In addition to a Chang Geng who made him uneasy, he also had to think about the Rong Jin Law and the Emperor's action against the Ziliujin black market, while also using a roundabout way to save Master Feng Han — the topmost stubborn man of Ling Shu Institute. Both his mental and physical strength were exhausted, utterly miserable.
On the 23rd of the first month, Gu Yun sent Shen Yi off from the capital to the southwest to take office.
On the 25th day of the first month, the Emperor visited the imperial garden. Somehow, the imperial carriage had broken down halfway through. The servant unintentionally said a few words, reminding the Emperor of how Master Feng Han had knelt down on the ground, testing the steam-powered imperial carriage for him. The flame in his heart was cooled down by half.
After inquiring about it, it seemed that the old man was all alone. During his imprisonment these few days, aside from a few students from the Ling Shu Institute who came to visit, he did not have even one servant to deliver his meals.
The Emperor was in a good mood. After hearing so, he could not help but feel sorry for the old man. He sighed, ordered for him to be released, only cutting his salary for half a year as a light punishment, and this matter was considered to be pardoned.
With these two things resolved, Gu Yun felt he could not stay in this capital even a day longer, immediately writing a request for him to return to Lou Lan.
He truly should have been on his way by now; the Emperor had no objections. He approved it on the same day.
The day before his departure, the night was already deep, Gu Yun had gone to bed after he finished drinking medicine. Although Chang Geng had performed acupuncture for him earlier, it could only relieve but could not completely cure the root cause of the headache.
While he was struggling to fall asleep, someone from the palace suddenly arrived, summoning him to meet the Emperor right then in the night.
There was no telling whether it was the effect of the medicine or what, Gu Yun's eyelids suddenly twitched.
Gu Yun quickly got up to change his clothes; as he exited the room, he was surprised to find that Chang Geng stayed in the outer chamber. He wasn't sleeping either; it seemed he had just put on his outer coat, holding a small steam lamp in his hand, a half-open book was laying on his knee.
The outer chamber was usually the place for servants to rest during the night. Gu Yun was already accustomed to a simple lifestyle; there was no one staying in at night. Only the old butler would occasionally come over in the middle of the night to add some charcoal to the blazer.
"Chang Geng?" Gu Yun was surprised, "How come you are here? I thought it was Uncle Wang..."
Chang Geng: "I was waiting for you to fall asleep before leaving."
"You are a Jun Wang," Gu Yun frowned: "Lowering yourself to stay at a place for servants as such is too inappropriate."
"It is nothing more than a false title. Being a servant for yifu would be much better," Chang Geng said faintly, removing the small pot from the red-hot stove and pouring a bowl of herbal tea for Gu Yun: "Is yifu going to the palace? If you are not willing to wear a fur coat, at least drink something first to keep warm."
Gu Yun: "..."
He was flustered; even if he were to marry a wife, she would probably not be as thoughtful as Chang Geng. When these thoughts just began to manifest, he instantly slapped himself inside: Bastard, have you gone insane?
Gu Yun took the cup of herbal tea and drank it. When returning the cup, their fingers accidentally touched. Chang Geng quickly retracted his hand as if he had just been pricked by a sharp needle — then with a seemingly normal expression, he turned around and placed the pot down in its original place.
Gu Yun watched his figure from behind, his gaze slightly darkened. He thought: It can't go on like this anymore. After returning from the palace, I must talk it through with him no matter what.
Outside, the palace servants were making haste. Gu Yun could not delay any longer; he could only hurriedly follow them.
The February night air was biting, Gu Yun's dizzy head blown by the cold wind instantly became clear once again, as if he had just undergone acupuncture.
The servant leading the way did not dare to lift his head, walking under the palace wall. Every three steps, there would be a guarding post equipped with bows. All had beast heads, their faces were ferocious, their fangs emitting white steam, the gears in the neck slowly rotating, producing a characteristic abrading sound, causing the red walls in front to seem all the more awe-inspiring, no one would dare to look closely.
The huge palace lantern swinging in mid-air, covered with a layer of mist, did not give off a godly aura but instead seemed bleak and ghostly.
The close servant of Emperor Long An led a few people out of the Warm Pavilion; they just happened to be on the opposite side of Gu Yun. They were Westerners, the man leading had white hair, was tall and lean, and his facial features were much like a falcon. His eyes were intimidating, his nose was high and hooked, and his lips were almost invisible, only a narrow slit that seemed to have been created by a blade.
Zhu Little Feet quickly took a step forward and paid respect to Gu Yun: "Marquis — these are the messengers sent by the Pope from the West."
The white-haired man looked at Gu Yun carefully and asked: "Is this the Marquis of Order?"
A thin layer of snow fell on Gu Yun's eyelashes; his entire being was covered in an aura of chilling frost as he put his hands together coldly.
The white-haired man put his hand on his chest: "I did not expect the Marquis of Order to be such a young and handsome man. Pleased to meet you."
Gu Yun: "You have praised too much."
