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Wu Bo'an smiled slightly. He believed himself to be a key player in all things, and in calculating all of his affairs, people always a.s.sumed that he wavered between the Crown Prince and the Second Prince. But no one knew of his link to the Prime Minister. "It's too risky," he said reproachfully. "The Prime Minister does not know of our plans. If anyone were to find out, I fear your father would find it difficult to escape."
Lin Gong laughed sinisterly. "Sir, if you would hide yourself away in the Lao Mountains and wait for chaos to erupt in the capital, then the Crown Prince will know that he will only be able to depend on us, the Lin family, to stabilize the land."
"Correct." Wu Bo'an seemed anxious. "Ever since I heard news of the young lady's marriage, I have been unsure of whether the Eldest Princess was still capable of managing the treasury. The Empress seems rather indifferent."
From the incident with the Prime Minister's illegitimate daughter at the beginning of the year up to the latest attempt at currying favor, Wu Bo'an felt that His Majesty had caused the Prime Minister to greatly lose face. He feared that it was all part of a plan to ensure that the Crown Prince ascended the throne. Just as expected, the Crown Prince had begun to distance himself from the Prime Minister, and so the latest plot he had secretly hatched would not only kill Fan Xian in one stroke and temporarily stabilize the situation with the royal purse - it would also let forth a flurry of rumors regarding the Crown Prince, forcing the prince's estate to renew its close relationship with the office of the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister had objected to the plan from the beginning, but his second son had seemed particularly enthusiastic. The son and the master strategist had begun to plot in secret. Falsely claiming to be under the auspices of the Prime Minister, they had issued orders to the Fang brothers, long hidden within the armed forces - but to Wu Bo'an's surprise, Fan Xian had survived the terrible a.s.sault, and he had killed an eighth-level master who had left behind unerasable traces.
Although the situation was still under control, the official Fang had already been killed. Even if the Overwatch Council discovered that Wu Bo'an had been behind it, there was no way they could have detected any link to the Prime Minister. So Wu Bo'an told the Prime Minister's second son to make haste back to the capital.
Lin Gong smiled proudly. "I've already been running this manor for a long while. Even if the emperor's bodyguards or the Overwatch Council come, they'll find it very hard to get inside to capture anyone. Besides, all of our business has been carried out in secret. Who could even know that we were both here?"
Wu Bo'an thought for a moment. That was indeed the case. After putting his mind at ease, his deeply ingrained scholarly habits revealed themselves once again. He waved his paper fan toward the grapevine trellis above his head and laughed. "This grapevine trellis is very well-built, but it reminds me of a joke."
"There was once this henpecked official. One day, he was scratched on the cheek by his wife. The next day he went to court, and the governor asked what had happened. The official replied awkwardly, Last night I was cooling off in the shade under the grapevine trellis when it collapsed, and it scratched my face.' The governor was angry, and chided him. 'This was that shrew of a wife of yours. Don't be so ridiculous. Quick, tell the bailiff and he will come find your wife.' At that moment, the governor's wife was eavesdropping on them. Angry, she burst into the court and began to chide the governor. The governor panicked and quickly said to the official, 'Run and save yourself, my grapevine trellis has also collapsed...'"
After telling the joke, the two men laughed out loud. The Prime Minister's second son, Lin G
ong, had of course heard this joke before, but he had gleaned another meaning from the joke. Was Mr. Wu mocking his father for being henpecked? His mother had died prematurely... could it be that he was saying that the Prime Minister was afraid of the Eldest Princess?
Lin Gong felt angry.
At that moment, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw a shadow appear in the garden.
It was a blind man, his eyes covered with a length of black cloth, holding a rock drill with a point that dripped with blood.
Lin and Wu both stood up, startled. They knew that this man had slipped in silently, and that the highly skilled guards outside had already been murdered with his stone drill. When he realized that the guards had died without even making so much as a sound, Lin Gong's blood ran cold. "Who are you?" he shouted, filled with fear. "Tell me!"
Wu Zhu said nothing. Like a ghost, he rushed in from the garden.
Lin Gong screamed. He pulled the blade from his belt and threw it straight at him.
Wu Zhu moved to one side, dodging the blade. Wu Zhu was already standing right in front of his face. The two men were extremely close together. It was a strange-looking situation.
There was a thwack.
Blood dripped from the rock drill, which had sliced through into Lin Gong's back. He looked at the length of black cloth in front of him. His eyes were filled with fear and shock. He was the son of the Prime Minister. And this man had killed him without saying a word. The rock drill had pierced through his chest. With a final quiver, Wu Zhu drew it up across Lin Gong's body. It was a terrible sight.
With a tearing sound, Wu Zhu quietly withdrew the rock drill from Lin Gong's body. It seemed extremely unhurried, but he had already quickly moved three steps to the side, to avoid the spray of blood gushing out from his chest.
