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Over the century or so since the Great Zhou’s founding, Sun Yunchun had been the unluckiest Emperor in its history, without contest.
On his first day in power, there was no paying respects to the Ancestral Temple nor ceremony held, the civil and military officials hadn’t reacted yet, and he hadn’t even gotten to warm up the dragon throne sitting on it, as he’d received word of an urgent military matter occurring in Northern Xinjiang.
Closely following that, their old neighbors burst out in their entirety like a swarm of wasps.
The Wuluohou division ambushed Liangkou Pass. The Kelie* division allied with the Great Zhou’s Northeastern vassal state of the Baikal nation, and they dispatched forces to attack Ping and Ji Prefectures. The Tartars had taken lessons from last year and returned in a duststorm, even invading Tong, Yu, and other such areas, closing in on the Northern Yan’s western line of defense in Yuan Prefecture. The Iron Cavalry was pinned down on both ends, their battle situation critical.
On the third of May, Ji Prefecture was in a state of emergency.
On the fifth of May, Ji’s capital was captured, and Ping was in a state of emergency. The Northwestern Tong and Yu asked the Northern Yan for aid.
On the twelfth of May, Ping’s capital was captured, and the leading General, the Prince of Su, died in battle. Neighboring Prefectures and Counties were powerless to repel the traitors, and the officials keeping guard had surrendered once they saw the enemy’s shadow. The attacking army was now only a thousand miles apart from the capital. On top of this, the Tang Prefecture army that should have been on the same front of resisting the enemy was presently confronting the capital’s battalion outside of the city, all for the purpose of helping Sun Yunchun’s forced abdication.
On the thirteenth of May, Ning Prefecture’s army defected, and the Northwest’s defensive line was broken.
The Tartar and Zhe clans worked in tandem, pressing on separately towards the capital from the East and West. The Iron Cavalry was squished between the middle, nearly becoming an isolated island. There was chaos in the Court; mustering army supplies and checking on battle prep might as well have been forgotten about, as they hadn’t even fought out the verdict of who the Emperor should actually be.
On the fifteenth of May, Fu Shen had galloped on day and night, and finally caught up to the huge encampment outside of Yan Prefecture’s capital.
The soldier that was guarding camp almost cried when he saw him. Fu Shen had been exhausted from his rushed journey, not even having the strength to lift a hand to comfort him, and casually found a tent to sit down in. “Pour me a cup of water, and whichever General’s in the camp, call him to come see me,” he said curtly.
The soldier left with his orders. Fu Shen availed himself of this permitted free time to close his eyes in rest, stretching his legs as he did so. He’d lost feeling in his calves and below, all of his bones seemed like they were jogging loose, he was coated in dirt, he looked pallid, and a random shake of his sleeve could dust off two taels of grime.
He’d heard while in the Southwest that the Prince of Jin had forced the Emperor’s abdication and seized the throne, but he didn’t have time to be shocked, as he received word of Liangkou Pass’s ambush soon after. Fu Shen was completely unable to sit still then, but Duan Guihong urged him to wait for more news, as it might have just been a routine disturbance. The second Fu Shen heard about the Wuluohou’s use of the opportunity that the delivery of the eastern pearls gave for launching their sneak attack, however, he quickly recalled that box of bloodstained pearls Yu Qiaoting had brought him when he got married that year.
That had been the Zhes sending an undisguised provocation to his door. The barbarians’ evil hearts had never died. They’d premeditated this long ago.
Duan Guihong noticed his anxiousness, and couldn’t help but speak up. “You’re the Northern Yan’s Commander-in-Chief in name, but its military affairs have all been handed off for a while now. The sky’s collapse has a leader to bear it; did you forget what sort of leg injury you got? What’s the use of going back? Are you planning on going to the frontlines and killing the enemy in person?”
“No need to bring up my merely broken legs.” Fu Shen suppressed his fire, face devoid of emotion. “Even if I only had one breath left, I would still get up and crawl back. Those are my fellow soldiers. Prince, whatever weight my late father and uncle have in your heart, my brothers in the Northern Yan have the same to me.”
Duan Guihong paused for an instant. “If you want to go, then do as you will,” he said soon after, “but I will not give a single hair more of care towards the Great Zhou Dynasty. Jingyuan, even if the Northern Yan is in a desperate situation someday, the Southwest will not send troops to assist. Think it over.”
“I didn’t expect that of you to begin with,” Fu Shen said coldly, raising his eyes to glance at him. “You just take good care of your own tiny slice of land, Prince.”
