Regarding Jing Xu, Gu Yun took one look at him and found that there were redeeming qualities; he quickly grouped this major bandit leader with the others and threw them to the side. At this time, he was more concerned about when Chang Geng would go.
It happened that Chang Geng had very timely expressed that he was going to meet up with his companions investigating the mountain's secret passages. Gu Yun felt greatly relieved inside. On the surface, he had still given him a handful of Black Iron Camp soldiers, telling him to be careful of the bandits that slipped through the net.
Watching him leave, Gu Yun said to a Black Cavalry at the side: "Look for two people to keep watch, if His Highness returns too quickly, give him something to do, don't let him come here."
The soldier took his order and left; Gu Yun finally retracted his gaze.
He swept a glance through the squad of captured bandits from beginning to the end. His eyes contained a severity unlike his usual: "I have only one question, how many entrances and exits do you have in this underground rats' nest? Please be aware of your current situation. Let's do it this way: starting from the first person on the west side, behead on the spot if he does not talk. When the first person is finished, the latter can add more details. If he is not able to add anything more, then I am sorry. The ones in the front of the line can still have some advantage — let's start, when we count to three, not talking will result in being cut down, the ones talking nonsense will also be cut down."
The bandits were stunned in fear by the Marquis of Order, who was more savage than the bandits themselves.
The Black Cavalry instructed to interrogate began to expressionlessly ask from the first person. The first person instinctively looked back and forth, unable to decide.
Gu Yun did not hesitate to make a downward gesture, the Wind Slasher in the hands of the Cavalry started to move.
The Cavalry usually only knew how to kill people, did not raise monkeys, and did not study the method of beheading either. The Wind Slasher's blades turned around the bandit's neck, but unfortunately, it got stuck in the bone of the neck joint. The bandit's head was half-intact, half-split, his vocal pipe had not been cut through yet, and his blood curdling screams frightened flocks of birds near and far in the mountains.
The Cavalry squinted his eyes, added force to his wrist, ending the life of the unfortunate man.
The blood from his veins spurted out like springs, splashing onto the person next to him. The second bandit trembled greatly like an overloaded golden box, his mind was completely blank, shakily pointing towards the back: "There, there is one there..."
Gu Yun sneered: "Nonsense, can I not see it for myself?"
The second head fell to the ground.
The third bandit was frightened by the horror of the half-cut head to the point of wetting himself, he slammed to the ground and held his head in both hands. In fear of the executioner dressed in black directly cutting him down, he had revealed in one breath ten exits and entrances of the secret passages, the stares of people behind him were about to shoot through his back.
With this man serving as an opening, the rest was simple. On the road of life or death, it was useless to keep secrets. The people behind would inevitably reveal them; speaking up soon to preserve their life was the way to go.
Gu Yun was quiet, but in his heart, he was truly shocked by the massive roots of the Southern Frontier bandits. Some of the entrances and exits of these mountains had already been discovered by the Lin Yuan Pavilion. Otherwise, even the Black Iron Camp could not manage to block these rats easily halfway through, but there were more that even the Lin Yuan Pavilion did not know of.
Behind him, the Black Iron Camp soldiers quietly left to verify whether these entrances and exits were true and to keep guard of every secret passage opening. Less than the time it took to burn incense as if playing the game of 'pass the flower'*, the bandits had confessed all the underground routes that extended in all directions, down to the littlest ones.
*game in which players sit in a circle passing a flower around while a drum is beaten
In the blink of an eye, this deadly 'flower' had been passed to the one that started it all: leader Jing Xu.
In this life, Jing Xu had violently cut through from a pile of corpses to become the king of the mountain. There was no such thing as great talents, but there was certainly no shortage of courage and ruthless methods. Seeing that the tip of the blade had arrived in front of him and the blood on the ground had flowed into a river, he took a deep breath and straightened his back, converting all the strength he accumulated in this life to support his body, staring at Gu Yun casually walking towards him with both hands behind his back.
Jing Xu said: "I used to hear people say that Marshal Gu's elegance is unparalleled. I did not expect that you were well-versed even in torture methods for interrogation; truly, the more talents, the better."