The two groups of people passed by each other; after the foreigners had walked further away, Gu Yun glanced at Zhu Little Feet.
Zhu Little Feet blinked at him, then spoke in a hushed tone: "Just now, there was no telling what those foreigners had said to His Majesty, only that this time, His Majesty seemed to be very high spirited, even constantly telling us to ask Marquis to come. Marquis can rest assured, this is not bad news."
This old eunuch was ridiculed by the people for abusing his power and being a sugar-coating subject, but his relationship with Gu Yun was not bad. He could be considered someone who had watched Gu Yun grow up. On one occasion, he somehow angered the former emperor. Happening to come across it, Gu Yun had said a few good words in his stead in front of the former emperor, saving his small life.
Although Zhu Little Feet's character was rotten, unexpectedly, he was very understanding when it came to repaying favors, always remembering this little act of goodwill. With saving Master Feng Han a few days ago, it was also thanks to his assistance from the inside.
However, as he said so, Gu Yun did not dare to rest assured.
If the Emperor was not very happy, he would have a general idea — for a larger part, perhaps someone had accused him of buying Ziliujin from the black market in the past.
They could accuse him all they wanted, anyway, either way, Gu Yun had thoroughly cleaned up his traces - there was no evidence, the worst-case scenario was a battle of words... but what could it mean if His Majesty was 'very high spirited'?
Gu Yun's eyelids twitched even more.
When he entered, Li Feng was looking down at a report. Emperor Long An under the lamplight did not appear to be very lively. He seemed more sickly than Gu Yun, who had just been tormented by a headache. Not waiting for him to greet, Li Feng already waved his hand, his attitude incredibly peaceful: "There is no one else here, Imperial Uncle does not have to be over-courteous with me."
Li Feng turned to Zhu Little Feet: "Go ask if there is still any ginseng soup left from dinner, give Imperial Uncle a bowl to warm his hands."
Suddenly being thoughtful, Gu Yun sighed in his heart. If this isn't a trick, it will be robbery.
Li Feng was not aware of how Gu Yun was ridiculing him inside, he asked with quite a cheerful expression: "I remember uncle said last time that a part of Fu Zhi Cheng's Ziliujin was from the Southern Sea?"
Gu Yun: "Yes, please forgive your subject's incompetence, I could not find the source for this Ziliujin."
Li Feng did not get mad: "It's alright, those traitors are very wicked, Imperial Uncle is unfamiliar with their terrain, managing to break through the thief's secret passage, capturing them in one swift move — this is already considered to be a great achievement. If you claim to be incompetent, then shouldn't all the magistrates and officers in the court be fired already?"
Gu Yun couldn't figure out what his intention might be, quickly replying with an "I do not dare."
"The Ziliujin black market in the territory of Great Liang is extremely unruly." Li Feng said, quickly diverting the topic. "This time, I sent people to conduct a private investigation in disguise and found that a large part of the supply actually came from outside the country."
Gu Yun immediately understood as he heard this that those officials who leaked the goods in the territory had already received news through various connections. They had all quieted down and assessed the direction of the wind. What Jiang Chong and his men discovered were only some small fishes and shrimps secretly digging from the mines. Thus he kept quiet and listened.
Li Feng continued his words: "Imperial Uncle often walks in the frontiers, you must be a lot more knowledgeable than those of us sitting in the capital all day much like frogs sitting at the bottom of a well. Do you know where these private miners usually travel to?"
Gu Yun: "To answer His Majesty, they are generally on the Northern Barbarian grasslands."
"Correct," Li Feng laughed. "Although that's not all — Imperial Uncle, come look at this."
Gu Yun hesitantly accepted the confidential report Li Feng threw to him; as he swept his eyes over it, his mind suddenly exploded.
The report listed in detail every single trading line the private miners sold their Ziliujin to; Gu Yun knew most of them by heart, except for the last one that read — 'Lou Lan Kingdom'.
How come Lou Lan is here?
Li Feng: "So?"
Countless thoughts raced through Gu Yun's heart, cold sweat quickly breaking out: "Your Majesty, the Black Iron Camp and Lou Lan Kingdom have been neighbors for many years. I have never been aware that there is a Ziliujin mine in Lou Lan. Please pardon my rudeness, dare I ask who had brought forth this report? What is their evidence?"
"Hey, Imperial Uncle has thought too much," Li Feng said with a smile. "I never said that you have connections with those thieves who were privately mining. There is nothing strange about you not knowing about this matter."
Gu Yun took a deep breath, indicating that he was listening carefully.
Li Feng: "It's a long story. Imperial Uncle had moved out with your troops to the Southern Frontier from September last year. When you were not here, Lou Lan Kingdom had asked the Black Iron Camp soldiers who were stationed behind for help, as they wanted to encircle and eliminate a group of bandits.
"At that time, General Qiu Wen Shan had sent out troops, later bringing back complete victory, killing hundreds of desert bandits, and rescuing a group of Tian Zhu merchants who they captured. Because these merchants had the border pass of Great Liang, General Qiu had escorted them to the West Station. Unexpectedly, they later discovered at the station that the merchants' passes were fake."
