[If you’re not reading this on chichilations, then you’re reading a stolen copy. Reposts are not allowed anywhere or for any reason!
Links for mobile viewers: Ko-fi Donation — Chichi’s Twitter — Project Index — Digital Version Library
I see all your likes and comments~ Thanks in advance~]
The online version of Golden Stage is outdated. Click here for the free, up-to-date PDF/EPUB versions.
Thank you again to WiFi for the huge amount of ko-fis~~~!
It was the eighth of July on the fourth year of Changzhi. According to information that the Southwestern frontline sent back, Head Commander of the Western Expedition Army and Duke of Ying Fu Shen had been attacked by the dissenting army, and sadly perished.
On the tenth of July, Heaven Mend Envoy Yan Xiaohan detoured out of Jinling to the Southwest, then was unsuccessful in demanding Fu Shen’s remains from the rebels. Duan Guihong furiously berated him before the ranks, alleging that the weasels in Court had formed an alliance for selfish reasons, brought harm to a meritorious official, and misled the Emperor, causing Fu Shen to die with a grudge. All the Southwestern troops vowed to purge the monarch’s perimeter and put those fawning officials to death, making up to Fu Shen’s soul in Heaven.
Said man was in the Southwestern encampment recovering from his ailment, and upon hearing Du Leng recount the series of words Prince Duan had said, he almost choked on a laugh. “He didn’t think those up himself, did he?”
If Duan Guihong had the ability to distort the truth and unblinkingly prattle on like that, this all wouldn’t have gotten the point where he was very stubbornly making trouble with the Emperor.
“Who else could it be?” Duan Guihong said caustically as he walked in, panting. “Those were the teachings of my quick-witted ‘niece-in-law’, of course.”
Fu Shen didn’t think that to be shameful, but rather boastful. “You’ve over-praised him. He’s only a little bit clever, unworthy of pride.”
Duan Guihong: “……”
The act of being viciously scolded in front of the army seemed to make Yan Xiaohan lose his cool, and when he returned to the ranks, he strictly ordered each army to not allow this matter to be leaked out. Fu Shen’s death was intensely suspicious, however, and the stricter the military order was, the more people thought that Duan Guihong had spoken the truth. Rumors spread out further and further, and there were even some that said that the Changzhi Emperor had feared that Fu Shen’s military power was too weighty, thus he dispatched aides to secretly assassinate him and push the blame onto Duan Guihong after the fact.
The death notice and underground-channel information were passed back along to the capital together, shocking the entire Court. The Northern Xinjiang garrison almost mutinied on the spot, and the four Major Generals successively sent up a number of petitions requesting for the Dynasty to investigate this rigorously. The Emperor was unable to withstand the storm of words that filled the Court, and under public pressure, he had no choice but to reconvene for a Hall of Prolonged Honor discussion so they could all talk over how to posthumously reward Fu Shen and fill his empty position.
On the thirteenth of July, the day of the Hall meeting, Yan Xiaohan brought Fu Shen’s armor and commander’s seal back to the capital, heading straight into the palace thereafter. The courtyardful of Hall officials were silent as graceful sparrows, and he didn’t have a single unnecessary word to say, either. All he did was go up to a table and heavily slam the iron armor down upon it with a clang, shattering the tea cup in front of Xue Sheng.
It was still blotched with bloodstains that had never been washed off.
Officials from the four Northern Xinjiang prefectures immediately and involuntarily let out pained cries. Others either lowered their gazes in thought, or were speechless. Xue Sheng’s face sank like water. Alarmed at heart, the Emperor couldn’t keep his tone from being a bit conceding. “You’ve worked hard, Good Subject Yan, come take a seat… someone, bring tea.”
Eunuch Yuan Zhen, a favorite at the Emperor’s side, promptly stepped forward and poured a cupful of tea for Yan Xiaohan. “If you please, Sir,” he said respectfully.
Yan Xiaohan’s eyes swept over him, his face like cold frost. Eunuch Yuan Zhen shrank his head back and didn’t dare to get too angry, speedily slipping back to the Emperor’s side with his tail between his legs.
