CHAPTER 9: WESTERN EXPEDITION

I

Gu Yun sat properly on his horse's back and asked: "Is he still there?"

Shen Yi raised the Qian Li Yan in response and looked back: "Yes."

Gu Yun left the capital on a beautiful day; it was a rare occasion with sunlight spreading for ten miles. Emperor Long An led a hundred civil and military officers to see them off, sending them to the city gate, watching until the figures of men and horses vanished from sight before dispersing. Yan Wang was the only one who had not left.

He climbed up the only remaining watchtower on the collapsed gate and watched the figure of the Black Iron General without moving, seeming as if he would stand until the end of the earth and heaven.

Gu Yun did not look back, but said to Shen Yi, "How far have we gone already? Even the Qian Li Yan should not be able to see clearly anymore. You should stop talking nonsense."

Shen Yi angrily said, "If you think my eyesight is bad, then look for yourself. Continuing to order me time and time again, other people would assume there is something shady between me and His Highness."

Gu Yun had prepared a handful of excuses: "You try to turn around when being wrapped in iron, so much nonsense."

Shen Yi sneered, not bothering to reveal him.

"Would I be already at that extent?" Gu Yun paused, then answered his own question: "Don't use your meager old maid's heart to measure this vast general's heart of mine that could contain thousands of ships."

There was a saying: it takes a hundred days for bones to knit and tendons to heal. Gu Yun was dug out of a heap of dead bodies. Counting both when he was dead and alive, it had not been more than half a month. Let alone an individual, even if the steel armor suffered severe damage, it would not be easy to be fixed this quickly. When Gu Yun requested to go to the Northwest, Yan Wang had turned furious and almost quarreled with him in front of the ministers.

Even Li Feng, the half-wit Emperor, who 'did not feed the cattle, but only let them work', felt somewhat concerned.

But at this time, there had to be someone to reorganize the Black Iron Camp.

The Westerners were not able to encircle the capital. In a half-dead state, they occupied the south of Changjiang. They must have had no spare energy left to take care of their poor allies. The Northwest side now had the allied troops of the Western Regions and Eighteen Tribes of Northern Man, they could not be regarded as monolithic. If they could reverse the war situation in the Northwest and solve the most pressing problem of Ziliujin at the present, then fighting the Westerners back to their home was only a matter of time.

Gu Yun had to go in person. A thousand troops were easy to get, one general was hard to obtain.

At last, Chen Qing Xu came out to solve this dilemma. She came up with a fascinating idea — to use a special steel plate produced at top speed by the Ling Shu Institute. It could be tightly fastened on the body to secure Gu Yun's bones that had not healed. In this way, it was as if she had made a set of artificial steel bones and frame for him.

Although putting it on did not feel quite good, it guaranteed that he still appeared as if he could still move about naturally.

Shen Yi sighed, "I'm telling you, Marshal, hurry and sink back your vast heart. What are you going to do?"

Gu Yun concentrated on floating the boat in his heart, acting deaf and blind.

Shen Yi saw that the man was using this trick again. He immediately took a deep breath and raised his voice. He shouted: "I'm telling you Marshal, Yan... Hey!"

  Gu Yun flipped his hand and gave him a lash. Shen Yi dangerously placed the Wind Slasher in front of his chest. His eyes widened, continuously patting his chest. "How dangerous, almost ruining my face - hey, Marshal, you have already grown angry from embarrassment after only a few serious words? Even though Master Liao Chi was a spy of Dong Ying, his sandalwood fart was not totally unreasonable. I think your fate is truly sturdy*, the Red Phoenix Star* could not fly even with wings. But now that it finally was able to take off for once, all you bumped into were rotten peach blossoms."


*referring to someone who was born on an unlucky day, whose fate countered their loved ones

*the luckiest star in legends, in charge of the joyous occasion related to weddings.


  Gu Yun: "..."

Shen Yi pursed his lips, feeling that Gu Yun was actually having difficulties twisting his neck, otherwise he would have rushed over to beat him already.

Gu Yun took back his whip, remained silent for a moment, then shook his head. "The country is almost on the verge of perishing. What else can we do? Being alive for another day is good enough, perhaps this body would one day be wrapped in horse leather. What would be the point in thinking so much?"

Shen Yi frowned at his words. He understood Gu Yun very well. If Gu Yun truly had no feelings at all, he would have said it straight away, there would never be any ambiguity. At present, listening to him, perhaps not uncertainty, it was better to say that his heart had already leaned towards one side. It was only because of a few concerns that he temporarily had not expressed it outward yet.

Shen Yi: "Hold on, Zi Xi, you wouldn't..."

Gu Yun: "We are not speaking of this matter anymore."

Shen Yi: "That is your son!"

Gu Yun: "Do I still need to hear this nonsense from you!"

Shen Yi's expression was frightened, Gu Yun impatiently looked away.

Not seeing this old maid, he had missed him greatly, but as soon as he was here, he felt that the man was too bothersome. Gu Yun simply ushered his horse and rushed away from Shen Yi's side. He took out a white jade flute from within his sleeve and started to play a choked-up tune.

No musical instrument could produce a decent sound in Gu Yun’s hands. He was now fixed in between steel plates, there was not enough breath, his voice was a little shaky. The fingers on the flute's holes were left running like a wild horse, the tune was all over the place, it should have sounded amusing.

  But at this time, the sound of the flute was swept in the wind, wrapped in the sigh of the one departing from west of Yang Pass*, unexpectedly twisting into an unspeakable feeling of desolation. No one was able to laugh.