Li Feng was in an excellent mood; he deliberately stopped as he got here as if to increase curiosity. Unexpectedly, he could only see Gu Yun solemnly listening with an unusually grave expression as he looked back, there was no intention of inquiring him of what happened next either. The Emperor could not help but felt somewhat irritated.
He had no choice but to continue unhappily: "According to the law, those who forged border passes should be referred to the general protection office for investigation and be dealt with. After checking, the northwestern governor discovered that these Tian Zhu people were no merchants, they were a group of 'Gold Fighters' from the Ziliujin black market!"
'Gold Fighters' were those who risked their lives to smuggle Ziliujin.
"Coincidentally, my secret envoys had just arrived in the Western Region at that time, their feet had not yet met the ground, these gold fighters already walked themselves into the nest. According to the thieves' confession, they were originally active in the private mine outside the Southern Gate. Recently, they got their hands on a 'treasure map', showing a large number of Ziliujin mines in the Lou Lan Kingdom. Thus they had come to try their luck.
"You say, is this not surprising? I actually figured out what is under their land even before Lou Lan people themselves."
Gu Yun remembered the group of desert bandits he caught four years ago, his hairs stood up all at once.
Those bandits had already been secretly silenced by him and Shen Yi. Afterward, Gu Yun had sent people to investigate more than once; he had never found the so-called 'Ziliujin mine', and did not encounter a similar thing again.
Unexpectedly, a few years later, when this matter had gradually been thrown into the back of his mind, it returned under this circumstance!
And...why was the person who ordered the departure of the troops Qiu Wen Shan?
In the Black Iron Camp, Qiu Wen Shan was in charge of defense, and had never managed matters concerning the business road before. Otherwise, if replaced by an experienced person, they would absolutely not directly transfer those people without verifying the authenticity of the document. The Northwestern Guardian was directly under the Central Government. Once transferred, the Black Iron Camp would no longer have the right to intervene with any matters coming after.
Gu Yun took Shen Yi with him, but the leaders of the three major factions were still there. Where did they all disappear to?
Gu Yun: "Pardon your subject's rudeness, dare I ask Your Majesty, what was the time for the bandits' invasion?"
Li Feng: "At the end of last year, what's the matter?"
Gu Yun forced a smile: "It's nothing, your subject only feels that it is a bit strange, bandits from the Western Regions have been cleaned up for a long time now, why did they suddenly appear?"
His head became more and more painful. It seemed that the force of the medicine which Chang Geng suppressed with acupuncture had turned up again.
That was right; at the end of last year, there was a major market gathering on the Silk Road, bringing together countless nations. The Black Iron Camp had to increase the distribution of personnel for protection. The annual tributes transporting from the Northern Frontier back to the capital also moved past the northwest area, usually requiring a part of Black Cavalry as well... hence why everyone had moved out.
Why must they choose this exact time?
How come as the northwestern guardian's just discovered the 'Golden Fighter', the Emperor's secret envoy also instantly arrived, leaving no room for maneuver?
Moreover, how come he had never received any news regarding this matter, not before it happened, and not after?
The string in Gu Yun's head tensed up, his thoughts in a mess, suddenly finding it hard to breathe inside this Warm Pavilion where it was spring all throughout the year.
Li Feng: "The Western Region's bandits usually circle around outside Great Liang, with no letter for assistance, it's not convenient for you to mobilize troops. It truly wasn't easy for you to deal with them. But today, I especially asked Imperial Uncle to come, not to ask about how many bandits are out there, but to give Imperial Uncle an important task."
Gu Yun looked up at him.
Li Feng's gaze was like a flame: "The secret envoy in disguise has now infiltrated the inland territory of Lou Lan. I am afraid that there is about an eighty to ninety percent chance there is indeed a rare Ziliujin mine from Lou Lan underground... does uncle understand my meaning?"
Gu Yun's heart slowly sank, forcing out each word: "Pardon my ignorance, Your Majesty, please make it clearer."
Li Feng patted his shoulder; Gu Yun's body seemed to be forever unable to warm up. Whenever and wherever he might be, he would always resemble a piece of stone that had been submerged in frozen ice for three days.
"To tell you the truth, Imperial Uncle must have already known, our Great Liang is chaotic both inside and out," Li Feng sighed, "I am very distressed, I have nowhere and no one to let it out to when awakened at midnight. An entire nation pressing on your shoulders is no easy task."
Gu Yun cautiously chose the right words, then keenly responded: "Your Majesty is occupied with hundreds and thousands of responsibilities, you are the hope of the people, you must take care of your body.
"I am not very knowledgeable in government affairs, but in the past few years, I have seen the Silk Road being built up little by little. Every year is livelier, more prosperous than the last. The major merchants in the northwest have begun to travel outside the country. Central Plains people have always been diligent and hard-working. Your subject believes that in just three or five years, this prosperity can spread to the whole territory of Great Liang. When that time comes..."
