Chapter 26: The Old Man in the Blanket
Three minutes later, Fan Xian took up the steaming plate of fish in his hands. He covered it with some exquisite soy sauce that had been sent from the south and watched the beautiful amber juices flow over the plate. The aroma flowed through the kitchen as he mixed the steamed fish with the sauce. He found some leftover rice from that evening, combined it with the steamed fish, a little ginger and vinegar, and ate happily.
The next morning, when he went to say hello to his grandmother, the servants informed them that a thief had sneaked into the kitchen during the night. When Fan Xian realized what they meant, he couldn't stop himself from smiling.
"I cooked myself something to eat last night," he said to the housekeeper as he kneaded the old woman's shoulders. "Don't worry about it."
The housekeeper stared at him, dumbstruck. The young master wasn't a young child. Why didn't he call for the servants' help? Instead he'd insisted on doing it by himself. It would have been no laughing matter if he'd burned himself.
Fan Xian could tell that the housekeeper was pondering something. "I read about a way to steam fish in a book," he said to the Countess, acting cutely. "I wanted to try it. If it was good then I’d cook it for you as a surprise. That's why I didn't want the servants to know. I didn't realize it would cause such trouble. I'm sorry."
The excuse seemed reasonable. Nobody would have suspected a thing.
The Countess did not react. "That's fine," she said gently. "You just have to remember to clean up after yourself after you've finished doing something."
She had always been rather strict with Fan Xian; it was rare for her to speak so kindly. Fan Xian felt something was amiss. There was a trace of tenderness in her words. Why?
"I already know what happened last night," she continued softly. "Housekeeper Zhou failed in his duties. It's outrageous that you were able to sneak around in the kitchen like that and do something so dangerous without anyone noticing. I've already sent him back to the capital. They can deal with him there."
Fan Xian was taken aback. He remembered that, after the killing, he'd completely forgotten to investigate the matter with Zhou. It was clear that Zhou was responsible in some way for allowing the would-be killers to sneak into the house and poison his food. He was disappointed in his own carelessness.
In the library the next morning, he skimmed over a few of the books that had arrived from the capital before heading out again. As he passed the market, he suddenly realized what his grandmother had meant when she had said "you just have to remember to clean up after yourself after you've finished doing something."
One corner of the market had already been burned to ruins. Oddly, the fire had not spread to any of the neighboring buildings - only one building had been burnt to the ground, with nothing left remaining. The people gathered around were enthusiastically discussing the fire. Thanks to his small stature, Fan Xian was able to crouch nearby and eavesdrop. Two people had died in the fire, their corpses left completely unrecognizable.
The place that had burned down was the building where Fan Xian had killed a man the day before.
Had the fire destroyed the corpses and wiped out all traces?
Fan Xian thought about how his grandmother had already sent Zhou the housekeeper back to the capital, and when he connected that fact to the wretched pile of ashes in front of him, he broke out in a cold sweat. He understood now what had happened. He never could have imagined that his strict, gruff grandmother could come up with such a meticulous plot to keep her grandson safe.
He thought of the Countess and how she spent most of her days resting. He found it hard to reconcile that image with the smouldering rubble that stood be
Fan Xian loitered amongst the people in the crowd. As he looked at the charred stones and blackened wood and took in the smell of burnt house, he realized something.
The people around him had noticed his arrival. After having greeted Fan Xian, they were ready to say something to him. He acted as if he hadn't heard them and left the market, wandering toward the old grocery store.
"The housekeeper has been sent back to the capital," Fan Xian said.
Wu Zhu stood in the shop, facing the quiet street. He didn't react. The local residents had all rushed to the market to see what all the hubbub was about, so the streets were empty.
"The building we went to yesterday burned down," continued Fan Xian.
Wu Zhu still made no response.
Fan Xian grabbed his sleeve, speaking in a firm whisper. "You think I'm stupid for forgetting to deal with Zhou, don't you? I even had to get my grandmother to clean up after me!"
Wu Zhu turned towards him. "Are you trying to make me feel sorry for you? Do you think that you're so young, that you don't know how to deal with such things, so you've lost your self-esteem and you've come seeking my pity?"
His voice seemed almost curious, much livelier than his usual emotionless tone.
Fan Xian smiled. "I don't have that much self-esteem. It's just that I don't feel good about killing a man. And..."
He stopped talking. Deep down, he felt that if he hadn't had Fei Jie and Wu Zhu as teachers after having come to this world, he wouldn't be much stronger than any other child of nobility, and maybe... maybe he'd already be dead. Caught in this power struggle and surrounded by a web of secrets, it seemed like knowing a little more was of no use. Anyone who sought to ride the waves of power also had to be proficient in such underhanded and intricate means.
Compared to them... he was still just some naive kid.
"There's the feeling of killing a man, and the feeling of being killed. Which would you prefer to experience?" asked Wu Zhu.
Fan Xian wasn't sure how to respond. Of course nobody wants to be killed.
"Since you already know the answer, don't ask me." Wu Zhu handed him a seal. "There's something else I need to tell you. The Countess expelled housekeeper Zhou from Danzhou Harbor. She didn't have him killed, because she thought it best that the people of the capital didn't make a fuss about this."
Fan Xian looked at the seal. It seemed familiar; he'd seen it used on paperwork around the Count's house. It belonged to Zhou the housekeeper. He raised his head and looked at Wu Zhu with suspicion. "You killed him?"
Wu Zhu nodded.
Fan Xian suddenly remembered the assassin's identity. "Why were the poison and the follow-up methods used by the assassin so similar to the methods of the Overwatch Council?" he asked, puzzled.
"Ask Fei Jie."
It was a bright spring day in the capital. In the west end of the city stood a square building, its exterior painted gray-black. Within this sinister-looking building, in a secret room, a thin-faced, clean-shaven man sat in a wheelchair, his legs covered by a smooth woollen blanket.
The glass windows of this hidden room were covered completely by a thick black cloth; not a single speck of sunlight could enter. Many years ago, this man had contracted a serious illness somewhere in the north - from that point on, he began to fear the light.
"Master Fei, how goes the investigation in Danzhou?" The old man asked the strange, grey-haired man - the same age as he was - who stood before him. He gazed into his brown pupils and smiled.
Fei Jie sat in his chair, sipping tea, looking at the strange smile that crept across the lips of his superior officer. "Which of us is the real old pervert?" he thought.