Oh boy, a crap ton of footnotes once again! These chapters take like three times as long as VRS chapters, though they’re still quicker than WAFIL chapters. To be honest, I love this historical/military world building so I did enjoy looking up all these locations in China lol.
Please let me know where my translations can be improved, especially the historical/geographical/astrological stuff!
Chapter 2 – Returning to the Capital
The road south from Yan Prefecture passed through Guangyang District, Baitan, and other locations. Upon arriving in Miyun1, the capital itself could already be glimpsed in the distance.
The arrival of autumn had brought the cold with it. The first snow had already fallen into the north, while the weather close to the capital was still pleasantly cool, perfectly suitable for travel. Near noon, a team of fine riders came along the official road. The leader of the riders surveyed into the distance. Spotting a tea shack set up along the road not far from their current location, he lightly lifted his reins and slowed his pace. When the carriage behind them caught up, he learned over and knocked twice on the wooden partition of the carriage to request instructions: “General, we've already traveled at a breakneck pace all night. How about first resting our feet before continuing on the road?”
A slit opened in the carriage curtains. Alongside the bitter fragrance of medicine, the low voice of a man drifted out: "Is there a place to stop for refreshment in front? Then rest and reorganize there. Brothers, you have worked hard."
The rider received the order, and the group set their horses to gallop towards the tea shack ahead. Wherever they passed, dust and dirt flew everywhere, attracting the sidelong glances of the nearby resting passers-by.
This row of riders did not fly any flag. They wore teal-colored military robes with narrow sleeves and cross collars. Every single one possessed a vigorous and capable physique, with an austere and imposing momentum. Even if they did not openly state their identities, they practically had "someone you can't afford to provoke" written all over their faces.
The shopkeeper running this tea shop had long seen his fill of hardships and was used to the comings and goings of people, so he was a man of few words. The leading rider stepped down from his horse and handed over a silver ingot, before ordering his subordinates to rest, eat, and drink. He himself found a table in the shade, wiped it clean, and told the shopkeeper to prepare hot tea and a few choice refreshments. He then turned back outside, and supported a pale-faced young nobleman with the air of a chronic invalid off the carriage.
That young man's steps were unsteady and shallow, his face suffused with sickness. He could only walk with someone else supporting him by the arm. Even traversing the short distance from the carriage to the tea shop took a long while of effort. Upon finally sitting down at the table, his body seemed incapable of holding out any further and he could not stop coughing. The other guests sitting under the mat-awning actually let out a breath of relief too—Just watching him made them feel exhausted for him.
Upon further consideration, it was strange: even though that man looked as if he might breathe his last at any moment, his body held an indescribable temperament that invariably attracted one's gaze. His appearance was extraordinarily fine, but not the kind of delicate elegance as beautiful as a woman and as charming as a spring flower. Instead, he possessed trim brows and phoenix eyes, a high nose and thin lips, permeated with a sense of sharply piercing coldness.
The man was of a tall stature and seemed accustomed to looking down to see other people, always only lifting his eyelids halfway. His entire body brimmed with careless languid apathy, emaciated from illness—it seemed like even the tea shop's crude porcelain bowl would be heavy enough to break his wrist.
But when he sat quietly, his gaunt back was as straight as a brush, like a green bamboo shooting straight up from the soil, a long knife tempered in the tribulation fires of the forge——Even if covered in countless scars, that cold blade could still drink its ample share of blood. In the same way, his enfeebled body weak body did not hinder him from sweeping over everything under the heavens with that scornful and arrogant gaze.
The travelling merchants and traders subconsciously stretched out their necks to look, resembling a haggle of raptly absorbed geese. At last, the young nobleman slowly finished sipping a bowl of water and slammed the porcelain bowl onto the table with a clang: “Gentlemen, your necks have stretched long enough that one could tether a donkey to them. Is this humble one that good-looking2?”
The strong able-bodied men eating and drinking on the side immediately shivered at these words. Most of those geese retracted their sights in a huff, but a few especially enthusiastic ones actually moved closer to make conversation: “Where is this young nobleman coming from? Also going to the capital?”
Xiao Xun, who had continuously been waiting on this young nobleman's every beck and call, felt his scalp tingle and turn numb. The young nobleman only needed to say a single phrase "Get lost" for Xiao Xun to hang this person up on the tree outside.
