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Summer’s height would pass, its muggy heat gradually vanishing. In preparation for the Changzhi Emperor going down to Jiangnan in September, Yan Xiaohan was assigned to rush ahead to Jinling ahead of time in order to arrange for his residence, defense, and other such things.
The day before he was to leave, he finished handing all his business matters over to Wei Xuzhou and the rest, then returned home to sit under the veranda. He watched his subordinates scramble about to pack up his luggage, lazing around and bored to tears as he fiddled with a snow-white hydrangea beside him. The sunset’s glow from the horizon sprinkled golden light down upon the land. Sir Yan faced the wind and sighed, getting the overall feeling that if he kept going on like this, he’d recite verses like “the tilted sunlight looks affectionately upon the slow waters” and such as soon as he opened his mouth.
Fu Shen had been far off in the Southwest for over three months already. Yan Xiaohan was actually not concerned for his safety, merely feeling that he missed him terribly. Unending separation, the torment of yearning… he’d had enough of those flavors in Jinling, and now he had to turn around and taste them yet again. If it weren’t for his patience being good and rationality still existing, he would have long since quit his job and gone a thousand li off to search for his husband instead of caring about the Emperor’s whatever.
“Master!” The steward walked over with quick steps from the other side of the yard, holding a thin letter. He offered it up to him with both hands. “Master, a military official just now dropped by to pass on this letter. He said this was the Duke’s letter to home, recently brought back from the Southwest.”
Yan Xiaohan’s hand violently jolted. The hydrangea was instantly baldened by the grip, shaking off a field of white petals. His ears were inundated with the sound of his own heartbeat. “Hand it over so I can see,” he said, barely managing to look calm on the surface.
The envelope was very thin, and sealed up tight. Inside it was only one transparent sheet of letter paper. Yan Xiaohan feared using too much hand strength and tearing it while he was pulling it out.
Why was there only one sheet? Those five words of ‘how does mine wife fare’ were still heavily branded onto his heart. What had he written this time, as he was beyond the infinite landscape?
When he opened up the twice-folded paper, his whole body went completely still, maintaining its letter-holding pose.
What’s this crap?
There wasn’t a single word on it, just messy ink marks that looked like a lump of indecipherable scribbles. Only after staring at it for half the day did he depend on his lacking imagination to follow along Fu Shen’s inventive brush strokes.
The back was the black stuff. The belly was the white. The mouth was extending from the front, and the claws were sticking out of the rear. Those several strokes sticking out of the top were… wings?
That’s not right. What the heck had four wings?
No matter what, Fu Shen was a Young Master from a rich family. Even if his art couldn’t be a family heirloom, it ought to be able to allow someone to make out what he drew. What’s with this giant mass of black that someone could stick somewhere and ward off evil spirits with?!
Yan Xiaohan was completely unaware that his own appearance of being unsure how to react while gritting his teeth in rage was, in the eyes of others, more liable to terrify someone than the picture was. He was like a little kid that had been drawn in by some novelty plaything, focusing all his attention on looking for an answer and not at all considering the possibility that the image was a casually-drawn doodle with no meaning whatsoever.
Fu Shen wouldn’t make sport of him from thousands of li away, of course, but he really did expend all of his effort to be able to draw in this style.
Yan Xiaohan tried to identify it for a long time, looking at it rightside up and upside down, until he finally discovered that the judgments he’d had just now were off. What stuck out the front wasn’t a mouth, but two bird heads, and what came from the rear weren’t claws, either, but tails. The four traces of ink were two pairs of wings. Then, going along with the black back and white belly, the solution was eventually on the verge of coming to him.
Drawn on the paper was… a pair of geese.
The moment he came to understand, the look he had suddenly softened, as if he’d been struck in the heart by something. The corners of his mouth slightly raised up, yet there seemed to be the shine of water filling his eyes.
The letter had been sent back along with the military report. Because there was a risk of it being stolen and looked at, Fu Shen couldn’t bluntly state what he was thinking, so he used means like this to send him a ‘goose letter’.
What ‘swan gooses’ symbolized was a hidden meaning that only they could implicitly understand.
The goose was a loyal bird, having one partner all their life, and flying across the world with them.
On that same night, Yan Xiaohan could not get to sleep from the stimulant this letter gave. As he tossed and turned, on the the other side of the capital, in High Official Xue’s Estate, was another who was unable to sleep.
