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After the sick man was delivered to the ancestral hall, peace resumed in Brook Hill. Yan Xiaohan and Fu Shen hazarded the risk of being chased after by the all the village’s dogs, stealthily slipping into a family’s courtyard. They listened in for a long time at the base of a wall, and could more or less piece together the sequence of events here. Reportedly, the ill man had contracted an untreatable malady. Every single villager considered this a bad omen, and would be conducting a sacrificial ceremony for driving away evil at the riverside tomorrow night.
Fu Shen’s waist and back ached, and he was weary and tired on top of that. He narrowly wasn’t able to remain crouching, stumbling forward a bit and getting accepted into Yan Xiaohan’s spread-out arms. He then didn’t have to bother himself with walking at all, as the man carried him straight out of the village. The two spurred their horses back to the city, then asked the server at the inn to bring hot water and food. After eating and cleaning up, General Fu laid down on his back atop the bed to support his waist. Mister Yan sat at the bed’s side in complete obedience and diligence, moving the other man’s legs to rest upon his lap and massaging them for him.
“Do you think that ‘malady’ is a plague?” Fu Shen asked. “If it was one, the villagers are really too calm about it. Once a plague becomes widespread, having only one dead village would be getting off lightly.”
“Covering it up and not reporting it is just human nature.” Yan Xiaohan rolled up the his pantlegs and pressed a few acupoints on his calves. “Think about it. This area’s offcial, even if everything under his jurisdiction is flooded with fallnight white, is unwilling to report so to the Court. Were he to find out that a strange illness suspected to be a plague was repeatedly cropping up in Brook Hill, what would he do?”
Fu Shen’s brows jumped up. “It’d be better to kill by mistake than to let them go free,” Yan Xiaohan continued, “so no matter whether it’s a plague or not, total annihilation would forever prevent future troubles. The villagers all know that if this matter gets out, it’d be difficult for their entire village to escape its death. That’s why they’re firm on keeping it in the dark and not daring to report it to authorities.”
Fu Shen slammed a hand on the bed. “What kind of dog official is that? How does that make sense?!”
Yan Xiaohan smiled and said nothing.
Fu Shen shot him a side glance. “Yo, that’s really weird. How come you’re not acting like a spoiled little brat who makes mountains out of molehills today?”
Yan Xiaohan was able to pinpoint the local official’s line of reasoning, and reckoned that he himself would simply have nowhere to run to. When Fu Shen had spoken like this in the past, he would inevitably be slightly stabbed. This time, though, he seemed to have genuinely laid down years of bad feelings to become magnanimous and open-hearted, with quite a bit of the implication that he’d be unaffected whether he was favored or disgraced.
He smiled lightly. “Would you be able to take it, if I let loose another round of pampering?”
It was like Fu Shen had constructed an inimitably solid city in his heart. He understood that he held all of this man’s love and indulgence, to the point that it made him look down upon all living things in this stretch of the world. Once a person has confidence and assurance, they would naturally raise up their head and puff out their chest, no longer limited to be betwixt success and failure.
“Such conduct–” Fu Shen’s thigh muscles suddenly tensed up. “Hey, where are you putting your hand?”
“Relax,” Yan Xiaohan spoke good-naturedly. “What are you pressing your legs together so tightly for? Part them a bit… I’m not going to do anything else. Aren’t they sore? I’m massaging them for you.”
Fu Shen allowed his frivolity without a word, simply shutting his eyes and permitting him to do what he willed, his eyes unseeing and heart unworried. Within his mind, he slowly sorted through the events that had happened these days. First, the successive homicide cases in the capital, then the decrease in Jingchu’s crop tax, Yan Xiaohan being drugged in Brook Hill, and the influx of fallnight white in Kuangfeng County… the pivotal point of this string of incidents fell entirely upon that previous unheard-of ‘fallnight white’.
The issues that needed to be cleared up now were thus. Firstly, what secret was kept within Brook Hill. Secondly, if there was a correlation between Jingchu’s reduced dues and the disastrous deluge of fallnight white. And thirdly, what channel fallnight white actually got imported to Jingchu through – was it grown naturally or human-made? Was this situation of fallnight white springing up all over the place merely confined to the Jingchu region, or had it already spread out to other areas?