Who could have anticipated that this very standoffish-appearing young nobleman actually displayed an unexpected level of tolerance, and mildly replied: “From Yan Prefecture City in the north, currently headed to the capital for medical treatment.”
Their entire group of people was all dressed in everyday clothes and not carrying swords. In addition, their vehicles and horses were not ostentatious or extravagant. Although the guards exuded an imposing momentum, this young nobleman in charge wore commonplace clothes. The merchants therefore guessed they might be the traveling party of the young master of some rich and influential family in Yan Prefecture. Because Yan Prefecture City was a place of military importance for the frontier, its traditional customs were swift and fierce, so it counted as normal for military members of the family to accompany the traveling party.
As strangers coming together by chance, it was not appropriate for the merchants to directly inquire about his illness. Instead, they switched topics to another novel and strange affair: "Since this young nobleman is coming from the north, have you ever encountered the carriage of General Fu? He returned to his hometown in such honor and glory3, I can't even imagine the level of grandeur his procession must have!” "
Xiao Xun almost choked to death on his tea. That young nobleman raised his long eyebrows and asked with great interest: “General Fu? Is that the same General Fu I know?”
“Naturally. Besides the Marquis of Jing Ning, who else possesses such a famous reputation!”
The young nobleman seemed enthusiastic about this line of conversation, and further pursued: “I see you seem to know quite a lot about Fu… General Fu?”
“Oh, out of the question, out of the question,” that merchant man smiled and waved his hand in humble dismissal, “As us merchants come and go from north to south, on the road we often hear the rumors and talk of General Fu. During these years that he has been guarding Northern Xinjiang, the roads are peaceful and secure, and our business is so much easier compared to before. When the common folk in the capital bring up General Fu, not a single one does not hold him in the highest esteem. You have no idea—Last year when General Fu led the Northern Yan Iron Cavalry to defeat the Tartars, I had just come back from the north to resell furs. All the streets and alleys of the capital were saying: ‘As long as Commander Fu is in Northern Xinjiang, the capital can still sleep peacefully.’ The stories told in the tea houses, the songs of performers, the plays in the opera houses… are all about him.”
From this, the flourishing popularity and reputation of the Northern Yan Army and the Marquis of Jing Ning was quite evident.
The Northern Yan Iron Cavalry was known as the northern border defense line of Great Zhou. Since its establishment, it had been continuously governed by the Fu clan. In fact, it had grown out of the frontier garrison commanded by the Duke of Ying4, Fu Jian.
The people of the Central Plains called the nomads of the northern steppes the Tatar people. Decades ago, the Tatar people underwent inner turmoil and unrest, and split into several factions. A portion of the tribes were forced to move westward. They intermarried with the Hu and Sogdia peoples of the Western Regions, and were called the Western Tatars. Another portion occupied the richer pastures in the Central and Eastern areas, and were called the Eastern Tatars. Twenty-three years ago, when the current Yuan Tai Emperor Sun Xun first ascended to the throne, the Eastern Tartar tribe brazenly invaded the Great Zhou. At that time, the border army had been weak and frail, collapsing from a single blow. On the other hand, the Tartar soldiers boasted a well-trained and powerful army5. Like a hot knife through butter6, they wantonly plundered and slaughtered in the north. Even the two strategically important border towns of Xuanqing and Baoning were massacred into empty cities.
The previous emperor's reign had been characterized by a long peace, lasting over thirty years without a hint of war. No one could have imagined the Eastern Tatars would actually command an army to march south. They especially could never have imagined the border army actually lacked the strength to even put up a fight, allowing the enemy to kill their way to the Great Zhou's doorstep in the blink of an eye.
In the imperial court, the voices proposing peace negotiations grew louder and louder. But the Yuan Tai Emperor was in the prime of his life. As the supreme lord of the country, he would never bow to mere barbarians7. Just at this time, because of his accumulation of military merits, Fu Jian was transferred posts from Lingnan8 in the south to Gan Prefecture9 in the north. The Yuan Tai Emperor therefore promoted him into the military commissioner of Gan Prefecture, ordering him to lead the garrison troops of the Gan, Ning, and Yuan Prefectures to fight back against the Eastern Tartars. After two years, Fu Jian, his two sons, and the high-ranking military officers under his command built up 100,000 border defense troops to purge the cleared Tartars within the Pass. Fu Tingzhong, the eldest son of Fu Jian, even crossed the Great Wall and led an army into the hinterland of the steppes. He almost conquered the Eastern Tartar capital city, only failing to complete the occupation because of Fu Jian's death by illness. After the campaign, Fu Jian was posthumously conferred the titles of "Duke of Ying" and "High Pillar General of the State"10. Inheriting the position of Duke of Ying, Fu Tingzhong took command of the Gan, Ning, and Yuan Prefecture armies. The second son Fu Tingxin was conferred the position of General Who Guards the State to control the military affairs of the Yan and You Prefectures.
