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The thick iron door slowly opened, its oiled hinges making no creaking sound at all. But the pressure of the silence made those keeping watch outside the gate of the Overwatch Council all the more nervous.
Fan Xian lowered his head slightly. His left eyelid twitched. The air that flowed out from behind the iron door felt slightly cold. It was as if this 80-year-old man - who had lived only as a character in the yellowing pages of history, imprisoned for 20 years - still gave off all the airs that a spymaster would.
The sound of the iron chain sc.r.a.ping against the paved road was ear-piercing. It got louder and louder, meaning that the person inside was coming closer and closer to the great iron door.
Fan Xian lifted his head and looked calmly at the iron door. He thought about how Chen Pingping, during the Second Northern Expedition, had led the Black Knights on a daring surprise raid, kidnapping Xiao En from a wedding he was attending and secretly bringing him back from Northern Qi. What graceful skill must it have taken? But as a result of this, Chen Pingping had also lost both of his legs. This Xiao En was a powerful man indeed.
After Xiao En had been imprisoned, the Kingdom of Qing attacked the north once more. After the Third Northern Expedition, Northern Wei - which had once considered itself unparalleled on the world stage - was left shattered, fracturing into numerous petty kingdoms. The family of the military commander Zhan, who directly inherited the power of Northern Wei and the majority of its territory, founded a new nation: Qi.
This was the history of the current nation of Northern Qi. Commander Zhan Fengqing had been censured despite his innocence, and Northern Qi had then fallen apart. Finally, the Zhan family had arisen from these shambles. It was quite a story indeed.
The spring sunshine softly filtered through the big trees outside the prison, shining onto the iron door. The mottled traces of light upon the door also fell upon that old face at the same time. The sound of the iron chain dragging against the floor came to a sudden halt, and there was the sound of an aged sigh.
The four swordsmen of the Sixth Bureau of the Overwatch Council held firmly to his chains as if they were facing some great enemy, keeping their distance from the man in the cangue  fastened around his neck. The man in the collar had a head of completely white, unruly hair. He looked to be in complete disarray. His wrists and feet were bound in steel manacles and leg irons, and yet the clothing on his body was completely clean.
The sound of the aged sigh had come from his wizened old lips. "It has been a long time since I last saw the sun," he sighed again quietly.
This was Xiao En, imprisoned by the Kingdom of Qing for 20 years. Seeing him walk out of the Celestial Prison, the guards around him felt inexplicably nervous, as if the air had slowly been filled with the slightly-sweet smell of blood. Fan Xian frowned. The air around the old man was enough to drive people mad. The people around him gripped the blades on their waists tightly, or fingered the triggers of their crossbows, taking aim at this tall but stooped old man.
There was a m.u.f.fled cracking sound!
The former head of the Seventh Bureau, now a cloudy-eyed jailer, had hit Xiao En in the spine with his stick for no reason!
But Xiao En did not seem to feel a thing. He slowly turned his head to look at the former head of the Seventh Bureau, and coughed gently. He brushed the messy hair from his face, exposing a pair of cold, dark, serene eyes. A croak came from his withered lips. "Neighbor, we have lived together for 20 years. I am leaving now, and this is how you see me off?"
The former head of the Seventh Bureau slowly closed his eyes, the hand holding his wooden cudgel drooping down. He seemed scared of Xiao En's gaze, and forced himself to breathe as he spoke. "These people are all of a younger generation. Why should you provoke them? If these children were to accidentally kill you, I presume you would not be so willing."
Xiao En slowly blinked. He looked at the handsome young man among the crowd who surrounded him.
Realizing that Xiao En was looking at him, Fan Xian used his zhenqi to settle his mind, and smiled back at him.
Xiao En was somewhat surprised. Such a young person, and yet so calm. He shook his head slightly. "I am leaving the Kingdom of Qing," he said to the jailer. "I presume you will not stay inside the Celestial Prison any longer. But I think you hope for my death. Otherwise I will find a way to repay you for your 20 years of company."
The jailer's face did not change. "I wish you a pleasant journey. Do not return."
Xiao En hissed with laughter. "I shall return." He looked the jailer in the eye, speaking each word carefully. "Every punishment you have inflicted upon me, I shall inflict upon your children."
The jailer closed his eyes. He knew that if Xiao En could recoup his hidden power in Northern Qi, then he would make sure to exact revenge upon him specially. He would have difficulty keeping his family safe.
Xiao En looked up at the sky and laughed, and the thick iron chains fastened to him clanked, seemingly also afraid of this terrifying man who had gained his freedom.
The gathered personnel of the Overwatch Council were thoroughly nervous. Fan Xian, hearing the bitter resentment in his laughter, was not only slightly nervous, but narrowed his eyes, still completely puzzled as to why the Eldest Princess had played such a trick.
There was an air of trepidation outside the prison of the Overwatch Council. It seemed they had sensed the slight sheen of blood on the wooden collar the man wore.
At that moment, there was a groaning sound, and an ordinary black wheelchair slowly approached the man in the cangue.
Fei Jie pushed the wheelchair which Chen Pingping sat in.