“The Duke of Jing had campaigned on the nation’s behalf for many years, and had merits for supporting the monarch’s rule. This evaluation is sufficient for a portrait in Qilin Hall,” Chen Zhi, the one who replaced former High Official of the Ministry of Rites Zheng Duanwen, brought up in a nervous voice. “It’s just that the Golden Stage is still in the middle of repairs, and doing so will take some amount of time. In accordance with His Majesty’s decree, the Ministry of Rites has already penned up several posthumous titles, and arrangements for the funeral are also undergoing preparation.
Moreover, the Duke’s glory should have originally been the shade his descendants could stay under, but those two gentlemen… do not have children at their knees. This humble official recalls that the Duke has a brother, however…”
“Unsuitable,” someone said. “That brother is the heir of the Duke of Ying’s Estate. If he’s going to inherit a title, it will be that one. He has no sons also, and cannot continue the line in his elder brother’s stead. As this is so, the Duke of Jing title should be retaken by the Court.”
“I heard that Youngest Master Fu had wandered off a few days ago,” Yan Xiaohan suddenly spoke up. “Has he now been found, Sir Xue?”
Xue Sheng wondered if he hadn’t slept well recently, as there were heavy, dark bags under his eyes, his eyelids were drooping, and his gaze seemed to be unreasonably malicious. “How could I know anything about the Fu family? You’ve asked the wrong person, Sir Yan.”
“Whether I’ve asked the wrong person or not is something you’d be even clearer on than I,” Yan Xiaohan icily replied.
His words were vague, but their implied meaning was very obvious. Every single person there perked their ears up, detecting that they had heard a shocking and unseemly inside story.
“The present circumstances are chaotic and things are in a great disarray, yet you insist upon pestering me right now,” Xue Sheng said with displeasure. “I’m not sure what your intentions are, Sir Yan.”
“You’re aware now that the situation isn’t easy to tidy up, Sir Xue? I wasn’t in the capital at the time of the incident, so I want to ask you for pointers; who was the one who pushed the Dynasty into this most vicious war of elements, in the end?”
“Since you’ve just returned from the frontlines, you should know well that the Duke of Jing was murdered by rebel general Duan Guihong,” Xue Sheng responded with gritted teeth. “As for that traitor’s misrepresentation of the truth and wild accusations; you seriously want to utilize those to look for fault in this Xue? As you can clearly see, this is the Hall of Prolonged Honor, not your Flying Dragon Guard!”
“Enough! Both of you stop talking!” The Emperor bellowed sternly. “Making such a ruckus in front of so many people – what kind of decorum is this?!”
Yan Xiaohan and Xue Sheng halted their fight, each of them standing up and proclaiming their own wrongdoings. The Emperor had an unending headache, voice exasperated. “The dead are gone, and the Duke of Jing’s achievements in the country ought to be generously compensated. The matter of the Southwest still requires discuss–“
He didn’t get to finish his words before there was a sudden burst of acute pain in his chest. Quickly after, he wasn’t able to hold himself up, and faceplanted right onto the imperial table. Yuan Zhen quickly scrambled over to help him up, crying out, “Emperor! A doctor! Get an imperial doctor, now!”
The Hall abruptly fell into mayhem.
The Emperor’s complexion was wan, only two splotches of abnormally vivid red suffusing his cheeks. He leaned against Yuan Zhen’s body, unable to breathe, and had one hand firmly pressing against his chest while a drop of pink foam spilled from the side of his mouth.
After the physician hurried over, he promptly stuck needles into the Emperor to treat him and ordered someone to fetch ingredients for brewing the medicine. Following a mad back-and-forth rush up until the noon, his symptoms slightly alleviated, and only then was he chauffeured back to the Hall of Mental Cultivation.
The Emperor’s ailment was a huge event. After the Hall’s officials all scattered, huddled conversations were had and letters were sent out. Seeing how he looked to have a heart disorder, him suddenly taking ill someday was more than likely. The Crown Prince was currently a juvenile and the Emperor had no other sons at his knees, but he did have a few brothers that were still young and strong. When the time came for the Emperor’s position to change, there would inevitably be another crisis.
The Hall officials were physically in the Central Pivot, but in reality, they still had their own respective paths, and the little abacuses in their minds were going clack-clack. For a moment, the atmosphere in Court was bizarre and immeasurable.
The Emperor first woke up when night fell, his Empress and crowd of concubines attending upon him before his bed. He moved his fingers, a faint sound coming from his throat, and doctors bustled up to encircle him. He groggily allowed their fussing, then powerlessly beckoned for Yuan Zhen, who was standing at attendance near the side of the bed.
