The lifeless-looking fellow peered at Fan Xian with a strange expression, just like everyone else in the building. After a long while, he spoke. "Hello."
He sounded rather stiff.
Fan Xian gulped. "If I may be so bold as to ask... Why is everyone watching me?" he asked, smiling.
The scribe smiled, showing his deathly pale teeth. He found this youth's bashful smile interesting. "If a stranger were discovered in a place that strangers never enter," he responded, "wouldn't you stare too?"
Fan Xian suddenly realized something, and then felt utterly perplexed. "Is this not the Overwatch Council?" he asked. "It's a royal institution... Has no stranger really ever come inside to conduct business?"
The man pointed outside and explained kindly. "Look over there."
Fan Xian saw that there was nobody by the entrance to the Council, and the pedestrians had all made a detour to the opposite side of the road.
The man smiled frightfully and knitted his wrinkled brow. "The people of the capital always avoid our office. As for official business, we never deal with the public; only matters of state. And His Majesty does not involve the other departments of the government in these matters. So we have nothing to do with the other offices."
Fan Xian laughed bitterly. "So it looks like I'm trespassing."
"Do you not know what the Overwatch Council does?" asked the man, curious.
"I have some idea," replied Fan Xian. After all, he was a student of Master Fei Jie of the Third Bureau of the Overwatch Council, so he had some familiarity with their work.
"And yet you still presume to charge in here." The man shrugged. "Any ordinary person would avoid this place as if it were the palace of the King of Hell."
Fan Xan couldn't help but smile. "Perhaps I saw the King of Hell myself when I was younger?"
The man smiled and patted him on the shoulder. "Very well."
The skin on his right shoulder broke out in goose pimples. His tone of voice reminded Fan Xian of Sun Erniang, the character from Water Margin who would lure travellers into her tavern before knocking them out, chopping them up and stuffing them into steamed buns.
The man smiled. "Is there something I can help you with?"
Fan Xian felt as if the man had suddenly turned into a hotel concierge from his previous life. He shook his head, trying to clear his wandering mind. He fiddled with a coin between his fingers. "Is Fei Jie here?" he asked politely.
The man was taken aback. He opened his mouth, but said nothing. His expression immediately changed from the seemingly unconcerned one he had before; it was now one of reverence with a touch of fear. "You are looking for Master Fei?"
As they spoke, the man flicked his finger, rebounding the coin up Fan Xian's sleeve. Fan Xian raised an eyebrow. He knew that the man's skill seemed simple, but it was beautiful. He must have practiced sleight of hand for many years. Such precision told him that this seemingly ordinary functionary of the Overwatch Council was a secret master.
Fan Xian nodded, confirming that he had come to find Fei Jie. He noticed that the man was wiping clean the hand that had patted his shoulder.
"Master Fei is not here," he replied politely, carefully moving back a few paces and creating distance between himself and Fan Xian. "Master Fei is supervising matters near the border."
It suddenly hit Fan Xian that this was what Teng Zijing was talking about. The Director of the Overwatch Council was visiting his hometown, a journey that would take at least three months. Assuming that Fei would do nothing, the only superior who could control him was not present. Of course Fei would slip away.
He thanked the man and turned to leave. "Pardon me, what is your name?" he asked the man with a sudden smile.
"My name is Wang Qinian, sir." Wang Qinian, official at the Overwatch Council, had seen this youngster with his bashful smile come barging in to the Council demanding to see Master Fei, asking for him by name. He decided that he was no ordinary commoner, and it was best to be deferent and call him "sir".
Fan Xian knew that after this man heard him ask after Fei Jie, he would have subconsciously connected him with the danger of poison, and so he wiped his hands and moved back. He looked at Wang Qinian and smiled. "If Master Fei returns, please let me know. Tell him... his student has come to the capital."
Fei Jie's student? Wang Qinian had a sudden urge to chop off his right hand; to punish himself for his impudence. He cleared his throat.
As he left the Overwatch Council, the sun shone down on the trees on either side of the street, and the shadows of countless leaves fell across Fan Xian's body. He walked westward along the road, and then sat on a railing by the side of the running waters. His hands were propping him up on both sides and he watched the crowd walk by. For a while, he was unsure where to go next.
He didn't want to go back to Fan Manor, even though his beloved sister was there. When he thought about Lady Liu and his father – and his plump little brother, forced to compete with him instead of spending his days reading happily – he felt uneasy.
He was willing to fight for what was his, and he wasn't going to give up.
But Fan Xian was still unsure what exactly belonged to him in this world. After all, he had once lived a different life, and he felt a degree of separation from this world.
He had not told his father that he would be going to the Overwatch Council to find Fei Jie. Although his father knew that Fei Jie was his teacher, he always felt that Fei Jie seemed more trustworthy. Perhaps it was because, not long after coming to this world, he had grown close to Fei Jie, as he had taught Fan Xian about the human body.
Now, Fei Jie was no longer in the capital. This raised some questions for Fan Xian over the arrangements for him to come to the city. And so he wondered what to do next.
As he pondered, he leapt off the railing and began to walk back absent-mindedly. When he passed the Council building for the second time, he noticed that the pedestrians were all sticking to the right side of the street, avoiding the entrance as if they feared that some sort of foul odor was seeping from the building.
He narrowed his eyes and headed toward the building. The thin clouds overhead scattered and exquisite sunshine radiated out, leaving him dazzled by a ray of golden light.
Rubbing his eyes, he headed toward where the light was reflecting from and discovered a tablet by the entrance to the Council, squatting like a vanquished tiger on the floor. The tablet was made of stone and had a few words written upon it.
Fan Xian furrowed his brow. The words felt somewhat familiar, as if he'd seen them somewhere before. But when he racked his brains, he couldn't think of where they might have come from. He looked beneath and saw the inscription.
It was a strange yet familiar name.