Translator: Nyoi-Bo Studio Editor: Nyoi-Bo Studio
"Young master is back!" a male servant shouted.
All the servants immediately busied themselves with preparing lunch. Fan Xian and the Countess sat opposite each other at a large table in the hall. The table was scattered with a mess of various dishes.
Something was off about this scene. Rather than retreat to the back courtyard to eat, the idle servants simply stared at Fan Xian’s chopsticks. Several of the younger servant girls were quietly salivating. They seemed hungry.
This was an unwritten rule in the Count’s mansion. Fan Xian stringently demanded it – and the Countess acquiesced – so everybody had gotten used to it long ago. As long as young master Fan was having a meal in the mansion, others could only be permitted to eat after he had personally tasted and approved of each dish.
The servants didn’t understand why the young master, who had always been gentle and tender, insisted on such an unreasonable rule. One time, however, Dong’er, the servant who was closest to Fan Xian, tasted the saltiness of his food before Fan Xian did. She was subsequently driven from the mansion by a ferocious Fan Xian. After that, everybody knew that the young master did, after all, have a shameless aristocratic side to him.
When Dong’er cried and left, the Countess just stared at her coolly without a word.
The entire mansion was silent, except for the sounds of Fan Xian chewing and sipping soup. All of the servants quietly stood beside him with their arms at their sides obediently. Like all noble households, whatever food the master didn’t eat was always sent to the servants’ quarters as a reward, so Fan Xian ate less of each dish. He just picked away at the food with his chopsticks.
He ate slowly and carefully, with thin lips pressing and relaxing like two beams of light opening and closing.
The Countess was gently caressing a statue and mouthing a silent prayer.
After a long time, Fan Xian had tasted each dish. He laughed sweetly with bright, beaming eyes. He pointed at a plate of stir-fried bamboo shoots and told one of the servants, "This one’s good."
The servant girls breathed a sigh of relief and began to fill their bowls with rice. The idle servants could finally go to the back courtyard, but another servant went to the kitchen and brought the remaining stir-fried bamboo shoots out to the hall, placing them in front of Fan Xian.
"Help yourself, ma’am."
Fan Xian stood up, saluted the Countess, and received the bowl of food with both hands before politely placing it in front of the Countess. He repeatedly added the stir-fried bamboo shoots into his bowl, munching on them with a pleasant expression. On his handsome face, that kind of smile seemed exceptionally grotesque, as though he’d finally found something he’d been after for a long time.
For some reason, the servant girls standing to the side, upon seeing the smile on the 12-year-old boy’s face, couldn’t help but shiver as they recalled the powerful smack that Zhou the housekeeper took that morning.
"I’ll go to my room to finish my meal."
Fan Xian told the servants this before taking a plate of stir-fried bamboo shoots and a bowl of white race and going to his room in the side courtyard. It was very impolite of him to leave before his elder had finished her meal, but the Countess didn’t say anything.
In his bedroom, he ate some emetic powder and then started poking his fingers down his throat. After digging around for a while, he finally vomited out the remnants of the meal.
He then immediately took several pills he had prepared himself out of the drawer and washed them down with fresh water. He directed his zhenqi throughout his entire body and discovered there didn’t seem to be any problems. This finally put him at ease.
He looked at the plate of stir-fried bamboo shoots. Smiling bitterly, he dumped them out into the chamber pot behind his bed – they had been poisoned with maokouzi, a method often used by the secret agents in the Council of Auditors.
Maokouzi is a beautiful, tangerine-like fruit which grows in the southern islands. Its flowers emit a strange, pungent odor and its fruit contains poison.
When the fruit’s juice is mixed with food, the dish is unlikely to change color and it will still smell normal. On the contrary, it will actually make the dish more fragrant. It was frequently used by the spies of the Council of Auditors in carrying out assassinations. After entering the body, the poison takes effect that night, when the victim convulses before dying. This is very similar to death by infection, thus making it difficult to divine the true cause of death.
As the only student of Fei Jie, the inventor of this poison in the Council of Auditors, Fan Xian immediately identified its slightly bitter taste when he tried the stir-fried bamboo shoots. The murderer was actually quite clever, for they knew to mix the maokouzi fruit juice with bamboo shoots, which were themselves bitter.
The reason Fan Xian didn’t immediately leave the Countess just now to purge the poison was to keep her from being frightened. Now, he suddenly felt scared when he considered that if it had been some kind of fast-acting poison, instead of maokouzi, he’d already be dead.
Fan Xian took his teacher’s advice in always being attentive to his diet. He worried that his aunt in the capital might strike a vicious blow. That’s why he had to cause such an odd scene while eating just now. To keep the servants safe from any poison, he requested that he taste each dish before anybody else could begin eating. He was like the eunuch in the imperial palace responsible for testing each dish before the emperor could eat it.
Though Fan Xian believed his own life was more important than anybody else’s, he wasn’t willing to have innocent people die for him.
Seeing that the young master had come to the kitchen, the servants quickly stood up and offered him a stool. "Younger Master, are you still hungry? Do you want to eat something?" one of them asked with a smile.
Fan Xian smiled and said, "Those stir-fried bamboo shoots were delicious."
The chef standing next to him laughed, "I’m glad you enjoyed them."
"Yes, they were quite fresh. When were they bought?" Fan Xian nodded enthusiastically and asked carefully.
"We bought them this morning, so of course they were fresh."
"Oh, right. Did any outsiders enter the kitchen today?"
"Mr. Ha, who normally delivers food, was ill. His nephew came instead."
"Alright then. I should get going." Fan Xian took a piece of smoked meat from the plate the chef offered. He ate it and, smiling bashfully, said, "Don’t tell the Countess that I came down here to pilfer food."
When Fan Xian left, the servants began talking about him. They all commended the character of the Count’s illegitimate son, saying he was free of any aristocratic vices. It was just that… his rules for eating were a little too much.
In an alleyway in Danzhou Harbor, Fan Xian was scaling the back wall of some building with his hook-like fingers. When he exerted his strength, he was like a climbing civet cat. He was at the food delivery man Mr. Ha’s house.
For many years, there were a total of only a dozen or so servants at the Count’s mansion, all of which were natives of Danzhou Harbor, with the exception of several maids who had been replaced. So Fan Xian didn’t suspect any of them. Though Fan Xian had met Mr. Ha before, he thought it was strange that he should fall ill at such an opportune moment.
Mr. Ha’s room was pitch black, but for Fan Xian, it was as bright as daytime. He quietly slipped into the room and smelled a trace of blood in the air.