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In the meeting room of the Overwatch Council, an awkward silence fell. No one had expected that this was how Commissioner Fan Xian would first show his face in the Council. In defiance of the customarily somber atmosphere of the Council, a moment later, some of them couldn't stop themselves from laughing.Fan Xian smiled, cupped his hands in salute, and walked in. Of the seven formidable people in the room, he only recognized Yan Ruohai. The others were all unfamiliar. Thankfully, Fei Jie had been beside him all day. Otherwise, he would still have felt afraid and alone facing these spymasters who were feared throughout the Kingdom of Qing, if not the whole land.At the head of the table, an old man sat in a wheelchair. His eyes were clear and cold, but he gazed at him warmly. For some reason, Fan Xian found himself sighing deeply. He slowly stepped forward. He had already recognized the old man. 16 years ago, when he had come to this world, he had seen him. In those 16 years, the old cripple's face seemed not to have changed at all.Chen Pingping watched the young man come closer and closer to him, and a strange look of satisfaction floated across his face. Fan Xian was now next to him. Chen Pingping opened his arms. "My child, come here," he said gently.Fan Xian slowly bent down, and softly leant his head on the old man's shoulder, slipping his body into his narrow, soft embrace.
Chen Pingping was very thin. Their bodies touched only gently, but Fan Xian could feel a warmth.The young man and the old man embraced each other as if the spymasters of the Kingdom of Qing were not even there. It was a moment of impudence. Some time later, the two parted, and Fan Xian bowed respectfully. "It is an honor to meet you at last."Chen Pingping suddenly gave a pointed laugh. It sounded like a happy one.Save for Fei Jie, the other seven spymasters, who didn't know the facts of the situation, kept a respectful silence. But deep down, they were shocked. None of them knew that the commissioner and the always-distant Director had this sort of relationship.Today was the first day that Fan Xian had entered the Overwatch Council officially in his status as commissioner, so the members of the eight bureaus had been waiting for him. After a round of quick introductions, Fan Xian sat quietly on a chair to Chen Pingping's left, and Fei Jie sat to his right."This is Fan Xian," said Chen Pingping calmly, looking at his subordinates. "From now on he is a commissioner of the Overwatch Council. Colleagues, I ask that you lend him your support."In introducing the newest member of staff, Chen Pingping had never been so serious, and had never spoken so much, as he had today. The seven bureau chiefs all knew the weight of his words. They stood up, bowed toward Fan Xian, and said nothing more.Ever since Fei Jie had begun tutoring him at the age of five, Fan Xian knew that he would have something to do with the secretive organization feared throughout the land and avoided by the common people. Especially after he learned of his mother's connection with the Council, he was even more aware of the fact that his relationship with the Council was to be a particularly special one.When he was young, Fei Jie taught him about the structure and activities of the Council. After he had entered the capital, many things had happened in coordination with the Overwatch Council. Independent of the Council, he had organized w.a.n.g Qinian's team. Today, he listened to their official explanations, and gained a deeper understanding of the Overwatch Council.The Overwatch Council was a spy agency directly subordinate to His Majesty the Emperor. Its authority existed outside the Six Ministries, and was not limited by the laws of the Kingdom of Qing, operating instead exclusively on the orders of the Emperor. It was split into eight bureaus. The First Bureau specialized in monitoring the bureaucracy in the capital, and had spies planted in each critical department. It was the most crucial bureau of the Council. The previous head was Zhu Ge, who had been secretly collaborating with the Eldest Princess, and had died some months ago. The Second Bureau was responsible for gathering and a.n.a.lyzing intelligence and strategy, and devising plans for the Emperor and the military.The Third Bureau was the one that Fan Xian felt closest to, because before his retirement, his teacher Fei Jie had been head of the Third Bureau. The Third Bureau specialized in manufacturing drugs, poisons, and all kinds of secret weapons. The knockout drops, poisons, and aphrodisiacs that Fan Xian kept on his person had been a result of the work of the Third Bureau.The Fourth Bureau was Yan Ruohai's office. It specialized in monitoring the bureaucracy outside the capital, and the related work of intelligence gathering, investigation, and arrests. Its authority extended outside the national borders, and included Northern Qi and the City of Dongyi. In terms of the scope of its authority, it was the most powerful bureau next to the First Bureau.The Fifth Bureau of the Overwatch Council had always been stationed outside the capital. It had been established on the orders of the Emperor, and comprised of the Black Knights, responsible for ensuring Chen Pingping's safety. When necessary, it could also travel long distances to mount a surprise cavalry attack. The daring raid behind enemy lines in Northern Wei to capture the spymaster Xiao En had been the Fifth Bureau's finest achievement. It could be said that from a martial point of view, the Fifth Bureau was the strongest section of the Overwatch Council.The Sixth Bureau was the least well known, yet most fearsome of all the