At the beginning, Fu Shen had only had a moment of whimsy where he wanted to covertly accompany Yan Xiaohan to the end of this errand, but against expectations, he ran into an evil plot. Coming across this rotten stuff made it difficult for him to want to stay all the way out of it, and he didn’t know if it was purely his rotten luck, or if he was born to live a life of toil.
He thought and thought, gradually tiring out, and then unwittingly fell into slumber. Yan Xiaohan listened to his breath steadily evening and drawing out, thus softly placed his legs back onto the bed and pulled the blanket up to cover him. Right as he wanted to get up to leave and wash his hands, his back not yet straightened out and his guard not up, Fu Shen came to.
He wasn’t completely awake, still in the fog with his eyes not opened all the way, but he was clearly aware that the other wanted to leave. His hand came out from the blanket, searching. “Where are you going?”
Yan Xiaohan grasped that hand and stuffed it back under the covers, having a bit of a desire to laugh as he softened into complete mush. He stooped over and kissed him between the brows. “Sleep. I’m going to wash my hands,” he replied lightly.
Hearing that, Fu Shen shut his eyes once more, but didn’t fall asleep this time. A short while later, the lit candles in the room were extinguished, the curtains were lowered, and there was the sound of rustling fabric in the darkness, immediately followed by a slight dip in the bed at his side. Yan Xiaohan turned over onto it, his movements very gentle as he gathered the other into his embrace. Fu Shen used the tips of his fingers to hook the back of his hand, eyes still closed, just to catch Yan Xiaohan sighing lightly into his ear. “You wake up with only a gust of wind moving the grass. What an easily damaged mind.”
Body heat and breathing were the best hypnoses. Fu Shen’s drowsiness returned again, currently completely undisturbed by Yan Xiaohan chattering into his ear. He flipped over, placed his hand on Yan Xiaohan’s waist, and patted it twice with not a whole lot of mindfulness. “Go to sleep,” he mumbled.
Yan Xiaohan chuckled, thinking to himself: how could this man be exactly like a child opening their eyes and going to find their mom, even making a fuss when she leaves? He pulled the blanket up high, covering them up to their shoulders. “Mn. I will,” he responded in a low voice.
Early the next day, they traveled to Brook Hill’s backmountain one more time, taking note of a woman by the riverbank who was continuously wiping off her tears. Other women beside her stepped forward to console her one after the other – this was presumably “Tian Cheng’s wife” that had wailed sorrowfully yesterday night. Fu Shen’s vitality was properly tended to today, and he twirled about that fire iron of his in his hands. “Keep your eyes on her. Lend a hand when necessary. Maybe she’ll spill a few facts.”
Yan Xiaohan replies, “Yes, master.”
General Fu’s fire iron nearly flew out of his grip.
When the sun set in the west and tired birds returned to the forest, the villagers who worked in the fields went home one after the other. Yan Xiaohan and Fu Shen stood half-up the mountain’s waist, precisely where they could overlook the entire village.
Just like a repeat scene of that night, a few lamps were lit on the path to the ancestral hall. In turn, each and every family came out carrying lanterns, incrementally forming a strip of lights that snaked along the village’s street and headed right towards the riverside.
Through the glare of the lanterns, a decorated cart could barely be made out amongst the crowd. In it laid a white-clothed person, who could have either been dead or alive. This scenario sent a chill along Yan Xiaohan’s back. It was reminiscent of what he had seen in the ancestral hall that one day; that rather bizarre, funeral-esque procession.
A sudden burst of warmth went through the back of his hand. Fu Shen held it, seemingly blurting something out without thinking. “Don’t be scared.”
That evening, someone had single-handedly broke into the depths of the village, brought him out from a nightmare, and sent him into a tender, pleasant dream.
Yan Xiaohan silently turned his hand over, interlocking their fingers. “Mhm. I’m not.”
