Gu Yun slowly took out a liuli glass and placed it on the bridge of his nose. He casually walked over to Chang Geng's side, pushed open the window, and narrowed his eyes towards the parking platform.
The liuli glass was equipped with a thin chain of white gold hanging behind the ear, covering one of his peach blossom eyes, making the bridge of his nose appear straighter. His whole temperament suddenly gave off a cold aura resembling an animal in the clothes of a human.
Chang Geng stared at him for a while and asked: "Yifu, what are you wearing?"
Gu Yun teased him: "A little accessory from the Western foreigners, does it look good? It is a fashionable trend for the people over there to wear this. Let me stroll one round outside later and bring back a Western stepmother for you, okay?"
Chang Geng: "..."
A little soldier belonging to the Black Eagle faction attempted to ease the heavy atmosphere in the room. He smartly said: "Marshal, you are not the blood-related father either!"
Gu Yun laughed along without a care.
The little soldier shook his head and said: "The world has become different in the past few years, and the hearts of the people also changed. Before, women used to value our virtues and temperament, and we didn't have to worry. But now it's the opposite; they only care about whether men are good-looking or not. Marshal, us brothers are not single because we're unsightly, but simply because we were born in the wrong era."
The local specialty of the Black Iron Camp was single men. Upon hearing these words, everyone else noisily followed suit.
Gu Yun laughed out loud: "Get off, don't group me into it! Who is unsightly? I am the flower of the Black Iron Camp's three factions, whose reputation runs far across the ocean."
The group of rough and crude military men was utterly shocked by their own Marshal's shamelessness and had no other choice but to burst out laughing. Shen Yi said coolly: "Marshal, if you are as beautiful as a flower, how come you also can't find a wife then?"
Gu Yun's grievance was poked in just one sentence. Marshal Gu had to cover his chest, and said: "I'm holding off waiting for the price to go up, all good things must be saved for last. What do you know?"
Speaking of this matter, one truly could not place the blame on Gu Yun.
Back then, the former Emperor's feelings for him were quite contradictory. He loved Gu Yun, yet he was cautious of him at the same time. It was fine when he was a child, but as he grew older, the marriage of the young marquis became a fishbone stuck in the throat of the former emperor.
If choosing someone from a lowly family, he was afraid that people would criticize that he had mistreated the descendant of a loyal subject. The former emperor wouldn't be able to stop the masses from talking no matter what his reasoning might be. But if he chose someone from a highly influential family, he would feel nothing but anxiety.
Both choices were difficult when faced with this dilemma. Perhaps in that year, the former emperor had wished that Gu Yun was only a little eunuch.
The matter of the Marquis of Order's marriage had been dragged on and delayed for a long time, and finally, the emperor chose the daughter of Grand Scholar Guo.
The Guo family had generation after generation of highly educated scholars; they were both influential and pure. Young Lady Guo was said to be as beautiful as an orchid; her talents and knowledge were renowned throughout the capital. That year, together with the crown prince's wife - who was now the current empress - they made up the capital's Pair of Beauties. This choice didn't have any personal benefit involved and also wouldn't disgrace Gu Yun.
But it was really strange, ever since after their engagement, this renowned flower seemed to have been covered in frost. She began to grow ill and became weaker and weaker every day. In the end, without waiting for Gu Yun to come back victoriously from the frontline, Miss Guo had already passed away.
Thinking about it, there were many people whose wives had passed away; it was nothing out of the norm, let alone a betrothed who had not been wedded yet. But as this matter involved the Marquis of Order, it was hard for people not to recall his lonesome grandfather who lost all his wives and children, and the passing of Gu Yun's own parents when he was young.
Just like that, the Marquis' reputation, whose fate countered his own wife, started to spread out throughout the capital.
Being wed to the Marquis of Order was a great blessing. Aside from many gains, there was no need to serve the in-laws either. But even with blessings as grand as heaven, one must stay alive to be able to enjoy them.
Later, Gu Yun had to run back and forth between the Northern Frontier and the Western Regions, he did not return to the capital for the past four or five years, and there was no opportunity to take care of this matter. Now that the former emperor was gone, and although the current Emperor was older than Gu Yun by a few years, he had been referring to Gu Yun as 'royal uncle' ever since his childhood. They were separated by a generation. Even if one was the monarch and the other was a subject, it was still not convenient for him to manage Gu Yun's marriage arrangement.
Gu Yun himself did not have the energy to be concerned about it, and thus the matter got delayed until the present.
Shen Yi refused to spare him: "Raising the price? Who do you want to sell yourself to?"
Gu Yun looked up; through the liuli glass, he saw that Chang Geng was staring at him intently, his expression quite tense. Gu Yun assumed that the boy was worried that after getting married, Gu Yun wouldn't love him anymore.
He raised his hand and patted Chang Geng's head in an attempt at comforting him: "I like someone who is intelligent, gentle, and kind. Rest assured, I definitely won't bring back a He Dong lion* to bully you."
*a term used to refer to women who are ferocious and violent.
This line seemed to have carved out a hole in Chang Geng's chest, as if the indecent ideas he once thought he successfully suppressed used this chance to rise once again, making a fuss, filling him with sorrow and hopelessness, with no place to free them.
He had to force himself to squeeze out a stiff smile.
With the same effort he used every night to force himself to sleep.
At that moment, there was a sudden noise on the Ting Yuan Platform, a mixture of both drumming sounds and cheering. A few Westerners who were dancing with monkeys and parrots all withdrew from the stage. Afterward, a large iron cage covered with a piece of cloth was brought up. A Western clown in white makeup twisted and turned as he set up a huge flaming hoop. After hovering and posing for a while in an attempt to stir up enough curiosity and interest from the crowd, the cover was finally lifted.
There was an enormous tiger in the cage!
Ge Pang Xiao leaned his whole body out of the window and asked: "Is it real or fake? Is that a real tiger?"
The clown opened the iron cage and led the tiger out by its collar.
There was no telling if it was because there were too many people watching that the tiger seemed quite irritated and restless. It wouldn't stop making struggling movements.
Gu Yun frowned and said coldly: "This group of foreigners really knows how to be courteous. Bringing out a wild beast like this for New Year celebration - Xiao Jia!"
The young Black Eagle soldier who talked the most just now responded: "Yes!"
Gu Yun: "Go find people to keep an eye out; there are countless onlookers below, don't let anything happen."
Xiao Jia, upon receiving his order, immediately jumped directly off the terrace of the Red Kite. Where they currently resided was about thirty meters above the ground. His shadow flashed, leaving thin white steam in the air, then disappeared in the blink of an eye.
In the midst of the loud noises, the uneasy tiger began to jump reluctantly through the ring of fire; its face appeared ferocious, as if it was being forced to act against its will.
On Yunmeng Grand View, round after round of cheers and applause rang out, the next one louder than the last, some even began to throw money down in the heat of the moment.
While watching the performances, it was not uncommon for the overexcited crowd to throw a few harmless coins down to the Ting Yuan Platform. Many people did this, but today no one knew where it came from, but a careless and moronic watcher directly threw gold leaves down below.
The lively crowd who was watching under the stage suddenly blew up, and many shouts of 'look, there is gold!' sounded out endlessly.
But before anyone could get to the gold, the tiger that was jumping through the flaming hoop became completely agitated. It snarled and turned around, taking a chunk out of the unguarded clown.
