CHAPTER 9: WESTERN EXPEDITION

II

The sky in the capital was gloomy. When the wooden bird flew past, its small figure was completely absorbed in the overwhelming dark clouds, becoming almost invisible.

Zhang Feng Han got out of a carriage and placed his hands together to thank the person inside: "I apologize for troubling Your Highness in taking your time to send this old man here."

Chang Geng lifted the curtain and smiled, "I've been living in the Grand Council for days. I should go back to Marquis' Manor to get new clothes and take a bath, it is also on the same road. Master Feng Han need not be overly courteous — but did Ling Shu Institute not provide you with a carriage?”

Zhang Feng Han did not pay it any mind: "They are all used for the underlings to run errands, I am not going out of the capital, these old bones are all soft, I should move about a bit more. Now there are wars everywhere, the courts have many places to distribute money to. Let's save as much as we can. Even if we cannot prevent the storm, can't we do a little bit of our best ability?"

Chang Geng laughed and said, "That is the truth. This later generation has learnt something."

Zhang Feng Han hurriedly said, "I dare not." then took his leave, but Chang Geng stopped him: "Master Feng Han, please wait.”

He then took out the proud and unashamed request for the Emperor to lift the ban on the common folks’ Ziliujin trade, handing it to him with both hands and said: "Master Feng Han please forgive me, I had stopped this request without authorization and did not send it forward — there is no outsider here, I would like to say a word of criticism, please don't be angry. The commoners’ Ziliujin trade has always been a sensitive point of the Emperor. Since the beginning of Emperor Wu’s reign, there has never been any leniency. For the Emperor, Ziliujin is the same as the jade seals commanding the kingdom. Placing yourself in his position, if you were the Emperor, could you allow the people to carve the jade seal out of radish and sell it for fun?”

Zhang Feng Han knew that it would be useless to send out this request. He would either have it returned to him by the Grand Council, or he would end up provoking Emperor Long An to lose his temper. However, he carried himself with the character of a scholar. He always felt ‘whether you like to hear it or not, I will still say what should be said’. Who would have thought that His Highness Yan Wang would come explaining to him personally, even with so much sincerity?

Zhang Feng Han blushed and sighed, "Your Highness...oh, Your Highness is right, I have momentarily gone confused from old age, I caused more trouble for Your Highness."

"I know your heart that goes out to the country and the people. As the backbone of the Ling Shu Institute, these recent years, Great Liang is unstable, all armors and equipment are depending on your hands for preparing," Chang Geng waved. "We could not even protect you enough, what trouble?"

Zhang Feng Han was at a loss, his demeanor was genuine, his tone did not cause people to feel irritated. He did not know how to respond and could only repeat: “How embarrassing.”

"Since my childhood brother Ge Chen entered Ling Shu Institute, he has been murmuring in my ear all day about what Master Feng Han is like," Chang Geng teased. "He wishes for nothing more than to copy even your habit of drinking houkui tea and eating pickled radish, I think the only thing missing is for him to buy a white wig to wear.”

Zhang Feng Han's old face was so red this time that he wished he could call his new apprentice Ge Chen over to give him a slap for pouring every trivial matter into Yan Wang’s ears.

"Ge Chen and I grew up together in Yanhui Town. When we were young, we were caught in the barbarian invasion, he had no one left in his family and had been following me for so many years..."

Chang Geng paused, looking at Zhang Feng Han with some embarrassment. "I will not beat around the bush anymore. Let's be frank. There is a presumptuous request that Ge Chen wants me to bring to you. He had always adored your character greatly, he wished to recognize you... well, as an elder. He does not ask for anything more, just wants to be able to serve you in the future, it would fulfill his wish, what do you think?”

Zhang Feng Han was short of breath for a moment.

After returning with Shen Yi, Ge Chen had stayed in the capital and entered Ling Shu Institute. He was diligent, smart, and talented. Having special affinity with Zhang Feng Han, he was accepted as a close disciple by the old man in just a few days.

But a disciple was different from an adopted son. In his lifetime, he had no power and no influence, he could only cause people to be irritated, what benefits could he bring to the other? How could he be able to protect anyone? Even though he was old and desolate, with no children or grandchildren, except some old dogs in his family, who would ever care for him?

Chang Geng stole a glance at his face and said: "Tch, I quickly told him that Master Feng Han favored peace and quiet and would not like the noisy type such as himself. You need not feel perplexed, I will scold him in your stead later. You can rest assured, he has been carefree since childhood, he would not take this to heart.”

Zhang Feng Han hurriedly said: "Your Highness, slow down! Your Highness! I... This... I..."

The elderly man panicked, his tongue was in a knot, his forehead was full of sweat. Chang Geng was silent, only giving him a leisurely smile. His smile did not have a single hint of ill intent, it was clear and bright like a young man, dyed with the right amount of mischievousness.

Zhang Feng Han seldom saw him not displaying his experienced and adept image. He came back to his senses, laughing helplessly, and said: "Your Highness is really..."

"Then I will tell him, my home is around the next right turn. Master Feng Han, please help yourself," Chang Geng said gently. "I will tell Xiao Ge to find a good day to bow to you. That's right, it looks like it is going to rain. You can take an umbrella from me just in case."

Zhang Feng Han, an old stubborn thorn that busted Li Feng's head, said goodbye to him with a smile, watching the carriage of Yan Wang kindly as it went away.

As soon as Chang Geng left, it turned out to be as he said, a light rain began to trickle down.

Master Feng Han raised the umbrella that Chang Geng had left him. For the past six months, even with the army shortage and continued chaos, though it was not peaceful, as long as he looked at these young ones, he felt that the pillar of Great Liang had not collapsed, there were still people supporting it.

There were many intelligent and talented people in the world. However, if a person was too smart, they would often lose a few parts of enthusiasm, they would be more inclined to keep to themselves. Only when a truly wise and brave person took the lead in standing up and shouldering this pillar could they bring them together as a group.

