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Does the title refer to laying a truth out bare, or someone laying down naked? Who knows?… read on… (And many thanks to shaya for the ko-fis!)]
To have the Yuantai Emperor entrust him with authority over the Northern Yan Army, not hesitate to make an exception for him to enter the Hall of Exalted Glory, and even have him act as his spokesperson in the Hall to balance out the power of several princes — that was no longer ‘merely’ being put into an important position, it was just about catching up with the ruler’s own family.
“Are you actually the Emperor’s son?” Fu Shen suspected.
Yan Xiaohan started to laugh. “If I was, the Fu family would certainly have two Prince’s Consorts right now,” he deliberately teased.
Yan Xiaohan lifted the pot and refilled his cup of tea, stowing away the joking expression he had. “Do you know who the Emperor trusts most, Jingyuan?”
“Himself,” Fu Shen answered with no hesitation.
Yan Xiaohan had been planning to have a serious, proper in-depth analysis with him, but Fu Shen’s answer ended up making him smile. He could definitely tell that the gray shadow cast in the man’s heart from past events was slowly diluting, and it seemed he could take all these immense issues with a grin when they rose up before him.
“Aside from himself?” Yan Xiaohan questioned.
Fu Shen was genuinely stumped.
The Yuantai Emperor was so severely paranoid, that he didn’t trust generals under him that had military power, nor his blood-related brothers, nor his sons that stared at the throne, nor the literary officials who stood cliqued up together in the dark… after deliberating upon it, he couldn’t think of a single suitable person out of all the military and civil officials of the Court.
Fu Shen quirked his mouth downwards, thinking to himself about how the Emperor was truthfully quite the lonely person.
“In comparison to civil officials, he trusts military leaders more,” Yan Xiaohan said unhurriedly, “and he’s more trusting of one stationed where he can see them as opposed to a general stationed elsewhere. So, he trusts me more than he trusts you.”
Fu Shen made like he was going to hit him. Yan Xiaohan smiled, grabbed his hand, and gently clasped it. “The Flying Dragon Guard and Imperial Guards of the Northern Office have always been his heaviest truncheons. Second comes the five major encampments, because their Commandant, Wang Zhen, stands alone and doesn’t have a clique. The imperial city’s military department is out of the question. Then, there’s the County Prince of Xiping; he’s been silent and keeping to himself these years, which eases the Emperor’s heart about the old official somewhat.”
Naturally, those he had just brought up were people Fu Shen was no stranger to. Hearsay told that there were ‘Four Pillars of the Nation’ – in other words, the current most well-known Generals of the troops guarding all four directions. They were: Commander of the Northern Yan Iron Cavalry Fu Shen, County Prince of Xiping Duan Guihong, East Sea Naval Commander Sa Zhimu, and Commandant of the Capital Encampments Wang Zhen.
[T/N: The capital is in the middle (which is technically a direction, I guess), and ‘Xiping’ means ‘west tranquility’, so that’s where those two directions went to. Also, Wang Zhen’s surname is a different character from Wang Gou’r’s; there’s no relation.]
Wang Zhen had always been low-key, even more so than Duan Guihong — the County Prince’s name wasn’t prominent in the capital because he was far removed from it, and news didn’t travel well. The former was garrisoned at West Mountain, which wasn’t far from the capital, yet for so many years, there was no fuss kicked up from any sort of action he’d taken. A good amount of people only knew of the encampments; as for their Commandant, they’d have to rack their brains for a while to think of his name.
Even so, it was the Northern Yan, five encampments, and Imperial Guards that made up the triple-layer barrier guarding the capital.
“So, what?” Fu Shen asked. “What are you trying to illustrate?”
“Someone who can gain the Emperor’s trust must claim no credit for themselves, stand in no clique, have a low-key presence, and would best be an older official. Can you still not think of them?” Yan Xiaohan happily countered.
Fu Shen gave up. “Tell me.”
“An imperial eunuch.”
Fu Shen’s first reaction was to shift his sight downwards for a glance at Yan Xiaohan’s lower half. “Can’t be. Isn’t it normal?”
Fu Shen realized his own crooked thoughts but a moment later, raising a hand to cover his face in embarrassment. Yan Xiaohan held back his grin, then grabbed the wheelchair’s armrests to haul him over in front of him, their knees facing each other. “Don’t be shy. We’re husband and wife, what’s there to be ashamed of… put your hand down. When are you planning on inspecting whether or not I’m normal, Marquis?” he said with a completely straight face.
