Fan Xian did not dare be arrogant. He quickly stood up and clasped his hands in salute to the people around him, greeting the other diplomats of the Kingdom of Qing with a warm smile. "Sirs," he said earnestly, "I have not spent long at Taichang Temple, and I know little of the customs of the royal court. The palace has assigned me as a vice envoy, and I presume that they wish for the deceitful Kingdom of Northern Qi to see that they cannot attempt to murder the people of the Kingdom of Qing as they please. They wish for me to serve as a reminder; they do not necessarily want me to actually be part of our negotiations." He laughed and continued. "I have no knowledge of matters of diplomacy, and I do not wish to tread on anyone's toes. I humbly request your guidance."
After all, he had not been an official for very long; such a speech could not avoid inspiring some enmity and being seen as somewhat reckless. But instead, it made the officials of Honglu Temple feel more comfortable. At first, when they found out that the son of Minister Fan would be taking part in the negotiation process, these bureaucrats who bragged of their foreign policy credentials as diplomats of the Kingdom of Qing felt rather uneasy. They felt like a murder of crows interrupted by a vulture trying to steal their carrion.
When Fan Xian had shown to them that he did not intend to compete with them, all of Honglu Temple felt much happier. Xin Qiwu nodded his head in slight admiration. Of course, everyone knew that if they were to succeed in demanding large sums of silver as tribute, deciding reward based on merit, this son of an influential official, here to serve as decoration, would also get his share.
After the meeting was finished, Xin Qiwu led him to a room that had been prepared for him, and pointed out a large cupboard that had already been filled with documents. "All the relevant material is in here. The key point of these negotiations is that Northern Qi wishes to send us silver in exchange that we return territory that we are currently occupying. Dongyi has no demands; they simply wish to settle matters regarding the two assassinations. The first of which is the incident on Niulan Street involving you; the two female assassins have already confirmed that they are disciples of Sigu Sword. The second is the incident in the villa at the foot of the Cang Mountains. However..."
He glanced at Fan Xian and spent a moment of consideration before continuing. "You are also aware that this is a very complicated affair, so the royal court cannot provide too-conclusive proof of this matter."
Fan Xian nodded. The air of empty platitudes was beginning to make his head hurt. Would he really have to deal with such things over the next few weeks? Seemingly reading his mind, Xin Qiwu smiled. "If you would prefer not to work office hours, you may also take them home. Only the documents with the red top-secret label may not be taken out of the office."
Fan Xian was happily surprised. Although he knew that Xin Qiwu did not wish for him not to be there, he was grateful. "In truth, I was very confused coming here today. If you do not mind me being lazy, sir, I would prefer to sleep at home every day."
Fan Xian reckoned it was extremely rare in the Kingdom of Qing for an insignificant eighth-level functionary to make such a joke with a fourth-level official of Honglu Temple. Xin Qiwu was rather surprised by Fan Xian's words, but soon after he burst into laughter, and suddenly spoke to Fan Xian in a low voice. "Master Fan, the prince's estate has high expectations of you."
Fan Xian smiled. He knew Xin Qiwu's status, and did not dare to be ambiguous. "Be assured, sir," he replied quickly, "I understand. My father has often lectured us. If one is to be an official, one must strictly follow the ways of an official."
On hearing his response, Xin Qiwu, trusted aide to the Crown Prince, nodded in satisfaction. "Count Sinan
has dedicated himself wholeheartedly in service to the Kingdom of Qing. I have always admired him."
After chatting for a little bit longer, Xin Qiwu left the room. Fan Xian watched his shadow as he left and slowly narrowed his eyes. His father Fan Jian had once said, as long as the Crown Prince held his position, then the Fan family would be loyal to the Crown Prince, but even he didn't believe those words. Fan Xian could not simply believe Xin Qiwu, being the Crown Prince's man that he was.
Assigning Fan Xian to the position of vice envoy in these negotiations was a careful test by the prince's estate to see whether the Fan family was capable of following the Crown Prince's orders even slightly.
Over the next weeks, Fan Xian did as he said he would, and shut himself in the room to sleep. Of course, for him, sleeping was also an unavoidable way for him to train. Regarding official affairs, after he took some documents home, he handed them to Wang Qinian to allow him to formulate an appropriate plan of action for the negotiations.
In truth, Fan Xian's intentions were clear; Wang Qinian could report to the old cripple at the Overwatch Council in secret. In this way, this complicated yet dull task was given to Wang Qinian and Chen Pingping. Whether it was for the sake of his mother or his father, they dealt with it appropriately, ensuring that he did not lose face at the imperial court or among the ordinary people.
He had no qualms about exploiting every resource he had to the utmost.
And indeed, a few days later, Wang Qinian, looking haggard, came to a small cabin where they had agreed to meet, and handed him a thick folder. Fan Xian's mouth opened curiously, and his eyes could not help but light up. He saw that the folder was divided into two sections. One section was internal reference material that only high-ranking officials of Honglu Temple were allowed to read, and the other section was a draft dossier for negotiations with Northern Qi.
