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“Thankfully us two know the score. I would’ve kicked you out right now otherwise, you know,“ Fu Shen said. “Interceding to oust the ruler… is that a kind of remark you should be saying, majestic General Who Conquers the North?”
“Knives are all over our necks. Is there still anything that can’t be said?” Yu Qiaoting replied. “I never found you to be someone who spouted high-flying garbage. Are you resigned to your fate, or do you already have a plan?”
Fu Shen smirked as the other spoke. “Whatever do you mean?”
“The Crown Prince lacks virtue, the Prince of Jin lacks talent, and the rest are all mediocre. There’s only—“
“The Prince of Qi.” Fu Shen took the words out of his mouth. “For public matters, the Prince has always had an esteemed reputation. For personal matters, my little sister is his Primary Consort. That’s why you think he’d be suited to inherit the big seat, and would be a good Emperor later on?”
Yu Qiaoting nodded.
“Please wake up a bit, Qingheng. Providing that His Highness the Prince of Qi does climb to the top, I’ll definitely be considered ‘consort kin’. As far as history goes, how many of those have had good endings?
Don’t pay any mind to him presently being polite to me. Once he’s in that position, he might turn into something different. You and I still have plenty of apprehensions as generals of only one army. He’d be the lord over countless people, and would have to think about a lot more things than us. The Emperor’s late father had a reputation for ‘mutual benefit between a ruler and his subjects’ way back when. Now that his scourge of a son is here, is the same code of conduct being used as before?”
The more he spoke, the more Yu Qiaoting fretted, his hairs all going white. “According to you, the Prince of Qi won’t do, either. Who else would fit, while being within orthodox?” He suddenly thought of something and quivered from head to toe. “Jingyuan! You’re surely not thinking of having the Prince of Ying’s…“
“I’ve thought it,” Fu Shen bluntly admitted.
“General… you really did dare to.”
“It’s impossible, though,” Fu Shen continued. “His life experience alone is a big issue.”
“I frequently think that it won’t matter whether it’s the Emperor, the Crown Prince, or the Prince of Qi who sits on the dragon throne, nor whether they’re a wise ruler or an incompetent one – why does the Iron Cavalry always end up being a fishbone they can’t swallow? To tell you the truth, even I’ve wavered. I think it might not be an issue of the Emperor, but with the Cavalry’s existence originally being a mistake.”
Yu Qiaoting felt the same way, sighing.
“Yet the Northern Yan have been defending northern Xinjiang for so many years, working hard to defend the country. What’s the mistake in that?” Fu Shen continued. “The Cavalry is the nation’s sharpened sword. There’s nothing wrong with the blade, only with the one grasping it. So long as the hilt is held by someone else, we will forever live in suspicion.”
Yu Qiaoting was stunned by General Fu’s word that were even more off the beaten path than his own. “Jingyuan, you…” he trembled out, “you’re wanting to rebel…”
“What’s with the panic? I haven’t done anything, have I?” Fu Shen smiled as lightly as a feather. “Besides, I’m going to take a wife and be free to go live a good life. Why would I want to not do that and instead go be a lone wolf?”
Yu Qiaoting really couldn’t take this anymore. “Please drop it, General,” he bit back. “Don’t brag about this ‘blind cat running across a dead rat’ thing like it’s a boon bestowed by the Heavens.”
Fu Shen: “……”
From talking up a carriageful of nonsense, their verdict was that they couldn’t rebel nor force an abdication, so what was unable to be resolved remained unresolved, and what should’ve be worried about was still worried about. Fu Shen actually did have a vague idea of what to do, but it would alarm the world too much, and were he to say it out loud, Yu Qiaoting would very likely want to go call Medic Du to get his head checked. With that thought, he managed to shut himself up in time.
The atmosphere within the city of Yan Prefecture was festive at New Year’s Eve’s arrival, t, and it was only during this Festival that the soldiers who toiled year-round could relax a bit. The city’s inhabitants had always been neighborly with the Iron Cavalry and had been sending things to the Estate Fu Shen was staying at all day long. When the carriage with the Yan Estate’s servant drove into town and sought out the governor’s Estate, the man nearly drowned in the massive pile of chickens, ducks, and geese at the entryway.
