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Twilight climbed up the latticed windows, the sky dulling, and the yellowed paintings on the wall were hidden by the unconstrained dim. Yan Xiaohan and Fu Shen drank together, completing the final ceremony, then gave a deep bow towards the portraits of the Fu ancestors, turned, and got off the Golden Stage.
This grave and melancholic series of rituals adorned the already not-very-festive atmosphere with even more gloom. Yan Xiaohan hefted Fu Shen onto his horse’s back, trying to lighten the mood. “Next, we should return to the Marquis Estate. We’ve paid respects to the Heavens and Earth, but we still have to go back and pay respects to Yuantai for his grace. With us two running off without a trace, I’m afraid that the gentlemen of the Ministry of Rites all have the mind to throttle us to death right now.”
“Let them come,” Fu Shen replied lazily. “I can fight ten of them off with one hand.”
The Iron Cavalrymen attending the ceremony roared with laughter, being fine with adding fuel to the goading fire. Yan Xiaohan had no choice but to smile and shake his head. He leapt onto his horse to ride alongside Fu Shen. The spousal-escort procession and Northern Yan Army combined into one big group of horseback riders, and they rushed toward the capital in an impressive display.
The entirety of the city knew that today was the day of the Yan-Fu wedding. An untold amount of people were hoping to see it, some even running out onto the street to watch the excitement. There hadn’t been a single perceptible movement from dawn until dusk — they worried like ants on a hot pan, tongues wagging in gossip. Yuantai was in the palace awaiting news, having dispatched people to the Marquis Estate three times already. The Rites gentleman was being mentally attacked by anxiety and fury and had fainted twice; though he couldn’t say anything, he wanted nothing more than to report that he was retiring from public life.
Right as the Estate and the inside of the palace were getting stirred up into a total mess, the northern gates of the capital abruptly opened wide, and two riders in eye-catching red clothes galloped out from the long and dark shadows of the gate’s tower, as if they were bright flames finally bursting out of the setting sun that was on the verge of sinking below the horizon. Their robes billowing in the wind, they flew past the dusk-shrouded and dimly-lit outworn streets.
They had the utmost of unbridled confidence, and the utmost of outstanding charisma.
A fit of cheers abruptly exploded from within the crowd. It was unknown who had started it, but the citizens were carrying lanterns with them out onto the streets. One light came after another, then a hundred became a thousand, and they gradually came to link together in a long, magnificently brilliant river that made the Milky Way up above look pale. As the two rode past, there were also a countless folk throwing red flowers, shouting out in unison.
“Congratulations to the newly-wed Commander Fu!”
“May the General have a joyous marriage!”
“May the Marquis be safe and healthy, with endless good fortune!”
Crimson flowers fell like raindrops, the shouts getting louder with each wave until it all ultimately turned into a city-wide jamboree. Neither Fu Shen, nor even Yan Xiaohan, had expected there to be such a grand spectacle.
A heart that was rife with holes was being lifted up out of a world of ice and snow, like it was something precious… the feeling of that moment was difficult to describe. Fu Shen was touched for an instant; from Yan Xiaohan’s point of view, it looked like he had briefly teared up.
Their steeds slowed their pace. The group came to a stop at the head of Spring Peace Bridge.
There were people holding bright lanterns both on top of the bridge and under it, the spitting image of a myriad of fireflies showing through the boundless evening light. Fu Shen sat up straight on horseback, used one hand to straighten out his clothes, and soon after turned towards all the onlookers on the mainstreet, performing for them a silent and solemn bow.
His heart had thousands of things to say, yet he only spoke one short phrase, each word falling audibly to the ground.
“This Fu is humbled.”
His voice was so choked up with emotion, it had gone rough. The contributions of three generations of the Fu family were engraved into the annals of history, carved into steles, known far and wide to the everyman — hearing pretty praises had cocooned Fu Shen’s ears. He had once been filled to the brim with pride, immensely satisfied with himself. When Yuantai had done away with him once he was no longer useful, he had also held a grudge within him, feeling that the great service he had rendered was deserving of the whole realm being indebted to him.
But when he truly learned what the will of the people was, all his haughtiness vanished, and he just felt an unbearable shame, minute as a speck of dust within the scope of the world.
The foreign aggressors were not yet quelled. The land was not yet at peace. What virtues and abilities did he, Fu Shen, have, to be worthy of having the appreciation of so many people embedded into his memory?
Others didn’t understand, but he knew well that his willingness to bear ‘responsibility’ was in large part due to him being a Fu, and unable to let his ancestors’ military glory decay. The other, much smaller part was that he was stubborn and wouldn’t give in; when a thousand-catty burden pressed down on his shoulders, he would grit his teeth and carry it on. As for ‘morality’, that actually took up only a tiny portion, and was incompatible with its surroundings. It was as if he was tirelessly standing guard to shield a candle’s flame, all by himself, so that it wouldn’t accidentally go out from the blowing wind or pouring rain.