“I’m planning on having you try out some corporal punishment first,” Fu Shen seethed out between gritted teeth.
Yan Xiaohan laughed loudly. Fu Shen maintained himself for a bit, but he couldn’t help but do so, too. “…Bunch of bullcrap. What happened to that serious talk? Get back to it for me.”
“Do you remember Duan Linglong?” Yan Xiaohan had laughed enough, still stickily tugging at him and unwilling to let up. “You hadn’t yet entered Court back then, so you had never witnessed the grand spectacle of him single-handedly pulling wool over the people’s eyes. It was why he was said to be etched into the Emperor’s heart, his glory and favor enduring.
Imperial eunuchs have no children, and from the very moment they enter the palace in their youth, the only thing they can rely on is the ruling monarch’s trust and favor. For that reason, Duan Linglong was truly devoted to the Emperor. To say if there was ever a person on Earth that the Emperor trusted with all his heart and soul, it could only be him. There might be no one who’d believe it, but when Duan Linglong passed away, His Majesty actually did shed tears for him.
I was abandoned at the entrance of the Cosmos Witness Temple after I was born. It was a holy place of the imperial family, and everyone inside was a royal concubine that had left home to practice Buddhism, accompanied year-round by only oil lamps and Buddhist statues. Seeing me so pitiful, they had a moment of compassion, and let me stay in the Temple to be raised.
As citizens were not allowed entry there, they guessed that some palace maid might have had an illegitimate child. Worried that she would have no support after the birth, yet unable to heartlessly strangle me death and dispose of me, she consequently brought me to the Temple, leaving my life and death up to luck. Therefore, it’s impossible for me to have any blood of the heavenly family – the Emperor trusting me is purely because my adoptive father is Duan Linglong.”
Fu Shen’s heart tightened as he listened. He hesitated a bit, then lifted his hand and lightly patted the back of Yan Xiaohan’s.
“Duan Linglong had feelings for a nun, and he often went to the Temple in private. He heard that an abandoned baby had been taken in there, and with his own inability to have children, he acknowledged me as his adoptive son. I received his teachings for years, as well as his instruction on martial arts, all the way until I was seventeen, and then he brought me straight into the Imperial Guard.”
In the years prior, people had denounced Yan Xiaohan most on two points. One was that he behaved strangely, and his methods were brutal. The next was that he venerated a eunuch as his foster father, which indicated that he was climbing the social ladder to gain the power to do evil, his intentions wicked.
Despite Fu Shen having paid no mind to rumors about him for a long time now, he currently couldn’t help but sigh with a “so that’s how it is”.
He not-so-gently took Yan Xiaohan into his arms, as he felt that anything he could say would seem inept, a hundred different feelings within him all turning into indescribable distress. He itched to go back in time and hug that still-young little boy, just like this.
Yan Xiaohan allowed his embrace. “Don’t pity me,” he said softly.
“Mn. I don’t,” Fu Shen replied. “Are you not allowing me to pamper you, then? Since I can’t be a Prince’s Consort, you’ll just have to be Madam Marquis of Jing Ning all nice and proper-like, alright?”
Yan Xiaohan smiled soundlessly. “The Emperor had known early on about Duan Linglong and the nun, so he naturally knew of me, too. When Duan Linglong became seriously ill, he made me swear to him before his sickbed that I wouldn’t leave behind an heir in this life, devoting myself to the monarch. After his death, the Emperor promoted me to Royal Inspector Envoy.”
He didn’t have the blood of the royal family, but the Emperor had more or less watched him grow up. His origins determined that he would be outcast from civil officials by definition, and he was the successor that Duan Linglong had personally trained; as a to-the-letter isolated, faithful official with a known background, it was natural that the Emperor dared to so boldly and confidently employ him.
“Why’d you agree to him?” Fu Shen asked. “If you didn’t enter the Flying Dragon Guard, you would’ve still been able to lead a good life. There’s so many roads to take in the world, so why did you insist on picking the hardest one?”
“When the Eastern Tartars besieged the border that year, why did you agree to them and go onto the battlefield?” Yan Xiaohan asked back.
“Was that what I wanted? I was forced.”
Yan Xiaohan went silent for ages before he apparently and resolutely made up his mind, opening his mouth to speak with great difficulty. “There was someone. I might not have been able to ever stand side-by-side with him, but I could still put him in my heart, watch him from a distance, and say a few things to him on occasion, and that’d be just as good.”