The clown's arm and shoulder were immediately bitten off on the spot. He let out a bloodcurdling scream.
The tiger roared, broke free of control, and charged towards the sea of people under the Ting Yuan Platform.
The people from the inner circle were utterly frightened by the beast, trying to flee for their lives, while the people from the outer circle were still unaware of the situation. Somehow hearing that people were fighting for gold leaves inside, they continued to squeeze in.
With one side pushing, and the other shoving, no one was able to move.
Someone shouted 'gold', another cried 'tiger'. Some had fallen to the ground, unable to get up. The situation quickly plunged into complete chaos.
The night guards were also smashed into by the crowd. There was no shortage of officials and nobility in Qi Yuan Tower - many of them did not put the lives of ordinary people in their eyes. In a rush, they were only concerned about their own, and even while escaping, they still couldn't forget their images, ordering their servants to clear a path for them.
Gu Yun grabbed Chang Geng's shoulder and pushed him back, then picked up the arrow and the longbow that Shen Yi hung behind the door and told him: "Don't come out."
The Black Iron Camp soldiers sitting at the table all stood up.
Shen Yi held onto Gu Yun's elbow and blurted out: "Your eyes..."
Chang Geng was sharp; he immediately lifted his head and thought: "Eyes? What happened to his eyes?"
Gu Yun ignored it and pulled his arm away, then kicked open the door of the Red Kite.
Several Eagle units on the Red Kite leaped down from above, flying low to the ground. Few small fireworks blasted out cold light. Another Black Iron Armored soldier who was stationed at a higher place began to climb up the signaling pole of the Red Kite, holding a tong hou in his hand. He shouted towards the chaotic crowd: "The Marquis of Order is here, do not cause a commotion!"
This sentence was actually more effective than hearing the emperor's sacred decree. Many people instinctively stopped pushing and shoving immediately upon hearing the three words: 'Marquis of Order'.
The tiger's howling came from a distance, and the raging beast rushed out like a lightning bolt, with a young man pressed under its claws. Gu Yun stood on the head of the koi fish ship, leaned on the window, tilted his body, and began to pull the arrow.
His liuli glass still sat on the bridge of his nose - no one ever wore a liuli glass for shooting, as this thing would cause the field of vision to become inaccurate. His thin clothing flew in the hot wind of the flaming fins, and his figure gave off an indescribable arrogant aura. It truly was like doing archery with closed eyes.
However, Shen Yi knew that if Gu Yun were to take off his glass at this moment, he wouldn't be able to differentiate between human and beast, it would basically not be that much different from closing his eyes.
Why must it happen in this life and death situation?
Shen Yi's hands broke out in a layer of thin sweat involuntarily, and his back tightened up.
At this moment, Gu Yun let go of the bowstring.
The arrow was like a meteor, flying straight through the complex cobweb-rope system under twenty Red Kites, and landed in the back of the tiger's head. There was no telling how much force the arrow held, but it had directly pierced the thick and large skull of the beast. The tiger swayed, then slammed to the ground, dead before it could make any noise.
Gu Yun's hands did not stop there, pulling the string again with the second arrow, his back leaning on the door frame, turning at an angle. Almost without aiming, the arrow was released. The target was the one who threw gold leaves on the observation deck.
There was a scream on the deck, the arrow grazed past a foreigner's head, nailing his hat to the nearby post, the tail of the arrow still vibrating greatly.
The man fell flat on the floor from his chair.
Gu Yun put away the longbow. He turned to speak to the Black Armor soldier on the pole: "Plotting to harm people, arrest him for questioning."
Only now could the man who was pinned down by the tiger slowly gather himself together, letting out small sobs. The surrounding people were in the same frightened state and someone moved forward to help him get out.
Under the Ting Yuan Platform, an inconspicuous and thin figure disappeared into the crowd, using the commotion to get on board a boat that was not too far from there.
As soon as he arrived, he untied his headscarf, revealing a black-haired, black-eyed man, his appearance somewhat resembling Central Plains people. He was quickly allowed into the room inside to meet the one who had been waiting for him.
It was a man near middle age, dressed in a white garment and a red robe with complicated embroidery. A strangely shaped and sinister scepter was set beside him, his curly dark brown hair was combed neatly, left hanging on his shoulders, with a large ceremonious ring on his finger.
It was the messenger sent by the pope.
The small-framed black-haired foreigner respectfully got down on one knee: "Bishop."
The bishop's upper body leaned forward slightly, indicating that he was listening.
"I am afraid the result is just as you had predicted," said the black-haired man. "In the hearts of these Easterners, Gu and his family bear some sort of symbolic meaning, as long as the 'black crow' flies through the night sky, even if faced with a bigger crisis, these foolish people will be blindly stabilized like a herd of sheep who have found their shepherd dog. This unreasonable belief of theirs is difficult to comprehend, even if in my opinion, many of them don't even know Gu Yun's full name."
The bishop pondered for a moment: "The 'seed' did not cause any casualties."
"Hardly any," the black-haired man bowed his head. "The Marquis of Order happened to be on the Red Kite as well. I don't know if his men were earlier arranged to mix into the crowd, or our people had leaked traces of their whereabouts, or if he himself possesses an exceptional ability in sensing critical situations. As soon as we planted the seed, the black crows immediately reacted. Gu killed the seed with one shot of his arrow from the Red Kite and had the 'seeder' arrested at the same time."
The bishop leaned back on the carved chair, his fingers stroking his beard: "This is not Gu's personal prestige, but the accumulation of three generations altogether. The Central Plains people blindly placed their trust in these black crows, almost forming some kind of firm belief in the Gu family."
The black-haired man: "The Church has long discussed why there are frequent loopholes in Eastern society, but somehow their people were able to maintain this ragged peace. I think this belief is also one of the reasons."
The bishop stood up and took a few steps on the boat deck with his hands behind his back.
"This is our chance," he murmured, "And not at all an unfortunate event - I must write to the pope, we can put the Lou Lan* Plan into action immediately."
*Lou Lan is a country located along the Silk Road.
At this time, the situation on the Qi Yuan Tower had finally stabilized. The Imperial Guards quickly arrived for assistance, and Gu Yun recognized that his work here was done. He made a gesture to Shen Yi, signaling for them to leave. His sight was already very blurry, and his hearing was also decreasing; the surrounding noise of the commotion slowly became quieter.
Gu Yun said to a Black Eagle guard: "I am going ahead first to take care of something. You follow His Highness. If they are willing to go home, wait until after everything has settled down before you do so. If they want to play some more on the Red Kite, let them be. I don't know if there will be any more performances."
Chang Geng asked: "Yifu, what about you?"
At that moment, Gu Yun could no longer hear what he was saying. He just patted the boy's shoulder and hurried away.
The rumbling noise from under their feet became louder as the Red Kite slowly landed on the Ting Yuan Platform. Gu Yun and Shen Yi walked out side by side. The night frost was heavy. Chang Geng held onto the cloak that Gu Yun left in his hands, trying to catch up to them until a Black Eagle soldier prevented him.
The soldier said: "His Royal Highness, please stay. Grand Marshal does not wear winter clothes in the capital. The situation outside is still chaotic; please don't leave your subordinate."
A suspicion suddenly arose in Chang Geng's heart - why wouldn't he wear it? With Gu Yun's body, it was obviously not because he wasn't afraid of the cold.
