"So we have a mole!"
Fan Xian and Xin Qiwu both said it dramatically at the same time, then went quiet afterward. Both of them believed that the head of their spies in Northern Qi was not a man who would give in under torture. Since they were so easily able to capture Yan Bingyun, and knew his real name, it was very clear that there was someone hidden in the Qing court who had an agreement with Northern Qi.
Xin Qiwu shook his head. "Before this incident, even the Crown Prince and I hadn’t known that Yan Bingyun had gone to Northern Qi. I believe that there are no more than five people in the court with appropriate clearance for this information. Even a fool would not believe that one of them had sold out our country. There must always be a benefit to someone committing treason, and in truth, His Majesty had trusted these people with running the country, so what benefit would treason bring?"
Fan Xian and Xin Qiwu looked at each other and saw the anxiety in each other's eyes, because they had both simultaneously had the same terrifying thought. If it wasn't a mole, then what? If it was a way for major players in the court to attack the Overwatch Council, then what could be done about it?
Fan Xian thought back to when Wang Qinian had told him about Yan Bingyun. There was something strange about it. How did he even know? Did the Overwatch Council really have complete trust in its own internal controls? Afterwards, he understood - this was something that Chen Pingping had relayed to him via Wang Qinian, but he still had some lingering fears. If he had been responsible for leaking the information, he would die a thousand deaths.
"Could someone really be so mad that they’d do such a thing? To put the interests of the entire nation in danger for the sake of a court power struggle?" Xin Qiwu laughed bitterly and shook his head.
Fan Xian also shook his head, thinking of his own travels in the palace. He knew deep down that there were indeed many such madmen in the upper echelons of the kingdom. "If Master Yan has already been captured," he asked, composing himself, "then what arrangements has His Majesty made?"
"Northern Qi still underestimates His Majesty's resolve." Xin Qiwu thought of his mighty sovereign and felt sudden confidence. "He will not cede even an inch of the territory that has been captured."
Fan Xian was astonished. "Then what are we to do about Master Yan?"
"Exchange!" There was a sudden ferocity in Xin Qiwu's face. "An exchange of prisoners. His Majesty has already set forth a plan. The previous agreement for prisoner exchange has been completely nullified and will be redone. Once we have confirmation from Northern Qi that they have Yan Bingyun, then we can start a new round of negotiations for exchanging prisoners."
Fan Xian frowned. "Northern Qi is very satisfied with the big fish they have caught. I doubt that they will agree."
Xin Qiwu shivered. "We can send two more people back to Northern Qi this time. If Northern Qi still does not agree, then when winter begins in three months' time, His Majesty will behead one thousand Northern Qi captives and send their severed heads back to Northern Qi and re-ready the army."
"Using power to pressure people might be thought of as a move for someone with no other choice. I fear that Northern Qi will also be involved in this life-or-death struggle. Both sides have a total of 3,000 prisoners, and it will be of no use to execute them tit-for-tat." Fan Xian softly tapped the desk with his hand, and suddenly a strange idea came to him. "Who are the two prisoners we are preparing to exchange? Can we get Northern Qi to agree?"
"One of them is Xiao En, who has been in our custody for 20 years." Xin Qiwu looked at him kindly. He knew that this youngster would not know Xiao En.
"He was the spymaster of the former kingdom of Northern Wei. Before the Second Northern War, the Director of the Overwatch Co
uncil and Master Fei were leaders of the Black Knights, and they rode five hundred kilometers to capture Xiao En at his son's wedding. After we captured him, the Northern Wei spy network was unable to communicate with each other. When His Majesty took to the battlefield, he did so with irresistible force, crushing what was once an enormous empire into the weak nation it is today. The Overwatch Council was greatly applauded for its work on this matter, and at the time, we young officials felt that if Xiao En had not been so bold as to leave the capital city of Shangjing in Northern Qi to travel so far for his son's wedding, then the court would have had no way of capturing him, and the war would not have gone on as smoothly as it did."
Hearing what had happened decades ago, Fan Xian sighed and said nothing, simply listening to Xin Qiwu's words.
"Of course, Xiao En was indeed brave enough to leave Shangjing, though Director Chen was braver still, unexpectedly daring to cross four hundred kilometers into enemy territory. Although he paid the price of losing both his legs, he still managed to capture Xiao En. Before then, Xiao En of Northern Wei and Chen Pingping of Southern Qing were considered the most fearsome shadowy officials in the world. Naturally, after Xiao En was captured by Director Chen, no one dared to compare the two men any further."
Fan Xian thought back as he listened. So that was how the old cripple had lost his legs. He never would have imagined that Chen Pingping was once so daring.
"Exchange Xiao En for Yan Bingyun." He thought for a moment, then made a judgment based entirely on reason. "It seems that we are quite fortunate."
"Last night, a number of high officials also felt that way," said Xin Qiwu, smiling. "But His Majesty and Director Chen did not agree. After all, Xiao En is 70 years old, and having been defeated by Director Chen, there is no way he can return to his former glory. Master Yan has suffered in silence, hiding in an enemy country for four years, and his achievements are yet to reveal themselves. Would they not accept exchanging an old man for the future of the Kingdom of Qing?"