Draped by the stars and moon, he spurred his horse on day and night, lifting his heart up as he rushed back to Northern Yan from the Southwest.
When he passed through the Central Plains, Ping Prefecture had already been captured, and news of the Prince of Su’s death had circulated. He choked on his breath and narrowly fell from his horse, immense grief within him. A tangy, sweet taste was in his throat, then he abruptly coughed out a mouthful of heart’s blood.
Back when Fu Tingxin was entrenched in a heavy siege, dying in battle from exhausting his strength, the Prince of Su never took a wife all his life and requested Ping Prefecture to be granted to him. That was the closest area to the Northern Yan garrison and the border. There had never been a day over these years that he had forgotten about Fu Tingxin.
Now, after many years of being separated by both Heaven and men, they could finally see each other in the springs below.
The blood dripped onto his palm. He closed his eyes firmly, as if he’d been stung.
The Prince’s death stabbed the most guilty, frightened sore spot within him. This road was one where he would be run ragged for his life, and he hadn’t dared to think this whole time of how Yan Xiaohan would react when he learned the news. From the very moment he had decided to go North and not over to Jingchu, he knew that he had cast Yan Xiaohan behind him yet again.
Passing by him in before days, he could have still used the excuse of his feelings being not yet realized, but now that he knows them well, could he still pretend to be free of worries once more? Was the whole family not hungry if only one person ate their fill?
If… he died on Northern Xinjiang’s battlefield just like Fu Tingxin, what would Yan Xiaohan do?
Yu Qiaoting lifted the curtain and entered in a cacophony of noise, rolling up to Fu Shen like a gust and bawling in front of him with a voice full of tears. “My dear General, why have you returned?”
Fu Shen tiredly sat up straight. “Don’t talk crap. Give me the details on the situation.”
Yu Qiaoting wiped off his tears that didn’t at all exist, sitting at his side. “A child having no mother is a long and complicated story…”
Fu Shen listened to the experience of the changes in the palace and the current situation on the field, then lifted a hand to pinch at the space between his brows, letting out a very long sigh.
Yu Qiaoting saw that his complexion was off. “General?” he said hesitantly.
“The timestamp is too accurate,” Fu Shen replied. “The Prince of Jin’s forced abdication at the toe, followed by Liangkou Pass getting ambushed at the heel. Regardless of his bad luck, it wasn’t the cause of that part. He most likely stepped on someone other party’s snare. There’s bound to be someone at his side who’s communicating with a foreign country; first they manufacture civil unrest, then take advantage of the vacancy to invade.
Balhae has always been content with their lot and hasn’t made a fuss in many years, but now they’re going with the Zhes to bring forces to revolt, and they probably only agreed to it with an assured victory in their grasp. Tang’s army is even stranger. Their governor Yang Xu had only just been arrested, yet they were in a real hurry to dump the Crown Prince and throw themselves at the Prince of Jin. Do you think that they’re a bunch of headless flies crashing into each other, or are they purposefully putting on a play to deceive that giant idiot?”
“That’s right. He really is a giant idiot,” Yu Qiaoting endorsed.
Before Fu Shen could scold him, he quickly added, “It’s not only Tang, but Ning’s army has also straight-up rebelled. Now both the Northeast and Northwest defense lines are unguarded, and we’re stuck in the middle. The Wuluohou division looks to have their heart set on delaying the Northern Yan to death. So long as we can’t get away from them, the Kelie and Baikal will go to hit the capital right away.”
“Mn. That’s the Tartars’ plan. They suffered a bloody lesson seven years ago and are afraid to cross blades with the Iron Cavalry directly. If only a portion of their people are set to delay us for a time, then they can bypass us and start out from other areas, which would be way better for them.”
“Basically, from their joint scaffolding, we’ve presently come to a deadlock. We push at one side, and the other will immediately counterattack.”
“Everyone knows the Northern Yan is a steel bastion,” Fu Shen mumbled. “I had handed military authority over Gan and Ning Prefectures back to the Court, but the Emperor still feared that there were links between their old subordinates, and the several Generals that had originally been in them were transferred to posts elsewhere. Northern Yan’s been stable all these years, but the lengthy northern border has gaps in it all over…”
“It’s the Emperor who wanted to isolate Northern Yan first. Without him, the Tartars and Zhes wouldn’t have been able to play this hand.”
That thing they called ‘reaping what you sow’? This was exactly it.