On this night, though, he suddenly discovered that it wasn’t him alone that was stubbornly defending this light.
Innumerable lights were being carried out, prayers being said, showers of flowers falling. It was as if he had, at long last, found the courage and conviction to continue down this never-ending road.
A warm and powerful hand was placed upon his shoulder, squeezing it reassuringly, and his back seemed like it was leaning against a hard wall. Yan Xiaohan leaned in close, his voice quiet. “It’s getting late. Let’s go.”
Fu Shen nodded involuntarily. He suddenly raised his hand to catch something, then casually tucked it into the other’s lapel. Before Yan Xiaohan could react, Fu Shen had picked up his reins and urged his horse to continue forward.
A fine fragrance wafted about. Yan Xiaohan looked down, then immediately stared in shock.
It was a twin lotus.
The Marquis of Jing Ning’s Estate.
Everyone was expectant and anxiously waiting, all but hoping that these two living legends would come back. When the official from the Ministry of Rites caught sight of Fu Shen on horseback, he startled, nearly blurting out the question, “Are you not crippled, Marquis?” Fortunately, in the next moment, Yan Xiaohan personally helped Fu Shen off of it and placed him into his wheelchair; he then realized that Fu Shen hadn’t recovered at all, he was only forcing himself through it the whole way there.
Beauties would go past their prime, and heroes would meet the end of their roads. This final insistence of a disabled general aroused both downcast admiration and depressing lament.
Due to that subtle empathy, the anger stuffed up in his chest dissipated a bit. He didn’t blow up at them, merely facing them, cupping his hands in salute, and first congratulating them on their happy marriage before prompting them on. “Hurry in, you two. The Duke of Ying and the Madam of the House are waiting for you to pay respects to them.”
The Flying Dragon Guard’s special position meant that they had a persistent fondness for not paying much attention to civil officials. Yan Xiaohan only hummed indifferently, all of his thoughts put towards tending to Fu Shen. The latter thanked the official for his trouble, then gently shoved Yan Xiaohan away when the other went to push the wheelchair. “You don’t need to do that,” Fu Shen said in a lowered voice. “Let Qingheng and the rest get here.”
Long red carpets stretched out from the entryway all the way to the main hall. Fu Shen and Yan Xiaohan each held an end of red silk, with Yu Qiaoting pushing the wheelchair into the wedding hall. The entire room was brightly illuminated, dragon and fenghuang candles lit up everywhere, and the guests got up one after the other to give their congratulations. Lady Qin was decked out in finery, seated haughtily at one side of the head of the table, the other side being empty. The Duke of Ying, Fu Tingyi, was seated a space below, in the first seat. Upon hearing them come in, he slightly lifted his eyes to give Fu Shen an apathetic glance.
Lady Qin had suffered through waiting for a few shichen, so she had been the leader in impatience for a long time now. Were they at home, she likely would have been cursing enough to shake up the world at this point. However, today’s reception was being held at the Marquis Estate, and all the friends and colleagues of the Fu’s had shown up, so she had to grit her teeth in rage and assume a dignified, virtuous air to avoid losing her dignity in the face of these high-ranking dignitaries.
When she saw Fu Shen and Yan Xiaohan, though, she immediately couldn’t help but grin.
Back in the day, she and her son had trembled with fear when they lived in Fu Shen’s shadow, as in all of the Duke Estate, only the Eldest Lord had been acknowledged, not the younger. Now, the wheel of fortune had reversed. How could Fu Shen continue to be arrogant and egotistical? Didn’t he end up marrying a man? The hit that would knock out his teeth and make him swallow the blood down to hide it should be him respectfully having to kowtow to her, the Madam of the former Duke!
“This boy really doesn’t want people to be at ease. How could you be late on your own wedding day? You’ve even held up the lucky hour, making so many people wait a shichen for you for no real reason.” Lady Qin didn’t leave her chair the entire time she put on a show of scolding Fu Shen. “You’ve been an unprincipled buffoon before now, but since you’re going to be married, you can’t be so headstrong anymore.”
Her subject then turned to Yan Xiaohan, who she spoke affectionately to. “Meng’gui, Jingyuan is a spoiled child. You’ll have put up with a lot of all those improper aspects of him.”
Her words were nauseating. The entire hall was so completely silent, one could hear a pin drop. Those present that didn’t know of the rotten affairs within the Duke’s household all took the same course of action in sitting up real straight, sticking out their ears, and foreseeing that there would be a lot of drama coming up next.
