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As the most powerful and favored official of a different surname in the Great Zhou’s history, Yan Xiaohan’s person was constantly bundled up in layers upon layers of rumors, which stated that there was nothing he didn’t have. Within the imaginations of strangers, regular people had twelve shichens in a day, but Yan Xiaohan had twenty-four. Tirelessly longing to possess the country, he spent every single shichen trying to supersede the new ruler and act as Emperor himself, and it was only from being blocked by Duke of Jing Fu Shen’s military deterrence that he had dragged his feet in setting to the task.
There was a famous ‘secret scoop’ circulating the palace as well, claiming that the toddler Chengming Emperor was very dependent upon his uncle, the Duke of Jing, and often clung to his thigh, refusing to let go of it. Yan Xiaohan was like a weasel crouching in wait outside of a chicken coop, harboring no good intentions for the whole household, and with just a slight inattention, he would extend his claws towards the child Emperor and repeatedly say things that would sow discord in the relationship between him and the Duke.
One day, when nightfall approached, Fu Shen was supposed take his leave and exit the palace, but the Emperor ferociously stuck to him and refused to let him go no matter what. Upon seeing that, Yan Xiaohan jokingly asked him: “The Duke of Jing is this servant’s family. If you’re determined to make him stay, Your Majesty, what are you going to give me in trade?”
The little Emperor only knew how to eat, sleep, and play nowadays, but he was worthy of being a descendant of the royal family, having displayed outstanding bravery and judgment since childhood. Therefore, he opened his mouth and replied: “I’ll give Subject the country.”
When Empress Dowager Fu heard that, her hand slipped, and she knocked a bowl of tea over onto her own skirt.
Yan Xiaohan’s momentary faux-pas was recorded in its entirety by a palace stenographer, and the very next day, countless written accusations of misconduct flew like snowflakes onto the Emperor’s desk. They criticized Yan Xiaohan for ignoring Confucian principles and virtues, disgracing the young ruler, not differentiating between a senior and a junior, and having a clearly-demonstrated rebellion-plotting mind; should that traitorous scoundrel be allowed to dominate the government, there would eventually come a day when the state would be surrendered to his hands.
The Court officials once again let out a cry from their death throes: were this man to not be gotten rid of, he would eventually become a human disaster!
Gu Shanlu, who was also a Guardian Official, got pressured by his colleagues until he felt his head about to explode, and privately sought Fu Shen out to air his grievances. “Duke, you’re able to control him, right? The entire censorate is not going to able to manage this very soon. They’ve even written up last wills and are waiting to admonish him to death in the Hall tomorrow. Can you take pity on this humble one and make Sir Yan be still for a few months, lying low until this blows over?”
Fu Shen tsked. “Such a big fuss over a tiny thing. Is this you preparing to heroically martyr yourself for your cause? Don’t take this the wrong way, but all the gentlemen in the censorate are grownups, so why are they so unable to bear with doing their job?”
Gu Shanlu knew he was covering up his shortcomings, and he grabbed his hand, beseeching to him bitterly and solemnly. “General, this pertains to the Court’s pacification and the country’s stability! They both rely on you!”
“…What the– first of all, let go. If he catches sight of me, I won’t be able to explain this.” Fu Shen retreated three chi away from Gu Shanlu as if he were guarding against a thief, narrowly leaping up to a roofbeam. “If you have stuff to say, say it properly. Don’t use your hands,” he said, lingering apprehension in his heart.
Academic Gu had cultivated himself into a human spirit these past few years. Pretending that he hadn’t heard Fu Shen blurting out rude things, he only smiled wordlessly and cupped his hands towards him, indicating that he was thanking him for his trouble.
Fu Shen’s scalp went numb from looking at his fake smiling expression, and he got the overall sense that Gu Shanlu seemed to have misunderstood something.
The two were deadlocked for a moment with their eyes boring into each other. Fu Shen then waved his hand in defeat, unhappily backing down. “I get it. We’ll leave in a few days, and definitely will not stay here and block up everyone’s view in Court. Are you happy? If you’re happy, get out now.”
Academic Gu, via inconveniencing someone for his own gain, had effortlessly resolved a big thorny nuisance, and merrily saw himself out without Fu Shen’s send-off.