Fu Shen was in the yard right at that time, chatting and drinking with Yu Qiaoting, Xiao Xun, and others over the croquettes the cooking lady secretly made. Upon hearing that someone from the capital had come to present gifts, the wine he had just drunk down rushed up to his head with a boom.
He forgot that he was still seated in a wheelchair and propped himself up against the table in an unconscious desire to stand. Xiao Xun quickly caught this, pushing him back down. “I’ll wheel you out, General.”
Yu Qiaoting was mystified. “What are you going out for? Call them in.”
The one who’d come was an elderly serf who was often at Yan Xiaohan’s side. The first thing he did upon arrival was kowtow in respect towards Fu Shen, call him ‘Marquis’, and recite a chapter’s worth of luck-bringing words. Only after all that was done did he say, “Our home has sent holiday gifts over. The Master had specially ordered this lowly one to bring you some fresh food, Marquis, so you could still taste the distinct flavor of your hometown despite not being in the capital. Here is the list of gifts; please give it a look, Marquis.”
The words “our home” instantly ironed out Fu Shen’s chest. Yu Qiaoting grinned. “Lookit that. The closeness has been established,” he taunted. “The General said every day that Yan was the place he was born and raised. I see now. Hey, Jingyuan, what’s your actual homeland?”
Fu Shen forcefully pressed down the corners of mouth and poked him away with a crutch. He took the list with complete indifference, rewarded the serf, and had him go off to rest. On the sidelines was a big encircling flock of geese – who were enjoying the spectacle and trying to make it worse – as he opened the trunk to inspect the curio Yan Xiaohan had sent.
Yan Xiaohan was frequently a man of decorum. The two’s relationship couldn’t progress too quickly and some window dressing had to be made, so this selection of presents was within etiquette. It was all commonly-seen game and furs; nothing that overstepped boundaries or was anything people could pick the slightest fault out of.
Fu Shen sighed in relief, a little inexplicably frustrated, and secretly laughed at himself for sprouting mold in his idleness. In the midst of his mind’s wandering, he suddenly heard Yu Qiaoting yo-ing. “Weird. Are there still wild geese out this season?”
In the first box of game was a frozen pair of wild geese. Xiao Xun and Yu Qiaoting took one each, the latter examining it as he clicked his tongue. “There’s no shortage of wilderness for us out here, so there’s no need for any game. If I had to say why this shrewd-minded Sir Yan just had to pick all of this to send over, then the whole song and dance was solely for these two geese! Right, Zhongshan?”
Xiao Xun fiercely nodded at the side. “Yep, it was for the geese.”
“Why are you making it a big deal. Have you never seen a wild goose before? Your futures sure look bright.” Fu Shen’s voice was cold as snow.
Yu Qiaoting did indeed make it a big deal. “But are these just ordinary geese? They’re being used for the Six Rites, Marquis!”
“Shut it. If they were being used for that, wouldn’t I know?” Pretending to be nonchalant, Fu Shen pulled his fur cloak higher so that the collar covered up the bottoms of his ears. “I’ll have to reciprocate. Zhongshan, go and find some buckskins. When you’ve got fifteen for his return gift, they’ll be sent back in one bunch.”
Fu Shen and Yan Xiaohan were going nuts flirting with each other, yet it was Xiao Xun who was ultimately out of luck. Little General Xiao, quite dissatisfied with this, was determined to pull someone in to share his fate, so he dragged Yu Qiaoting off with him as his sacrifice.
Fu Shen finally fell quiet, slowly letting out a breath of scalding air from his throat. He felt like all his internal organs were burning up from the alcohol.
He leaned over to look at the other trunk, and, sure enough, he discovered another present under the skins: a pair of hand-stitched fur knee braces.
A pair of geese and a pair of knee braces. They were worth only a few silver. The rest of the stuff in the two big trunks was entirely background contrast to these two gifts.