Yuan Zhen immediately came forward. “Your Majesty?”
“What… time is it now?”
“Answering Your Majesty, it’s the crown of the Dog.”
“Suspend Court tomorrow…” The Emperor’s breathing was feeble, and he spoke slowly, word-by-word. “If there are undecided matters… hand them over to the Hall for discussion, in every case. Where is Yan Xiaohan?”
“Your Majesty…” Yuan Zhen replied cautiously, “Sir Yan, h-he went back home for mourning…”
The Emperor felt a wave of annoyance. “You mustn’t get excited, Your Majesty,” a doctor quickly said.
“Have him come back.” He shut his eyes in exhaustion. “There’s no need to be ceremonious in an unusual time. Management over the Hall’s discussion will be given to him.”
Speaking up to there, he remembered something, and he opened his eyes to take a look down at Empress Fu, who was hanging her head and saying nothing. Seeing her plain clothes and total lack of hair ornaments, he softly sighed. “There’s no use in attending me in sickness, Yuan Zhen will stay behind to wait on me. Everyone else go back,” he commanded.
Fu Ling’s brows were stained with sorrow. Thin and frail, she obediently bowed towards the imperial bed, like a hazy white flower screened by rain and mist. “This serving wife asks to withdraw,” she whispered.
In the night, Yan Xiaohan received the palace eunuch’s passed-along message. It ordered him to return to Court and oversee the Hall of Prolonged Honor’s discussions, as it was not necessary to close his doors in mourning. He couldn’t keep from sneering. “This really is the tea cooling down as soon as the person leaves. The funeral still hasn’t been taken care of, yet he’s already not treating him with respect?”
Yuan Zhen’s expression didn’t change, his eyes observing his nose and his nose observing his chest as he pretended not to hear a thing.
“Go on back, I’m aware,” Yan Xiaohan continued. “A few months is all it is. I can keep waiting.”
From then on, the Emperor’s heart problem never saw improvement, and the original planned outing to Jiangnan in September also fell through. By the time winter came, his condition was getting even more serious by the day; he had sometimes still been able to show his face in Court, but after October, he was completely bedridden. The palace physician’s lips were sealed up tight, and he reported only good news, no bad news. Despite that, somewhat well-informed people came to know from all sorts of side doors that the Emperor was likely not going to get better, and they secretly made their preparations.
In the fourth year of Changzhi, on November fifth, the capital’s first snowfall since the beginning of winter came.
In the late of night, there was an expanse of solemn, pure white within the royal city. A man of non-tall stature was bundled in a cloak, donned with a hood, and holding up a lantern. He knocked on a corner gate of the Yan Estate, whispering to the steward that came to open it. “Eunuch Yuan is passing word along. Please request your lord to come into the palace immediately.”
Not long after that, a small carriage stopped outside of Rule Abstruse Gate,* and a man in plain white clothes stepped off it. Yuan Zhen had long since been waiting within that gate, so he busily called for an internal attendant to fetch him an umbrella. “My Sir, you’re just in time,” he couldn’t refrain from chattering, “quick, there will be no holding it off further in the night…”
“Why the panic?” Snowflakes floated down onto Yan Xiaohan’s lashes, transforming into small dewdrops. He strode leisurely towards the palace hall, his tone casual. “In whose hands could death become otherwise? This is just a matter of when.”
Within the Hall of Mental Cultivation, candlelight flickered on and off.
The Emperor had suffered torment for several months, and now he was all skin and bones, almost unable to even lift up the blanket as he laid in bed. His face was white as paper, but his lips were tinged black. The sound of his breathing was nearly inaudible, and his eyes were deeply sunken in, that warm, distinguished, and handsome look from the past already gone without a trace.
Fu Ling used a damp towel to wipe his face for him, not a hair out of place. The hall was vacuous and unmanned, only possessing the gently-swaying candle flame that cast her thin shadow upon the bedcurtain, twisted and askew. At a vague glance, it looked like a vine woefully creeping out of the floor.
Her gaze lingered on his forehead and the bridge of his nose as she counted his lightweight breaths. The fingers clutching the towel involuntarily clenched, as if they were securely grasping a certain dangerous idea that was about to come to fruition.
He gave the impression that he could stop breathing at any time, and that his frail throat could snap with one squeeze.