Fu Shen’s expression worsened at once. Just as he was about to explode, someone placed their hand on his shoulder and lightly pressed down on it, hinting that he shouldn’t move. Yan Xiaohan’s voice rang out from over his head. “Well said,” he replied leisurely. “If I don’t put up with him, who would?”
His wording sounded somewhat mocking. Stringing together how everything got to this point, everyone there believed that he was unhappy with this arbitrarily-arranged marriage.
Only Fu Shen had heard the low-key portion of it that was blindly showing off, and hungry for exclusive domain.
The burning rage in his chest receded in an instant, his lips hooking up in a not-very-obvious way. He went along with the force Yan Xiaohan put on his shoulder to relax his back, preparing to concentrate on watching the show — if circumstances had permitted, he would even think to cross one leg over the other.
Lady Qin was evidently extremely pleased with Yan Xiaohan. She believed it to be a matter of course that Yan Xiaohan hated Fu Shen, and the enemy of an enemy was a friend, so he was certain to be on the the same frontline she was. She gave an amiable and generous smile. “Don’t keep standing. Quickly come and make your ritual respects, your salutations cannot be held up…”
She hadn’t yet finished when Yan Xiaohan abruptly cut her off. “Wait a second.”
“What is it?”
“Jingyuan’s parents are both dead. We should be saluting their memorial tablets. Why do I not see any in the wedding hall?”
Lady Qin was taken aback. “Uh…”
“And where did you come from?” he kept going. “You have the impertinence to sit at the head of the table to receive the respects of this official and the Marquis? Do you not fear your life being cut short?”
Fu Shen wanted to applaud him as he listened. Lady Qin’s complexion went from red to white and then green, her lips and hands within her sleeves constantly shaking. She totally hadn’t anticipated that Yan Xiaohan would suddenly revolt against her, and she had the mind to retort, but a single glance towards his smiling face that had eyes topped up with murderous intent instantly scared her into muteness.
That was the Flying Dragon Guard for you!
Without waiting for her response, Yan Xiaohan seemed to already be fed up with her nonsense. “Come. Drag her out,” he said coldly.
At his order, two Guards promptly stood out from the crowd, their movements so quick they looked rehearsed. They went and grabbed Lady Qin by the arms, pulled her from the head’s seat, and towed her towards the door.
Lady Qin finally came back to her senses under the alarm, frantically struggling and loudly shouting. She had only gotten a few words called out when a well-experienced Guard stuffed up her mouth.
Her muffled voiced gradually went far away, and the interior of the hall resumed its deathly stillness. All the guest’s faces were blank, their minds having been storming for a good while now — the Flying Dragon Guard was worthy of their vicious reputation, because this was way too aggressive!
The incident came quickly, then was resolved quickly, the dust settling in the span of a spark’s life. Lady Qin had already been dragged very far off when Fu Ya finally snapped out of it like he had just been dreaming, jumping up to his feet and dashing in close to Yan Xiaohan. “You shameless thug!” he raged. “How dare you humiliate my mother!”
He raised his fist to hit him, so Yan Xiaohan sent him flying a few chi away with a kick. It was only after that kick that he asked, “And who is this?”
Fu Shen was on the brink of laughing himself to death. Not all of those seated were enjoying the spectacle, as one or two were still good-hearted folk. Upon seeing Fu Ya reeling and unable to get back up from Yan Xiaohan’s kick for such a long time, one trembled out a placation. “That’s the Fu’s Young Lord, and the Marquis’s little brother. His birth mother is, uh… that Madam Qin from just now. You’re a gracious one, Sir, don’t lower yourself to the level of a child.”
Yan Xiaohan oh’ed. “This official had only ever heard about Don Fu, not ever anything about a Junior Don Fu. So, he’s actually Jingyuan’s younger half-brother. What a misunderstanding.”
Fu Ya barely managed to let out a relieved exhale before he heard his completely insincere delivery of ‘what a misunderstanding,’ and he nearly sprayed out blood straight from his heart. Ashamed and angered, his eyes turned red. His hand bumped into something at his side that had fallen with him, and without looking, he hurled it at random and cussed loudly. “Enough of your fucking bullshit!”
He didn’t have great accuracy right then, as his secret weapon didn’t fly towards Yan Xiaohan, but at Fu Shen, who breezily raised his hand and grabbed it. Holding it before his eyes, he saw that it was one half of a broken porcelain bowl.
Yan Xiaohan kept on bickering for bickering’s sake, not willing to forgive this. “Junior Don Fu has rather too much filth in his mouth. Were you not educated…” He trailed off once he looked down to see the bowl in Fu Shen’s hand, gaze falling upon the glint of cold light from the broken porcelain’s edges, and his face immediately darkened.