Although he was resilient in his response, Li Feng was not stupid; he, of course, was able to understand the rejection.
To the currently very enthusiastic Emperor Long An, his roundabout speech was much like a bucket of cold water.
"Subject Gu," Li Feng suddenly changed his pronouns, arbitrarily interrupting him: "You truly don't understand government affairs. Business travels have indeed been able to make money in the past few years, but can you guarantee that this will continue to last? The things of these business people, do you know them full well? I wasn't aware that in addition to being able to kill the enemy, the Marquis of Order also understands the way of business and trade."
The Emperor was truly irritated now.
Gu Yun knew that when he heard the two words 'Subject Gu', he should immediately shut up and do as he was told.
He was silent for a moment; for some reason, the fire on the steam lamp behind the Emperor suddenly became unstable, creating a small sparkling noise.
Gu Yun thought, a few days ago, he still vowed to Master Jiang he 'did not dare to underestimate this body'...
Li Feng raised his hand and rubbed his temple, repressing his anger, finding a way out for both of them. He stiffly said: "Forget it, you should return to rest first. I leave this matter to you. Go back and think about it. Spring has yet to arrive, the northwest is freezing cold, you do not have to hurry back over there..."
"Your Majesty." Gu Yun narrowed his eyes, suddenly lifting his robes and kneeling down. He once said he would not fight for meaningless temper and righteousness, but this was not merely a matter of temper and righteousness.
"Your Majesty, forgive me," Gu Yun said slowly, "Ziliujin is, of course, of importance, but pardon your subject's stupidity, I could not comprehend the deeper meaning of Your Majesty's action. It was not easy for the Silk Road to become as prosperous and peaceful as right now. Your Majesty would truly abandon it regardless only for a little amount of Ziliujin?"
"The Silk Road became what it is today, Subject Gu's contribution cannot be denied, I understand that after too many years of hard work, you cannot bear to... you think I don't feel pained?"
Li Feng resisted his temper and patiently explained: "But a big country resembling a large rundown house, with wind blowing from four sides, as soon as there is rain, one will have to work hard to pull down the east wall to make up the west wall. Is there any place that does not have to be stretched?"
Gu Yun sneered inside; it was not convenient for it to be shown on his face. Thus he only feigned indifference.
"The ground is cold, I can see Imperial Uncle's complexion is not good, even the scent of medicine on your body has not scattered yet, don't keep kneeling like that." Li Feng seemed to have cooled down, trying to be sensible with Gu Yun, "I remember as a child, Tutor Lin had said: the power of a country lies within the two arms - 'God-sent' and 'Man-made'. Does uncle remember?"
Gu Yun: "I do. 'God-sent' are mountains, grass, grains, soil and fish, the Ziliujin underground; 'Man-made' are the teachings passed down from previous wise men, industrial and trading, craftsmanship, machines, and armors. These two, resembling the beams, can still stand if one of them remains, but both cannot be broken at the same time; a ruler should remember this."
"Imperial Uncle has truly memorized all that you have read," Li Feng lowered his eyes and looked at him. "Now these two beams have both been hollowed out by insects, what am I supposed to do?"
Gu Yun actually wanted to reply: "If you weren't pushing the implementation of that ridiculous Zhang Ling Law, perhaps there would not be so many insects," but it was useless to say so. Just look at Master Feng Han, now hugging his dog children to reflect on his actions behind closed doors.
One asking and the other one answering reminded Li Feng of when they used to study together at a young age. When Gu Yun was a child, his body was in poor health, and he always fell ill, all day taking medicine. His personality was no better either, never caring for anyone. However, towards his brothers, he was very aware of his role as an 'uncle'. Although he was even younger than Wei Wang, whenever there was anything delicious or fun, he would always save it for them, never fought for it, or kept it to himself. When questioned, he would answer; when asked, he would give. Li Feng had once liked him very much.
"Get up," Li Feng's last bit of anger faded. "Imperial Uncle is the sharp blade of this country, I still need to rely on you to stabilize all four sides."
Gu Yun heard his words, slowly bent over, his forehead slightly touched his fingertips on the ground.
Li Feng breathed a sigh of relief, assuming he had successfully persuaded this man — Gu Yun had become wiser with his actions in the past few years, very understanding of the current affairs, not easily blown up with just the slightest touch like before. His neither light nor heavy opposition just now was perhaps only an overreaction from hearing the words 'Lou Lan'...
Lou Lan... Gu Yun had been staying there for more than five years. His feelings must be deep; this was not incomprehensible.
With such a thought, Li Feng's heart became softer. He intended to reach out and help Gu Yun up.
Unexpectedly, his hand was not yet extended, but Gu Yun had already straightened up and said calmly:
"Your Majesty, Lou Lan is small, but they have always remained great friends with our court. That year when countless Western Region countries rebelled, our army was besieged in the golden sand dunes for more than twenty days. The only side who secretly sent information and supplied us with rations and medicine was Lou Lan. Later, many countries, such as the Western foreigners, Western Regions, and Tian Zhu...signing the Silk Road treaty with Great Liang, Lou Lan had also served as an—"
Li Feng's hand hung stiffly in the air, stunned by Gu Yun's words; he then immediately turned furious, loudly shouting: "Enough!"
