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Perhaps it was Heaven’s Will working in mysterious ways, ordaining that the piece of jade be left behind in that tiny, rural courtyard. Fickle fate was an immense hand, easily stirring up the skies and turning the earth upside down, easily cutting short a segment that hadn’t yet gotten warm and running the friendship of youths into a dead end—
Fu Shen had been unwilling to recall the exact circumstances of that day up until now. He had come across many rough patches in his life, major life-or-death situations, every one of them graver and bloodier than this; he was also not a weak person who refused to confront something knowing full well it was going to hurt. However, maybe because the first injury would always be especially painful, this incident itself was a rare exception. As it was closely followed by a string of related misfortunes, it bitterly declared the termination of his boyhood.
It took no more than half a shichen for him to go back down the road he’d come to the county town. Even so, he felt some sort of subtle atmosphere that had no precedent as he went in; there seemed to be fewer people in town with seldom any pedestrians on the streets, everyone’s doors shut up tight. The closer he got to where Cai Yue was staying, the more abnormally silent it was.
The same moment Fu Shen tied his horse up, the doorway of the small home was pushed open from the inside.
Two people who were not supposed to be here at this point in time happened meet in such a surprising way.
He was stuck where he stood, dazed, as if he’d been struck in the head by a club. His eyes unfocused, lips opening and closing, yet all that came out was the sound of air—
“Yan… Xiao… han.”
Fu Shen fell into a cavern of ice, even having to tighten his jaw and clench his fists hard to prevent himself from shivering. His subconscious already understood everything the instant he caught sight of the man, but his conscious mind seemed not to form a reaction, being a chaotic, indistinct jumble. All he could do was call out Yan Xiaohan’s name, but he was unable to say anything else.
Why are you here?
What are you doing?
Why did you… deceive me?
Yan Xiaohan was likely also caught off guard by the encounter, but he was much calmer than Fu Shen. Astonishment merely flitted past his surface, being heavily repressed into the light of his eyes soon after.
He even pushed the door open wider, dozens of Flying Dragon Guards filing out. Within the sinister forest of glinting sabres and swords, Yan Xiaohan’s tone was natural and amiable as he asked him a question. “Why did you come back?”
“I found out that I lost my jade pendant on the road,” Fu Shen explained, “so I came back to find it.”
Yan Xiaohan tapped his palm with apparent annoyance, shaking his head. “No wonder. This would have been perfect.”
“You deliberately warned me of the Court performing strict investigations on fugitives yesterday,” Fu Shen said through gritted teeth, “and today you sent people to tail me to find this place, waiting until I left to catch everything in one net. Doing this, you could arrest the criminal without anyone knowing. And I’d be kept completely in the dark, because I wouldn’t doubt you anyways.
Good for you, feigning one thing while doing another. Good for you, biding your time and waiting for your chance to strike! You’re so calculating, Sir Yan. Being an insignificant Colonel of the Imperial Guard is an injustice to you.”
Yan Xiaohan acted as if he didn’t hear the mockery in his words, cupping his hands in salute. “This was the best plan to capture the fugitive. It was out of my hands. Please don’t blame me, Young Master Fu.”
Fu Shen smiled. “I don’t blame you. If I wanted to blame someone, I’d blame myself for meddling in other people’s affairs, and leading a wolf right into the house.” He stared at Yan Xiaohan, eyes razor-sharp, words unhurried. “I was blind before, taking that wolf as a sheep. Now it’s bitten me, and that’s what I deserve.”
Yan Xiaohan stood with his hands held behind his back, no emotion on his face. “I’m sorry,” he said indifferently.
Fu Shen was ruthless, apathetically rebuffing him. “No need to be. I won’t accept it.”
The two were deadlocked for ages. Yan Xiaohan finally took a hand out from behind his back, extending it to reveal what was in his palm – a sleek, mutton-fat jade pendant, carved circularly into two intertwined trumpet vines. The cord winding around it was loose, its color old and dull. One look could discern that it was something constantly worn on someone’s person.
“Is this it?” he asked.
