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Having not seen it for a few days, the fox immortal’s temple remained standing tall on its original tiny mountain slope, only even more derelict, like a stack of ruins in the dim night. The river flowed right into the expansive waters behind the mountain.
There was no wind or rain this evening, the moonlight bright. The shore of the lake held cragged rocks, and its water was deep and without ripples, an unspeakably eerie coldness permeating it. Yan Xiaohan dismounted his horse, then stood for a long time beside the lake, staring at the deep blue water half-consciously. Only at that moment did he finally think of what had been so off about this place.
It’d been coming down hard that night, and they hadn’t gotten close to the lake for a careful look. Yan Xiaohan and the Prince of Qi’s party were all northerners who weren’t very familiar with the southern landscape, so they hadn’t been aware of the abnormality; the lake was in the wilderness and had an active input of water, yet not a single blade of grass grew along its edge. There were no reeds or aqueous plants, nor water fowl perching, and even fish and shrimp were seldom. The entire lake looked to be a pool of dead water without the littlest bit of liveliness.
Linking up an association with the villager’s actions from tonight, Yan Xiaohan abruptly conjured up an awful premonition.
Not long after, the crashing of water was heard from within the river. Yan Xiaohan focused in on it, and, as expected, there was a white shadow floating deep in the river’s heart.
Brook Hill’s residences faced the water, and all the villagers were excellent at swimming. Perhaps due to his wife running up and hampering things partway, the stone on the man’s body wasn’t tied tightly; it had loosened a bit after entering the water, making it so that he didn’t sink to the bottom even now, drifting along the current to the lake’s edge while relying on a sole breath.
Yan Xiaohan took off his outer robe, lightly dressed as he dove in the water, and used all his strength to swim to the middle of the river. He cut the several strips of hemp rope open with the spot of silver edge at his fingertips, allowing the hunk of rock to drag the cord with it as it dropped to the riverbed, then stunned the man who was still struggling recklessly with a punch, grabbed him, and floated up to the water’s surface, swimming towards the shoreline.
He saved him just in time. Though the man was choking on water, he was still breathing, in any case. Yan Xiaohan tossed him onto the shore. After a moment of observation telling him that he could only spit up water and didn’t have the strength to run away, he turned around and submerged into the water anew, wading towards the lake that wasn’t far off.
The dusk above the surface was already deep, and it was even more murky within the lake water. Yan Xiaohan could only see about a chi around himself. He dove down with held breath, sensing the flowing rhythm of when the river converged into the lake, and continued on to explore around the depths of the lake’s core.
He swam and swam, then felt that he’d seemingly ran into something. He originally believed it to be a fish, but later, the thing kept repeatedly jabbing him from behind. He reached back and grabbed it; it was soft and slippery to the touch, and upon pulling it close for a look, white as a portion of lotus root, with a bifurcation at the end–
It was a human hand.
Coming to be hand-in-hand with a tenant of the lakebed, Mister Yan almost didn’t immediately break away from it, narrowly thinking that his withdrawal was recurring and hallucinations were cropping up again. He spat out a string of bubbles, feeling like he’d just suffered a shock. The air in his mouth wasn’t at all enough to sustain him meeting the next wave of fright, so he decisively turned tail, kicking his legs and swerving around to swim upwards.
A minute later, a large blooming pattern emerged on the lake’s surface. Yan Xiaohan broke through it, and just as he’d taken a deep breath, he heard spates of hoofbeats coming to the shore.
Fu Shen didn’t wait until he came to a steady halt before leaping off the horse’s back, making quick steps towards the lake. “Meng’gui!”
Yan Xiaohan waved a hand at him, indicating that he was fine, then swam from the lake back to the river, rinsing himself over and over again in its clear water. He didn’t have mysophobia, but anyone who’d been flopping about in corpse-water for such a long time would inevitably feel disturbed. Fu Shen followed him from the lakeside to wind around to the riverside, then went and pulled the drenched Yan Xiaohan out, snatching his outer robe and draping it over his head. “What are you floundering around so much for?”