"There is no need for flattery," Gu Yun said with an amused smile. "The main activity in war is to slay people. I did not lock you in a dark room, did not place you on a nail bed, neither did I ask you to sit on a tiger chair. The words 'torture to interrogate' — I do not dare to accept. If you have nothing to say, you can go accompany them as well."
Jing Xu's eyelids twitched violently: "There are a total of sixty-four entrances and exits here. They have confessed it all at once. The first worthless few had already started to blabber. Pardon my imprudence, I do not understand Marshal Gu's intention?"
"Only for safety, no other intention," Gu Yun said with a smile. "In case there was someone who has not confessed yet, you want to persuade me to stop killing? There is a large number of you, rest assured, I can't afford to slay you all."
Jing Xu: "..."
Gu Yun: "Since they had looked up to you as their leader, presumably, there must be other things you know about. Why don't you talk about matters that I haven't heard of?"
Jing Xu clenched his teeth, remembering Fu Zhi Cheng, the chief culprit of all this, wishing for nothing more than to skin him. He spoke through a clenched jaw: "If I say that Fu Zhi Cheng was smuggling Ziliujin to rebel, would Marshal be interested in hearing?"
The cold smile on Gu Yun's face gradually disappeared: "If I did not know this, how could I have guessed that you would be as courageous as to run to the Southwest storage to deliver food? I will give you another chance, talk of something I don't know."
The Black Iron's Wind Slasher stood directly next to Jing Xu's ear. Even with the slightest hint of movement, he could feel the cold metal's inhumanity. He also knew that only the slightest bit of steam was needed, and the blade would cut through his head as if it was slicing vegetables. That Gu Yun was cold and ruthless, continuing to be stubborn would result in his head falling to the ground like the other lackeys, covered in dust, not a single difference.
Jing Xu finally bowed: "What do you want to know?"
Gu Yun waved his hand, the Wind Slasher's blade moved a few inches away from Jing Xu: "I want to know who had served as a connection for you after the Ziliujin was transported from the Southern Sea to inland Great Liang. Who had told you to privately stock Ziliujin and to hoard weaponry? Who came up with this scheme, let you use those Kites to confuse me and take this opportunity to occupy the Southwest storage?"
Jing Xu tightly clenched his teeth.
"If I were you, I would not give up my life to protect that person," Gu Yun suddenly stepped forward and lowered his voice. "Look at the secret passages with sixty-four exits behind you. You bandits with nothing to do could drill in there anytime you wish, even gods could not overturn this land to dig you out...
"Who had encouraged you to gather the major forces of the three mountains together, for us to eliminate you all at once, huh?"
Gu Yun was a master of reversing up and down, black and white. He had perfected three skills in this life: excelling in literary arts, outstanding in battles, and excellent at deception. Illogical things could become immensely real coming out of his mouth. What was more, when thinking about it carefully, there was nothing illogical about what he had just said, causing Jing Xu to break out in cold sweat.
Gu Yun's side took more time in interrogating the bandits than it took Chang Geng to find his companions. It wasn't long before Chang Geng returned, but before he could come up to the hill, he was already stopped by the soldiers of the Black Iron Camp. The young soldier earnestly repeated precisely what he had been instructed to say: "Your Royal Highness, Marshal told you to rest here for a while first."
Chang Geng did not seem to be surprised. He did not ask anything further either, obediently waiting in the same place.
In these years, although Chang Geng wasn't able to see Gu Yun with his own eyes, he had studied every single battle Gu Yun had ever fought in with old General Zhong, studied the changes in his stance in politics starting from when he inherited the title of a marquis from the past dynasty to the present, and even his handwriting — if Chang Geng were to go to Gu Yun's study now and take out any old notes, he could generally tell at what age Gu Yun had written it.
This helped him understand Gu Yun far more than being near him, listening to him boosting himself up as a 'Northwest Flower' all day.