The Yuantai Emperor worried that the Northern Yan Army’s power was too flourishing, worried that the Fu family sat too high, and worried that after a hundred years, his descendants would not be sitting steady on the Emperor’s seat. Hence, he rend the Army into disarray, and made Fu Shen partially disabled.
And the result?
Ning’s army defected on the spot, foreign barbarians were invading on a large scale, he got kicked off the throne by his own son, and said stupid son led a wolf into the house and left the door open for enemies, placing the capital into the claws of predators.
Yu Qiaoting sighed. “How could he have destroyed the Great Wall himself…”
“When I came back from Kui, I saw quite a lot of people taking their families and fleeing southwards. What’s going on in the capital right now?” Fu Shen asked.
Yu Qiaoting lowered his voice, spitting out two words with caution. “Capital relocation.”
“I figured. The capital’s too close to Northern Xinjiang, and it would take merely three to five days’ work to get to its front door. We can’t draw out, and the Prince of Jin only has the Imperial Guards of the Southern Office, which isn’t enough to stuff between the space of your teeth. The capital can’t be defended, so it’d have to be relocated sooner or later.”
“We’ll barricade here. They can still gasp for a few more breaths. Watch what the Prince decides to do, and make preparations in advance to shrink back the troops and break out of the circle.”
Yu Qiaoting thought that he’d end up wanting a bloody battle. “General?” he questioned, astonished.
“The Prince of Jin sure is something,” Fu Shen huffs coldly. “This Marquis is a married man. That’s already no different than giving him a gigantic amount of face, yet he still wants to have me sacrifice my life for him? In his dreams.”
Fu Shen overestimated Sun Yunchun’s luck, though. On the eighteenth of May, the enemy forces reached Miyun, joined up with the Tang army, and the capital’s battalions drew back and defended all the way until Huairou. His Highness the Prince of Jin, the unlucky egg, eventually invoked the masses’ anger, and was killed by the brandished sword of Cao Fengchen, General of the Right Divine Martial Guard. The Northern Office rooted out the Prince’s party like a maelstrom and beheaded the Zhe spy that had been beside him, hanging his head up high on the city’s wall for all to see.
The Yuantai Emperor made a personal visit to the Ancestral Temple, kowtowing with his hair loose and sobbing his report to the place. Shortly after, he ascended to Court, and had an imperial eunuch announce the decree that the capital was going to be shifted to Chang’an. In the afternoon of that same day, the Imperial Guard went lightly-packed as they escorted him out from Blue Heaven Gate and fled into Shu for refuge.
The next day, Fu Shen received a final edict from the Emperor, by way of the Flying Dragon Guard. All it said was six words – “Staying or going depends on thee.”
On the nineteenth of May, the capital was in great chaos. Hundreds of officials and tens of thousands of citizens ran away in a flurry, just about causing a traffic jam.
On the twentieth of May, the battalions’ formation was broken, and they retreated. The deceitful invaders entered the Court.
Jiangnan, Lin’an. Several days ago.
“Father Emperor has already passed the throne to the Prince of Jin…” The Prince of Qi’s hands shook with anger, and he paced around the room a few times. “Come, prepare my horse! This Prince is going to return to the capital at once!” he bellowed.
“Quell your rage, Your Highness,” Yan Xiaohan promptly soothed from where he stood at his side. “You mustn’t be hasty. The Prince of Jin could kill the Crown Prince and force the Emperor to transfer the position to him, so he certainly has an elite army on hand. If you go back now completely unprepared, it would be no different than throwing yourself into the fishing net. How this servant sees it, it would be better to quietly observe for changes and then plan.”
Hot blood had gone to the Prince’s head for only a moment, and he gradually calmed down from being stopped by Yan Xiaohan. “Go and scout for news on the capital,” he told the attendant that had rushed over when he’d heard him. “If anything changes in the palace, tell this Prince straightaway.”
Later on, Yan Xiaohan would think about this many times. If time could flow backwards, he would definitely give himself a big slap in the face and stuff that phrase “quietly observe for change” back into his mouth. Whether the Prince of Qi lived or died was none of his goddamn business. The Princes could go duke it out, and whoever was inclined to the Emperor’s seat would sit on it, so long as he could get back to the capital, back to his General’s side.
Yan Xiaohan had never anticipated that in his quiet observation would come a broken country and withered land, as well as a… prolonged separation.
*I’m honestly guessing that qilie = kelie. Chinese transliteration is inconsistent and not fun.