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The eighteenth year of Yuantai, early autumn.
The ‘Hidden Orchid Villa’ was a famed location within Huanren County’s Gemstone Mountain. Its original owner had been a refined scholar of the previous Dynasty who held the position of Grand Chancellor, and after he stepped down from the post, he purchased this mountain home in the suburbs of the capital to enjoy his retirement. He’d had a lifelong love for orchids and planted all kinds of rare breeds of them within his garden, thus earning the place its name.
After his death, his family’s properties were seized by the Court due to a later generation being convicted of the crime of bribery, and the Hidden Orchid Villa was included in that, becoming governmental property. Later on, the Late Emperor would bestow this place to the previous Duke of Ying, Fu Jian, and it would become a private land of the Fu family passed down for generations since.
Huanren County was only a few dozen li away from the capital, the many dense forests and ravines on Gemstone Mountain making it a good spot for hunting. It just so happened that the muggy summer heat had vanished and a herd of profligate rich sons were extremely bored with nothing to do, so they agreed upon going up the Mountain to have fun on a hunt. They bugged and wheedled Fu Shen into doing it until he was compelled to play host, having no choice but to dispatch family servants up there beforehand to tidy up and clean in preparation for the guests’ welcome. Lady Qin was enormously unhappy with this and made eccentric, wild accusations at home on the daily, saying that he was a fop that was destroying the family. Fu Shen already didn’t feel like going out and entertaining, and with her being beyond annoying, he was right about planning to ready his weapons and find some small matter to explode over when it was reported to the family that his second uncle had returned from Northern Xinjiang.
Fu Tingxin wasn’t dissimilar to an anchor, a few words of his settling Lady Qin down and allowing Fu Shen to go out and have fun in confidence and peace. His return had Fu Shen even more reluctant to leave, though. Fu Tingxin had no children at his knees and Fu Shen had grown up beside him since he was young, having taught the younger martial arts and literary skills by hand – he was even closer to him than his own father.
“Uncle.” Fu Shen was uncouthly seated on top of the table in Fu Tingxin’s study, swinging his legs back and forth. “Fall and winter are precisely the seasons when border defense is critical. Why did you come back all of a sudden?”
Fu Tingxin was rummaging through everything to find something, not even raising his head as he replied. “There’s something in the Court.”
“About the Assistant Minister of Legislature, Jin Yunfeng, getting imprisoned for conspiracy?” Fu Shen promptly guessed.
Fu Tingxin abruptly stood up. “Where did you learn that?!”
“From what that flock of Young Lords who trample on our family courtyard say.” Fu Shen grinned. “I’m not young anymore, Uncle. I didn’t know anything before, but how could I still not?”
Fu Tingxin held his forehead. “Shen’r, take your uncle’s advice: don’t ever smile like that again. It’s really stupid.”
Fu Tingxin bluntly threw down his luggage without a care, uncouthly taking a seat on the writing desk just as Fu Shen was. “How do you see this matter?” he asked in a lowered voice.
“Me?” Fu Shen responded. “I… just see it as whatever.”
Fu Tingxin slapped him upside the head. “How about you elaborate?!” he said angrily.
Fu Shen was pitched forward from the hit, rubbing the back of his head and feeling like he’d been treated unjustly. “I was listening to it like it was just some rumor, not like it had anything to do with our family! Jin Yunfeng was apprehended due to involvement in co-conspiration with Jiangzhe Vessel Conductor Han Yuan. He was the Assistant Minister of Legislature, after all, and that’s a position a lot like the Grand Chancellor. With Han Yuan on the outside and him in the Court, they could coordinate for a two-front attack, and all’d be well on their end…”
It was with these few sentences that Fu Tingxin knew that he was just blurting out some made-up bunk and simply couldn’t take it anymore. “What are you even… shut up. I’ll say it through once more. How much you can get out of it depends entirely on you.
Conductor Han Yuan was in the same location as the East Sea Naval Commander Sa Zhimu, and the Jiangzhe region is a part of the Prince of An’s fiefdom. With Han Yuan’s rebellion being routed out, not only is Sa Zhimu requesting to retire from the post, but the Emperor is also having the thought to dissolve the Prince of An’s fiefdom.”
