The sun shone down on an airy pavilion, set in one corner of the grounds of the extensive estate belonging to the Fan clan. The courtyard around it had once belonged to the mother of Fan Bin, a concubine named Jai Yana, and Fan Bin had appropriated it for himself after his mother had been killed. Of course, he had been the one to kill her.
It wasn’t that Fan Bin had ever been mistreated by his mother. Jai Yana had been one of Fan Gen’s many, many concubines; in fact, she had been the lowest ranking among them. She was simply a commoner who had been forcibly kidnapped off the streets of North Pine City due to Fan Gen’s sudden whim, and made to suffer his questionable affections. Whether her parents had protested her abduction, she never knew; in her heart, she had hoped that they had remained silent, for if they had so much said a word against Fan Gen, they would definitely have been killed.
Jai Yana was not the first woman who had been treated in this fashion by Fan Gen, but she had been the only one to survive longer than a single year.
Naturally, Fan Gen had no interest in the welfare of a single common concubine, and since Jai Yana had no connection to anyone inside or outside the Fan clan, the servants mostly ignored her as well. If it had not been for an old housekeeper who had taken pity on the poor girl, and ensured that she had at least a little to eat each day, Jai Yana would never have survived long enough to even discover that she was pregnant.
Giving birth to Fan Bin had been an ordeal, due to her severe malnutrition, but somehow both mother and son had clung to life. Fan Gen had been pleased to have another son, and Jai Yana’s treatment improved slightly: she was given a courtyard of her own, and provided with enough to eat at last. She remained weak in body, but at least she was no longer in danger of starving to death.
At that time, Fan Gen had a number of sons older than Fan Bin, making him the eighth young master of the Fan clan. But the internal politics of the Fan clan were vicious and ruthless, and Fan Gen would often incite his sons against each other, in order to determine which was the strongest, smartest, and most fit to become his heir. Those that died were obviously not worthy of being remembered, at least to Fan Gen, and so over the first decade of Fan Bin’s life he gradually became the seventh young master, and then the sixth, and so on until he became the third young master at the age of twelve.
And then, his two remaining older brothers received a mission from the clan to enter the Cerulean Abyss and retrieve a number of Wolf-headed Bear hearts, an ingredient in several strong potions used in cultivation. Each brother took twenty strong followers and marched off into the Abyss, swearing to outdo the other and win their father’s support.
But not one of those forty-two men ever returned!
Fan Gen went crazy, capturing and torturing any number of experts in an attempt to learn what had gone wrong, as well as offering obscene amounts of money as a reward for information, but no one knew anything. The last anyone had seen of any of those men was the sight of them entering the Abyss; even those timid cultivators who only wandered around near the entrance had never seen a single hair on their heads. After a year of searching, Fan Gen was forced to recognize that his two eldest sons were dead, and the title of first young master had passed on to a truly unlikely person: Fan Bin, the son born of commoner Jai Yana.
Frankly, everyone in the Fan clan was shocked that Fan Bin was still alive. A boy with no power or backing should not have lasted a full thirteen years in the vicious Fan clan. Furthermore, the peaceful smile that continually graced his handsome face gave many observers the impression of a weak mind and spirit.
Only his instructors in the art of martial cultivation had noticed that he was not nearly as simple as he appeared. As a member of the Fan clan, training was compulsory, and began when one turned eight years old. As the son of Fan Gen, Fan Bin should have had personal instruction from a dedicated tutor, but his mother’s lack of status clung to him as well, and he ended up being attached to a group aimed at training the children of servants into minor soldiers for the clan.
Initially, the instructors did not pay any attention to Fan Bin, and treated him just like any other low-born servant child. However, as time went on, they began to notice that the boy was very different from other children. For one thing, his cultivation speed was strangely high for a boy given no access to special resources. For another, his instincts in a fight were markedly ruthless and vicious, often aimed to cripple or kill with a single strike, in a complete contrast to the style taught by the instructors which prioritized trading blow for blow in a frontal assault.
And above anything else, they learned the frightening nature of Fan Bin’s smile. That gentle smile, that seemed to hold no malice for anything, never left Fan Bin’s face under any trial or circumstance. Where the other children would cry out in pain when hit, and sob when their bones broke during the harsh training, Fan Bin would simply smile, and smile, and smile. No trace of his thoughts, no hint of pain, could ever be seen in his eyes; and this eternal placid calm impressed and frightened his instructors.
