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Thanks to Yan Xiaohan (hmmm) for the ko-fi!]
A thin horse strolled down the official road leading from north Jing to Kui Prefecture, neither urgently nor slowly. The man on top of it donned a conical hat that shielded him from the sun, viewing the scenery boredly as he threw crunchy, aromatic, tasty sesame cookies into his mouth.
Not too long after, the bottom of the cookie bag was visible. He got a canteen out from his waist-pouch, took a few large glugs, then tsked in distaste. “So damn salty, what the hell.”
That’s Fu Shen.
He and Yan Xiaohan had parted ways outside of Jing Prefecture’s capital a few days ago, but after getting two li away, he had deliberately retraced his steps solely to tease somebody at the rest stop’s entry gate. When he bought the osmanthus candy, he happened to see that there were sesame cookies nearby, so he bought a bag of them on impulse, intending to use them as a snack for the road.
Now that he thought about it, he didn’t have a sweet tooth at all. He’d gone several months without ever looking for a piece of sweets to eat, and him buying the cookies was purely because the candy’s scent had muddled his brains at the time.
Going from Jing to the central Southwest area of Kui wasn’t far at all and only required three days of fast riding, but it took Fu Shen six to traverse. He hadn’t unhurriedly roamed the world without a worry or a care in many years. Though still young, he’d been like a duck driven into a tree for the smaller part of his life; endlessly busy, and fighting and killing amidst shouts. There was no need to say anything about getting a delicate wife, beautiful concubines, high post, or generous salary; he didn’t even get to come back home a few times a year.
This visit to Jing Prefecture had changed Yan Xiaohan and he a lot. Perhaps he finally found faith in someone else and a sense of belonging, and understood that in this endless mortal coil, he wasn’t walking all by himself.
Sometimes, within the bars and teahouses of roadside towns, he would hear some news of Jing, such as the aftermath of the Brook Hill investigation, and authorities sending people to dredge up a dozen or so bodies from the lake. Some said there were no fish or bugs living in it, only a type of water plant that grew like mad from the carcasses’ nutrients, firmly wound around the dead bones and swaying in the water, like a corpse forest with no daylight in sight.
Others said that the royal envoy from the capital had come across heavy rain on their journey and had lodged for the night in the fox immortal’s temple. Suddenly, a little fox entered their dreams, speaking human tongue and telling the tale of an injustice. The envoy felt a huge sense of mysticality after awakening, then went searching in Brook Hill according to what the fox said, uncovering a major crime.
Fu Shen laughed to himself, thinking: isn’t ‘what the fox says’ just a bunch of gibberish?
Some Mr. Storyteller in Jing’s capital probably noticed the temple by the lake, made an irrelevant association, and randomly cooked all that up.
‘Mr. Storyteller’ Yan Xiaohan, who couldn’t stop reminiscing, turned his head to the side and sneezed. The tip of his brush jolted, leaving an ink blot on the snowy white loose leaf, his half-written account now thoroughly ruined.
He threw the imperial memorial away and switched it out for a new sheet. Jing’s magistrate had acted quickly, and the case was investigated in more or less six days. The oral statements, testimonies, evidence, and other such things would be made into a dossier and passed on to be presented to the Ministry of Justice for judgment, and would arrive at the capital in about two days. He concealed the segment about Fu Shen in the account, only mentioning that they had nearly been struck by lightning at the temple and thus erroneously entered Brook Hill by a chance coincidence. Yan Xiaohan had heard the temple’s folklore and suspected that some sort of spirit had given them guidance, hence he went back to Brook Hill to scout around after seeing the Prince of Qi off. Though fallnight white had gotten in him, he was still fortunate to escape and live another day. In short, it was entirely owing to heaven’s blessing that they were able to successfully ascertain the truth and execute those evil, scheming murderers.
Sir Yan finished writing his gibberish with a straight face and had a subordinate take the account to the capital. The Prince of Qi should also be submitting his own memorial over where he was, but due to the Royal Inspector Envoy having the authority to pass things directly to the Emperor, the two weren’t going the same path, and Yan Xiaohan wasn’t going to make more inquiries after it.