"Aiming at other countries' natural resources, invading and taking siege, that is inhumane; throwing away old favors, betraying one's promise, that is unjust!" Gu Yun did not seem to have had 'enough' in the slightest — each word like a blade, clashing onto the floor of the pavilion.
Li Feng shook with rage: "Shut up!"
He turned his hand over the table, swept the papers onto the floor, immediately picked up an ink container, and violently threw it — Gu Yun did not hide either, letting the container strongly hit the shoulder of his Light Armor, the sound of the impact echoing. The still wet ink dripped down from the chest of the Marquis of Order's formal attire.
Li Feng: "Gu Yun, what do you want to do?"
Gu Yun slowly forced out each word: "An inhumane and unjust army is no good fortune. Black Iron Camp's 50,000 soldiers, although not afraid of death, we do not dare to accept this command either. Your Majesty, please recall your order."
The brazier outside the West Warm Pavilion would automatically add charcoal after a period of time. The large gears the size of a bowl were interlocked. Whether it was changing charcoal or letting out smoke, all were carried out in an orderly manner. A stream of white smoke emitted from behind, occasionally letting out noises that resembled a sigh.
Inside the pavilion, the ruler and the subject — one kneeling, one standing — clashed in a tense argument. Li Feng's hand clasped the edge of the wooden table carved into the design of a dragon, rows of blue veins popping up, grumbling out each word: "You say it again."
Gu Yun had finished speaking of everything he needed to; he also understood not to oppose the Emperor excessively. He took one step back first: "Your subject deserves death."
Li Feng's face appeared ashen, turning the white jade ring between his fingers like mad, his state of mind extremely unstable.
Gu Yun whispered: "It's just that for the matter concerning the Silk Road, pulling one strand of hair would affect the whole body, Your Majesty, please consider it carefully."
Li Feng solemnly asked: "Does the Marquis of Order think that, besides you, there is no other available general in my hands?"
It had already come to this, to continue on would only result in a quarrel. Gu Yun simply stayed silent, pretending he was already dead.
At this time, Zhu Little Feet suddenly walked into the Warm Pavilion, reporting in a small voice: "Your Majesty, Imperial Uncle has arrived, he is currently awaiting your order outside..."
On the occasion when the Emperor was furious, if any subjects were visiting, the palace servants would generally persuade them to wait a little longer outside the hall. This action of Zhu Little Feet bore the intention of trying to find a way out for them. Gu Yun looked at him and blinked, expressing his appreciation.
Li Feng's eyelids twitched, a few harsh curves forming on his facial features. He looked down on Gu Yun and said coldly: "The Marquis should go cool off outside then, avoid getting your head dulled by the smoke, not understanding what you should say or what you should not say!"
Gu Yun: "Your Majesty, take care of your body."
After he finished, he quickly bowed and went to kneel in the midst of the snow outside the Warm Pavilion, truly going to 'cool off'.
Li Feng stared at his retreating back with a grave and ferocious look, Imperial Uncle Wang Guo entering after did not dare to breathe out, silently standing on the side and waiting. An oblivious young servant stepping forward — intending to clean up the scattered ink container from crashing onto the Marquis of Order just now — was suddenly pinned down on the spot by Zhu Little Feet's gaze. His body stiffened; after a moment of silence, he was finally able to run along the walls and disappear.
Wang Guo assessed the Emperor's face, lowering his voice to advise: "Your Majesty, that Marquis of Order is young and eager to win, moreover, he also lived among those crude soldiers at the frontier. Sometimes stepping out of line is unavoidable, there is no need for Your Majesty to be angry because of him."
Li Feng did not speak up for a long time.
That year, Emperor Yuan He chose his eldest son to be the crown prince, for he was diligent, yet did not lack in wits. He had the potential to be a wise ruler, more than enough to be an emperor who could preserve what the previous generations built up.
When Li Feng first succeeded the throne, he did indeed meet the expectations of the former emperor. However, one thing was undeniable — Emperor Yuan He had left behind for his son an exceptionally messy state of affairs. What Great Liang's imperial court needed right now was a ruler with both resolution and vision. The talent to preserve wouldn't be enough.
Since Emperor Long An's ascension, it could be said that nothing he did had gone according to plan. When awakened at night, he often asked himself: "Will I be able to carry this nation?"
But a person — especially one in a high position, if he always asked himself this question — generally, he would be unable to bear it when others also questioned the same thing.
Wang Guo's face went stiff from smiling: "Your Majesty..."
Li Feng suddenly interrupted him: "Imperial Uncle, recently, there is one problem in my heart — The Black Tiger Emblem was given by Emperor Wu, why did Gu Yun take the initiative to return it to me so easily?"