The people at the front were doomed to work hard but would not necessarily have a good end. They might have had to endure for naught. But in this vast sand, if there did not exist these few large stones, wouldn't everything already be washed down through thousands of generations?

When Master Feng Han turned around and saw a snow-white monk's robe flashing across the corner of the lane, he took back the smile from his face and walked quickly towards it.

The restaurant in the small alley was not as elegant and dignified as the old Qi Yuan Tower, but more like a casual small tea shop. It was not at all unnatural for someone like Master Feng Han to come in. He folded his umbrella, shaking the rain droplets off the top. Hearing a few taps on the wooden staircase, he looked up to see Master Liao Ran taking off his wet hat, standing on the second floor and giving him a slight nod in greetings. He understood and moved up.

One after the other, they went to the innermost compartment where there was already a middle-aged man in waiting. The man was about forty or fifty years old, his appearance was average, his clothing was not quite eye-catching. At first glance, he was very friendly, the corners of his eyes were shaped in a soft round curve. However, if there was any one from the Ministry of Housing here, they would be startled — this man was Du Wan Quan, the richest man in Jiangnan.

Du Wan Quan prospered in Jiangnan. He once created a merchant team to travel across the Western Ocean by himself. It was the only giant ship to ever go to the Western countries after Emperor Wu opened the sea route. Going through many dangers, making a lot of profits, he was nicknamed the 'God of Wealth' after his return.

Later, he moved his home to the northwest and was elected as the president of the Central Plains’ trading group at the Silk Road area.

As early as during the days when the Marquis of Order was put under house arrest for an unknown reason, this keen and sensitive businessman had taken the lead in calling the members of the trading group to evacuate in batches. As a result, the turbulence in the Western Regions did not affect too many innocent people. It could be said that the windmill of this God of Wealth changed its direction very timely.

No one knew how much money Du Wan Quan had, people all said that he was rich enough to be an equal to a country. Of course, in light of the dire situation of Great Liang, it was no great thing to be an equal to a country.

Such a God of Wealth like himself, now with a monk from Hu Guo Temple and an old stubborn man of the Ling Shu Institute — all gathered in a rather shabby small tavern.

Seeing Zhang Feng Han, Du Wan Quan stood up politely and offered the first seat to him. He put his hands together and said: "Please sit down. I have not seen my old brother for more than ten years, it seems that you haven't changed at all, even more elegant than you were then."

Zhang Feng Han refused while replying: "What are you saying? I have only gotten older."

Du Wan Quan honestly said: "Before this Du came to the capital, I was dissuaded by my wife and children. They were afraid that the situation in the capital would be unstable, these old bones of mine will end up perishing here. But isn't master Feng Han even older than myself? In the face of the enemy, your expression did not change even without a single weapon. I am only a small businessman, I could not be compared to you, the unparalleled warrior. But if I dare not even travel here to see you, then what type of man would I be?”

Du 'God of Wealth' had been doing business for a long time, peace and wealth had soaked into his bones. Although his speech differed from His Highness Yan Wang, both of them belonged to the kind who could make people blush and feel good about themselves at the same time. Zhang Feng Han realized that they would not necessarily be able to talk business if he continued to be overly courteous with him, thus he had to take the seat in the first position.

Master Liao Ran put his hands together and gestured in sign language: "Mister Du's family has a large business, there are numerous of myriad affairs to attend to, and Master Feng Han will have to rush back to Ling Shu Institute in a few minutes. Let's get directly into the topic. This later generation shall take the lead.”

  With that, he took out the beads in his arms and gently pulled them. One of the beads fell off. He then broke the biggest beads apart and took out an old hollow wood with a simple shell which had numerous delicate gears inside, quietly displaying it.


  Master Feng Han and Du Wan Quan looked at each other, no longer being courteous. They both took out a piece of hollow wood from their arms. Three hollow wood blocks were placed near one another, they were instantly attracted to each other and slid on the table. The gears inside were interlocked, becoming seamless in an instant, forming the top half of a wooden emblem with the word ‘Lin’ on it.


"The last time this emblem was put together, it was more than two hundred years ago," Du Wan Quan sighed: "The last time our ancestors entrusted this thing to the Tai Zu Emperor, they did not choose the wrong person, exchanging it for two hundred years of peace and prosperity. It is now handed down to our generation, I hope this time we can still choose the right one... today, as Master Liao Ran had summoned Lin Yuan, there must be someone to choose.”

Liao Ran then gestured: "Old Zhong and the Chen family's representative are both at the front line and could not come. Old Zhong had sent over his opinions and the wooden piece he kept with him a few days ago. There is chaos at Miss Chen's place, and it is also farther away, so I still have yet to see hers, but my guess is that it will arrive in more or less another day.”

Du Wan Quan looked at the Lin Yuan wooden emblem on the table and sat upright, solemnly saying: “Master, please speak."

"Amitabha," with his hands folded and his head hung down, he continued: “At the beginning of the war, a man had used wooden birds in Lin Yuan Pavilion to send messages, preserving a way out for the capital under siege. Taking on the mission in the midst of danger to kill the spy, personally defending the city, and resisting the decree of passing to him the imperial throne —

When Zhang Feng Han heard this, he immediately echoed the sentiment: "I agree with the man that Master spoke of, I had interacted with His Highness Yan Wang the most in the court. Although he is young, he has both abilities and virtue. I would like to entrust my wooden emblem to him.

“I am ashamed to say that I have leisurely sat and ate salary for many years. I could not be of any use in the face of a critical situation. When I heard the frontline battle reports, I was in dismay and could not think that it was possible for the Westerners to besiege the capital city, nor did I think of using wooden birds to send messages...what do you say, Mister Du?”

The two men on the table looked at Du Wan Quan at the same time. Du Wan Quan thought about it for a moment, he then responded: "His Royal Highness is a person of nobility, I never had contact with him. But I heard that His Royal Highness was once a student of Old Zhong and even had friendship with the Chen family. They must know more about him. Why don't we wait for them?"