He walked over to the front of the window, gazing at the fully shaded trees outside, and slowly let out a long breath. Feeling his hands trembling again, he took a candy from the pouch and pressed it onto the tip of his tongue.
The sweet fragrance of osmanthus diffused outward. It was likely from being subjected to the withdrawal’s influence, but he felt that he had never missed someone so much before, the longing making his heart ache.
They had only been apart for six days.
Fu Shen’s outstanding foresight once again revealed itself. Yan Xiaohan’s cravings had not yet been completely expunged; they weren’t serious, but with Fu Shen gone, he had nothing to depend on, and his flare-ups abruptly became hard to handle when they happened. Thankfully, that bag of osmanthus candy could be considered a little bit of comfort left behind for him. He got into the habit of using sugar to protect against the withdrawal, but for someone whose body had eaten something of true substance and knew of its taste, it was no different than throwing a cup of water on a raging bonfire. With the combination of mental and physical pain, he sometimes wished he could straight-up dump the Prince and give chase to the Southwest alone.
All he hoped was the case here in Jing Prefecture would be wrapped up a bit sooner, and that when he returned to the capital, he might be able to find an assignment that would take him for a trip southwest.
A great idea, but cruel reality told him: yeah, right.
Not even two days later, a special messenger from the capital rushed to Jing with an imperial edict. First, the prefectural magistrate, county magistrate, and bulk of the officials were to have their black hats removed and await their punishments. Then, the several Brook Hill criminals were commanded to be sent to the capital under armed escort. For last, there was a further exclusive decree for the Prince of Qi and Yan Xiaohan.
Whitedew had repeatedly cropped up since March, leading to miserable tragedies – first in the capital, then in Jing. As early as the Golden Crow Guard case, Yan Xiaohan had put in his reports a request for the Emperor to order every area to do a tight investigation of whitedew in order to avoid future calamity, but he hadn’t expected his word to become prophetic.
The Yuantai Emperor’s illness had not made him unclear on fallnight white’s abundance already getting to the extent that it had influenced Jingchu’s crop tax. To the east of Jingchu was the district of Huguang and the two Jiangs, crop havens of the realm and wealthy, important areas. Were they continued to be left unwatched, he feared they would be hard-pressed to escape these evil machinations. For that reason, he made another edict that ordered the two to not return to the capital after their assignment was finished. They were instead to go East along the Yangtze River, patrol the Jiangnan region, and be sure to eliminate the potential danger of fallnight white; they were allowed power stemming from the crisis, and should act first, report later.
Like a lightning bolt coming out of nowhere and flashing through the air, loudly crashing downwards, Mister Yan’s shattered dreams and tears drifted and died in Jing Prefecture’s warm spring wind.
Southwest, in Kui Prefecture.
Fu Shen leisurely rode his thin horse into the city. Mostly Han resided there, alongside Miao, Bai, and other such ethnicities, the aesthetic and atmosphere significantly different from that of the Central Plains. Fu Shen had originally thought up a multitude of methods he would use to meet the Xiping County Prince, but when he got to the gate of his Estate, he threw every last one of his various ideas to the back of his mind and swaggered toward the gatekeeper, keeping his hat on with a hand as he slightly bowed his head. “I must trouble you with a request, as this humble one wishes to meet with the County Prince.”
What they say is true; even a Prime Minister becomes a seventh-rank official before someone’s doorstep. The porter of the Estate wasn’t as stuck-up as the watchdogs in the capital, but Fu Shen looked a pauper from head to toe, and from covering his face with a conical hat, he didn’t seem like someone with the rank to communicate with their Master. The man looked up disinterestedly, holding out a hand. “Nameplate.”
Fu Shen had many dealings with this servant type. He took out a piece of silver from his coinpurse and placed it into the gatekeeper’s rough palm, smiling. “I don’t have a nameplate. Just say that Northern Yan Medic Du Leng is paying a visit.”
A bit of joy flitted past the man’s face as he weighted the silver in his palm. His bearing was no less arrogant, but his tone of voice lightened up. “Wait here a moment, I’ll go in to notify the Prince.”
Shortly after, he came out with a taut expression. He didn’t even dare to so much as let loose a fart this time around, inviting Fu Shen inside with a nod and a bow, and lead him to the receiving hall on the west side of the main courtyard.