departments. Even Fan Xian, in all his time since entering the capital, had not made contact with the Sixth Bureau, because it was specialized in carrying out the work of secret a.s.sa.s.sinations. Of course, from another perspective, the Sixth Bureau was responsible for protecting those appointed by the Emperor.The Seventh Bureau was responsible for interrogation of enemy prisoners. It was more specialized than the 13 offices of the Ministry of Justice. The unremarkable jailer at the Overwatch Council prison that Fan Xian had once laid eyes on had been the former head of the Seventh Bureau.At the mention of the Eighth Bureau, Fan Xian saw that the middle-aged official wanted to laugh. Was it not the bureau that he had been in contact with the most? The Danbo Bookstore had made significant contributions to the Eighth Bureau. Though there were some usable connections, Seventh Ye the shopkeeper had still made sure to make his monthly contributions to the Eighth Bureau. Fan Xian felt that this office was similar to the Magistrates' Yamen of his previous world, though its power was greater and it was more independent.After the cursory introductions had ended, the seven bureau heads needed no introduction from Fan Xian, as they were all very familiar with his resumé and his brilliance; indeed, the entire Kingdom of Qing knew. Besides, these seven spymasters were wily as foxes, fierce as wolves, and ferocious as tigers.Of these seven spymasters, Fan Xian only recognized Yan Ruohai, though he was more interested in the heads of the Third and Sixth Bureaux, because during their introductions, the head of the Sixth Bureau had said he was acting on behalf of another. Fan Xian was curious. If not here, then where was the most feared a.s.sa.s.sin in all of the Kingdom of Qing?As for his curiosity about the head of the Third Bureau, it was because of a boring aside from Fei Jie. This bureau head, surnamed Leng, had been a student of Fei Jie. Fan Xian presumed that, as a senior student of the same master, he should call him Brother Leng.After the meeting had finished, Chief Leng of the Third Bureau and Yan Ruohai of the Fourth Bureau stayed behind. Fan Xian and Brother Leng chatted for a while, talking of poisons and concealed weapons with inevitable delight. Yan Ruohai watched them from the side, feeling his hair stand on end somewhat before he recalled that the Commissioner had been the last student of Fei Jie, and was a strange fellow who had grown up familiar with poisons. He didn't want to get too close to him.Seeing the two of them talking happily, Fei Jie frowned. "I have long known what kind of person Xiao En is. I presume that after the diplomatic mission enters Northern Qi, he will demand that they wait at Wudu River for a month, where under the protection of Northern Qing, he will confirm that there is no poison remaining in his system. Only then will he send the hostage toward the capital. I cannot concoct a poison that will only take effect after a month's time. You two have been muttering amongst yourselves for a long time. What use is that?"With a deep and mournful sigh, Fan Xian and Brother Leng, whom he had only just met bowed to each other and parted, knowing that Fei Jie was right.Chen Pingping gently clapped his hands, getting the attention of the handful of people left in the room. "This journey to Northern Qi has four objectives," he said calmly.Fan Xian sat down, listening earnestly."First, we must ensure that Yan Bingyun returns safely home to take up his post at the First Bureau. Second, after ensuring the success of the agreement between the two countries, immediately a.s.sa.s.sinate Xiao En." Chen Pingping spoke as if he were describing something completely normal. "Third, carry out Operation Red Sleeve. Doc.u.ments containing details of this plan will be provided to you soon. Fourth, on the basis of the completion of the first three objectives, integrate into the spy network of Northern Qi, and ensure that there is no lag in intelligence gathering as a result of the departure of Yan Bingyun."Four objectives, each more difficult than the last. Fan Xian's face was relatively calm, but he was secretly both excited and uneasy. Chen Pingping turned to Yan Ruohai, his face expressionless. "Prepare the necessary resources, and before Fan Xian leaves, give him a briefing."Yan Ruohai nodded, turned, and left the room.The only people left in the room were Fan Xian, Chen Pingping, and Fei Jie. After a moment of silence, Chen Pingping softly smoothed out the creases on the blanket covering his knees. A hint of a smile floated across his face as he looked at Fan Xian. "I believe, after having seen that name outside the Council, there are a great many things you should know."" Wu Zhu told me a few things." Fan Xian smiled as he looked at the old cripple before him. His heart was filled with a number of complicated feelings. So much in his life had been arranged by him, but for some reason, Fan Xian did not feel a contradiction in his mood as any ordinary person would. Instead, he felt a strange kind of trust. It seemed as if the most terrifying official in the whole nation, who stood before him, deserved his trust.This was his intuition, and Fan Xian had always trusted and honored his own intuition."Old Wu?" Chen Pingping closed his eyes and frowned. It seemed that he had sunk into some kind of memory. He suddenly spoke. "Are his memories any better?""Perhaps he remembers everything he should," Fan Xian said quietly, "and he has forgotten everything he does not want to remember."Fei Jie cleared his throat and looked at his student. There was no need at all, in his opinion, to speak so mysteriously with the Director. He didn't like it one bit.