A several-chi-tall killer aura soared up from behind him as he ground his teeth ominously. “So, you’ve tried to use a sharp object to sneak-attack your own brother. You’ve really got some guts.”
Everyone else’s inner thoughts almost broke out of their heads and threw themselves right at Yan Xiaohan’s face. Your eyes are open, yet you’re talking nonsense! He didn’t want to sneak-attack his big brother, he very obviously wanted to hit you! There needs to be a limit to how much you distort the truth!
Fu Shen covered his mouth with a hand, resisting the urge to laugh. He compressed it into a number of coughs. Only then did Yan Xiaohan seem to remember what he was like as a person, stooping over to soothe him. “Don’t get mad… there shouldn’t have been so much trouble on such a happy day. Since you and I are married and it’s difficult for you to get about, it’s an inevitability that I’ll have to take matters into my own hands to deal with this disrespectful, foul-mouthed little brother for you. You won’t object, will you, Marquis?”
His tone was gentle and sincere, while his words contained the glaring connotation of a threat.
He wanted to put on a full act. Fu Shen’s face betrayed his struggle. “Uh…”
“The Flying Dragon Guard has multiple methods,” Yan Xiaohan said tenderly. “Blood won’t be drawn. It’ll just be a small punishment to discourage bigger outbursts.”
Fu Shen hesitated for a moment. “Do what you’ve said, then,” he replied, vexed.
Yan Xiaohan stood back up, full of satisfaction, and turned to the standing-by Guards that had gotten up. “Hear what the Marquis said? Take Junior Don Fu out and give him a few gentle smacks with a switch. Just enough to make him recognize his wrongs and repent.”
Court officials familiar with the modus operandi of the Guard couldn’t keep from fighting off a shudder, giving Fu Ya looks that were drenched in sympathy; they would hit him until he recognized his wrongs, and before he did, they wouldn’t stop ’til they beat him to death…
The merciless Guards lifted Fu Ya up, dragging him out as well.
A nice wedding party had been made into something rampant with mishaps and repeatedly arising disturbances, causing people to feel that every further moment they sat there was torture. The most miserable of all was the Marquis of Jing Ning, Fu Shen, as the vicious, authoritarian Royal Inspector Envoy still refused to chill out. Yan Xiaohan was pointedly, dramatically grumbling about stuff. “‘Every family has its own issues to work through,’ indeed… we’ve only just gotten married, yet we’re going to have to deal with a mess of this scale being on the mind… I don’t know how that’s going to implicate us in the future…”
Typically, when the Flying Dragon Guard made up undue charges and brought harm to loyalists, their tricks were used an untold amount of times over. Yan Xiaohan did one better, as after he had handled those two like that in such a show-offy, reward-fishing way, he even switched methods to hint that he should praise him, and quick.
Fu Shen stared at him with an un-smile, but his heart still softened up beyond his control. “Thanks for your efforts,” he said lightly. “What a capable wife you are.”
The look in Yan Xiaohan’s eyes suddenly went far-off.
Fu Shen had no idea of the consequences his off-hand teasing had triggered. Not long after this, word of the crisis at the Marquis of Jing Ning’s reception would quickly spread throughout the streets, and through the process of assumptions via word of mouth, it would all end up as ‘right before the Marquis’s eyes, the accursed Flying Dragon Guard abused his mother, beat up his little brother, and ultimately forced the Marquis to praise him for being a principled spouse.’
So hostile! Unbelievably shameless! The Court’s bloodhound had attacked the loyalist again!
The future could be brought up later, though. Now, since that farce was over, the wedding banquet should still be continuing on. As Lady Qin and her son had been sent off, everyone’s gazes were uniformly cast towards the sole-surviving, present Duke of Ying, Fu Tingyi.
Unlike his father and two elder brothers, Fu Tingyi had been weak-bodied since his childhood, and was not a seedling that could learn martial arts. All he did on the daily was study books behind the closed door of his room, not having much of a sense of presence, and not being very close to the rest of his family. Later, when those older brothers passed on one after the other and the Duke of Ying’s Estate was desperately in need someone to come and take the reins, Fu Shen subsequently led the troops out, bearing the majority of the pressure. After that, Fu Tingyi had unhurriedly stood up and inherited the title. Following the Marquis Estate separating from the Duke Estate, the ghost-like Duke shut himself even deeper into his home, rarely coming out. Hearsay said he was engrossed in cultivating to immortality and alchemy, which was related to the progressive decline of the entire Duke Estate.