Liao Ran suddenly brought out a wooden bird. There was a very thin seal on its abdomen that was still intact.

"This is Old Zhong's," signed Liao Ran. "This monk hasn't opened it yet, please."

Du Wan Quan rubbed his hands and said with a hint of embarrassment: "This Du will go ahead."

When he finished, he carefully peeled the seal, opening up the belly of the bird, and took out the fourth wooden emblem from it.

With this piece, the word 'Yuan' was mostly spelled out, only one corner was left. Under the wooden plate, there was a seagrain paper sent from Zhong Chan.

Zhang Feng Han said: "Old Zhong had taught His Royal Highness Yan Wang how to deploy troops, how to ride, and how to shoot. With such great sentiment, how could he..."

  His voice suddenly stopped; Du Wan Quan laid the seagrain paper of General Zhong Chan on the table. It read: This person has the ability to bring peace to the world, but his childhood was too rough. Although he was kind in his youth, he may not be able to remain the same way in his mid-life. There was also the hidden danger of 'Bone of Impurity', I hope that all the gentlemen will be cautious.

Zhang Feng Han, whose praises seemed to have failed him, stared at the note for a long time, his face changing, "What does this mean? What... what is the hidden danger of the Bone of Impurity?"

Liao Ran frowned as if not knowing where to start. After a long moment, he hesitantly said: "It is a poison from the North. His Highness Yan Wang strayed to Yanhui Town in his childhood and was harmed by the Northern Witch. Up until now, the Chen family is still trying to find a cure to thoroughly treat it..."

Zhang Feng Han could not believe it: "Is there such a thing? Are all the hospitals dead? This... "

"Don't be impatient," Du Wan Quan interrupted him. "In the past few years, because of the Silk Road, I have often been around the Northwest area and heard about the witchcraft of barbarians. I heard that this Bone of Impurity seems to be harmful to the human mind. I think General Zhong is concerned about this as well, he's only worried that His Highness might have to think too much."

"In the face of national disaster, the Marquis of Order is still going to the Northwest despite his injuries, how could Yan Wang be the type that would try to save himself? People may not be able to help feeling disheartened at Master Du's words," Zhang Feng Han said solemnly. "Moreover, Master Liao Ran said that he was poisoned since he was a child. But even now I can't see any abnormality in him, and it may not have much influence in the future. If General Zhong cannot believe in Yan Wang, can he still find someone else to take over the Lin Yuan Emblem?"

Since the siege of the capital city, Zhang Feng Han had fully become a loyal supporter of Yan Wang. The umbrella in his hands was just taken from the other's. With the mentions of Yan Wang, he had immediately become hotheaded, wishing that he could say aloud 'my Royal Highness is the best in the world'.

After finishing these words, the old Ling Shu Master was still not relieved of his anger, continuing: "At this time, unlike two hundred years ago, when the imperial court levied aggressively and lost the hearts of the people, only then did the people on all four sides rise up. But now it is a foreign enemy who entered the country, the Emperor... although some measures and decrees of the Emperor are too fierce, he is still a hardworking man who loves the people, he cannot be blamed.

"In this troubled world, if the Lin Yuan Emblem falls into someone else’s hand, who can guarantee that he will not grow ill intent? His Royal Highness Yan Wang was originally of high nobility. He could have succeeded the throne in this crisis and fled to the east of the capital, yet he did not go to Luoyang, he was on the city tower instead. If such a person is not worth entrusting the Lin Yuan wooden emblem to, who else could be?"

Du Wan Quan was long used to being keen and flexible, he did not argue with him. He only laughed and said, "I truly believe that His Highness Yan Wang's personality and talent are beyond reproach, but matters concerning the body, we outsiders are not very well-versed, are we? Let's all listen to Miss Chen. First, order some wine and food, we will then make a decision after Miss Chen's letter arrives. alright?"

Zhang Feng Han's face eased up a bit. He shook his head and mocked himself: "Already so old but still so hot headed, Master Du, please do not take it to heart."

Before he finished, the three of them heard a flutter of wings coming from the window at the same time.

Du Wan Quan laughed and said: "Speak of the devil."

Du Wan Quan pushed open the window, a lively little wooden bird came in and gently pecked two times on the table, then laid down motionlessly. This wooden bird was even more special than General Zhong's. The latter was sent over by trusted people, while Chen Qing Xu's bird flew from where she was accompanying the army to the Northwest.

The wooden bird's abdomen was sealed by special means, unlike General Zhong's seal that was only for show, but by a series of closely seamed secret locks with 27 holes which needed to be penetrated in the right sequence with a fine needle. Otherwise, it would ignite the Ziliujin left in the wooden bird's abdomen, and those who did not know the key to unlock it would not be able to obtain anything.

This special wooden bird's craftsmanship was extremely complex, Lin Yuan Pavilion only had a few, even Chang Geng did not know of them - when the Westerners besieged the city, he had been concerned about the safety of wooden bird communication.

Du Wan Quan took out a silver needle and two other's eyes fell on his hand at the same time. For a moment, Zhang Feng Han suddenly felt an unspeakable tension.

"Wait a minute." Just before Du Wan Quan opened the wooden bird seal and took out the letter, Zhang Feng Han suddenly stopped him.

Du Wan Quan and Liao Ran looked up at him in unison.

Although they all belonged to Lin Yuan Pavilion, Zhang Feng Han who was stuck in the Ling Shu Institute all the year round and Chen Qing Xu who was a younger generation were not at all close, they had never seen each other, let alone understood one another. But somehow, his heart raised a kind of feeling that the result might not be what he hoped for.

Zhang Feng Han, with his face tightened, said slowly, "At present, the coast of the East Sea is in the hands of foreigners, General Zhong himself is guarding the front line, but he is only guarding it. He dares not rush into action. With his troops and combat readiness, it is not enough to cross the river at all. I hear that the foreigners are brutal and cruel, they have burned Jiangnan Academy in a rage - that is nothing, books can be reprinted if lost, but if the people are gone, there is no way to save them."

