CHAPTER 9: WESTERN EXPEDITION

III

Gu Yun's lumbar and cervical bones had problems, Chang Geng did not need to examine carefully because after unloading the armor, he could feel it through the clothing.

He threw aside all straying thoughts and frowned. "Zi Xi, how long has it been since you last took off the Light Armor?"

"Since removing the steel plate, I've been wearing it all the time..." As Gu Yun said these words, he felt that something was not right. After a pause, he quickly added, "Well, of course, I would take it off when bathing, I am not like the bald donkey Liao Ran who likes to be filthy."

Chang Geng reached out and pressed down on his stomach, saying: "Don't move — you still have the heart to mock others."

Even though these generals were powerful at a young age, if they were lucky enough to live until old, most of them would suffer from numerous injuries and diseases. The malposition of the cervical and lumbar bone was almost the norm. Although the Light Armor was lightweight and convenient, it directly added to the human body, unlike the Heavy Armor that could support itself. Gu Yun was always ready for battle, not taking it off even in sleep. For a long time, the bones and muscles weren't able to rest. Chang Geng only exerted a little strength, and with just one press, the cracking sound of his bones and muscles could be heard.

"You can't feel it now, because the muscles of the waist and back can still hold up. What will you do when you get older?" Chang Geng stroked his hands heavily over his shoulder blades and kneaded his stiff shoulders.

Whenever Shen Yi got a bit lengthy, he was always being scoffed at, but the same things, when it was Chang Geng who would say them instead, Gu Yun was not at all unhappy. He listened lazily with half-closed eyes. Everything in the army was simple, even if one was the Marquis of Order. There was only a military bed in his tent, a steam lamp hanging at the head of the bed, the lights were dim, half-covering the two.

Chang Geng: "Does it hurt?"

Gu Yun shook his head and slowly murmured, "When you sent this batch of things, the wind will surely have spread out. The mob of the Western Regions coalition forces all have their own calculation. At present, the Westerners cannot unconditionally provide them with steel armors. In a few days, there will surely be some traitors who will come to surrender to us...Pfff, slow down."

Gu Yun did not respond when he pressed his shoulder, but as Chang Geng's fingers just slid down the spine near his ribs, Gu Yun suddenly burst into laughter, "Ticklish."

"..." Chang Geng increased the strength of his fingers and almost penetrated into his bones and flesh. If he continued a little longer, he would have to press his skin to the point of almost bruising, he said helplessly, "Can you tell the difference between painful and ticklish? How can you feel ticklish with such great strength?"

"It is clear that your skills are not good." Gu Yun said, "But they will not be too sincere in their surrender. These bastards have done these two-faced things too many times. If they don't convince us, they will light our backyard fire next time. I intend to send out troops on New Year's Eve, beating them up to a feast before saying anything else."

Chang Geng pressed Gu Yun's shoulder with one hand, the other stayed upright, pushing down Gu Yun's spine with his elbow: "Are the Black Iron Camp forces at Jiayu Gate strong enough?"

"If it's not enough, it must be..." Gu Yun's back arched: "Ha ha ha, stop, stop pressing."

Chang Geng did not listen to him. He pressed his elbow against him and kneaded both sides of his spine twice from head to tail. Only then did he stop slightly.

Gu Yun laughed so much that his stomach ached, and his tears were almost about to come down. He gasped for breath before continuing with his words: "It is alright. Let's give a sincere reply to those with the intention of surrendering and make an appointment beforehand, stating that as long as they roll far away, we won't move. Afterwards, we will take the opportunity and attack them first, then press them under Heavy Armor and stir up a commotion, prioritizing fear. We'll scare away a few of them and tidy up the rest one by one."

Chang Geng moved his finger slightly and laughed, "Are you not afraid of people saying that you are not trustworthy and treacherous?"

Gu Yun carelessly said: "A group of subordinate countries rebelling, sons beating their father, what kind of benevolence they uphold... Ah! You... You amateur doctor!"

