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In front of the Hall of Mental Cultivation, Yan Xiaohan had a brush with the Head General of the Golden Crow Guard, who had just withdrawn from within it.
Golden Crow had gone through a few successive mishaps, and as its leading official, Yi Siming had to bear the brunt of the blame. What was worse was that the trust he had painstakingly established in Yuantai’s mind had taken a steep nosedive. Their Guard, after all, was lacking in know-how and shallow in experience; Yuantai was willing to use them to kill chickens, but when it came to slaughtering cattle, the first one that he brought to mind was still the Flying Dragon Guard.
For those acting as state officials, what they feared most wasn’t being greedy, nor was it being traitorous; rather, it was being of not very much use.
Having just received Fu Shen’s reminder, Yan Xiaohan thus paid special attention. He hadn’t seen Yi Siming in a while, and at first glance, he almost didn’t recognize him. The man’s face was pale with a blue tinge, his eyes sunken into their sockets, and expression withered, yet venomous. When the two came face-to-face, his gaze bored straight into him, inexplicably terrifying.
Yan Xiaohan recalled that they were the same age, but when they stood opposite each other, their appearances were even more different than night and day.
While the Northern and Southern Imperial Guards didn’t get along, their two leading officials still had to greet each other when they met on the road. Yan Xiaohan cupped his hands towards him in courtesy, but Yi Siming didn’t return the gesture, nor did he say anything. He just stared at him gloomily for a time, then turned and left.
Yan Xiaohan: “…”
The court eunuch guiding him into the palace was the recently-favored eunuch Liu Ji, who quickly spoke up to settle the matter upon witnessing this. “The Emperor was infuriated by this mess happening. General Yi is perhaps also worried from not being successful, and is giving no thought to etiquette as a result. Please excuse him. This heavy burden of seeking out the murderer and investigating the truth has all been dumped onto your shoulders, Sir.”
The former imperial attendant, Tian Tong, Yan Xiaohan had long since found an excuse to kick away. Now that Liu Ji had stepped on Tian Tong to rise up and be that Attendant, he was aware of whose light he had borrowed to do so, consequently being especially courteous to Yan Xiaohan.
His eyes followed the young Royal Inspector Envoy’s steady gait as he strode into the Hall, thinking about how Duan Linglong had pulled the wool over the people’s eyes from within the palace. Yan Xiaohan was his adopted son, and had consistently risen in status since he had entered it, the glory and favor he received enduring. Even with his sacred esteem being as such, that overly self-confident moron Tian Tong had still wanted to challenge him; hadn’t the old coot just flat-out hung himself with that? Did he hate the fact that his life was too long?
Furthermore, today, that High General of the Golden Crow Guard whose face was as stiff as a coffin, Yi Siming; he was red-eyed with jealousy, his ambitions being higher than the sky, yet his fate being thinner than paper.
Yuantai’s complexion wasn’t too great. He was probably getting old, and from having so many worries, his face looked a waxy yellow, with puffy bags under his eyes. At Yan Xiaohan’s salutations, his eyelids drooped. “What is all that you know about the matter?” he asked insipidly.
“This subject has already ordered people to assemble the dossier and separately interview the family, witnesses from the scene, and so on. I will strive to find out the truth as soon as possible, then bring the murderer in for trial. Please rest assured, Your Majesty.”
The Emperor didn’t speak for a very long time. After an extended stretch of silence, he suddenly sighed.
“To have others handle things is inferior to having you do them and letting us be worry-free, in the end.” As if a puff of tightly-held air had suddenly leaked out, the Emperor’s words actually held a bit of a yielding undertone to them. “Meng’gui, on what happened the day before… you were wronged.”
“I wouldn’t dare be. Your Majesty flatters me,” Yan Xiaohan quickly replied.
In reality, he wasn’t too sure about which happening Yuantai was talking about, but modesty and backing down never went awry. The Emperor thought deeply for a moment, then asked, “We have heard that Fu Shen is not in the capital?”
“Answering Your Majesty, the Marquis of Jing Ning was unwilling to remain within this humble subject’s Estate, and moved to live in a villa outside the city the day after the wedding. This subject believed that living separately on the outset of getting married did not go according to proper etiquette, and disregarded your holy decree, so I had been staying nights in the villa for a few days before now.”
“You have done well,” Yuantai praised, sighing ruefully afterwards. “Fu Shen… it is little wonder he would be unwilling to stay in the capital.”
An iron-boned General having his future prospects ruined, and being forced to marry a man with no alternative given… the capital was the place his heart was broken, so Fu Shen wanting to stay in it for long would actually be a wonder.
