Backed by the Overwatch Council’s reports, the negotiations over the next few days changed drastically. Northern Qi still tried to play their sticky tactics, dragging things on day after day in hopes of decreasing Qing’s patience. They weren’t expecting this shaoqing of Honglu Temple to unleash such intensity. During the next two days of deliberation, it was as if Xin Qiwu had turned into a mountain-splitting axe, chopping down the other party!
After three meetings, the problems regarding captives, tributes, and names were all solved. All that was left was also the most difficult—the issue regarding redrawing the borders.
As a deputy, Fan Xian had always overlooked this process. Nevertheless, he was very impressed by Xin Qiwu’s ability to converse. Fan Xian really didn’t expect anyone so close to the prince to be so ferocious. Not everyone in the East Palace deserved to be hit like Guo Baokun. Xin Qiwu, during his conversations and observations, felt surprised by Fan Xian’s patience, which far surpassed that of his peers. The shaoqing felt he couldn’t see through Fan Xian’s character.
Overall, the negotiations went smoothly. Other than help from the Overwatch Council, Fan Xian didn’t put in too much effort, and therefore didn’t get his part of the merit. He was satisfied with his current life.
The bookstore was taken care off by the shopkeeper from Qingyu Hall, and Fan Sizhe often interacted with the accountant. Fan Xian didn’t have to worry about any of that. As for his marriage in two months, the nannies of the Lin and Fan Manors would be busy taking care of that. Even Lady Liu liked the idea of Fan Xian being the emperor’s fake son-in-law and was ready to be a stepmother. She knew that, once Fan Xian married the emperor’s adopted daughter, he wouldn’t threaten Fan Sizhe’s position in the household.
On top of all that, there was also Lin Wan’er’s status. Those old maidens often came to Fan Manor to speak of various things; once every few days, some would come to deliver some lady’s wishes, making Count Sinan quite irritated. As for Fan Xian, who didn’t know the formalities of the palace, he tried to get away from them as best as he could. Lin Wan’er and Ruoruo suffered as a result of having to clean up after him.
The second prince came twice on behalf of Prince Jing, who wanted to meet with Fan Xian, but Fan Xian was still hung up on when he happened to run into the eldest prince. Hoping for things to calm down a bit, Fan Xian kept pushing the meeting back until the end of the month. After all, the East Palace seemed to have changed its view on him. Not that he dared to refuse the invitation from one of the princes; rather, he dared not play around while still serving the country.
During those days, Fan Xian was only slightly worried about that Zhuang Mohan, who hadn’t shown himself since, this in addition to the disciple of Sigu Sword from Dongyi. Respectively, they were at the top in civil and martial virtues, so why was the capital this quiet? Zhuang Mohan had been invited by the empress to stay in the palace for studies, which the head d
isciple of Sigu Sword stayed with Dongyi’s envoy.
The one who got most of Fan Xian’s attention was Yun Zhilan. Zhuang Mohan had done nothing to Fan Xian, but Yun Zhilan was after Fan Xian’s life. However, since Yun Zhilan was far away outside the capital, Fan Xian believed himself to be relatively safe. After all, Yun Zhilan wouldn’t be so stupid as to challenge him alone. The thing most prominent on his mind was the matter regarding a certain key.
He stared blankly at a black chest at night. The lock appeared to be made of brass. However, as much as he tried, he couldn’t leave a single scratch on it with his think dagger, so the material must have been something unique. There appeared to be some other mechanism behind the keyhole, but without the key, Fan Xian had no idea what that mechanism even looked like.
Fan Xian had tried various means to get acquainted with the old eunuch Hong from the palace. However, he discovered something: While he had made a name for himself in the capital, he was still far from reaching the top. Both the eldest and second princes were trying to win him over for the sake of Fan and Lin manors; he himself wasn’t worth the hassle. The palace itself didn’t need to see civil servants, so he couldn’t even go there.
Besides, it was inconvenient for Wan’er to enter the palace, so there wasn’t anyone who could help Fan Xian. It would be extremely difficult for him to even get to know Hong Siyang, never mind getting him out of the palace like Wu Zhu said.