Recently, the censorate had charged two officials of the six Ministries. After the Emperor looked at the report, he complied with precedent and allowed them to temporarily leave their posts to reflect on themselves behind closed doors, then handed the case over to the Three Departments of Law for investigation. This had been a normal course of events, and the so-called ‘charge’ was nothing more than a small problem that wasn’t of much severity, so no one considered it a big deal. However, what went wholly unanticipated was the Departments unearthing the base with only one dig of the shovel — they genuinely did uncover that the two were corrupt, receiving evidence of bribery!
Once this hole was opened, everything got out of hand. The Departments’ Head, Zhu Can, was known in Court for being impartial, forthright, and unmoved by force or words. Even though he knew these two were characters from the Jiangnan party, he didn’t have the slightest amount of desire to lift his hand and let them go free. It wasn’t long before the Departments sent a report up for imperial review. The Changzhi Emperor was furious, and accordingly, the Ministry of Justice arranged for their incarceration and beheadings, their executions slated for after the autumn trials.
Xue Sheng lost two powerful and competent people at the same time, and his situation immediately began to subtly change. Lately, the Emperor’s attitude towards him had been somewhat obviously cold. Tonight, a visitor had come to his house – Right Assistant Minister of Rites and Governmental Editor Zheng Duanwen, also born of Jiangnan – who brought him news that he couldn’t tell whether was good or bad.
“A messenger from the Southwest brought a military report this afternoon. The army has been garrisoned outside the city for over a month, but neither side has ever tried to confront the other. The Duke of Jing wrote in the report that Duan Guihong had repeatedly dispatched emissaries to their encampment to seek audience with the Head Commander, and he will meet the County Prince face-to-face in a few days to urge his surrender.
When the Emperor finished reading the report, there was simply no way to see his expression, and his hands straight-up trembled in anger. He asked me, ‘We sent people to the Southwest over and over again, and he claimed illness and refused to meet with anyone. Why is it that when Fu Shen arrives, he then hurries to come bare his feelings? What unavenged grievances does he have that we cannot take care of, and that he can only state openly if Fu Shen arrives before him?'”
Xue Sheng had been the earliest one to approve of the Emperor’s expedition to the Southwest, and as a result, whenever a military situation was encountered there, he would always call him into the palace to talk it over. However, now that he’d been dirtied by a spot of mud, he missed this opportunity, and called for Zheng Duanwen to show his face before the Emperor – it sounded like the Emperor still trusted him quite heavily.
Zheng Duanwen couldn’t come to a decision on this heavily important matter. “Brother Yunping, would you say that the Emperor is resentful towards the County Prince, or has… some notions towards that position?”
The Jiangnan party had always regarded Duke of Jing Fu Shen as their visceral enemy. The military force the man grasped notwithstanding, that stunt back on the Golden Stage narrowly swept the Jiangnan gentry out of Court. It was to the point that Xue Sheng and the rest, every once in a while, would put a few words of advice towards the Emperor, such as that ‘great status threatens a monarch’ and ‘disobedience grows with power’. Nowadays, the Emperor didn’t have a great expression when Fu Shen was mentioned, and that was mostly bestowed by this group’s grace.
There was a cold grin in Xue Sheng’s heart. Stowing away the thoughts rapidly turning around in his head, he wasn’t in a rush to answer, but instead asked something. “How did you respond, Fangde?”
“This…” Zheng Duanwen hesitated. “This younger brother only said that Duan Guihong has gone wholly against morality, and even if the man is granted amnesty, it might not be unlikely that his rebellious heart will regrow at a later date. This act of the Duke’s… is quite a bit improper.”
Xue Sheng raised a hand to stroke his beard. “Fangde, do you remember that year the Tartar and Zhe envoys came to Jinling, wanting to negotiate peace with our Court? Back then, Yan Xiaohan and Fu Shen were both on the front line, and the memorial they sent back only had the sentence ‘dying in battle is preferable to negotiating peace’. Why is it that now, when facing an insignificant County Prince, he became fearful of every little thing?”
“It’s true that Duan Guihong is a veteran of the Northern Yan, but that was all a friendship between the previous generation, and is now obsolete. How would Fu Shen share any old feelings as a fellow soldier with him? That’s not anything more than an excuse. No matter what his purpose is, Fu Shen is unwilling to confront Duan Guihong in battle. This is a fact no one can wipe away. Our Court used such a person to confront the enemy army; if, by chance, he and Duan Guihong collaborate, how could that not create huge amount of chaos?”
