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Duan Guihong hadn’t the bad habit of keeping others in suspense, so he said it outright. “It’s Fu Tingyi.”
That was akin to a heavy hammer falling from the sky and landing down with a bang, smashing the Marquis of Jing Ning into the ground. Fu Shen was completely flabbergasted, forgetting himself as he raised his voice. “Who?”
He suspected that Duan Guihong was deceiving him, or else he had just hallucinated that.
“The Duke of Ying. Your third uncle.” He himself didn’t know why, but Duan Guihong was a bit proud of himself for having finally given Fu Shen a shock. “Didn’t expect that?”
Fu Tingyi was famed in the capital as a useless third Lord, chicken that had flown out of a fenghuang’s nest, middle-aged fop that was engrossed in cultivating to immortality, and man who stepped out of his front gates even less than an unmarried woman did, relying entirely on his birthright to live his whole life without going hungry.
Even Fu Shen couldn’t say that he had any sort of expectations of him in the slightest. Who could’ve anticipated that his handiwork was in that huge case that shocked the capital?
“He… for so many years, him seeking immortality and questioning the Dao was just a facade, and he actually had contact with you in private?”
Despite his total surprise, Fu Shen’s brain still worked well enough. Duan Guihong’s slight guidance was sufficient for him to make rough fill-ins on how things went down. Clear Void Monastery had been quite the prominent name in the capital, and Fu Tingyi had an interest in Dao methodology, so him going in there would naturally not arouse people’s suspicions. The whitedew and smoking paraphernalia Priest Chunyang required could all be handed to Fu Tingyi beforehand, who would then pass it on to him. Being a Priest, him getting into frequent contact with the Southwest was likely to give him away, but for the Duke of Ying’s Estate, it wouldn’t be an issue at all… no wonder Yan Xiaohan and the rest couldn’t find anything out about the source Priest Chunyang had gotten the drug from.
“Your uncle’s been hiding his light in the brush for years,” Duan Guihong answered. “Most of Chunyang’s operations in the capital were by means of his power. My contact with him also happened after you went to Northern Xinjiang.”
Yet Fu Shen had a rare fire roiling in his gut, his face overcast. “Then he should just cultivate his immortality in the brush! Insisting on getting mixed up with this awful stuff – how thick is the lard gunking up his head for him to think that the Duke of Ying’s Estate isn’t declining fast enough?”
“Jingyuan,” Duan Guihong said calmly, “you think the same way as the people in the capital, in that him being able to be here today relies solely on him being born into fortune, right?”
“It is what it is!” Fu Shen fumed. “What can he even do? No one’s stopping him from his immortal cultivation! I just barely managed to pluck the Duke’s Estate out of trouble, and he’s scrambling to go jump into a pit of fire! Is he insane?!”
“What are you blabbering about?” Duan Guihong furrowed his brow. “You don’t understand your third uncle. When his mother delivered him, he was premature, so his health has been poor since childhood. Both his older brothers, fearing that the roughhousing would cause something horrible to happen, didn’t dare allow him to practice martial arts. I’ve met him a few times, and when he was young, he was of slight build and didn’t like to talk much, hiding in his room all day long and never coming out.
Later, Bocun and Zhongyan went to Northern Xinjiang, and he grew up in the capital all alone. He wasn’t particularly good at literature or physical discipline, but he still had those two skillful brothers; and, in the end, they died one after another. Luckily, he had his nephew to carry the heavy load for him.
Jingyuan, you’re used to carrying loads and don’t feel it to be a burden, but as far as your uncle is concerned, that should have been his responsibility. Regardless of how little help he is, he’s your elder, and he’s always felt ashamed that he didn’t protect you properly.”
Fu Shen could vaguely hear a slight melancholic undertone to his voice, and understood in an instant that Duan Guihong’s unspoken guilt was exactly the same as Fu Tingyi’s.
He froze for a second.
He had gotten to this day without relying on anyone and had long been accustomed to facing difficulties up-front, because he knew there was no one to shield him from the wind and rain, so there wouldn’t be any use in hiding from them. Following Fu Tingxin’s death, the age where he could act like a child and seek help from his elders had forever passed. Growing to his current age, even if he was pretending, he still couldn’t act like he’d been emboldened by others’ favor and breezily lower his head and bow, taking himself as a junior in need of looking after.
“Fine, I’ll stop. It’s no use anyways,” he muttered, not very at ease. “How rare. I’m not lacking in people’s adoration, and I’ve gotten so old, yet I’m still getting the soft affection of a hardened man… don’t you hate being overly mushy?”
Duan Guihong: “……”
Thick-skinned, eye-searing dirtbag! What’s there to adore about a guy like this?!
