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The high fever burned from dusk until midnight, and it was the tail-end of the Rat when Fu Shen completely woke up.
There wasn’t a single sound to be heard in this dead of night. The furnishings in the dimly-lit interior were not arranged in a way that was very familiar to him. A single lantern sat upon the table, casting a hazy, muslin-like glow in a square cun area on the surface around itself. He caught a fine trace of breathing, and upon turning his head for a look, he discovered that there was a low bench arranged across from the bed where Yan Xiaohan was curled up with his back to him, sleeping in his clothes.
Yesterday’s events were a torrent of water rushing into his mind, but they could not yet rear into a sky-tearing tsunami before the undercurrent pulled them below the water’s surface and sank them all the way to the immeasurable seafloor.
Because of them, a person’s heart that had originally been as clear as a mirror had gone from a shallow puddle to a deep pond.
The reclined Fu Shen felt awful all over, and he wanted to turn over to relieve his stiff, aching back. He didn’t expect that just one move would rouse Yan Xiaohan, who turned around, sat up, and reached out to help him. As he wasn’t completely awake yet, what came out of his mouth was incidentally deep, low, and soft. “What’s wrong? Do you need water, or the bathroom?”
Both of his hands were helping Fu Shen up, so he, of course, automatically leaned over and pressed his forehead to the other’s to check his temperature. “Seems the fever’s gone down.”
It was completely out of Fu Shen’s expectations that he’d actually be treated so well. He almost didn’t react at first, but quickly drew back and avoided him when he realized something was wrong there. “It’s nothing… I don’t need anything, just… let me sit up for a bit.”
The drowsy-eyed sleepiness subsiding, Yan Xiaohan’s eyes sharpened as he finally woke up all the way, and the atmosphere immediately got awkward. He had Fu Shen lean up against the headboard, after which he retreated three steps and sat back down on the bench, putting a distance between them that was polite and dissociating.
The two seemed to clear their heads of their mindless craze at the same time, recalling in unison the ridiculous engagement that stretched between them.
No matter how strong its political implication was, regardless of whether it was a through-and-through conspiracy, and even though the part about waltzing mandarin ducks was getting mixed up into ‘two drakes embracing each other’, its innate essence was unchanged. It was still a looming marriage.
The Marquis of Jing Ning, who had been impassive-looking and at peace just a moment ago, once again followed the trend of getting a sudden-onset headache. He was someone who could genuinely take on a great many things, but at this time, he just wanted to lose his memory, start over, and pretend that nothing had happened.
“You keep on sleeping. There’s no need to worry about me.”
Yan Xiaohan absently finger-combed his hair, picking up a robe from beside the bed and tossing it to the other. “Put that on, it’s cold at night. I’ll have someone bring congee up.”
A man like Fu Shen – born of a wealthy family, making a name for himself young, growing up within a heap of praise of adoration, and seeing too much – was quite likely to be abnormally sluggish in recognizing that someone else was being good to him. However, perhaps due to the influence of that damned marriage sanction, or maybe due to him being particularly sensitive to other’s feelings within his serious illness, the very first sense that series of actions gave him was that Yan Xiaohan was considerate without even actively trying to be. “That’s… very kind of you,” he said, embarrassment hidden in his heart.
With one crooked idea, the entirety of the following thought processes would also be involuntarily askew.
Regarding the face alone, Yan Xiaohan’s was better than his by some degree. He had changed out of his pitch-black Flying Dragon Guard robes and into some light-colored, wide-sleeved casualwear. When he got up to take the bright lantern, his black, smooth hair slid from the back of his shoulder to his chest, and his gaze drooped tiredly, as his sleepiness had apparently not been eradicated. The corners of his mouth raised slightly when he wasn’t smiling, and the light’s illumination gave him a silhouette that was gentle and soft, making one briefly able to forget his identity and be completely absorbed inside this splotch of light and shadow.
Fu Shen narrowed his eyes, completely unaware of how much of a nefarious hoodlum he was being.
Yan Xiaohan turned and left, closing the door behind him, and smiled as he walked down the corridor. Fu Shen might’ve been muddle-headed from fever, but when he stared at people, his Marquis-ness wasn’t restrained at all. He probably didn’t realize how very invasive his own gaze was; Yan Xiaohan felt like his clothes were about to be stared right through, until he finally couldn’t take it anymore and had to concede defeat and flee.
The servant keeping night vigil saw him grinning from ear to ear as he exited the room and became under the impression that Fu Shen had croaked his last. Why else would his Master have such senile happiness?
By the time the hot congee was brought over, the two’s enchantment had been dispelled. They sat opposite each other with their respective bowls, the steam causing pale lips and cheeks to burn a tinge of red, and their spines forcibly straightened. They could at last calmly study the bumpy, bramble-laden road before them, and deliberate on where they should step next.
Yan Xiaohan spat out the tea water he had used to rinse his mouth, returning the bowl to the table. “Marquis.”