“What does that have to do with Jin Yunfeng?” Fu Shen asked.
“The reason he was apprehended was because he repeatedly expressed opposition to the dissolution of the fiefdom, imploring the Emperor not to be ruinous to those on his side. This itself wasn’t any kind of major crime, in accordance to his position. The real trouble was that he was once a lecturer at the Hanlin Academy and had taught the Prince of An. With a relationship level like that, why do you think the Emperor would end up accusing him?”
“The Emperor was dealing with Han Yuan’s conspiracy on the very surface, but in actuality, he wanted to retake the Prince of An’s fiefdom, also taking the opportunity to beat down the Southeast Navy,” Fu Shen replied. “That’s because vassal Princes scattered around outside and high-ranking officials that defend the borders… are two big scourges hidden within to him.”
Fu Tingxin felt a prick in his heart from that insightful summation of ‘two big scourges’, and held his hand over his chest with a forced smile. “You’re certainly very direct, my dear eldest nephew.”
Fu Shen didn’t catch his joke at all, fixing Fu Tingxin with a cauterizing stare. “I just remembered that we have someone in our family with connections to both those things, don’t we?”
“You’re going off-course,” Fu Tingxin quickly dispelled his apprehensions. “I came back to plead for leniency for Mr. Jin. I was study partners with the Prince of Su back then, and with us all having had good teacher-student relationships, I can’t just sit back while this goes on without saying a word.”
Fu Shen was definitely not fooled. “I’m thinking it’s His Majesty the Prince of Su and Jin Yunfeng who have the ‘good teacher-student relationship’. It’s no good for him to step up, so he had to ask you to do it in his place, right? How many favors does he owe you, and when is he finally going to be willing to pay back that debt? If he can’t afford it, is he going to sell himself and be my Second Aunt?”
Fu Tingxin wasn’t irritated by the jab. “Good question. I suggest asking him the next time you see him,” he replied with a cool head.
“Tsk, tsk. You two have once again dug a pit in wait for me.” Fu Shen had already experienced going into such pits. “I’m not asking. You can go fight your bachelorism yourself!”
Truthfully, all of them knew that this was a joke that could never come true. Fu Tingxin was a general that guarded the border, and the Prince of Su was a vassal Prince; the two were ill-fated. They didn’t even dare get too close to each other in front of others, let alone get legitimately married.
Fu Tingxin lifted his hand and patted him on the crown of his head, sighing. “Sometimes, I really wish you would hurry up and finish growing so I can dump all the burdens onto you and be free to go off on my own, but I also want you to never grow up so you never need to face these things you can do nothing about.”
Fu Shen was unconcerned, his tone flippant. “I’m not short on fame or fortune and I’m going to keep my mind on defending the border and fighting the Tartars. As an unimportant servant, the Emperor’s careful watch won’t land on my head with any suspicion.”
Hearing his childish statements, Fu Tingxin swatted him on the back. “Here’s what you can do! I’ve got a few letters in a trunk. Go find them for me.”
Fu Shen jumped down from the table, rummaging through the boxes with a grudge.
Fu Tingxin watched his back with a faint smile, a bit of imperceptible distress within that expression. Little brat, he thought, teaching you from so many history books was in vain. Don’t you know what ‘jinxing it’ means?
After a moment of gloom, he eased his own anxiety with an open heart. Forget it, the young will be young. My big brother and I are still here, aren’t we?
In the fall of the eighteenth year of Yuantai, the waves and winds were still.
No one could have ever anticipated how fickle Mother Nature was, nor how fate toyed with people.
In the nineteenth year of Yuantai, Fu Tingzhong was assassinated by the Eastern Tartars. The following year, Fu Tingxin died on the battlefield of Northern Xinjiang. The same year, eighteen-year-old Fu Shen put on armor, left the capital, and set foot on the northern warzone.
In the twenty-fifth year of Yuantai, Fu Shen got injured, returned to the capital, and was sanctioned a marriage by the Yuantai Emperor.