Due to the outstanding people their big family had once had, evaluations of this Third Lord in gossip seemed to be very harsh. All the talk was about how Fu Tingyi didn’t have a single good thing about him, and relied solely on his good birth, only having to plug leaks in the roof since he had no worry over whether he’d be clothed or fed — he was just seeking the Dao for immortality, right? Maybe someday, he’d patch up a leak, then soar straight up to Heaven!
No matter what Lady Qin did, Fu Shen had always held respect for his Third Uncle. Regardless of the truth of whether he wasn’t concerned with common affairs or was deliberately hiding his talents in the dark, the Duke Estate being subdued these years gave Fu Shen a sense of stability far behind him, and a lot less to worry about.
He motioned for Yan Xiaohan to push him before Fu Tingyi, and then he raised his hands as he bowed to him. “Third Uncle.”
It was his nephew’s wedding day, yet he was still wearing a Daoist robe. He had been frequently fasting the past years and ate no meat, giving him a lean appearance. With the long beard hanging from his chin, he truly did seem to have a bit of an immortal feel. During the big mess beforehand, he hadn’t said a word, looking at it like he wasn’t actually seeing it. He had closed his eyes in recuperation, silently reciting Daoist scriptures to himself until Fu Shen had called out to him, and only then did he slightly open them back up.
Clear light converged in Fu Tingyi’s eyes, his intonation muted. “There’s no need to pay respects to me. Your parents’ memorial tablets are both in the ancestral hall at home. If you have the inclination, you may go to pay respects to them of your own volition.”
It wasn’t clear who exactly was being spoken to. He didn’t wait for anyone’s response, getting up on his own cue, flinging out his sleeves, and drifting away through the air.
At this moment, even all the Flying Dragon Guards had compassion in their eyes when they looked at Fu Shen. Their Royal Inspector Envoy had lost his parents when young and had no close relations, which was tragic enough. As for the Marquis’s entire family… they might as well just not exist.
Luckily, Fu Shen didn’t care much at all. He and Yan Xiaohan had already met with his elders on the Golden Stage; the remainder weren’t a concern. Everyone had happened to cleanly take their leaves, and he had also wanted to leave for a long time now.
The reception lasted until very late at night. When the last guest had finally been seen off, Yan Xiaohan spoke up to Fu Shen. “Leave this all here for the servants to clean up. You can go to my Estate to stay for now.”
He had assumed that Fu Shen had no feelings for the Marquis Estate, and wouldn’t reject his invite. Against expectations, Fu Shen had mumbled to himself for a moment, then turned him down. “There’s no need. I should’ve told you this earlier, but it slipped my mind until now. After the marriage, I was planning on moving to a countryside manor outside the city to recuperate. I’ll write you the address for it later. If you need something, you can find me there.”
Yan Xiaohan’s pupils slightly contracted, his voice remaining undisturbed. “We’ve just gotten married, yet are living separately? Was the way I treated the guests earlier unsatisfactory?”
“Nothing’s wrong. Don’t overthink it.” Fu Shen tilted his head to glance outside the doorway out of the corner of his eye, then quieted his voice. “I brought a band of the Northern Yan Army with me. What would it look like with all of them staying in your Estate?”
Yan Xiaohan’s heart relaxed a smidgen, not so stopped up, but the depths of his eyes exuded a distinct disappointment. “You can’t stay for one night?”
Fu Shen felt a small bit of his conscience swaying, almost thawing all the way. “You can’t bear to be apart from me this badly?” he asked with a smile.
The two spoke softly to each other in their wedding room with burning red candles around, one painstakingly trying to lure the other in, and one willingly accommodating him. It was clearly just an ordinary conversation, but the atmosphere was outrageously affable.
“I had prepared something, thinking that when you came back, you might be able to use it… but now it seems I’ve done more than I should have,” Yan Xiaohan said.
Though he was well aware of the fact that only half of what came out of Yan Xiaohan’s mouth could be believed, and that his genuine-looking loneliness and sadness was most likely all an act, Fu Shen couldn’t stop himself from compromising.
“How could kind regards be labelled as doing too much?” he spoke honestly, grabbing onto Yan Xiaohan’s hand. “It was wrong of me to not let you know ahead of time. As that’s the case, I’ll have to burden you tonight.”
Yan Xiaohan looked down at the hand he was holding, giving a hum of agreement. “That’s what I’d been looking for.”
Upon sighting the crimson lantern hanging above the entryway of the Yan Estate, Fu Shen woke up from his confused state, and got the feeling that it was extremely likely that Yan Xiaohan had been a child trafficker before he had gotten into the Flying Dragon Guard. General Fu likely hadn’t expected this; he’d been iron-boned for so many years, yet had given in so tidily, not even running across a hitch.
He was placed, along with his wheelchair, under the eaves of the front courtyard. Yan Xiaohan slowly wheeled him forward.