Seeing the hesitance in Gu Yun's eyes as it swept over, Chang Geng was able to tell that he intended to interrogate by force, and more than that, he did not want Chang Geng to witness it. Even until today, Gu Yun still instinctively wanted to preserve his ever so fragile image of a kind father in front of Chang Geng.
Chang Geng did not have any objection regarding this, he instead would greatly cherish this little bit of love that yifu did not speak aloud.
Chang Geng was followed by two people: Ge Pang Xiao and Cao Niangzi, who had come with him from Yanhui Town to the capital — now called Ge Chen and Cao Chun Hua.
Ge Chen was a lovable chubby boy in his childhood. Now that he had grown up, his plump body was replaced with a tall and strong appearance. If one were to look at him from the neck down, he could be classified as a 'muscular man'.
But unfortunately, from the neck up, the head seemed to have been placed there by mistake — on it was a face both tender and white, two soft lumps of baby fat on his cheeks, much like tofu, wrapped around his small nose, small mouth, and small eyes. There was not a single detail that did not give off innocence and harmlessness.
Cao Chun Hua's change was a lot more drastic. No matter what he thought in his heart, he couldn't help his body from growing into the frame of an adult man. It was too hard to retain the same kind neutrality in appearance in his youth. He had no choice but to admit that he was really a 'rotten man' and changed back to men's clothing. Even so, he was still hesitant to let go and chose the name 'Cao Chun Hua' — except for himself, no one could tell how 'Chun Hua' was different to 'Niangzi'.
*Chun Hua means spring flowers and Niangzi means lady.
"How come we cannot move past yet?" Cao Chun Hua asked, stretching his neck. "I haven't seen my Marquis for several years, I've been unable to sleep these past few days."
Chang Geng gloomily glanced at him, silently giving Cao Chun Hua another tick. He was waiting until he gathered words such as 'my family's Marquis' a total of fifty times from this person's mouth, then he'd give him a beating.
Cao Chun Hua still wasn't aware of this, he asked again: "Big brother, this time returning to the capital, will you inherit your royal status? I heard that the former emperor had prepared the Yanbei Wang Manor for you. Then, will you move out in the future, or will you still be living in the Marquis' Manor?"
Chang Geng was startled for a moment, then smiled bitterly: "That would depend on whether Marquis still wants me here or not."
Looking back now, Chang Geng could not imagine how he managed to gather the courage that year to leave the manor, to leave Gu Yun.
Not meeting him was alright, but this time as he encountered Gu Yun in Sichuan, he felt as if he had come directly face to face with his fated destiny. Even if beaten to death, it would still be difficult to accumulate the determination he mustered up that year.
Chen Qing Xu told him to 'stay calm, do not let your thoughts run astray', of course, this had a role in restraining the Bone of Impurity from acting up. But human emotions, anger or joy, sorrow or happiness, all were attached to one another. With the restraint of resentment and anger, joy would also then naturally fade away as time passed.
One would become like grass without sun — although it could stay alive, its colors had all faded.
Chang Geng thought that he was about to become a Buddha.
Up until he met with Gu Yun again.
Not mentioning the exhaustion of traveling together with Gu Yun, if they were not dealing with rebels all day, it was fighting the bandits. Yet Chang Geng's heart was always filled with inexplicable happiness, eagerness, and expectancy – as if when he opened his eyes in the morning, he already knew something good would happen.
Although he knew that nothing good would actually happen, the Bone of Impurity still came to visit him every night.
If he inherited his title, would Gu Yun still let him stay?
Rationally thinking, Gu Yun would definitely allow him to stay, the manor would at least be willing to keep him until he officially got married. If he remained single, perhaps he could continue to live there forever.
This idea was too good, Chang Geng had to gather the strength of nine cattle and two tigers to restrain a dumb smile from forming on his face.
They waited for about half an hour until Gu Yun came out.
The mountain's secret passages resembled a huge spider web, extending in all directions, all sides were connected. Gu Yun had cut off more than forty heads in total, excluding some nonsense from the few who were scared to tears, and finally found the entrances for the sixty-four secret passages.