After the visitor’s departure, Fu Shen leisurely strolled back to the rear courtyard. Yan Xiaohan heard his footsteps, but right as he went to turn his head, he suddenly felt a coolness at his temple. A puff of a crisp, sweet floral fragrance faintly brushed past him, and then a pink-trimmed, massive white rose swiped over his face to come before his eyes.
He turned around as if he was reluctant to do so, face taut. “What are you doing?”
“Looking at this nice bloom.”
The rose that was very coquettishly plastered against the side of his face then slid straight down to his lower jaw and lightly hooked onto his chin, even though the man holding it had a face full of upstanding sincerity. “When matched up against a beauty, it’s even better.”
Yan Xiaohan inhaled. “……”
Fu Shen’s eyes narrowed as he smiled. “Does the Madam like it?”
“No,” the ‘Madam’ said coldly.
Soft petals mildly struck against his lips, as if penalizing him for his dishonesty.
Fu Shen unhurriedly took the flower back and lowered his head to take a sniff. His lips seemed to inadvertently bump against the edge of the petals, the touch ephemeral. “You don’t? Nevermind, then. I’d better find a space to stick it back into, huh…”
He hadn’t yet finishing talking when he was pulled into an embrace, flower and all.
“I do, actually. I do a whole lot, okay?” Yan Xiaohan said moodily. “Come back and don’t wreck my flower.”
“Say that again, a bit louder. What do you like?”
“I like you.” Yan Xiaohan bowed his head and plucked the flower out of his hand, expression unchanging. “I like you a whole lot.”
What many people didn’t know was that the disgraceful transcript making its rounds in Court actually had a second half to it.
After the child Emperor said the phrase “I’ll give Subject the country”, not only did Dowager Fu explode, but Yan Xiaohan did as well.
He was more of a hoodlum than the Emperor was, so he grabbed Fu Shen’s hand and repeatedly complained to him despite being the instigator. “Would you look at that. In order to entertain himself, His Majesty would even offer up the whole nation to someone. How could that be? What are all those Grand Tutor scholars feeding him? How can one talk reason with him on normal days? And then there’s you, who’s typically too yielding to him…”
Fu Shen couldn’t stand to listen to anymore of that and sneakily pinched him on the waist. “What a bunch of crap,” he said lowly, “you still dare say I yield to him? Do you have no shame?”
“……” Yan Xiaohan was not visibly embarrassed at all. “To sum, the ruler of the realm’s words carry heavy weight, and he surely must not play around like this. It’s we who were each not doing our utmost as subjects to a ruler, as it was only through our negligence that the Emperor was made to say such a thing. May this servant be so bold as to request that the Empress Dowager issue a decree stating that the Duke of Jing, from tomorrow onward, will no longer enter the palace to accompany the Emperor everyday, and will be exchanged for alternating daily rotations of the scholars Gu, Li, and Yang, for the goal of teaching His Majesty about the ways of a regent and the wisdom of sages both modern and ancient.”
Her skirt still dripping with water, Dowager Fu was flabbergasted by his comprehensive and upstanding bout of advice, and she stalled. “This…”
She imploringly looked towards her older brother, only to see that he was posed with his hand on his forehead, had “I can’t control him” written all across his face, and already didn’t want to speak at all.
“Then it’ll be done like that,” she helplessly complied.
Having obtained the Empress Dowager’s decree, Yan Xiaohan didn’t yet have time to be happy before he heard a loud and clear wail suddenly erupt within the chamber, as the Emperor was hugging Fu Shen’s thigh and crying. “I want uncle!”
Fu Shen could do without letting him cry like that, so he immediately went to bend over and pick the kid up. Just when he was about to move, however, he felt Yan Xiaohan tug him to a stop. The man himself stepped up, knelt down on one knee before the little Emperor, and pried off his short and tender little fingers one by one, being gentle yet irrefutable.
He quietly said something to the incessantly bawling boy. That ear-piercing wailing paused, then quickly went up a note immediately afterwards, the sound narrowly cracking apart the palace’s giant roofbeams.
Fu Shen had only vaguely made out a few words, and he wondered how this great ancestor had provoked that wee ancestor, tone irate. “Still you tease him…”
Yan Xiaohan suddenly turned his head around, giving him a profound look.
His eyes were cold. There was no smile at all within them, but there was an unspeakable rigidity, which inexplicably made one think of the surface of a frozen-over lake, as well as an ice-cold chunk of metal.