Her wrist jolted. She almost lost hold of the balled-up cloth, but there mysteriously seemed to be an incorporeal string pulling at her hand, which caused her to fearfully yet steadfastly shift that damp rag over to his mouth and nose.
This man was once her lifelong support and final destination, but he had personally ruined the many years of companionship they’d had as a married couple, and even sent her only brother to his deathplace.
In the heavenly family, there were no feelings between fathers and sons, nor brothers, nor, of course… husbands and wives.
With a creak, the hall door opened wide, and a burst of northern wind rolled into the warm interior. Her face going apprehensive, she withdrew her hand like it’d been burnt and speedily tossed the cloth into the water basin. “Who’s out there?” she questioned sternly, standing up.
“Do not fear, Queen Mother.”
Yan Xiaohan came in from outside, bowed towards her, then had Yuan Zhen shut the door. He walked over to the royal bed, lowering his head to observe the Changzhi Emperor’s condition.
She recognized him. Her view of him was very complex; she knew he had previously helped her, but she detested the fact that he had sullied her older brother. Beyond that, she had a guilty conscience, making her voice somewhat noticably cold, rigid, and frantic. “What did you come here for?”
“To help you out,” he responded calmly. “You are the Crown Prince’s Mother Empress. It’s much better to not be tainted with the sort of stain regicide is.”
She was stunned. “You…”
“Have you forgotten, Empress? This humble servant’s person was on your side.” He lifted the lid of the censer and sprinkled new incense into it, unhurriedly explaining things to her afterwards. “Even if it wasn’t by your action, the Emperor’s limit is tonight. Allow this servant to undertake such a disgraceful matter, and don’t dirty your hands.”
The tone and bearing of his words had a feeling of dependability that could make one automatically convinced. Fu Ling stared distractedly at the mourning clothes he wore, disbelief and enlightenment simultaneously floating up to her mind. “The Emperor’s illness… was your design?” she murmured. “Was it… for him?”
A crisp, cool aroma diffused in the wake of the white smoke lightly puffing from the beast’s mouth, diluting the room’s noxious stench of medicine with warm incense. It was as if one had suddenly left the room and moved to the center of a winter wonderland.
Atop the bed, the Emperor’s limbs jerked, his breaths rushed. The gurgling sound of phlegm came out of his throat.
“It was for him, but it’s not wholly because of what happened this time.” He smiled lightly. “Did you not discover it? Following the Emperor’s arrival in the capital, he hasn’t had anymore sons.”
Ever since that incident with Virtuous Concubine Xue happened, Yan Xiaohan realized that the Changzhi Emperor was an unreliable, fickle-hearted man, putting the Empress and Crown Prince’s positions in jeopardy. As a result, after the Emperor returned to the capital, he began to secretly order Yuan Zhen to slip a drug into the Emperor’s tea.
People of this era drank tea as a social custom, and the Changzhi Emperor in particular loved it; Yuan Zhen obtained his good graces precisely on the basis of his good tea-brewing skill. Yan Xiaohan gave him a type of herbal medicine that both looked and even smelled extremely similar to tea leaves; it was toxic, and breezily reduced sperm count. The Emperor had drunk this ‘son-repelling tea’ for a good couple of years, and, as expected, not a single dragon seed remained.
The drug came with a heart-strengthening effect, and when matched with the tulip incense Yan Xiaohan just lit, it was liable to cause someone to develop symptoms analogous to a heart problem. The imperial physician hadn’t detected that he was poisoned, so he also gave the Emperor a heart-strengthening medication to take, which was no different than adding hail on top of snow, or throwing oil on a fire. As time went on, the more the illness was treated, the more serious it got. Upon reaching this present step, it had since become an unsalvageable plight, and was nothing more than a life of suffering.
Yan Xiaohan had formerly intended to slowly introduce it, then wait until the Crown Prince had grown up a bit before making the Changzhi Emperor suffer from the heart condition and die. He had underestimated his and Xue Sheng’s schemes, however, and even more so hadn’t foreseen Fu Ya jumping out to suddenly stick a pole in things, directly shoving the state of affairs into an irreversible situation.
Thankfully, counterattacking a tricky position was what he was best at.