*referring to the poem entitled "Seeing of Yuan'er on a Mission to Anxi" by Wang Wei(701-761), translated by Bill Porter. The full line is "West of Yang Pass there's no one you know", and it is a farewell poem, hence the unspeakable desolation.

Gu Yun's waist and back were fixed straight by Miss Chen's steel plate — like a beam that would never collapse — with two damaged Wind Slashers on his back... neither of them were his own.

Chen Qing Xu, who was accompanying the army, listened to the flute echo far and near from behind, whispered her sentiment, "Talk not of the glories of awards and nobility*..."

"Talk not of the glories of awards and nobility," Gu Yun flew past her, his next words completely going off tangent. "My heart is as bright as crystal ice in the jar of jade*, ha ha ha."

Chen Qing Xu: "..."

Being interrupted, she could not remember the second verse for a moment!

*from the poem 己亥歲二首 by Cao Song, The next verse was "A general's victory is built upon ten thousand rotting bones."

* from the poem 芙蓉樓送辛漸 by Wang Chang Ling. This line has all along been considered a masterful line to express a pure and noble heart


  Gu Yun marched like the wind. With the medical expert, Miss Chen, accompanying them, there was no concern about the steel plate coming off. Having just left the territory of Zhili, they had already been attacked by two waves of insurgent groups. Neither one was large scale, scattering instantly, running away as soon as there was contact like several wild probing dogs.

"Just after leaving the capital city, we were already being tailed." Shen Yi said to Gu Yun, "I have dealt with them before, they are cunning and are familiar with the territory. They would flee the moment they realized they could not win, then would soon cling to their opponent again. It was very annoying. I heard about the news of the siege in the capital when I came here. In such a rush, I was furious about their clinginess."

Gu Yun replied with an 'ah' and handed Shen Yi his Qian Li Yan. "I'm afraid their amateur strategist had studied for a few days."

Shen Yi: "What?"

Gu Yun: "I've heard that when pretending to retreat, it's necessary to be in disorder, severing your own flags to trick the opponent into chasing after. Unfortunately, those soldiers failed to grasp the spirit. They cut the flagpole themselves, I saw it just now."

Shen Yi: "..."

Gu Yun frowned and said: "What are those people rebelling for, do you know? Cannot afford to live any longer?"

"Not at all," said Shen Yi with a sneer, "You think too well of these vagrants. Even if there is no job, most of the good people will open small businesses or learn a craft, it is not to the extent where they would not be able to survive. These vagrants from the Central Plains to Sichuan are just idle hoodlums, who are then grouped together by someone with intentions. Besides harassing General Cai, they are usually engaged in the business of robbery. They would run as soon as the army chased them and would come back after things calmed down a little.

"I've heard that besides robbery they also had one rule. If an adult man of a family follows them in rebellion, the family will no longer be attacked by thieves. Their wives, daughters, and sisters can also be protected. There is no need to worry about being robbed from time to time."

"..." Gu Yun said: "Slow down, this sounds familiar. Isn't it the same as the slavery system of Great Liang? Military households do not have to pay taxes."

Shen Yi could not bear it: "Marshal, which side are you on?"

"Alright, alright, don't be angry," Gu Yun said. "In this way, aren't there more and more bandits? Not only is it tax-free, but there's a team of people following them, it is also possible to avoid conflict. Who is the leader?"

"They say that he is an old bandit who appears very terrifying. He has been working in this business for many years. His body is covered in scars, even his face was burnt in the past, he calls himself 'Huo Long'." Shen Yi sighed and said: "What do you think should we do? Should we quickly travel for two days to get around the mob and go directly to General Cai's Northwest reinforcement station?"

  Gu Yun strolled for a moment with his hands behind his back. "There are both internal and external troubles, let's resolve anything we can. There are wolves and tigers in front, there should not be any worry at the back. Think up a report and send it to the Grand Council. Say that we will be here for three to five days."




  After the siege of the capital city was lifted, Li Feng immediately abolished the two ministers left and right sitting idly and eating wages. Then, in order to make it easier to manage, he imitated the official system of the former dynasty, setting up the 'Grand Council'*, leading the Six Ministries, and initiating a number of scholarly ministers who could now show their true skills in times of trouble.


*The Grand Council (军机处; literally Office of Military Secrets, or Military and Political Affairs Office) was an important policy-making body during the Qing dynasty ^^

  In the Grand Council, the lights were always bright even deep into the night. When Jiang Chong pushed the door in, it was already the third period of the night watch*. The steam lamps were as bright as day, but Yan Wang had fallen asleep on the table with a brush still in his hand.

*from 11:00pm to 1:00am

Jiang Chong did not want to alarm him, he personally took over the stack of reports held by a servant, then dismissed all the underlings and gently stepped inside. But after all, he was a civil officer — he was not well-versed in concealing the noises of his movement.

Chang Geng was startled awake by him. The moment his eyes opened, red marks flashed across the eyes of the usually exquisite Yan Wang, like a ferocious light filled with murderous intent, suddenly surging at the person in front of him.

Jiang Chong was not able to react yet he'd already broken out in cold sweat, like a rabbit locked in the killing intent of a beast. He involuntarily stepped back; his large sleeve dragged down Chang Geng's brush holder, making it fall over immediately.

Only then did Chang Geng sober up, and in an instant, his murderous aura was taken back as swift as a scattering cloud. He stood up and said: "No problem, I'll clean it up myself."

Jiang Chong looked at him in horror and wondered if he was confused just now, that his eyes deceived him due to exhaustion. He carefully asked, "Did Your Highness have sleep paralysis?"

"It is nothing," Chang Geng casually said, "My chest was pressed... did my unsightly expression frighten you? I am usually a little hot headed when woken up. I fell asleep for a while just now; I almost didn't know where I was."