They didn’t stop when they got in front of the central building. Right as Fu Shen was about to remind him that there were steps ahead, he felt the wheelchair smoothly sliding up along a slope.
He was intensely shocked.
He finally noticed the areas of difference this residence had compared to before; all the steps in the place had been worn down into level slopes, and all the doorsills had been torn out to leave behind vast, even ground. One glance told that the house was specially designed for someone who couldn’t walk easily, and had to use a wheelchair to get around.
As far as ordinary people went with having a handicap at home, the care alone was physically and mentally exhausting enough, and very few would be willing to undertake the immense effort to refit the inconvenient stairs and thresholds. Yan Xiaohan knew well that their marriage was simply a formality, and Fu Shen wouldn’t be staying long under these conditions, but he still modified his entire house without saying a word.
All hearts were grown of flesh. To say that he wasn’t moved would be a lie.
Even if they had paid their respects and made their pledges, Fu Shen and Yan Xiaohan had just barely taken their first candid step. There were still countless differences and secrets lying in their way, and what they actually had between them, no one could exactly say. There were too many things diluting this relationship, and those bits of touchingness and sentimentality were like water drops joining a sea, looking inconsequential.
Could inconsequential emotions… get there, as well?
Dissimilar to the pompous decor of the Marquis Estate, the Yan Estate was clearly made up wholeheartedly, refined in all aspects and both gorgeous and peaceful. Fu Shen even spotted a few pots of orchids in the rooms, inevitably recalling his discovery in that small town in Northern Yan. “So many years have passed, yet Brother Yan is still fond of orchids,” he seemed to inadvertently pry.
Yan Xiaohan’s hands clenched tighter on the wheelchair involuntarily, his calm voice coming soon after. “If it weren’t for time being tight, I wanted to make a pond of twin lotuses for you, too.”
Fu Shen was jabbed right in the heart by those words. He couldn’t form any himself for a moment.
It was like Yan Xiaohan was taking him on a tour, pushing the wheelchair past room after room in the building and through long corridors, until finally stopping at a small room close to the outside of the bedroom.
Fu Shen remembered what this was. It’s the bathing room.
“You want to go in?” Fu Shen raised his head to question him. “What’s so great about the bathing room?” Wasn’t it just a screen and a few tubs…?
Yan Xiaohan reached out to push the door open.
Set up at the door was a large painted screen of waters and mountains and jade-shaded colors. Stepping beyond that, they came into a different world.
Several rooms had been opened up, turning it into one big, expansive room. It was completely empty, having no other features aside from a large bathing pond dead-center in the floor that had jade steps leading into it. There was no hot water heated up now, with only half of the tub filled with clear water, so clear that the bottom was visible — through the candlelight lighting up the crystalline liquid, it could be seen that the bottom had a bas relief of lotuses and realistic, lively, swimming fish.
Yan Xiaohan pushed him closer. “You can’t walk, and without someone’s help, it’d be easy for you to slip and fall. That’s why I had people change it into a pool,” he explained. “Is it still to your liking, Marquis?”
Fu Shen was being smacked with nice surprises one right after the other, a bit unable to collect his wits. Not waiting for him to finish comprehending the significance of the bath, Yan Xiaohan walked out from behind him to the front of him, kneeling so that their lines of sight were on an equal level, and placed his hand on the other’s knee. “Jingyuan, I’ve fixed the courtyard and planted the parasol trees. As it is now… I’m just waiting for the fenghuang to come.”
The ‘fenghuang’ that was not only not coming, but wanting to fly off elsewhere: “…”
He suddenly wanted to ask Yan Xiaohan, Are you not aware of what the story of Lord Ye loving dragons? How can you come to the decision that I’m the fenghuang you want?
Yet, those smoothed-down steps, the large bathing pond, and the sincerity in his eyes were not fake.
“This won’t do, Brother Yan.” Fu Shen suddenly leaned forward, his slightly cool and dry fingertips lightly poking the other in the middle of his brows as he smiled lightly. “If you want to attract the fenghuang, you have to sing Feng Seeks Huang.”
Yan Xiaohan raised one of his long eyebrows, giving him a thoughtful look with a very clear implication: So you’re so experienced? You sing it once.
Fu Shen’s smile widened.
There was only one layer of window paper separating them, but they had a mutual understanding to stop at this point and not break through it. It was a delicate equilibrium that perhaps only those that were in it had the ability to accurately grasp; it might be that the feelings were not yet deep, not integrating naturally enough, or maybe they both had extraordinary patience, doggedly crossing swords and trialing numerous times to be able to find the real answers within them.
