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The capital city, during the lamplit fall of night.
The table was packed full of stacks of documents, Yan Xiaohan’s head buried between them as he worked in a rush. The congee on the tray had long since gone cold. An aged steward hesitated outside the door for a good while, ultimately bracing himself and entering as quietly as he could.
“Master, you’ve been reading all day. Come rest your eyes now and eat a little something.”
Yan Xiaohan didn’t move. Upon writing a final few lines, he tossed his brush away and rubbed his wrist. He lazily reclined against the back of his chair, his lanky upper body bent in an arc as he let out a long exhale. “Alright. I’m done messing with this, at long last.”
He’d barely finished speaking when he suddenly turned his head to the side and sneezed.
The steward panicked. “Oh no, what’s wrong? You absolutely mustn’t catch a cold… I’ll have someone cook you up a bowl of ginger soup.”
Yan Xiaohan wrinkled his nose and waved him off. “You’re making a big fuss over nothing. I’m fine.”
“It’s often said that ‘once is a thought, twice is a curse, and thrice is reminiscence’,” the steward said with a smile. “Someone’s thinking of you, then.”
As soon as he said that, Yan Xiaohan sneezed again.
“…I will go get you the soup.”
Yan Xiaohan stifled his laugh. “Forget it, come back. Isn’t this just normal?”
The steward was puzzled over how this was ‘normal’ at first, coming to an understanding only a short moment later. Keeping an eye on the other’s expression, he went along with it. “The Marquis has perhaps arrived at Yan Prefecture, and his mind was on you, Sir. May you forgive this old slave for speaking out of turn, but you’ve been working around the clock and burning midnight oil. It’s truly not good for your health. Were the Marquis here, he would never allow you to work as if your life depended on it like this.”
“Hm?” Yan Xiaohan raised his brows in mockery. “Is that so… the Madam hasn’t crossed the threshold yet, and you’re already using him to oppress me?”
The steward saw that he didn’t appear to be angry, and wasn’t sneering – on the contrary, he looked to be quite cheerful – so he boldened up. “The Marquis and you will have a mutually respectful marriage in the future and support each other for a lifetime. There’s someone who knows whether you’re hot or cold, and is considerate towards you; how could that be called oppression?”
A grin spread out on Yan Xiaohan’s face from those fawning words, and he only spoke again when he was finished smiling. “The end of the year is rapidly approaching, and I’ve seen farmstead households coming into the city one after another to give New Year’s gifts. The Marquis of Jing Ning is celebrating at the northern border this year, and it’s even colder there, so choose a few thick furs and silks, load them onto a carriage, and send them over to him. Also, what’s going on with the builders I asked you to find?”
The man hadn’t even been gone a few days, and probably hadn’t finished the dry foods he took for the road, yet he’s thinking of something new to gift him. The servant mentally said goodbye to seeing their ordinarily quite dignified Master, as he truly loved someone and now his insides were mush. He was affectionate and attentive and couldn’t let the man alone.
The steward internally beautified Yan Xiaohan as he voiced his reply. “Right. I’ve found all of them, but since nothing major is needing to be done, only a few craftsmen will be needed to finish it. It’s just that the pond you described requires a schematic drawn first, and materials need to be purchased. When you find the blueprints satisfactory, they can start to slowly get to work on it.”
“Being slow is fine, it just needs to be completed before the twelfth of February,” Yan Xiaohan said. “You all have been working a bit too hard these days. Feel free to draw coinage to buy whatever is needed. If no one shows up from the Duke of Ying’s Estate, you can go to the Ministry of Rites’ people to discuss what to do.”
Ever since Fu Shen’s departure, the amount of things Yan Xiaohan had to handle suddenly increased. In fact, before Fu Shen came here, this was how his life always was. Following a sick person who needed someone to wait upon him being added to his home, however, Yan Xiaohan feared that proper care wouldn’t be given to him, and he was unwilling to have all this regular business disturb Fu Shen’s recuperation. He had been repeatedly putting a lot of things off until they resulted in the present pileup.
