Fan Xian had no time to explain. "I talk; you write," he ordered with a smile. There was no time to grind down an ink stick. He picked up a goose-feather brush, dipped it in ink, and gave it to his sister. He closed his eyes tight and began to recall all of the complicated and scattered pathways that he had taken through the imperial palace.
Fan Ruoruo's face got paler and paler as she wrote. The amount of effort Fan Xian was expending on recalling his memory also made him increasingly pale; both brother and sister turned white as a sheet. With difficulty, Fan Ruoruo traced out the pathways of the imperial palace. Finally, she couldn't stop herself from asking in a low voice, "Brother, you do know that this is conspiracy to treason, don’t you?"
Fan Xian calmed himself and sat down on a chair, saying nothing for a long time. He had spent most of the day in the palace, swapping pleasantries with the nobles and committing its twisted pathways to memory, finally confronting the eldest princess; it had taken its toll on his mental state, and for a while, he could not rouse himself from his sluggishness.
He was naturally acquainted with the laws of the Kingdom of Qing, and he knew that the palace would not allow maps to be made of its buildings; this was to prevent anyone from attempting to break in in secret and get up to anything seditious. Fan Xian needed this map because he had already made a plan: that evening, he would sneak into the palace and find the key.
He could have taken the route that he took to sneak in and see Lin Wan'er, but it was too dangerous, and the path that the palace nobles walked was a different route to the one that Fan Xian had carefully planned. Even if Wu Zhu had told him how to do it, it would not work - if he had not personally walked through those hiding places behind the rocks in the garden and those blind spots among the flowering shrubs, he could not create the map he had created today, which he was fully satisfied with.
Fan Xian stood up and took his sister's drawing from the table. Although it had been hurried, he found that her penmanship was still meticulous, and he could not help but pat her on the head happily. "We're finished here," he said. "Let me take you to Yi Shiju for some seafood."
Fan Ruoruo, angered, snatched the map from his hand. "We're finished here? What's finished!? Do you know how serious this is? This won't do. I'm telling father."
Fan Xian laughed bitterly. The idea of the Emperor's inviolable sovereignty really did lodge itself deep in people's hearts. Of course, he also understood that his sister was deeply concerned for his safety and for the future of their family. If anyone had found out about this map they had secretly made of the palace, it could do great damage to the relationship between the Fan Manor and the royal family.
"Don't worry. I'll take a moment to hide this right away, and then I'll burn it. Nobody will know." Fan Xian smiled as he consoled his sister.
Anxious tears welled in Fan Ruoruo's eyes. "Brother, why do you want this map?"
Fan Xian sighed. He lowered his head to look his sister sincerely in the eye and spoke slowly and carefully. "Because there is something in the palace that I want."
"You want to go into the palace to steal..." Fan Ruoruo was so surprised that she wanted to shriek, but she quickly covered her mouth.
"Right, but it's not stealing," he said earnestly, "because it's something that belongs to me."
Fan Ruoruo shook herself from her shock, and quickly returned to her usual cool-headed intelligence. Judging the truth of the matter, she tried to stop her voice from shaking. "Is it... something to do with Lady Ye?"
Fan Xian smiled. "I can't hide it from you." Those few words were filled with mutual understanding between brother and sister. "There's no harm in telling you what kind of person your brother is," he continued, smiling. "Punching a seven-yea
r-old child, kicking a 70-year-old man, standing on a grave mound and howling, people who refuse to obey me stand up, and as a result, no one dares to say a thing. Haha."
Ruoruo smiled, though a little uneasily. There was little that was amusing about her brother's joke, and she was still rather nervous. She knew that Fan Xian looked handsome and gentle but had a heart of ice, and could not be persuaded of anything. One could only let him do as he pleased and pray for him.
"In truth, I am quite selfish." Fan Xian saw the worry lines on her brow, and suddenly reflected on himself calmly. "Whenever there is something I am having trouble with by myself, I always want to tell you. It appears to be trust, but maybe it's really that I want to find someone to share the pressure with. But I never thought about it before. For you, the pressure is overwhelming, but at least I still have you to turn to. But who are you going to tell? And what? That my mother is Lady Ye? That I’m going to steal something from the palace."
Ruoruo looked at him, slightly distressed. "Trust and pressure cancel each other out. I would still prefer that my brother did not hide things from me."
The negotiations were still ongoing, and the work of demarcating the boundaries was extremely taxing. Originally, supported by Fan Xian's analysis, the officials of Honglu Temple had taken a hard line and had almost pressured the emissaries of Northern Qi into signing their agreement several times. But for some reason - perhaps something had happened within the Kingdom of Northern Qi - the emissaries of Northern Qi had shamelessly, even hysterically, backtracked. It seemed as if they were waiting for something.
This air of conspiracy was quickly ferreted out by the highly-experienced official Xin Qiwu of Honglu Temple. That afternoon, after the conclusion of another round of fruitless talks, he took hold of a teapot, glanced at Fan Xian, and indicated to him to follow him outside. All along the way, officials saluted the two of them respectfully. With some difficulty, they finally came to a quiet place. Xin Qiwu sighed, somewhat tired. "Master Fan, does something seem strange to you?"
