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Yan Xiaohan’s heart spontaneously skipped a beat. He was to the point that he lost his manners, staring in astonishment at the Emperor. “Your Majesty?”
What was he playing at?! This was just too much!
Fu Shen and he had hurled curses at each other in morning Court three months prior. The whole capital knew that they each thought the other was an eyesore. Why did the Emperor suddenly want to pair them up?
“The entity of the Fu family, rooted deep within northern Xinjiang, has become a scourge hidden within.”
This sentence wasn’t dissimilar to a cold bucket of water being dumped on his head. Yan Xiaohan’s state of shock settled in an instant. No more needed to be said, as the reasons for sanctioning this marriage automatically strung together in his mind: no wonder there was suddenly a rumor going throughout the capital, and no wonder the Crown Prince had given him that look just then. They had this all in their plans long ago. The Emperor’s fears about the Fu family apparently did not crop up overnight… in that case, the lineup of Fu Shen’s attempted assassination, injury, and return to the capital – was that also a link in their plan?
No. That wasn’t it. The entire point of an assassination was to kill someone. Fu Shen being injured but alive was just an accident. There was too much uncertainty in this marriage, and the control it would have over Fu Shen would be near to nothing. This was clearly a decision drawn up at the last minute, and it unexpectedly seemed to be further going with the flow.
However, the possibility that one failed plan would give birth to another cannot be ruled out. The most crucial point was; who had started the “Fu Shen is a cut-sleeve” rumor?
“The Crown Prince made us a suggestion just now. Hearsay on the streets tell that Fu Shen has a peculiar type of preference, so this would be the perfect opportunity to sanction a marriage, completely severing the connection between the Fu family and the Northern Yan Army.”
Crown Prince Sun Yunliang… just what kind of animosity did he hold for Fu Shen?
It slowly came together in Yan Xiaohan’s mind. The Crown Prince had wanted to take Fu Shen’s little sister as his Consort way back when, but as a result of Fu Shen’s persistent refusal to give in, the Fu family had respectfully declined him.
He was the one to report this event to the Emperor, so the latter must be aware of the degree of personal motivation in the Prince’s strategy. When compared with forcing Fu Shen into submission, however, that bit of selfishness might not have been worth caring about in his eyes.
The Emperor turned the discussion around. “Despite this plan’s feasibility, who will take over Fu Shen’s position as the commander of the Northern Yan after his departure?
The Prince recommended Yang Sijing.” He shook his head, apparently finding that ridiculous. “He is young and shallow-minded, after all,” he said, light as a feather and with some exasperation.
Yan Xiaohan just wanted to sneer at this father-son pair. Yang Sijing was Empress Yang’s nephew from her older brother’s side, making him the Prince’s older paternal cousin, and due to the Empress’s favor he had been bestowed the title of third-rank General of the Right Nine Gates. Fu Shen was down on his luck now, but he was also a Duke of Ying’s eldest legitimate son, a first-rank official in the Court, and the Marquis of Jing Ning who had first-hand experience on the battlefield. Yang Sijing wasn’t fit for that. He was a dandy handed a title purely due to heredity. Wouldn’t that simply be sentencing the 200,000 strong cavalry of the Northern Yan Army to their deaths?
The magnificent heir apparent of a country was actually capable of thinking up a method like this to massacre those who had done great service to said country. How could someone not feel a chill down to their heart, thinking of how such a person would become Emperor in the future?
The Yuantai Emperor continued on. “We don’t wish for the Fu family to sit too high, but we also have no intention of bringing destruction upon the Great Wall ourselves. The Iron Cavalry is the line of defense for the Great Zhou’s northern border. The thorn of the Tartars has not yet been removed, and were the Cavlary’s leader to be hastily replaced, we fear that morale would falter. We need to take things slow. We have thought it through, and as you have lived in the capital for a long time, you should be the one switched over.”
Mister Yan, who had just been secretly mocking Yang Sijing for being unfit, immediately fell into the same situation — but what could be done? In front of the youngest General of the Great Zhou Dynasty, there wasn’t even a person his age of a lower position in Court.
