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The damp air, mixed with the fishy scent of blood, was beginning to ferment at the end of the corridor outside the prisoner's cell. The man and woman who had exchanged insincere affection in bed just a month ago had long since switched roles. Fan Xian looked at this miserable woman and frowned slightly. At first he had thought that she was the kind of woman that they wrote about in novels of the Ming and Qing dynasties, and that they could do wonderful things together, or that he could take her home like the poet Bai Juyi. Who would have thought that the story would end so hastily; before it had even started? But there was little to regret. Since she had wanted to kill him, if he had shown too much sympathy, as Fei Jie had warned him years ago, that would be extremely irresponsible, not just for himself but for those around him.
Their bitter glares met each other. "I think life is something you should grasp hold of if you can," explained Fan Xian calmly. "I gave you the poison, but you should know that your death would be of no benefit to me, so there's no need to look at me like that. I still pity you, but I don't feel guilty in the slightest. Your people crushed three of my guards' skulls like watermelons. Who would feel guilty about your death?"
He waved his hand. "Perhaps you don't believe me. I once despised Heaven, and thought that all the good things in life would always come to a miserable end. If hate was of any use, then my hate would have pierced a million holes in Heaven. So I finally understood, when you are still able to take control of your own health, you should be happy that you still have more days left to live."
Si Lili remained silent. She simply lifted her wounded hands to stop them from touching the rough grass on the floor.
"Think about it, Miss Si. No one's life is that important in this world," said Fan Xian calmly. "You are a subject of the Kingdom of Qing, but you are giving your life for Northern Qi. You're giving up so much. I don't think it's for the money, but for revenge. I don't know if the rumors about you in the capital are true, but if you want to do something about it, then you have to save your own life. And if you want to live, you're going to have to pay the price."
Si Lili suddenly lifted her head, though the light in her eyes had dimmed, like a fire burning deep within a tomb. She was never going to be willing to let it burn out. After a long time, she finally spoke through gritted teeth. "How can you make sure that I'll stay alive?"
Fan Xian was surprised. He knelt down beside her. "You came back to the capital today, and today I'm able to be here to investigate you in the Celestial Prison. You can guess at what my position is in the Overwatch Council."
Si Lili weakly shook her head. "Do you think I can believe you?"
"It has nothing to do with belief," said Fan Xian gently. "This is a gamble, but right now, you're only a passive part of it. Because you don't get to choose between life and death."
Si Lili's gaze wandered helplessly. It seemed like her emotions had gotten the best of her. For some reason, she turned to look at Fan Xian's handsome face. But when she thought of the night that the two had spent in the pleasure boat, an inexplicable hatred arose in her heart. Like a lunatic, she threw herself at him and spat in his face.
Fan Xian moved sideways to avoid it. He was astonished. It was clear that this woman was softening toward him. How could she suddenly act this way? He did not know that no matter whether it was in his previous life or in this one, no matter what their occupation, women's thoughts were elusive. They were as treacherous as the seafloor and as hard to get a hold of as climbing on rocks.
Fan Xian felt rather annoyed. His brow wrinkled tightly, and his face shifted from one expression to the next. It was unclear what he was thinking. He thought of the o
fficial who had killed himself the night before, and of the one in Wuzhou who he feared was already dead. He knew that this woman was ruthless and quick. If he wanted to capture the person who had really targeted him, it seemed he only had Si Lili's say-so to go on. If her confession came too late, he feared that the people linked to her would also be dead, or would have already escaped. And it seemed that there was not enough time to break down this Northern Qi spy using torture. Unfortunately, what Fan Xian needed now was time. Even if he tried to stall for time, who knew what might happen?
It looked like she wasn't going to say a word. Fan Xian felt somewhat dispirited. He stood up from the bars of the cell, seemingly ready to leave with Wang Qinian. Suddenly, he sighed deeply, and returned to the cell entrance, frowning. He looked at her coldly through the bars that separated them. Wang Qinian looked at him, astonished.