There was a complete mess in the study that day. In that conversation that only an uncle and nephew knew of, the fragments about a destined love that could never come to light, an uncle’s hopes and strokes of luck, and a youngster’s prattling manifesto… would all end as figments of a rose-tinted imagination.
Regardless of how deeply bitter and hateful he would be in the days ahead, Fu Shen was still a naïve and brash young rich kid at that point, and his heart could not hold in darkness and solemnity. Fu Tingxin had allowed him to go out and play, so he brought his majestic gang of scoundrels up Gemstone Mountain.
Walking close to Fu Shen were a few of the younger sons of influential families of court officials that had no titles granted, and many others from wealthy militaristic families. These half-adults danced with blades and played with sticks during the day and couldn’t recite a single quatrain suiting a beautiful lady, to say nothing of one suiting a ‘nobleman amongst flowers’. The overgrown monkeys spent a little while insipidly ‘appreciating’ the orchids, took a short pause for rest and lunch, and upon hearing provisions were done being prepped in the afternoon, immediately went into a big rush to get their steeds going and joyfully dive into the mountain.
There were no vicious animals on Gemstone Mountain, most of them being water deer, hares, and pheasants, with some wild boars skulking around on occasion. Fu Shen slowly drove his steed into the woods, pulling back his bow and taking aim from time to time, his arrows never failing. His archery skills had been honed within the Northern Yan Army, and them being used to do in little birds and bunnies was a bit overkill. Just as he was getting bored, a burst of rustling noises suddenly came from the right side of the forest ahead of him, the sound of horseshoes following immediately after. Yi Siming and Fu Shen thereupon gave each other a look across a good distance, simultaneously drawing their strings and pointing their bows at a shadow in the underbrush.
Fu Shen clasped his string tight in his fingers with his eyes narrowed, his heart skipping a beat when the outline of the thing gradually became distinct.
He called out for ceasefire at once, but was unfortunately still too late, as Yi Siming had already let his arrow fly. Fu Shen had no time to block it or even take aim, instead lifting his own arrow into the air to quickly and accurately deflect it by putting it level with its trajectory, sending Yi Siming’s feathered bolt a few chi off-target with a tink.
Yi Siming was stunned at first. Right when he was going to blow up at him, he heard Fu Shen cut him off with a shout. “Who’s there? Come out!”
The underbrush rustling, a shadow slowly grew in height and widened until it finally stood up — and to their surprise, it was a slender, frail woman hugging a bundle to herself.
“Who are you? Why are you hiding here?”
She knelt to the ground. “Th-this commoner was going to Song village to… visit family, but wasn’t paying attention and got lost, accidentally ending up here… I heard horse hooves and believed you were bandits, so I-I just hid,” she stuttered out.
Yi Siming urged his horse over to her, looking her up and down. “The way you dress and carry yourself isn’t like how a woman in a rural town would,” he voiced doubtfully, “but more like you come from a wealthy family… what’s that you’re holding?”
The woman shook when she heard those words and lowered her head without answering, hugging the cloth bundle tighter.
Fu Shen drew nearer by a few paces, using his longbow to raise her chin. “Let go,” he said coldly.
She stared at him, a layer of cold sweat forming on her back and her whole body weakening in fright. Fu Shen easily lifted away the cover of the bundle, revealing the interior to be brocaded swaddling clothes.
There was a baby in her arms!
Fu Shen’s brow creased. “Child trafficking?”
A few people had heard the commotion during their conversation and rushed over, forming a circle around the woman to look, though they noticed that her face full of dust-mixed tears didn’t cover up her loveliness. Even if this group couldn’t write poems for a beautiful lady, it didn’t mean that they couldn’t tell the difference between pretty and ugly, and currently had quite a few stirrings of compassion for her. “Did you come across any trouble, miss?”
“You’re an unmarried woman with a baby who isn’t taking the official mountain roads, hems and haws about where she’s come from, and made up some crock story, which makes me eighty-percent sure you’ve got a hidden motive,” Fu Shen said. “Tell me, where did that child you’re holding come from?”
“Woah,” someone else abruptly spoke up, “now that you mention it, when we left the capital, we seemed to see a notice on the city gate saying that there was an escaped slave of a convicted official’s house that was wanted for arrest. Could that be her?”