And then came the day that Fan Bin unexpectedly became the first young master, suddenly catapulting him out of obscurity and into the harsh gaze of everyone. A thousand plots were born in an instant, as the various wives of Fan Gen began maneuvering against Fan Bin and his mother, aiming to remove this upstart commoner’s son so that their own child might one day have a chance at succeeding Fan Gen.
But of all the various plotters, the one who moved the fastest, and most decisively, was Fan Gen himself!
Fan Gen called for Fan Bin to appear before him, and the two spoke for the first time. The father told his son, “Fan Bin, you are now my eldest son. I will treat you well in the future, so right now I want you to prove your loyalty to me.”
Fan Bin responded, “How may I prove myself to you, clan head?”
Fan Gen looked at his son with a twisted parody of a smile, and said, “Bring me the head of your mother, Jai Yana.”
Fan Gen had expected the boy to react with fear and disbelief. He was looking forward to the tears, and the begging for mercy. Finally, he was anticipating ordering this common-born son to be beaten to death, for disobeying his father’s order.
Therefore, he was shocked when the gentle smile on this young boy’s face did not so much as tremble as he responded, “Yes, father. I shall fetch it right away.”
Fan Bin bowed and left his father, and acquired for himself a heavy cleaver which he tucked into his belt behind his back. Then, he immediately travelled to his mother’s courtyard.
Jai Yana actually had no idea that her son had reached the prestigious position of first young master among the Fan clan. She had survived the treacherous currents of Fan politics through the simple expedient of never engaging with anyone. She received her three meals a day, cultivated a few ordinary flowers in her courtyard, and never, ever spoke to anyone except her son. Jai Yana had noticed that there was something awry with her son’s personality, but she had always blamed herself for being too weak to protect her son, and so never pried too deeply into his privacy.
And so when Fan Bin entered her courtyard on that fateful day, she did not notice anything unusual about him. She greeted her son with a happy smile, and asked after his health. Fan Bin in return greeted her with his usual pleasant expression and a few normal polite words, which made his mother quite pleased to have raised such a kind and filial son.
And then she turned away for a moment, and Fan Bin instantly struck! Jai Yana didn’t even have time to realize that she had been killed, before his hidden cleaver struck her head from her shoulders!
The gentle smile on Fan Bin’s face did not so much as twitch!
Wasting no time, he collected his mother’s head, and strode confidently through the paths of the Fan estate, heading towards his father’s room. Those members of the Fan clan who saw him drew back, frightened by the incongruity of his placid expression while carrying his own mother’s severed head. A great clamor arose, but no one seemed ready to block his path.
And so he walked back into the room where he had left his father, and held out his mother’s head, saying, “Here is the head of Jai Yana, as you ordered, father.”
Fan Gen, along with the top elders of the clan, stared at the boy. Not one person had expected Fan Bin to actually kill his mother; indeed, Fan Gen had sent servants to follow the boy in secret, and to cripple him when he tried to escape with his mother. Instead, Fan Bin had done exactly as his father had asked and killed his own mother, who had been the only person to ever show him any kindness!
This monstrous action awoke a great sense of crisis in the elders of the Fan clan. Surely, if this terrifying child were to remain the first young master of the Fan, wouldn’t they end up in an even worse state than they were currently under the vicious and unpredictable Fan Gen?
One elder even opened his mouth to censure Fan Bin for killing Jai Yana. But before he could even speak a word, Fan Gen had burst into joyful laughter. “Good! Good!” he pronounced loudly. “Such a filial son! This father is moved beyond words! From now on, as long as your loyalty to the clan remains this strong, you will be given anything you need. Keep proving your strength, and one day the Fan clan will belong to you, Fan Bin!”
“If that is your desire, father, so shall it be,” replied Fan Bin, his gentle smile and placid eyes never wavering. Indeed, he looked at his father with the exact same expression he had worn while killing his mother…
Fan Bin sat inside the pavilion that he had ordered to be built in his mother’s former courtyard, and sipped at his favorite black tea. His expression was that same gentle smile, and although he seemed to be appreciating the beauty of the flowers and the landscape, no one could tell what he was thinking beneath the surface.
