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On the sixth of July, Yan Xiaohan, having ridden non-stop, flagrantly barged into the Southwest army’s encampment carrying a travel-worn air.
He was brought inside with a blade held to his neck. Duan Guihong was already bent out of shape, and when he heard that the Court lackey had broken into camp, he practically couldn’t breathe. “You still have the face to come here?!” he seethed.
“Jingyuan is here with you, isn’t he?” Yan Xiaohan didn’t seem to be aware of the sabre at his neck, taking large steps towards the man. “How is he?”
The bodyguard, fearing that he would hurt Duan Guihong, hurriedly gripped his blade and shouted, “Halt!”
“I’m asking you, where is he?!”
As Yan Xiaohan snarled, the sharp edge sliced his neck, fresh blood zigzagging down to instantly dye a large patch of his neckline red. He stared at Duan Guihong with reddened eyes, quickly and efficiently removing all of the weapons from his body and tossing them to the ground. He burned with anxiety, the words he spoke nearly pleading. “If you want to kill me or cut my flesh off, Prince, then you can do that how you see fit. Just let me see him.”
Duan Guihong paused, thinking to himself: Yan Xiaohan shouldn’t be this distraught, right? Don’t their surfaces and cores not align? Did that marriage sanction end up sanctioning out some real feelings?
“Who sent you over?” he asked, brows furrowed. “The Emperor?”
“Xue Sheng advised the Emperor to covertly get rid of Jingyuan. I wasn’t in the capital, so I rushed over from Jinling after I received news from my spy in the palace.”
The weary look of elemental exposure across his face was not a lie. Going from the East to the West was a distance of a thousand li to cross, and he had taken not even two days’ time, having never once shut his eyes the whole journey. If this didn’t count as an act of sincerity, then the only other thing he could do was die on the spot for Duan Guihong to witness.
“Prince, the assassination case of the Vast Longevity Feast had been chiefly investigated by the Flying Dragon Guard. I know Chunyang was one of yours, and I know that whitedew propagated from the Southwest. Jingyuan never concealed from me the friendship you had,” he explained rapidly, “and I wouldn’t have come straight here to find you otherwise. You wouldn’t hurt him; it was those plants that the Emperor buried by his side.”
“That dog of an Emperor incited this?” Duan Guihong had only vaguely suspected this at first, and now that it’d been confirmed by Yan Xiaohan, hot rage boiled up and rushed straight into his chest. “Oh, good. The father did him harm, and the son is next to do him harm, as well. Did Fu Shen exterminate their entire Sun family in his last life to deserve getting persecuted by them in this one?!”
Having outstanding military service and a body full of scars was inferior to being a favored official and saying a few things to the Emperor’s face. Fu Shen warred his whole life for the Great Zhou’s benefit, yet that all sequentially added up to a sum like this.
There was compassion to be had in witnessing the adversity of one in such a similar situation. Now that he thought about it, what would his own two decades be considered as?
A loyal heart was taken to be trampled on. Deep kindness and friendship were utilized for disappointment.
Duan Guihong’s fury was over, his fire dispersing, after which limitless coldness and distress swept into him. He stood listless in place for a while, like a lion who finally realized that he had gotten old. When he opened his mouth again, his tone was lowered. “Go back. There’s no use in seeing him. Just take him for dead.
In the future… don’t burden him with this country again.”
That internal rupture-type pain hadn’t vanished from Yan Xiaohan’s body yet. He was, in reality, not very clear-headed, his three energies relying entirely on the support of this spot of pain, and he had already been giving Duan Guihong as much courtesy and tact as he could muster. When that last sentence came out, however, he legitimately could not take it anymore.
“Do you not have even a single idea of who’s actually burdening him in this way, Prince? What right do you have to feel aggrieved on his behalf?” At last, he tore off his veneer. He stared coldly at Duan Guihong, the words he spoke even more cuttingly threatening than a knife. “Why he came to the Southwestern frontline, why the Emperor became murderous… were those not all because of you, County Prince of Xiping?
If it weren’t for you repeatedly losing the Emperor face, how could things have gotten to the extent where the Dynasty’s troops and the Southwest’s soldiers would meet on the battlefield? If it weren’t for the purpose of fully protecting you, why would Jingyuan have dragged this out for three months, stalling for time and refusing to start a battle, up to the point that the Emperor got suspicious of him?!” There was a rarely-seen harsh expression on his face, his interrogation castigating. “Since you’re so agonized over him, Prince, why don’t you think about this, and properly; why would the Emperor want his life all of a sudden?!”