There were also the words 'your eyes' that Shen Yi had called out with anxiousness that also made him feel like there was a bone stuck in his throat.
Chang Geng couldn't help but be reminded of the 'playing blind and deaf' Shen Shiliu back in Yanhui Town. Of course, Shen Shiliu's eyes and ears were partially an inconvenience for him to use to play tricks, but Chang Geng had confirmed that there were situations where he truly could not see. Was it merely to fool Xiu Niang and those barbarians who intended to infiltrate the Northern Frontier?
The more he thought about it, the more anxious he became. Chang Geng's heart was suddenly filled with unease; and even after the soldier had diligently escorted them back to the Marquis' Manor, the feeling still wouldn't subside.
Chang Geng returned to his room. He wasn't able to fall asleep even after tossing and turning. Once he had sent Cao Niangzi and Ge Pang Xiao away, he quietly put on his coat and ran to Gu Yun's chamber to wait.
Gu Yun's place was spotless, with the kind of neatness and cleanliness seen in military men, and with no excessive decoration. There were a few books on the desk, a used steam-powered lamp, and calligraphy hanging on the wall; which read: "The World Cannot Be Avoided", it appeared to be Gu Yun's own handwriting.
In addition to a brand-new fox fur coat that hung on the bedpost, the Marquis' bedroom was almost shabby.
Chang Geng waited for a while and unknowingly fell asleep on top of the small table. As his chest was pressed, he soon dreamed of unsightly things.
In a haze, Gu Yun seemed to be standing ahead, with his back towards him. In the dream, Chang Geng was not restrained by the shackles of their boundaries; his actions were a lot bolder than in reality. He intimately pulled Gu Yun from behind: "Yifu."
Gu Yun slowly turned back, but his eye sockets were completely hollow, two streams of blood like tears trickled down his cheeks: "Calling for me?"
Chang Geng screamed and sat up, cold wind swept in through the entrance. He stared at the person coming from outside in a daze.
Gu Yun did not expect that Chang Geng would actually be in his room. He quickly closed the door and asked: "Why are you here?"
His voice was hoarse, and his face also appeared to be unwell.
The cold air hanging in Chang Geng's chest was finally able to come out when he saw Gu Yun. For a moment, he wasn't able to distinguish between dreams and reality. He almost felt ecstasy from being able to find something again after he thought it was gone.
Gu Yun stood by the door frame for a moment, endured a wave of dizziness, and weakly beckoned Chang Geng: "Come and help me - I still have to bring you into the palace tomorrow to greet His Majesty for the New Year, be careful to make sure you're able to get up on time."
Chang Geng held his elbow and helped him get to the bedside: "Yifu, what's the matter with you?"
"On the way back, they dragged me along to the Northern Camp, I have had a bit too much." Gu Yun didn't bother taking his shoes off and fell back first onto his bed. He had just taken medicine, and his head was still pounding. He said tiredly: "Go back to rest early."
Chang Geng's brows wrinkled - Gu Yun's body did have the scent of wine, but it was not heavy, and his speech was clear, not at all appearing like he'd 'had too much'.
However, he did not wait for him to ask again. Gu Yun had gone silent, falling asleep the moment his head touched the pillow.
Chang Geng had to remove his shoes and socks for him, before pulling on the quilt to cover him up. He always felt that the chill on Gu Yun's body could never warm up; he burned the steam brazier in the room a notch higher and rested by the bedpost, quietly looking at Gu Yun's sleeping face.
"I don't let my imagination run astray." He repeated the words inside three times, and then, like an anxious little animal, he moved slightly closer to Gu Yun, as if wanting to sniff at the scent on the other's body, but he'd involuntarily held his breath.
The next day, when Chang Geng felt that he had barely just closed his eyes and his nightmare didn't even have time to complete yet, Gu Yun had already woken him up. He joylessly followed Marshal Gu to the palace to greet his older brother in name - Emperor Long An.
On the way, Gu Yun said: "Regardless of how His Majesty treats you, you shouldn't pay it much mind. When the grand empress was alive, she did not get along very well with the royal consort, but it was the matter of the older generation and had nothing to do with you...Damn it, what bad luck."
Chang Geng was absent-mindedly listening when he heard him curse under his breath. Chang Geng looked up to find that Gu Yun was staring at a carriage with a scowl.
It was the carriage of Hu Guo Temple.
Great Liang's royal family practiced Buddhism, and even Gu Yun's resolute grandfather was no exception. Especially the current Emperor, on any occasion where he had some free time, he would always love to sit and discuss all kinds of matters with the head monks.
But to talk about Gu Yun's most hated thing, it was not those foreigners on all four sides, but instead these bald heads.
In particular, the vulture old abbot of Hu Guo Temple had a crow's mouth, and from an early age, he asserted that Gu Yun would bear ill affinity and counter the fates of all his relatives.
The Marquis of Order had placed all his anger at being unable to get married to the monks of Hu Guo Temple.
The personal assistant of Long An Emperor Li Feng slowly ran out as he saw Gu Yun coming.
The man was sturdy and almost as tall as Marshal Gu, but three times as wide. Naturally born with two tiny feet, when taking small steps, he resembled a tree with large leaves swaying in the wind, very graceful.
This person's surname was Zhu. Others called him Eunuch Zhu face to face, but behind his back, people referred to him as 'Zhu Little Feet'.
Zhu Little Feet did not have an excellent reputation. He raised two 'adopted sons' outside the palace. They always plastered themselves in face powder and makeup, and no one knew what for.
Due to Great Liang having expanded their sea route early, the common people's customs were not as close-minded as the previous dynasties. There were many shameful secrets and unspeakable matters hidden amongst every official and noble; hence, the matter of Zhu Little Feet should be nothing if this eunuch did not condone his sons taking advantage of his rank and name for their personal gains.
Zhu Little Feet stopped in front of Gu Yun and smiled. "Marquis and Your Highness have arrived already? His Majesty is having a conversation with Master Liao Chi of Hu Guo Temple. They have instructed that if you both have arrived, you can go straight in; Head Monk Liao Chi said that it has been so long since he has last seen you - oh, just in time, the masters are coming out!"
During the conversation, two monks came out from inside.
Gu Yun knew the one leading in front: the man had a wrinkled-up face that was full of sorrow, as if he had never eaten a full meal in his life. It was the head monk of the Hu Guo Temple.
Gu Yun's gaze couldn't help but fall on the man behind him. He was also a monk, about twenty or thirty years old, dressed in a snow-white robe. His face was as beautiful as a painting. Stepping on the small trail of the palace in his clean and neat shoes, he appeared like a divine being approaching on the snow.
Even though Gu Yun hated the bald heads, at that moment, he still couldn't help but be reminded of the legend of the monk* who had traveled to Tianzhu from a past dynasty.
*a reference to the monk San Zhang in 'Journey to the West' who had traveled to Tianzhu to obtain Buddha's books of teaching for his countrymen.
As if the young monk could sense something, he looked up to meet Gu Yun's gaze. His eyes were clear, and there seemed to be a sea of serene stars inside that could make people sink into them with just one glance.
The young monk clasped his hands together, greeting Gu Yun from far away.
Gu Yun seemed to have broken out of a dream and averted his sight; he thought, "What am I staring at a bald head for?"
He did not pay any attention to the other, looked away rudely, and asked Zhu Little Feet: "Who is the little white face with the bald donkey?"