  When the old Ling Shu Master said this, his voice trembled for a moment: "This land where 'sweet-scented osmanthus blossoms in the mid-autumn, fragrant lotus are in full bloom in ten miles'* has now become scorched earth, our Treasury is empty, Ziliujin is running out... there is leakage on all sides, if Lin Yuan Pavilion stands idly by, we might as well separate, go home to take care of our children, what is the point in entering the Pavilion?


*quoting Liu Yong, a Song dynasty poet

"Since we can't be silent and the wooden emblem must reappear, although we are only pawns, we do not want to entrust it to the wrong person either. In today's world, the court has Yan Wang, the frontier has Marshal Gu. Marshal Gu... I say, although he's had contact with Lin Yuan Pavilion for a long time, he never expressed any intention of getting closer. The man holding the Black Iron Camp did not even want to look at or have time to deal with our disorderly resources. If you gentlemen use... this kind of unnecessary and uncertain reason to overlook His Royal Highness, what are we going to do next?"

He spoke sincerely, trying his best to pull Du Wan Quan to their side, even Liao Ran was slightly touched.

But Du 'God of Wealth' was an experienced person, it was not so easy for him to get hot-headed. After listening, on the surface, he appeared enthusiastic, but his mouth was still avoiding the subject: "In fact, His Highness Yan Wang has had a good friendship with Lin Yuan Pavilion while growing up, he could even be considered to be a member already. When the communication network of the capital was besieged, didn't His Highness start building his own using Lin Yuan Pavilion? In the face of national calamity, wherever we can be of use, there would be no objection to it. It is not quite a necessity to perform the ritual of entrusting the wooden emblem to him, is it?"

"No, Master Du is mistaken," Liao Ran shook his head. "Without this emblem, Lin Yuan Pavilion would only offer some bits of aid in case of an accident. Only with this emblem could it make the Pavilion's members use all their resources and strength as support. It is not the same.

"Lin Yuan Pavilion has been silent for two hundred years, it all depended on this wooden emblem for assembling and communicating. In troubled times, everyone would want to keep to themselves. Without the Lin Yuan Emblem, even for those of us, the manpower we can use would only be limited to only a few underlings delivering news. I am afraid it is not even as useful as some relatively large groups from the pugilist world."

At Liao Ran's words, Du Wan Quan's face changed slightly.

The God of Wealth was different from Zhang Feng Han who was so poor as to be accompanied by a dog. He was a real man with a big family business. The barefooted had no burden, they only had themselves to feed, but those wearing shoes were different.

If there was anyone here who did not want Lin Yuan Wooden emblem to reappear in the world, it was undoubtedly Du Wan Quan.

Surely, Liao Ran wanted to save face for him, so far, there was no direct confrontation - Lin Yuan Emblem could mobilize the most mysterious 'Dao Fa Hall' in Lin Yuan Pavilion. Anyone in the Pavilion who refused to obey the command of the emblem and fled, Dao Fa Hall would chase that person to the ends of the earth. That was to say, without the wooden emblem, Du 'God of Wealth' might only need to pay a little pocket money, but with this emblem, even if it ruined his family business, he must accept it.

Liao Ran put his beads together again one by one. "Master Du, please bring out the Chen family's wooden piece.."

Du Wan Quan was silent for a while. He opened the wooden bird's belly. The last wooden piece fell down. Once it dropped on the table, it automatically gathered with the other wooden pieces to complete the word 'Yuan'.

Chen Qing Xu's seagrain paper rolled out. He saw that the note was very short: "Chen family will give it our all."

Zhang Feng Han was a little overwhelmed for a moment: "Was that it?"

However, Liao Ran smiled helplessly. Chen Qing Xu was the quiet type, who was slightly better when communicating orally. When using paper and pen, she had no patience to write a long story. If it could be done, then it could be done. Large matters coming to her hands would be worth no more than one sentence.

"Now that Miss Chen has said this, the chronic poisoning in His Highness's body should not be a problem," Liao Ran then turned to Du Wan Quan: "What does Master Du say?"

The Lin Yuan Emblem was divided into five pieces. No one was qualified to veto it alone. At this time, it was three-against-one. Du Wan Quan knew that no matter if he agreed or disagreed with it, the outcome was already established.

Du 'God of Wealth' smiled bitterly and said, "Master, you are being too overly courteous. I heard that His Royal Highness Yan Wang is carrying out the Feng Huo ticket recently. If this Du can be of any use, please just say so."

Zhang Feng Han euphemistically advised, "Master Du, there is no good egg under the overturned nest. When the world is in turmoil, humans in chaos are not as good as dogs in peacetime. Countless wealth is no different from quicksand and flowing water. Isn't this the truth?"

Du Wan Quan, who was forcibly tied onto this ship by a group of poor demons, was still very distressed. He perfunctorily put his hands together and said: "Yes, Master Feng Han had good faith."

The three men, each with their own thoughts, had a quick simple meal then scattered before even touching the drinks.


Just when they made this decision, Chang Geng returned to the Marquis' Manor.

Ge Chen was waiting for him in his study. Chang Geng instructed the others not to disturb them. He stepped in quietly and closed the door.

The manor was empty with very few people. The old servants were either deaf or moved slowly. There was no telling whether they were serving at their master's house or retiring at their master's house, often not coming when they were called. Sometimes even serving tea or pouring water must be done by one's self. But there were also convenient points, for example, one did not have to always be on guard against eavesdropping.

Ge Chen stood up at the sight of Chang Geng, his natural baby face was slightly nervous.

Chang Geng, however, was as calm and natural as ever, waving at him: "Have you intercepted it?"

Ge Chen responded and drew a piece of seagrain paper from his arm.