Suddenly he twitched, and turned to face the courtyard’s entrance. Within a few moments the unlocked gate flew open, and his father, Fan Gen, came bustling into the courtyard. Behind him came six bodyguards, but neither he nor Fan Bin paid them any attention. The years had not been especially kind to Fan Gen; he had once been considered quite handsome, but that had been a long, long time ago. Now, his handsome blond hair had turned an ugly grey, and his once smooth face had become a mass of wrinkles. But as befit a man at the peak of Qi Gathering, he still moved with an unmatched vigor.
“Ah, there you are, Little Bin!” announced the old clan head. “What are you doing, hiding out in this ridiculous place?”
“Hardly hiding, father. All my subordinates know where to find me,” calmly replied Fan Bin, his calm smile never fading.
“Hmph! Are you treating this old man as a subordinate now?” said Fan Gen angrily. Even though his guards were familiar with his sudden changes in mood, they still shuddered slightly at the madness present in Fan Gen’s voice.
His son, on the other hand, was entirely unmoved, his constant smile never changing. “Of course not, father. I simply expected that you would have sent for me had you needed me. I would, of course, have come immediately to hear your will.”
“Ah, never mind, never mind,” said Fan Gen, suddenly waving off his momentary anger. “I know that you have your father’s interests at heart.”
Fan Gen chuckled to himself, obviously pleased. Fan Bin tilted his head slightly, and asked, “What brings you to this lowly son’s courtyard, father? You seemed pleased about something.”
“Pleased? Of course I’m pleased!” shouted Fan Gen in excitement. “We’ve won, boy, won! The Sun clan will never more stand in my way on my path to greatness! This North Pine City is mine, all mine!”
“…Indeed.” Fan Bin nodded at his father’s words. “Sun Ba’s forces have been reduced to a handful of his most loyal guards. The various members of the Sun clan have been hunted down and eliminated, including the wives and children of Sun Ba himself. The only survivors of the Sun clan are Sun Ba’s fourth son Sun Tzi, my fiancee Sun Lan, and of course Sun Ba himself. All others have been eliminated.”
“Good, good, good!” laughed Fan Gen, nearly dancing in happiness. “And in three days, the opportunity to deal with Sun Ba will arrive as well! Fate has favored the Fan clan at last!”
Suddenly, his expression changed, and the eyes that gazed at his talented son became solemn. “Fan Bin. I don’t care what you do to that Sun bitch, but you must extract every technique that Sun Din taught her. If we can gain the secret techniques of Growth Master Din, our clan will grow to a new level of strength.”
Fan Bin was completely unmoved by his father’s sudden pressure. “Father, I’ve heard that Sun Lan has suffered an accident while attempting to reach Peak Qi Gathering, and can no longer cultivate. It will be difficult to recreate techniques from a person with broken meridians…”
Fan Gen’s face twisted, and he glared at Fan Bin with a sudden rage. “Get it done, Little Bin. Don’t forget, I, your father, am the only one who would support you in this world. Don’t disappoint me.”
He whirled around and stomped out of the courtyard, followed quickly by his bodyguards. Fan Bin gazed after him, the gentle smile on his lips never fading, and his eyes failed to betray any of his thoughts. After waiting for ten minutes, to ascertain whether Fan Gen had left anyone behind to watch him, he straightened up and spoke one word: “Come.”
Immediately two blurs of black and white leapt towards Fan Bin, resolving into the forms of Black Robe and White Robe kneeling in front of him, heads bent. Fan Bin allowed them to hold that pose for a moment, before saying, “Rise and report to this prince. What is the true state of affairs?”
Black Robe instantly responded, “My master. Approximately sixty percent of the Sun clan has been destroyed.”
Fan Bin raised an eyebrow. “Sixty percent? Hadn’t we originally estimated the elimination of at least eighty percent?”
“Master, I apologize. My estimates were too naive,” spoke White Robe, bowing his head again. “I was misled by false weaknesses, which allowed our opponent to move the conflict to places where he was strong, and we were weak. Even Sun Ba’s first wife, along with his fifth son, have slipped through our net. And no one has seen his third wife at all.”
Fan Bin sighed, slightly. “Sun Tzi. Is there any person in this whole North Pine City that is better at feigning weakness? But even if there was one, it would be impossible that there would be two. White Robe, do you have any idea what his true level of cultivation is?”
White Robe responded tentatively, “I am sixty percent certain that he has not reached the level of Core Reinforcement. Based on indirect evidence, I would suspect that he is either at the seventh level of Qi Gathering, or the eighth. But I have the uncomfortable feeling that no matter what level I estimate him at, his true strength must always be stronger.”