Duan Guihong was struck into a stuporfrom his successive questions. He’d only previously seen Yan Xiaohan’s face from a distance at the capital, and back then, he thought of him as nothing more than an embroidered pillow. What he wholly didn’t expect was that when the man’s vigor was fully unleashed, he wouldn’t lose out in the slightest to these men that came down from the battlefield, and that he himself would even have the minor impulse of wanting to retreat due to getting swept over by that frost-like gaze.
“You privately collaborated with the Duke of Ying, then transported fallnight white to the capital by his hand. You believed yourself to have worked flawlessly and kept everything on the down-low, but now that it’s been exposed, Jingyuan’s been dragged into being a scapegoat for you. He had preferred to accept the marriage sanction and was unwilling to rebel that time ago, and now, because of you and the Duke’s bit of shady business, his half a lifetime of toil has been completely destroyed. You still have the gall to cry injustice in his stead? Forgive my bluntness, Prince, but if you really want to let him live a few years more, then be mindful of your own actions, don’t do things you shouldn’t be doing, and don’t act on thoughts you shouldn’t be acting on!”
Yan Xiaohan was insane with rage, not a bit of discretion left in him. The prying overtone of his words nearly smacked the County Prince in the face, but said man didn’t have the spare time to mind his rudeness. “…It’s because of me?” he mumbled.
“You forged the sin, yet he was the one struck by the lightning,” Yan Xiaohan stated. “Prince, is it that I have to beg you, kneel down to you, to request that you let him go, and not burden him again?”
That knife was steady, accurate, and vicious. Its stab left Duan Guihong thoroughly speechless.
“Don’t bicker!” Du Leng shouted, finally unable to continue listening to this while he was busy working to save someone inside. “Sir Yan, come in and help me!”
With no one stopping him this time, Yan Xiaohan rushed in with huge strides.
Just one glimpse, and he felt like his soul was yanked out of him, the pain that pervaded his heart mixing with the lingering fear of survival after a calamity. Floating on the air, he soundlessly went to the front of the sickbed like a wandering spirit.
Fu Shen was laying on his back with his eyes shut, face white as paper and lips tinged blue. Half of his body was stuck full of golden needles, and if it wasn’t for the feeble rise and fall of his chest, he would practically be no different than a corpse.
Du Leng’s brow was coated in sweat from the work. He was Duan Guihong’s agent, as well as the accompanying army’s medic; following Fu Shen’s incident, he stealthily ran over to the enemy’s side, tirelessly working for a day and a night in order to snatch him back from the grasp of the King of Hell. His voice had since turned hoarse, and as a result, his speech was particularly brief, cold, and stiff. “I can’t hold the General down when he struggles. Help me with this.”
Yan Xiaohan still had not yet returned to his senses, however, and he stood before the bed for a long time, everything from the tips his fingers to the end of his hairs having gone rigid.
Du Leng tsked, moving to pull out a gold needle and clasp it in the space between his fingers. Its cold tip gleaming, he aimed a single jab at the acupoint on Yan Xiaohan’s back. The man shivered like he was convulsing all over, promptly after which he proceeded to suddenly turn around and cough out a mouthful of blood.
“Anxious fire attacking the core, qi and blood flowing the wrong way,” Du Leng said indifferently. “Don’t keep being in a daze, and don’t start crying out of worry. I’m going to pull out the needles, so help me out by holding him down. As long as he can get through the night, he’ll be able to wake up just fine. Sit down.”
Yan Xiaohan choked and coughed a couple of times. Thanks to Du Leng’s prick, he’d been awoken from his chaotic, qi deviation-induced state of mind. Silently cleaning off the blood from his palm, he sat on the edge of the bed and reached out to press Fu Shen down by the shoulders.
His body was as cold as a dead man’s. The temperature caused a violent tremor in Yan Xiaohan’s heart, and a slightly ominous idea abruptly emerged. In his dread, he irrelevantly wondered: if Fu Shen really did die, what should he do?