Yan Xiaohan, mulling over his words and checking his body language, seemed to have a bit of an understanding as to what he was thinking.
“What was Fu Shen doing before your return?” Yuantai asked.
“Ah…” Yan Xiaohan felt it hard to reply.
“What is it? There is no harm in being blunt.”
Yan Xiaohan was strangely quiet for a time, wanting to speak yet being stopped up, until he ultimately put his awkwardness on display. “The Marquis needs to recuperate, and is idling his time away in the villa. Now, he’s… growing vegetables, raising fowl, and…”
The Emperor stared at him. “And what?”
Yan Xiaohan coughed dryly. “Pickling and salting duck eggs,” he said, finding it embarrassing to bring up.
“…Pickling duck eggs?” The Emperor was incredulous. “Why… why did he suddenly think to do that?”
A noble stayed far from the kitchen; people of this era took pride in never having their hands dampened by menial work, and the miscellaneous status of a cook was extremely low. Fu Shen was an Eldest Lord that had been pampered all his life in an extravagant home, and likely hadn’t ever gone into a kitchen since he had grown big enough. How did he suddenly get the out-there idea to pickle eggs?
He just had to take up pickling, and it was for salted duck eggs… were word of this to get out and people started to call him ‘General Salteggs’, wouldn’t he be ashamed?!
Yan Xiaohan confessed everything, smashing a merely cracked pot. “The villa’s cook is from Jiangnan, while the Marquis grew up in the North; he didn’t know that each and every Jiangnan salted duck egg was made with oil, all pickled.
“According to his words, when he was in the army, the majority of the eggs they had eaten were bitter, or had a stench, half of every ten being oil-free. He had thought that all the salted eggs in the realm were like that… now he knows that the South has a different marinating method, so he wanted to try it out for himself.”
The Emperor felt that to be laughable at first, but after hearing the part about the army, his smile weakened. All that remained was total silence, a tiny bit of unhappiness, and a near-indiscernible amount of guilt.
Yan Xiaohan noticed that he wasn’t talking, as if his mind had wandered. “Your Majesty?” he prompted quietly.
Yuantai slightly closed his eyes, mumbling, “The Marquis of Jing Ning, Fu Jingyuan…”
Long ago, he had watched the young General’s back as he departed the Golden Stage, and the feeling in his heart then was similar to the one in it now. None of them had expected that there would be a day that the Marquis of Jing Ning and Yuantai Emperor would have the ends of their paths go to completely different extremes.
He had gone on ahead, and never looked back.
Yuantai only spoke up a long time afterwards. “Give it a while. When we confer a banquet for the Vast Longevity Festival, have him return.”
Yan Xiaohan lowered and hooded his eyes, covering up the gleam of mockery within them. “Thank you for your immense grace, Your Majesty.”
“There is nothing else going on. You may withdraw.”
Yan Xiaohan saluted him again. Just as he was about to draw back, Yuantai caught him off guard by suddenly calling out to stop him. “Fu Shen’s salted duck eggs… how is their pickling?” he asked distractedly.
Yan Xiaohan stopped in his tracks, pondering this for a bit. “Not keeping anything from Your Majesty, in this subject’s humble opinion, there… isn’t much good about it,” he answered.
The Emperor sat up straight. “Oh? Do tell.”
“He has too much hand strength,” Yan Xiaohan stated calmly. “There was a basket full of duck eggs, still not yet sealed in jars, yet he had already crushed two of them.”
Yuantai finally gave a loud laugh. Yan Xiaohan bowed, then drew out of the Hall.
A warm springtime breeze blew past him, yet there was a thin trace of cold on his back. He walked alone on the dark gray brick of the palace floors. The more he thought, the more he felt the irony of it, ending up at the point where he couldn’t suppress his smile.
The passing maids and eunuchs saw his maniacal look, grinning in a way that made people’s hairs stand on end, and they frightfully gave him a very wide berth, not daring to be close to him out of fear that doing so might set the lunatic off.
Yuantai really was getting on in age nowadays, since he had learned to reminisce and regret.
The Golden Crow Guard had stirred up a mess, unable to put it back into structure themselves, so he had to turn right around and call for Yan Xiaohan to come back. The Emperor had finally realized who was a civil servant of real use. While he was feeling that he had wronged Yan Xiaohan, he was also thinking of Fu Shen again, and then of Yan Xiaohan’s succinct flicker of words. Within the holy, metal-cast heart of Yuantai, a puny spot of guilt had finally arisen.