During Fu Shen’s stay in the Yan Estate, Yan Xiaohan basically never lodged elsewhere overnight, and didn’t have any social interactions aside from his summons to the palace – after being released from his duties, he’d immediately return home, then accompany him to eat his meals and take his medicine, support him as he exercised his limbs in the yard, and attend to him as he bathed and washed. Though they stayed in separate rooms, he had to go into Fu Shen’s bedroom before he slept to have a look at him, and then waited until the other fell asleep to leave… some of these matters, the servants really could have done, and some could have just not been done at all. Only, Yan Xiaohan had personally witnessed what kind of life Fu Shen led in the Marquis of Jing Ning’s Estate. As this had fallen to his hands, he wouldn’t allow to Fu Shen to endure further hardship.
He had watched this man’s back retreat into the distance over and over again and knew well that he couldn’t urge him to stay. Fu Shen currently couldn’t move; could he not try to urge him once now, to make him not want to leave again?
What he’d been handling these days were, in addition to his official business, a few personal matters. One of them was the cut-sleeve rumor he’d long since been having Wei Xuzhou investigate, and the other was the actual truth behind Fu Shen’s assassination attempt. For the latter, the Emperor had already ordered the Three Departments of Law to conduct a strict investigation, and two months later, the Departments presented the case as closed as of yesterday. Yan Xiaohan also pored through the accounts, and it was total hogwash. The Ministry of Justice’s Grand Judge gave the only reason as ‘a failure of the guards’; following the detainment of locally-stationed officers of high rank, they uncovered a few Tartar spies, got a confession out of them, then shoved all the blame onto the eastern Tartars and called the case closed.
As for who incited the envoy’s ambush, where the gunpowder that caused the rockslide came from, and whether the target of the assassination was that little Prince’s son from the eastern Tartars or Fu Shen… those were all issues yet remaining under layers of thick fog.
The head officials of the Three Departments had a tacit understanding with each other and were all unwilling to make a big deal of the incident, likely being able to make out the Emperor’s apprehensions towards Fu Shen from the marriage sanction. Only one supervising Right Collective Imperial Censor named Gu Shanlu persisted in his belief that the case was suspicious and continuously requested for a detailed investigation, but his memorials to the Emperor were never passed before the Holy One’s eyes, as the case had long been filed away by the record-keeping Imperial Eunuch.
Yan Xiaohan clearly couldn’t mobilize the Flying Dragon Guard to investigate this. He expended more efforts to do so on the sly, but the results it yielded were minimal. Because this concerned classified information of the Northern Yan Army and Fu Shen constantly had die-hard protections against the Flying Dragon Guard, it was very difficult for his people to scout out any useful information. The sole gain from these two months was the digging up of a stretch of ‘grass road’ for private dealings between mounted border bandits and the Tong Prefecture’s military.
‘Grass roads’ were the opposite of ‘official roads’, as the name implied, and referred to secret transactions between soldiers and civilian merchants. The merchants would go between the various regions, with the army able to buy food and medicine from them, and the foreigners, firearms and swords. Someone was even manipulating the eastern Tartars and Han troops to trade food, tea leaves, salt, and other things for warhorses.
In the early years, ‘official roads’ would open for a time and close for a time, with the taxes being extremely high – the ‘grass roads’ came into being at that opportune time and have persisted despite the bans. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that everywhere on the Great Zhou’s border that there was a defending army, there was at least one ‘grass road’.
Supposing that the gunpowder really did drift in from a ‘grass road’, with Blue Sand Pass being located at the northernmost tip of Tong Prefecture, the biggest suspect for the conditions of the ambush would be that Prefecture’s defending army.
