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The twelfth of February, during the Flower Festival.
The Marquis of Jing Ning’s Estate was jubilantly decked out in lanterns and colored cloths. Crimson silk hung on the lintels and supporting pillars as servants ran back and forth across the courtyard to prepare for the imminent wedding banquet.
A roar suddenly came from the main hall, rose above, and went straight up to the clouds.
“Where is he? Why hasn’t he arrived yet?!”
The administrating official from the Ministry of Rites grabbed a servant from the Yan Estate that had come over to help, shouting hysterically. “…The Marquis of Jing Ning still isn’t back? Why didn’t your master say anything earlier?! He went so far away… the fucker totally ran for it, didn’t he?!”
The servant’s head was spinning as he replied. “Sir, this— is something this lowly one also has no knowledge about. All the Master personally ordered us to do was get everything ready as normal.”
As the lucky hour approached, the administrator had already completely lost hope in this marriage. He’d heard earlier that the Marquis had an unyielding personality and wasn’t one to submit to force. The time back when word came in that he had acquiesced to the Ministry of Rites’ aid in wedding preparations, the Ministry, from top to bottom, heaved a collective sigh of relief. Who could have imagined that on the eve of the wedding, this Great Ancestor would actually disappear without a single word?!
Way to pull the rug out from under everyone. He really deserved to be called one versed in the art of war.
As things stood, he could only pray that when their wise Emperor flew into a rage, he wouldn’t implicate all the unlucky pond fish they were.
The administrator stroked the three strands of beard he had under his chin, took a deep breath, settled himself, and planned to find the other leading actor of this wedding to have a discussion with him on how to end it. He casually lifted his hand off the servant, questioning him with forced amiability. “Where is your Master now?”
The servant responded with honesty. “The Master took people with him out of the city earlier, saying that he was going to go welcome the Marquis… Sir? Sir! Somebody! Come quick! A gentleman fainted over here!”
Outside the capital, at an official road’s resting pavilion.
The accompanying spousal-escort procession was frequently looking up at the sun, their hearts filled with the same worry that down-on-his-luck Administrator of Rites had. “Sir, the lucky hour is fast approaching, so why… have we still not seen even a shadow?” one asked nervously.
They didn’t dare to say more than that, for fear that Yan Xiaohan would suddenly pull a blade out from under his wedding clothes.
Yan Xiaohan restrained the anxiety within himself. “Wait a bit more,” he said calmly.
That phrase “I will not turn my back on being a gentleman” still rang in his ears; in the letter sent back from the city of Yuan Prefecture, apart from telling him to wait outside of the city on their wedding day, there was an earnest repeated beseeching of “Writing runs short, feelings run long; there are no more words for this. No ignoring, no forgetting.” Yan Xiaohan was unwilling to doubt Fu Shen, and he was even more unwilling to suspect that what he’d said was a pretense to cover up a trap.
In reality, though, he was the one who was most afraid. It was because this ‘a chill in the chest, a knife at the back’-esque scenario was so familiar, and had happened between he and Fu Shen seven years ago.
He was continuously struggling to bob up and down within self-consolation and self-demoralization, and right when he was on the verge of drowning in them, a small dark spot suddenly appeared in the distance as a rider came speeding over.
On the horse’s back was a dark-skinned youth, and he hadn’t yet gotten close when he steered the horse back around a few chi out in front and called out in a clear voice. “Please follow me, Sir Yan, the General will be here soon!”
Yan Xiaohan instantly let loose a breath, a boulder no longer pressing down on his heart, and urged his horse forwards to catch up with the boy.
By the time the others reacted, the two had since shuttled a great deal away. The horses of the Northern Yan were incomparable to ordinary horses, with Yan Xiaohan only barely able to keep up. Their procession ended up not being a procession; the two took the lead in front, followed by a completely incoherent, strung-together mess of a ‘tail’.
The youth drew them all the way westward, and when he saw the vague silhouette of a faraway building, Yan Xiaohan promptly understood why Fu Shen had issued a seemingly irrational and thoughtless request on such an important day like today.
A tall terrace jutted out of the level ground, its hall towering high. Dusk’s glow cast itself diagonally against its glazed roof titles, revealing layer upon layer of glittering, gorgeous golden light. Surveying it from a distance made it seem like they were made of gold, hence the name – Golden Stage.
The Golden Stage had been around since ancient times. The former King Zhao of Yan had venerated Guo Wei and built a palace for his new teacher, placing a thousand jin of gold within it to attract the world’s scholars, thereupon getting it its fame. At the Great Zhou’s beginning, its founding father desired to emulate King Zhao, so he erected this tall terrace and built a venerated hall on the outskirts of the capital, the first dubbed Golden and the second named Qilin. Within the hall hung eighteen portraits of notable founding ministers, manifesting their merits.
