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The nation of the Great Zhou was over a hundred years old, and in this past century, the woman widely-acknowledged as the most beautiful in the land had hailed from Qiantang, Jiangnan, during the Hongjing Dynasty.
The Hongjing Emperor had been a ruler that preserved the peace his forefathers left behind. Though he couldn’t be labelled as having worked from dawn ’til dusk while reigning, he was still regarded as diligent in governance, and on top of that, he was a wise monarch that could take criticism. He held the throne for twenty-nine years, during which there were many talented officials in Court that would leave their names behind on the historical record.
He was a very ‘wise ruler’ for that entire of life of his, and the only thing future generations would denounce him for was that he was too deeply obsessed with feminine wiles, possessing the spectacular sight of a packed harem. Even when he was fifty-three – one year prior to his demise – he had dispatched a palace envoy to go amongst the commonfolk and pick a daughter from a good family to enter the palace.
As a result, in the twenty-eighth year of Hongjing, Qiantang woman Lady Qu was selected by Jiangnan Overseer and Blue Luan Envoy Duan Linglong. She waved goodbye to her parents and family, then went with the squadron in hurrying back to the remote landscape of the capital.
Her beauty was as if crafted by the gods, unmatched to a tee in the human world. She was good at singing, dancing, art, and calligraphy, as well as an expert in tune and rhythm. The second she entered the palace, she caught the Hongjing Emperor’s eye, reaped the title of Noble Consort, and became a favorite in the harem.
However, as she had come from Jiangnan, her health was delicate. She was not adapted to the Northern climate when she first came to the capital, and once winter came, she got weak and sick, the spitting image of a fragile canary that was hard to raise. In order to incur her favor, at the very start of winter in the thirtieth year of Hongjing, the Emperor intentionally brought her into his vacation palace to take shelter from the cold.
There came an evening when the Hongjing Emperor suddenly contracted a fast-acting illness. Noble Consort Qu hurriedly summoned an imperial physician, but the Emperor ultimately passed from his illness due to late medical treatment.
Duan Linglong and Consort Qu attended to the Emperor at his dragon bed up to the very last moment. After the doctor verified that the Emperor had passed on, Consort Qu came up and handed his posthumous edict over to Grand Tutor Yang Gong so he could read it aloud. The Emperor hadn’t been accompanied in his dying moments by his most-favored Prince of Zhou, but by Eldest Prince Sun Zhang and Second Prince Sun Xun. Contrary to everyone’s expectations, though, the Emperor didn’t pass his title on to the Prince of Zhou, and instead chose the Second Prince, who would later become the Yuantai Emperor.
Descendants often suspected that he had gotten the position unjustly, and that was precisely why. Some claimed that Yang Gong had faked the order, and others said that Duan Linglong and Consort Qu had jointly forged the edict.
With the Hongjing Emperor dead, the position of Empress was up in the air for many years. The Yuantai Emperor had originally wanted to venerate Noble Consort Qu as Senior Consort, but she requested for herself to leave home and go to Cosmos Witness Temple to practice Buddhism. The national beauty of a generation, like a flower that had bloomed early, had been pampered for no more than two years, then so-very-resolutely cut her strings of love, turned around, and fled into an empty door.
Another year passed. In her third winter since arriving at the capital, Lady Qu died from illness while in the Temple.
The unequaled beauty of the Great Zhou’s last century was akin to a gorgeous, ghostly outline in the history books. With not much description, even less circulation, and scant few strokes, she swiftly faded into invisibility.
Yet the truth was far and beyond just that.
What the heavenly family was able to ostentatiously display on the surface was but a small portion. History books were limited, after all, and failed to be exhaustive – that was so for Consort Qu, at least.
The secrets she hid were far greater than what anyone knew.
For instance, the reason why she refused to remain in the palace as Senior Consort was because the new Emperor – while the Hongjing Emperor’s coffin was being temporarily held in the vacation palace – had repeatedly paid visit to the hall where she resided very late in the night. After returning to the capital, by virtue of Yang Gong helping the Yuantai Emperor ascend to the throne, his daughter, the Second Prince’s Lawful Consort, logically ended up becoming the Empress.