Fu Shen didn’t know what he was going to say next, but he had a gut feeling, his heart suddenly pounding madly.
“But, later on, he was forced onto the frontlines of Northern Xinjiang.”
Fu Shen’s mind went blank.
This seemed to be within expectation, yet also completely outside prediction.
“Everyone knew war was dangerous, and that this trip was one with inevitably no return, yet of all the do-nothing bluebloods of the Court, not a one stepped forward and stopped this horrible assignment on his behalf. It was only then that I realized that they were weak and their words meant nothing, and none of them could even dream of being qualified for this.”
He smiled in self-deprecation. “So it’s fine to live in infamy, and it doesn’t matter if I can’t have heirs. So long as I could climb upwards, I could agree to anything.”
“Stop talking…” Fu Shen’s chest rose up and down violently, one hand kept on the other man, his own voice hoarse. “I know, Brother Yan, don’t talk anymore…”
“It’s okay. It’s all in the past.” Yan Xiaohan went to hug him, affectionately petting his tensed back. “I’m merely catching you up right now. It goes without saying that this has all been me willfully going down my own path, and you don’t need to have pity on me or feel burdened. Being able to reach this step today is proof that I hadn’t made the wrong choice back then.”
“If I had known earlier…”
Yan Xiaohan imagined that scene for a second. “If you had known, you might’ve gathered up a bunch of dandies to come beat me to death on the spot, yeah?”
In their brief encounter and fleeting glances at the city gate years before, he had casually tossed him a twin lotus, yet that drew in lifelong sweetness and craving.
Their shared tribulation under the cliff face, their unforeseen quarrels, ruptures, reconciliations… for seven years they kept their distance, yet there was no place they weren’t mutually present at. They walked towards each other from distant, opposing ends, and though the road stretched long, they were finally able to meet up. He used to believe that it’d be hard to even hope that they could stand shoulder-to-shoulder, but now, it had come to be within reach.
“When you went to battle, there was nothing I could do.” Yan Xiaohan’s tone was consolatory. “Fortunately, I became the Royal Inspector Envoy afterwards, and when the Emperor was sanctioning a marriage for you, the very first person he considered was me. You see, this is what’s called ‘if there’s a will, there’s a way to crack open even metal and stone’.”
“……” Fu Shen couldn’t stop himself from being blunt. “What if he hadn’t sanctioned it?”
Yan Xiaohan looked at him, then smiled. “I’m not a big-hearted gentleman like you, Marquis. Since I had done everything I could to take the Envoy position, even if the Emperor didn’t allow it, I’d set about stealing you back. If the Court lackey isn’t maiming the loyalist, how could I then be worthy of the gossiping masses of the world?”
Fu Shen knew he was talking nonsense the second he heard this, but his heart still hurt. He raised a hand and struck the other on the back. “Putting on a happy face for no reason – why’re you so bullheaded.”
“With one look at you, I could wait for no one else for the rest of my life,” Yan Xiaohan said leisurely. “I would use any means at all.”
None of Fu Shen’s words were spoken aloud, all harbored within his tender gaze as he smiled.
Supposing that the Yuantai Emperor hadn’t sanctioned the marriage, Yan Xiaohan probably wouldn’t do something as drastic as kidnapping the Marquis of Jing Ning. Maybe he would go on pretending that they were fire and water, appearing like strangers.
One look, and he could wait for no one else. Fu Shen could hold him up for his entire life, but he wouldn’t hold up Fu Shen’s life.
“Okay, now.” Yan Xiaohan let him go, but right as he went to withdraw, his figure suddenly faltered as someone grabbed his collar out of nowhere.
“I’m really sorry for holding you up all your life,” Fu Shen spoke confidently, leaning back relaxed as his lips tilted up at the corners. “Come on. You can come back from your waiting, now.”
———FIRST VOLUME COMPLETE———
The author says: Arrived at the city’s edge.
The translator says: No one is nakey. I have SWINDLED you all
Hope all of you are keeping sane and safe during this pandemic. (Edit 6-27: Haha! Oh man! I had no idea.)
 The truncheons (锏) in question are pretty wild looking. Sometimes they’re just blunt swords, other times they look like a damn metal spine.
 万象 – wan xiang, lit. “ten thousand forms”. This is a Buddhist term referring to the ‘infinite scenes of nature that can be seen within the universe’.