The wheelchair rolled quietly, but like a temple bell, it freed those gathered from their anxious mood. Seeing the Director arrive, they let out a simultaneous sigh of relief.
Their nervousness in facing Xiao En was because they did not know what this person - who they had heard of only in legend - would do if he were ever to escape from prison.
With Chen Pingping's arrival, they felt more at ease, because the personnel of the Overwatch Council all deeply believed that as long as Director Chen was there, Xiao En would not be able to resist them.
Chen Pingping slowly raised his head and looked at the old man in the cangue. "What are you laughing at?" he said gently. There was a hint of disdain in his voice, and a hint of curiosity.
The disheveled Xiao En looked at Chen Pingping in his wheelchair, and suddenly spoke. "I was laughing about your legs, destroyed by my hand."
Chen Pingping smiled and shook his head. "I thought you were laughing at your own pathetic life. I've had you locked up for 20 years. Is there anything else that needs to be said? I am the victor, and you have been defeated. It is a fact that has gone down as part of history. And you can never change it."
Xiao En snarled. His hair, as silver as a blade, scattered behind him. Furious, he took two steps forward, his iron chains shaking. The four swordsmen from the Sixth Bureau, holding the chains fastened to his thick cangue, finally pulled him to a stop. As they struggled, the dust in front of the prison was kicked up.
Chen Pingping was not worried in the slightest. He regarded him with pity. "So old, and yet so angry?"
Xiao En suddenly closed his eyes and faced the sky. Some time later, he opened them again, and they shone with a frigid cold light. "Chen Pingping, are you truly daring to let me return to the north?"
Chen Pingping smiled. "Go back and live out your retirement in peace. These days, my arms and legs are old. I don't feel like running so far to capture you again."
Xiao En's voice was as sharp as a knife, his aged timbre was like a streak of rust, sc.r.a.ping the ears of everyone who heard him. "My son died by your hand at his wedding. I hope you do not get the chance to capture me again."
Chen Pingping beckoned Fan Xian, who walked over with a smile on his face. The closer he got to Xiao En, the more he felt his innate coldness, but he did not let it show on his face.
"We are old. What can you still do? Supposing I were to capture you again..." Chen Pingping smiled. "Xiao En, this is Fan Xian. He is my successor. He will accompany you on your journey north. I hope you will not be lonely."
Xiao En leaned to one side, the chains of his cangue and leg-irons making clanking sounds. Through his hair in front of his eyes, the old man looked at the young man, this delicate and handsome young official of the Overwatch Council. He said nothing for a long time. Fan Xian finally saw clearly the unfading resentment in the man's eyes.
Pushing the wheelchair, Fei Jie spoke slowly. "Master Xiao En, the poison at the wedding was my doing. It just so happens that Fan Xian is my student."
Chen Pingping and Fei Jie both smiled. Fan Xian saw fit to speak with a smile. "Xiao En, as you are an elder, I shall accompany you in the days that follow."
Xiao En chuckled, but there was no happiness in his laughter, only cold-blooded murder. He had suffered the greatest defeat of the era, inflicted upon him by Chen Pingping and Fei Jie, but he had not imagined that his young escort to the north would be so deeply connected to them. He turned his head slightly to look at Fan Xian, and spoke slowly. "You are green. You should take more care on the road."
Fan Xian bowed politely. "On the road, I hope to learn much from you, sir."
The thin gra.s.s on the side of the road was like shards of jasper. The trees hung low in the air by the side of the carriages. The silent convoy left the prison of the Overwatch Council, going along Tianhe Avenue to the north of the city. Along the road, the city garrison had set up security checkpoints. The long street was emptied of people, and only soldiers stood guard. In the distance one could faintly make out bowmen from the Sixth Bureau, stationed in the high towers.
The side door to the palace grounds was closed, and vice-commander Gong Dian coldly watched the convoy go past on the street from a distance. Suddenly, he spoke. "I rather admire Fan Xian."
The military officer to his side frowned. "Sir?"
The corner of Gong Dian's lip curled upward. "You have never had dealings with Xiao En, so you have no idea how dangerous this is. Fan Xian's name is known throughout the land, and he is a powerful person with connections to the Emperor. There is no need for him to take such a journey to Northern Qi. And yet the boy has the gall to take on such a task... I really do admire him."
Fan Xian sat in the front carriage of the convoy, resting his eyes. The real diplomatic mission had left the capital yesterday. This group of people plus himself—because Xiao En had been part of Yan Bingyun's secret agreement—had followed along later. Last night, he had vetoed his family's absurd notion of seeing him off. His mind was focused entirely on the mission.
The rocking of the carriage was making Fan Xian sleepy. He was calculating a number of things. Other than Xiao En, he was also considering the th.o.r.n.y problem of Si Lili and Operation Red Sleeve. He finally recalled that the charming young woman he had once spent the night with was in the carriage behind them, and he couldn't help but feel somewhat surprised.
At that moment, the carriage jolted. He knew that the convoy had just pa.s.sed over the stone threshold of the city's northern gate.
 A cangue was a large square wooden board fastened around the necks of prisoners in feudal China. It was often so large that the prisoner would be unable to reach their face to feed themselves.