As he said so, Jiang Chong could not ask any more questions. He felt that His Highness' hotheadedness after being awakened was a bit too extreme.

Chang Geng tidied up the brush holder he had knocked down and asked, "Why, does Brother Han Shi have any business?"

Jiang Chong returned to his senses and sat down opposite him. "Due to what Your Highness said at the court meeting yesterday about issuing 'Feng Huo tickets' to the people, there was a commotion in the court. The court borrowing money from the civilians, this is something that has never been seen before. Would it not be equal to declaring to the world that our Treasury is empty? Where would the court's dignity be?"

Chang Geng seemed to have not completely woken up, sitting in a chair and pinching his forehead incessantly. As he heard this, he laughed and said: "Losing half of the nation, would this be dignity?"

Jiang Chong: "Others have asked, what if the court is not able to pay the people back when the time comes? Your Highness is aware of the state of the Treasury as well."

"Separate the repayment periods, then issue the second and third batches. We can borrow from them for now, we will be able to find a turnaround in the end," Chang Geng said. "The first group of people who buy the Feng Huo tickets can have some appropriate benefits, such as false titles and vacancies in the court, special permits... all are possible. Ideally, if this is carried out, the people can use the Feng Huo tickets as currency."

"If that will be the case," Jiang Chong hesitated, "won't those tickets fly all over the sky? They are bound to be worthless."

Chang Geng: "After the court regains its strength, we can buy them back. Whether it be paying back the money or retaining the tickets, whether it be setting up special systems or law promulgation, these are all matters of the future."

Jiang Chong nodded, then said again: "Others are asking, what if in the future, someone will create counterfeit tickets and come to the court with false tickets to ask for money?"

Chang Geng was angered by this remark to the point of letting out a laugh: "Tell them to bring this matter to the Ling Shu Institute. Should such details be brought to the Grand Council? Shall we discuss the proper regulation for using the toilet tomorrow?"

Jiang Chong laughed bitterly: "That is the truth, but Your Highness also knows how those Imperial Censors are... there is nothing that they do except quarrelling. I heard that they are now writing their reports all night to reveal your wrongdoings."

Chang Geng sighed, "Speaking of thousands of ideas, this is only a solution to resolve this urgency in wartime. Otherwise, what else can we do? Should we start imposing heavy taxes on the city's refugees, or should the Emperor's palace be torn down into parts and be sold for money? If there are any questions, feel free to bring them up in the court session. If I can, I will answer right then. If it is something still unclear, I will go back to think carefully then provide a reply later, these people..."

This was the current state of the court, where only a small group of people were responsible for handling affairs while most of the others were responsible for causing troubles and hindering. If something succeeded, they would praise themselves for their own thorough calculation; if anything were to fail, they would say: "Why didn't you all listen to me at that time?"

Not to mention, there were also people who were harboring their own ideals and who had powerful relations causing troubles, becoming a stumbling block, and wanting to do something became more difficult than flying to the heavens... no wonder that even though everyone knew the principle of 'listening to all sides in order to form a thorough idea', the most common practice in history was that it would always be the dictatorial Emperor and the powerful ministers who were running the imperial courts.

"This was not aimed at you, Brother Han Shi, don't take it to heart," Chang Geng waved. "I have been arguing too much lately, I can be a little impetuous."

"Speaking of Ling Shu Institute, Master Feng Han sent two more requests yesterday. This humble official had taken the initiative to withhold them first. Your Highness, please look over them to see if they can be sent out."

Chang Geng poured himself a cup of herbal tea that had already cooled overnight: "Ah, what did he say?"

"One is for the Emperor to revoke the decree and lift the ban for the Mechanics of the common folks. The other is for the Emperor to lift the ban on the people's Ziliujin trade. He had said that the wealthy businessmen must have their own way. The national crisis is at hand. it is better to make full use of these people so that the Ziliujin stock of Great Liang can have many sources."

Chang Geng paused, then shook his head: "Master Feng Han...tch, this Master Feng Han."

The old man stepped up to the battle when the capital was besieged, his brave spirit had left a strong impression on Li Feng. Although his temperament was annoying, being hard-headed and stubborn at the same time, his loyalty was unquestionable. Thus recently, whatever nonsense he might speak of, Li Feng would tolerate it all.

"Everyone can look over the request for the withdrawal of the ban on Mechanics. If there are no major problems, send it out." Chang Geng said, "Forget about the Ziliujin matter. Is it so comfortable uprooting the Emperor's dragon scales? Be flexible, help Master Feng Han summarize the main focus then forward the request. Return the original version to him."

Jiang Chong responded reluctantly and was about to stand up to leave, then he seemed to have remembered something - he turned around and said, "That's right, there is also the Marquis of Order..."

Chang Geng suddenly looked up.

Li Feng had returned Black Iron Tiger Emblem to Gu Yun and gave him the power to deploy the forces and war supplies of all four sides. It was reasonable that he did not have to report all the major and minor events along the way in detail. However, Gu Yun did not accept this special treatment and instead regularly made reports. Where he went, what the situation was, what he planned to do, and for what reasons were listed in detail.

Jiang Chong: "The Marquis of Order had just arrived in the Central Plains area, there is nothing too serious. He only said that he met a group of bandits and insurgents, and that he planned to take care of it properly before leaving. It will take no more than three or five days."

Chang Geng made an 'Mm' sound in response: "Leave it here for me to have a look."

Jiang Chong could not help but praise him: "Everything from major to trivial matters are all laid out in front of Your Highness. When it is about other people, you only listen to the briefing. Only Marshal's reports are carefully looked at from beginning to end. The feelings between Your Highness and the Marshal are truly deep."