Wang Guo was taken aback, boldly staring at Emperor Long An. He felt that this question was truly superfluous — was the Emperor looking forward and wishing for Gu Yun to stir up the Heavens, or simply to rebel?
"This...," Wang Guo quickly calculated, not knowing what could be the appropriate words to say, he had no choice but to choose flattery to keep guard from a monarch's unpredictable heart. "The Emperor is a wise ruler of the generation, us subjects must dedicate our all to serve. This is only a meager emblem, even if Your Majesty wants our lives, who would complain?"
Li Feng laughed lightly: "I am afraid that it isn't so, Imperial Uncle. It took me until today to understand it. In fact, whether Gu Yun returned the emblem or not makes no difference; the major commanders of all four sides, how many belonged to Gu family's party? Right now, for military affairs, the Marquis' words are even more effective than my own, the emblem was only a symbolic object, with no usefulness to him either way."
When Li Feng spoke, his tone of voice was gentle, much like a casual afternoon chat. But Wang Guo involuntarily trembled as he heard these words. He only felt that the murderous intent in this sentence was almost overflowing.
"I originally summoned Imperial Uncle into the palace today to discuss Lou Lan's business, but forget it." Li Feng tiredly waved his hand. "You can go, I am also quite exhausted."
Wang Guo quickly responded and exited the West Warm Pavilion.
No one knew what happened this year, it was clear they had already passed the Rain Water* season, but snow in the capital continued to fall again and again, long and endless. Gu Yun had only been kneeling for half an hour, a layer of thin ice already formed on his formal attire, the black iron on his shoulders covered by fine snow became all the more unimaginably cold.
*雨水 The "Rain Water", the second of the twenty-four solar terms, around February 18th, 19th, or 20th
Wang Guo hurriedly passed by, taking a glimpse of the handsome and bloodless profile of the prestigious Marquis of Order, and secretly sighed inside. He pitied him — but it was nothing more than that. Wang Guo was a smart man; he understood full well who had bestowed upon him his current position of being 'under one person, but above thousands'. He also understood what it was that he should do.
Just like that, the capital's night became heavier and heavier.
Waiting until after Li Feng fell asleep, Zhu Little Feet gathered his courage, opened an umbrella, and shakily came to see Gu Yun.
Gu Yun was about to be buried in the snow. Zhu Little Feet scolded the servants waiting in the hallway: "Useless servants, under such heavy snow, you still don't know where to find an umbrella for the Marquis! Are your eyes just used for decoration?"
In the eyes of the young servants, Zhu Little Feet, who was mocked by thousands of people, was already a top official, so they suddenly became scared to death, trembling greatly.
Gu Yun blinked the snow forming on his eyelashes away, casually saying: "Eunuch, don't scare the children. His Majesty told me to come out here to cool down, how am I supposed to do so with an umbrella."
Zhu Little Feet hurriedly ran in front of Gu Yun, intending to help sweep away the snow on his body. Unexpectedly, he let out a startling sound as he reached out his hand — the cold black iron on Gu Yun's shoulders almost peeled off a layer of skin from his soft and plump hand. The old eunuch trembled while complaining:
"My Marquis, why must you quarrel with His Majesty? Kneeling here all night long, it would be a miracle if your legs do not get hurt. In the end, it would only mean to subject yourself to suffering, what must you do this for?"
Gu Yun smiled: "It's nothing, us people practicing martial arts have thick skin and sturdy flesh — I was a little hot-headed back then, I have said too much, troubling the eunuch for your concern in my stead."
Zhu Little Feet thought about it, then lowered his voice: "How about I send someone to call for Yan Bei Wang, let him enter the palace tomorrow morning, and say a few words to His Majesty?"
Gu Yun shook his head again: "Don't involve him, I'm alright."
Zhu Little Feet pondered it for a moment, but there was nothing that could be done in the end. He was also afraid that Emperor Long An would have orders when he woke up. Not daring to leave the Emperor's side for too long, he left the umbrella on the ground for Gu Yun.
"Eunuch Zhu," Gu Yun suddenly stopped him, whispered: "Thank you, but you should take back this umbrella."
Zhu Little Feet was taken aback.
Gu Yun: "I will kneel here for a while until His Majesty's anger cools down. You are the one who serves by his side, don't let him think too much."
He vaguely hinted, but Zhu Little Feet would naturally understand. The old eunuch heaved a sigh: "When Marquis quarreled with His Majesty, if you still remembered to be this mindful, you would not have had to catch this northwest wind."
With Zhu Little Feet gone, Gu Yun exhaled out white air. In a state of boredom, he carefully thought about what Chang Geng had said to him at Hu Guo Temple — the Eastern Sea disaster, and the southwest riot, perhaps both were not accidental.
Slowly, Gu Yun managed to form a faint connection.
Wei Wang placed his troops in the Eastern Sea and intended to use naval warfare as a breakthrough.
Gu Yun captured the Eastern Sea rebel army at that time, not costing him a single soldier. Compared with the wave that was subsequently launched, this matter could be said to resemble 'a small head but heavy feet'.