Fu Shen was still leisurely drinking his congee. “Hm?”
“I have a few questions, and I hope that you’ll be able to clear things up for me.”
“I’ll say this, Mister Yan.” Fu Shen set down his spoon, smirking off-hand. “Us two are now grasshoppers on the same tightrope, so don’t keep going ‘Marquis, Marquis’. It’s too alienating.”
An implied, mutually-understood mockery. Yan Xiaohan had to admit that though Fu Shen was relatively bull-headed in certain aspects, he was still fairly forthright most of the time. Talking business with a person like this didn’t require very many twists and turns.
“Alright then, if you say so,” Yan Xiaohan compromised. “Jingyuan, I heard the Emperor’s intentions yesterday, and he seemed to have some extremely deep dissatisfaction towards you. Did you do something recently that could have offended him?”
“Cough-cough, cough… don’t address me like we’re close,” Fu Shen, having just swallowed down the wrong pipe, spoke with exasperation. “Can’t you just call me by my name?”
Yan Xiaohan gave a cordial smile. “This is what married people do, I’m just adapting to it in advance.”
Fu Shen’s appetite numbed. He set his congee bowl aside and sighed. “A child with no mother is not a story that will be succinct. Were you born yet when the Emperor ascended the throne?”
Yan Xiaohan’s pupils slightly constricted. “I just had been. Why?”
“This matter’s origins come before even then,” Fu Shen replied. “The Late Emperor had nine sons at his knees. The one that he most favored back then, and the onemost likely to take the big seat, was the fifth prince, His Majesty the Prince of Ying. He and the Third Prince, who is now known as Kin-Prince of Su, shared the same mother.
You might not know this, but my second uncle was a study partner of the Prince of Su. Those two were… uh, they had a very strong bond, so he was pretty close with the Prince of Ying. He didn’t treat him like an outsider, but like his own genuine little brother.”
Yan Xiaohan felt that his hesitation in the middle there was a bit weird, but didn’t question it. Fu Shen continued on. “The Late Emperor was in the palace when he suddenly suffered a stroke, with only the eldest son and His Majesty accompanying him. His posthumous edict was read aloud by Grand Tutor Yang Gong, and against everyone’s expectations, he had decreed that the title of Emperor be passed on to His Majesty.
At the beginning of the Emperor’s path on the throne, many people questioned the edict’s authenticity due to Yang Gong and the current Empress sharing the same clan. Others still privately contacted the Princes of Su and Ying with the desire to attempt an armed coup. His Majesty had seemed to be somewhat aware of this, so, in his second year of ascension, he sent the Prince of Ying off to a fiefdom.
In the second year of Yuantai, the troops of the Eastern Tartars of Almaty invaded the Great Zhou, and what bore the brunt of it was the Prince of Ying’s fiefdom, Ning Prefecture. The border’s army was weak then, so the barbarians charged straight through. The Prince of Ying took his Estate’s personal guards to resist the Tartars’ cavalry, disappearing after a few days of harsh fighting. The Prince of Su and my uncle sent people searching everywhere, only to come up empty-handed. Under circumstances like those, the probability that he survived was very slim, and over time, the event slowly faded from people’s memories. No one brings it up anymore.
But my uncle never gave up looking for the Prince of Ying, and after he died, the matter fell onto me.” Fu Shen smiled. “And what do you know? Heaven never bars one’s way, as I actually did find the Prince of Ying’s descendant.”
Yan Xiaohan was stunned.
“When the Prince of Ying died on the battlefield, one of the concubines in his Estate had been pregnant. She was captured by the Tartars, and her good, svelte looks actually saved her life, because she later became the favored concubine of a Tartar tribe’s high official. She preserved the last bit of the Prince of Ying’s bloodline and wanted to flee with her child back to the Great Zhou, but unfortunately, she was snatched halfway there by herdsmen of the Dark Pearl troops. Then, she had no choice but to live anonymously, claiming that she was a purchased Han woman, and committed herself to the leader of the Dark Pearl troops, Hartu.
With further luck, it wasn’t long after she’d fled that the Almaty troops were wiped out, and from that point on, there was no longer anyone in the world who knew what her original identity was. This astounding woman outlasted the previous leader of the Dark Pearls and is now part of one of the most influential noble clans of the Eastern Tartars. As I’ve said this much, you should already know who she is.”
“The Prince of Ying’s taboo name is Hun, and ‘Khash’ means ‘Jade’ in the Tartars’ language,” Fu Shen replied.
“What about the Prince of Ying’s descendant?”
“I originally didn’t want to meddle during the battle of West Autumn Gate, but it was Khatun Khash who first sent a personal aide to the Northern Yan looking for me, asking me to take the Prince of Ying’s bloodline back to the Great Zhou. I passed word along to the Prince of Su, and he came over in person in May. After meeting her face-to-face, he determined that she truly had come from the Prince of Ying’s Estate.”
“So you agreed to?”
