On this long march, the fear and sorrow in Chang Geng's heart gradually calmed down in the midst of surrounding Iron Armors. He was like a small seedling, just a little bit more sunlight, and he could arise once again.
In the blink of an eye, they had already arrived at the imperial capital.
When the gate of the palace opened on both sides, even the Black Eagles flying high above must kneel down on the ground to show respect.
Gu Yun grasped Chang Geng's back: "Don't think too much, let's go meet your Royal Father."
Chang Geng was pushed by him, and when he really caught sight of an old man lying in bed, he could hardly make the connection between this withered and ill figure with the term 'Emperor'.
He was so old, his greyed hairs resembled a batch of dried up silver threads, his skin was shriveled, and he appeared extremely frail and pallid. His thin lips quivered slightly, and he looked at Gu Yun with difficulty.
Gu Yun's footsteps momentarily paused - although it was undetectable. Chang Geng was sharp and could sense him take in a deep breath, but when he looked back, Gu Yun's face was once again void of emotions.
"Your Majesty, your subject did not disgrace your mission," Gu Yun said, "I have brought His Highness the Fourth Prince back for you."
Emperor Yuan He's eyes slowly turned towards Chang Geng. Chang Geng's whole body froze and for a moment, he wanted to back away. He could feel that the gaze of the old man on the bed contained a long hook that pierced through the flow of time - as if he was not looking at him at all, but was looking at someone else through him.
However, as Gu Yun pushed from behind, Chang Geng could not help but move forward two steps.
Gu Yun whispered in his ear: "Kneel down."
Chang Geng knelt as he was told and saw two lines of tears flowing out of Emperor Yuan He's shriveled and muddy eyes, which followed along with the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and then dripped down.
Chang Geng heard Gu Yun murmur: "Call him 'Royal Father'."
Chang Geng could not bear to say it. On the way over, countless people had snuck glances at him, to the point where he felt as if he would drown under their gazes, but he still could not see any resemblance between himself and the man on the bed, not even a single hair.
He heard Gu Yun come closer to his ear, speaking softly: "Just say one word, whether it is genuine or false, just once."
Chang Geng turned his head and met his little yifu’s eyes. His gaze was clear and cold, and there was not a hint of tears — not even pretense. He appeared both beautiful and ruthless at the same time.
This seemingly ruthless person sighed and whispered: "I'm begging you."
Even if there were more conflicts in Chang Geng's heart, more questions that he couldn't figure out, after hearing this sentence, he had no choice but to compromise. He thought: "Perhaps just let this counterfeit good comfort him."
He lowered his eyes and said with not much heart: "Royal Father."
Emperor Yuan He’s eyes suddenly lit up, as if he was trying to gather all the life force he had left to create a streak of light, his gaze resembling fireworks that illuminated the entire chamber. It almost seemed like no matter how long he looked at Chang Geng, it would still not be enough. After a while, he quietly spoke:
"I give... give you the name 'Min'*, hoping that my son shall grow to be bright and fair, worry-free and at peace...hoping that you shall be safe and sound for an entire lifetime...for hundreds of years... Do you have a childhood name?"
*旻[mín]: meaning the heaven, the sky
"Yes, I am called Chang Geng."
Emperor Yuan He's lips twitched slightly; there were sounds coming from his throat, but he momentarily could not say a word.
Gu Yun had to step forward and help the old Emperor up, gently patting his back and letting him spit out. He shakily gasped for air, panting heavily as he laid back down, his bony and frail hand grabbed Gu Yun's wrist.
Gu Yun: "Your subject is here."
Emperor Yuan He's voice sounded similar to a broken pipe: "His brothers have all grown up, only my Chang Geng,... I could not watch him become an adult ..."
Gu Yun seemed to have sensed something. Making eye contact with the Emperor, one old, one young — one still wet with tears, one with complete calmness, they only exchanged a line of sight, yet it seemed as if a hidden agreement had been made between them.
Gu Yun: "Your subject understood."
"I am entrusting this child to you, Zi Xi, I have no one else, I can only trust you, you must take care of him for me...," Emperor Yuan He's voice grew thinner and thinner, his words became quite incomprehensible near the end. Gu Yun somewhat understood what he meant with difficulty.
"I want to give him his royal status... Where did you find him?"
Gu Yun: "Yanhui Town of the Northern Frontier."
"Yanhui...," Emperor Yuan He repeated this name to himself:
"I have never been to that area, how far away would that be... then... pass...pass on my decree...the fourth son of the Emperor, Li Min, will be titled Yan Bei* Wang, but... but not now, we must wait until after his coming of age ceremony..."
*Yan (bird) from 'Yanhui town' (bird returning) and Bei from 'Northern', Yan Bei means Northern Bird.
Gu Yun listened quietly, normally for royal statuses of Great Liang, a title of one character would be Qin Wang. For example, the Second Prince was granted the title of "Wei Wang". A title made up of two characters was called Jun Wang — they were slightly lower in status compared to the former, usually separated from the members of the royal family by a grade.