"As you said, by using the excuse of repairing the anti-air net, I secretly intercepted the wooden bird. The note inside was changed and the seals were guaranteed to be seamless," Ge Chen said, licking his lips. "When Xiao Cao went to the North at the end of the year to find Miss Chen, he saw her collect and release the wooden bird herself. He then stole it and replicated the seals with a mold, there should be no problem - Big brother, why must we intercept Miss Chen's wooden bird? What is the meaning of her note?"

Chang Geng did not reply for a moment and unfolded the crumpled note.

The handwriting on it was the same as the one Liao Ran and the others received, but the content was completely different.

This note read: "This Chen is inexperienced, after searching for many years, I could not find a cure for the Bone of Impurity, I have failed expectations. The matter concerning the Lin Yuan wooden emblem, I hope the gentlemen will be cautious."

After Chang Geng saw it, he was not at all surprised, thinking: Sure enough.

According to his understanding of Lin Yuan Pavilion after many years, for the leaders, if it was not three people, then it would be five people, although there was a higher percentage for it being five. There were many unique and exquisite steel armors in Lin Yuan Pavilion. Therefore, there must be someone from the Ling Shu Institute.

The Chen family member who treated Gu Yun's ears at that time was also under the name of Lin Yuan Pavilion. Gu Yun could not trust them unconditionally, there had to be an old member of the previous Marquis' faction recommending them, thus there must be a representative from the army.

Liao Ran had been acting as an informant for all four sides. He could be one of them, representing the Hu Guo Temple. Then one of the other two were probably in control of 'wealth', the other was the Chen family in Taiyuan.

Among these five people, he only had a bigger grasp on Ling Shu Institute and Liao Ran, while the other three parties were still uncertain.

In addition to Chang Geng himself, only Miss Chen knew the most terrifying part of Bone of Impurity. She had always been the type who assessed the situation rather than the person, she would not support him because of her personal feelings. But the people who controlled 'wealth' tended to be burdened by their family business. Under these circumstances, they were more likely to take a step back.

Representing the military... if Chang Geng's guess was correct and it truly was General Zhong, Zhong Chan would not necessarily vouch for him. The latter two had their own ways, it was very difficult for him to make contact. Only Chen Qing Xu who accompanied the army in the Northwest, when the moment came, would definitely use a wooden bird to send her message, which would provide him with an opportunity.

Chang Geng put the seagrain paper in the basin and burned it. The gloomy light illuminated his young and handsome face, making him look a little unreal.

"Big brother..." Ge Chen hesitantly called out to him. Although this little round face was loyal to his Yan Wang, he was not foolish. He could probably guess that Chen Qing Xu's encrypted wooden bird might have been related to Lin Yuan Pavilion's final decision. Although he had followed Chang Geng's instruction to switch the papers, he was doubtful - Chang Geng had always been straightforward and open-minded, he had never done such a shady and disgraceful thing before. But he used such means this time for Lin Yuan Pavilion... was it for power?

"It is not that I must obtain Lin Yuan Pavilion at all cost." Chang Geng seemed to know what he was thinking, casually explaining to Ge Chen, "But my time in the court was too short. Although I had the support of the Emperor temporarily, plus Master Jiang and other new followers, after all, this foundation is still too shallow. There are many things that cannot be carried out. Others can wait, but Ziliujin and money for the front line cannot afford to wait. At this time, I can only retreat to seek the power of Lin Yuan Pavilion. If there is time, all problems can be solved fairly and slowly. My only fear is that the foreigners will not give us this time."

Ge Chen straightened his back as he heard these words, and all his doubts disappeared. Instead, he felt somewhat embarrassed: "Both Xiao Cao and I understood this, um... Big brother, you must also pay more attention to taking care of yourself. Otherwise wait until the Marquis returns to the court, if you are to fall ill again, then wouldn't he come to pick a fight with me?"

After that, he seemed to imagine the specific process of the Marquis coming to trouble him, and ended up frightening himself.

Chang Geng's face softened a little. "I will only manage until this dangerous situation passes, when the world is at peace. Who is willing to do such a tiring job with no benefit? We can't work for them in vain. When that time comes, I should request the Emperor to grant me a hilltop with the best scenery where I can plant a peach blossom forest on the hill, enjoy flowers in spring, eat peaches in summer. There must be hot springs under the hill. I plan to raise some chickens and ducks, if they lay eggs then I'll throw them directly into the hot spring to boil..."

Ge Chen's stomach grumbled, Chang Geng was stunned, then the two laughed at the same time. Chang Geng jumped up. "It is already too late. Don't disturb Uncle Wang, let us brothers make some dumplings for ourselves to eat."

Ge Chen was rather embarrassed and said, "No, it can't be, brother, how can His Highness personally roll the skin and make the stuffing...this is really..."

Chang Geng looked at him and said: "Do you want to eat or not?"

Ge Chen firmly responded: "Eat!"

Thus, they blindly sneaked into the kitchen of the manor under the dim lights and dismissed the sleepy old cook back to bed. They thrashed around for a moment, at the sound of the night patrol, one held the lid, and the other was holding the spoon. The two then ate about sixty dumplings right in the kitchen. Ge Chen cried out from the hot dumplings. It seemed as if they had returned to their childhood days in the countryside.

The good moments only stayed in the middle of the deep night. At daytime, danger still lingered in every step.


A month later, the Feng Huo ticket was still not implemented. Just as Emperor Li Feng had run out of patience from the noisy commotion, a quiet cleansing gradually began.

First of all, the inspector's office immediately sent forth three reports accusing Yan Wang of abusing his authority, that the Grand Council secretly withheld the papers of the court's officers, leading to the complaints of the people not reaching the ears of the ruler, that the so-called Feng Huo ticket was a hoax, that it threw on the ground the face of the court and trampled on it, causing disaster to the country and the people.

Yan Wang ordered people to bring the written records about all reports that the Grand Council had sent out and returned from the establishment of the office until now. When and why they were returned was all written down and explained in detail, even in the summarized report sent to the Xinuan Pavilion. There was no discrepancy between them. The court was momentarily speechless.