These two built an iron-clad northern border defense line for Great Zhou. The frontier army led by the Fu clan was named the Northern Yan Iron Cavalry. For over ten years from the 6th to the 18th year of Yuan Tai, under the deterrence of the Northern Yan Iron Cavalry, the Eastern Tatars temporarily lay dormant. The borders were peaceful and quiet, without any more great wars.
Then during the 19th year of Yuan Tai, Fu Tingzhong was assassinated by the Eastern Tatar. The Eastern Tatars formed an alliance with the Zhe people of the North, and again invaded Great Zhou. Fu Tingxin led an isolated force penetrating deep into the enemy's encirclement, and finally died on the battlefield. Those past events of the attacking army reaching the city gates were repeated once more. But this time the imperial court did not have the same swathes of elite troops as it did back in the day, and the Yuan Tai Emperor no longer possessed that dauntless determination and initiative. The War faction argued with the Peace faction throughout many morning courts, and finally made the most confused yet also most wise decision.
They pushed Fu Tingzhong’s eldest son Fu Shen, who had not yet reached adulthood11, directly onto the battlefield.
The Eastern Tatars and the Fu clan were bitter enemies with deep-seated hatred between them, and this invasion was driven by revenge. Whoever provoked this trouble should be the one to clean up the mess. Moreover, ever since he was a child, Fu Shen had been in the army along his father and his uncle, learning through experience. It was said that Fu Tingxin often sighed with emotion that “there are qualified successors to carry on”, so Fu Shen could perhaps grudgingly count as possessing the "talent and capability to be commander-in-chief."
This reason appeared to be quite sufficient. But stepping back to look at the past dynasties and generations, has one ever seen the principle of "idle and sated high ministers all withdrawing like turtles in their shells, instead letting a teenager face the dangerous beasts?"
The great fortune amidst this misfortune was that the Fu family may have truly been the collective reincarnations of auspicious General Stars12: Fu Shen surpassed his predecessors as a truly once-in-generation genius military commander.
Northern Xinjiang was in a state of emergency, and could only seek aid from the nearby Tang and Tong Prefectures. However, when Fu Shen was pushed out, he did not place his expectations on being able to get help from his own people. Instead he gathered the Northern Yan Iron Cavalry and met the main force of the Zhe People at the Three Passes of Yan Prefecture. He also employed the might of the Western Tatars' Fine Wild13 cavalry troops by opening an exclusive trade route and granting them special permission for access. Outflanking from the northwest, he encircled the unified forces of the Tatar and Zhe armies. This two-pronged approach thus resolved the danger in Northern Xinjiang.
After the war, the Fine Wild troops and riders were brought into the fold of the Northern Yan Iron Cavalry. To avoid excessive inconvenience of mobilization and the battle lines becoming overstretched, Fu Shen returned his power over the Gan, Ning, and You Prefecture border guard forces back to the central administration. He chose to focus on managing the Yuan and Yan Prefectures as the line of frontier defense. After the Battle of the Three Passes, Fu Shen officially took the post of Commander of the Northern Yan Iron Cavalry, and was rewarded with the title of Marquis of Jing Ning.
Given Fu Shen's desperate efforts to turn the tide14, it would have been perfectly justified for him to inherit the title of Duke according to feudal nobility tradition. But the Yuan Tai Emperor wavered, and actually ended up completely ignoring ignored the ancestral system. Not only did he approve the third young master of the Fu clan to inherit the Duke of Ying title instead, he also quietly conspired for Fu Shen to split off from the Duke of Ying residence and live on his own.
Any discerning eye could see that the Fu clan had scared His Majesty with the fear that their family could produce a Duke of Ying that would truly be "renowned throughout the ages."