“The night is still long. I’ll keep watch here, so may the Queen Mother go rest prior. Tomorrow will be busy.” He turned his head to the imperial eunuch who was waiting quietly beside the door. “Yuan Zhen, take the Empress to the side chamber.”
Snow still fell. The deepest part of the night had already come, and before long, there ought to be the morning light of daybreak, and a sky cleared of flurries.
Fu Ling was ‘invited’ into the chamber with no room for argument. She laid on the bed in her clothes, a multitude of feelings in her brain rolling up into an unmanageable tangle of thread, and only fell into a dazed sleep when it was close to dawn.
Within the haze, there seemed to be the deep sound of a bell coming in from a faraway place. She stepped on thin air in her dream, and awoke abruptly with a loud thump of her heart.
There was silence in every direction, and it was still heavily dark outside. Fu Ling sat up from the bed, her breathing in disarray, and she could sense that her own heart was yet uncontrollably beating like crazy. At this moment, someone outside gently knocked on the door, and Yuan Zhen’s voice was heard from across the door panel. “Are you awake, Empress? Sir Yan sent this slave to come ask – are you still going to witness His Majesty’s final visage?”
It was like she had been struck by lightning. Two rows of tears rolled down from her eyes, completely without warning.
Her throat pained, she barely managed to choke out her words. “Wait a bit, Eunuch. I’ll come at once.”
When she finished tidying up and arrived at the master hall, the Changzhi Emperor had since fallen into a coma, with many people encircling the imperial bed: eunuchs, historians, doctors. Only Yan Xiaohan stood far off to the side looking indifferent, like this had nothing to do with him. At this critical juncture, his mind actually seemed to be elsewhere, as if he was an outsider.
After everyone performed their bows, they stepped aside to make a path, and Fu Ling knelt next to the bed. “Emperor…” she tearfully called out.
His eyelids jolted slightly, seemingly reacting to her voice, but he never opened his eyes. She held his shriveled hand in her palm, weeping. “Be at ease, Your Majesty. This serving wife will definitely guide Hui’r well, and not betray your ardent hopes.”
His fingers twitched a few times in her hand, his breath as faint as a candle stub in the wind. Rumor had it that there would be a miracle-like parting moment of lucidity prior to a person’s death; the doctors calmly waited with bated breath, but the Emperor ultimately did not not wake again. Under everyone’s attentive gazes, he slowly stopped breathing.
“Curtail your grief, Queen Mother.”
An unknown amount of time following that, Yan Xiaohan stepped forward and spoke up lightly from behind Fu Ling. “The Emperor has passed.”
As soon as that was said, everyone inside the Hall of Mental Cultivation knelt down on the floor in unison. Yan Xiaohan noticed that Fu Ling was still in a daze, and had no choice but to utter a prompt for her. “Empress?”
She blinked extremely slowly, blinking until the last teardrop fell from the corner of her eyes, and then held her hand out to Yuan Zhen next to her.
He quickly helped her stand. Yan Xiaohan retreated to the side, sweeping his robe away and kneeling down.
“The Emperor… has passed.”
Facing the big, spacious hall, Fu Ling gently parted her cinnabar lips, voice rough and shaky yet doggedly persevering in talking. “Immediately dispatch people to inform the nobility, officials, kin-princes, and concubines. Shut the palace and city gates, and place the entire city on martial law. Invite the–“
The words ‘new ruler’ weren’t able to be said before a sudden loud shout came from beyond the door. “His Majesty has passed, so why weren’t we summoned into the palace to hear his post-mortem edict?!”
It wasn’t known who had leaked the news. Headed by Xue Sheng, dozens of Hall officials were congregated beneath the steps outside the Hall, with the Changzhi Emperor’s half-brother, the Prince of Zhao, also among the lineup. Fu Ling walked up to the front of the Hall using Yuan Zhen’s arm for support, her eyes coldly sweeping over every single young or aged face. “His Majesty had been unconscious all this time, and there is no such edict,” she stated harshly.
“Perhaps there is one, but the Queen Mother doesn’t know of it,” Xue Sheng hinted.
“My son is the Crown Prince and heir apparent to the country, as dubbed by the Emperor’s own mouth. Regardless of whether there’s an edict or not, he’s the new ruler of the realm. Do you have any objections anyways, Sir Xue?”