The entirety of the court had boiled up because of this; Jiangnan Navy was thoroughly cleaned from top to bottom. The Emperor once exhausted Ling Shu Institute's resources, intending to build up one branch of Dragons, causing the military expenses of forces on all four sides to be cut down even further.
The more significant impact was that the Eastern Sea disaster directly gave birth to the 'Zhang Ling Law', to restrict the common folk Mechanics, and the Drumming Order, to gather the national military power — the latter directly aimed at Gu Yun himself. Thinking about it now, in retrospect, Emperor Long An did not raise him any trouble for no reason; perhaps, his actions in Jiangnan that time did not go unnoticed by the Emperor.
The introduction of the Drumming Order immediately intensified the contradiction between garrisons everywhere and the court, and it was the source for the case of Fu Zhi Cheng.
Gu Yun was present at the southwest, directly inside this trap. Thus, he had a clearer feel for the hand that had stirred up this muddy water — someone had deliberately provoked the contradiction between the mountain bandits and Fu Zhi Cheng, then made use of that moronic Kuai Lan Tu to intensify it, choosing the right moment to lit the detonator, letting it explode in front of Gu Yun. Tying the mountain bandits and Fu Zhi Cheng together as a gift through the hands of the Black Iron Camp, packaged and given to the Emperor in the capital.
What would the Emperor think of this?
He would be horrified to find that although he restricted the circulation of Ziliujin inside the country, there still existed sources from overseas.
Gu Yun suddenly remembered, he and Shen Yi had spent a long time in Lou Lan, from investigation to gathering information, they had done it all, yet they had never been able to find this legendary 'Lou Lan Treasure'.
Yet when the Emperor sent out a bunch of secret agents who were completely unfamiliar with the territory, in only a few days, they would dare to report that they were 'eighty to ninety percent' certain?
Were these secret agents exceptionally skilled? Or was someone deliberately guiding their hands?
The snow was falling harder and harder, Gu Yun shivered. Behind him, a branch of plum blossom weighed by the heavy snow broke then fell onto the ground, shattering to pieces.
Chang Geng was awakened by the sound of a broken tree branch.
Gu Yun did not return for the entire night; he had also waited for him for just as long, leaning on the bed, all his dreams were strange nightmares. At this time, the sky was shining, the night had not passed by, but the windowsill reflected by the light of the snow brightened. Chang Geng suddenly got up and opened the door, just in time to see Uncle Wang running over.
"Uncle Wang, slow down," Chang Geng stopped him. "What's the matter?"
Even with the cold wind, the old butler was breaking out in hot sweat: "Your Highness, there is news coming from the palace, saying that yesterday, there was no telling what the Marquis had quarreled with the Emperor about, but the Emperor was furious..."
Chang Geng's pupils contracted.
After a while, a horse left the yard of the Marquis' Manor during the night, riding the snow surging forward in the direction of Hu Guo Temple.
The next day, there was no major court session. Emperor Long An did not need to get up too early, but the flame inside was too hot. He wasn't able to get a good night's sleep, waking up with a headache and dizziness.
Zhu Little Feet came over and helped to press Emperor Long An's temples, talking while he did so: "Your Majesty, the Tian Zhu incense sent by Master Liao Chi some time ago can help in clearing the heart and soothing the nerves. When using it last time, you also praised its effectiveness; how about I burn some more for you?"
Li Feng made a sound in response, then after a while of thinking, he asked: "Is the master still in the palace?"
Throughout the first month, the head monk of Hu Guo Temple — Master Liao Chi — would live in the palace to pray for the blessing of Great Liang, while giving lectures to the devout believer of Buddha, Emperor Long An.
Zhu Little Feet quickly replied: "Yes, I heard that the master has already gotten up early for morning meditation, regardless of wind or rain. Your servant can see that Your Majesty's eyelids have turned red, perhaps it was due to having a fire in your heart. Should I tell the master to come read a few scriptures to help you calm down?"
Li Feng smiled and said: "How disrespectful, Master Liao Chi is a highly educated monk of our times, do you think of him as a street performer?"
Zhu Little Feet smiled apologetically and hit his face: "Look at this old servant's mouth, my knowledge was lacking, becoming a joke again -— although I do not understand much, every time I listen to the sound of the master's wooden knocker, I also feel all the troubles in my heart fade away."
Upon hearing him mentioning so, Li Feng had a change of mind. After thinking about it, he agreed: "Trouble the master for a trip here then."
Zhu Little Feet responded, quickly asked people to send the message, then silently assisted the Emperor in washing his face and changing clothes. Li Feng suddenly asked: "Where is Gu Yun?"
Zhu Little Feet had been dying to mention this, but did not dare to ask; upon hearing his question, he immediately answered: "Your Majesty, the Marquis is still kneeling outside the pavilion."
Li Feng seemed to have let out a snort, his expression was indifferent. Zhu Little Feet did not dare to mention this matter too often; he could only secretly hope that the old monk — the unreliable rescuer could be a bit useful.