He knelt and begged for forgiveness once more. “This servant is without talent or virtue and doesn’t dare to receive Your Majesty’s deep favor. Please think this over again.”
“You are unwilling?”
“Forgive me, Your Majesty.”
“Meng’gui.” The Emperor’s face was frosty. “We remember you telling us that you were not fond of women, and we promised to find an appropriate marriage for you. As Fu Shen walks the same path, and his bloodline, talent, and appearance are all of high grade, why are you reluctant?”
There was a layer of cold sweat on Yan Xiaohan’s back. He was about to close his eyes and make up something about ‘someone already being in his heart’ to fool the Emperor when said Emperor threw out his hand, tossing the scroll of a bright yellow imperial edict before him.
The jade roller smashed onto the dark brick floor with an echoing thunk, its carved relief snapping in half, fine fragments of jade spraying onto Yan Xiaohan’s sleeve.
“Take a look,” the Emperor said.
Yan Xiaohan slowly unfurled the edict.
This is the will of the Heavens and the Emperor’s decree: General Who Guards the State and Marquis of Jing Ning, Fu Shen, following in the wake of the Duke of Ying, Fu Jian. A budding official of six years, his achievements have accumulated, his might shakes our barbaric enemies, and his devotion to service of the country is done with all of his heart. Looking to our left and our right, here and now, we have endless gratitude.
High General of the Left Divine Martial Army and Royal Inspector Envoy of the Flying Dragon Guard, Yan Xiaohan, following in the wake of generations of his family’s influence. A loyal imperial watchman that guards the palace at night, having unsurpassed virtue and shining grace, with a gallant bearing, smart looks, and proficiency in things both military and literary. Thus, we commend him.
The two’s threads of fate have been spun by the Heavens, and today, their marriage is imperially sanctioned. It is the duty of the department heads to select a day for the wedding. It is our hope that thou both are of one heart and mind, venerate our country to the utmost of thine ability, and do not turn thine backs on our wish. Thus is our decree.
“We have already sent someone to announce the edict to the Marquis of Jing Ning’s Estate.” He stared icily at Yan Xiaohan. “If your mind has cleared up, then you may cease kneeling and take this edict, then your leave.”
The implication being that if his mind wasn’t cleared up, he would be kneeling here until he died.
Yan Xiaohan and Fu Shen. One was a famed general, one was an errand dog. One was trustworthy, one was deceptive. One cherished the realm within his heart, one was simply seeking glory and wealth, one had an outstanding reputation, one had an infamous name… they were two people on different paths, yet due to this incomparably absurd marriage, they were ending up at the same destination.
Even more ridiculous than this imposed betrothal was that when Yan Xiaohan saw it, his first reaction was not rage, but a cold sort of elation.
He inwardly thought – and not without malice – that when Fu Shen received the edict, what would his reaction be?
Those shoulders that carried the full burden of responsibility and morality, that fastidious stanchion of the Dynasty that did all he can – with the monarch he pledged loyalty to stamping him into the mud like this, could he continue to serenely ‘cherish the realm’? Would he swallow his anger at the humiliation and accept the edict, or would he don his armor, leave the capital, and raise the Northern Yan Army’s flag, opposing it outright?
While Sir Yan’s head was filled with irrelevant racing thoughts, Elder Eunuch Tian quietly tiptoed in, moving to the space before the Emperor and relaying a few words to him in a low voice.
The Yuantai Emperor was inwardly annoyed at Yan Xiaohan’s inability to understand what was good for him, and upon hearing Eunuch Tian’s report, his expression was so overcast, water nearly dripped from it. “Go and repeat what you have just said to us once more to Good Subject Yan,” he said with gritted teeth.
Eunuch Tian came before Yan Xiaohan with minute caution, reciting himself blankly. “The Marquis of Jing Ning was unwilling to receive the edict. He is now kneeling tall outside the palace gate without rise, requesting audience with His Majesty.”
“Tian Tong, how is the weather outside?” The Emperor asked ominously. “The Marquis is not in good health, he mustn’t feel such a degree of chill.”
Eunuch Tian understood what he meant. “Answering Your Majesty, it’s raining outside. It was drizzling before, and now it’s coming down hard. Ah… the Marquis has already been waiting outside for half a shichen. Should this old slave bring him an umbrella?”