Fu Shen didn’t know whether he should sigh over how much thought he put into this, or curse him for being a spendthrift. When he thought about it, Yan Xiaohan had consistently been behaving like this, his tender considerations akin to splurges. He wouldn’t be stingy with the sweetness he gave, but there would only be a tiny bit of his true heart; it wouldn’t be overly sweet, all of it hidden in deep and dark corners.
However, that true heart was a jade under stone skin – once it had come to light, everything else around turned to rock.
On the fifteenth of January, Yan Xiaohan received a return gift from Yan Prefecture. The real presents were mixed in with a large heap of northern specialties: some buckskins, and a… trumpet-vine jade pendant.
Fu Shen’s creative gift scared Mister Yan into nearly not being able to sleep, as he gazed at the pendant with unending bewilderment that night. He was doubting what he knew for a while, then thought that Fu Shen might be using this as a medium to express that he wanted to be on friendly terms again. Then he had second thoughts about that, his imagination thus running off on him, and he remembered the decisive expression Fu Shen had when he threw the jade down — he surely wasn’t planning on severing all ties between them again when he came back, right?
Yan Xiaohan felt around for the cabinet at the side of the bed, fished out a small sandalwood box from within, and opened it to expose an old jade pendant wrapped in deep red satin. It had shattered very thoroughly back when; even if Yan Xiaohan had found the best jeweler, using gold inlays for repairs wouldn’t have saved it. The pendant looked bumpy, uneven and full of holes — compared to the new one Fu Shen sent, it was a lot more than just a little worse, but Yan Xiaohan had been storing it like a treasure all this time.
He could still recall his remorse when he crouched down to pick up the broken jade piece by piece, and his despair when he found that could no longer fit the fragments laid in his palm back into a complete form. Were it not for the excellent memory of the one who repaired it, Yan Xiaohan might have held regret for this all his life.
Seven years ago, not very long after he had entered the Flying Dragon Guard and was still young, he was criticized and mocked by the clean-streamers on the daily. He hated nothing more than how he couldn’t just lift his sabre and kill all the rotten scholars in the land. It was because of this that he had a rebellious heart with absolutely no bottom line; the Flying Dragon Guard had always worked without scruples, and he followed suit. It was unknown whether it was fortunate or unfortunate that the first legal case he ever took charge of was Jin Yunfeng’s.
It was his first time being ‘without scruples’, and he ended up hurting his own foot as he kicked the iron plate that was Fu Shen.
Seven years elapsing, the past was like a shackle binding his foot and spider silk his fate hung by, cutting a distinct and chasmal bottom line for him. It made him not step completely into the muck, nor sink too far into it.
This piece that was nearly broken into junk, and that he had barely managed to put back together as if he had been entrusted with doing so, was buried deep into the bottom of his heart, a yet-humble desire that he couldn’t say aloud. And that was the apology he owed to Fu Shen.
I didn’t want… to cut off all ties with you.
The two pendants were placed side by side into the box. Whether broken or intact, they both looked exceptionally beautiful and lustrous under the light. It was as if they were a wordless consolation coming from the far-off northlands, from a long-stored memory, and from a certain someone who was always so tight-lipped.
Thankfully, he would be coming back.
The author says: Yan Xiaohan sending the wild geese is a gift required for betrothal (纳采 / nacai), and is about equal to showing up at the door and proposing to him. Fu Shen returning the gift of deer hide – aka the “spousal hide” – is a gift needed for engagement (纳征 / nazheng), meaning that the engagement is set, the groom’s side has sent betrothal gifts to the bride’s side, and they’re ready to get married. They both felt they were taking the other as a wife. Tsk, tsk, tsk. More won’t come tomorrow, but the day after, they’ll be married~
The translator says: I’m uploading 25 and 26 early as an early apology gift for how long 27 and 28 are going to take me, as they’re the longest chapters in the novel by far at ~9.5k characters each. The average chapter is about half that. RIP me, wish me luck, etc.
 征北将军 – This is a high-rank title, but not a unique one among generals.