Ge Chen was shocked after hearing this: "What? Us two brothers stayed in this mountain pretending to be mountain dwellers for more than half a year, only to find just over thirty entrances, how could the Marquis manage to discover more than sixty as soon as he arrived!"
"If you didn't get to the bottom of it, I would not be able to intercept them, let alone interrogate." Gu Yun looked at Ge Chen, trying to hold back for a moment, then, in the end, he wasn't able to control himself, waving his hand: "Come here."
Ge Chen thought that Marshal had something of importance to instruct, eagerly coming closer. Unexpectedly, Gu Yun reached out to pinch his cheek.
Gu Yun had wanted to do this for a long time; his bad habit of having itchy hands had soon become a terminal illness. Whenever there was something to be felt with his hand, he could not help but want to pinch it.
"It's so fun." Gu Yun pinched for a while, thinking while still feeling unsatisfied: "How could this be possible?"
Ge Chen: "..."
Cao Chun Hua's tiger eyes were full of affection and envy. He whispered, "Marquis' treatment is unfair, why don't you pinch my face?"
He did not dare say this in front of Gu Yun; thus, only Chang Geng was able to hear him. Chang Geng thought, "Alright, forty-eight times."
Cao Chun Hua inexplicably felt a chill. He looked around for a moment, suddenly feeling an ominous foreboding in his heart.
Gu Yun followed Jing Xu's confession to create a drawing of this area. Then he ordered people to smoke along the secret entrance and exit, smoking for three days, turning the large mountain into a chimney. Bats, mice, poisonous insects, no matter big or small, fled together with their families, yet in the end, the person whom Gu Yun wanted to capture was still nowhere to be seen.
Several soldiers volunteered to string up the rope and drill into the secret passage to explore. They searched from sunrise to midnight inside sixty-four entrances and exits but were unable to find even a single hair, only the set of tables that Jing Xu mentioned.
On the fourth day, an underling came to report, after checking on Kuai Lan Tu's side, they did indeed discover a suspicious person — it was a guest whom Kuai Lan Tu kept in his house, named Wang Bu Fan, a name that instantly sounded like an alias.
*Bu Fan means 'out of ordinary'
This guest usually did not go outside to see other people, but a few confidants of Kuai Lan Tu all knew he was very trusting of and highly respected this man. He had dedicated a private courtyard to him in his manor, ordering trusted servants and beautiful maids to accompany him.
Gu Yun: "Where is this 'Bu Fan' now?"
The underling replied: "Already ran away, the servants were poisoned to death without anyone knowing. When the people in the manor discovered this, the bones had already turned cold."
"Marshal," at this time, another Cavalry came over and said, "We went to check out the few locations hiding the transported Ziliujin according to Jing Xu's confession, but it was completely empty, not even a piece of paper was left behind."
Gu Yun silently turned the old Buddhist beads in his hand. The mysterious guest next to Kuai Lan Tu, the 'Master Ja' in Jing Xu's story... everything seemed to be accidental at a glance, but Gu Yun could feel with an unexplainable instinct that this matter involved an extremely large conspiracy.
These people had been secretly stirring up the Southern Frontier. They arrived unknowingly, then disappeared without any trace. Their identity became a mystery, their purpose was also a mystery.
They seemingly appeared to be enemies, yet at the same time, seemingly assisted him in exterminating these bandits.
Gu Yun could not figure out, in the end, was it him who messed up their scheme, or had he walked headfirst into it?
The person whom Gu Yun had overturned the land in search of was currently boarding an ordinary small cargo ship on the surface of the Southern Sea.
Master Ja had already changed back to his complicated Western clothing, bowing down to look at a map. The vast expanse of Great Liang was on this small leather drawing. He was holding a pen, painting a small red circle on the Southern Frontier.
Together with that circle, there were already three other red circles on the old map, the other two were of the Northern Frontier and the Eastern Sea.
'Master Ja's' pen tip hesitated for a while on the map, then finally landed at the entrance to the Silk Road in the west.
"As of today, our trap has been perfectly laid out." Master Ja smiled. "Only a lead is needed, as soon as it is ignited, it will then explode with a bang—"
Wang Bu Fan, whose appearance resembled the Central Plains people, continued his words: "Engulfing Central Plains in a sea of flame."