But wasn’t urging His Majesty to make him go to the Southwestern front your effort?
Zheng Duanwen heard the current of murderous will growing in his casual words, and he couldn’t help but feel a chill on his back. “Brother Yunping, do you mean… Fu Shen is colluding with Duan Guihong, and wants to plot a rebellion? But this is a huge crime that he could lose his head over! Why is he going as far as this?”
“It’s not ‘why is he going as far as this, but ‘why are we going as far as this’,” Xue Sheng said calmly. “Someone is clearly aiming at us in Court, and if we don’t act, the next ones who won’t be able to keep our black hats will be you and I. Whether Fu Shen is or isn’t plotting a rebellion is unimportant; all that matters is that the Emperor thinks that he is.
So long as he’s thrown out, the Northerner’s alliance will naturally crumble. We won’t even need to incite them to fight amongst theirselves, and only when that time comes will we have our opportunity to freely act.”
The summer night was hot and stuffy, yet a drop of cold sweat slid down Zheng Duanwen’s temple.
Him standing on Xue Sheng’s side wasn’t untrue, but he had also heard the praises of the Iron Cavalry’s many years of clearing away their foreign enemies and guarding the borderlands. Forming a party was one thing, but how had it suddenly gotten to the extent of framing a meritorious official, and then wanting to kill Fu Shen soon after?
‘So long as the Emperor is convinced that he’s conspiring, that’s enough.’ Wasn’t this just… unwarranted?
Zheng Duanwen said his farewell to Xue Sheng in a daze. Following the steward as he led the way, he passed through the courtyard to the main gate.
It was late at night, yet someone’s voice was outside. The two went to the gate and found that a young man of average height was standing below the steps outside, squinting as he looked over with filthy curses on his lips. The gatekeeper held a wooden club in his hand, shouting at him with a tiger’s face. “Go back now! If you dare act foul again, watch me report you to the authorities and get you thrown in jail!”
Zheng Duanwen returned to his senses from the yelling. Carrying the dignity of a senior official, he unhurriedly asked, “What’s the reason for this ruckus here so late at night?”
The Xue Estate steward’s brow wrinkled almost imperceptibly, immediately after which he smiled apologetically towards Zheng Duanwen. “This servant has been insolent and will surely be given harsh discipline later. Please find it in your heart to forgive me, Sir.”
At this moment, the young man abruptly looked at Zheng Duanwen. “You came from inside. Do you know Xue Sheng?” he asked, not polite at all. “This Young Master wants to see him. Go in and announce that, quick. Don’t talk crap. A huge event’s been held up and you can’t turn around and blame me for never calling your attention to it.”
Zheng Duanwen, a stately High Official of Rites being taken as a house slave and barked at, was angered at once. However, right when he stepped forward to open his mouth and reprimand the youth, his gaze fell upon what he wore, and his words veered off. “Who are you?” he asked. “Why are you looking for Sir Xue?”
“Let me in. I’ll naturally let you know once I’m in,” the man said with a face full of impatience.
The steward couldn’t continue to watch this, planning to call for a domestic guard to come and drive this joker out, but Zheng Duanwen swiftly raised a hand to stop him. “Go in and inform Sir Xue,” he said to him. “Follow me,” he then said to the young man.
The steward was confused, but his hands were tied, so he could only go back in to let Xue Sheng know. It wasn’t long after that Zheng Duanwen led the youth inside, then got close to Xue Sheng’s ear and whispered a few words to him.
Xue Sheng looked astounded. A short moment later, he turned to look at the youth. “My servants were lacking in manners. Please do not blame me, Young Master. I’m not sure why you’ve paid a visit so late at night?” he asked politely.
“Call for everyone else to go,” the youth said coldly, “and leave only you and me behind.” He then pointed at Zheng Duanwen. “He stays, too.”
 A section from the poem 望江南·梳洗罢/Finished Washing Up, Gazing at Jiangnan by Wen Tingyun. It describes a woman gazing longingly into the distance.
 One of two ‘trials’ a year (more a show than anything else), where people on death row have their crimes/penalty reviewed by the Court and possibly in person by the Emperor.
 侍讲学士 – lit. “scholar who attends upon lectures”. An official who was tasked with editing and reviewing stuff like literature and history records.