Fu Shen said nothing as he pinched the pendant’s tassel and lifted it away. Yan Xiaohan’s palm was emptied, his fingers curling up as if they didn’t like the sensation, and he retracted his hand.
Things coming to this point, they now didn’t have anything to say. A cracked mirror was difficult to buff, and spilled water was difficult to retrieve. Betrayal and deceit were placed on the table in a manner most frank, and guilt, apologies, or even a self-assured attitude would change nothing, as facts had since settled the dust.
In accordance with Fu Shen’s previous temperament, it wouldn’t be unexpected for him to hurl abuses or even throw punches at his opposition. Now, however, he only felt exhausted, and wanted to find somewhere to shut his eyes and go to sleep. This blade of Yan Xiaohan’s stuck through him accurately and mercilessly, nailing him firmly; blood hadn’t yet been spilled, but he had already lost the strength to struggle.
Yan Xiaohan might not have been totally to blame. Fu Shen was completely unguarded, and had pointed at his chest to tell the other where to stab – was that not idiotic?
“Fu Shen.” When he spun to head off, Yan Xiaohan suddenly called out from behind to stop him.
“I once told you that, between our identities, one is in the sky above and one on the ground below – the difference between clouds and mud.”
Fu Shen stood still.
“Hurting your heart is my fault. But if I could do this day over again, I would still choose to handle it this way.”
The stone-hearted Flying Dragon Guard had torn off his immovable mask at last, laying bare his ambitions and cravings under a clear blue sky for the first time in all his life. With a self-assured attitude, he appeared even more magnanimous than a proper gentleman.
“Within that pile of sludge is also grades and ranks. Though I am deeply entrenched, I also want to eke out an existence in it.”
The sound of a few crisp claps came from in front of him. Fu Shen finally turned around, brows raised, a smile on his lips, and the contempt and ridicule in his eyes plain as day.
“How touching. What a shame I don’t see it that way,” he said softly. “Have you still not seen through it up until this day, Sir Yan? No one’s forced you. You willingly sank into the muck, and now you insist on rolling around in it.”
After saying this, he turned and went over to the road outside.
Fu Shen wanted to walk away from this with determination, but with each step he took, the knife stuck in his heart seemed to pull out a bit more. The blood and pain had lost their obstruction, gushing from a wound that could no longer hold it in.
The road looked like it had no end. He knew someone’s eyes were following his back, so he did his utmost to keep it straight. Yet the more rigid it was, the more the pain seemed to have nowhere to hide.
In his haze, a figure appeared before his eyes: his back wasn’t wide, but it was exceptionally tall and upright, half-kneeling in front of him as he motioned for him to climb on.
Fu Shen suddenly felt rage, swiveled around, and viciously smashed the trumpet-vine jade onto the ground.
There was the sharp sound of it cracking as its shards scattered out.
“From today onward, you and I are just like this jade.”
He refused to give another look, as if he was casting everything behind him. Yan Xiaohan fixed his gaze on the fragments all over the earth, seeming like he’d caught sight of Fu Shen’s red-rimmed eyes when he’d turned his head.
In regards to friendship, they didn’t seem to be too greatly different from ordinary friends. To say this rupture would be a severing of ties was too much; to say it’s ripping a piece off the robe of brotherhood was not entirely it, as it went against the general feel of things. Within himself, he was faintly aware that what he had lost was deeper, and more fragile, than a friendship.
Broken all over the ground, like this jade, was likely a core filled with completely unreserved trust… the ignorant, true heart of one still young.
Fu Shen rode like a storm all the way out of the town, his silhouette an arrow released from its string, kicking up enough of a dust cloud to fill the sky. By good luck, with so few people within the city, the outside was just a vast expanse of wasteland, and his mad dash didn’t collide with anyone else. The gales of the countryside were like overwhelming waves from the sea, whirling his clothes around and blurring his eyes as it blew past, his anger being vented by the sadistic impact.
Coming to a stop when he was finally drained of it, Fu Shen reached up to feel at the corner of his eye, finding it was dry.