The two looked at each other and smiled; they each raised their cups, clinking them together.
With such a large-scale situation happening in the Southern Frontier, the Emperor in the palace was, of course, greatly angered, urging Gu Yun to quickly escort the bandit leaders and the traitorous general back to the capital.
Gu Yun had to temporarily put down his doubts and set out to the North.
But remembering that this time, his treasured son was willing to go back with him, the manor would be lively once again, so he could somewhat feel eager about this returning trip to the capital.
"He has become a lot more adorable after growing up," 'Old man' Gu Yun felt greatly comforted, secretly praising to Shen Yi. "It's just that he suddenly became so sensible, I am still not quite used to it."
"Despicable." Shen Yi commented in a simple and concise manner, then, as a result, ate one whiplash as he wished.
Shen Yi asked: "Right, after capturing Fu Zhi Cheng, what are you planning to do?"
Gu Yun stopped joking around; he was silent for a moment, then spoke with all seriousness: "Ji Ping, the truth is, I have always thought about all these years that you have been following me like this, is it a waste of talent?"
Shen Yi gave him a silent look.
Gu Yun: "You are vastly knowledgeable. Your literary skills can enter Han Lin, your martial arts can bring peace to a territory, hiding away in Ling Shu Institute and the Black Iron Camp for so many years, it is time for you to show yourself..."
Although he had already heard Chang Geng analyze it, listening to Gu Yun saying the same thing, Shen Yi could not avoid feeling touched inside.
The two men were both comrades and friends. Though they shared a tight-knit relationship, through both life and death, trusting enough to even leave their wife and child in the hands of the other if something were to happen, still, Gu Yun's dog mouth could not spit out ivory; he had never expressed his appreciation directly towards him before.
Shen Yi could feel his eyes sting: "Zi Xi, you truly don't have to..."
"Furthermore, I am also very sorry," Gu Yun added with earnest. "You see, such a beautiful man born from heaven, raised by parents like myself, always staying near and blocking your peach blossoms, causing you to stay single for all these years. It's really...tch, it's all my fault."
Shen Yi: "..."
This 'beautiful man born from heaven, raised by parents' marked the end of his maximum of two sensible sentences a day, about to head straight for nonsensical content. Shen Yi was forced to withdraw a mouthful of all the things he wanted to say stuck in his throat, snorting, then ushered his horse and ran away.
Chang Geng saw this from not far away, quickly taking the opportunity to run over, occupying Shen Yi's position, walking alongside Gu Yun: "How did General Shen run away again?"
Gu Yun smiled, rubbing his nose.
Chang Geng saw that there was a leaf on his Light Armor. He reached out to brush it off for him, then carefully said: "Yifu, even lighter armors weigh at least forty pounds, let's remove it to relieve your body?"
Gu Yun did not oppose, letting Chang Geng reach out to help dismantle the Light Armor one piece at a time. They were too close; the two horses had somehow taken a liking to one another and started to get intimate.
Gu Yun used one hand to push his horse's head away and scolded: "Don't be improper."
The armor around his arm was only half unloaded. With this one movement, it almost flew off of his wrist, even dragging with it something else from inside his sleeve.
Chang Geng was quick to react and caught it in time. He discovered that it was actually a bamboo flute made with very simple and coarse craftsmanship.
At first, neither of them reacted.
Chang Geng thought: "Why is he carrying this broken flute on his body?"
Gu Yun was still puzzled: "What just flew out?"
The eyes of the two men then fell onto the bamboo flute that had been weather-beaten, cracking at the tail.
After a second, Chang Geng suddenly felt that the flute appeared quite familiar. Gu Yun seemed to have been struck by lightning; he remembered it now - this object's origin was unjust!
The two of them almost acted simultaneously - Gu Yun moved to grab it, Chang Geng instinctively tightened his palm, and both hands holding the bamboo flute were deadlocked in the air.
Chang Geng asked innocently: "Can't I take a look?"
Gu Yun: "What's so good to look at?"