Fan Xian spoke in a quiet voice. "Tell me who did it, and I swear on my ancestors that I will let you go."
The response that greeted him was a deathly silence, but Fan Xian wasn't willing to give up. He looked at Si Lili, his gaze softening, looking over the bloody hands that she held over her chest.
The damp air of the Celestial Prison smelled like mold, and the bars that separated Fan Xian and Si Lili also appeared to have mold growing on them. After some time had passed, Si Lili was still biting her lower lip. She said nothing. Clearly she was struggling with some kind of pain deep in the bottom of her heart. The bottle of poison he had thrown her was made from green porcelain. She held it in her hands as she lay quietly on the dry grass. It seemed like it was letting off a strange smell.
Some time later, Fan Xian sighed, seemingly giving up. He moved closer to Si Lili. "The way you're holding your hands... you’re like a cute little dog," he said.
Afterwards, Wang Qinian felt that Fan Xian must have been on edge for being able to poke fun at an enemy spy in that kind of situation. Fan Xian did not think so; it was something that he'd said without thinking. Of course, he did not know that this utterance would have an immediate result for him.
When Si Lili heard him mention a cute little dog, she was shocked.
To everyone's surprise, the spy began to giggle, and then burst out laughing. Her face changed, and it was unclear what she was thinking, but it seemed that she had relaxed. It seemed that after this fit of laughter, she had lain down all of her burdens. Her attitude became timid, and she began to plead for her life, gently and cautiously. It was like her body was floating in warm water, totally comfortable, and she clearly began to think of all the beautiful things in life.
She slowly lifted her head, and two words came from her pale, quivering lips: "Mr. Wu."
Hearing this, Fan Xian turned to Wang Qinian, shocked. Wang Qinian nodded to show that he'd heard the same thing. He let out a sigh of relief, and a faint excitement rose up in him. He reached into the cell, watched by a confused Si Lili, and retrieved the porcelain vial of poison from the dry grass. "Thank you," he said to her, and then turned and left.
Si Lili seemed to have understood something. She gripped the bars with her bloody hands and called out to him sadly as he left. "Don't forget. You swore on your ancestors."
After the thick steel door opened noiselessly, the prison of the Overwatch Council was plunged back into silence and darkness. The prisoners never lasted more than a few days in this place, and so there weren't many criminals left. Deep within the prison corridors came the faint yet clear sound of pitiful sobbing.
A moment later, a prison guard respectfully pushed a wheelchair out from a secret room. Chen Pingping sat in the chair, his eyes closed in rest. Suddenly, his eyes opened. "What do you think about the appointment I've made?" he asked.
He was asking about Fan Xian.
The prison guard thought for a moment. "He's ruthless," he replied. "But he's only half up to the task."
"He might be ruthless in his methods, but deep down, he's a gentle young man."
Chen Pingping smiled. A look of admiration floated across his aged face. "That's fine, that's fine. A warm heart with ruthless methods is better than a ruthless heart with useless methods. At least he got the information out of Si Lili, even if it was by accident."
"What do we do with Si Lili?" asked the prison guard.
Chen Pingping thought for a moment. "We'll see," he said quietly. "If we can turn her into one of ours, then we should try. If that's not possible, then of course we'll have her killed."
"Do we not need to give that task to commissioner Fan?"
"I am preparing to give him this building, but as he still lacks the ability at the moment, there's no need for him to know too much."
"Yes sir," replied the guard. "Something is already being prepared."
Chen Pingping coughed. At the moment, the entire bureaucracy thought he was still being detained at the imperial palace. No one would have thought that he had come to the Celestial Prison. He coughed violently, and indicated to the guard that he wheeled out. He closed his eyes and thought for a moment. "Since Mr. Wu has already hounded that official Fang to death, I presume he has already left the city. I fear it's too late."
The guard shrugged. He was in charge of the affairs of the Seventh Bureau, and had always held the First Bureau in contempt for its ruthless efficiency. There was no pleasure in these sorts of matters. So he did not care whether or not they caught this Mr. Wu. He looked at the corridor with its high ceiling. "Mr. Director," he said with some grief, "you shouldn't eavesdrop next time. It's hard for you to move this wheelchair."