Based on what Fu Shen had said, the Emperor’s spy was a high-ranking officer in the Northern Yan. The Tong Army had branched off from the Iron Cavalry a long time ago, and closely connected to it was the Northern Yan’s west perimeter; the region of Yuan Prefecture.
Who that person actually was, Fu Shen might have already figured out. Yan Xiaohan didn’t need to know too many details, though; a matter within the Northern Yan was something he couldn’t stick his hand into.
But if Fu Shen was unable to deal with them, then it wouldn’t matter if it was for Fu Shen or for himself, in public or in private; Yan Xiaohan would go forth and supplement the knife.
In regards to the previously-mentioned former matter, it was surprisingly quite a bit outside of his expectations. The earliest cut-sleeve rumor came from Fu Shen’s stepmother, Lady Qin. Her daughter was the Crown Prince’s Consort in the Eastern Palace, and through the pillow talk she gabbed at the him, he came up with that caustic ploy of the marriage sanction to ‘ease the burden’ of the Yuantai Emperor.
More research wasn’t needed, as he knew that Lady Qin’s racking of her brains to stab Fu Shen in the back was nothing more than because she wanted her blood-son to inherit the noble title, and she feared Fu Shen would be an obstruction to that. That was why she rushed to take the first step and break off Fu Shen’s future lineage.
One selfish and malicious woman playing the ruse of a ‘shameful secret’ from a rear courtyard had narrowly turned into the beginnings of a switchover in the military leadership of the Northern Yan, stirring up the situation in the Court.
So ironic. So stupid.
However, the first time Yan Xiaohan heard this bit, he was not most enraged about how she had started the rumor that snowballed into the current predicament, but rather that it brought to his mind what Fu Shen had said in the cavern back then: “I don’t have a mom, either.”
Even with his mother dead, he still had to be tormented by his uncaring, vicious stepmother. How did he manage it all these years?
Yan Xiaohan had to calm himself down in the Flying Dragon Guard’s Headquarters for a moment, then found a subordinate and briefed him. “The Marquis of Jing Ning has a younger brother named Fu Ya. I heard that he’s constantly attending cock fights and dog races – very young in age yet already a dissolute character. His Majesty hasn’t ever been fond of the Duke of Ying’s Estate being excessively bold, and since the Marquis has permitted me, I can’t treat his little brother any lesser.”
His underling was shrewd and completely got the message. “This subordinate understands. May I dare to ask whether to make him impotent immediately, or use a drug to slowly empty out his body?”
“No rush.” Yan Xiaohan chuckled coldly. “Drag it out a bit. It would be best to wait until the title has been reissued. This official wants to see who in the Fu family would be able to bear the three words ‘Duke of Ying’ after that.”
Was Lady Qin not fond of harming people and cutting off their family lines? Her precious son would be the first to have a taste of that, then.
For Heir Consort Fu, Yan Xiaohan originally planned to sort her out in the same vein as Fu Ya. Who could have known that word would come out of the Crown Prince’s Eastern Palace that Fu Ting had been practicing witchcraft with hex objects in a planned attempt on the First Wife’s life. This all was exposed by a confided maid, bringing the matter to light. The First Wife took into consideration that she was a part of the Fu family and spared her life, but stripped her of her rank and punished her with having to do odd cleaning jobs.
The Crown Prince was a buffoon, while his First Wife Lady Cen was actually an intelligent person. Yan Xiaohan was glad to have his work done for him, watching the recent developments of the Duke of Ying’s Estate with a detached eye. Later on, when Lady Qin looks at the ends these children of hers have met, how will she feel? he thought to himself, and not without elation.
The city of Yan Prefecture.