Fan Xian had maintained the proper attitude for these negotiations, being there to learn and simply act as window dressing. But he had been involved since the beginning, after all, so something did seem strange about the behavior of the emissaries from Northern Qi. But if their counterparts had just gotten ahold of some sort of reliable bargaining chip, then they should have come out with it rather than dragging their heels in such an inappropriate fashion. He thought for a moment, and suddenly frowned. "Perhaps Northern Qi is now thinking of a way to obtain some bargaining chips in order to make things more convenient at the negotiating table."
Xin Qiwu looked at him and nodded. "I thought the same thing. So tonight, I am going to seek an audience with His Majesty and ask him to issue a decree ordering the Overwatch Council to assist Honglu Temple in our work. I won't rest easy until I can find out what Northern Qi is really thinking."
Fan Xian leant on the railing and squinted as he pondered. What was it that Northern Qi wanted? It didn't make sense. Suddenly, something occurred to him, and he thought about the Overwatch Council's spy network in Northern Qi. He thought of Yan Bingyun, who had been hidden away in Northern Qi for four years.
Xin Qiwu was unsure what Fan Xian was thinking. "I’ll go to the palace this evening," he said, "but there is little I can get from them openly. Vice Envoy Fan, this time you can’t avoid doing what you don’t want to."
Fan Xian forced a smile. Xin Qiwu no doubt thought that his father had secretly helped him to get ahold of the dossier last time, but heaven knew that the power that his father secretly exercised on behalf of the Emperor was something that even he had never been in contact with. But thinking for a moment, he felt it really was necessary to ask. At least he could ensure that Yan Bingyun was safe in Northern Qi.
That night, in that hidden courtyard, Fan Xian summoned Wang Qinian and told him of Xin Qiwu's worries. The face that Wang Qinian made in response struck Fan Xian as something of an inauspicious sign.
"The Council has not received a letter by raven for eight days now," said Wang Qinian with a worried frown. "This is information that you should not know at your level." Fan Xian smiled and shook his head. "But I won't ask you how you know about it. I would just like you to remind the Council to ensure that things are safe in Northern Qi."
Wang Qinian shook his head. "All connections are singular. If one is severed, it is hard to restore it. What's more, Master Yan is head of the spies in Northern Qi. If anything happened to him, getting in touch with him again would be a problem.."
"Regardless, I would like you to remind him to stay safe." There was a slight coldness in Fan Xian's eyes. He did not like the prospect of leaving someone behind for the benefit of the nation, particularly Yan Bingyun, the son of a high official, hidden away for four years, having sacrificed so much. Fan Xian now saw himself as part of the Kingdom of the Qing, and part of the Overwatch Council. He found that he felt an involuntary admiration for Yan Bingyun, the spy that he had never met.
Fan Xian thought of something else. He looked at Wang Qinian with a calm gaze. "There is something I must do, but I can't go through the Council. I was hoping that you could help me."
Wang Qinian looked at his superior with some confusion.
"You can't report this to Director Chen," Fan Xian said calmly. But Wang Qinian heard the coldness behind it.
"Yes." With a word, Wang Qinian knew that he was placing his and his family's lives entirely in the hands of this seemingly gentle and yet utterly ruthless young man. As for the Council - Director Chen had ordered him to do everything that Master Fan said. He hadn't said anything else.
That evening, the sad news was confirmed. The overwhelming majority of the spy network that the Overwatch Council had installed in Northern Qi had thankfully managed to remain in place. But no one could have anticipated the spymaster Yan Bingyun would be captured alive by palace guards in a fabric shop in the capital of Northern Qi!
This sort of thing usually happened when an underling had opened their mouth and the network had been traced to the top. It was very rare to see a high-level spy arrested in such a fashion. For such a thing to happen, there was only one possibility - someone in the high ranks of the Kingdom of Qing had connections to a foreign country.
Of course, the news that Yan Bingyun had been captured could not be allowed to spread. Although it would no doubt bring about a great blow to the prestige of the Kingdom of Qing, it would not be in Northern Qi's interest to do so. Northern Qi needed to use this spymaster for their own benefit, not to merely strike a blow to the enemy's morale.
As far as the Qing bureaucracy knew, the son of Yan Ruohai, head of the Fourth Bureau of the Overwatch Council, had died four years ago. No one knew that he had been dispatched to Northern Qi by the royal court.
Over the next few days, anyone who knew of the incident didn’t sleep well at night
In a secret room in Honglu Temple, Xin Qiwu closed his eyes as he passed the piece of paper to Fan Xian. Fan Xian took it and looked over it. It was a painting of a thin cloud floating high above an icy plain. One of the emissaries had secretly slipped it into Xin Qiwu's hand during the negotiations that day. The look on his face as he did so had almost made Xin Qiwu want to take out one of the guard's swords and plunge it into him.
It was a painting of ice - bing, and a cloud - yun. It seemed that the emissaries had already received word, and were preparing to negotiate.