For another instance, when Consort Qu left the royal palace for the Temple, she was actually pregnant.
The manager of the Temple had been an old nun with kindness in her heart and compassion in her bosom. With the powerful eunuch Duan Linglong also organizing things on her behalf and concealing the arrangements made for her, she finally achieved her goal of keeping the heavens in the dark; in December of the second year of Yuantai, she bore a child.
On the night of the birth, Consort Qu was already approaching the end of her wick when the baby came out. Duan Linglong held him and brought him to the side of the bed for her, his eyes slightly red around the edges. “Give him a name, Consort,” he said softly.
Consort Qu, within the curtains of blue cloth, turned her head slightly to the side. “Did it… stop snowing outside?” she suddenly asked in a delicate voice.
“Yes. The moment this little noble was born, the snow stopped.”
” ‘At the end of the world, the blizzard… clears up on a cold night.’ “* Her breath was like thin silk, her words intermittent. “He’ll be called ‘Hanxiao‘, then. My name is ‘Yan’, let him take that as a surname…”
[T/N: This yan is 颜, different from Xiaohan’s 严 yan.]
Duan Linglong subconsciously thought that this name was too depressing, but he merely watched Consort Qu as she struggled to speak, not daring to interrupt, and had no choice but to nod along.
She rested for a short moment, gathering up a bit of strength before continuing on. “Don’t let him know his ancestry, nor return to them… the heavenly family is loveless. I wish for my son to be safe, happy, healthy, and carefree in this life… and not be like his mother, trapped in this cage that can’t be left…”
“Big brother Duan.” She reached out her withered hand with great difficulty, firmly latching onto the corner of his robes. “I have one thing to ask of you…”
She hadn’t much strength in her hand. In fact, he could have shaken it off with only light effort, thus casting away a major inconvenience he would have in the future. For some unknown reason, though, he stood stock-still for a very long time, until he eventually sighed in acquiescence and conceded a step to her. “Please speak it.”
“I want to ask you… to accept him as your adoptive son, and take care of him for me. Protect him as he grows up, and don’t let others bully him… someday, have him look after you in old age and bury you after you’re gone… your little sister cannot repay you in this life, but I will in the next world…”
Duan Linglong quickly pressed on the back of her hand, stopping her future words.
“When I brought you into the palace back then, I absolutely hadn’t anticipated that a day like this would come,” he said in a low voice. “I have done you wrong. You don’t need to speak of repayment; this is just what I owe you.”
Consort Qu looked at him. Her eyes gradually filled up with teardrops, but the corner of her mouth slowly raised up, hooking it into an extremely subtle arc.
She had since become inhuman-looking from the torment of illness, but when she smiled like that, it caused him to vaguely recall that time she was sent into the capital two years ago. Supported by a maid as she walked step-by-step up to the carriage, there were evidently tears in her eyes, but when she saw him come over, she didn’t forget to show him a very shallow smile.
The bright beauty of a dewy peony could burn a person. That could only be described as genuine, divine loveliness.
Who could have known that once hit by rain and blown away by wind, with her youth not yet waned and her rosy countenance not yet aged, she would be forever gone?
“I won’t be able to wait until he grows up.” Her voice was getting quieter and quieter. “Brother Duan, you’re his father. Pick out a courtesy for him, okay…?”
Duan Linglong thought for a while before he spoke. ” ‘A long-time guest in a foreign land, often dreaming of returning home on cold nights.’** It’ll be Meng’gui, like–“
He turned his head to look. All of a sudden, there was no sound of breathing.
Upon the plain and simple bed, Consort Qu’s eyes were tightly shut, her face serene and chest no longer visibly moving. She had passed, in such little time.
She had often dreamed of returning home on cold nights, but she would never go back to Qiantang again.
The child in his arms abruptly began to wail, cutting off his dumbstruck trance. Gently consoling him a few times, he stood up while carrying him, placed Consort Qu’s hand that had been exposed outside of the bedding back into it, then pulled the blanket up high for her, covering up her pale and thin face.
