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Five days prior, Wu Zhu entered the palace for the last time and confirmed that the key was hidden somewhere in Hanguang Hall. Therefore, it was the first location Fan Xian investigated. Perhaps because of the long period of peace, Hanguang Hall, which was inhabited by the empress, was quiet and tranquil. The palace girls were all asleep, and the young eunuchs were starting to get drowsy.
A faint fragrance wafted by. Whether eunuch or palace girl, they all drifted off into a deep slumber.
In the dim light, Fan Xian walked along the dark corners and entered the empress’s sleeping quarter. Seeing the extraordinarily elegant bed in the distance, he frowned slightly. On the bed lay an old lady; could that be the empress?
There wasn’t much for Fan Xian to exclaim, nor would he humor his own delusion of doing something which might change history. He walked forward calmly to the side of the bed. He was not even looking at the most powerful woman in the world.
Keep calm. That was the most important thing that Wu Zhu and Fei Jie had taught him.
The imagined hidden guard did not appear. Fan Xian was prepared for some unseen master lying in wait to protect the royalty.
He didn’t think too much about where in Hanguang Hall tone could hide valuables. He slid under the empress’s bed without much hesitation. He closed his eyes and began to touch the wooden floor beneath the bed. The floorboards were made from high quality timber, but his current actions were strange.
A short while later, he opened his eyes in the darkness. There was a glint of absurd joy in his pupils.
Back in Danzhou, he had hidden his nameless skill-book under his bed boards; in The Deer and the Cauldron, Mao Dongzhu hid forty-two scriptures under the darkness of her bed. As it turned out, the empress of Qing followed suit.
The current situation showed the limits of human creativity and imagination.
Putting just a little force into his dagger, Fan Xian dug the blade in from the side. The tip made no sound as it pierced the wood. The empress turned and said something in her sleep, but Fan Xian pretended not to hear and continued expressionlessly. Soon, the lattice came off, although he dared not to disturb it with his hand. With his superhuman night-vision, he was easily able to see it.
There was only a white cloth, a letter, and… a key.
Looking at the shape of the key, Fan Xian frowned slightly, making a strange expression. Ignoring the white cloth and the letter, he took the key and slipped out.
Moments later, he appeared again under the palace walls.
He climbed into the carriage. Looking at w.a.n.g Qinian, he said lightly, "I need speed."
"Yes sir." w.a.n.g Qinian didn’t know the details of the plan. He only knew that he had to pick up Fan Xian, and then go meet the "other person".
"I hope n.o.body knows I’m in this carriage."
"Sir, rest a.s.sured. This carriage was borrowed from the Privy Council. No one would dare to stop it, so no one will find out."
"Very good." Relaxing a little, Fan Xian half-sat down. First, he had pretended to be a drunken, poetic maniac, and then he was snaking into the palace at night. Both were severely taxing to his mind.
The carriage stopped somewhere Fan Xian did not recognize. The two silently got out. Putting on their headcovers again, they walked down to a chamber underground. w.a.n.g Qinian said in a m.u.f.fled voice, "Sir, this is the locksmith Suo Jiang."
Standing in front of them was a small wooden table. On it were many unrecognizable metal tools gleaming under the light. The owner of the tools appeared to be an honest, middle-aged man. His face was dark tan and he had a hearty smile.
Locksmith was a profession, and it was also a t.i.tle. But this Suo Jian didn’t just stop there—"Suo Jiang" literally meant "locksmith". From his name alone, one could see his level of craftsmanship.
Fan Xian nodded and said to w.a.n.g Qinian,
And so, w.a.n.g Qinian excused himself. He knew that there were things he would never know, and not knowing would ensure his safety.
"This involves the survival of the nation. By the authority of the Overwatch Council, I ask you to serve your country." Fan Xian said calmly through his headcover.
That gave the locksmith quite a shock. Thinking about the foreign envoys in the capital, Suo Jian believed he had guessed something and hurriedly saluted, not knowing what he was about to do.
"You must be quick and precise." Fan Xian took out the key. "I want an exact replica."
The locksmith took the key and examined it closely. "There are no locks in the world that this key would open."
"I don’t care. I only want you to make a copy of it. Can you do it or not?"