After finishing his words, he was about to bid his goodbye and leave, but as soon as he reached the door, Chang Geng suddenly called him: "Brother Han Shi."

Jiang Chong turned around: "Does Your Highness have any other instructions?"

Chang Geng put his hand on Gu Yun's report, unconsciously rubbing it gently. He was silent for a moment, then said without hesitation: "I am sorry to trouble you, but do help me collect the objections about the Feng Huo tickets from the officials on the court, who said them, when they said them, and what they said. I will revise the plan as appropriate."

Jiang Chong was shocked — would it be necessary to hear about 'who' and 'when' for revising the plan? He could not help looking at Yan Wang through the steam lamp shining all night. His face clearly belonged to a young man, but his eyes did not have the slightest hint of being a novice. At first glance, he would think that he was an elegant man of nobility. At second glance, he discovered that his eyes were not all that peaceful, but instead leaked a hint of coldness.

He heard that the Fourth Prince was entrusted to Gu Yun by the former emperor before his passing. He had grown up in the Marquis' Manor. Jiang Chong suddenly realized now that His Highness and the Marquis were not at all alike.

Jiang Chong: "... Yes."

Chang Geng nodded slightly. They were both smart men, there was no need for further explanation.

When Jiang Chong left with his heart full of doubt and concern, Chang Geng finally softly let out a breath. His sleep was already usually not well. He was finally able to get a bit of an uncomfortable shuteye, but after being disturbed like this, perhaps he would not be able to sleep anymore that night. He stood up to change the indoor incense of the palace to Miss Chen's tranquilizer.

Chang Geng stood silently for a moment in front of the tranquilizer emitting onto his face. The nightmare which he could not remember the content of caused his chest to ache as if he was being pricked by needles. In front of an outsider, he had forcefully endured and not let it show. This feeling was very similar to several rare attacks of the Bone of Impurity.

Due to Gu Yun's wounds, Miss Chen had accompanied the army. Before she left, she had called him aside, told him to increase the amount of tranquilizer, and to have as much peaceful rest as he could whenever possible.

Immense joy and great tragedy recently had completely wiped off his years of accumulated peaceful foundation, it would be tremendously more difficult to suppress it in the future. Bone of Impurity forbids heavy thinking - the more one would think, the more one would be drained of spirit.

  But what else could he do? Would he throw it all away and watch Gu Yun be trapped in this ruined nation?




The bandits and mobs in the Central Plains area had caused Cai Fen great distress. After all, General Cai was already of old age. Although the army in the Central Plains appeared powerful and magnificent, in fact, it was also called the 'retirement army' by others. It was not located in an area where neither villages nor shops could be seen, it was steadily in the middle. Apart from the occasional disorder, it was basically used to distribute reinforcements to the border.

At this time, most of Cai Fen's troops were divided by the North and the West. He had no Eagle Armors in his hands. Combined with his cautious nature, he did not dare to take any risks, being harassed by the mob.

Gu Yun spent three to five days figuring out the origin and development of these mobs, personally familiarizing himself with the terrain on the map, then sent someone to contact General Cai to prepare to surround them from two sides.

The rebellious bandits did not know the leader of these troops from the capital, but after several explorations, they found that the group was even more well-off than Cai Fen's. They had Heavy Armors and guns, but never fired them. They only sent out Light Cavalry, and each time they would chase after them for a mile or two then retreat, confirming that this army only had appearance but no substance. As they were planning to encircle them, Cai Fen suddenly made a move, completely changing his previous style of fighting but not pursuing, pouring out the remaining troops of the Central Plains Garrison to raid and encircle the rebellious mob.

In fact, there was not much in the Central Plains Garrison force. If the two sides clashed, there was no certainty who would emerge victorious, but the bandits were accustomed to the leisurely fighting style of 'you enter, I retreat'. Assuming that they were slippery loaches, they did not have the heart to use all their accumulated resources to carelessly engage in battle, hence reusing their old trick of retreating while fighting, hiding away from Cai Fen. On their way to withdraw, they ran into Gu Yun who had been waiting for a long time.

Gu Yun ordered the Heavy Armors loaded with spears to aim their muzzles directly at the bandits. The bandit leader saw that the 'young masters' army' was coming to scare them again, thus he immediately ordered his men to rush into the Heavy Armors' formation.

The defensive line of the Heavy Armors broke in an instant, the Light Cavalry 'struggled' to resist. The bandits discovered that there was nothing inside the muzzle, that these were technically papers. Under great joy, they became all the more fearless, directly rushing forward.

Until the bandits were all trapped inside, the 'paper' Heavy Artillery suddenly sounded. The bandits were caught off guard, men and horses fell down. Before they could retreat, they were surrounded by the Light Cavalry and the Cai Army that had always been dodging them all these times coming out from both sides, capturing them inside the pot.

The bandits' formation scattered, the legendary leader 'Huo Long' was captured alive. Gu Yun's eyes ached from the unsightly and bumpy appearance of the bandit. He intended to throw the man directly to Shen Yi to play with. "Ask him where his accomplices are, who had instructed him, where his old nest is, and if there is anything for us to rob from them..."

Shen Yi choked and coughed fiercely: "Marshal, you have turned mad from poverty!"

Gu Yun waved his hand: "Beat him if he doesn't speak... use torture to extract information, I will go catch up with Old Cai."

He was about to leave when he saw a guard holding a short sword with a peculiar shape. It was a bit longer than a dagger, the tip was bent slightly inward, creating a beautiful curve, quite different to the short swords from the Central Plains. Gu Yun felt that it appeared familiar. He reached out to receive it.