“Turn around and tell him to put a stop to that as soon as possible,” Fu Shen placed a hand on his forehead, forcing himself to switch to a not-so-forceful tone. “I have a plan, and you two don’t need to take personal risks. Have a heart and take pity on your little nephew; don’t distract me from worrying about the Northern Yan Army by being concerned about you two as well, alright?”
Those belonging to the Northern Yan possessed an unusual candidness and sense of identity. That’s why, when Fu Shen spoke to Duan Guihong in the capacity of the Northern Yan’s Commander-in-Chief, he was straightforward and didn’t have the least amount of politeness, despite the County Prince’s rank being higher than his. However, now that he wasn’t talking official business, Fu Shen calling himself ‘little nephew’ made Duan Guihong even more uncomfortable than he was. “Alright,” the man replied dryly.
They were awkwardly silent for a moment. Duan Guihong gave a dry cough, then diverted the subject in order to cover up the unnaturalness. “Have you eaten? If you’re not leaving, then how about we drink a few glasses tonight?”
Fu Shen nodded noncommittally, until he suddenly thought of something. “Prince, the fallnight white…”
“Once a plague spreads out, humanity doesn’t have the power to control it,” Duan Guihong smiled bitterly. “Fallnight white is the same way. Even if I staunch its outflow starting now, what’s already been distributed will constantly multiply, and it’s too late now to even think about nipping it in the bud.”
“Following Jingchu’s investigation, the Court will increase the importance of fallnight white, and I’m guessing that not long after, there’ll be an ordinance issued that bans its private growth amongst the public. What’s been spread out can’t be controlled, but the art of processing whitedew should still be in your grasp, right?”
Duan Guihong nodded, and Fu Shen went on. “I can’t dare to guarantee that there could be a world of peace if you stay your hand from now on, but if you don’t stay it, the world definitely cannot be at peace. I hope you think hard about which one is the right choice, Prince.”
Whitedew hadn’t become the Southwest’s key source of wealth, but it was an expected outcome, and wanting Duan Guihong to snap his own arm off so quickly was unrealistic. Fu Shen didn’t rush him, either, stopping after he’d said as much. The two drank wine for an evening, with Fu Shen getting dragged into Duan Guihong’s chatter about old events in the Northern Yan Army for half the night. His head then dizzily fell upon the bed in the guest room, aware that he had overestimated the level of the old man’s prudishness.
When the sky was the color of twilight, the sound of a thunderstrike suddenly came from outside. Fu Shen had been sleeping deeply, but for some reason, that thunder seemed to go straight from his ears and into his core. He abruptly opened his eyes, his heart beating like mad with no cause at all.
The twenty-ninth of April, in the capital at nightfall.
It was quiet as death in the royal city. Every last palace had its doors shut tight. Several maids and eunuchs shivered with fear, shrunk back into their corners. Only the space in front of the Hall of Mental Cultivation was brightly lit. The Prince of Jin, Sun Yunchun, was donned in armor, a procession consisting of his Estate’s elite army and the Ten Guards of the Southern Office following behind him, and distantly faced off against the Imperial Guards of the Northern Office before the Hall.
Wei Xuzhou had a hand on his long sabre, eyes wide with fury. “This palace is restricted and cannot be entered without the authority of a decree. Is this you staging a revolt, Your Highness?”
Sun Yunchun sneered. “A watchdog dares bark before this Prince? Get out of the way!”
Under the fire’s illumination, General Wei’s features were as hard and cold as iron, but there was a large expanse of cold sweat soaking his back. The Prince led his forces right into the Heaven-Bearing Gate at the head of the Dog, first heading to the East Palace to kill the Crown Prince, then pressing straight on to this Hall. The Southern Office had moved wholly to the Prince of Jin’s side, yet there had been no word of that received in the palace. Wei Xuzhou only found out when they had gotten through Obscure Luck Gate, then hastily brought the Guard to defend the Emperor, finally catching up to bar the Prince’s group here.
The Prince had planned ahead. Facing off against the turncoat Southern Office, the Northern’s numbers that were all they had would not be able to bear with it for very long. Wei Xuzhou wasn’t afraid of fighting, but as he looked on with a cool eye, he felt that at this juncture, the Prince was most likely to succeed.
“Who is outside?”
The door to the Hall slowly opened, an aged and dignified voice resounding throughout the illuminated night. The Yuantai Emperor’s figure presently appeared at the entrance. “What are you going to do, Prince of Jin?”
Sun Yunchun stepped forward. “Crown Prince Sun Yunliang conspired to rebel, his intentions crooked. This servile son sussed his plot out, and, fearing chaos, swiftly led his troops into the palace to protect you. Now that the traitor has since been executed, I have specifically come to inform Father Emperor on it.”
Everyone there with working eyes knew the Crown Prince was merely an unlucky bastard with a tragic death. The Prince of Jin doing so was spectacle enough, yet he actually finished his setup of eloquent bilge without batting an eye.