"It will be very difficult. This key is extremely complex. Even if I make an exact copy in appearance, I can’t guarantee that it will open the corresponding lock."
"Very good. Begin." Fan Xian was happy at the reply, but his voice was still calm.
The locksmith began to nervously replicate the key. The sound of metal sc.r.a.ping could occasionally be heard in the room. Fan Xian was nervous too as he looked at the door; he didn’t know how long Wu Zhu could keep Eunuch Hong occupied. Eunuch Hong’s living quarters were too close to Hanguang Hall. If Eunuch Hong returned, it would be difficult for Fan Xian to put back the duplicate key.
Finally, sweating, Suo Jiang finished. Comparing the two keys, Fan Xian discovered the two to be completely identical, replicated down to the last bit of rust. Finally relaxed, he smiled. "What do you really do for a living?"
Because his face was covered by black cloth, his smile looked odd.
"I… am a thief." Suo Jiang admitted, sweating profusely. He didn’t know what fate awaited him now that he had finished this top-secret job.
"So, he's a thief," Fan Xian thought. Squinting at the tools and key pattern on the table, he frowned. He then walked over and crushed the pattern to bits with a powerful burst of zhenqi.
Even the tools he had left for w.a.n.g Qinian were destroyed. Suo Jiang was sent off to the southern regions in order to keep away from potential trouble. Only then did Fan Xian put his mind to rest and go back to the palace.
Entering Hanguang Hall again, the sleep-inducing fragrance had begun to disperse. The night breeze was still blowing; the palace resonated with a peaceful atmosphere. Fan Xian slipped under the empress’s bed like a ghost. He put back the replicate key, and resealed the floor board with the glue he brought. Finally, he silently slipped out of the palace.
It had been some time since the last drum sounded. Fan Xian knew it was time for him to leave. At that moment, a small courtyard next to the palace caught his attention. That courtyard was Guangxin Palace, where the eldest princess resided.
Fan Xian’s plan and execution of it had been perfect today. If he didn’t want unnecessary complications, he should leave now and wait for things to develop. However, for some reason—probably drunk at his success of having obtained the key—he did the unexpected.
Fan Xian believed that, under the cover of darkness, he could walk freely, even in the solemn palace. He proceeded down the hallway, relying completely on the night traveling skills he learned from Wu Zhu and Fei Jie. With great difficulty, he approached Guangxin Palace, even brushing shoulders with a yawning palace girl.
The palace was still lit, and there were people inside. Guangxin Palace was different from other palaces in the complex. It was surrounded by a wall of its own.
As they say, those who cross rivers aren’t afraid of a dirty moat. But Fan Xian knew many master martial artists had been killed because of such a.s.sumptions. So, he carefully took a detour to the back and climbed up a thick pillar.
With his palms adhering to the smooth pillar, Fan Xian felt somewhat irritated, probably from exerting himself too much today. Climbing the pillar proved to be difficult, but he managed. Carefully scaling onto the roof, Fan Xian dared not lift up any roof tiles. Instead, he started looking for transparent gla.s.s tiles.
Normally, one would not find gla.s.s tiles on the roof of a palace, but it possibly because of Fan Xian’s great luck, Eldest Princess happened to enjoy having sunlight shine from above during the day. Fan Xian managed to find one such tile. He knelt down, making sure his every movement was steady and silent.
The room under the gla.s.s tile was dimly lit, but Fan Xian was able to see and hear clearly thanks to his amazing senses. He squinted, and he knew he had guessed right. His luck was indeed great.
Eldest Princess Li Yunrui sat reclining with a lazy look on her face, looking exceptionally charming. She only wore a white night gown. Under the thin fabric, the outline of her body could be seen. There was a hint of youth in its maturity. If any man were to see this, he would probably bow down to worship her feet.
As His Majesty’s younger sister, she had no need to use s.e.x appeal to lure people. Besides, the one sitting in front of her was around seventy years old. He was the greatest scholar in the world. He was not one who would be tempted by such things.
Zhuang Mohan coughed twice, "My business here is finished. I hope you do not mind, Princess.
Eldest Princess played around with her fake scroll, which was made from gold. Suddenly, she beamed a huge smile and said softly, "Master Zhuang, I want you to stomp that Fan Xian into the ground so hard he no longer has the dignity to stay in the capital. Can you do that?"