"Marshal, this was found on the bandits leader's body."

Gu Yun took the short sword and touched the blade with his fingers. He squinted and whispered: "This is from the barbarians?"

"It is the short sword of the Eighteen Tribes." Chen Qing Xu came over and said, "Marquis, have your iron plates loosened?"

"No, I am sorry for troubling Miss Chen to run around with us in the middle of the night." Gu Yun shook his head and held the handle of the blade for a moment. "Tch, with a handle this short, would it not get in the way?"

"It is not short, this is a blade for women," Chen Qing Xu took the curved short sword and measured it with her hand. "The Man of Eighteen tribes dined on wind and drank dew, fighting for food against the beasts of the grassland, thus there is often such a groove at the handle. In case of clashing with a powerful beast, it can prevent the sword from falling during the fight. The steel material of this short sword is of high quality, the original owner must have been one of high status. And the handle is mostly tailor-made, the hands of the person must have been very small, similar to mine, it should be a woman - Marquis sir, look here."

She flipped the handle around for Gu Yun, there was a complex pattern on the underside, like a totem entwined by numerous flowers and vines, wrapped in the middle was a flame.

Chen Qing Xu said, "I saw this pattern of flowers and vines in an abandoned ruin of the Eighteen Tribes. I heard the slaves of the Central Plains people who were captured say that it was the symbol of Eighteen Tribes' goddess."

"I know," Gu Yun's face suddenly turned grave. "I also know who the symbol in the middle stands for."

There was no telling when Shen Yi had come closer. As he caught sight of the pattern, he let out a heavy breath: "The heart of the earth?"

Chen Qing Xu asked in confusion: "Who?"

Shen Yi: "Hu Ge Er... Xiu Niang, she... Hasn't she been dead for years? How could it be..."

Gu Yun waved at him, took the knife, and turned to the place where the bandit leader Huo Long was being imprisoned. He signaled with his hand to dismiss all the guards.

He was holding the knife, neither joy nor anger could be detected on his face. The slightly curved knife was already very old, yet it was still sharp, bringing with it the feeling of inhumanity, that it would dig out a layer of flesh and blood as soon as it was stabbed into the body.

Gu Yun pinned the tip of his knife to Huo Long's chin: "I heard that you did not confess where your old nest and your rebel army are, you have also refused to say who caused you to take advantage of the situation to harass the Cai Army?"

Huo Long: "Bah, little white face!"

Gu Yun laughed as he heard this, enjoying it quite a bit - in his view, scolding men as 'little white face' was the same as calling women 'fox spirit' - it showed that the people being cursed at were very good-looking.

"You can talk to your heart's content." Gu Yun said to Shen Yi. "In the face of national difficulties, this man has colluded with a foreign country, being in communication with the Man. That barbarian bunch has not entered the gate yet you are already here licking their feet first... It is a waste of my time interrogating you, put this information on display for everyone to see tomorrow."

As Huo Long heard the first half, he was confused, he then became more and more frightened. He could see that Gu Yun was not joking. With a disdainful attitude, he rose slowly to leave. Huo Long struggled hard: "Pouring mud on others! Dog officer! All the brothers know that I am a man who stands up to heaven and earth. You dare to slander my reputation with such nonsense..."

"Pouring mud on others?" Gu Yun shook the Eighteen Tribes' blade in front of Huo Long: "People in the Central Plains call this thing Wolf's Fang steel. The curved crescent tip is the typical design of the barbarians, isn't this yours?"

Huo Long was stunned.

"The scabbard and groove are specially made. The sheath was made from the best leather, and the totem on the handle is as if it is real, this must have been made by a renowned expert. Ordinary barbarians would not be able to have this. If the original owner was not wealthy, they must have belonged to nobility."

Gu Yun lifted his chin slightly and glanced at Huo long. "I am telling you, Ugly, your brothers all know you carry this thing on your body all day, but nobody knows the origin of it, am I right? Tch, a bunch of ignorant country bumpkins..."

"Wait! Hold... Hold on!" Huo Long cried out: "That... That thing belonged to my nemesis; it is not..."

Gu Yun laughed aloud, "Is that so, sounds quite reasonable. I have seen people carry objects from their lovers. But this is the first time I have seen someone who misses their nemesis this way. What kind of hatred could be so lingering and melancholy? Come and give me some insight."

"That woman put down more than a hundred brothers of my camp with poison, stabbed them one by one, and finally set off a fire, burning the hilltop clean. The entire mountain, even the birds were burnt to ash. I was the only one who could escape, leaving me with all these scars.

"I did not fucking know where she came from, nor did I know that she was a barbarian. I only carried this knife to remind myself of my past humiliation!" Huo Long furiously roared: "Dog officer, you can slander me for anything, but if you dare to pour this bucket of shit on me, even if I became a demon, I will still bite you to death!"

Shen Yi let out an unamused laugh and said: "Your teeth are still so sharp, continuing with your made-up tales: a barbarian woman barging into a bandit's nest for no reason, burning the bandits on the mountain all on her own? How fresh - Marshal, do the theatre troupes invited to your manor ever put on such an interesting play?"

Gu Yun sighed: "I cannot even afford any meat, all day slurping porridge, what theatre troupe ..."

Huo Long stared at them: "Marshal... Which Marshal?”

Gu Yun spun the blade in his hand at a dizzying speed, giving him a malicious smile.

Huo Long instantly came to a realization, he shuddered: "You...You are... Gu...Gu"

  "Don't just claim people to be your relatives. Who is your aunt*?" Shen Yi interrupted him, "Tell us how you have colluded with the barbarians and harassed the people."