Fu Shen had returned to northern Xinjiang under the label of ancestral worship, but he still had not yet stepped down from his office as commander-in-chief of the Northern Yan. As soon as he entered the city, his troops that had been waiting for him for an eternity at that point welcomed him back at the governor of Yan Prefecture’s Estate. Aside from several higher-ups patrolling about at the frontier, the rest of the ranked generals rushed back to the Prefecture in a heap. They took turns wishing for him and Yan Xiaohan to ‘grow white hairs together’ and ‘give birth to a son soon’, almost angering the Marquis of Jing Ning into getting up out of his wheelchair. That group of big monkeys made a racket for half a day’s time and ended up getting driven out the door by one angrily humiliated General Fu, who then called for Xiao Xun to take them all half a li away.
In the afternoon, the Northern Yan Medic, Du Leng, examined his leg injury, looking at him with a smile afterwards. “Congrat—“
“Thanks.” Fu Shen had it on reflex at this point. His face was cold.
Du Leng: “……”
The two people stared at each other for a short time, one big-eyed and one narrow-eyed, before Du Leng coughed awkwardly and restrained his grin. “As I was saying; congratulations, Marquis, your injury is recovering well. Whoever’s been treating you must be a famously skilled doctor. Most of your bones have grown well, and the muscles are strengthening… if you keep at it for the first half of the year, you might be able to leave the wheelchair and walk like a normal person.”
Fu Shen: “……”
He acted like that was no big deal. “How long would I need to recover?”
“Complete recovery is impossible,” Du Leng said patiently. “Depending on the stability of your recuperating circumstances, and if you follow the method I first mentioned to you, the limit would be sixty to seventy percent regained mobility.”
Fu Shen mumbled noncommittally. “Thank you for your trouble, Mister Du,” was all he said.
After Du Leng left, it wasn’t long after that a young man once again pushed the door open and came in. He was a bit older than Fu Shen, handsome and outstandingly youthful with a gentle and kindly look on his face — it wasn’t like Yan Xiaohan’s seemingly-gentle mask, but rather the innate poise of a nobleman. Fu Shen saw that it was him and let off a half-sigh of relief, gesturing to a chair. “You’ve come, Qingheng. Sit. You’ve been working hard recently.”
The man’s name was Yu Qiaoting, his courtesy Qingheng, and he was a capable person as well as Fu Shen’s close friend. The Northern Yan Army’s affairs were being managed by him during Fu Shen’s leave, as he wasn’t likely to mess it up.
How could Yu Qiaoting be in the mood to sit down? He hated that he wasn’t able to just reach over to Fu Shen and snatch him by the collar. “What’s the situation in the capital now, and what’s this about a marriage sanction?”
Fu Shen relayed the rough state of affairs to him. After listening to it, Yu Qiaoting’s expression was rather ugly. “The Emperor is really…” he spoke in a low voice, “he cooks the hound as soon as its caught his rabbit, and is bringing down the Great Wall himself. What benefit does this give him?”
“He’s the ruler of a country. He sees things differently than us,” Fu Shen replied. “Fortunately, he only thinks of me as the thorn in his eye. If he comes to see the Northern Yan as one someday, then it’ll truly be all over.”
Yu Qiaoting shook his head. “What are you planning on doing, then?”
“Me?” Fu Shen said mysteriously. “I’m getting married. Am I still able to fight the decree and not do that?”
“…We know you’re getting married, quit showing off. What I’m saying is… don’t tell me that you plan on just handing the Northern Yan back to the Dynasty like this and letting the Emperor do as he pleases?”
Seeing that Fu Shen was slow to respond, he gave another hint. “The Emperor is getting up there in years… you should think about the future, Jingyuan.”
The translator says: You know what’s not fun? Having to go look up older copies of Golden Stage those content-stealing bots have because the originals have censored words. You know what’s even less fun? Finding out those censored words are gunpowder, poison, a mistaken ID for the communist party, and… the Buddhist concept for being mindful (正念). Okay???
 右佥都御史 – This rank is a step below that of the the Vice Left/Right Imperial Censors, and those are a rank below the head Imperial Censor.
[-] Lots of people know this already, but just in case: in Asian countries, it’s a common superstition that when you sneeze all of a sudden, someone’s thinking of you behind your back.