It didn't take long for Master Liao Chi to arrive at the Warm Pavilion. He only took one glance, casually passed by, as if he had never seen the snowman outside.
However, no one knew what spell the old monk of the Hu Guo Temple cast on the Emperor. He went in for a moment, Zhu Little Feet had already swiftly run out. First, he read the decree with enthusiasm: "Order from the Emperor; The Marquis had disrespectful manners in front of the Son of Heaven, paying no regard to the monarch — temporarily confiscating the Marshal Seal, ordering to return to the manor to reflect on your actions, cutting three months of wage."
Gu Yun was startled.
Zhu Little Feet signaled him with his eyes.
Gu Yun: "...Your subject heeds the decree."
Zhu Little Feet slapped his thigh, raised his voice to call the servants on the other side: "Look at this lot of monkeys with no eyes!! What are you still standing there for? Hurry and help the Marquis up!"
He didn't even finish commanding, yet Gu Yun had already stood up, his limbs were like needles, pinning through the formal attire and the steel armor. The snow water had soaked all over his body, and an unspeakable chill was eating its way to the bones. Gu Yun put his hands together to greet Zhu Little Feet, then with his heart filled with concern, he exited the palace. At the same time, he also wondered: Has the bald donkey been possessed? Why would he save me?
...Until he saw his Chang Geng waiting for him outside the palace gate.
Gu Yun: "Turned out Hu Guo Temple was dragged here by you. I was still thinking how could that bald donkey be so kind."
Starting from when Chang Geng first heard about how Gu Yun had been kneeling all night in heavy snow, the Bone of Impurity in his body had begun to act up regardless of right or wrong. However, his heart could not afford to fall into chaos. He had recited the tranquilizing mantra over and over again, walking back and forth past the palace gate like a caged beast.
Even though he had prepared himself, Gu Yun appeared even more miserable than what he had imagined. Chang Geng's brain exploded, feeling the rushing blood was about to reach his throat.
Without any explanation, he first covered Gu Yun with thick fox fur, then reached out to touch his pale blue face. Gu Yun had been frozen for a night, even if his skin was thick, his reaction speed could not help but become slower, he was touched by him.
But this gesture of his was truly embarrassing; unable to hide from it, Gu Yun had to joke: "Can you feel out how much my bones weigh already?"
There was no telling whether this person's heart could contain mountains or if he really had no heart - he had already ended up like this, but still cracking jokes!
Chang Geng dragged Gu Yun onto the carriage without saying a word, his eyes red from the pain he felt inside.
As soon as he entered, warmth hit Gu Yun's face. He rubbed his hands together and turned to ask Chang Geng: "Is there wine? Give me a bowl."
Chang Geng did not speak up.
Gu Yun tilted his head to look at him and saw that his eyes were red, as if they were bleeding; he couldn't help but smile: "My gods, I have never seen you cry since childhood, truly opening my eyes today. Let's hurry up and call Uncle Wang to bring out the basin. Just in time, the Emperor fined me three months of salary, we can rely on your golden beans to eat."
Of course, Chang Geng was not crying. He was repressing his murderous intent and various illusions inside; his whole body seemingly wanted to explode.
Gu Yun finally noticed that his eyes were abnormal: "Chang Geng?"
Chang Geng forced himself back to reality, then stiffly said: "Yifu, change your clothes first."
His voice was hoarse as if two rusty old irons were scraping together. Gu Yun frowned; he quickly untied his wet hair, took the dry clothes from the carriage, and began to change.
Chang Geng did not dare to look at him. He sat on his side, lowered his eyes, and breathed in and out according to the method Miss Chen taught him. But the sound of rustling clothes that was clearly so low and so easy to be suppressed by the rumble of the carriage, it seemed to have mutated at this time, continuously drilling into his ears. The more he tried to breathe, the more unstable he became.
Gu Yun placed his hair crown onto the small table in the carriage, the sound awakening Chang Geng: "I cooked a little medicine to disperse the cold, you first..."
His voice silenced, Gu Yun's ice-cold fingers had grasped his wrist.
Chang Geng was agitated for a moment, wanted to retract his hand, but Gu Yun was tightly holding on to him, he could only call out in a small voice: "Yifu..."
"I don't know much about taking a pulse," Gu Yun's expression was incredibly serious, "But I know what 'qi deviation as a result of training gone wrong' is."
Chang Geng rushed away from his gaze in a panic.
"Chang Geng, tell me the truth, do you..." As Gu Yun got here, he paused from feeling self-conscious; even if his heart was as vast as the sea, his skin was as thick as the palace wall, he could also feel that the following words were not suitable to speak aloud.
Chang Geng seemed to have a premonition, and slowly lifted his red eyes.
Gu Yun was silent for a while, mustering up even bigger courage than when he opposed the Emperor: "Is there something weighing down on your mind?"
After a few gasps for air, Chang Geng whispered, "What did yifu say?"
Gu Yun: "...About me."