Zhu Little Feet had watched Gu Yun grow up since he was a child and understood his personality, he quickly replied: "That is the head monk's younger martial brother, Master Liao Ran, who has just returned from traveling overseas."
Gu Yun thought: "What kind of crappy name is this? I feel unlucky just by hearing it."
Who would have thought that the more he wished to avoid others, the more they insisted on coming over to greet him face to face.
Head Monk Liao Chi led his overly beautiful younger brother over, clasped his hands together to greet Gu Yun, then smiled brightly: "I haven't seen you for many years. The Marquis still appears as graceful as ever. It truly is a blessing for us Great Liang people."
The old man's hideous face suffocated Gu Yun. He thought to himself, "Isn't it? Haven't been cursed to death by you yet."
Of course, as the Marquis of Order, he couldn't be as unreasonable as to pick a fight just depending on his emotions. At least on the surface, he must remain vigilant. He only casually nodded: "All thanks to the blessing of the Master."
The white-faced monk also bowed down to pay respect, but he hadn't said a word, only smiling gently, Gu Yun couldn't help but glance at him.
Liao Chi explained: "Marquis, please don't blame him, although my younger brother has an excellent understanding of Buddha's teaching; unfortunately, he was born to follow the path of silent meditation."
Gu Yun was surprised; unexpectedly, this Liao Ran person was mute.
The monk stepped forward and extended his hands towards Gu Yun. His face was very white, making his eyebrows appear even blacker, like a piece of wood on the snow. If he weren't a monk, he would have long black hair, together with a pair of red lips and white teeth, similar to a bewitching deity made out of white porcelain.
Gu Yun frowned slightly, thinking: "What is he doing? Does he want to enlighten me?"
Head Monk Liao Chi explained: "The Marquis carries the peace and stability of all Great Liang on your shoulders, I assume that you will soon have to depart to the frontier in a few days. My younger brother wishes to pray for your safety."
Gu Yun made a faint smile: "There is no need to bother the master, that is not necessary - I have never read the teachings before, and I have never offered an incense either, I will not bother the Buddha."
Liao Chi: "Amitabha, Buddhist doctrine is boundless, enlightening all beings. These words of the marquis are mistaken."
As Gu Yun heard the words 'Amitabha', he was already struck with the urge to beat someone. His patience had reached its limit. No longer wanting to talk to them, he coldly replied: "His Majesty is still waiting, I dare not delay anymore, I will pay a visit another day, pardon me for not being able to accompany you."
After he finished, he pulled Chang Geng along to follow Zhu Little Feet's lead inside the palace. Chang Geng inadvertently looked back and saw that the monk was not at all affected by Gu Yun's attitude; he remained as devout and sincere as when kneeling in front of Buddha. His mouth continued to make silent words as if sending his prayer and fortune towards Gu Yun, who was gradually walking further away, regardless of whether Gu Yun himself wanted them or not.
Chang Geng was in a daze when a hand suddenly pulled him. Gu Yun spoke in a hushed tone mixed with irritation, "What's so good about looking at monks? Looking too long will cause dizziness."
Chang Geng was well behaved and retracted his gaze; he asked Gu Yun: "Yifu, that master said soon you will have to leave the capital, is it true?"
Gu Yun: "Mm."
Chang Geng asked: "When?"
"It is not yet decided," Gu Yun replied. "I still have to assess the Emperor's opinion - if I am gone, you are the biggest one in the manor, you have the final say, if there is anything you don't understand, you can discuss it with Uncle Wang."
Gu Yun did not need to remind Chang Geng to focus on his studies or be diligent with martial arts practice and other things because, in this respect, Chang Geng was already diligent enough to make an elder like Gu Yun feel ashamed.
Chang Geng was dumbfounded as he heard this. After a while, he asked with distress: "Is yifu not going to bring me along?"
"Ah?" Gu Yun did not understand. "What am I bringing you along for?"
Chang Geng's footsteps came to a halt.
Before this day, Chang Geng never considered this situation.
From Yanhui to the capital, they had always been together. Chang Geng did not realize that once his little yifu led his troops back to the Northwest again, they would be separated from each other by half of the Central Plains.
In the blink of an eye, Chang Geng's heart was plunged into a spiral of thoughts - in the eyes of his yifu, he was only just a child who wasn't well-versed in either literary or martial arts. The soldiers going to the frontier were equipped with armors and weapons; who would bring a family member as a burden along with them?
In the future, when Gu Yun would go to the Northwest Frontier, if it was safe on that side, he may still be able to return to the capital to report once a year. But if the situation was unstable, who knew how long he would have to be stationed there. Now, Chang Geng was officially fourteen years old, how many years did he have left before his coming of age ceremony?
At that time, he would have to leave the shelter and protection of the Marquis of Order and move out of the manor alone. He would bear with him a false identity, living in this vast and lonesome capital...
Yifu would soon have to marry a wife and have children, and when that time came, would he still remember this small burden that he used to raise like livestock in the manor?
They referred to each other as father and son, but their fate was like that of a broken lamp, burned away immediately in the blink of an eye, it was only he who still remained immersed in this delusional dream.
As his thoughts reached this point, the entire palace seemed to have become a big ice cavern, freezing him inside.
When Gu Yun saw that Chang Geng suddenly stopped his feet, he turned back and looked at him with confusion.
In a panic, Chang Geng involuntarily blurted out: "I want to go to the frontier with you! I can enlist in the army!
Gu Yun thought to himself: Don't cause trouble, it already took so much effort to dig you up and bring you out of the door for a walk; what is this talk about joining military ranks?
However, after a half-year of 'on-hand experience', he generally already discovered a trick to acting as an elder. He did not directly disgrace Chang Geng face to face, only smiled with an over-the-top, seemingly exaggerated encouragement: "Very well, be my soldier in the future, alright, little Prince?
Chang Geng: "..."
Of course, what Gu Yun had discovered was a trick to deal with a four-year-old child; he was ten years off the mark.
Chang Geng's affection and desperation were lightly swept back to him by the other man as if they were not worth anything.
The young boy then quietly closed his mouth, no longer struggling unnecessarily. He stared at Gu Yun's broad back as if staring at a narrow door that he could never reach for the rest of his life.
Long An Emperor Li Feng was Chang Geng's brother in name, but from their appearances alone, one could not see that they shared blood, as His Majesty looked more like the former emperor.
This was only the second time that Chang Geng met him. Compared with the frantic situation last time, he could see the man a lot more clearly now. The new Emperor had just reached the age of thirty - this period was said to be the most beautiful one in a man's life. His face was pleasant-looking and appeared extraordinarily refined and educated. Even if he had not been the emperor, judging from his appearance alone, one could already tell that he was meant to be successful in life.
Chang Geng was very keen, especially after arriving at the capital. He became even sharper at reading others' facial expressions and speeches. Gu Yun seldom ever mentioned anything, but Teacher Shen wasn't so mindful about this subject. Shen Yi harbored quite a lot of dissatisfaction towards the Emperor and often complained in private. Hence it was easy for one to link His Majesty with the image of someone who was mean-spirited and small-hearted.
But in actuality, it was not at all like what one might imagine.
Gu Yun hadn't even set foot inside yet, but Emperor Long An had already ordered a servant to bring out the brazier: "I had told them that Imperial Uncle would come early. Hurry, come on in to warm up, I feel cold just by looking at you."