When Chang Geng pressed the acupoint at his waist, Gu Yun shouted, raising up like a living fish, hitting the bed board.

Chang Geng had no choice but to retract his hand. "Try to endure it. Has the military doctor in the camp never massaged you?"

Gu Yun: "Well, let me think..."

"No need to think about it, who would be able to massage you?" Chang Geng stood up, replaced his finger with his palm and knelt on his side with one leg. "Then I will try to be a little gentler this time."

This time, he changed from his fingers to palm, little by little, with his palm placed close to the acupoint, gradually increasing his strength from light to heavy. Gu Yun did not know how to cooperate, the greater the strength under Chang Geng's palm, the tighter the muscles between his waist and abdomen were, the clearer the traces of the waistline under his clothing become. Chang Geng was a little dazzled in an instant, feeling that he could hug his waist with only two hands. His heart originally without any straying thoughts suddenly trembled for a moment, beginning to jump wildly without warning. The movements of his hands lightened involuntarily, giving Gu Yun another kind of 'ticklish'.

This time he did not raise up, there was a layer of indescribable sensation that went along Chang Geng's hand. Gu Yun awkwardly turned back and grabbed Chang Geng's hand. "Alright."

Chang Geng was shocked, blood from his heart all rushed up, his neck blushed red.

Gu Yun coughed dryly and asked, "What about you? When will you return to the capital?"

  

Chang Geng stared at him without moving his gaze: "... I'd like to leave after the sixteenth."

  

Gu Yun: "..."

  

This sentence sounded too pitiful.

  

Gu Yun was a little surprised, he then whispered, "You'd better not stay here for so long."

  

Chang Geng opened his eyes and said, "Mm, I only offhandedly said it, although the Feng Huo ticket had helped the National Treasury a little, there are still a lot of pending issues in the court, I still..."

"You staying here will cause ambition to wane out." Gu Yun seriously interrupted him and said, "My ambition."

Chang Geng: "..."

Gu Yun stretched out his hand and pulled him down. Chang Geng knelt on one knee beside the bed. Getting pulled with his guard down, he almost hit Gu Yun on the chest.

Gu Yun intertwined his fingers into his hair, holding the back of his neck, then suddenly saying, "I had heard about your Feng Huo ticket."

  

Chang Geng's pupils shrank for a moment. Gu Yun, after a pause, did not mention the big case he had compiled to terminate the opposing party, he only told him, "Go home and look under the door and under the bed to see if you can find a couple pieces of silver to buy a little bit from him. In the future, your brother will not have to pay back the money, just rewarding a village for retirement is enough."

  

Chang Geng's emotions raised up and down for a moment, he blurted out, "What do you need a village for?"

  

"When the foreigners are chased out, when the world is at peace, I will also stop fighting," Gu Yun whispered, gently rolling a lock of his hair.

  

"I thought about it a while ago. When the time comes, I will split the Black Iron Camp into three. Eagles, Armors, and Cavalry will each have one-third of the Marshal seal. They can cooperate with each other and restrain each other in the future...

  

"The Black Tiger Emblem should still return to the Ministry of War. After the war, not only Great Liang, but also the foreign countries, they also have to peel off a layer of skin, changing to a new group of people. It would not be a problem to maintain peace for ten to thirty years.

  

"Your brother also feels uncomfortable looking at me anyway, I will not serve him anymore. Matters of the future, let future generations worry about them. Let's find a village with beautiful scenery, to be, um...a dowry."

  

After Chang Geng listened, he did not say anything for a long time. Under the light of the steam lamp, his eyes seemed to be covered by a layer of tears: "You didn't say that last time."

  

Gu Yun: "Hm?"

Chang Geng: "You said last time that I do not have to be afraid, if I follow you, you will treat me well... does this also count?"

  

Gu Yun outright denied it: "When did I say this kind of bullcrap?"