*The word aunt [ -Gū] and Gù [Gù Yún] sounded similar.

Huo Long's face reddened: "I said it was my enemy! Goddamnit, if there was any word that was untrue, let me be struck by lightning!

"That woman went with a small caravan at the beginning, she seemed to have been separated from her family, paying someone to give her a ride. We stopped and robbed the caravan on the way. Seeing that she was quite beautiful, we also captured her and brought her to the mountain. She was carrying a baby still in diapers, it didn’t look to be a full month old, and she herself was also pregnant..."

Inside, Shen Yi was terrified, but on the outside, he asked as calmly as possible: "When did it happen?"

Huo Long said: "Nineteen... twenty years ago."

Under the dim light, Gu Yun and Shen Yi exchanged a look. It sounded similar to the story of when the barbarian goddess fled that year, then the baby should be Chang Geng. But what was the one in Xiu Niang's belly?

Shen Yi: "What happened afterwards?"

Huo Long leaned back and said in a hoarse voice: "Most of the other people who were captured in the mountains threw a tantrum. But she was different. The woman's appearance looked good, but her brain seemed to not be working quite well. She did not respond when people talked to her, did not cry out when being beaten, did not resist whatever people ordered her to do. Within only a few months, she prematurely gave birth to a baby."

Gu Yun's hand holding the knife tightened slightly...somehow, when he heard this, he suddenly felt a kind of terror. The intuition that had never been wrong for so many years seemed to be stirring the string in his heart.

"They all said that women who had just given birth are not clean. For a period, nobody would touch her nor care about her, but for fear that she would run away, we chained her feet in the room, giving her some food every day, yet she did not die...

"After a while, one of my little brothers with his brain soaked in water, missing that woman's beauty, he snuck away to go see her. When he came back, he had told me in horror that there was only one baby left at her side, the other one was gone."

Shen Yi almost forgot he was interrogating, he blurted out: "Which one was missing?"

"Who the hell knows, they were all half-dead babies, bare-boned, only as large as a mouse." As expected, Huo Long was immediately alert. "Why are you asking about this?"

Shen Yi paused, then strongly whipped the lash in his hand at the side, saying coldly: "If you cannot answer anything, then what would be the damn point of speaking of it? There is nothing strange about missing one little Man brat, I am telling you to confess everything from start to end. What are you waiting for? Beating around the bush like this."

Huo Long was not angry, but instead, his expression turned tense: "... No, it is not surprising for the child to die, the lives of these brats were cheap, whether one lived or died was nothing much. But curiously, my brother said, he did not see where the corpse was. The woman was locked in the room, she basically could not get out. She couldn't have buried it in the ground, but she had not thrown it out, nor did she keep it in the room, the child just... just vanished into thin air.

"At that time, the few brothers guarding said they saw firelight in the woman's room in the middle of the night. At first, they assumed she was cooking food in secret, but later, it was said that there were many crows circling over her room during that time..."

Shen Yi felt goosebumps raise up, he unconsciously looked at Gu Yun.

The burnt corner of Huo Long's eyes twitched a few times: "This matter once made everyone in the camp feel uneasy. Some people said that this wretch was abnormal, demonic, and evil, they had wanted to simply get rid of her. There were also some lechers who were reluctant to do it, both sides fighting pointlessly for a long while without result. At that time, big brother saw that she was obedient, good at working, and was also energetic in bed, he decided to keep her, even raising the half-dead brat of hers for a few years..."

"That woman, she really was a monster..." Huo Long let out a breath: "Truly, if there were no men coming to find her at night, she would use many different methods to torment the child. His cries and shouts could be heard from even the next mountain. Several times, the brothers in the camp could not bear to look anymore, telling her to restrain herself. On the surface, she obeyed, then would go back to her room and continue on."

Gu Yun stood up abruptly.

Shen Yi's heart was also startled. Gu Yun reluctantly placed the hand holding the knife behind his back, green veins popping up.

Fortunately, Huo Long did not notice; as if immersed in the past memory, he muttered: "There is an old saying, even ferocious tigers do not eat their young. Although those of us are merciless and evil, we are not afraid of retribution, but we had never seen a woman so cruel before.

"But there was no telling what kind of brainwashing spell she had cast on my big brother. He insisted that this kind of no good woman was suitable to stay on the mountain, that she should be one of our own. He seemed to have lost his mind to beauty, and even ended up giving her his own life!"

Gu Yun's voice was dyed with a little dryness that was hard to detect: "How?"

"Poisoning. Barbarian women are all poisonous. She stayed in our camp, enduring for many years, not showing any trace, gradually the brothers let their guard down and easily fell into her trap. She killed everyone in the camp, even the women, slaves, and hostages captured into the mountains much like her, no one was spared. Then, she finally started a fire and burned the mountain to the ground." Pain flashed on Huo Long's face for a moment, and he loudly cursed, letting out a long string of dirty words.

This time, no one had the mind to interrupt him anymore. Gu Yun's expression was incredibly unsightly, appearing as if he could no longer restrain himself.

"My stomach was upset that day, I did not dare to drink lots of wine and water, I could barely have enough strength to climb out of the sea of fire and regain my life. The knife... The knife was pulled from my big brother's chest. If I ever see that woman again, I will cut her to a million pieces!"

Gu Yun whispered: "She brought along a young child to kill and burn the mountain together."

"She put the cub in the basket," said Huo Long. "Carrying it on her back, the cub always looked half-dead and boneless. Lying in the bamboo basket, it only stared - staring at dead bodies everywhere and did not even cry out. After so many years, if it did not die in that wretch's hands, it must definitely be a monster itself."