Xue Sheng laughed mockingly. He opened a wooden box he had brought with him, took out the scroll of a bright yellow imperial edict from within it, then held it up high. “This is merely His Majesty’s hand-penned dying edict, entrusted to this old official when he was seriously ill, and to be publicized after his demise!”
There was a split second of silence outside the Hall, immediately after which the pot boiled over.
The Empress said there was no edict, but a favored official said it was in his hands. What did that illustrate?
It illustrated that, in the edict that Xue Sheng held, the successor to the title of Emperor was very likely not the Crown Prince!
Yan Xiaohan narrowed his eyes slightly, the fingers hidden under his sleeve fastening around a small knife. He started to seriously consider how to wrap things up in a bit, were Xue Sheng to be brutally murdered on-scene.
Xue Sheng daring to provide an edict, regardless of whether it was real or fake, thusly dictated that he had set his heart upon a future Emperor that wasn’t the Crown Prince, but that Prince of Zhao hiding in the crowd. According to the Changzhi Emperor’s nature, though, would he really relinquish his own son, and instead hand the nation over to a half-brother he wasn’t familiar with at all?
Without waiting for him to contemplate the fallout, an impromptu burst of swift horseshoes were heard in the distance. A few black steeds tread through the snow-filled ground, arriving with swift gallops.
A long-unheard voice descended upon everyone’s ears like a clap of thunder–
“The Retired Emperor’s decree is here! All officials, abide by it!”
Yan Xiaohan looked back in shock, harsh wind striking him in the face. At the far end of the wind, snow, and night’s dim, a lithe figure accompanied the tiny bit of warm dawn light from the east, gradually coming to appear as a distinct silhouette in one’s field of vision.
With a crimson military uniform, deep black sable cloak, permeating heroism, and a longsabre affixed to his waist, it was as if a god of war had descended to the earth, a military star overseeing the mortal realm.
“Haven’t seen you gentlemen for a long time.” Duke of Jing Fu Shen, whose portrait still hung in Qilin Hall, reined his horse in before the palace, strewing about a large batch of snowy mist. His attitude was relaxed as he greeted all present.
Immediately after which he deliberately sent his regards to Xue Sheng. “I trust you’ve not run into any troubles, Sir Xue?”
Having seen a ghost in broad daylight, Xue Sheng could only feel like a basin of ice water had been dumped right on his head. Immense coldness and panic seized his heart. Half-terrified, half-cornered animal, his eye sockets threatened to split open, face menacing. He managed to squeeze out two words between the gaps in his teeth with extreme difficulty. “It’s you…”
“The heavens failed your expectations, as I’m not dead. Really sorry about that.” Fu Shen smiled lightly. “As it turns out, you’re getting more and more grown up. We’ve gone some days without seeing each other, and I have a whole new respect for you this time; it was merely a poisoning before, but now you’ve even learned how to issue a false imperial edict.”
“Slander!” Xue Sheng shot back in quick succession. “You collaborated with Duan Guihong on the sly, intending to rebel, and your plot was uncovered by the Emperor – that’s why he ordered someone to get rid of you! The Fu family committed the major crime of conspiracy, and the Empress is your blood relation, so he entrusted his handwritten edict to me for exactly that reason, wanting to pass the position on to the Prince of Zhao! Yet you still dared to show your face and interrupt things at this moment, you traitorous subject!”
Fu Shen didn’t get angry, simply clucking his tongue. “Listen to all that. Are you not feeling confident, Sir Xue?
If I truly rebelled,” he enunciated each of his words, running his eyes over all the major officials in front of the hall with a fake smile, “would I still swing by for you to yell at me here today? No need to speak of the capital; you’d also be hounded in Jinling all your life.
Assistant General of the Western Expedition Army, Li Xiaodong, has already made a full confession. You instigated him to use a poison during my peace talk with the Southwest, then to frame and blame Duan Guihong for it. My people can bring you to the judicial department, since his handprint on the confession is still pretty fresh. You may as well take your ‘edict’ and go keep him company, right, Sir Xue?”
Every word of that could have broken stones and scared the gods. The Hall officials from Northern Xinjiang were the very first to react, rage in their eyes. “Old codger! You actually had the nerve to enact royal deception of this caliber!”
Yan Xiaohan signaled to the Imperial Guards that were not too far away. “I’m still an appointed court official!” Xue Sheng hollered forcefully. “No proof, no seizure; who’d dare to arrest me?!”