Descendant Emperors would all follow this method, and among successive generations of military leaders and literary officials, not a one didn’t take pride in having their picture enter Qilin Hall of the Golden Stage. Up until the Late Emperor, every time an army had to go off to battle, they would go on Stage and take a mass oath. Over time, that also became tradition.
Six years ago, the first time Fu Shen put on his armor and went to fight, the Yuantai Emperor had personally lead a hundred officials to the Golden Stage for a send-off; half a year later, when he returned from his victory, he was bestowed the title of Marquis of Jing Ning at the same place.
Even further on, his legs were mangled, and he would lead troops no longer. A sheet of an imperial order had sanctioned him an absurd marriage, and he still chose this point of origin for his life’s prestige.
Through the blood and tears and dust of battle, through outstanding ups and downs, the words written on his entire life were “recompensing the Lord for his favor on the Golden Stage, hoisting the Jade Dragon to die for him”.
This was his silent demonstration, and his cavernous eternal regret.
The setting sun was like a bright flame, illuminating everything in all directions. Hoofbeats finally came from far away, a billowing cloud of dust arising as a grandiose squadron appeared at the end of the road.
The one leading sat tall and straight with a powerful posture, having the momentum of a storm as he madly spurred his horse forward. His deep red robes whipped about in the wind, reflecting the pervasive sunset. It seemed as if his whole body was bathed in fire, blood coming out as he tread.
With red clothes and a fiery horse, he looked ferocious. It wasn’t like he was coming to get married, it was like he was coming to kidnap the groom.
That was Fu Shen.
It could only be him.
The moment he appeared, a heavy hammer struck Yan Xiaohan on the heart. He even had the distinct feeling of his throat was choking up, the rims of his eyes burning.
These few months, he had never tried to exhort Fu Shen, didn’t dare to prod at his scars, and frequently consoled himself: it was only that Fu Shen couldn’t go off to battle again, or walk freely like a regular person again… he just had to pay with his legs, and that was much better than losing his life in Blue Sand Pass.
But in this instant, his irrational response was finally acknowledged on his behalf, and all that unfettered optimism was a sham. He was actually upset about this on the inside, actually… very sorry for it.
Fu Shen was still so young, but in the future, he could only be escorted by a wheelchair – an ordinary person who couldn’t walk. When he rode his horse into town back then, he was a distinguished youth who incited countless young women to toss him flowers; that young general who had lead an army in the past, his steed so fast its hooves didn’t touch the ground, and even that Marquis of Jing Ning who always defended the border, occasionally returning to the capital to quarrel with him until his glare was palpable, were both no more.
Today, however, that youngster that had once spurred onward and passed him by… he came back.
In a few breaths, the troop on horseback rode up before his eyes. Fu Shen slowed his pace, whistled, and flung out a segment of red silk. Yan Xiaohan subconsciously caught one end, then a strong force came from the other, causing him to lurch forward and press both his legs onto his horse’s abdomen. The fine steed bore the disgrace and jolted forwards in a small, broken run towards Fu Shen.
It aired like the Marquis of Jing Ning had used the silk to ‘fish him up’.
Fu Shen was immensely pleased with Yan Xiaohan’s obedient cooperation, beaming at him as they convened. “I’ve kept you waiting… oi, why are you crying?”
He caught a glimpse of the traces of red within Yan Xiaohan’s eyes and jumped in fright, unconsciously lowering his voice and softening his tone. “What’s wrong, Brother Yan? Did the wait make you anxious? Were you worried I wouldn’t come?”
Yan Xiaohan looked at him blankly as Fu Shen stared back, on edge. He then turned his head to the side and couldn’t keep his smile down. “It’s because of the wind.”
Fu Shen nodded. “Since we’re getting married today, I’ll save you some face. Are you going to cry for real next time?”
The man had rushed over at exactly the right moment, as the red sun was sinking in the west and twilight approached, which was the lucky hour for performing their ceremonial worship. Fu Shen dismounted, and Yan Xiaohan then carried him on his back, stepping into the twilight of the falling sun as he walked step by step up the dignified and glorious Golden Stage.
Time suddenly stretched into infinity, and after climbing the 72nd white marble step, the solemness was as if a very long lifetime had just passed.
Qilin Hall was grand and stately, and, due to its antiquity, it exhibited a sort of archaic gloom. Very few people visited this place. It was extremely serene, with only the full body portraits – hung high on a wall full of them – watching them imposingly, like they were all gods gazing upon two mortals that had mistakenly burst into their shrine.
Without needing Fu Shen to point them out, Yan Xiaohan found the portraits of a father and two sons hanging side-by-side – Fu Jian, Fu Tingzhong, and Fu Tingxin.