In the wake of Du Leng’s act of taking needles out, Fu Shen’s body warmed back up bit by bit, and his limbs started to quiver minutely. When there were only a few remaining needles stuck within the major acupoint between his chest and abdomen, he scrunched up his brows from within his coma. His right hand slightly raised, grabbing at air.
Yan Xiaohan quickly put his own hand out, and Fu Shen gripped his wrist.
“Careful now,” Du Leng warned, shooting a glance at their side. “Hold him down.”
In the next moment, he used both hands to simultaneously draw out the leftover gold needles at the speed of flight. Fu Shen first spasmed intensely, then struggled like mad soon after. Yan Xiaohan nearly got elbowed off the bed by him, a burst of sharp pain exploding from his right wrist. “Jingyuan!”
“Don’t let go!” Du Leng said.
In a panic, Yan Xiaohan threw himself at the continuously-struggling man and embraced him, allowing the slender, solid joints of his frame to slam into him as he held him. The muffled sound of the hits repeatedly rang out, but he didn’t ever grunt from start ’til finish.
He wouldn’t let go, not even in death.
It wasn’t clear how long they remained deadlocked. Fu Shen’s struggling gradually weakened, contrarily alarming Yan Xiaohan slightly. Right as he thought to ask Du Leng what was going on, he heard a faint sound come out of the throat of the one in his hold, which was quickly followed by a spray of blood.
His heart instantly sank.
Du Leng let out a long sigh of relief, though. His legs lost strength, and he plopped down onto a chair next to him. “It’s over. Let him finish spitting up blood, and it’ll be fine.”
Yan Xiaohan said nothing, nor did he dare to relax. He would not be forgetting tonight’s scene his entire life: Fu Shen, in his arms, coughing up mouthful after mouthful of blood. He looked on helplessly as the blood incrementally went from purple-black to dark red, ultimately filling the room up with its heavy stench. Both of their lapels were covered in nothing but the stuff, as if they sat within a pool of it.
In that moment, he suddenly felt no pain or apprehension, but instead an unusual tranquility. As he held the man who was on his last breath, there was only one thought in his mind; if Fu Shen died, he would just go back to capital, take the Emperor’s dog head off, then use the blade on himself so he could go with him. Families turned to dust together. No exceptions.
Duan Guihong had entered the space at some unknown point in time after Fu Shen had ceased vomiting blood and fell unconscious, standing in wait nearby for a time. Upon noticing Yan Xiaohan’s total lack of response, he coughed somewhat awkwardly. “That’s a… cough, how about you go change your clothes and let Du Leng wrap up your wound for you first? Then you can come back and watch over him.”
Yan Xiaohan slightly tilted his head, apparently having heard him. Supporting Fu Shen by the back of the head, he gently and mindfully laid him back onto the pillow, then stood up, his back ramrod straight. He gave a nod towards Duan Guihong, expression cold yet manners not lacking. “May I trouble you to get someone to bring over a basin of hot water, Prince? I’ll wipe him off before I go bathe.”
“Ah.” Duan Guihong startled a bit, not expecting him to be so polite. “Okay.”
The man from just now with words like knives, menacing yet red in the eyes from upset, seemed to have had his soul switched out. An icy aura that repelled others a thousand li away had encased his body, and he became cold, self-sufficient, and polished.
Were Fu Shen awake, he might have been able to recognize that this was the visage of the Royal Inspector Envoy that only he was most familiar with.
That unscrupulous, merciless, disaster-causing treacher.
Yan Xiaohan wiped Fu Shen down once through, put clean clothes on him, then took himself to an outer room to wash the dust of travel off of himself. After returning with a small, not-too-bright lamp, he sat lifelessly by Fu Shen’s bed for the whole night. Duan Guihong and Du Leng tactfully didn’t step up to bother him.
In the endless, silent autumn evening, he held Fu Shen’s never-warming hands. He branded a kiss on his cracked lips, light as a dragonfly skimming the water.
Intense flames sprung up everywhere within him, his resentment sky-high, yet that kiss was soft and controlled, like it was a beautiful dream he couldn’t bear to shatter.
He murmured into his ear, “I’m going to kill him.”
[-] The title of this chapter is 针锋, lit. “a needle and an edge”, taken from the idiom 针锋相对; the point of a needle opposing the edge of a blade.
[–] The censored word of the chapter is: 天衣, tianyi, ‘heavenly clothes’. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why the hell this is censored.