“I dare to. Where is the Imperial Guard?” Fu Shen shouted coldly.
He was worthy of being a Commander-in-Chief that led troops all year round, as that sentence had an intimidating grandeur, ringing out like metal clanging against stone. The Left and Right Guards responded at the same time, the noise rushing straight to the clouds above. “These lowly generals are present!”
“Arrest this conspiracy-plotting renegade for me, and escort him to the imperial prison to await his trial.” Fu Shen’s words contained a murderous tinge, his voice sinister. “This Fu has been in the army for a decade, and the blade in my hand has drunk the blood of many. Today, I am willing to brazenly overstep my bounds and put a criminal to death – don’t believe that I can’t cut down a turncoat like you!”
The Imperial Guards were their people to begin with, and once they heard this, they immediately flocked up like tigers and wolves let out of their cages. Xue Sheng was pushed to the ground and tied up, then straight-up dragged off.
Starting from Xue Sheng standing up and ending at him getting towed away, the situation had undergone several changes, all of them occurring in the lifespan of a spark. Fortunately, Fu Shen was a man of his word, and his methods were blunt; a hostile scene of palace upheaval had been diminished to intangibility by his cutting of the proverbial knot. Normal people would be hard-pressed to experience an occasion like this once in their lives, and all the officials were shocked speechless, managing to snap out of it only after quite some time. No one had anticipated that there would be such a bizarre turn of events, but when they thought carefully about it, they couldn’t help but get a sense of finality in their hearts.
The conditions at large had been set. Even if the Retired Emperor’s decree had not yet been read, there was no suspense for what the outcome would be at all.
Fu Shen had returned. Was there anyone under the same sky who would be able to overcome the Crown Prince?
Yan Xiaohan soundlessly stowed away his knife, walked up to Fu Shen’s horse, then offered him his hand. “Why did you come?” he asked, using the plain speaking voice that common young folk had when idly chatting.
General Fu didn’t end up playing dumb this time, and he took his hand without qualms, and leaping off the horse. “If I didn’t come, wouldn’t I just be letting that old treacher Xue Sheng bully my widowed little sister and her fatherless son?”
He turned to look at Fu Ling. Above the steps, the Empress’s tears quickly could not be stopped.
Fu Shen sighed. “Restrain your grief,” he said, face solemn.
He still held the scroll of a bright yellow edict in one hand, and Yan Xiaohan was tugging at the other one, refusing to let go. He shot a glance down at it. “I say, Madam, you’re gripping me a little too hard,” he quietly lamented.
Yan Xiaohan: “……”
Fu shen grinned. Without shaking him off, he casually flung the edict over to imperial eunuch Cheng Fengjun, giving him a concise order. “Read it out loud.”
Fu Shen had gotten wind of the Changzhi Emperor being gravely ill. Worried that Yan Xiaohan wouldn’t be able to handle things by himself, he had thus stealthily returned to the capital from the Southwest; the Northern Yan Army had its own channel in the palace, and he got inside with Cheng Fengjun’s help. Partway through, he heard that the news had been leaked, and Xue Sheng and co. were about to arrive at the palace. Just in case something happened, he intentionally went to the Retired Emperor to ask for a decree, and it unexpectedly had a real use in the end.
“This is the will of the Heavens and the Retired Emperor’s decree: we voluntarily surrender the government to the Emperor…”
The Yuantai Emperor’s abdication had been compelled by helplessness, and when it got down to it, his insight and skill were an untold amount of times stronger than the Changzhi Emperor’s. Fu Shen would rather place hope on the former than trust in the moron that was the latter.
In accordance with the intention of the Retired Emperor’s decree, inheritance of the domain was to be left to Sun Hui, the legitimate son of the inner palace’s Empress. However, as the new ruler was young, national affairs would still be handed over to the Hall of Prolonged Honor for settlement, with the Empress Dowager listening in from behind a curtain.
There were also five separate appointments for major officials that would assist in governance: Heaven Mend Envoy Yan Xiaohan, Duke of Jing Fu Shen, Eastern Limit Hall academic Gu Shanlu, Sea Observation Hall academic Li Huayue, and Plain Peace Pavilion academic Xiao Tong.
After the decree’s recitation, only two people standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the whole crowd seemed to have soared through the clouds and sailed through the fog, precipitously ascending to high places of realm authority.