Emperor Long An called him 'Imperial Uncle', but in reality, this was not quite right, for Gu Yun did not bear the surname Li after all. In the past, with love and affection, the former emperor casually assigned this role, but the current Emperor still kept this intimate habit from his childhood years.
In front of Gu Yun, he did not use the pronoun 'zhen'* or display his status. There was an enthusiastic intimacy in his manner, not at all similar to how a ruler would treat his subject, but instead a lot more like how one would treat their family member.
*zhen is the pronoun all emperors used for themselves instead of saying 'I/me'
"Xiao Chang Geng also came," Li Feng looked at Chang Geng and sighed. "Young ones sure change so much day by day, the boy was not this tall the last time I saw him - I have just inherited the throne, and I am constantly worrying and always have both my hands full these few months, hence why I couldn't pay more attention to you. Come closer, let big brother take a good look at you."
Chang Geng had already prepared to be 'disliked' - but the Emperor's 'dislike' was so well-hidden, to the point where he could not sense it at all.
This Imperial City, be it gratitude or enmity, they were all carefully hidden. At first glance, everyone appeared to be happy and pleasant.
Gu Yun and the Emperor casually chatted, and once in a while, they would reminisce about their childhood days. Afterward, Emperor Long An brought out the 'red packet money' he had prepared for Chang Geng.
Chang Geng, a child who grew up in Yanhui Town, had never experienced the world. He only knew 'no work, no reward'. As he listened to Zhu Little Feet listing out all of his gifts one by one, he almost felt uneasy, suspicious that the reason Gu Yun picked him up early in the morning to come into the palace was simply to find the Emperor to collect all these goods!
Emperor Long An happily asked about the progress of Chang Geng's martial arts practice and reading. He said: "You are a descendant of our Li family. You should be diligent, grow to be a talented individual with a strong will, and help share some of brother's workloads. What does Chang Geng want to do in the future?"
Chang Geng looked at Gu Yun and said: "To become a soldier under the Marshal in the future, serve him by his side, and help open up the territory for Your Majesty."
Emperor Long An laughed, appeared to be very pleased, constantly praising Chang Geng for having ambition.
Gu Yun lifted a teacup from the table and took a sip. He didn't interject and just laughed, his eyes became thin lines from laughter, very warming.
"Who is serving who?" He thought helplessly.
Though helpless, he couldn't help but feel that these words were incredibly comforting, flowing from his ears to his heart. Even the bad luck from having encountered the monks just now was thoroughly swept away.
Emperor Long An jokingly said: "This is the plan, but the soldiers in the frontiers must endure very harsh living conditions. How can your yifu be willing to let you go out there to suffer?"
Gu Yun knew that the Emperor was using this roundabout way to warn him. Keenly aware of the situation, he smartly responded: "If your subject dared to bring the little prince to the battlefield, as an older brother, Your Majesty would be the first one to reprimand me."
Emperor Long An was satisfied with this reply, he beckoned Zhu Little Feet over: "The messenger of the Western Pope gifted us a big clock last time, and its size is even bigger than the rockery in the Imperial Garden, almost resembling a small building, and every half an hour, puppets come out to perform songs and dances, very lively. You bring Chang Geng to see it. I want to chat with the imperial uncle for a while."
Chang Geng knew that they had important business to discuss, so he immediately followed Zhu Little Feet outside.
Zhu Little Feet was very diligent in treating this incredibly well-mannered Fourth Prince and led him towards the pavilion.
The 'Warm Pavilion' was a semi-enclosed garden with colorful glazed tiles on the outside. The airy places were equipped with steam braziers. Inside, it was spring all throughout the year, with countless flowers blooming.
The grandfather clock Emperor Long An spoke of was placed in the middle with a Western picture-viewing device, the scenery before him resembling a mountainous landscape.
Chang Geng felt very impressed by the exquisite craftsmanship of foreigners, but like most of the Central Plains people, he could not appreciate the overly bright colors of the pictures in the device. After his momentary amazement, he soon lost interest. His eyes fell on the corner of the pavilion. There were two people there; one was the monk who they previously met on the way.
Liao Ran could not speak. He gently made a few gestures with his hands. The little abbot beside him immediately came forward to greet: "His Highness, Eunuch Zhu, thanks to His Majesty's grace, Martial Uncle and I were able to stay in the Royal Garden for sightseeing. We met with Wei Wang on the way. Master has gone to speak with Wei Wang. We are now waiting for him here. I hope that we haven't disturbed His Royal Highness."
Chang Geng replied with courtesy: "I'm the one that troubled the master."
After making a few more gestures, he had the kind of aura that no matter what he did, it would be smooth and natural, not at all making people feel awkward while facing the mute monk. The little abbot explained next: "Martial Uncle said that he felt fate when he first saw Your Highness. In the future, if you have some time, please come to Hu Guo Temple, he will surely serve you the best kind of tea."
Chang Geng said: "Why yes, of course ."
Liao Ran reached his hand out to Chang Geng, as Chang Geng did not understand, he hesitated before reaching his own hand back.
The monk then wrote in his palm: "Does Your Highness believe in Buddha?"
Chang Geng did not hate monks like Gu Yun. The quiet and peaceful aura of these monks created a very good impression for him at first sight.
But he also had no faith, because without concept, if you did not understand something, you could not say whether you believed in it or not.
However, Chang Geng did not want to cause Liao Ran to lose face here; he only casually smiled.
Immediately, Liao Ran understood. He was not at all angry. Instead, he showed a little smile, then wrote in Chang Geng's palm: "Without knowing suffering, one would not believe in Buddha."
Chang Geng was completely startled. The young adolescent looked into the eyes of the mute monk that seemed to cover everything in this world inside them, suddenly feeling that the long depression in his heart had been seen through by the other party. At that moment, the Bone of Impurity, Xiu Niang, his obscure origin, and his improper thoughts that were difficult to speak of - all of them slid through his heart like water. They were pierced by the words 'without knowing suffering, one would not believe in Buddha'.
Liao Ran put his hands together to pay respect, about to head on his way.
Chang Geng suddenly stopped him: "Master, I will come to Hu Guo Temple in the future."
Liao Ran smiled, then casually led the little abbot away with him.
Just now, the sound of the big clock in the pavilion was heard, light music floated in the air. Chang Geng turned back around and saw the twelve small doors of the clock open. Twelve little puppets came out, one with a harp, one was dancing, and one was singing in a high-pitched voice. After finishing their joyful and lively song, they bowed, then retreated inside.
All the liveliness settled.
After that day, Gu Yun lived a life of waking up earlier and returning even later. Emperor Long An wished to send him to represent Great Liang and sign a trade treaty with the Western Pope's messenger. The border of the Western Regions now opened a market, and if things went as smoothly as planned, they would extend it to a larger scale.
As this situation required, he would have to prepare for departure immediately. Gu Yun ran a few round-trips from the capital to the Northern Camp. Before he left, he still needed to take care of the matter with the Ministry of Revenue and keep an eye on the Ziliujin distribution to the army. He was busy from day until night.
On the 16th day of the first month of the lunar calendar, Gu Yun and Shen Yi returned late as usual, and they had already decided to leave the following day. With some things still to be discussed, they went back to the Marquis' Manor together.
Shen Yi: "How could the Emperor hand Jia Lai over for us to escort? Is he not afraid that we will secretly slaughter that barbarian in the middle of the road?"