Chen Pingping smiled. He had come here as soon as he had left the imperial palace. He wanted to see his enemy's son for himself, to see what he was like, to see whether he had the ability to take on everything he had prepared for him. As for the assassination attempt on Niulan Street, he felt the same as Wu Zhu did. Nothing was important; everything was simply trivial. If Fan Xian had died that way, it wouldn’t have been anything to worry about. And there was an important aspect to how Fan Xian had dealt with the matter.
It was a small test.
Fan Xian did not know this. He and Wang Qinian hurriedly left the Celestial Prison. Wang Qinian told him that Mister Wu was a well-known strategist within the capital who flitted between the Second Prince and the Crown Prince, seemingly without taking a clear side. But according to rumors, he was behind a number of incidents within the bureaucracy.
Fan Xian raised his eyebrows slightly. His handsome face darkened slightly. He knew that he was a wily old fox who would have covered all of his tracks. It was possible that he had already learned of all this and fled to some mountain to live in seclusion. This so-called master manipulator's favorite thing to do was to wait seven or eight years for things to die down, and then smugly emerge, continuing to play his evil tricks.
"How do we know that what Si Lili said was true?" asked Wang Qinian.
"It's simple," replied Fan Xian calmly. "If that Wu Bo'an is still in the capital, then it isn't him. If he has already fled, then it is him."
It was a simple judgment, and perhaps it was closest to the truth. There were too many matters in this world that men's stupid brains had made complicated.
"Don't tell me you're really going to set Si Lili free?" asked Wang Qinian, anxious. "Sir, you don't have the right to do that, and what's more..." Although members of the Overwatch Council had no respect for ghosts, they still had respect for their ancestors.
Fan Xian did not reply. The ancestors he had in this world bore little relation to him. He knew it would be difficult for him to show his face again, and told Wang Qinian to inform the First Bureau. Mu Tie knew his identity, and should believe what Wang Qinian had to say. As they parted, Fan Xian confirmed that the person they wanted was Wu Bo'an.
After things were sorted, Fan Xian slowly made his way back to Fan Manor, vaulted the wall, and quietly laid down in bed, waiting for the next day's news. After Wang Qinian entered the Council, he was surprised to find that his First Bureau colleagues were ready and waiting. Mu Tie smiled as he saw the shock on his face.
That night, there was no business in the capital. After Fan Xian returned to Fan Manor, he greeted everyone, then entered the secret room that he had requested from his father. He carefully retrieved a small leather bag, and pulled out the small green porcelain vial. The bottle was green and slightly bigger than other porcelain bottles, so it was enough to hold a little bit of sleeping gas—the kind he had used to loosen Si Lili's resolve before. Fan Xian had truly made use of a lot of skill. He took out a pottery jar from the corner and opened its lid. The strong smell of the sleeping gas almost made him feel dizzy.
He dipped the small porcelain bottle into the jar and refilled it. Fan Xian returned to his bedroom. His legs intertwining with the thin silk blanket, he fell into a somewhat restless sleep. The next day, Wang Qinian came to report to him. Somewhat ashamed, he told him that Wu Bo'an had already left the capital. He had already expected this, so he was not disappointed in the slightest.
Within nine kilometers of the capital there stood a manor. In the distance, one could see the snow-capped summit of the Cang Mountains. Even if it was already early summer, the air around the manor was cool and refreshing. The grapevines had already begun to sprout their leaves, and the vast, lush greenery was pleasing to the eye.
At that moment, Wu Bo'an—whom Fan Xian was painstakingly searching for—was sitting free and unfettered among the vines. When he saw the young man in front of him, he reproached him. "You shouldn't have come."
The young man was the second son of the Prime Minister, Lin Gong. He looked at Wu Bo'an and spoke with a tone of utmost courtesy. "Mr. Wu, you are about to be forced to leave the capital. I am here to send you off."