Those aware of the inside story were inevitably baffled. The Yuantai Emperor had once executed the most unwise maneuver on Fu Shen, itching to put him to death, yet upon the dawn of a new generation, he seemed to have laid down all his misgivings, proffering him the greatest power with no hesitation.
An Emperor’s mind was like a needle lost on the seafloor. How he ended up coming to his enlightenment was perhaps something only he knew.
“Done reading? It’s my turn.” Fu Shen turned to Yan Xiaohan, a not-at-all-obvious smile held at the edges of his mouth, and he raised his volume slightly, voice crisp. “The Retired Emperor has an order. May Yan Xiaohan receive it.”
Yan Xiaohan startled slightly, then let go of his hand, drew back a step, swept his robes aside, and knelt down.
“If able to assist the new ruler, one will exhaust their strength being his trusted aide. Should one be talentless, then may they be removed and replaced.”
There was dead silence in the snowy land.
Aside from Fu Shen, every single person – including Yan Xiaohan and the Empress – was struck dumb.
Yan Xiaohan? Why was it Yan Xiaohan?
His ears swelled with the din of rushing blood. Those words were as good as a club to his skull, the hit making him not know which night it was right now. It was like someone had abruptly thrown him into an empty and vast field of snow; he didn’t feel pleasant surprise, only total bewilderment from head to toe.
What even was this?
He looked up to peer absent-mindedly at Fu Shen, their lines of sight merging in midair. The other man’s eyes devilishly curved upwards, and soon after, something dark passed before Yan Xiaohan’s view. A weighty shadow swept passed the top of his head, the pressed steadily down upon his shoulders.
Fu Shen had taken off his own sable cloak and draped it on top of him.
Yan Xiaohan wore only a plain white inner robe, nearly unseen as he knelt in the snow. However, when he was suppressed by that pitch-dark cloak, the surrounding red walls, yellow tiles, gray-blue bricks, and white frost, in conjunction with the sight of two people in the snow, one standing and one kneeling… for some reason, the whole scene swiftly became heavily defined and vividly colored.
Fu Shen bowed slightly, extending a hand out to him. “Still not accepting the decree, Mister Yan?” he gently reminded.
His action was akin to some kind of rite, having implications of implicit approval and admission. The Northern border Hall officials in attendance were further likely to understand the meaning within it, and they took the lead in kneeling down.
“Do sincerely carry out the Retired Emperor’s sacred order.”
Swiftly following this, more than ten Hall officials from other areas also knelt all at once.
“This servant… will sincerely carry out the sacred order. I will spare no effort in doing it, and will not disappoint this entrustment.”
Yan Xiaohan fixed his eyes intently upon Fu Shen. The man looked right back at him.
Dark daybreak passed, and white daylight came. The wind and snow had ceased. The sun slowly arose from the distant horizon, its clear rays projecting onto the fine snow atop the glazed roof tiles, bright and glistening and nearly dazzling the eyes with its brilliance. Even so, they were lesser than the figure facing him that stood with his back to the light, looking as if he’d be able to bring forth a warm, reflected light that could fill one’s view, were he to make but a gentle motion.
Sorrow, joy, separation, reunion, mad laughter, sad singing, life and death entwined in crisis, twelve years of light and shadow – time was like a long river, all of it flowing slowly by during this split second of paired gazing.
This one look had within it his infinite stretch of mountains and rivers, a country in stability, as well as his partner in growing heads full of white hair together, faithful until their deaths.
The author says: Thus concludes this writing. I’m grateful for all of your company and support these past few months. Thank you, everyone. This book has very many flaws and loopholes [T/N: ??], and the author’s IQ is often not online [T/N: ?????], so I’d also like the express thanks to the readers for their forgiveness [T/N: ???????]. I’ll certainly work hard to improve in the future, and hope to see you all again in the next book. The extra will be irregularly scheduled; currently in my plans is Sir Yan’s past, and a parallel universe for the Prince of Su and Fu Tingxin. Everyone can suggest what they want to see in the comments. (The afterword will be further finished after the extras.)
The translator says: “This novel’s poorly written”? What the hell am I, then? A dumpster diver???
* 章玄 – zhangxuan, lit. “chapter/seal/rule, obscure”… my brain seriously lost fuel when naming this, but it’s the epilogue, dammit, it only gets mentioned once.