Because the Court wasn’t making them share a bridal chamber, that evening was the same as the ones before, with Fu Shen in the bedroom and Yan Xiaohan sleeping in a side room. It wasn’t clear when this upside-down host-guest relationship had become customary, but everyone up and down the Yan Estate was used to it. Their statuses had plainly been set all this time, it was just that Fu Shen could now be labeled as having properly attained a higher level.
Being considerate without a second thought was the deadliest thing. Fu Shen had suffered from Yan Xiaohan in his adolescence; it was a shame that he still hadn’t yet learned his lesson.
At dawn the next morning, the two Masters of the Yan Estate were fast asleep when someone knocked on the entry gate. Yu Qiaoting stood outside, looking dignified. “Sorry to disturb you. I have something important, and need to see the Marquis straightaway.”
The steward invited him into the receiving pavilion to wait a bit. It wasn’t too long after that that Yan Xiaohan pushed Fu Shen out of the room. They both looked fine, and not like they had done anything wild last night. Were these ordinary times, Yu Qiaoting would definitely want to tease him a bit, but upon meeting them face-to-face today, he first talked to Yan Xiaohan before Fu Shen could even ask him if he had eaten. “Sir Yan, there’s crucial military information that the General and I need to discuss.”
Yan Xiaohan discreetly understood, saying the phrase ‘less is more,’ then leaving to get someone to make breakfast afterwards.
“What happened?” Fu Shen asked.
Yu Qiaoting took out a wooden box the size of palm, and passed it to him with both hands. “I stayed overnight in the Marquis Estate yesterday, and early this morning, a servant came to find me, saying that they found this thing when they made an inventory of the congratulatory gifts.”
Fu Shen immediately understood when he saw the falcon totem on the box’s lid. “Something from the Jhe?”
The case wasn’t rigged. Fu Shen opened the lid as soon as he unclasped the lock, and the stink of blood hit him right in the face, making him knit his brows. “…What the hell is this?”
The box was filled up with pearls, numbering at about a handful, plump and round with a soft luster. Fu Shen wasn’t fond of precious gems, but since he had been stationed at the border and frequently inspected the yearly tributes of feudal lords, he could tell at a glance that the pearls were all practically tribute-grade.
These first-rate pearls were produced in the Northeast where the Jhe gathered, thus leading to their name of ‘east pearls’ — they were extremely valuable. However, in the box Fu Shen held, the pearls that were supposed to be white as cow’s milk instead looked like they had been dredged up out of blood, as stains sullied them all over, painting them as extraordinarily bizarre and ominous.
“Did you find out who sent it?” This stuff wasn’t frightening; that was just an automatic response. “Are there not any name cards or anything documented?”
Yu Qiaoting shook his head. “Too many cards were taken yesterday. There might be one, but it won’t be found for a while.”
Fu Shen casually buckled the case back up and handed it to Yu Qiaoting, sneering coldly. “They’re just trying to be mysterious. Eight hundred years have passed, yet this same old stuff’s being played out. No need to pay this any mind, it’s probably a bunch of tripe watching me get married and deliberately sending this to add to the suffocation. Take it away and deal with it, and don’t let Yan Xiaohan know of it.”
He was as collected as ever, which made Yu Qiaoting relax a little, though he still felt faintly worried. He took the box and put it away.
“Did what I arrange for finish getting set up?” Fu Shen asked.
“Rest assured, General. Will you be leaving for the manor today?”
Fu Shen muttered a bit, worried that Yan Xiaohan would be unhappy with him leaving, but after thinking about his plans, he really had no choice in this. He ultimately nodded in response. “Make preparations. I’ll be heading over today.”
No one was allowed to disrupt the two Northern Yan folk over here, and Yan Xiaohan wasn’t able to eat breakfast over there. It wasn’t long after Yu Qiaoting had come through the door that a scout from the Flying Dragon Guard had also hurriedly come through the door to find him. “Sir, someone found a headless corpse in a well last night in Zuoning County, Eastbloom Village. The incident was reported to Shuntian Prefecture and underwent identification; it was determined to be General Mu Boxiu of the Right Golden Crow Guard, who had gone missing some days before.“
About half a month prior, right at the cusp of the new year, General Mu Boxiu had suddenly disappeared without a trace. He left very abruptly, but it didn’t seem like he had gone completely unprepared. Everything that could’ve been used to clearly identify him was all left behind, with only a few old clothes and some number of gold and silver belonging to him being taken along. His family had even thought that he was going out to have a drink with his colleagues, but when they hadn’t seen him return after a few days, they went wailing to report it to the authorities.
The case hadn’t been eye-catching at all at first, solely being investigated by the Prefecture. Due to the incident involving a Court official, it was also reported to the Flying Dragon Guard, then set to the side after Yan Xiaohan had eyed it. No one had believed that a strong-bodied Golden Crow Guard had gotten robbed, or had someone out for his life. Maybe he was keeping someone on the side and had gotten so lost in pleasure that he forgot his responsibilities, hence why he was late in coming back home.