The chamberlain following after them silently handed over two soft cushions. Yan Xiaohan gave him a passing glance, discovering that he was actually one of the bigger Generals of the Northern Yan, Yu Qiaoting.
“Let me down,” Fu Shen said softly.
The two knelt next to each other on the cushions. Yu Qiaoting felt for a wineskin, then for two small silver bowls, and placed them on the ground in front of them, making his noiseless retreat immediately after.
“This is my late grandfather, late father, and late uncle. My late mother was buried in her birthplace. I’ll take you to visit her another day,” Fu Shen said. He turned direction, his back to the north as he faced the south. “Come on. Our first worship is towards the heaven and earth.”
They simultaneously bowed low.
Turning back to the portraits once more, Fu Shen lifted his wine and sprinkled it onto the ground before him, giving a prayer to the void. “This unworthy son Fu Shen caught a marriage sanction from His Reverence and will be tied together with Yan Xiaohan today. Grandfather, father, uncle – if you’re awale in the springs below, then you may rest in peace.
Our second worship is towards the ancestors.”
Yan Xiaohan silently went along with him and bent over to kowtow in respect. They changed direction again, coming to kneel face-to-face. Fu Shen poured two cups of wine, passing one of them over to him. “Thanks a lot for your willingness to wait here for me today, Brother Yan.”
“No need to thank me. It was what should have been done,” came the reply.
“After my grandfather died of illness, the Late Emperor ordered his image drawn and entered into Qilin Hall,” Fu Shen continued. “His posthumous portrait was thereby personally carried into the Golden Stage by my father. In the nineteenth and twentieth years of Yuantai, my father and uncle flew on cranes to the West, so their portraits were personally delivered to Qilin Hall by me.
At the time, His Majesty the Prince of Su wanted to carry my uncle’s portrait into the Hall, but unfortunately…” He shook his head. “In accordance with the system, only the dead official’s next of kin could do that. The Prince of Su was devoted to him, but his status was wrong, in the end.
This one named Fu enlisted at eighteen, and had been commander of the Northern Yan Iron Cavalry for a little over five years. I wouldn’t dare lie about what I’ve accomplished, and have nothing to be ashamed of to the rest of the world. It’s a pity that fate is fickle, and I’m afraid that it’d be difficult for me to lead troops again. My military career… stops with this.”
He raised his bowl of wine, bumping it against Yan Xiaohan’s with a ding.
“Before I left that year, you made a wish, hoping that I would hate you all my life. Now, that wish is already useless — I don’t hate you, Brother Yan. It should be my turn to make a wish next.”
Yan Xiaohan’s eyes lowered, watching him tenderly. It seemed like, so long as Fu Shen gave the word, he would immediately stand up to go pluck out the stars and the moon for him.
Fu Shen watched him with rapt attention, his words unhurried and somber. “I wish that, after my death, I’ll also have a picture left in Qilin Hall. When that time comes, you’ll personally carry it up to the Golden Stage.”
Only the next of kin.
It was quiet for a good while. Yan Xiaohan was not going to comment on that, only saying, “It’s a joyous day. There’s no reason for such ominous words.”
“Everyone dies. It isn’t really taboo.” Fu Shen was apparently not the least bit tensed over his answer, but his eyes were serious and sharp. “The most high and most bright are the sun and moon, and the most close yet most distant are a husband and wife. If you promise me this, you will be my only next of kin from now on.”
The world’s affairs were impermanent, and Mother Nature played with humanity. Two people who were different as the sky and the earth finally came to the ends of their forks in the road, arriving at the same turning point.
This wish, a near-equivalent to saying that they’d live together until they were old and gray – how could Yan Xiaohan refuse him?
He took the cup out of Fu Shen’s hand, set it to the side, and clasped their hands together.
“Next is the worship between a couple.”
They each leaned over in an earnest bow. As a result of their extremely close proximity, they nearly rubbed against the crown of the other’s head, yet their hands never once parted.
Mysteriously, it seemed as though some sort of unknown connection formed, as something no different than a lock buckled into place at the bottom of the heart, a crisp snap sounding out.
The third rite of worship was completed.
The translator says nothing, because it’s hard to talk when in a sugar coma.
 These were ancient counterparts to modern-day highway rest stops. They would be set up about every ten li or so, providing food for horses and such.
 Surprise! The Golden Stage – also known as the Yan or Golden Terrace – was a real place, purportedly. It’s completely destroyed now, though.
 A verse from “The Governor of Yanmen” Walks by Li He. What ‘jade dragon’ refers to isn’t clear to me; some sources claim it’s the name of a legendary sword. All I could find was this image of it, so let’s go with that…
 Cranes are a symbol of longevity, and when they migrate to the West, it’s symbolic of a lack of longevity – hence, death.