Gu Yun smiled sadly and said: "The Emperor dismissed my request to increase the distribution of Ziliujin this year. It is said that Ling Shu Institute has gotten their hands on a new puppet design from the Western foreigners; it can be used to do planting work in place of people, quite amazing. This year, they plan to promote this product in Jiangnan first. Ziliujin also has a new place to be distributed to. What else can I say? Why would the Black Iron Camp try to compete with the people?
"The Emperor said that the Black Iron Camp is the weapon of the country. They can lack anyone but cannot lack us. We will get a part of the old man's tribute as well. Do you think I would still dare to touch that barbarian?"
The meaning of Emperor Long An was made very clear - if Prince Jia Lai lost even a hair, the iron monsters of the Black Iron Camp no longer need to burn Ziliujin, Gu Yun, you can push them yourself.
Shen Yi pondered about it and found that there was nothing he could say. He could only laugh in frustration.
The two men passed by the puppets guarding the entrance of the manor. Shen Yi asked: "That's right, about your departure from the capital tomorrow, have you told His Highness yet?"
Gu Yun rubbed his nose.
Shen Yi: "What?"
Gu Yun lowered his voice and spoke close to his ear: "I told him that I will accompany His Majesty to Xiangshan, and will not be able to come back tomorrow night. If you see him later, remember not to ruin it for me."
Shen Yi was silent for a moment, then said: "... Marshal, you really have such big guts!"
Gu Yun was also distressed. Since he had inadvertently revealed that he might have to return to the frontier, Chang Geng became completely different. Previously, he had always been diligent with martial arts practice, but now he started to risk his life for it. He had injured his wrist the other day, causing it to become swollen like a steam bun. In the afternoon, he insisted on going out for archery regardless of his wound, making his martial arts instructor so frightened that day by day, he had to find Gu Yun to apologize.
Gu Yun felt that Chang Geng was a bit too clingy with him. Were the father and son of other families also this nauseous?
This cotton coat* was too warm, making him break out in a sweat - it indeed was a comfortable and sweet burden to bear.
*people often used the term cotton coat to compare to their daughters, warm and caring for their parents.
The two walked into the manor side by side, and when they entered the door, they found that it was still brightly lit inside, and no one had gone to bed yet.
A little girl as beautiful as a flower rushed out from the inside and shouted: "Big brother, the marquis is back!"
Gu Yun thought: "Since when was there a girl in the manor, is it the big willow tree at the door coming to life?"
Looking again, it turned out that the 'little girl' was actually Cao Niangzi. He had dressed himself up like a little lady, or rather a little lady who was ready to celebrate the New Year.
Gu Yun was puzzled: "What are you all doing?"
"Big brother Chang Geng said that today is the Marquis' birthday, he told everyone to wait for you to come back." Cao Niangzi said, "General Shen has also come, just in time, we can all eat noodles together."
Shen Yi immediately agreed: "Very well, it's better to arrive on time than to arrive early!"
After that, he gave Gu Yun a meaningful look and subtly conveyed his meaning with his eyes - you liar, are you feeling guilty yet?
The birthdays of older people were lively, for they were the celebration of longevity. The birthdays of children were also lively -- as it was not easy for them to have grown a year older, their parents could heave a sigh of relief.
Gu Yun was neither old nor young, with no affection from any relative anywhere. If he was at home, the old butler would still remember to prepare something for him, but for the most part, he was always absent from home. Even he himself would forget the 16th day of the first month due to work.
To be honest, there was nothing to celebrate. The common folk paid attention to the saying 'girls born on the first, meant to be Her Majesty; boys born on the full moon, meant to be an official' - It was favorable for girls to be born on the first day of the lunar month, and the 15th of the lunar month for boys. He could have been born on that vibrant and fortunate night, yet he had to be delayed by a few hours in his mother's womb; it was clear to see that this was naturally born bad luck.
Cao Niangzi had not only dressed himself up but also joined Chang Geng and the others to drag out the sword training puppet to mess with.
The children painted two simple blush marks on it, and no one knew where they were able to obtain a few old silks to tie around the iron arms.
The sword training puppet decorated in bright lights and flowers carried a bowl of noodles in its hand, dumbly staring at Gu Yun. Its black iron face seemed to have an incomprehensible and unspeakable grievance.
Gu Yun scolded: "Bastards, is the sword training puppet for you all to play with like this?"
Ge Pang Xiao came forward to announce his contribution: "Marquis sir, the fake girl applied the blush, I helped make the fire for cooking the noodles, and big brother put in the egg!"
Gu Yun was dumbfounded for a moment as the manor was immersed in a lively aura, making the place that had been lonesome for many years suddenly become unrecognizable.
Chang Geng: "Yifu, eat the noodles first before entering."
Gu Yun: "Alright."
He picked up the bowl and glanced at Chang Geng. He especially picked out the egg to eat first. His first bite was into a crisp fragment of eggshell, but he did not complain even once. He continued to chew and swallowed it altogether. And as if he had never eaten a meal for eight lifetimes, the whole bowl was finished in just a moment. Even the broth was all cleared.
Since ancient times, 'a tender hometown was the burial mound of all heroes'. In Gu Yun's previous departure from the capital, there was neither burden nor worry. Only this time, his heart was full of sorrow.
Perhaps because for him, it had always been 'returning' to the frontier. Only this time, he would soon have to 'leave home'.
Unfortunately, not only this gentleness, but even if his insides were cut into pieces, nothing could stop the feet of the Marquis of Order.
The next day, Gu Yun prepared to leave as if nothing was wrong. In the end, he did not bid farewell to Chang Geng but traveled to the Northern Camp alone. He turned to look back in the direction of the capital.
It was a pity that from such a distance, he could only vaguely see Qi Yuan tower.
Shen Yi walked his horse to Gu Yun's side and asked: "Grand Marshal, is your conscience speaking out?"
Gu Yun sighed: "Perhaps he will not recognize me anymore the next time I return... This yifu title of mine is always so faltering... Let's go."
The Black Iron Camp set out on their march in a strict manner, resembling a black whirlwind sweeping by. Everyone could not help but move out to make way for them.
They were tasked with escorting the barbarian prince to the north, then marching straight to the west to eliminate the bandits rampaging the desert of the Western Region, to ensure that the Silk Road could be operated safely and smoothly.
The day after they left, Chang Geng got up as early as any other day. He remembered that Gu Yun was not at home, yet he still couldn't help but take the puppet to Gu Yun's empty yard, cross swords with it, then have his breakfast all by himself.
When he was about to leave, he looked up and saw that the plum blossoms in the courtyard had bloomed.
Just a few days ago, there was heavy snow; the petals were covered in a layer of condensed frost. The more he looked, the more he grew to like it, and the more he couldn't help but reach up and pick out two branches. His first reaction was to save them for Gu Yun, even though he knew yifu would not necessarily return within three to five days. He carefully wiped the frost and snow off the branches and then looked for a flower vase to place them into Gu Yun's room.
However, even after looking all over Gu Yun's large chamber, Chang Geng wasn't able to find anything that could serve as a vase, not even a wine bottle. He opened the window to ask their old butler: "Uncle Wang, do we have a vase at home?"
The old butler responded, then walked off to get one. Chang Geng held the two plum blossom branches in hands, idly looking back and forth through Gu Yun's room.
