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The two continuously made trouble, being sickeningly sweet on each other, and bathed for more than half a shichen. Yan Xiaohan deliberately used a cheap trick on Fu Shen to fling his entire body into the water, and the latter really had no option but to swap his clothes out. They left after things were successfully tidied up, crossing Yu Qiaoting’s path in the courtyard.
General Yu’s line of sight swerved between them. He keenly detected something right away, grinning grossly. “I give my sincere congratulations to you for the great happiness, General!”
“What am I happy over?” Fu Shen said, for some reason.
Yu Qiaoting snickered. “A husband and wife that spend a little time apart are like newlyweds again once they meet back up. Is that not worthy of a congrats?”
Fu Shen’s head swelled up to twice its size from the aggrievance. Right when he was about to retort, Yan Xiaohan suddenly stepped up from behind him and struck first. “You must be joking, General Yu. At present, the war is not yet settled and the Central Plains is disputed. As subjects, we are exhausting our minds and worrying about the nation’s trials. How could we indulge in romance, forgetting our roles as loyal noblemen who love their country?”
Yu Qiaoting absolutely could not believe the words that had fallen out of Yan Xiaohan’s mouth and dropped audibly onto the ground. Face full of disorientation, he looked towards Fu Shen, but he only saw that their General was gazing evenly at the man, his expression natural and serene with tenderness and indulgence rapidly dripping out of all the corners of his face.
Yu Qiaoting: “……”
So, you two were shut up in that room – behind everyone’s back – for so long… discussing how to sort out the old country and rescue the countless citizens who were in the middle of disaster? Pardon my disrespect, really.
Not only did Yan Xiaohan talk crap with a straight face, but after he finished speaking, he gave Yu Qiaoting a skeptical, disapproving look brimming with the phrase “you’re a beast”, and majestically cleared out with his face unflushed and heart unhurried.
Yu Qiaoting had inexplicably shrunk by three cun in his eyes. Fu Shen didn’t hate watching the show, taking joy in his calamity. “Made to fall short and thwarted, eh? Serves you right.”
Yan Xiaohan was worthy of being the unsurpassed brown-noser of the Yuantai and Changzhi Courts; it hadn’t even been half a day, and the feelings Fu Shen and Yu Qiaoting had as comrades were now in peril!
In the evening, Yan Xiaohan shared a meal with several high-ranking Northern Yan officers. All of them implicitly knew to overlook his identity as the new Dynasty’s Military Inspector Envoy and solely regarded him as Fu Shen’s wife, the meal being in seldom-seen harmony. After eating the simple welcoming feast, Fu Shen followed his typical routine of going to patrol every area of the encampment. This originally required only one deputy general to come with him, but tonight, it seemed that each and every Northern Yan soldier was cultivating in shut-up meditation. Upon noticing, Yan Xiaohan knew that this was how they all were giving him face, and he took it upon himself to go along with it. “Since that’s the case, I’ll go with the General on this trip, yes?”
Fu Shen gave a fake smile. “Aren’t you shrewd.”
Yu Qiaoting had accompanied them in ascending to the Golden Stage during their marriage, and he was naturally well aware of their business. Even if many Generals hadn’t known so to begin with, they heard of what happened at the riverbank today, and invariably understood that the two’s well-acted stageplay had mutually developed into real feelings. Fu Shen hadn’t bluntly pointed this out by any means, but the action of him bringing Yan Xiaohan back to camp was no different than quietly acknowledging that he was standing on their side.
As it was so, none of them consciously wanted to run up and stick a horizontal bar between them right now. With never-before-seen unity, the Northern Yan Army conjured up a period of undisturbed intimacy for the pair of unfortunate mandarin ducks, who had just barely been reunited after so long.
Outside of Callery Pear Town were high, towering mountains and long, rushing rivers. The night wind carried the mild scent of flowers, a bright river of stars above their heads. The two leisurely rode their steeds under the vast dome of the heavens. This year’s various rushing waves of separation and toils of yearning were all as a river’s rapids rushing far away; the only thing remaining after the billows washed away the sand was the boulder of the heart, which had never shifted.