Yan Wang then asked Emperor Long An to retract all his authority, for him to step down from his post on the grounds of 'ignorance of knowledge and difficulty to please the public'. As usual, Li Feng did not approve. His Royal Highness, who had just reached the age of twenty, who was still young and vigorous, turned his head and claimed that he was sick, running back to the Marquis' Manor and closing the door.

Even the court filled with old fox spirits who were experienced in adapting had never seen anyone who displayed such a blatant temper.

Li Feng did not know whether to laugh or cry for a moment. However, without even waiting for him to come out of the palace to coax his younger brother, something instantly happened in the court as soon as Yan Wang left.

Firstly, the Grand Council with its head lost became a chaotic mess. The papers presented to Li Feng's desk every day resembled snowfall. From everywhere were requests for money, for Ziliujin, causing him to be at a loss.

Then the two ministers of Housing and War almost started getting into a physical fight in the court. Li Feng ordered an investigation in anger and found that even as it had already come to this, some people were still cutting off military funds. A major case was discovered that shocked the court and the countryside. From the second rank top officials to the meager seventh ranks, a large number of people were implicated. Even the talkative bunch of the inspector's office fell by half.

In September, an autumn rain washed the desolated capital. Jiang Chong personally went to the Marquis' Manor with a decree to invite Yan Wang back to the court. At this point, it seemed that the people with their own intentions had started to understand the situation. Yan Wang raised the Feng Huo ticket matter again and this time, it was pushed forward with little resistance.

At first, some people were worried that the first batch of Feng Huo tickets could not be sold. But just after the first batch of Feng Huo tickets came out, Du Wan Quan, the richest man in Jiangnan, contacted a group of charitable businessmen to provide support. Within three days, the first batch of Feng Huo tickets were all cleaned out.

Real gold and silver poured into the Treasury. At this point, no one could talk anymore.

At the end of the seventh year of Long An, the two armies in Jiangnan still confronted each other. Along the way, the Marquis of Order joined forces with the Central Plains Garrison to clear up the rebellious mobs and finally returned to Jiayu Gate. The next day, the allied forces of the Western Regions occupying the city withdrew thirty miles.

At the end of the year, Gu Yun wrote fourteen personal letters to the kings of the Western Regions countries with New Year's greetings. At the same time, he sharpened his knife and prepared to kill whenever the next batch of supplies were sent by the court.

This year, there was no lantern or decoration hanging outside Jiayu Gate. The situation was tense. The long-awaited supplies from the court finally arrived.

It was just that the person escorting was of special status.

Gu Yun came back from scouting with a group of Light Cavalry. Before he got off his horse, as he heard that Yan Wang was coming, he was stunned for a moment. Then, not even bothering to unload his armor, he threw the horse's reins behind him and ran.

Gu Yun ran all the way back to the garrison. A group of privates behind him, without knowing what was happening, had to run after him as if training in the forest. The team of cavalry did not even change shifts nor adjust their formation. They just started running like mad, making the garrison appear as if they were facing a great enemy. They also thought that there were a handful of foreign enemies. One by one, they held up their Qian Li Yan to look around.

Inside the Black Iron Camp garrison, carriages from the capital were lining up. The manager of the supply storage had his hands full, but Gu Yun suddenly stopped without warning.

  

The soldiers also quickly stopped and exchanged a look with each other.

Gu Yun looked back at them in confusion. "Why are you all running in a panic?"

 

Soldiers: "..."

Gu Yun coughed drily and wiped away the nonexistent dust on his armor, turned his face without any obstacles, and changed his demeanor to that of a leisurely stroll, casually walking inside the Marshal's tent with his hands behind his back.

In addition to the people on guarding duty, the patrol team had not come back yet. Gu Yun's several generals were making conversation inside, circling a person in the middle. The man was dressed in a silk court attire, with wide sleeves hidden under snow-white fox fur. This was the newly appointed Yan Wang. When he turned around as he heard the movement, his eyes accidentally met with Marshal Gu's, who was leaning against the door frame.

Yan Wang seemed surprised, then his eyes brightened up, his weather-beaten tiredness was instantly washed away. He raised his hand somewhat irrepressibly, clearing his throat slightly. This cough sounded out of tune.

With this cough, everyone turned to look at the door and rose one after another to greet: "Grand Marshal."

 

Some reunion and separation took only an instant, while some reunion and separation seemed to take a lifetime.

 

The kind that was intertwined with cold war and rage in the middle, was the kind that felt like an instant.

 

The kind with numerous unknown truths and ambiguous feelings that could not be put aside nor held onto, was the kind that felt like a lifetime.

 

Either way, Gu Yun's thousands of feelings were pouring into his heart, blocking his vast chest, filling it in with pebble and stones.

 

... Only after a long time did a small flow of burning hot water leak out, dissolving into his limbs incessantly - Gu Yun's palms behind his back were coated with a layer of sweat.

 

Like a wolf, he suppressed it and motioned the crowd to not be too overly courteous and casually walked in: "The border is not stable at this moment. Why did you come in person?"

 

Chang Geng said, "It will be the New Year soon, I came to send some New Year's goods to the brothers."

 

Gu Yun replied with an 'ah', asking with a faint look: "It has been difficult for you. Over the past six months, everyone has not been living well. It's really not easy for the court to squeeze out some rations - what decree does the Emperor have?"

 

When he said so, Chang Geng had to make an announcement first. As soon as the dismal scenery of the imperial edict appeared, the generals on both sides fell on their knees. Gu Yun was stopped by Chang Geng just as he was about to kneel down to receive the decree.

 

Chang Geng lightly supported him: "For the Emperor's edict, Imperial Uncle only needs to listen, there is no need to kneel."

 He doesn't know whether it was intentional or unintentional. When Chang Geng spoke of the word 'Imperial Uncle', his tone of voice was slightly lowered.