Suddenly, his eyes fell on the bedside, and he froze - the fox fur coat that hung on the bedpost, which gave the whole bedroom a more valuable look, had disappeared.
At this time, Uncle Wang came in with a blue vase made from porcelain and smiled at Chang Geng: "Your Highness, will this do? Where should we put it?"
Chang Geng stared straight at the empty bed, he asked in a daze: "Uncle Wang, why did the Marquis put away his fur coat this early?"
Uncle Wang's eyes twitched slightly, he let out a stiff reply: "Was the Marquis not escorting His Majesty? Perhaps he brought it with him. "
Chang Geng's heart slowly sank.
On New Year's Eve, the Black Eagle soldier serving under Gu Yun had told him that Marshal never wore winter clothes in the capital and would only put them on occasionally in the face of a snow blizzard.
He had already felt that it was a bit strange that day - since Gu Yun did not wear winter clothes, for what reason would he have the fur coat out? What was it going to be used for? But at that time, the situation was in a state of chaos, he himself was also engulfed in nightmares, his mind was not so clear, thus, he did not think about it any further.
Chang Geng turned his head, his voice dried up, like a string that had been stretched to its limit: "Uncle Wang, in the end, where did he go? Please don't lie to me just because I don't like going outside much. Even I know that Xiangshan is still closer to the capital in comparison to the Northern Camp."
Uncle Wang held the vase in his hands, standing awkwardly still.
Gu Yun had left it to others to do his bidding for him when he left. The old butler had anticipated that such a thing like this would happen sooner or later, but he did not expect it to come so fast.
Chang Geng took a deep breath and whispered, "Is he already leaving the capital to go to the frontier? Where? North, or west?"
The old butler forced out an awkward smile: "As for military affairs, this old servant does not understand much... Your Highness, perhaps the Marquis did this for he did not want you to be worried..."
Chang Geng's hand twisted, breaking one of the flower branches in half. He forced out every word: "He is not afraid that I will be worried; he is afraid that I will insist on coming with him no matter what."
The old butler closed his mouth.
Chang Geng was the adopted son of Gu Yun in name, and although no one welcomed him or cared for him, he still bore the surname Li after all. In the future, he would inherit the status of a Jun Wang. The old butler was in distress, feeling that his master had retreated in the face of the enemy, throwing this hot potato back for him to handle. Uncle Wang had fully prepared himself to be slashed on by the boy's wrath.
But after waiting for a long time, Chang Geng did not say a word.
Chang Geng's deafening screams and sorrowful shouts were all hidden in his heart.
It was not just about Gu Yun's sudden refusal to bid goodbye to him. He had been lied to more than once; he should have long since gotten used to it. He should be facing this situation with calmness.
But this time, the concern and anxiety that had been accumulating in his heart since moving to the capital could finally no longer be contained inside of him; it could not help but come bursting out like water out of the floodgate.
Chang Geng's heart was as clear as a mirror; he had always been aware that his existence was unnecessary. He did not intend to get involved. It was destined for him to be an insignificant chess piece, like in the dark river of Yanhui Town, dragged away involuntarily.
He was blindfolded by the false sense of peace and happiness these few days, and greed had risen inside him. He wanted to grab hold of something, deceived himself, and refused to think about the future.
What more do you wish for? Chang Geng placed a hand on his chest and asked himself. You want too much.
However, despite the waves of turbulence in his heart, when faced with the old grey-haired butler, Chang Geng did not say anything.
The old butler worriedly asked: "Your Royal Highness?..."
Chang Geng silently took the vase from his hands and carefully trimmed the flower branch that he had broken off. After placing the flowers inside and setting it on Gu Yun's desk, he whispered: "I have troubled you."
As he finished, he immediately turned to leave.
Upon exiting Gu Yun's room, he could not help but switch from walking to running, and even the sword training puppet was left behind.
Ge Pang Xiao held a small box of Ziliujin that no one had any idea where it had been taken from; on his way, he almost bumped into Chang Geng. He called out: "Oh, big brother..."
Chang Geng acted like he did not hear it, like a gust of wind passing by, he rushed into his own room then turned to lock the door.
This was also the part of Chang Geng that Gu Yun liked the most, even with great wrath, he would never vent it on unrelated people. In this respect, Xiu Niang's contribution could not be denied. Her long and constant abuse throughout more than ten years had trained Chang Geng to have incredible endurance.
At the same time, the Bone of Impurity buried deep in the youth's body was like vegetation that needed to be fed with poisonous water, and gradually bloomed into a ferocious flower.
Chang Geng began to have difficulty breathing; his chest seemed to be crushed by layers of boulders, the muscles in his body stiffened into a rust of iron, his legs involuntarily twitched.
His ears were ringing. He was horrified to find a strange, dominating, and tyrannical sensation rushing out of his chest. He involuntarily balled his fingers into a fist, the joints cracking loudly. For the first time, he experienced what it felt like to have 'sleep paralysis' while wide awake.
Chang Geng clearly felt that there was an invisible hand cruelly erasing all the warm feelings and affection in his heart.
In the beginning, Chang Geng was still clear-minded, he thought with fear: "Is this the Bone of Impurity? What happened to me?"
Soon, even the horror evaporated, his consciousness rapidly became blurred. He began to wonder where he was. Countless thoughts in his head billowed up and down like seawater, and a murderous intent was born from nowhere.
On the one hand, he thought that Gu Yun had already left - he was no longer wanted or needed; on the other, he seemed to see Gu Yun standing in front of him, the other man's expressionless face mocking his incompetence and powerlessness.
The Bone of Impurity magnified all the negative emotions in Chang Geng's heart by hundreds and thousands of times.
At this moment, it seemed as if Gu Yun was no longer the little yifu whom he cherished in his heart, but a mortal enemy that he despised with all his being, whom he was eager to grasp in his hands to humiliate.
Chang Geng squeezed the ruined blade hanging in front of his chest, the edges of the blade, although smoothed out, still cut into his fingers, deep enough to draw blood.
The vivid sensation of pain piercing through the seemingly infinite numbness awakened Chang Geng; he instinctively found a way out, ten fingers firmly grabbed onto his skin, the wounds leaving behind a mess of flesh and blood on his arms.
When the attack of Bone of Impurity gradually subsided, the sun had begun to set.
Chang Geng's clothes were soaked through with cold sweat, his hands and arms were covered in blood, and he was leaning against the door in exhaustion. He had finally learned the power of Bone of Impurity, only to realize that he was too innocent in thinking that Bone of Impurity could only cause nightmares.
This time, Xiu Niang truly did not go easy on him.
The old butler and the other people did not see him come out in a long time; there was no answer even when they knocked on his door. They had been worried for a long time, walking around in front of his room and trying to call for him again and again every few moments.
Sensing these people had made Chang Geng feel better. His eyelids twitched slightly. A drop of cold sweat rolled down his forehead and fell to his eyelashes, so heavy that he almost couldn't open his eyes: "I am fine, let me be alone for a while."
"You haven't eaten all day," said the old butler. "If the Marquis was here, he wouldn't be able to bear to look at Your Highness mistreating yourself like this - even just a bowl of porridge is good enough, let this old servant go fetch one for you?"
Chang Geng was exhausted both mentally and physically. At the mention of Gu Yun, he silently recited the other man's name a few times in his heart, trying his best to get himself together: "It's alright, Uncle Wang, if I am hungry, I will go find something to eat later in the night."