The rock drill had gone straight through Lin Gong's heart, and blood spurted from the hole in a beautiful arc.
Watching this b.l.o.o.d.y scene, Wu Bo'an turned pale, but his mouth remained rigidly shut, not making a single sound. He saw the cloth over the man's eyes and realized that he was blind, and decided to try to slip away.
Wu Zhu turned his head and "looked" at him.
Wu Bo'an was overcome with a sense of hopelessness, but he still maintained a bitter smile. He tried his utmost to steady his voice. "I'm not working for the Prime Minister! A warrior like you, giving your life for people...It doesn't seem like you have much of a future. My name is Wu Bo'an, I'm old, I have many friends in the capital, and if you've got the ambition, a fighter like you could..."His voice suddenly stopped, and with great difficulty, he lowered his head to look at the rock drill that had already pierced through his throat.
He didn't understand why this a.s.sa.s.sin didn't even want to hear what he had to say... he was a feeble scholar, and there was nothing threatening about him. And he had considered himself such an expert tactician, planning for everything, eloquent beyond compare. If this blind killer had just listened to what he had to say, he would not have murdered him - there were so many things he still wanted to do with his life; why did he have to die like this?
The death of Wu Bo'an, master manipulator, was a simple one.
In Wu Zhu's thirty years of life in this world, there was something he had never understood. No matter where they were from - whether it was Dongyi, Northern Wei, the capital, or here - every time he killed someone, they would talk incessantly right up until the end. The Lady had once said that "the point of the sword is always more powerful than words". Wu Zhu always thought he had understood that saying, but he never understood why no one else in the world did.
Wu Zhu withdrew the rock drill, and walked alone out of the garden.
After he had left, the grapevine trellis could no longer bear the force of Wu Zhu's murderous onslaught. With a crash, they collapsed, covering the two men's corpses in a mess of vines and bamboo.
Over the next few days, the Overwatch Council received no information. Mu Tie visited Fan Manor in attempt to b.u.t.ter up to them, but could say nothing of Wu Bo'an. The formidable master strategist had disappeared without a trace. Fan Xian seemed uneasy, so Mu Tie's hand on his thigh did not leave a good impression.
Count Sinan also secretly aided the search party, and yet they came up with nothing. After w.a.n.g Qinian reported, ashen-faced, that the operation had been a failure, Fan Xian had no choice but to rid his mind of the matter, forcibly turning his thoughts to the more-positive matters of his little sister, the bookshop, and chicken legs, waiting for the man with the black cloth on his face to do his work.
One afternoon, he brought Ruoruo and Sizhe along to pay a visit to Prince Jing's manor.
To his surprise, Prince Jing was not in the house. Crown Prince Li Hongcheng had no choice but to tell them. "Father has gone to the temple and said that the Empress Dowager wanted him to come."
Fan Xian laughed. He hadn't thought about the matter much. He went with Li Hongcheng under the awnings in the rear garden, eating melon seeds and chatting, avoiding the early summer heat. They were not strangers, so the young princess Roujia, the one who had once interested Fan Xian, was also there, and they did not refrain from saying anything. Fan Xian looked at the young girl, and could not help but feel a lingering fear. He had heard Ruoruo talking about the situation with Story of the Stone, and had once fantasized that once the princess knew that he was its author, she might fall in love with him at once.
But looking at Roujia, Fan Xian put a stop to that kind of thinking.
The princess was very pretty, with rosy red cheeks and a gentle and polite demeanor; she was perhaps the gentlest girl that Fan Xian had ever met in this world. But Fan Xian continued to turn his nose up at her, refusing to show her the slightest appreciation.
Because this princess was just turning twelve this year, she was an under-ripened fruit; she was a girl, not a young woman. Underneath the surface, Fan Xian felt some affection, but he was not fickle in love. As soon as he began to think about this twelve-year-old girl, he began to panic and tried to think of something else.
Who would have thought when that Princes Roujia’s gaze met Fan Xian's as she sat obediently by Ruoruo's side, her eyes would sparkle with shyness, her thoughts would be muddled, and her heart would fill with panic?
The servants of the prince's manor took Fan Sizhe off to shoot arrows. Fan Xian and the Crown Prince chatted idly as the two girls quietly held their own conversation. Fan Xian felt awkward. Suddenly, he saw an official of the prince's palace hurriedly making his way toward them and whisper something into Li Hongcheng's ear. Li Hongcheng's face changed, and they turned their gazes to Fan Xian, looking doubtful.
"What is it?" Fan Xian looked at the awnings and smiled. " The grapevine trellises in your manor are so well-built. It reminds me of a joke."
The Crown Prince did not give him the chance to show off in front of the girls. With a serious look, he pulled him to one side and spoke in a quiet voice. " Something has happened."