Yan Xiaohan grabbed his hand and refused to let go. “I’m not telling, otherwise you definitely wouldn’t let me touch you.”
Fu Shen sneered in objection. “You’re a public nuisance.”
The wind was strong at the edge of the water. Yan Xiaohan was soaked from head to toe as well as getting blown on by the breeze, and paired with that scene from just now, he couldn’t keep from shuddering with his hair standing on end. At witnessing this, Fu Shen went to take off his own outer robe and give it to him. Unexpectedly, Yan Xiaohan kept a firm grip on him and wasn’t letting up. Fu Shen struggled to get free for a moment, and failed. “Still not letting go?” he asked, exasperated.
“No.” Yan Xiaohan shivered, smiling as he always did. “I’m very scared. I need the Marquis to hold me.”
Fu Shen looked at this trembling ‘little dear’ in a way that couldn’t be succinctly described. “Why couldn’t you have just gotten scared to death?”
Even though he’d said that, he still lifted his arms to embrace Yan Xiaohan with, using his own body to shield him from the wind. The two departed the lake’s shore attached at the hip, then took a look at the tied-up horse. On its back laid an unconscious woman in plain clothes. Yan Xiaohan glanced at the man he had dazed and turned his face away, pretending that he hadn’t discovered that they had exactly the same kind of harshness. “Shall we move them to the temple?” he suggested.
They carried one person each into the building. Fu Shen found some broken logs in the backyard and set up a campfire, pushing Yan Xiaohan to sit before it to bake dry. Yan Xiaohan told the other man a bit of what he’d seen at the lakebed, originally intending to scare him, but to his surprise, Fu Shen could take a lot more than he could, and had merely furrowed his brow upon hearing that. “According to the villager’s actions and customs, there’s probably not just one corpse at the bottom. How many people are there in the village for them to be able to throw so many away?”
“It hasn’t been going on for too long,” Yan Xiaohan replied. “I’m guessing that it might have been right around the same time whitedew spread in the capital.”
“Elaborate on that a bit.”
“First, Priest Chunyang entering the capital and taking up residence in Clear Void Monastery was approximately three and a half years ago – in other words, the end of the twenty-second year of Yuantai. Second, the decrease in Jingchu’s grains tax. This debt should have been put in order last year, but it got dragged out all the way until this spring. If agriculture fell due to a flood of fallnight white, then it had shown up here at least prior to autumn of the twenty-fifth year of Yuantai.”
“What’s the relationship between fallnight white and the crop tax? That second part is quite a bit arbitrary.”
“Though Jingchu isn’t the same grade of wealthy and important as areas like the two Jiangs are, it’s still a fertile land. There was no flood, drought, or disaster last year, nor a human-made event or battle, yet the grains tax went down by twenty percent for no reason. That defies common logic,” Yan Xiaohan explained to him. “You witnessed it in Kuangfeng County, too. Fallnight white is easy to get addicted to, and the price is also weirdly high. The addicts frequently fell into destitution and were riddled with disease. Might that not cause a subset of farmers to go bankrupt?
Furthermore, fallnight white has quick, large gains in and of itself. Provided that someone among them turned profits, each and every family would follow in kind, switching over to growing fallnight white instead of food crops, which invokes today’s situation. This idea is also simple to validate, if you cared to. We’ll go for a tour outside Jing Prefecture some other day and take a look at what’s ultimately being grown in the fields.”
Fu Shen nodded, hinting that he’d understood and to keep talking.
“Third, the time whitedew showed up in the capital was around fall or winter of last year, according to Yi Siming’s statement. That was right after you getting injured at Blue Sand Pass and His Majesty sanctioning the two of us a marriage. Priest Chunyang had holed up in the capital for several years, not making a move all that time. It just so happened that the South had obtained verification of fallnight white’s drug qualities, so he brought it into the capital in order to take revenge for you.”
He paused for a minute before summing things up. “Based on the clues we’ve found thus far, fallnight white spread first in the South, after which Priest Chunyang brought it into the capital. There should be no objection to that point.”