The old butler listened to his voice; although it was weak, it was still reasonable. It was not his place to continue to press the matter. He had to turn back and called the other servants, together with Ge Pang Xiao and Cao Niangzi, who were watching over with concern. They all turned around to look at Chang Geng's door a few times as they took their leave.
Chang Geng sat by the door. As soon as he looked up, he saw the pair of shoulder guards that Gu Yun hung on his bed.
The object was dark and cold, giving off a sense of inhumanity, but it was left there by the original owner in order to dispel his nightmares.
He did not know how long he had sat there. The brazier in the room gradually warmed his cold body. Chang Geng regained a little bit of strength. He climbed up to clean up after himself, changed into new clothes, and found the medicine that his martial arts instructor had given him when he injured himself in a sword training session the other day. He washed the wounds then carefully applied the medicine on them.
He took Gu Yun's shoulder guards down, hugged them in his arms, and laid, face up, on his bed.
He did not cry.
It might have been because there was no strength left, or because he had just shed blood.
Quite often as one already chose the road of shedding blood, they would not shed tears anymore. After all, a person only had a little bit of water; there could only be one side to focus on.
Chang Geng clashed with the enemy destined to entangle with him for a lifetime - utterly defeated, he also came to recognize the power of the opponent.
But it was strange how he felt no fear, much like in Yanhui, when he was alone in Xiu Niang's room, facing the barbarian in Heavy Armor.
He had a kind and gentle attitude, but nothing in this world could ever force him to give in.
Ah... anything except Gu Yun.
Chang Geng thought with exhaustion: "I hate Gu Yun to death."
Then he tried Gu Yun's shoulder guards on himself. He had never worn armor before, and he didn't know whether it could fit. He only felt that this thing pressing on his body was a lot heavier than he imagined. He fell asleep with it on; there were still countless layers of nightmares waiting for him ahead.
The next day, Chang Geng announced that he would like to go out for a while.
The entire manor was shocked. The scene of His Highness being carried out the door by Marshal Gu on New Year's Eve was still vividly in their eyes.
Gu Yun's original words were: "Delay him for three or five days. At that time, we will have already passed the seven major gates to the Northern Frontier. He won't be able to chase after and will have to behave."
But it hadn't been three or five days yet. The old butler was afraid that Chang Geng was preparing his horse to follow them, so he quickly said: "His Royal Highness, the Black Iron Camp is no ordinary army, they move very fast, even a greater steed cannot catch up. Moreover, they do not allow individuals without a military rank to stay; this was the rule that the previous Marquis had passed down..."
Chang Geng calmly replied: "Uncle Wang, I didn't intend to chase after them to cause trouble. I am not a child who doesn't understand common sense."
Old butler: "Then you are..."
Chang Geng: "I want to go to Hu Guo Temple to visit Master Liao Ran. I had already promised him the other day."
The old butler's face once again became unfathomable.
When Marshal would come home in the future and find that, while he was away, His Highness had committed treason, betraying his own side to run to Hu Guo Temple...
The old butler truly could not imagine the look on Gu Yun's face - this was no different than being cheated on.
However, the most urgent task at the moment was to cheer the Marquis' son up. The old butler had no other choice but to grit his teeth and arrange a row of guards to escort Chang Geng to Hu Guo Temple.
As mighty as if they were going there to pick a fight.
Liao Ran had prepared tea. When he saw Chang Geng, he was not surprised, as if having predicted that he would come. He invited Chang Geng to sit down and poured a cup of tea for him. He also asked the little abbot to bring them a brazier, pen, and papers for himself - as if he intended to have a long discussion with Chang Geng.
It had only been half a month since Liao Ran last saw him, but he found that the confusion and anxiousness in the eyes of the young man in front of him had evaporated. He appeared firm and calm, along with a hint of sorrow, like a butterfly that had broken out of its shell.
Chang Geng said his thanks, took the cup of tea to have a sip, then almost spat it back out.
The monk said last time that he would serve him with the best tea, it seemed that his words were purely out of politeness. He did not know what kind of tea the man had prepared for him; it was bitter enough to numb his tongue, not a hint of tea could be found.
Chang Geng: "What is this?"
Liao Ran smiled and wrote: "Ku Ding*, helps with blood circulation, improves eyesight, and gives a better night sleep."
*Ku Ding tea is also called Gualou tea. It is extremely bitter
Chang Geng: "Isn't that Gualou tea? I have drunk it in the manor before, it seemed..."
It seemed not as disgusting as this.
Liao Ran: "That was made with small leaves, this was large leaves."
Big leaves did sound somewhat amazing; Chang Geng was about to give a few words of praise when the monk wrote with sincerity: "Big leaves are cheaper."
Chang Geng: "..."
He carefully looked at the monk's teacup. It was a high-quality cup and was very thoroughly cleaned. Unfortunately, as it had been used for too long, a few bumps were hard to avoid; the edge was chipped slightly.
Liao Ran: "Your Highness, please forgive the rundown condition of our temple."
The entire capital had left him with the impression of lavishness and grandiosity, as if everyone was wealthy. The city was packed with luxurious pastime activities; Westerners saying that the tiles on the street of Great Liang's capital were covered in gold was, in fact, not quite an exaggeration.
No one knew why, but all the people that Chang Geng knew were poor.
No need to mention Shen Yi, he was naturally born with a poor farmer's bitter melon face from generation to generation. Marshal Gu as well, although he possessed a massive manor, it was only an empty shell. In the early morning of the first day of the new year, he could not wait to take Chang Geng to the palace to find the Emperor and collect the ransom. Now there was also Liao Ran who used a damaged teacup.
Chang Geng said: "The Hu Guo Temple has many incenses and offerings, engulfed in smoke, but Master here is at peace with a humble way of living. A true dedication to Buddha's practice."
Liao Ran smiled and wrote: "This monk has traveled through the north and south, I have quickly gotten used to it, my deepest apology for I have disrespected nobility."
Chang Geng asked: "I heard people say that Master has also been to the Western countries by the Iron Dragon, was it to promote Buddha's teachings?"
Liao Ran: "I am inexperienced and still have much to learn. I don't dare to follow the footsteps of other highly educated masters from ancient times. I only traveled to see the world, to see the people."
Chang Geng took another sip of Ku Ding, but the more he took in, the more bitter it became; not a hint of sweetness could be found. He swallowed it down in disappointment:
"I grew up in a small town far out in the border; I have never set foot outside of that small piece of land before. Even after arriving at the capital, I do not leave the manor either. Could it be that I am too content with what I have and lack the will to strive forward?"
"But I feel that all joys or sorrows, anger or misery in this world are all the same in the end, even after watching other people, one still could not find their own destination."
Liao Ran: "If one's heart is small, all their sufferings even as large as a house, can only be crammed into that small corner. But if one's heart were as vast as heaven and earth, then even if their troubles were as large as a mountain, they would become nothing more than a droplet of water in the endless sea."
Chang Geng was stunned for a long while after reading these words. He lifted his eyes to look at Master Liao Ran as he placed all the papers that had been filled with words inside the brazier, slowly burning them all.
"Master, you said to me on that day, 'without knowing suffering, one would not believe in Buddha'. Now that I have come to know the taste of suffering, I am here to listen to Buddha's teachings, may I request of you to show me the right path?"