If they were to pretend to be overjoyed and praise the Emperor's brilliance, they would simply arouse the scorn of His Majesty and all those present.
"Fan Jian." The Emperor looked at the assistant minister of the Ministry of Revenue and frowned slightly.
"Yes, Your Majesty." Heaing his name, Fan Jian was somewhat surprised, and hurriedly stepped forward.
"I wish to give this task to your son," the Emperor said quietly. "What is your opinion?"
Fan Jian was quiet for a moment. Suddenly, he smiled. "I do not dare to have an opinion on the matter."
"Is it that you do not dare, or that you do not have one?"
"I do not dare."
"If you dared, what would your opinion be?"
The wind and snow intensified outside, while inside the hall was as warm as spring. And yet the words between their lord and his minister made it as cold as it was outside. The officials who were on good terms with Fan Jian could not help but secretly worry. How could Count Sinan answer so inappropriately?
A moment later, Fan Jian quietly responded to the Emperor. "I was separated from my son for 16 years, and we only met months ago. If we are separated again, I cannot deny that it will be difficult."
The word "difficult" echoed through the hall. Who knew who might have heard it?
The Emperor smiled. He knew that Fan Jian's response was that of his childhood friend. In truth, he did not understand the real reason why he was sending Fan Xian to Northern Qi. It seemed... that Chen Pingping was the only one who understood him.
"But it will only be a few months. Leaving in mid-spring, returning in early autumn. What about that is difficult?"
The Emperor did not await Fan Jian's response. Smiling, he waved his hand, issuing his decree. "The Minister of Revenue is old, and his health is fading. He has been convalescing for a long time. I hereby decree... that assistant minister of revenue Fan Jian is to take his place."
There was no objection from the court. Fan Jian had long hidden the truth at the Ministry of Revenue, but he had never been promoted. Embittered officials grumbled to themselves. Assistant Minister Fan had finally promoted his concubine Lady Liu to the status of wife, and the Emperor had finally promoted him to Minister. If the assistant minister had known this long ago, would he not have taken Lady Liu as his wife much sooner?
Of course, the officials all presumed that this was compensation for the Emperor's decision to send Fan Xian to Northern Qi.
Fan Jian knew that nothing more could be done about this matter. His face calm, he advanced and kowtowed to the Emperor in gratitude. The Emperor then turned to Lin Ruofu and smiled. "Prime Minister, your precious daughter is newly married. I am sending Fan Xian as envoy to Northern Qi. Do you wish to say anything?"
Prime Minister Lin Ruofu forced a smile, stepped forward, and saluted. The Emperor of the Kingdom of Qing and his Prime Minister appeared to be on good terms, but in truth, the monarch's power was imposing and none would dare provoke him. His previous benevolence toward Fan Jian was somewhat puzzling. His Majesty had asked for his opinion, and he did not dare object. He spoke calmly. "Fan Xian should indeed acquire experience."
After the cabinet meeting, the Emperor seemed to be in a slightly better mood as he climbed into his palanquin and made his way back to his palace. The officials filed out. Outside the high palace walls, they all congratulated Fan Jian on his appointment as Minister of Revenue. From now on, he would be in charge of the nation's financial affairs in name as well as in practice.
"Master Fan, from now on, our salaries are in your hands," teased Guo You, Director of the Board of Rites. "Go easy on us."
Fan Jian chuckled and shook his head. "Master Guo, you always were a joker." Fan Xian had had several run-ins with Guo Baokun, but in the royal court, there was no ill will between the two men.
As they walked out, Lin Ruofu cleared his throat. As he walked onward, the officials saluted the Prime Minister. Knowing he would have a few words to say to the father of his son-in-law, they dispersed. "Master Fan, why was His Majesty so insistent on sending Fan Xian as envoy to Northern Qi?" he asked quietly.
As they were now relatives by marriage, the two men naturally had dispensed with a lot of the formalities. Fan Jian forced a smile. "Sir, I truly do not know. Perhaps... His Majesty truly does wish to give my son experience?" Though he said it, in his heart he knew that that damned cripple was behind it somehow. But thinking about it for a moment, Fan Xian would only be away from the capital for a short while – away from the attempts of the Crown Prince and the Second Prince to curry his favor. Waiting until the Great Prince returned to the capital was perhaps not a bad choice.
Lin Ruofu seemed to think the same. But his doubts went further. It seemed that His Majesty was greatly concerned for his own "beloved son-in-law". Could it be that this was only for Chen'er's sake?
The Prime Minister shook his head and smiled at Fan Jian. "Dabao being in the mountains must be an inconvenience for you, Master Fan."