Perhaps it was because, in his impression, Fu Shen had always been implacable, the times he would concede of his own volition seldom; thus, his departure from the capital to recuperate in peace, and even his behavior in going to the countryside to pickle duck eggs, were seen as rarely-spotted tactfulness to the Emperor. It was for exactly this reason that he could finally bestow mercy upon this disabled General returning to civilian life, even being moved to compassion and granting him a special favor in the form of an opportunity to come back to the capital.
What a truly ridiculous thing, Yan Xiaohan thought with great irreverence. How come you don’t want to think about who forced him to be like this in the first place?
Well, a monarch was a monarch, in the end; the guilt would last only a short moment, but he would forever be unable to let go of his fears. Yan Xiaohan knew that he couldn’t bear to look at Fu Shen, even if his gift for pickling eggs wasn’t excellent.
Luckily, not too many concessions needed to be made. So long as he told him that the egg-pickling wasn’t a success, the Emperor could justify his own fantasies and suspicions in his own opinionated mindset — Fu Shen was mortal, after all. How could he be adept at leading troops and fighting wars, yet off the battlefield, he couldn’t even pickle eggs well?
That stupid logic was laughter-inducing, but it was precisely this sliver of deformed satisfaction that was enough to pry open a crack in the clasp upon clasp of iron shackles on Fu Shen.
In some sort of sense, it could be said that Yan Xiaohan and Fu Shen were a true match made in the Heavens; Fu Shen was a talented military commander, Yan Xiaohan a crafty schemer. The abilities they had for seeking survival in spots of danger, or making a comeback in desperate straits, were simply one and the same.
He walked out of the palace entrance, then a few dozen steps northward, the Flying Dragon Headquarters coming right up before his eyes. Vanishing his smile, he pushed open the door and went in. The crowd seated in a circle in the hall acted like they had all seen some kind of rare event take place, standing up one after the other. “Sir!”
“You’re back, Sir!”
“Thank the Heavens, thank the Earth!”
“Hm? We’re thanking what?” Yan Xiaohan wondered.
The youngest member of the Guard and one in charge of the North Prison in the Department of Punishment, Tang Guo, was a doe-eyed, honest kid. Upon hearing Yan Xiaohan’s question, he promptly sold out his colleagues without a shred of hesitation. “They said that you not coming around these days was because you had been snatched away by a monster that had sucked your vital essence out. Now that you’ve returned safe and sound, it’s natural that we would want to give thanks to the ones above for their protection.”
Saying so, he piously recited, “Namo Amitabha.”
Yan Xiaohan: “…”
It was deathly quiet for a time. With Wei Xuzhou and the rest having suffered a betrayal, they voluntarily and consciously went to stand in a row against the foot of the outer wall, hanging their heads in dejection and not saying a word out of fear.
Yan Xiaohan sneered in annoyance. “Really, now, did the wine from my wedding all get poured into the bellies of a bunch of dogs? I’m going to count to three. You all know what to do.”
After the third count, all the Flying Dragon Guards in the courtyard had uniformly climbed on top of the wall like a line-up of big monkeys, looking miserable as they squatted on the narrow ledge overhead.
This was a mean trick that Yan Xiaohan had come up with after assuming the post of Royal Inspector Envoy. The northern sector wasn’t limited to the governmental office of the Flying Dragon Guard — the six military offices were all along the same street. If anyone at all passed by, they would see the Generals fluttering in the wind atop the wall as soon as they raised their heads.
The joyous laughter of schadenfreude could be heard coming from the other side wall. “Hey, Ol’ Wei, you got hung up on the wall by your Envoy again?”
The coworker-sellout, Tang Guo, lifted his head and watched them in delight for a while, then turned to go back into the building, only to see Yan Xiaohan still standing there. “Where do you think you’re going, Xiao Tang?”
He looked back at him innocently.
“You also had a part. Get up there.”
Tang Guo absolutely didn’t understand this. “Why?” he asked, aggrieved.
“For you to always remember,” Yan Xiaohan responded unfeelingly, “that if you believe in everything that others say, then sooner or later, there won’t even be scraps of bones left for people to swindle.”
The author says: An irresponsible follow-up: After Fu Shen heard about this, he believed that Yan Xiaohan saying that his pickled duck eggs being no good was purely to start a rumor to slander him. As a result, when the first jar of the batch of salted eggs was opened, he didn’t leave a single one for Yan Xiaohan. However, Mister Yan still ended up eating eggs that day. Two of them.
The translator says: Flying Dragon Guard in rumors: scary, unscrupulous, lethal, full of bitey snakes and wolves in sheep’s clothing
Actual FDG: naughty gossip children that have to get put in time-out by Mama Yan
 The Emperor’s nationwide birthday party.
 A Buddhist phrase roughly meaning, in this context, “this was made possible by Amitabha’s name.”