 

Li Feng all day long calling him ‘Imperial Uncle' had made Gu Yun tired of hearing the word, but suddenly he was called by Chang Geng like this. It seemed that a small hook was ticking him, and the four words 'courtesy cannot be abolished' already flowing to his lips could not be let out.

 In the late winter, the Northwest was bitter cold, but the cold armor almost made Gu Yun break a sweat...he could only manage to listen to some sentences of the edict.

 Fortunately, Li Feng's business was generally already said in the military approval request, written in the imperial edict were mostly empty words of encouragement. It did not make a difference whether they listened or not.

 Until the group of generals thanked His Highness' grace and stood up, Gu Yun still did not recover.

 

Generally speaking, on such occasions, the highest-ranking person should come forward and speak a few proud words of service to the country on behalf of the people. Only then could the imperial edict be considered as finished to be passed on. Everyone could then get back to their business.

 

Gu Yun suddenly became so strangely silent, everyone had to follow suit. The generals of the Black Iron Camp all stared at him, wondering what the Marquis had to say about this rather vague and empty imperial edict.

The surrounding was so quiet that Gu Yun finally realized he was doing something embarrassing. He casually raised his unfathomable face and said with indistinct joy and anger: "Ah, His Majesty praised too much, this is all within our duty. Old He, send someone to prepare a little something as a feast for His Royal Highness Yan Wang... no need to be complicated, we are all family here. Everyone, hurry up, let's finish checking the supplies and equipment before dark. What are you looking at, still haven't dismissed? Have we got nothing to do?"

The generals were awed by Marshal's unfazed attitude whether it be praise or injustice, moving out of the tent one after another. The Black Iron Camp had its own functions, its efficiency was incredibly high. In the blink of an eye, all the people were gone.

Only then did the bustling Marshal's tent quieten down. Gu Yun let out a light sigh of relief, feeling that Chang Geng's eyes had been glued to him, so much so that he almost had to do his best to simply turn his head.

He wondered if it was because of the fox fur or not, but he'd been feeling that Chang Geng had gotten thinner.

On the Northwest road, Huo Long's and Miss Chen's words flashed by his heart alternately. For the first time in his life, Gu Yun faced a person but did not know where to start. His heart was full of emotions, but his face did not know what expression to make, the contradiction causing him to appear rather cold and calm.

As if he had just left home the day before, he said to Chang Geng, "Come here, let me look at you."

Chang Geng did not know what his attitude was for a moment. He temporarily narrowed his unbridled vision and suddenly felt nervous.

He had made a lot of commotion in the past six months. He did not know how much of it had reached the border, neither did he know what it would be like if Gu Yun found out. When Gu Yun left the capital, the relationship between the two of them was so-so. After such a long time, it was like a jar of wine, which had been buried underground in a hurry before the ingredients were prepared to be placed in.

In just a few short steps, Chang Geng's heart was like a horse-drawn lantern, no need to discuss what it felt like.

Unexpectedly, Gu Yun suddenly reached out and grabbed him in by the hand.

The Light Armor of the Black Iron Camp was wrapped tightly and seamlessly from shoulder to the second joint of five fingers, making Gu Yun's embrace seem very hard. The small bit of exposed fingers was as cold as the Light Armor in the bitter wind of Jiayu Gate. It seemed as if the chill had pierced the fox fur on Yan Wang in an instant. He shivered fiercely, suddenly at a loss from the affection he received.

Gu Yun narrowed his eyes, his arms tightened slowly, the soft fur collar sweeping across his face. The scent of tranquilizer followed like a shadow. He wondered if it was his imagination, he felt that the scent was heavier than before.

For more than twenty years, the Bone of Impurity was like a file, grinding the flesh and carving the bone into such a person. Gu Yun was incredibly pained, but he did not dare to mention a word. There was a kind of obstinacy in Chang Geng's bone that he would not compromise with anyone. From such a young age, he would rather keep his eyes open until dawn every night than reveal anything to him.

If a person covered the wound so that no one could see it, someone must not pull his hands off. That was not caring but giving him another stab.

"Zi Xi," Chang Geng whispered, somewhat unnaturally, without knowing what he was up to: "If you continue to hug me like this, I will..."

Gu Yun reluctantly suppressed his emotions, swallowed his pity, and raised his eyebrows expressionlessly: "Hm?"

Chang Geng: "..."

  

He dared not say it.

  

His Royal Highness Yan Wang, who had a brilliant talent in speaking, was seldom speechless. Gu Yun laughed aloud, reaching to fix his fox fur up: "Come, I will take you out for a stroll."

They walked out of the Marshal's tent side by side. The winter wind outside the gate was as sharp as a knife. The hunting flag was like an eagle spreading its wings in the air. The sky was high, and the earth was wide. There were no clouds anywhere. The end of the row of carriages escorting military supplies could not be seen. Since the outbreak of war on four sides, everywhere seemed to be stretched to the limit. There was no telling how long it had been since such a scene so near to prosperity as this appeared.

Gu Yun stopped to look at it for a while and sighed, "How much effort would it take to clean up this chaotic mess thoroughly?"

"Sending this much first, I'll think of other ways later," Chang Geng said. "Now the Zhang Ling Law has been abolished. Several more steel armor institutes have been added to the Ling Shu Institute this month. They are recruiting talents from all Mechanics across the country, anyone who has made great achievements in the field of steel armors and machines, no matter their origin, everyone has the opportunity to enter the Ling Shu Institute. Master Feng Han even swore that there was nothing frightening about the Westerners' Sea Monster. If you give him time, he can do it."

"Master Feng Han has never had enough food in his life. Is it necessary to eat a bowl and pour a bowl?" Gu Yun laughed. "Besides looking scary and consuming money, that Sea Monster had no other use. It does not matter whether there are funds. Even with Light Cavalry, I will kick those people that dare to come to someone's territory to display their might back to their home sooner or later, you..."