“You’re taking things for granted again. Going along with your opinion, fallnight white has existed for a long time, but someone hid it and sealed it away, refusing to take it out. Only later, on account of getting some kind of opportunity, did it expand throughout the Jingchu region, and then Priest Chunyang took some to go bring harm to others – since fallnight white is so profitable, why didn’t he bring it out earlier to earn himself heaps of cash? Why’d he insist on being so principled, only willing to put it to use when I got hurt?”
“I’m not taking things for granted.” Yan Xiaohan shook his head. “Don’t forget we deduced the identity of the person behind the scenes back then, Jingyuan,” he reminded.
Grasping a weapon for killing, yet being unable to bear using it. Applying that to someone else might be weird, but what if the other party was the Northern Yan Iron Cavalry?
If it wasn’t for a deep enmity and the limit of one’s tolerance, how could they turn the butchering blade that was pointed out towards the enemy around, and take aim at the realm they had used their flesh and blood bodies to defend?
Fu Shen might not be able to set off a turncoat strike up from now ’til his death, but it was a real possibility for the Iron Cavalry’s old crew.
Yan Xiaohan surmised that this was definitely hard for the other’s heart to take, and he put out an arm to hold him by the shoulders. Fu Shen pondered things for a moment. “There’s still something else I don’t understand; if fallnight white appeared in the South earlier than it did in the North, then that opportunity wouldn’t have been my injury, but some other event before that.”
In truth, that was a question. Yan Xiaohan frowned, mumbling. “Summer of last year… what influence was there that would effect the South?”
They looked into each other’s eyes, a well-remembered occasion simultaneously flashing in their minds.
Yan Xiaohan started, “June last year, we had a quarrel in morning Court and His Majesty forfeited half a year’s salary from us each.”
Fu Shen picked up, “That was because the Court wanted to dispatch Military Supervisor Envoys to all four borders, and someone boot-licked, saying that was most suitable for your Flying Dragon Guard.”
All those past events seemed like they were a lifetime ago.
Who would’ve ever thought that pair of foes from way back when, who made a godawful racket in the Court hall and couldn’t wait to use their hu tablets to beat the other on his dog head, would today be cooing sweet nothings as they snuggled up in front of a fire within a damaged temple?
Clearly, the ways of the world were truly difficult to anticipate. Live long enough and one would see all sorts of miracles.
“The Emperor’s notion to contain the military power of the four sides didn’t appear in a few days time,” Yan Xiaohan said. “That inquiry in the summer had been refuted by you being a non-stop nag, and the trip failed to be made. Since the matter was brought up in morning Court, though, it was no different from plainly informing the world that he wanted the higher-ups of the four sides’ garrisoned armies to clamp their tail down and behave.
Fu Shen was not happy at all. “Hey. What was that you said? Who’s a non-stop nag?”
His change in subject broke Yan Xiaohan’s line of thought, who found it both hilarious and awkward. “You’re not admitting to it? You were actually talking reason. The Emperor’s original intent was to send Military Supervisor Envoys from the Central Pivot over to all parts of the land, but with nothing more than a passing mention of the words ‘Flying Dragon Guard’, you latched on tight to that and didn’t let go, and started to pick at my shortcomings. Is that not what’s called ‘a non-stop nag’?”
Yan Xiaohan luckily made several improvisations on that very day. At the time, he intentionally drew the subject to the age-old “why is this pack of Flying Dragon Guard dogs wanting to maul the loyalist again??”, allowing this matter to be left open-ended in the farce. Who knew that the Marquis of Jing Ning would turn his face around like one would turn a page, and wouldn’t admit to it for anything now?!
Fu Shen nodded at him, a sheep in wolf’s clothing. “To be an accomplice to a tiger is to be a good-for-nothing.”
“To kill a mule when it’s no longer useful is to be worse than a wild beast,” Yan Xiaohan returned with ridicule.
The two about to get into a row right before the eyes, a subtle groan suddenly came from behind them. Turning their heads around at the same time, they saw that the woman they had thrown into the corner like a worn-out sack had was moving her fingers slightly, slowly coming to.
The author says: See the section in chapter
3 4 for early-rule mutual rows.
The translator says: Wow… a lake of corpse tea…