The materials included a thorough analysis of the internal situation in Northern Qi: the power struggle between the young Emperor and the Empress dowager, grandmaster Ku He being a pacifist, and other such information. The documents also reported that the Marquis Ning, younger brother of the Empress Dowager, was under attack by the bureaucracy of Northern Qi for losing the war, and so the young Emperor did not care how much money he had to pay in compensation, or how much land he had to relinquish, as long as he could go along with popular grievances and use this opportunity as a pretext to reduce the considerable power of the Empress Dowager's faction. And because the Empress Dowager was anxious to settle unrest, and attempts to rectify politics in the royal court had been in vain, instructions were given to be patient and accommodating in the negotiations.
Of course these things, hidden in the dark, went unseen by the diplomats of the Kingdom of Qing. It was only thanks to the tremendous secret powers of the Overwatch Council and their network of spies throughout the Kingdom of Northern Qi, who ferreted out various trivial matters and assembled them into an analysis so that they could finally come to this definite conclusion.
"Incredible." Fan Xian sighed. "Having these reports on hand, the officials of Honglu Temple would be absolutely delighted." He paused for a moment. "How reliable are these reports?"
Wang Qinian's eyes drooped. It seemed that he had not slept in the past few days. "They are extremely reliable. Liu Bingyun has made a breakthrough in Northern Qi. He has installed an entire information network and cross-referenced everything. There should not be any issues."
Fan Xian could not help but feel respect for Yan Bingyun, the young son of an official. For the good of the nation, he was content to hide in the shadows like a rat, and to do so for several years as the son of a high official of the royal court was no easy feat indeed. He did not know that the reason that Yan Bingyun lived his miserable existence in Northern Qi was entirely a result of the unsuccessful attempt on Fan Xian's life when he was 12 years old. If Fan Xian had known that this was the case, it was impossible to say whether he would have felt guilty or burst into laughter.
"Wang Qinian, I did not expect you to be so proficient in intelligence analysis and tracking." Fan Xian was fully aware of where the dossier had come from, but he did not broach the subject.
Wang Qinian wasn't sure how to respond. He simply replied with a timid salute, not daring to take the credit for himself.
"So, tomorrow I will go to Honglu Temple and meet with my superiors." Fan Xian saw Wang Qinian's nervous silence. "Is there anything else?"
"Sir," began Wang Qinian uncomfortably, "you cannot give this information to Honglu Temple."
"Because... it involves top-secret information of the highest level. Nobody in Honglu Temple—not even the top officials—has the qualifications to handle it."
Fan Xian clapped his hand to his head and laughed bitterly. "So what do you propose I do? I might as well let the Council give it to Honglu Temple directly, through the proper channels."
Wang Qinian sighed. "If the director hadn't wholeheartedly believed that it was a surprise that you were involved in these negotiations, paving the way for your future career," he thought, "there is no way that he would have ordered all six bureaus to work through the night to produce this dossier." The dossier looked thoroughly ordinary, but in fact it was a conclusion of the meticulous, specialized analyses of dozens of intelligence reports. If he were to just casually hand it over to Honglu Temple, the Director might well be angry enough to leap out of his wheelchair.
It was the end of the summer. The lotus petals had fallen, but the heat remained. The pedestrians and the black dogs on the streets of the capital had all been weakened and dispirited by the weather. The eighth of August was a very auspicious day. The diplomatic missions from Northern Qi and from Dongyi both arrived at the same time at an official relay station in the northwest of the capital. The Emperor of Qing decreed that the two diplomatic missions were permitted to lodge in a temporary residence owned by His Majesty. Officials from all three parties argued for a number of days, before at last drawn up a schedule and plans for their entrance into the city.
The common people of the capital were roused in spirit, feeling like abrupt autumn rains had appeared in their dull day-to-day lives. As they saw it, the emissaries from the two nations had not come to negotiate, but had come to hand over documents of surrender.
As a vice envoy involved in negotiations, Fan Xian naturally was part of the welcoming committee for the emissaries. He watched the officials from both nations from the western gate of the capital, and arranged for them to stay at the relay station. The delegation from Northern Qi was clearly not happy. After all, in the military campaign in the vassal states, they were losers, and many of their officers and soldiers had been captured. Most importantly, a large amount of territory had been captured.
"Good sir, who are you?" The highest-ranking official among the Northern Qi delegation was Marquis Ning, younger brother of the Empress Dowager of Northern Qi. He looked down haughtily at this handsome young son of an official, and felt thoroughly angry. It was clear that the Kingdom of Qing did not view him as important enough to dispatch an envoy of equal importance to greet him, and had instead sent a junior official from Honglu Temple. Sending such a young man to act as a vice envoy was undoubtedly a show of contempt.
"I am Fan Xian. It is my pleasure to welcome you, your grace."
Fan Xian had a clear smile on his face as he regarded these guests from enemy nations. He thought of the report from the Overwatch Council. This old man was simply decoration. Behind him, sitting inside a sedan chair, was Zhuang Mohan, who had been quickly arranged by the palace to stay within the palace grounds; he was the true leader of their party.