Chapter 9: Age is Just a Number
Translator: Nyoi_Bo_Studio Editor: Nyoi_Bo_Studio
Pulling down his face mask and washing his hands with clean water, Fan Xian started recording the features of the corpses. He analyzed the diseases the deceased might have contracted, taking detailed notes in a black, leather-bound notebook Fei Jie had given him.
After he was finished, he stood up, his face somewhat pale, his long eyelashes fluttering incessantly. “Is there anything else to do, sir?”
Looking at him, Fei Jie frowned. He hadn’t expected the kid to have such guts.
Before he could open his mouth to say anything, the nausea had finally gotten to Fan Xian. He ran to the edge of the graveyard and began to vomit violently. When the nausea had finally passed, he stood up again.
A soft look of pity glanced across Fei Jie’s face. Had he been too harsh, ordering a four-year-old boy to get up close and personal with such terrible things? As he watched Fan Xian vomit, Fan Jie suddenly realized that this was the first time he really seemed like a child, rather than an old soul in a young body.
“It’s okay. You’ve got some first-hand knowledge now. We can discuss it another time.”
Before Fei Jie could finish his sentence, Fan Xian’s young voice interjected.
“It’s a shame Danzhou’s such a small town. Not enough dead people. Otherwise we might be able to find fresher corpses.”
Fei Jie’s heart skipped a beat, and he slowly turned his head to look into Fan Xian’s innocent eyes. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was expecting to find in them. After a long while, he spoke coldly. “Why…”
“Why aren’t you scared? Why aren’t you angry at me for making you do these things?” Fei Jie fixed the young boy with a bewildered frown.
Fan Xian lowered his head. “Teacher,” he said respectfully, “you said you would poison someone so I would be able to watch and learn. I’m scared. I’d much rather dig up corpses.”
“So there are some things in this world that frighten you.”
“There are.” Fan Xian looked pitifully at his teacher. “I’m only four-and-a-half years old.”
“Age is just a number.” Fei Jie nodded, then shook his head again. “Even though you’re young, there are some things that you might not understand but will have to learn anyway. A nobleman’s bastard like you will face plenty of plots and attacks. One’s worthless sympathy can often be the thing that leads to one’s downfall.”
Fei Jie had the odd feeling that the child fully understood everything he’d just said. At that moment, rays of daylight found their way into Fan Xian’s eyes, setting them off with a shimmer.
Fei Jie was briefly taken aback. There was something wholly otherworldly in the boy’s eyes. Over the years, his poisons had killed countless people. During the year of the late Emperor’s northern conquest, his poisons had killed thousands of soldiers from the Northern Wei Kingdom. His crimes would undoubtedly damn him to hell. Then why did the sight of this innocent child cause him such unbearable unease?
After putting right the nameless grave they had disturbed, the bizarre master and student pair walked eastward toward the dawn. “You must have a lot of questions,” said Fei Jie as they took to the road.
“Hm,” Fan Xian grunted in affirmation, a sweet smile spreading shyly across his face. “You’re very good to me, teacher.”
Fei Jie hadn’t expected the child would answer so tactfully. “If you can smile about something like this,” he said, laughing bitterly, “I really wonder how mature you are.”
“Better to laugh than to cry.”
“That’s true.” Fei Jie stared at the city walls in the distance, furrowing his brow. “Your father owns a great estate in the capital. A lot of people will struggle to take it from you, so you’ll have to become strong and learn as much as you can.”
Fan Xian said nothing. He was deep in thought. He’d always heard that his father, Count Sinan, was well trusted by the Emperor, and that he lived in the capital.
The year before last, there was a great political upheaval in the capital, and a great many nobles had died in a coup. Finally, His Majesty had taken control of the situation, purging the houses of countless aristocrats. Although his father was one of those nobles, he had somehow managed to retain the trust of the Emperor, and had even greatly improved his standing.
But Fan Xian still couldn’t understand what kind of estate could lead to his own death. How could it cause his father to enlist this formidable intermediary from the Overwatch Council to serve as his teacher?
“I understand. One day, someone will try to kill me, so you’re teaching me to use poison. Really, I’m scared someone will try to poison me.”
“Right. Killers have many methods, but poison is the easiest and least likely to arouse suspicion.” Fei Jie rubbed the crown of his head. “My job is to teach you about such matters within a year, so that no one can kill you by poisoning one of your meals.”
“But why only now? Surely you’ve been worried that somebody might poison me for the past few years.” Fan Xian needed clarification, so he continued asking questions; all the while he couldn’t help but worry that his teacher would sense a maturity beyond his years.
Fei Jie smiled, but his words were grim. “Because last month, Count Sinan’s concubine gave birth to a son. In other words, you already have a rival for Count Sinan’s estate. And that concubine has connections within the Overwatch Council. Your father was worried something might happen to you, and it wouldn’t be convenient to dispatch someone to guard you for a long period of time, because that would arouse suspicion. So he sent me to teach you.”
Fan Xian noted that Fei Jie had said both “Count Sinan” and “your father”.
“I’m a bastard,” said Fan Xian, smiling. “By law, I have no right to inherit my father’s title. So the concubine shouldn’t worry about me.”
“One can never be too sure of anything in this world,” Fei Jie snapped back. “Although you’ve got Master Wu protecting you, he can’t be your nanny. Poison in your food might not hurt him, but it will still kill you. And if you die, you don’t know how many people might die alongside you.”
Fan Xian’s misgivings grew stronger. What sort of power did he wield, this father he had never seen? It was clearly far more than someone of his stature should normally have.
The morning sun was bright, and as Fei Jie led his charge toward the walls of Danzhou, their shadows – one tall, one short – stretched out upon the ground. Fei Jie observed Fan Xian’s face, still rather pale. “Truth is, dead people are nothing to fear.”
“And don’t use zhenqi to control your emotions. If human emotions aren’t given the proper outlet, even if your powers of zhenqi control are at their peak, you’ll become a murderous monster.”
“I understand.” Obediently, Fan Xian scattered the zhenqi within his body and stopped suppressing the fear and disgust he felt at handling corpses.
At that moment, Fei Jie suddenly spoke. “There are still some rotten entrails in your sleeve. You taking them home for breakfast?”
“Aargh!” The child’s frightened shriek and the subsequent sinister laugh of his teacher pierced through the quietude of the rustic dawn.