Gu Yun turned away without a word.

Shen Yi rushed out after him: "Marshal, Marshal!"

"This man cannot live," Gu Yun said quickly in a low voice. "Old Cai is still here, while he still has not noticed, silence this eyesore forever, remember to handle it cleanly."

As he said this, Gu Yun suddenly seemed to remember something, his footsteps halted, his expression filled with haze: "No, I forgot there is still Jia Lai Ying Huo. That year at Yanhui Town, he and Xiu Niang had been in contact. That barbarian must know something."

Shen Yi was frightened: "Marshal..."

"He had never told me," Gu Yun's shoulders suddenly collapsed, but the steel plate on his body prevented his back from bending, his stance was indescribably stiff.

"He had never told me, not even mentioning a single word... I knew that barbarian woman's head was full of thoughts about vengeance for her country, she must not have been very kind to him, but there was still a blood connection..."

Shen Yi hurriedly said, "You don't know what that insane woman Hu Ge Er did. Twenty years ago, you were still a child with a snotty nose. It's alright Zi Xi, this matter had nothing to do with you!"

"That time when we picked him up in the snow, it was not because he was a young foolish child sneaking out to play," Gu Yun whispered. "He clearly could not endure the torture anymore, that is why..."

And they had been so 'kind' as to bring him back.

Shen Yi was not able to answer.

After a long time, Shen Yi whispered, "If... I am asking a hypothetical question, what if, the child left alive is not the son of the Royal Consort..."

Shen Yi could not help recalling that scene many years ago, the young boy Chang Geng stood in front of him, calmly said that he was no prince, that the disability on his feet was caused by Xiu Niang.

Gu Yun raised his eyes: "What do you want to say?"

"It does not matter who the mother is. There's not much difference between the Eighteen Tribes' witch and the witch's sister. The problem is...whose child was Hu Ge Er carrying?" Shen Yi licked the corners of his dry lips with difficulty.

That year, the younger sister of the consort also lived in the palace, she was to be wed to someone of royal bloodline. Would former emperor Yuan He commit such a thing as stealing something he was keeping guard of?

If the former emperor truly was this shameless, it would be a relief to everyone, but what if...it wasn't so?

If it was not the former emperor, there was no doubt that the most suspected person would be the one who had helped the two women escape at that time, who harbored ill intentions, but was able to enter and exit the palace, even had the ability to release the Eighteen Tribes witches, then took over the line of spying that they left in the palace many years later...

With all these conditions combined, one could easily be reminded of Master Liao Chi and his group of Dong Ying spies.

Shen Yi felt cold all over: "Marshal, this..."

Gu Yun looked up at him, his eyes resembling sharp blades, Shen Yi suddenly could not open his mouth.

"Digest it in your stomach." Gu Yun lowered his head and stroked the knife with both hands: "On the Northern Man side, I will clean it all up sooner or later. Don't mention this matter anymore."

Shen Yi: "... Yes. "

Gu Yun's face was as heavy as an iron. His back was supported upright by the steel plate, making him appear all the more heavyhearted. He went to find Chen Qing Xu himself.

"Miss Chen, I would like to have a word with you."

Chen Qing Xu did not know what was going on, she followed him to one side.

Gu Yun said, "Miss Chen is well-versed in medicine, you have also been in the barbarian area for half a year. I have a question to ask you."

Chen Qing Xu hurriedly lifted her robe and bowed: "I dare not.”

Gu Yun absentmindedly gave her a hand: "Do they have any special witchcraft there...that makes use of babies?"

Chen Qing Xu was startled.

Gu Yun immediately caught her surprised expression in the blink of an eye: "What's wrong?"

  Chen Qing Xu was silent for a long time. She paced restlessly in the same place for two steps. Then, she sighed deeply: "Marshal... have you ever heard of the Bone of Impurity?"

Gu Yun frowned and carefully recalled for a moment: "It sounds familiar. I've heard that...it seems to be a kind of god from the North?”

"He is the head of the four major evil gods worshipped by the Eighteen Tribes." Chen Qing Xu said: "Legend has it that he has four feet, four arms, two heads and two hearts, and he is in charge of disasters and famines. Wu Er Gu is greedy by nature. When he descends, earth and heaven will change, and all living beings will be swallowed up by him. He is the most frightening god from the Northern Man."

Gu Yun replied with an 'oh'; he somewhat could not understand.

"I infiltrated deep into the grasslands for half a year, but up to now, the witchcraft of the Eighteen Tribes, I could only touch the surface. Its deep history and profundity are beyond the imagination of foreigners such as those of us from far away.

“There are many witchcrafts and poisons related to their strange legends of evil gods, the most vicious one is the ‘Bone of Impurity’ — Wu Er Gu". Chen Qing Xu paused slightly. "'Four feet, four arms, two heads and two hearts', in a literal sense, what does the Marquis think this looks like?”

Gu Yun replied with hesitance: "It sounds like two people merging together."

Chen Qing Xu: "Yes, the evil god Wu Er Gu devoured his brother as soon as he was born and gained twice the amount of divine power ever since. There is an ancient witchcraft in the Eighteen Tribes which combines two brothers connected by blood into one soon after they were born, and produces a...monster that can acquire the power of the evil god, also known as ‘Bone of Impurity’.”

Gu Yun listened, he was silent for a moment, gently pressing under his ribs. Although there was the steel plate support, somehow, he could still feel needle-like pain under it.

Chen Qing Xu hurriedly said, "Marquis, your wound..."

"It is all right," Gu Yun waved his hand, licked his lips slightly, slowed down his tone and asked, "Miss Chen, I don't quite understand what it means to ‘merge two people into one’?”