He meant to say, 'you don't have to push yourself too hard', but as he turned slightly, half of his hand wrapped in steel armor hit Chang Geng's palm. Chang Geng unconsciously grabbed hold of his painfully frozen hand, it was then covered by his broad court attire, inside the sleeve was filled with the warmth of a human body.

It was not that Chang Geng could not control himself, but due to Gu Yun's unexpected embrace, which was like an open fire, it lit up all the unrealistic expectations within him.

He looked straight at Gu Yun and asked, "What?"

Gu Yun forgot his words for the second time in a day.

From an outsider's point of view, the two stared at each other as if they were ill for a moment. Gu Yun stood stiff for a long time and did not respond. Chang Geng's face gradually grew dim, ridiculing himself inside and thinkingt: As expected, it is only my imagination.

Just as he was about to retreat, Chang Geng's pupils suddenly shrank. Under the long sleeve, Gu Yun held his hand in return. His cold and stiff fingers, with the strength of steel armor, brought no hint of avoidance or hesitation.

  

Gu Yun sighed, knowing in his heart that just now, he had taken this step forward in a half impulsive and half intolerant state. From then on, he could never turn back again. Chang Geng, who had been suffering from the Bone of Impurity for so many years, was not able to withstand this move. Moreover, changing his attitude back and forth was not right. It wasn't that he had never spilled sweet nothings on certain occasions. When drinking too much, he had even talked nonsense, making promises. But living for all these years, it wasn't until today that he realized that the so-called 'vow' was so heavy that it was difficult to express. The words already came to his lips, but only one sentence was left: "I want you to take care of yourself. As long as the green hills are preserved, there will be no fear of lacking firewood. No need to drive yourself to the limit. I am still here."

Chang Geng was dumbfounded. Gu Yun's sentence went in his left ear, then collectively retreated through his right. He was not able to take in a single word.

Gu Yun grew embarrassed under his stare: "Come, those country bumpkins are still waiting to see the elegant demeanor of Yan Wang, what is with standing here and drinking in the Northwest wind?"

On the site of Black Iron Camp, it was impossible to carry out 'delicious wine' and 'beauty singing and dancing'. In wartime, the army strictly prohibited alcohol. Anyone who dared to drink a drop would be punished by military law with no tolerance. Miss Chen, the only person there who had something to do with 'beauty', also took the position of a military doctor after Gu Yun's steel plate was taken off. Having her hands full with the wounded soldiers inside Jiayu Gate, she never showed up for half a month. Now, there was only one 'Northwest flower' left. Although he could not dance, he was free to look at and did not cost money.

The so-called feast for Yan Wang was simply to cook a few more dishes, the generals who were not responsible for defense for the time being would accompany them. They could not even stay until late due to having to change shifts. A little bit of rest time was very precious. They dared not relax for a moment, they were all scattered before nightfall.

There was only one Gu Yun left taking a rather dazed Yan Wang to settle down.

"This place is very boring, isn't it? There is no good food nor delicious drinks, the most extraordinary entertainment all day long is a few people coming together to arm wrestle, there are no gains whether they win or lose," Gu Yun turned his head and said: "Did you use to get angry when you were a child because I refused to take you here? Is it worth it?"

Although Chang Geng did not touch a drop of alcohol, his footsteps felt as if he was floating on the clouds. Feeling that he was dreaming, he said in a haze: "How can it be boring?"

Gu Yun thought for a moment and drew his white jade flute from his chest. "Let me play you a newly learned song from outside the fortress?"

Chang Geng gazed deeply at the jade flute. He felt that he would not be able to wake up from this dream.

At that moment, Shen Yi had come back from reorganizing the defense system, he already heard from a distance that His Highness Yan Wang was coming. He intended to come over with a heart full of complicated emotions to have a chat with him. Unexpectedly, as he was still over a hundred meters away, his owl's eyes had already caught sight of Gu Yun pulling out his precious flute! Shen Yi instantly changed his direction as if having just witnessed cruel enemies and he ran off then disappeared.

Gu Yun's musical instrument changed from a bamboo flute to a jade flute, and he practiced for half a year at the bitter and cold frontier, however, his skill miraculously had not made any progress. He was now even better at urging people to urinate than before. A short burst of a foreign folk tune destroyed people's hearts. Not far away, a horse waiting for its hoof to be fixed was frightened as if surrounded by a group of wild wolves, letting out a whine like it was in pain. Meanwhile, a patrolling Black Eagle landed from the sky with unsteady footsteps, stumbled and directly fell to the ground, appearing in the posture of begging for New Year's money.

Chang Geng: "..."

At last, he found a hint that he was not dreaming - this sound that had gone beyond his narrow imagination.

At the end of the song, Gu Yun, who thought he had been acting romantic, asked with a tone of voice dyed with a hint of expectation: "Is it nice?"

"..." Chang Geng hesitated for a long time and had to sincerely say, "Can clear the heart and awaken the mind, um...with the ability to make the enemy retreat."

Gu Yun raised his hand and struck his head with his flute, not at all embarrassed about his demented skill: "My aim is to wake you up. For these few days, are you going to sleep with me, or would you rather let someone tidy up a prince's tent for you?"

Yan Wang who had just partially sobered up was struck dizzy once again by this teasing sentence, temporarily stunned in one place.

Gu Yun watched Chang Geng's ears redden, the blush spreading all over his face. He could not help thinking of Chang Geng's uncomfortable appearance, changing his clothes for him when he had a high fever. At that time, he felt helpless, but now his heart itched incessantly. he thought: Taking advantage of when I broke all my bones and could only lie like a corpse to get touchy with your hands, did you not think this day would come?

Gu Yun asked, "Why don't you say anything?"

"There is no need..." Chang Geng struggled for a long time, grinding his teeth and making up his mind, "I... I also want to look at your injuries."

Gu Yun couldn't help but continue to tease him: "Only to look at my injuries?"

Chang Geng: "..."