He didn’t know whether he hadn’t cried, or the wind had blown it all away.
In one moment, anger would rush to his head, and he’d feel that he should take his blade, rush back to town, and slaughter Yan Xiaohan like livestock; in another, his spirits would sink, and all he’d want to do was find a secluded area, drink down his sorrows, and mourn that his feelings had been fed to a dog. Those thoughts were just flickers in his head, however, and died in a wink. The moment he finally came to a halt, he didn’t want to do anything.
How could different paths come together? He hadn’t believed in evil at first, but now it ended up turning into one of his myriad of lessons.
As he knew his error, when the time came to let go, he would let go.
The wind was constant and powerful. The horizon went on forever, in all directions. “Wasn’t that just a white-eyed wolf?” Fu Shen said to himself. “So it bit me. Does that mean I can’t keep living?”
He stated as much, but when he went back to the Estate and saw the box with the bow in it that he had hoarded like a valuable, his nose inevitably ached with unshed tears. Bearing with the wave of indescribable sorrow, he called a servant boy in. “Go take this box to the storehouse.”
“Should it be put in the Duke’s storehouse, or somewhere within the Young Master’s courtyard?” the boy asked.
Fu Shen originally wanted to say that the farther away it went, the better, and was on the verge of doing exactly that – but he got the fear that the bow would be used and abused by someone else, and the breath got caught up in his throat. “Put it… whatever. Put it in my courtyard,” he had to concede, feeling unpleasant.
With another thought, he added another phrase to that. “Put it in a good spot. Don’t let moisture or bugs get to it.”
Thankfully, they weren’t acquainted for long and didn’t have a close association, so that was the only item he had related to the one surnamed Yan. After the box was taken out, Fu Shen finally shed the unbearable suffocation, and laid his back onto his bed. Among the great ups and downs, great joys and great sorrows, and the injury to his psyche, Fu Shen somehow managed to fade into sleep. In his dream, he was back at the precipice on Gemstone Mountain. There was no wild boar this time, only one accursed Yan Xiaohan hanging from the cliff by a sole hand, a yawning abyss whose bottom couldn’t be seen under his feet.
Dream-Yan Xiaohan was as cold as ice, unwilling to cry out for help no matter what. Fu Shen was anxious and angry, but he had some misgivings, and didn’t reach out to pull him up.
“Why did you deceive me?”
What hadn’t been asked in reality was finally asked within the dream. Fu Shen paced back and forth along the cliff edge, panting harshly, before he suddenly fell apart with a huge bellow of rage. “You’re deceiving me! You tricked me last time, and you’re going to trick me this time! Go on and jump down! You’re the type who would!”
After he shouted, he jolted abruptly, returning to wakefulness.
The sky outside the window was dark. He had unwittingly slept through the afternoon. Fu Tingxin was standing next to his bed, his face a bit haggard, and noticed that he had awoken. “Why did you fall asleep in your clothes? Did you have a nightmare just now?” he asked with concern.
Fu Shen bowed his head to look, discovering that his own hands were firmly pressed down onto his chest; no wonder he felt like he couldn’t breathe in the dream just then.
He turned over and got up from the bed, rolling his aching, stiff shoulders and neck. Suddenly taking notice that Fu Tingxin was wearing white mourning clothes, appearance tidy and neat, his heart sunk for no discernible reason. “Are you going out, Uncle?” he asked.
“I just received word from the palace,” Fu Tingxin said slowly. “Mr. Jin couldn’t stand the torture, and cut his wrists open with broken porcelain while in prison. He left behind four last words… dying of blood loss.”
Heaven’s Will was a knife. As if the previous stab wasn’t deep and agonizing enough.
Fu Shen was instantly solemn.
“What… did he write?”
Fu Tingxin closed his eyes in weariness, sobs choking up his throat as he ultimately found it difficult to control himself, hot tears rolling down his face—
“He wrote, ‘my conscience is clear’.”
The author says: Trumpet vine-shaped pendants were common in ancient times, and they have no special meaning. There’s images of them from the Song and Ming dynasties online.