There was nothing to say about Fu Shen’s Gan Prefecture stuff, being not more than stockpiling provisions and training troops. On the other hand, Yan Xiaohan gave him details about the new Dynasty’s circumstances, especially on the Changzhi Emperor’s attitude and the struggle between the new and old parties of the North and South. Bringing these things up inevitably involved the several injustices the Empress was subjected to in the harem. Yan Xiaohan turned it over and over again in his head, then felt that he couldn’t keep them from him and explained things in full truth.
Fu Ling marrying into the Prince of Qi’s Estate had been because Fu Shen had selected her suitor for her back in the day. He’d been under the impression that the Prince was gentle in personality and treated people sincerely, so it would be a blissful marriage. Yet fate was unexpectedly fickle, and as soon as the country broke apart, it now seemed to be no different than personally pushing his little sister into a pit of fire.
He had promised her better, yet hadn’t accomplished a thing.
Fu Shen was expressionless, his profile like a stern, solid stone statue in the night, but Yan Xiaohan got the sweeping sense that he had an unspeakable frailty. Just when he went to open his mouth and comfort him, Fu Shen was a step quicker to speak, stopping his consolation up in his stomach.
“Many thanks for looking out for her. Even if I was there as her big brother, I might not have had your thoughtfulness and care.” He smiled bitterly. “For that matter, I couldn’t, on her behalf, run the risk of banishment by offending the leading character of the Jiangnan party.”
Despite Yan Xiaohan not expounding upon it, Fu Shen had still waded in the muddied waters of officialdom before. Making a link with Lady Xue’s affair, he could inevitably guess that when Yan Xiaohan said that he “requested of the Emperor an assignment to come overview the army”, it was to open up his mind and fabricate a pretext. Xue Sheng was valued as one of the six Ministers and major discussing official of the Hall of Prolonged Honor, and his most promising daughter had senselessly died by Yan Xiaohan’s hand. Even if the Emperor was biased towards the latter, he needed to be neutral towards all parties on the surface.
He didn’t ask to follow the army at all… but was instead kicked out of the Central Pivot because he made a mistake.
In a near second, a tsunami of feelings of guilt and defeat rose up, pressuring him like it was drowning him. He understood what sort of road he’d chosen, and he could only press on with no opportunity to draw back. At this moment, though, it was as if a gale was passing through the territory of his heart, the ground quaking and mountains shaking. He had doubts that he’d never had before.
Was he really walking the right road?
He was useless as an older brother, not giving any support whatsoever to his sister who was alone in the palace, but rather bound her into becoming a nail in everyone’s eye. He was useless as a husband, choosing to go North the second hostilities broke out, and hence left Yan Xiaohan by himself to maintain the situation at large in Jiangnan. In the end, the man still had to tidy up this horrible mess for him, to the point that he was forced to leave the Central Pivot and come to the dangerous frontlines…
The Northern Yan Army’s heavensent duty was to defend home and country, but his home had almost entirely ceased to be by his own doing.
Yan Xiaohan raised the bridle to rein in his horse, stopping in place. He seemed to be a bit annoyed. “I haven’t seen you in such a long time. You’ve grown distant with me,” he said mildly.
He didn’t call Fu Shen’s name, nor did he jokingly add in a “Marquis” or a “General”, making these words sound particularly cold and harsh. There was a sudden tightness in Fu Shen’s heart, and he thought with bewilderment and uncertainty: what does he mean? Is he angry?
Once someone gets gored with the tip of a bull’s horn, their judgment will fall off of a steep cliff, and their reason will go with it, never to return. If Fu Shen was as he always was, he would have countless things to say, and countless ways to retort what Yan Xiaohan said. He would’ve even been able to directly skip over the nagging exterior to hear Yan Xiaohan’s implied interior.
Currently, however, he could only force himself to control his frantic heartbeat and feign calmness. “No we’re not. What are you concerned for no reason?”
In spite of the cover of the evening shade, Yan Xiaohan caught his unnaturally rigid posture. He sighed soundlessly, unable to keep up with the cold veneer, and internally warned himself on repeat that he was confronting a stubborn fire iron unaffected by oil and salt; he couldn’t rush it, and needed to pull open and crush apart the logic to slowly explain things to him.
He dismounted the horse, walked over to the other side, and held his hand out for Fu Shen. “Come. Come down.”
Using his help, Fu Shen subconsciously jumped off. Yan Xiaohan led him away by the hand with exasperation, found a large, flat, and smooth rock at the nearby riverside, and pushed him down on it to sit together.