As the most crucial link fastened into place, the entire sequence of events automatically tied itself into a line, all sorts of pieces suddenly having clear context.
“You told Khash you would, and her reward for you… was the Dark Pearl’s surrender. In order to justify him remaining in Great Zhou, she stuffed the Prince of Ying’s descendant into the Tartars’ diplomatic envoy to accompany the young Prince, didn’t she?” Yan Xiaohan stared at Fu Shen’s legs. “But the envoy was ambushed at Blue Sand Pass, and none survived…”
“Now guess at this,” Fu Shen said lightly. “Does the Emperor know, or not?”
The Flying Dragon Guard was the appointed ruler’s eyes and ears. If Yan Xiaohan, the Emperor’s lackey, didn’t know about this, then how could the Emperor?
But if the Emperor didn’t know, then why would he want Fu Shen to be out of the question so soon after the fact?
“The Emperor may trust you a lot,” Fu Shen said, a glint of ridicule flashing past his eyes, “but he may not give all his trust to you, Mister Yan.”
This was the true purpose of his story tonight.
Yan Xiaohan had just wanted to scope out Fu Shen’s depths, not expecting that he would turn the matter around to breed malcontent.
Neither of them knew the other’s real motives. Yan Xiaohan suspected that Fu Shen had something else planned, and was wary of he who stood by the Emperor’s side. They would speak frankly, yet secretly try to sound the opposition out time after time. Neither dared to give the entirety of their trust, even though they were already standing together on the same imminent danger of a broken ship.
Yan Xiaohan praised him without thinking, or a whole lot of sincerity. “Very resourceful of you, Marquis.”
“I’m not as wholly analytical as Mister Yan is,” Fu Shen returned. “I can tell you of one more thing,” he said mildly.
“My departure from Yan Prefecture and return to the capital was not entirely because of my leg injury, but also because my people had re-routed the envoy, and there were slight discrepancies from what the Eastern Tartars knew. One of those ‘discrepancies’ was Blue Sand Pass. And there was indeed a twenty-two-year-old diplomat of Han ancestry there.”
“You’re suggesting that the Emperor has a spy within the Northern Yan Army, Marquis?”
“The Tartars didn’t know that our route was different, and the Northern Yan who had arranged the trip didn’t know that the Tartars had a different route in mind, either. This two-sided plan was privately finalized by the Prince of Su and I for base-covering purposes. To be blunt, we two were the only ones who knew that the Tartars and Northern Yan had two different routes.”
The purpose of that series of arrangements was to prevent the Tartars from plotting against them, but what wasn’t expected was that they’d take a bad tumble on a route set up by their ‘own people’.
The arrow in Blue Sand Pass shot through the whitewashed peacefulness of several years, also penetrating the truth hidden behind it.
Fu Shen smiled. “Do you know who exactly in the Northern Yan Army would be able to participate in the Prince of Ying’s business?”
The qualifications, the status, and the authority to have a say… would have to at least be someone of General rank or above.
“The Emperor bestowed a marriage to me while thinking of nothing more than the Northern Yan’s military power, and after that, he picked out a little person on his side to be General. Then he chose you, right?” he asked boldly and with no shame. “Though I found keeping this lousy position to be nothing but trouble for a long time now, Mister Yan, I still ought to give you some advice: don’t depend on the Emperor’s trust in you now, as it won’t necessarily be a given when you’re in my seat.
The Northern Yan Army is mostly made up of my close confidants with only a small part being the Emperor’s spy, and that spy is not yet your friend. If my confidants all have trust in you, then you will be the next Fu Shen. If they refuse to do so, then you will be nothing more than a figurehead. Afterwards, the Emperor will forever disallow you and that spy from becoming accomplices…
—He isn’t guarded against just me, he’s guarded against everyone.”
The translator says: I can’t believe that story literally ended with “rocks fell, everyone died.”
 Not sure if there’s been a note on this before, but it doesn’t hurt to say it again: a shichen is a 2-hour period of time, and each of the 12 periods of time are named after a creature from the Zodiac. (Here’s a nice guide.) For example, ‘the tail-end of the Rat’ refers to about 12:50am, while the ‘the head of the Ox’ would refer to about 1:10am. To avoid confusion, I’ll link that table every time that sort of time-telling is used.
 肃亲王 – I’m assuming that the 亲 was added due to being the Emperor’s brother instead of his son, thus they are of kin. It doesn’t repeat in subsequent mentions, though.
 Okay, um… the Tartars spoke Mongolian Manchu, which has been transliterated into Chinese, which is most certainly not 100% linguistically accurate. I also know -5 about Mongolian, so I’m literally just going off of a Mongolian transliteration sheet and cross-referencing actual Mongolian names in the hopes that I’m getting it even half right. (Original names were, in order, hatu–chagan, e’erqi, and hashi-kedun.)
 珲 – Meaning a fine jade. I looked it up, and khash does indeed mean “jade/jasper”.