Chen Qing Xu hesitated a little.

"Don't worry," Gu Yun said. “You can say it."

"I have only heard this from tales, I'm afraid it might not be accurate," Chen Qing Xu murmured. "It is to put a pair of babies under the age of one in a sealed place, not giving them any light, water, nor food.... one of the two will die from suffocation first. The dead baby will then be taken out and be refined by a secret method.”

Gu Yun thought for an instant that his medicinal effect had worn off, that his ears were deceiving him. He asked again with difficulty: "...What?"

"Refining." Chen Qing Xu emphasized on the word: "Then combined with the secret medicine of the barbarian witch as an activator, it is fed to its surviving brother bit by bit...”

Gu Yun lost his voice: "Could that child still live at this point?"

"Marshal has underestimated the Eighteen Tribes’ thousand years of witchcraft," Chen Qing Xu said. "In the lost witchcraft, there are even vivid and detailed records of turning dead people into an animated corpse, let alone using living beings for refinement.

“They think if a person... or perhaps a ‘Bone of Impurity’, was refined in this way, from childhood, he would have infinite strength or extraordinary wisdom far different from ordinary people, because ‘he’ is actually two people, with ‘four feet and two heads’, he can invite the power of evil gods.”

Gu Yun hesitated and said, "Forgive me for being ignorant of this...matter. Miss Chen, I think this all sounds like a ridiculous story passed among those uncivilized fools.”

Chen Qing Xu said: "With our inherent knowledge and understanding, the Marquis can regard Bone of Impurity as a kind of poison that destroys one's mental state. Some mad men are indeed more powerful than ordinary people and often think differently from ordinary people. When they have not yet lost all their sense completely, it is not strange for them to have unusual intelligence.”

Gu Yun: "...There are still things we can't understand with our innate knowledge."

Chen Qing Xu said, "Marshal, to tell you the truth, I sneaked into Eighteen Tribes to research their witchcraft, not only for your ears and eyes, but also for tracing back the origin of Bone of Impurity.

“But there are very few records about it from the Man people. There is only one tale about an ancient barbarian general, whose name was ‘Wu Er Gu’. This man was cruel and bloodthirsty, but he had won hundreds of battles, single-handedly creating the foundation of the united Eighteen Tribes we see now. He lived until 32 years old, had never married in his life, the reason was because he was neither dead nor alive, neither man nor woman.”

Gu Yun felt goosebumps raise up.

Chen Qing Xu: "I had checked the records of birth, death, and origin of this person and learned that his mother had given birth to twins, one boy and one girl, but afterwards, there was no record of the female baby, nor was there any record that she was dead... there are only two explanations: one is that after their family was defeated, the girl was lost, the other was…”

The pair of boy and girl twins were made into Bone of Impurity, the dead and the living were merged into one, male and female lived together in the same body. This was ‘neither dead nor alive, neither man nor woman’.

Gu Yun pressed his hand under his ribs tightly, Chen Qing Xu asked nervously, "Marquis, did the steel plate come loose?"

Gu Yun bent down and took a breath after a while. He whispered: "Why would anyone do such a thing?"

Chen Qing Xu supported him to one side and helped him sit down: "Usually, it was when the country was broken and the nation could no longer be preserved that this kind of cruel method would be used, offering blood as a sacrifice to the evil gods in exchange for vengeance. When all the people named ‘Wu Er Gu’ were born, they would all lead to blood-soaked turbulence."

Gu Yun: "You have just said that it was like a kind of poison that harms the people's mind. Could you elaborate more on this?”

Chen Qing Xu said: “Wu Er Gu will turn insane. At first, there will be entangling nightmares. Over time, they will become sensitive and suspicious. If they do not restrain it, it will gradually produce hallucinations. Finally…"

"That is why...," As Gu Yun said these words, his voice seemed to crack. He had to forcefully clear his throat to be able to continue this sentence. "That is why you prescribed him with tranquilizers…”

Chen Qing Xu: "..."

Of course, she knew who Gu Yun was speaking of. She could not say anything, only admitting to it in silence.

Gu Yun closed his eyes slightly — he recalled that Chang Geng had mentioned to him carelessly more than once, such words as ‘too much fire will cause restless sleep’ and so on, yet he had never thought about it carefully, only assuming that as this child followed someone from the Chen family to study medicine for so long, it had turned him delirious, that he had made himself into an elderly man all day talking about health care. But as it turned out...he had so much pain inside.

Gu Yun: "What stage is Chang Geng at?"

Chen Qing Xu remained silent for a moment.

Gu Yun: "You can tell me, I can accept whatever, as long as I am still alive for one more day, whether he is insane or brainless, I will take care of him until the end."

Chen Qing Xu said, "His Highness... His Highness has incredible will, his heart is peaceful. For many years, the Bone of Impurity in his body had never acted up. He himself was also aware of this, thus he has restrained himself much more than ordinary people. Only that a while ago, um... I suppressed it using needles. The Marquis needn't worry about it."

Although she spoke in a vague manner, Gu Yun was able to understand — it had always been peaceful, never acting up, except for the period a while ago.

Because of me. He thought in a blank state, standing up abruptly almost like a corpse coming to life. He stumbled for a moment; his expression appeared as if he had just been stabbed.

He avoided Chen Qing Xu’s helping hand, the rigid supporting steel plate making him appear like an iron puppet that had run out of Ziliujin.

Chen Qing Xu stopped in her place for a moment. Her plain white face was heavy with emotions. She could not help looking back in the direction of the capital city. The wooden bird released in the past few days should have arrived in the capital by now, just...was the decision she wrote in the letter truly the correct one?