Gu Yun pulled the small bamboo flute from Chang Geng's hand by force, hurriedly returning it into his sleeve.
Chang Geng was rarely able to see his guilty conscience. He couldn't help but remember the little girl who sobbed her heart out from Yao's family four years ago. He could vaguely begin to understand, yet at the same time, he did not dare to believe it, asking in a roundabout way, "Is it a gift from someone else?"
Gu Yun lied; his face did not blush, his breathing did not stagger: "Made it myself."
"Oh," Chang Geng blinked. After a while, he intentionally and unintentionally said: "Lou Lan in the Western Regions also has bamboo?"
Gu Yun: "..."
Chang Geng gently blinked, making his eyes seemingly sparkle, he then smiled: "Yifu's craftsmanship is too rough, let me make you a better one another day?"
Gu Yun was speechless, embarrassed to death. He had the feeling that this kid had already seen through it and was deliberately mocking him. But stealing the flute was an incredibly shameful thing, he could not afford to be angry. He had to put away the heroic rabbit's tail and ran away.
Chang Geng did not chase after him. He stayed in the same place, pondering over this matter. He could not help but feel quite amused, recollecting the chain of events from beginning to end of Gu Yun sneaking into the courtyard of a child early in the morning to steal a flute. In an instant, a large brocade of flowers bloomed in his heart, remaining in full force for half a day, up until the sun fell over the west, it would then slowly come to a stop.
Its lingering fragrance in his heart pushed the Bone of Impurity into a small corner. When the flower fell into a stream and turned the water red, it gave birth to a thought, much like a seed, growing into thousands of branches.
Chang Geng thought: "Why did he keep that?"
Keeping it with him at all times, would he take it out to look at occasionally?
When he looked at it, did he think of me?
Did this mean that Gu Yun's feelings towards him...were deeper than what he had always imagined?
Could he be greedy for more and get closer to yifu?
The scent of Miss Chen's tranquilizer spread out from the satchel. Chang Geng stared at Gu Yun's back, the words 'going with the flow' that were echoing back and forth in his mind were about to burn him away. He did not dare to dwell on it too much. Still, harboring this small speculation in anxiety, he could not avoid the itchy, uncomfortable sensation inside, burning his soul, eating away at his bones.
The trip of escorting the criminals should have been long and tasteless, but unfortunately, there was no telling if it was the Black Iron Camp that moved fast, or it was Chang Geng's heart that was slow. Before the cold winter arrived, they had already returned to the capital.
At this time, the treacherous case of rebellion in the Southern Frontier had violently exploded in the depths of the imperial capital.
Sun Jiao returned to the capital in a state of being half-dead, half-alive. Due to fright, he had fallen ill and became bedridden in the blink of an eye. Even Emperor Long An himself did not expect it. He had only used this small plan to carry out the Drumming Order, yet that Southwest commander actually dared to rebel. He was both fearful and furious, ordering a further investigation.
Due to the extensive involvement of the case, Supreme Court's Ministry of Criminal Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, and even the Inspectorate, from large to small, were equally in a state of fear. Even Gu Yun, who rarely had the opportunity to return to the capital to rest, could not have a moment of peace, constantly being summoned into the court for questioning.
The Southwest admiral, Fu Zhi Cheng, colluded with the mountain bandits, killed court officials, smuggled Ziliujin, and attempted to rebel against the case. The bandit leaders and the head of the rebel party were sentenced to death, involving their families along with it.
But the iron blooded Long An Emperor still refused to give up, and the situation quickly became impossible to turn back from, resembling a radish that was pulled up from the ground, bringing with it dirt and soil. This matter had implicated the six central powers. Those who had a personal relationship with Fu Zhi Cheng, those who had received bribes and opened the back door for him, even the old minister who had recommended Fu Zhi Cheng in the past, none were able to run, all were involved in it.
Some were imprisoned, some were dismissed from positions, and for a moment, those in the imperial court were in a state of anxiety, the entire capital was engulfed in silent suspicion.
The sky had remained clouded until the end of the year, heavy snow finally came down.