“Convicted official? Who?” he replied.
“The one who was imprisoned for plotting a rebellion a few days before,” the other said. “Assistant Minister Jin, Jin Yunfeng.”
Fu Shen was shocked.
The woman trembled like a timid rabbit. She wasn’t even twenty yet, and it took the greatest amount of guts she had in her life to stealthily flee the capital. Now that she was facing a horde of wealthy young men riding horses and wielding bows, she didn’t have any surplus courage to deal with them. After a long period of hesitation, she finally stumbled something out. “This slave is Cai Yue, a servant girl of Assistant Minister Jin’s home in the capital, and the child in the swaddle is my little master…”
Fu Shen already understood what happened. “You secretly escaped with him.”
“I’m begging you all to let this slave go, Young Masters,” Cai Yue wept as she repeatedly kowtowed to everyone. “This child is the only blood left of the Jin family, and he was narrowly tossed to his death when the house was seized… my Lord was sent to prison unjustly, and the womenfolk in the Estate couldn’t bear the humiliation, hanging themselves all together before the hall! This slave risked everything to bring the little master out of the capital, but the Court’s men have been hunting me down the whole journey, and I really had no other way but to run into the mountains…”
Her crying was truly pitiful, but the matter with Jin Yunfeng involved the major crime of rebellion. If they were ever marked with the charge of ‘harboring a criminal fugitive’, any carelessness could be life-threatening.
But these rich kids were young, in the end, and overflowing with goodwill. With the considerable amount of power in their families, they didn’t want for anything, and it was simple for their hot-bloodedness to get to their heads. Only Yi Siming was used to being cautious as he didn’t want to meddle in other people’s affairs, so he cast a look towards Fu Shen.
Fu Shen recalled his uncle rushing back over from a thousand li away to plead Jin Yunfeng’s case, and now a servant of the Jin family just coincidentally fell into his hands. Were mysterious forces saying that the kid deserved to live? After thinking it over, he ultimately gave in, shaking his head toward Yi Siming and giving a command to the accompanying domestic. “Take her back to the Villa and change out her clothes. If anyone asks, say she’s a maid my mother sent to wait upon me. Don’t say anything else. Go.”
The servant did as he was told. Yi Siming still scowled deeply, anxious. “She’s in a dangerous position. In the event that she really does have some kind of major role in this legal case, we’re definitely going head-first into a disaster.”
“Yeah.” Fu Shen nodded in understanding. “One’s deed are their own responsibility. Don’t worry, Brother Yi. If this comes to light, I absolutely won’t implicate the rest of you.”
That remark had a good effect, as the mountain reverberated with the sound of someone clapping his chest. “What are you saying, Brother Fu?! How can you make yourself be the lone undertaker? If something happens, you can consider me a part of this!”
Everyone echoed the sentiment one after the other, leaving Yi Siming unable to do a single thing. Fu Shen smiled to console him. “No one needs to panic, we’re doing what should be done. Gemstone Mountain is my family’s private property, and if the soldiers even chase her over here to search, they need to ask for the owner’s consent first.”
He hadn’t yet finished speaking when the orderly sound of hoofbeats came from far away, like a surge of thunder engulfing everything, menacingly getting closer and closer as they pressed in upon their location in an instant.
Fu Shen’s eagle-eyes gazed into the distance, recognizing those black, silver-embroidered official’s robes —
The Flying Dragon Guard!
Fuck! This slap in the face came way too soon!
The translator says: *fu shen voice* oh shit it’s the feds
 定海神针 – specifically, he wasn’t dissimilar to a “steady sea’s spirit/magic needle”… which, somehow, translates to being a main pillar of the family’s support.
 中书侍郎 – lit. “attending official of the books”, the “in the books” part referring to the management of laws – not upholding them, but writing, transcribing, and editing them.
 舟师指挥 – lit. “ship-master conductor”.
 二婶 – lit. “wife of (my) father’s second younger brother”
 Another name for boat orchids, likely named so because of their tall, straight stalks and ostentatious shape and coloring.