He whispered a pledge to the room filled with empty silence, and to the new spirit that had not yet gone far off. “I will keep my word.”
Later on, Duan Linglong honestly felt that the name ‘Yan Hanxiao’ was no good. In order to avoid certain people making an association with Noble Consort Qu, he switched his name and surname around to ‘Yan Xiaohan’, then brought the child to his side, educating him with great care.
Only, Yan Xiaohan and Consort Qu looked very similar; the first time the Yuantai Emperor saw him, he got immediately antsy, and he sought Duan Linglong out to ask him what was actually going on there.
Duan Linglong had started planning for this day the moment Consort Qu had died. He’d once considered sending Yan Xiaohan off to the outside for someone else to raise, but who knew what he would grow up into out there? Further still, in this world, if one didn’t enter the imperial court and thus had no wealth or power, they would be living their whole life as a commoner, and even making a living would be challenging. Could that still be called ‘carefree’?
He was a son produced by the love affair of the Late Emperor’s consort and the Yuantai Emperor, who had been in filial mourning. His identity could not see the light in his lifetime, and even his existence was a potential threat to the Yuantai Emperor.
Luckily, Duan Linglong was fully prepared. He frankly described to him the events of Consort Qu having put her life on the line to birth the baby, putting emphasis on her heart’s desire — that she didn’t want to have her child be a Prince, only that he be able to go through life smoothly and steadily. At the end, he took out his secret weapon; a self-portrait that the Noble Consort ‘purportedly’ drew with her own hands, to get the Emperor reminiscing.
The man had coveted Consort Qu’s charms back in the day, and when he heard about her undue death, he internally felt it to be quite the shame, only stating that beautiful women had been very unlucky since time immemorial. He never expected that there would yet be these sorts of hidden feelings within him. That portrait swiftly stirred up many of his memories, and he began to miss the object’s owner, thusly not having the inclination to look into why Duan Linglong had covered this all up instead of reporting it.
Not only that, but as he got gradually older, Consort Qu – just like how Madam Li was to Emperor Wu – became all the more ethereal and difficult to forget in his heart. He would sometimes look at Yan Xiaohan and feel that he was rather pitiful, too. He couldn’t help but wonder: if he had been a right and proper Prince, would he better live up to his expectations than all these other sons he had today?
Under the silent influence of those fantasies, the Yuantai Emperor quietly allowed Duan Linglong to train Yan Xiaohan and lead him into the Flying Dragon Guard. Even after Duan Linglong passed away, he broke the norm to promote him up to the seat of Royal Inspector Envoy.
In regards to Yan Xiaohan’s history, both he and the Yuantai Emperor*** knew it well, and they also both knew that the other knew. As the days went by, it slowly turned into a mutual understanding that needed no explanation.
So long as Yan Xiaohan stringently played his role as subject, the Emperor, aside from the status of a Prince, would grant him the highest limit of authority.
Yan Xiaohan had been very ‘law-abiding’ those past years. The only time he quasi-openly requested anything from the Yuantai Emperor was before the Central Plains had been recovered, when he personally went to Shu to borrow troops from the Retired Emperor.
The territory was hacked into disunity, and a Prince that he had renounced, never to have that identity, talked of borrowing troops to him, all in order to repair the land of the Great Zhou.
In that same moment, the Yuantai Emperor had finally tasted the slightly off flavor in Yan Xiaohan’s relationship with Fu Shen.
The Newly-Late Emperor’s coffin was temporarily placed within the palace. The new ruler was underage and couldn’t commandeer the matter, so the Empress ordered the Guardian Officials to assist in handling the funeral arrangements. The palace maids and internal attendants took care of the furnishings, and the hundred officials observed in mourning for His Majesty, making it exceptionally busy in the palace all the way until evening, when it came time to rest.
Sunset came early in Northern winters, and all it did during the day was snow. Upon once again falling into national mourning, the imperial city was wrapped in a sheet of silver-white, its desolation indescribable. Yan Xiaohan, draped in a black sable cloak, tread across the not-yet-swept snow cover everywhere to a spot before the palace hall. Without waiting for anyone to announce him, he took it upon himself to gently push the door open and go inside.