There was someone already waiting for him in the room. County Prince Duan Guihong was presently nearing year of his end, but he had taken good care of himself. His figure was slender and stalwart, his looks still as they were from the prime of his life. He kept his eyes trained on this black-clothed man in the conical hat, his sword-like brows pinching together a smidge. “Who are you?” he asked, suspicious.
Fu Shen took off the hat, revealing his face, and smiled politely and sincerely at him. “Please don’t blame me for taking the liberty to disturb you, Prince.”
Duan Guihong: “……”
He was stunned at first, quickly after which he promptly dismissed all the servants and shut the doors and windows up tight, his brows nearly tangled into a tight knot. “For you to suddenly grace my humble home, General Fu, could there be something you wish to advise me about?”
“No advice here.” Fu Shen pulled out a chair and sat down. “No need for such unfamiliarity, Prince. You’re my elder, you can call me by my courtesy.”
Duan Guihong’s sight shifted downward, staring dead at his legs. “You… Jingyuan, you’re not recuperating from your injury in the capital? Why did you come to the Southwest?”
Fu Shen lifted his robes aside to show him his boots. “It’s good enough now,” he replied without a care. “As for why I showed up here… shouldn’t you be even clearer on that than me?”
The light in Duan Guihong’s eyes cooled down. His entire form emanated understated prestige, and up against Fu Shen, there wasn’t a fraction of yielding between the two. “What are you talking about?” he asked coldly.
“Oh, that’s not right. You should have only known that I was in Jing Prefecture.” Fu Shen clapped his thigh once. “Just look at this memory of mine. I only let Du Leng know that I was going to Jing to find Yan Xiaohan, but I forgot to tell him that I was also going to take a trip to Kui while I was at it.”
He smiled lightly. “Why, you don’t seem too eager to meet this humble one, Prince?”
Duan Guihong was quiet for a short time. He had apparently abandoned his sham civility with him. “When did you find out?” he questioned bluntly.
The smile on Fu Shen’s face did not change, yet there was no smile in his eyes at all, his voice even carrying a trace of chill that wasn’t easy to detect. “I found out quite a lot. Which subject are you referring to? Was it assigning Du Leng to my side, or dispatching Priest Chunyang to the Vast Longevity Feast to assassinate the Emperor?
…Or, deliberately spreading fallnight white throughout Jingchu, intending to knock the chessboard over and throw the Jiangnan region into complete disorder?”
Each of his words was a knife that stabbed straight into the bottom line of Duan Guihong’s silent tolerance.
The Prince had lead troops for many years, his temperament serious and staunch. Though he’d practiced a bit of self-restraint in asceticism these years and that was being allocated towards whoever, Fu Shen was seemingly completely unaware of all this, mindlessly pulling the old tiger’s whiskers.
Duan Guihong bit down on his back molars. “Fu Shen, are you not afraid… that you won’t be able to go back out the front gate today?”
“Well, isn’t that a coincidence? I also wasn’t planning on leaving today,” Fu Shen responded with total confidence. “I came to Kui Prefecture on my lonesome and my traveling funds aren’t much, so I was just worrying about if there’d be somewhere for me to stay. I intended on lending your illustrious Estate to spend a few nights in, though I’m unsure if you’d allow that, Prince?”
He made Duan Guihong choke on what he was going to say. Even if Fu Shen hadn’t come with hostility, he still felt himself to be on the verge of snapping. Straightening out his anger with immense difficulty, he tried to converse with tranquility. “Since you know of these matters, you should also understand that I’m not going to bring any harm unto you.”
“Naturally. I wouldn’t show up here today, otherwise.”
Duan Guihong’s expression loosened up a bit, and he went to sit down opposite of him. “What I’ve done, compared to what the Emperor has done to the Iron Cavalry, is but a single hair from nine cows.”
“The head Commander of the Northern Yan is seated right in front of you,” Fu Shen replied icily. “I might be lame, but I’m not yet dead. You want to take revenge for the army, Prince, but did you ask me for my opinion?”
 Untranslatable pun; 狐狸说 (húlishuō, lit. fox talk) played off of 胡说 (húshuō, lit. garbage talk). And, yeah, the reference I made in its place was on purpose.