But some people were destined to go against the current. In just a few years, the Marquis of Jing Ning Fu Shen deepened his grasp over the Northern Yan Iron Cavalry. He rose straight to becoming Great Zhou's firm tower of strength, while also being a thorn in the eye of the Tatar and Zhe peoples. The lack of conflict in Northern Xinjiang these past few years, enabling the common people in the north to live and work in peace and contentment, could be mostly credited to him. As long as Fu Shen was present in the army, even if he was sitting completely still as just a mascot, he would always be the greatest deterrent to the various northern tribes.
Faced with these ordinary people exaggeratedly shooting off their mouths, the young nobleman first listened to their words as amusing jokes. But when he heard the phrase “The capital can still sleep peacefully”, his smile completely dissipated. Seeing him in a daze, Xiao Xun hurriedly lifted the teapot to add water to his tea, and deliberately interrupted: “Gener… Young master, we still have to hurry on with our journey in the afternoon, you should take a few more refreshments.”
The young nobleman recovered his composure, picking up his bowl to sip a mouthful of hot tea. The corner of his mouth turned up, and his smile actually carried a hint of ridicule. He sighed to himself: "If these words are spread, how many people will not be able to sleep peacefully…”
A nearby guest wearing a conical bamboo hat was attracted by their conversation. He hogged the conversation to mysteriously interject: “I have often heard people say that ‘Extreme strength is inevitably followed by disgrace, while extreme prosperity forebodes the beginning of decline.’ Just think about it: the Marquis of Jing Ning has fought in Northern Xinjiang for so many years, doesn't his situation exactly match this saying? All those famous generals in history were either short-lived or lonely and heirless. This is because they were all General Stars coming down to earth, with a destiny of mass slaughter15, different from ordinary people. In my opinion, the Marquis of Jing Ning was likely born under the Seven Killings Star12. What happened to his legs was probably the result of committing too many sins of murder……”
With a loud shattering noise, the bowl in Xiao Xun’s hand was crushed into several pieces. Blood dripped from between his fingers. Everyone followed the sound to look over, each and every one stunned and astonished. The tea shop immediately fell into an awkward and embarrassed silence.
“Your hand erroneously used too much strength, next time I will buy you an iron rice bowl to save you from ruining things.” The young nobleman's expression remained exactly the same as before. He carelessly spoke: “Put on some medicine yourself. Don’t forget to pay compensation in a bit.”
Xiao Xun bowed his head and hummed in acceptance.
The conversation interrupted by this small episode had no way of continuing any more. No matter how extravagantly that man described immortals coming to earth, these were not any auspicious words of praise. This time it was a broken tea bowl, but next time one might get surrounded and beaten up.
Only that young nobleman seemed out of tune with the current atmosphere, watching the excitement without placing much importance on what just happened. He smiled slightly: “Interesting. According what this brother is saying, similar to how those short-lived and lonely ones must have committed a crime… Since the Marquis of Jing Ning has already become disabled, it seems he will soon marry a wife.”
Xiao Xun: "……"
Someone else slapped the table and rose: “What true man will need to worry about suffering without a wife?! A hero like the Marquis of Jing Ning can have any kind of woman he'd like!”
Another person echoed: “Yes! That's right! And if he is interested in men, how many good men are waiting to marry16 him!”
A burst of earth-shattering laughter broke out in the tea shack.
Male marriages had been fashionable in the previous dynasty, so although the Great Zhou Dynasty prohibited marriage between men among the common people, influential officials were exempt from this taboo. There was even precedent of the emperor bestowing a male marriage. As a famous golden bachelor in the capital, the Marquis of Jing Ning was the dream man for countless girls in their boudoirs. But he had delayed marriage for so long that some people guessed his interests were unusual.
When it came to these petty romantic affairs, everyone's enthusiasm for conversation grew even further. The young nobleman no longer interjected, only silently listening to them discussing the life of the Marquis of Jing Ning. He always had a hint of a smile on his lips, as if listening to an extremely fascinating and wonderful story.
After a moment of silence, Xiao Xun whispered in reminder: “Gener… Young master, the sun has already set, are we leaving now?”
“Mmm? Yes, leaving.” The young nobleman reached out a hand to allow Xiao Xiao to lift him up. He carelessly cupped his hand in salute at the merchants: “Brothers, this humble one is rushing to the capital and will leave first.”