“Since the traitor’s been put to death, you should now return to your Estate,” the Emperor replied.
The Prince made a gesture behind his back. An official in purple robes immediately came forward, then kowtowed prostrate on the ground. “The Crown Prince had lost his morals, and has since been killed by the Prince of Jin. The country’s foundation is unstable, and to settle the people’s hearts, they hope Your Majesty will observe upon public sentiment and transfer your position to the Prince, in accordance with the expectations of the gods.”
“Cui Jing.” The Emperor shot him a frosty glance. “Where is the Imperial Army?”
“Father Emperor, your servile son advises you not to count on them anymore.” Sun Yunchun’s grin looked especially warped under the ephemeral, flickering shine of the flames, brining to one’s mind a viper flicking out its tongue. “Every Guard of the Southern Office follows this Prince. It doesn’t matter that your confidant, Yan Xiaohan, isn’t here, because even if he was, the Imperial Guard of the Northern Office still wouldn’t have the power to fight.”
He deliberately paused for a moment, then raised his voice. “Tang Prefecture’s army is already on the way to the capital to serve its ruler, so I hope you will make your decision soon, Father Emperor!”
Just as his voice came down, a young eunuch ran in stumbling from outside the palace gate, his hat askew as he gasped for air. “Your Majesty! Your Majesty! The capital’s encampments just sent a report that an army tens of thousands strong is marching straight for the capital! Commandant Wang has brought the Sharp Wind and Fierce Thunder battalions to go and obstruct it!”
The Yuantai Emperor recoiled a step from the strike of this lightning-like news, collapsing in ruin upon an imperial eunuch that supported him.
April thirtieth, outside Northern Yan’s Liangkou Pass.
A queue of carriages from the Zhe clan’s Wuluohou division lined up along the ravine. Spring had come late in the North, and it was still freezing at daybreak. The officer guarding the pass was wrapped in a thick coat, wiping condensed dewdrops from his eyelashes as he yawned. “They’re pretty early this year,” he muttered.
A Zhe member escorting the carriage beamed as he drew near, fished around in his sleeve, and subsequently stuffed a huge pearl into the officer’s hand.
The soldier startled, then didn’t accept it, pushing it back into the other’s hand. “Our General won’t let us take these. Have it back.”
The Zhe’s disturbances had failed the years before, getting put into place several times by the Northern Yan Iron Cavalry, and now they paid tribute to the Great Zhou year after year. The Wuluohou division produced a great amount of eastern pearls, and they routinely gave a tithe of them to the capital once every year in May or June. They had come when it wasn’t quite May this year, and though the Northern Yan soldier in charge of inspecting the yearly tribute felt it a little odd, he didn’t think much of it. He walked up in front of the carriage, then used the tip of his sabre to lift the thatch cloth on top of the trunk. “Open this.”
Several Zhes climbed up on the carriage, smiling apologetically, then untied the rope and lifted the trunk’s lid.
One whistle sends the birds perched in the forest flying scared.
When the box was opened, the inside was not adorned with eastern pearls, but rather swords dazzling with chilling light!
The Zhes who escorted the yearly tribute were all well-trained soldiers. They took the blades out of the trunk and swarmed forward. With a terrifying hacking sound, the Northern Yan soldier who had rejected the pearl now had a bloody gash in his chest, and he fell upside-down into the rising dust.
His frigid, rigid fingers moved with difficulty, drew out a flare from his waist, and shakily pulled at its fuse—
Pop. The Zhe who discovered what he wanted to do returned with a sword, and its sharp tip penetrated his flesh, skewering him through the heart.
Meanwhile, the signal that represented an enemy attack ascended high above, and the explosion of the blood-colored firework gradually diffused within his pupils. His body spasmed, eyes gazing at the sky, and he released a final cold breath from his chest, dead with his eyes open.
On April thirtieth in the twenty-sixth year of Yuantai, during morning court, the Yuantai Emperor Sun Xun ordered an imperial eunuch to read aloud his edict that transferred his position to the Prince of Jin, Sun Yunchun.
On the same day, using the chance of delivering eastern pearls, the Zhe clan’s Wuluohou division launched a sneak attack on the Northern Yan’s garrison at Liangkou Pass. Shortly after, a vast amount of Zhe troops went down South to invade, and the Iron Cavalry urgently moved forces over for rescue. The danger of Northern Xinjiang from seven years ago was repeating once more.
[-] I didn’t want to interrupt the action with notes, so here’s a catch-all for the new location names: Heaven-Bearing is 承天 (chengtian), and it’s pretty literal. Obscure Luck is 玄福 (xuanfu), which is… also pretty literal, though a more specific translation would be “fortune shrouded in the darkness of the unknown”. Liangkou was left in pinyin because it’s real name for several places, and because the characters mean “good mouth/opening”, which, uh. No thanks. Don’t want to localize that.