When the second prince visited on behalf of Prince Jing, he once asked through other people if he could get to know Hong Gonggong that way, but Li Hongcheng kept shaking his head. That old dog only lay around in the empress’s palace; he would never venture out.
"It looks like we must change our plan." With a smack, Fan Xian kicked the chest back where it was. He looked at Wu Zhu who was standing in the corner, as though falling asleep, and said, "I have no way of making Hong Gonggong come outside the palace."
Wu Zhu slowly raised his head, "I can lure him out, or, you can try to find the key in the palace."
Fan Xian was greatly frightened. He was only above a fourth-rank, not yet a sixth-rank in martial arts. For him to sneak around the palace would mean certain death. But he squinted and thought the plan as being the most feasible at the moment. After all, while Wu Zhu said his "potential" was Level 3, he managed to kill Cheng Jiushu, meaning that Wu Zhu overestimated his assessment and thus underestimated Fan Xian’s ability to use zhenqi. Of course, Fan Xian couldn’t say that out loud.
"If it really is that risky, why must I find this key?" This question had been on Fan Xian’s mind for a long time. "If it’s just to satisfy curiosity, such risks aren’t worth it."
"Don’t you want to know what the Lady left you?"
"I do." Fan Xian sat with his head hung low. "But I believe that my mother wants me to live happily and safely. If something she left me were to put me in danger, perhaps, she would not want that."
Wu Zhu also hung his head low. The black blindfold seemed to blend into the night. While he wasn’t "looking" at Fan Xian, Fan Xian could still feel a chill.
"You are satisfied with your current life."
Wu Zhu’s voice was without emotions; he rarely used such rhetorical questions. Rather, he was stating a fact. Startled, Fan Xian thought back, especially on the summer days. He seemed to have been genuinely enjoying the riches and authority and stability of the life of a rich son.
"But you can’t control your life." Wu Zhu continued coldly. "All that’s in front of you is planned by Cheng Pingping and Fei Jian."
Fan Xian felt a chill in his heart as he understood what Wu Zhu meant. Despite living a second life and seeing the highs and lows of the world, Fan Xian was still having a hard time believing what Wu Zhu said. He lowered his voice and asked, "I can’t trust even them?"
Wu Zhu’s voice only got colder. "Trust no one; that’s the way I do things."
"That would make life difficult." Fan Xian closed his eyes, as if trying to imitate a life in eternal darkness.
"What would you do after they die?" Wu Zhu rarely asked questions, but now that he did, he attacked Fan Xian’s weakness.
Fan Xian frowned, "I understand."
Wu Zhu didn’t care for his declaration and continued to speak in his expressionless voice, "What protects you isn’t some secret plot, not authority, not anything. Only power can protect you; you must remember that."
Fan Xian stood up from beside his bed and respectfully saluted this servant, this teacher, this elder brother.
"I don’t know what the Lady left you in that chest, but I do know that you must obtain the power to protect yourself, the power to make your enemies quake. Determination is a form of power itself, which is why I want to you find that key."
"Yes. I’ll do it."
When Fan Xian raised his head, Wu Zhu had once again disappeared into the darkness. In over ten years, other than the time he remembered back on Fan Xian’s mother, Wu Zhu rarely spoke this much.
Fan Xian realized what Wu Zhu meant. The prosperity of the capital eats away at the body and soul; it really created a hint of weakness in his calm and strength which he had polished from a young age. This was a warning, warning him not to rely on his family’s authority and his mother’s legacy. Even though he had been recently training hard with his zhenqi, trying to become familiar with the three poison needles on his body, it was as Wu Zhu said—his heart was no longer as resilient as when he was in Danzhou.
Only his own powers could protect everyone around him. A child without a mother is like a lone shoot of grass. However, even a long shoot of grass would need to grow out of the crack in the rock without caring for sunshine or rain. He would have to thrust his root deeper and make his stem sturdier. That’s what Fan Xian would have to do.