The stone’s flat surface area was limited, and two grown men sitting side-by-side on it would inevitably be crammed. Fu Shen gathered Yan Xiaohan towards himself with one hand, brows knitted as he took precaution against him falling off. “The wind is chilly at night. Sitting here for a minute is fine, but don’t catch a cold.”
“Jingyuan, in your mind, do you think yourself to be a great hero that can hold up the sky, and everyone else to be three-year-old children?” Yan Xiaohan asked all of a sudden.
“…” Fu Shen coughed dryly, sounding awkward. “There’s a lot of truth in your tripe.”
“…Be a bit honest and talk about the real issue.”
“What can I say?” Fu Shen couldn’t keep from smiling. “It wasn’t a lie.”
“Since you know other people aren’t three-year-olds, why are you still fighting to be both mom and dad for them, shielding them from the wind and rain?”
The hand that clasped him abruptly clenched.
“General, you need to admit that you don’t have three heads and six arms, nor are you an immortal god. There will always be areas you can’t take care of.”
Yan Xiaohan gently rubbed his temple in the crook of his finger. “If everything in the land could be done by your power alone, what else would the rest of us good-for-nothings have to do?”
“No one owes anyone in this world. Even though you and I are husband and wife, even though you’re the Empress’s elder brother – we can’t hijack you because of this, crying and waiting for your rescue when anything happens.”
Fu Shen understood his meaning, simultaneously getting jabbed right on his laugh acupoint via his description, and he genuinely didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “Talk sensibly already, don’t be a brat.”
Yan Xiaohan held out his arms to sweep him into his embrace, then quietly spoke into his ear against the side of his face. “The Empress has a tenacious nature, enduring wrongs with nowhere to speak of them. Not taking care of her is indeed your error. As for me leaving Jiangnan to come here, I used not getting along with Xue Sheng as an excuse, but in regards to what the true reason actually is within this… do you still not understand?”
The tip of Fu Shen’s ear twitched because of his warm breath, and in the wake of that quiver, blood flowed nonstop into the deepest, softest place at the bottom of his heart.
“No one forced me, it is I who wanted to come out and look for you. I’ve already waited for seven years, and I don’t want to keep waiting in longing for anyone again.” Yan Xiaohan bowed his head and kissed him on the temple. “Jingyuan, I am your husband, not your burden, so don’t grow distant with me — the next time you do, I really will get angry.”
There was only unending silence in the dark night.
“But… Meng’gui.” After a good while of speechlessness, Fu Shen pulled at his hand and placed it on the center of his chest, speaking in a rough voice. “I can’t even take care of my own family. How can I call myself ‘loyal’, and talk fantastically of mending the country and defending the home? Wouldn’t that all just be a joke?”
Yan Xiaohan sourly shut his eyes and drew in a deep breath, telling himself that they likely wouldn’t be able to get through this matter tonight.
Fu Shen’s feeling of inadequacy was too substantial, and ever since he had gone North, this shadow had occupied his mind. A year of being apart was all the more like a poison; under the effects of various factors, and upon coming into contact with the priming substance of the Empress, that guilt ultimately boiled down into an inner demon.
“Alright, then. You insist on finding woes for yourself, so I’ll help you with that,” Yan Xioahan said bluntly. “You’re an older brother who didn’t take care of his younger sister, and should be punished. I’m pretty much two years older than you, and you once called me ‘gege‘ yourself. I was busy preparing the foundation for the new Dynasty this past year and never went North to search for you. In that case, shouldn’t this gege also be punished?”
The author says: I really want to buy mental health counseling packages for these two.
The translator says: For those who don’t follow me on twitter, I announced recently that I’m open to suggestions for what my next novel would be, because I don’t have a solid clue. The two biggest ideas I have are Villain Reformation Strategy, as I’ve actually read it and there hasn’t had a set translator all this time, or this author’s next chronological work, which is less than half the length of GS and is about Dou Dizhu. Neither are set in stone. If you’ve got an idea, @ me on twitter or use the contact button up top~ (Do not leave a comment on this post, that section is for chapter discussion only. I will delete it with great prejudice.)
 闭口禅 – lit. “closed mouth meditation”, a real cultivation method where the user isn’t to speak, ever. I wish I could make this stuff up.