*Qin Wang and Jun Wang are other ways to say 'Prince'.
Emperor Yuan He: "I do not wish to wrong him, but I can no longer defend him, I must prevent his older brothers from feeling dissatisfaction in the future ...... Zi Xi, do you understand why we must wait until he comes of age to inherit his title?"
Gu Yun nodded after a pause.
Chang Geng did not know what kind of riddles they were playing at, his heart involuntarily beat like mad, as if he could sense something incoming.
Emperor Yuan He: "Because I want to make a decree, let my Chang Geng be your adopted son. This was not the custom, but I have no one else I can count on. I must break the practice of former generations and let him rely on you for a few years with no title and no status...
"Zi Xi, you must be kind to him, even if you have your own children in the future, don't mistreat him, he is already in his teens, he won't trouble you for much longer... When the time comes for him to be crowned, he will depart to his own manor as a prince ... I have already selected the proper location for it as well..."
Upon getting to this part, Emperor Yuan He was suddenly struck with a violent coughing fit, Gu Yun wanted to reach out and help him but the man waved him off.
The old Emperor looked at Chang Geng’s inexplicably pale complexion, and the more he looked, the more heartbroken he became.
He thought, why can't such a good child like this stay by his side?
After all the trouble and difficulty he went through to find him, why could he not look at him for long?
Emperor Yuan He retracted his eyes away from Chang Geng, like a weak and cowardly child, he said to Gu Yun instead: "He must be weather-beaten and weary from the long travel already, let the boy go get some rest, I want to have a few words with you."
Gu Yun led Chang Geng to the door and handed him over to a guard. He whispered in his ear: "Go rest first, wait for me to come find you later."
Chang Geng did not say anything and silently followed the guard's lead. He could not describe what he was feeling inside.
This time, he had officially and formally become Gu Yun's adopted son. It should be a good thing, yet he could not make himself feel any joy.
However, the prestigious words of the ruler had been bestowed, there was no room for him to refuse. He was not allowed to resist, and he was not allowed to say a word in this matter.
He could only bow his head and walk with small strides away from the palace that was full of a medicinal and deathly aura. But after merely a few steps, Chang Geng involuntarily looked back at Gu Yun and saw that the man was turning sideways back towards the inside of the palace. The young Marquis of Order had a side profile that was as beautiful as a painting.
The heavy formal attire wrapped around him, gave off a sense of restraint that could not be said in a few words, causing a bitter feeling to rise up inside one's chest.
What were you thinking? Chang Geng smiled mockingly and thought to himself: A few days ago you were only the son of a small town's mayor, with a mother who abused you and gave you poison. Today you're the adopted son of the Marquis of Order, you can't even dream up such an amazing thing as this.
He laughed at himself, powerless with everything that had happened around him. The thirteen-year-old boy walked through the dimly lit palace corridor, a total of nine hundred and eighty-one steps — a walk for him to remember for a lifetime.
The gate was tightly closed once again, and the incense burner steaming at the bedside was letting out white smoke.
Emperor Yuan He spoke to Gu Yun, who was kneeling next to him: "I remember in your childhood you were very close with A Yan, you were similar in age. Standing together, the two of you resembled a pair of jade dolls."
At the mention of the Third Prince, Gu Yun's expression finally changed: "Your subject was very stubborn, not at all comparable to the Third Prince, who was already refined and had understanding manners at a young age."
"You were not stubborn," Emperor Yuan He paused, then repeated in a low voice. "Not stubborn... If A Yan resembled you even the slightest bit, he would not have died so young. Dragons birthed dragons, phoenix birthed phoenix, what kind of seed will grow into that kind of tree, Zi Xi, the blood flowing in you is the true iron bloodline of the former Emperor... "
Gu Yun: "Your subject is afraid."
Emperor Yuan He waved his hand: "There are no outsiders today, I want to say a few honest words to you. Zi Xi, you were naturally born to expand territories. Even wolves will tremble and bow down before you, but I always worry that you are too strongly shrouded in a violent and murderous aura, this will have a detrimental effect on your future blessings."
There was a rumor coming from the common folk that Gu Yun's grandfather on his mother's side — Emperor Wu — had done too much killing in his lifetime, causing him to fall into a bleak fate, losing all his children one by one.
"Wei Wang's ambitions might be grand, but with you keeping guard, the country that belongs to the Crown Prince in the future was not of much concern, I'm only concerned about you... You must listen to my words, all good matters in this world could turn bad once it is too much, you must cherish and build your blessings for times to come ... The old head monk of Hu Guo Temple could be considered to have watched over you since you were young, the teachings of Buddha are boundless. If you have some downtime, you should go visit his place for a while."
The old bald donkey of Hu Guo Temple had a crow's beak: he once said that Gu Yun bore the Star of Calamity, bearing ill affinity with family relatives — parents, siblings, spouse, and children. Because of this, Gu Yun had always refused to step into that temple.