Today, however, his headless body had been found in a village’s dry well on the capital’s outskirts.
The weight of a missing person case versus that of a Court official’s homicide case were completely incomparable.
“Has the head been found?” Yan Xiaohan asked.
“Not yet,” the scout replied. “The local authorities have already sealed off the entire village, and are using all of their manpower to look for it.”
“Go peruse the Prefecture’s files, and thoroughly rake up the last three generations of his family. I’m going to the palace immediately. Have Jiang Shu take two others with to go keep watch at the village; their identities aren’t to be revealed, they just need to investigate in secret. As this matter involves the Southern Office, His Majesty might be unwilling to let the Flying Dragon Guard interfere with it.”
The scout accepted his orders and left. Yan Xiaohan had to get to the palace quickly, so he was unable to eat a decent meal, quickly taking a few bites of some pastries before he went to change clothes. Once he finished getting ready, Fu Shen and Yu Qiaoting also happened to finish talking. “You’re heading out?” Fu Shen asked with astonishment upon seeing his appearance.
“Official business,” Yan Xiaohan explained concisely, following which he bent over to give him a light hug, quickly and quietly whispering words of caution into his ear. “I know you have to leave today. Breakfast is ready outside, so go after you’ve finished eating, and take care on the road. Feel free to bring anything in the house that catches your eye with. I’m sorry that I can’t send you off in person today, but I’ll come see you once I’ve finished dealing with this stuff.”
Fu Shen gently patted him on the shoulder, sighing. “I don’t think you’ve got any official business to do. I think you’re going to hide in the luggage and follow me.”
The two laughed simultaneously. Yan Xiaohan straightened up, cupping his hands to salute Yu Qiaoting. “I’ll be leaving. Thanks for your trouble in looking after Jingyuan, General.”
General Yu was apparently full, and he hadn’t even had breakfast yet. “You’re too kind, too kind,” he said, stupefied.
At the tail-end of the Snake,(~10:30a) a carriage stopped before the entrance of a manor at the foot of Eversong Mountain, in the capital’s outskirts.
Observed from the entryway, the manor was no different from a common mountain villa, being surrounded by ordinary hills and bodies of water in a secluded environment. Upon stepping through that door, however, the sinister, metallic, bloody aura of death instantly assaulted the senses. The interior of the manor was full of Northern Yan soldiers patrolling armed, standing alert day and night, and turning a good place into a barrack as impenetrable as an iron barrel.
Those who had gone with Fu Shen back to the capital this time, aside from Yu Qiaoting, were the Medic Du Leng, and Xiao Xun heading the personal guards. They were nominally giving the pretense of escorting him to the wedding, but in reality, they were all coming to keep watch over this villa.
Fu Shen was seated on his wheelchair, getting pushed into the rear courtyard by Yu Qiaoting. Xiao Xun opened a hidden door, revealing a dark and dank tunnel.
With Yu Qiaoting and Xiao Xun at his left and right, the two lifted Fu Shen’s wheelchair and went down the long stone steps.
The oil lamps on the rock walls were lit up one by one, the brightness gradually spreading until it extended all the way to the deepest part of the tunnel, shining on a terrifying and eerie scene.
There was a prison, three sides stone walls and one side iron bars. The freezing, damp ground had moldy rice straw spread out on it. A disheveled figure was huddled up in a corner, wearing only a white inner robe with his hands covering his face. The suddenly-arriving lights had stung his eyes, making him unable to open them.
The wheelchair slid across the floor with a rolling sound, accompanied by light footsteps. They got closer and closer, finally coming to a halt before the iron bars.
“How’s it going. You used to living here yet?”
A man’s low, magnetic, cheerful voice resounded within the prison, not fast, nor slow, nor any kind of sinister. It still made the prisoner in the corner act like he had just been stabbed with a poisoned needle, leaping up like a live fish.
He seemed to be scared out of his wits, teeth chattering. “…Are you?” he quivered out.
“Mn, it’s me.” Fu Shen sat still and ramrod straight, his tone gentle. “It’s been a long time. Looks like General Mu still remembers me.
“Well, that’s not right. I should have said, the late General of the Right Golden Crow Guard, Mu Boxiu.”
 Fenghuangs (aka Chinese ‘phoenixes’) are often the feminine counterparts to the masculine dragon (the Emperor is the Dragon while the Empress dresses up in phoenix garb, etc.), because dragons look powerful and fenghuang look pretty.
 Before popularly becoming the singular and feminine fenghuang, the bird was split up into the male feng and female huang.