“Un, this prince understands and agrees. His strength must not be enough to sweep aside our own, but it is definitely enough for him to protect himself even under these circumstances where we pressure him from all sides. I do not intend to allow him to survive the coming days, but I might have to accept it.”
“Master,” spoke Black Robe hesitantly. “According to our Ladyship, the fate of Sun Tzi ends in this city during the upcoming crisis. Is this actually something you need to be concerned over?”
Fan Bin gazed at Black Robe with a gentle smile, and the masked man shuddered as a cold feeling invaded his spine, the barest wisp of bloodlust. “This prince means no disrespect to the Lady Priestess, but I have no intention of relying on her fortunetelling at this time. Remember, everything has an exception. I expect that fate is no different.”
Black Robe and White Robe were shocked by Fan Bin’s sacrilegious words, but neither were prepared to challenge their all too dangerous master over the matter. Before they could quite recover themselves, Fan Bin changed the subject. “Black Robe. How go the latest trials of the Heaven Demolishing Pill?”
“…My master, as you instructed, we captured some of the Sun clan members for testing. We tested the pill on non-cultivators, and also on cultivators whose cultivation had been sealed away. As you suspected, the results were identical: the individuals who took the pill would become ill for about two days, and then completely recover with no further effects.”
“Amazing,” murmured Fan Bin. “What happens if a sealed cultivator takes the pill, and then the seal is released?”
“If it is after the symptoms of illness have disappeared, the cultivator will suffer no lasting effects, and will be able to cultivate normally. If it is during the period of illness, the cultivator will suffer from the effects of the pill, but at a much reduced rate than a cultivator who was initially unsealed. Specifically, even if the cultivator is released immediately after taking the pill, there is at least a fifty percent chance of the dantian remaining intact.”
Fan Bin’s smile became wider for a moment. “Sun Tzi.”
White Robe blinked. “Excuse me, master?”
“This is also within the plans of Sun Tzi,” answered Fan Bin patiently. “I am not certain how he gained the knowledge, but he has obviously learned about the Heaven Demolishing Pill, and he has taken steps to protect Sun Lan from its effects. Which means… he has further plans to oppose me. This prince truly looks forward to finding out just how much of our plans he has already seen through.”
Black Robe and White Robe glanced at each other, and then White Robe asked, “My master… are you certain that you do not want us to assassinate that man? It is not too late to–”
“No,” said Fan Bin firmly, cutting off White Robe’s words. “He still has an important part to play, in the upcoming days. I suspect… no, I am certain. We can not accomplish our true goal if he dies prematurely.”
“As you wish, master,” responded Black Robe quickly, shooting a warning glance at White Robe. That worthy, in turn, bowed his head in submission to his master’s order.
“Very well. White Robe, check on our friends from the east, and make sure they are in place. Black Robe, recall your men from Pineroost Outpost.” Fan Bin gave his orders smoothly, and his two subordinates automatically acknowledged before they realized what he had said. Then, they both looked at their master anxiously.
“Master, are you sure?” asked Black Robe. “If we do not constantly reinforce the formation, that man will certainly–”
A strong feeling of bloodlust cut him off, and he and White Robe took two steps back, intimidated by the wide smile on their master’s face. “Indeed,” said Fan Bin with obvious satisfaction. “It’s time to let that man back onto the board. The timing is just right.”
“Master,” said both men at once, bowing. They hurriedly turned to leave the courtyard, but were interrupted once more by Fan Bin.
“By the way, did you properly deal with the experimental subjects from the Sun clan?”
White Robe nodded desperately. “Yes, master. They are all dead, and burnt to ashes.”
“Excellent,” said Fan Bin. He waved his hand, and his subordinates quickly retreated. The handsome young man picked up his teacup once more, and sipped it gently while smiling at the clear, deep blue sky, which today only had the slightest hint of green waves passing through. “Ah, what a truly beautiful day,” he murmured quietly to himself.
- I don’t know, is it too much? RIP Jai Yana. 😦
- Sorry this is so late, stuff happened. I’ll try to pick up the pace a bit.
- Next chapter, I scheduled some action. Let’s see how that goes. 😉
- MC? What MC? Just kidding, Gan Zhu will be back next chapter too. 😛