"Nonsense," said Fan Jian, smiling. "We are all family. In a month's time, when the spring flowers bloom, the diplomatic mission will depart for Northern Qi. When that happens I shall allow Wan'er to visit your manor as often as she pleases."
"Indeed. Recently, without Dabao in the manor, it has felt rather lonely." Lin Ruofu felt somewhat emotional. He sighed. "Master Fan, should you have some free time, you might as well pay me a visit."
"How could I dare disobey my Prime Minister's request?" said Fan Jian, smiling.
Again in a deserted place, again in two carriages. Again, the two people who had conspired behind Fan Xian's back for over a decade still hid inside their own carriages as they spoke.
"I said I did not wish for him to sever ties with the Overwatch Council!" Fan Jian, recently promoted to Minister of Revenue, did not sound pleased in the slightest; his tone was thoroughly cold.
In the carriage opposite, Chen Pingping hissed with quiet laughter. "Sending him to Northern Qi has nothing to do with my lousy Council."
Fan Jian could not help but draw open the curtain of his carriage. "Nothing to do with you? Don't think I don't know what you're thinking. Xiao En is in your hands now. If you want to kill him, then kill him. Why bother sending him to gain a reputation? We both know what kind of person Xiao En is. If you allow him to return to Northern Qi, then killing him will be that much harder. You know that."
"I have not forgotten. You hold some of His Majesty's power in your hand. I believe some of your people are within the Overwatch Council." Chen Pingping still laughed quietly. His laugh seemed somewhat sinister.
"I fear that His Majesty would not be pleased with our private meetings. As for Xiao En, it doesn't matter whether he's dead or alive. I've put him under pressure for 20 years, and he's left me nothing. And the young Emperor of Northern Qi won't necessarily be as open-minded as our own liege when it comes to whether he dares to use the head of the spy network of the former Northern Wei Kingdom. And as for Fan Xian's departure, it truly was the Emperor's will. Master Fan, you know that if we allow your son to stay in the capital, the Crown Prince and the Second Prince will try every day to win him over. And that will likely cause us great trouble in the future."
Fan Jian was silent for a while. He knew this was a serious issue. He absolutely could not allow Fan Xian to be caught up in the royal family's struggles over their rights of inheritance. He let down the curtain from the side of the carriage and closed his eyes, leaning on the soft padding. He was still unable to relax when it came to the child he had watched over for over a decade and the connections he had built within the Overwatch Council's terrifying machinery.
Chen Pingping had seemingly guessed what he was thinking. "Since the Emperor has agreed to the plan, you can relax."
No one saw the sneer that curled the corners of Fan Jian's mouth. "Yan Bingyun was captured," he said coldly. "How is your Council coordinating with him?"
"Naturally, someone will be there to receive him."
"Don't send someone mediocre!"
Chen Pingping smiled. "Perhaps you should try harder too. You should know that Ye Zhong has always suspected that the assassins from Dongyi who entered the palace and killed the Eldest Princess's maid were from the Council. The rumor has also reached Xinyang. So it's caused me some trouble."
Fan Jian's heart skipped a beat.
In the Cang Mountains, the snow settled thick and deep. White steam arose from a hidden hot spring in the distance, and red-crowned cranes moved across the sky in an endless and directionless dance. Fan Xian pored over a letter that had arrived from his father and Wang Qinian. Then, crumpling it in his hand, he ripped it into tiny pieces and threw it out of the window.
Outside, the snowy scene was beautiful. Dabao and Fan Sizhe were making snowmen. One large and chubby, the other small and plump, they made constant noise. At times like these, Fan Sizhe could finally act like a child, and not like some embittered bookkeeper.
Fan Xian smiled. The snow was no doubt difficult to traverse, but Danbo Bookstore had still dispatched people into the mountains with their accounts. Seventh Ye the shopkeeper was truly loyal to his duties. Business at the bookstore was absolutely booming. Thanks to the publication of the Banxianzhai poetry anthology, several branches of Danbo had established a firm foothold in the capital, and in the next county over they had begun to turn a profit.
The next evening, Fan Sizhe sorted out the accounts. Seeing the net income of 23,000 taels of silver, his eyes reddened, and he urged Fan Xian to finish the last ten chapters of Story of the Stone. Fan Xian did not answer him. The poetry had stirred up so much; if anyone knew that Story of the Stone was also his doing, who knew what chaos might ensue?
The Eldest Princess had returned to Xinyang, but her influence remained at the court. The key thing was that he did not know who was on her side. Was it the Crown Prince, or was it the Second Prince who he had never once laid eyes on?