Fu Shen sucked in a breath like his teeth hurt. They’d done so very many intimate things, yet he felt soured by this child-like method of hand-holding. However, stemming from some kind of reasoning he wasn’t aware of, he didn’t fling him off. He just allowed Yan Xiaohan to pull him along like so until the villagers arrived at the riverbank, placed the decorated cart on an empty area nearby, then arranged an offering on the ground of gourds and fruit.
An older member of the clan with a graying beard came out of the congregation. First, he solemnly kowtowed three times towards the river rapids, promptly followed by shakily fishing out a yellow paper talisman from within his sleeve, reciting an incantation, then placing the talisman onto a stick of incense and igniting it. When the talisman was turned to flying ashes, he shook a bell in his hand and started to pray aloud. Fu Shen could vaguely hear it; the mantra seemed to be a request for some party’s mercy, enlightenment of sinners, blessing for good weather, and cancelling of a pandemic.
“The current Dynasty has long since eradicated sacrificial offerings to the Count of the River, changing it to libations for the Water Official and Dragon King. Why are these idiot folks daring to fill the river with people?” Fu Shen wondered.
He spoke of the old customs of the previous Dynasty. Before, when coming across bad weather and floods in ordinary times, the citizens all believed that the Count of the River was angry and needed to be given sacrifices, as only then would he be settled. Using livestock like pigs and sheep for offerings was good, but even more so were virgin boys and girls or good-looking young women. Countless, innocent women and children lost their lives in respect to this. At the start of the current Dynasty’s establishment, the Founding Ancestor strictly ordered these customs abolished. Temples to the Count were torn down in all parts of the country, live sacrifices were prohibited, and a new practice was put into place.
Who could’ve thought that today, a century later, that nightmare would reappear, an old event repeating?
Yan Xiaohan placed a hand on him. “Hold on, don’t be hasty. The Count of the River only controlled the weather; I’ve never heard about controlling plagues. Moreover, it’s said that sacrifices in ancient times all had virgin children as targets, and the person on the cart looks like a man. It’s not necessarily a sacrifice to the Count. Let’s quietly keep watch for changes for now, and see what he does next.”
When the old man finished reciting his hymn, two tightly wrapped-up men lifted the person in white off of the cart and tied a large rock to his abdomen. In a split second, a woman standing within the crowd let out a heart-rending, mournful wail, throwing herself towards the two men to fight them in spite of everyone else’s obstruction. “…Let me die! Let me die for him!”
The village head motioned for a few women to come forward and haul her away. The woman was weak all over, lying belly-down on the ground as she cried and cursed, yet every villager acted like they were deaf. The two men lifted up the white-clothed man and threw him into the river’s torrents. Following that was an aged crow of “respects are given to the True Immortal”, and everyone knelt on the ground in unison, piously kowtowing three times towards the river.
Fu Shen’s face was as sunken as water, and with his keen eyesight, he had even caught sight of that man’s arms and legs still unceasingly struggling the moment he was thrown in. “This river converges with that small lake behind the fox immortal’s temple. If we look over there, we might still be able to save him. Let’s go,” he whispered.
However, Yan Xiaohan countered, “With the husband dead, his wife also might not live through the night. I’ll go to the lakeside to dredge him up, you follow her. Just in case there isn’t enough time to save her husband, we need a live witness on hand.”
Fu Shen muttered to himself for an instant. Seeing that not-too-assured look, Yan Xiaohan knew what he was worried about. “Take it easy,” he consoled, “I’m not bad at swimming, if something happens I’ll definitely defend myself first, and it’s not worth it to take a dangerous risk for a stranger.”
“You need to be careful. That sort of unprecedented thunder from last time is something I won’t be able to stop a second.” Fu Shen felt for the small knife in his sleeve that Yan Xiaohan had tried to mutilate himself with prior, and tossed it into his arms. “I’ll bring the woman to the fox immortal’s temple in a bit.”
Yan Xiaohan took the knife, turning it in a trick-like loop around his fingers. He mounted his horse and faced the wind with a smile, his features appearing to glow in the twilit night. “Good. See you there.”
The author says: Glowing in the dark? Mister Yan might be a firefly-turned-spirit, eh? (eatswatermelon.jpg
The translator says: All this talk about plagues and how people react to it is hitting too close to home.