The faint earthy scent characteristic of a rainy day permeated the grand hall. The floor tiles were freezing, pressing extremely painfully against the knees. Yan Xiaohan didn’t need to imagine to know that it hurt a hundred or thousand times worse for Fu Shen.
Apart from the pain, there would be more cooling blood than the autumn rain.
He finally understood the Emperor’s intent.
He wasn’t going to consider Yan Xiaohan’s opinion from the get-go. This inquiry was merely feigned civility, and in his position, Yan Xiaohan didn’t have the qualifications to say ‘no’.
The Emperor wanted his agreement not for this absurd marriage, but to take a tiny fraction of military authority over the Iron Cavalry out of Fu Shen’s hands.
Yan Xiaohan was currently just a third-rank official, while the Commander-in-Chief of the Northern Yan was first-rank. Given that he could switch into that position, he would receive infinite splendor and riches the day of. Furthermore, he had the Emperor’s backing behind him, and booting a disabled Commander from his spot wouldn’t be difficult.
No matter which aspect it was looked at from, this was a cost-effective transaction.
Only the has-been Fu Shen was in front of him, for this golden, glittering future plated in a layer of dark, murky blood-red.
Time suddenly began to pass extremely slowly. It wasn’t known how long it took until the striking clock in the western hall began to chime, breaking the silence that filled this one.
The Yuantai Emperor was getting a little impatient. Just as he was about to take another dose of strong medicine, Yan Xiaohan abruptly spoke up. “There is one thing this servant doesn’t understand. Please impart your wisdom, Your Majesty.”
“The Fu family has been very loyal for generations, and Fu Shen has guarded the border for many years. There is absolutely no disloyalty. In addition… he is now disabled, so decreeing this marriage at this point in time will not only easily lead to criticism from the ministers in Court, but bolster Fu Shen’s prestige. This dull servant does not understand why Your Majesty is insisting upon doing this at this time?”
Since he seemed to be softening to the idea, the Yuantai Emperor let out a mental sigh of relief. “Fu Shen is indeed a loyal official, but his loyalty is not to us.
In regards to generals, they are divine forces and sharp weapons in the hands of a sovereign. Fu Shen’s edge is admittedly sharp and difficult to hinder, but if a blade has too many of its own ideas, it is not so reassuring. In regards to officials, some are loyal to the ruler, and some are loyal to the realm. Fu Shen is just like his uncle, Fu Tingxin, and is the latter.
Fu Shen is a sword that will one day inevitably turn its tip back towards its owner. Tell us, how can we be at ease with what he will pass on to his successors? Do not forget that though the Iron Cavalry is defending the border, that is no more than a thousand li away from the capital.”
Yan Xiaohan once again cursed Fu Shen in his mind. Whatever hard work that wooden club had poured himself into had most likely just offended the Emperor. His Northern Yan Army was sealed up as tight as an iron barrel, making digging out even a smidgen of news about it harder than ascending to Heaven for the Flying Dragon Guard. If he had known what was going to happen earlier, he could have prepared countermeasures in advance, but now he was caught off guard by dual strikes from the Emperor and the Crown Prince!
“Meng’gui. You have been at our side for so long, you are like another of our arms,” the Emperor said. “You are different from Fu Shen. As long as you take this step, there will be no limit to your prospects in the future.
If you persist in being resistant, we have another option for you.”
Yan Xiaohan lifted his eyes, gazing at the monarch seated high above on the dragon’s throne.
His voice contained absolute authority, each chilling word dyed deep with murderous intent, tumbling down the golden steps one after another.
“You may either accept the edict and marry Fu Shen, or you may go and personally eliminate him for us.”
How the world changed. The Yuantai Emperor had relied rather heavily on the Fu family years before, and now he was rather apprehensive about Fu Shen, to the extent that if he wasn’t dealt with, the Emperor wasn’t happy.
Yan Xiaohan gathered up the furled edict with its smashed corner. Still kneeling, he now bent his upper half over steeply in a grand gesture of adulation. “This servant… shows his thanks for His Majesty’s eminent favor.”