At this time, as he heard the Emperor mention this matter, Gu Yun reminded himself: "Yes, that's right, almost forgot about that bald old man, I must wait for the opportunity to arise and settle all loans with him at once, and set fire to his phony and rotten temple that scams people."
The reason for his deep resentment was not due to him being small-hearted. That year, after the death of the old marquis, the Emperor had also used this argument of 'heavy killing intent will bring in bad omens' to weaken the Black Iron Camp.
However, in recent years, there were sightings of 'Dragons*' belonging to foreign countries frequently traveling to Great Liang's sea. From the Northern Frontier to the Western Regions, and even the Eastern Sea from thousands of miles away — not a single territory of Great Liang could be free from the greedy eyes of foreign enemies, like hungry tigers overlooking their prey.
*'dragons' in this story is a type of ship used to travel by sea.
Too much killing could bring ill omens - so did it mean that a fallen country, every place everywhere engulfed in the flame and smokes of war, the people straying, bodies of the dead floating for miles — could be seen as peace and prosperity?
If Marshal Gu and the Black Iron Camp were as sentimental as his distant cousin here, then for the innocent civilians of this grand nation, who must they rely on to defend their territories?
Are we going to use the Imperial Court's scholars to 'conquer people with morality'?
Truth to be told, not only did Gu Yun want to battle, he also wanted to give them a battle to remember once and for all. It was best to completely wipe out the Western Regions, marching through the doorsteps of the Western foreigners who spent their days craving for the territories of Central Plains, let them be frightened and never dare to look at other people's beautiful nations again.
When the situation of the rebellion in the Western Regions had settled, Gu Yun once brought forth his request for exactly this. But perhaps the Emperor thought that he had already turned insane, because he thoroughly dismissed this request; not only did he refuse, he also used the strange task of 'searching for the Fourth Prince' to send him off to the Northern Frontier.
Of course, the Emperor had not foreseen; while he held Gu Yun restricted at the Northern Frontier, Gu Yun captured a barbarian prince to bring back for him.
For some people, the Star of Carnage shone directly on their head, and if they were not loyal generals who helped expand the territory, they were bound to return to bring disasters upon their own country and people.
The sentimental Emperor and the cold-hearted young General — one sitting, one lying — on the narrow bedside, dug deep into their hearts one last time, but in the end, neither of them could convince the other.
Emperor Yuan He looked at his ice-cold eyes and suddenly felt immense sorrow.
The old Emperor thought, if he wasn't greedy for imperial powers, then wouldn't he just be a leisurely prince who walked the dog?
Then he wouldn't have met the woman whose fate was already decided. Perhaps he would have given his lifetime of affection to someone else, and he wouldn't have to spend years and years of his life separated from his wife and child.
This kind of throne full of thorns and dried bones, perhaps only the people who were determined to kill and were resolute like the Marquis of Order were qualified to sit on it?
Emperor Yuan He whispered: "Zi Xi...Zi Xi ah..."
Gu Yun's expression that was cast in iron suddenly wavered, his eyelids slightly drooping down, and his straight shoulders became slightly softer, no longer so inhumanly stiff.
Emperor Yuan He asked: "Do you despise me?"
Gu Yun: "Your subject does not dare to."
Emperor Yuan He asked again: "Then will you remember me in the future?"
Gu Yun closed his mouth.
The old Emperor stared at him, he did not let go and continued to press on: "Why are you not speaking?"
Gu Yun was silent for a while; one could not make out a hint of sorrow on his face:
"If Your Majesty also goes, Zi Xi will no longer have any family members left."
Emperor Yuan He's chest seemed to be tightened up by an invisible hand for a moment. He had never heard this little bastard say such warm-hearted words before in his life. Just this one sentence had almost erased all the resentment and affection between the two generations that have never been spoken out loud before, leaving in the continuous flow of time a faint and solitary regret of having to part with one another.
At this moment, a servant at the door carefully reminded: "Your Majesty, it is time for the medicine."
Gu Yun quickly recovered. As he looked up again, he had already reverted back to a disdained and unparalleled lethal weapon hidden in human form: "Your Majesty, please take care of yourself, I will take my leave now."
Emperor Yuan He suddenly opened his mouth again and called his nickname: "Xiao Shiliu!"
Gu Yun stopped in his tracks.
Emperor Yuan He struggled to reach under the pillow and found a bracelet of old wooden beads: "Come here, give me your hand."
Gu Yun looked at the panting old man putting the Buddhist bracelet of no value around his wrist, complicated emotions rising up inside of him.
"This cousin...will be watching you," Emperor Yuan He quietly said while patting the back of his hand.
Gu Yun's heart was hurting too much to bear it and he could no longer maintain his calm composure, so he could only quickly request to be excused.
Three days later, the Emperor passed away.
Magistrates and military officers and thousands of civilians once again bid farewell to an era.