The lighting inside the room was dim, remnant incense lingering in the air. A slender figure sat at the side of the table, dozed off with his head supported on his hands. It wasn’t clear how long he’d been sleeping there.
Yan Xiaohan unconsciously pursed his lower lip, unsure of what he himself was nervous about.
He noiselessly came up before Fu Shen, using the meager daylight to take in his sleeping visage. His gaze was a carving knife, incrementally chiseling at the other’s tall, straight nose, vivid silhouette, and the slightly curved… corner of his mouth.
“Sneaking a peek at me, huh?” Fu Shen grinned with his eyes shut. “You’re not getting it free of charge.”
Yan Xiaohan’s brow slightly furrowed, then immediately loosened, and he reached out to touch Fu Shen’s face. “Why did you fall sleep sitting up? Aren’t you cold?”
Fu Shen captured his hand and opened his eyes. “It’s no big deal, I just took a nap because I was being lazy. Is the Empress Dowager already finished working over on that side?”
Yan Xiaohan had worried about Fu Shen’s healing major injury, as well as his age-old leg condition, and thus refused to make him constantly kneel down outside until some unimportant processes were over, so he found him a room in the palace to muck around in. Martial law was now enacted in the place, anyways; no one would dare to say anything to his face.
They started talking at the same time, looked at each other, then simultaneously shut up. Nevertheless, Fu Shen was the first to speak after. “Seeing as how you’ve been wanting to say something yet have stopped yourself for half the day, you can go first.”
Yan Xiaohan didn’t know how he could tell that he was wanting to, but he really did have something to ask. “Did you already know?”
Those words were somewhat arbitrary, yet Fu Shen understood what he meant at once.
“I’ve said before that you look a little like the Newly-Late Emperor. Yesterday night, I saw the picture of a beauty at the Retired Emperor’s place, and I almost believed that the bedfellow that I spend night and day with had changed his clothes and was standing there. How could I not be able to guess?”
“It’s a dishonor.” Yan Xiaohan was made to smile from what he said. “I’m a bastard child that can’t come to the light. The Retired Emperor suddenly coming up with this trick… actually makes me a little uneasy. He might have guessed at our relationship, and wants to drive a wedge between us via this decree. What’s to be done if I snatch your nephew’s country in the future?”
“You’re such a high-strung person,” Fu Shen sighed. “What else could I still do? I’d use my own body to feed the tiger, and request that you be magnanimous… ruling king.”
Yan Xiaohan speedily went and covered his mouth. “By the Founder– shut it, will you? You really scared me. Is that something to be shouted out at random?”
Fu Shen grinned heartlessly within his palm. “How promising. You’ve got a traitor’s heart, but not a traitor’s guts.”
Yan Xiaohan: “……”
On his last straw, he could only lean over and bow his head, intending to jam that mockery back down the man’s throat.
“Oi.” Fu Shen used a hand to block his ever-nearing face, voice deadpan. “The country’s in mourning. Why are you so undignified.”
Yan Xiaohan maintained that pose, affixed in midair, and peered at him through the gaps in his fingers. His gaze was obscure and serene, but it had a bit of an inexplicably impatient hue.
Fu Shen had no way to deal with his staring, so he could only sweep his hand around to instead cup his face, resignedly drawing in close and giving him a peck on the lips.
“Nevermind… the Court isn’t permitting intimacy, but are people not allowed to kiss a little, too?”
The translator says: Perhaps this puts ol’ Yuantai’s actions into perspective. He’s still a dick, though.
Well, this makes Fu Shen’s nephew… also Yan Xiaohan’s nephew. What a family tree that is.
* “Night at the Pavilion” by Du Fu. (Here’s a nice translation.)
** “As a Guest” by Yu Wuling.
*** This actually says Changzhi Emperor in the text, but that really makes no sense to me, in any context? I’m assuming it’s a misnomer from force of habit (God knows how many times I’ve caught myself accidentally typing “Duan Guihong” this chapter), but I’m not clairvoyant.