Fu Shen seemed to be absorbed by his gaze, unable to keep from staring blankly.
Without waiting for him to mull the deeper meaning out of that abruptly-appearing glance, Yan Xiaohan got up by himself, bowed towards the Empress Dowager, then dragged him away to withdraw.
As a result, after that, the man was at loggerheads with him for a full four days.
Sir Yan refused to admit that he’d gotten jealous over the affections of a small child, but Fu Shen had long since seen through him. Furthermore, Yan Xiaohan belonged to a species of infantile imp that was particularly hard to cajole. His method of retaliation was very unique, and it involved hiding both Fu Shen’s boots and wheelchair, then letting him ineffectively yell about it and be unable to take care of himself in life. Thus, he could only relent to this abuse of authority and allow this brown-nosing bloodhound to do what he pleased, making trouble with him in a hundred different ways.
Having coaxed him into happiness today with great difficulty, Fu Shen passingly brought up the outcome of the consultation he’d just had with Gu Shanlu. “…I’ve noticed that the Court has no use for us at the moment, so it’d be better to find an excuse to leave the capital and take a break for a while. How about it? Do you want to go to the South side or the North side?”
“Jingyuan.” Yan Xiaohan didn’t answer him, and instead suddenly went off-topic. “I never wished for you to get too close to the Emperor. He’s your nephew, but when he retakes power after ten or twenty years, would he be able to treat you the same as he always did? Or would he be just like his father and paternal grandfather, full of apprehension towards us?”
“I’m aware of this. What’s wrong? That was barely related, what are you trying to say?” Fu Shen asked, uncomprehending.
Yan Xiaohan held his shoulders, lightly pressing down upon him, and stared into his eyes. “All those worries are groundless imaginings, and they might not come true in the future,” he said seriously. “Even if they did, I could shield you. I don’t need you to pick a side between me and the Emperor, nor do I need to insist that you depart the capital and be alienated from the inside of the palace. So… put the matter of leaving the capital off until later, and think it over carefully. Don’t wrong yourself for my sake, okay?”
Fu Shen opened his mouth, but didn’t know what he should say. After hesitating for a moment, he just quietly sighed a tortuous sound. “Ah, you.
Starting from the day I enlisted, I clung to the ideas of dedicating myself to the nation and having my corpse be buried in horsehide on the battlefield. Unexpectedly, Mother Nature toys with people–“
Yan Xiaohan curled up his fingers, subconsciously sensing that he might not be saying anything good next. To his surprise, Fu Shen looked at him, and the thirty-thousand-catty heavy sentiment on the tip of his tongue changed course, transforming into a single sentence of featherweight teasing. “The nation’s not getting dedicated to. It’s more cost-effective to go for you instead.”
There seemed to be the distinct cry of a certain twanging string in his heart, a drawn-out, quavering echo brought with it.
“So many years, so many things; even if I’m stubborn as the knot of an elm, I had to get over them.” Fu Shen tugged at his hand, interlacing their fingers. “Reincarnation replaces, and one only has a set amount of themselves. The country can be left for future generations to fret over; I’m not a Bodhisattva descended to the mortal plane, so how can I worry about the realm’s affairs all my life? Worrying about you alone is enough.”
His remaining words were entirely submerged in fragmented kisses, and the clean, sweet fragrance of a white rose.
In summer of the fourth year of Chengming, Fu Shen and Yan Xiaohan received orders to patrol Jiangnan, and departed the capital for the South in early June.
The boy Emperor struggled to follow the Grand Tutors’ book study and character practice. Sometimes, he would get someone in the palace to write a letter to his uncle on his behalf that asked when he would be coming back, as he wanted to take him to view the freshly-planted lotuses in the imperial garden.
He’d never once asked a word about Yan Xiaohan, but he’d also never once forgotten that petty wife of his uncle’s who was decent to him, yet made people unable to like him.
Later on, when the Chengming Emperor had grown up and turned into the lord of the land that sat within a sea of wealth, he still firmly remembered what Yan Xiaohan had said to him in the palace that day.
“He’s mine. Take your country back; I won’t trade him.”
The translator says: Ah… I’ll miss you two. (Also: don’t hide someone’s wheelchair in real life unless you crave death.)