Everyone raised their hands to bid farewell to him. Xiao Xun supported him onto the carriage and let down the curtain. The carriage rumbled and horses for hundreds of steps, when Xiao Xun suddenly heard the young nobleman's voice coming from inside the carriage: “Zhongshan17, give me a pill of medicine.”
“But didn't Doctor Du say to take the medicine half an hour before arriving?” Xiao Xun took out a delicate purse which contained a white bottle of eggshell porcelain. “We still have two more hours before we enter the capital.”
“Don’t talk nonsense,” a hand stretched out from under the curtain and plucked the porcelain bottle away, “Ahead is the capital's military barracks. Our current appearance can fool the ordinary people, but will definitely be recognized in the capital barracks. I definitely will not have the time to pretend to be crippled on the spot."
Xiao Xun apprehensively muttered: “But you inherently are actually crippled…”
The ill young nobleman—that is, the "Destined for Mass Slaughter" Marquis of Jing Ning, Fu Shen, lifted his chin and swallowed a brown pill the size of a fingertip. He laughed: “Zhongshan, between a general with hope of recovery and a completely disabled cripple… which do you think would allow you to sleep easier?”
Xiao Xun did not say any more.
Fu Shen threw the porcelain bottle back to him, closed his eyes, and waited for the incoming numbness to spread through his limbs. He whispered: “Let's go.”
Footnotes: (still haven’t beat WAFIL’s record yet)
1. These are all real-world places in Northeast China. You can see the precise locations courtesy of our good friends Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guangyang_District and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miyun_District . And yes, this confirms that the capital in this novel is Beijing.
2. To be specific, he asks "好看么?" which can mean both "Am I good to look at?" and "Am I that good-looking?"
3. 衣锦还乡 lit. "to come back to one’s hometown in silken robes" basically means to return in glory.
4. The full title in Chinese is 颖国公. Interestingly enough, this same title was granted to the historical figure Fu Youde (same last name as the Fu family here 😛 He even suffered the same problem of being a brilliant general yet ultimately being suppressed by the emperor.) 颖 (yǐng) means clever/gifted/outstanding. Again, 公 is Duke, the highest non-imperial nobility.
5. 兵强马壮 lit. "strong soldiers and sturdy horses"
6. 势如破竹 lit. "like splitting a bamboo", basically meaning to overpower with irresistible force
7. The specific term is 蛮夷 (mán yí), which was a common term for non-Han peoples that was not necessarily derogatory. I used the simplified term of barbarian.
8. 岭南 (lǐng nán) refers to the south of the Nanling Mountains. This is an old term for south China, particularly the location of the modern-day Guangdong, Guangxi, and Hainan provinces.
9.甘州 is short for Gansu Province, located in the Northwest of China near Mongolia.
10.上柱国将军: this was an honorary title of meritorious service by high-ranking military commanders. Don't ask me what the English translation for this is o/ . Though 上柱 roughly translates to "upper pillar."
11.弱冠 (ruò guān) refers to how in the past, when Chinese young men reached the age of 20, they would celebrate their coming of age by wearing a crown.
12. 将星 lit. "General/Commander Star" was an auspicious star in Chinese astrology/divination, symbolizing generals. I believe it was also known as the 七杀星 or "Seven Killings Star", associated with bravery, decisiveness, and impulsiveness. (I really don't understand Chinese astrology at all so I'm kind of fumbling in Google Search over here. All these random astrology blogs are literally just mumbo-jumbo to me.)
13. 野良 (yě liáng): 野 means "wild" while 良 can mean "fine or good". I don't know if this has any ulterior meaning so I kind of translated it at random.
14. 力挽狂澜 lit. "to pull strongly against a crazy tide" basically means to try hard to salvage a desperate crisis
15. 命主杀伐; Please have mercy, don't ask me the exact details of Chinese astrology
16. Interestingly enough, Chinese actually has multiple terms for marriage, different from the perspective of the bride vs. the groom. Here the gossipers use 嫁, which is the term for a bride to marry her husband (i.e. Fu Shen would be the "husband" while the other man would be the "wife.")
17. Just to clarify, this is calling Xiao Xun by his courtesy name. Again, people in ancient China often had multiple names. Xiao Xun is his name given at birth, while 重山 (zhòng shān, roughly means "Heavy Mountain") is his courtesy/style name given at adulthood. We'll learn the MC's courtesy name sometime soon.