The meager light from the sky shone into the hall, falling upon the plaque that said “Amity and Integrity” hung high above.
This fall rain had intensified into a downpour. The outside of the palace was coated in water. Yellow leaves fell, withered. Within the dim haze filling the eyes, those dampened red clothes were especially eye-catching.
Yan Xiaohan stared fixedly and condescendingly at the view of the perfectly straight form before him. “His Majesty won’t be seeing you. Don’t waste your time and go back home.”
Fu Shen did not lift his head, only his eyelids, looking straight across at Yan Xiaohan’s legs. His attitude was even more proud than that of the one standing up. “The Emperor made you come?”
“This matter’s already been finalized. Saying anything more will do nothing, so don’t ask.”
“You told him that you’d do it.”
Yan Xiaohan suddenly seemed to be infuriated by him, the rage that had built up within the palace now shooting up towards the sky, breaking apart to smash back down onto Fu Shen. “Yes, and? Everything I have today, my position and power, were all handed to me by the Emperor – what right do I have to refuse?!” He hiked Fu Shen upwards by the collar of his shirt. “You still have the face to question me? Are you not high above the rest of the rabble, not wholeheartedly serving the country, pledging loyalty to His Majesty? Everything bestowed by a monarch is a gift to be treasured regardless of how good it is, so why have you now come away to kneel before the palace and request that he take back his decree? Shouldn’t you be happily thanking him for his grace in bestowing it?! Who is going to see you kneeling here?”
The rain was coming down harder and harder. Yan Xiaohan was hunched close over Fu Shen, so close that the rainwater dripping off of him hit the other’s frigid profile.
The hoarse snarl suppressed in his throat was drowned out by the sound of the torrent from the skies, weak, as if it didn’t dare to fall on the ears of anyone else. But Fu Shen heard it.
“You’re the magnificent Commander-in-Chief of the Northern Yan, why should you be subject to this injustice? Why are you not rebelling?!”
Fu Shen blinked, droplets of water falling from his lashes, and suddenly smiled.
All of his helpless resentment, discouragement, sympathy, evident indifference, and deep-seated torment were contained in that smile.
It was like Yan Xiaohan had been burned by it, as he suddenly let go.
Fu Shen shut his eyes, his skin so white it was nearly transparent under the immersion of the rain. Droplets tumbled down from the edge of his hair and the corners of his eyes, leaving zig-zagging trails down his too-thin jaw and neck that gave off a sort of soul-shaking frailty. “I actually do know that it’d be no use even if I knelt here until my legs broke, but it’s difficult to be complacent… I’ll have to owe you a good turn? How truly unfair.
However, Mister Yan, a nobleman’s place in this world is defined by what he does and does not do. The Iron Cavalry guards our home country. How can their decades of illustrious reputation, due to my own personal matters, turn into infamy for the rest of time?
This one named Fu may not be a nobleman, but he is absolutely not a sinner.”
Wind and rain rushed about, the black clouds heavy, the world around dark and dreary.
“The disgrace of today will be repaid tomorrow.”
Yan Xiaohan had nothing to say in response. He had thought that he understood Fu Shen, thus despising his type of excessively naive dedication. It was not until today that he discovered that the man was far more than what he knew, and he could not entirely brush off Fu Shen’s steadfast perseverance.
He sighed, his fury completely extinguished.
Yan Xiaohan reached out, intending to help Fu Shen up, as there was little sense in continuing to get drenched by the rain. His hand hadn’t even made contact when the other man collapsed forwards with no prior warning. Fortunately, Yan Xiaohan had a quick reaction time, and he grabbed him, Fu Shen plunging right into the crook of his arm.
The translator says: That edict was written a lot like how ancient Chinese poetry is. In other words, it hurt my brain very badly. Please kill the Emperor so he doesn’t write another one that I have to read.
 宿卫忠正，宣德明恩 – This bit is copied word-for-word from the Book of Han, vol. 59, biography of Zhang Tang. I couldn’t find an English translation of the source, unfortunately, and I am almost positive I butchered the second part. What else could “declared virtue, understood/bright favor” mean, though?