Fan Xian nodded. "Who else could be added in the event that Northern Qi didn’t agree?"
"That woman was Northern Qi's original demand, so His Majesty might as well allow it." Xin Qiwu looked at Fan Xian and suddenly laughed. "I hear that the Emperor of Northern Qi is very fond of that woman. Master Fan, it appears that you have already cuckolded the young Emperor."
Fan Xian's face lit up. "You mean... Si Lili?" he stuttered.
Negotiations were always split into two parts. On the surface, it appeared that the court councilors of Qing and the emissaries of Northern Qi were weighing every word on the negotiating table, attaching particular importance to every phrase and every word, and only in this way could the royal court save face and avoid ultimately losing out diplomatically. So every day, there was the endless clamoring in Honglu Temple, the pounding of tables and stomping of feet; the negotiations between two countries appeared more like an argument between two old shrews in a vegetable market.
The other part of the negotiations appeared much more cool-headed. The officials for these negotiations were not within Honglu Temple, and neither were they emissaries of Northern Qi, though they were hidden in secret - it would be accurate to say that they were the ones with real power.
Yan Ruohai, head of the Fourth Bureau of the Overwatch Council, was also a highly-regarded official among the many in the capital. He coolly signed his name to the secret agreement for the transfer of prisoners without taking a second look.
The agreement contained his son's name. He could have asked to resign from these negotiations, but he insisted that he wanted to look.
The unremarkable official from Northern Qi made his mark, smiling as he looked at Yan Ruohai. "Do not worry, Master Yan; your son is being treated well in our country."
"Today I wanted to see just how brilliant our northern colleagues are," said Yan Ruohai without emotion. "Able to capture the brat I have taught since birth. But looking at a moron like yourself, I realize how it all came about."
The official was not suddenly angered, but simply retorted coldly, "Be careful with your words, Master Yan. You know, your son is still in our custody. If we truly are morons, then what does that say about your son? Or yourself even?"
Yan Ruohai laughed bitterly, got up, and walked toward the door. "The issue is that my son was not captured by you."
He left through the door. Sitting in his wheelchair, Chen Pingping looked at him and shook his head. "You have been in this position for a long while, and yet you are unable to cope as you did before."
"I am more able to cope, but I cannot handle having arrows launched from behind my back." From the look of it, Yan Ruohai had great respect for his superior in his words. Pushing Chen Pingping's wheelchair, he unhurriedly wheeled him into a quiet place.
Chen Pingping sat in his wheelchair and extended a finger. "In the court, there are countless people who want us both dead. This time, we can exchange Xiao En for Bingyun. Next time, we will not have someone like Xiao En in our clutches."
"There will not be a next time," replied Yan Ruohai. "We need to find that person," said Chen Pingping. "This time, the Emperor is on our side, because he understands. No doubt there is some noble who wishes to teach us a lesson. But I do not like the feeling of being provoked."
"Yes, Director." Yan Ruohai knew that his old superior would find a way to deal with this situation, so he was not worried. "Although prisoner exchanges are not necessarily easy, as long as Bingyun does not die, then it can be considered a learning experience for the young man. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing."
"It makes sense, so I have decided to let that young man steel himself. It must not be too long. A few months ought to do it."
"A few months? Is this not a matter for the emissaries returning to Northern Qi?"
"Correct, and we want Bingyun to return in one piece. I hope he can deal with it."
"Before going, I will let the eight major bureaus see him."
Everything was proceeding smoothly. After the Kingdom of Qing had played their substantial bargaining chip, the two parties secretly drew up an agreement for the exchange of prisoners. Each was satisfied. Qing had gained face and territory. Northern Qi had gained face, as well as Xiao En and the woman that their Emperor was fond of.
Only the Dongyi emissaries were left, whom everyone seemed to have quickly forgotten about. The Qing court had deliberately frozen them out so as to extort the maximum amount of money from them for the incident at the foot of the Cang Mountains. The City of Dongyi was still the biggest center of commerce in the land. They had been trading with others across the sea long before the Kingdom of Qing had opened its ports to the south. Although martially all they had was the fighting prowess of Sigu Sword, they had inexhaustible financial resources.
Three days later, the Emperor hosted dignitaries from both states at a banquet in the palace. As vice envoy, Fan Xian naturally attended the banquet. It was his second time visiting the palace, and it was the night he intended to put his plan into action.
In his room, he meticulously prepared everything he needed, occasionally glancing at the black leather box underneath his bed. With the official matters of the past few days, he looked at everything more deeply. The Kingdom of Qing seemed great and powerful, and considered itself to be unexcelled in the world. But the royal court was limited to the hidden whims of a handful of nobles, and still had its own murky depths.
The Emperor and the princes were heartless, not necessarily toward members of the royal family, but particularly toward their subjects. Fan Xian was fully aware that even if the Emperor knew who it was who wanted to handle his secret organization, he could not truly deal with it, because it could be his wife, his little sister, his son, or even his mother.
"Think only of yourself." After Fan Xian had come to this world, he had reminded himself of this countless times. The look on his face gradually turned grim, and having hid his slender dagger, he carefully inserted three poison-tipped needles into his hair.