  

Chang Geng relentlessly turned over an old affair: "Last January in the manor, in your room, when you pulled off my clothes."

  

Gu Yun was embarrassed to the point of wanting to bury himself: "That time I... I... "

  

Chang Geng could not help it anymore; he bowed his head and stopped his lips.

  

My general, he thought, his heart filled with both sweetness and sorrow: For generations, how many renowned generals were able to safely retire? Don't these words stab at my heart?

  

Chang Geng was really too excited, his kiss was awkward, he seemed to be both eager and hesitant at the same time. Gu Yun who had come back to his senses quickly turned the table.

  

He flipped them over and pressed Chang Geng in his arms, he suddenly found that no wonder the ancients said that tenderness was a hero's grave — holding a loved one in the cold winter days, there was no need to be in such places as the Marquis' Manor or the palace, as long as there was a small bedroom in an ordinary residential courtyard, with a brazier enough to warm the wine, his bones had all gone soft. Let alone fight, he did not even want to enter the court.

  

This time, the kiss seemed to be different from the parting between life and death on the city wall. It was not so desperate, hopeless, and fierce. A corner of Gu Yun's heart suddenly collapsed, creating the softest spot. He thought to himself, From now on, he is my man.

  

After a long moment, both of their breathing had become somewhat erratic, Gu Yun raised his hand and turned the steam lamp, touching Chang Geng's face, he said, "You have already become exhausted on the way here, let's not tease me anymore today. Be good and have a well-rested sleep, alright?"

  

Chang Geng caught his hand.

  

Gu Yun kissed his face and said with a joke, "There will be plenty of other opportunities to deal with you in the future, let's sleep."

  

Chang Geng: "..."

  

This seemed a little different from what he had expected — but he was indeed too tired. These days, with emotions rising up and down irregularly, worn down both mentally and physically, it had not taken long for him to drift off.

  

Gu Yun only took a little nap. Just after the fourth period, he got up and started to put on his clothes. If Chang Geng hadn't come, these days, he had been working non-stop throughout the night.

  

Checking the supplies in the city, how much Ziliujin was still available, how to distribute the troops and how to fight... a lot of arrangements that needed to be looked over by the commander, not to mention the "creating a rift" strategy. Do not be mistaken at how easy he had made it sound; the real effort still lay in the finer details. Before the battle, one more preparation would gain them one more chance to win — although the sound of Marshal Gu's flute was extremely lethal, but to besiege the city of thousands of men, if only relying on the Northwest flower to show his beauty and the 'demonic sound piercing the ear' to make the enemy retreat, the means were too simple.

  

Gu Yun looked down at Chang Geng who was already in a deep sleep, and saw that just as Miss Chen had said, his sleep was not at all peaceful.

  

For others, whatever they thought of by day will come to their dreams by night. However, no matter how joyful things were before going to bed, Chang Geng had no good dreams waiting for him after his eyes closed. His eyebrows had crumpled up, his face looked pale under the snowy moon outside, his fingers tightened unconsciously, grasping a corner of Gu Yun's clothes like a life-saving straw.

  

The Bone of Impurity was a kind of poison that greatly wore down the mind. While awake, it could be suppressed by will, but after falling asleep, it would bite back twice as hard. Gu Yun, who was always not sleeping enough, shivered after only envisioning it for a bit.

  

He tried to pull the corner of his clothes out but to no avail. Chang Geng, however, seemed to be shocked by the movement and held it tighter, there was even an indescribable and vague hint of brutality flashing across his expression.

The barracks was a crucial location, Gu Yun could not afford to tear his sleeves and go out to discuss the military situation with his men. He sighed and stretched his arms to unravel the pouch on Chang Geng's coat. Using the bowl on the side, he poured out a bit of tranquilizer, compressed it, then burned it.

The strong scent spread all around the tent, Gu Yun put the bowl next to the pillow and bent over to place a gentle kiss on Chang Geng's forehead. Chang Geng had probably woken up but had not completely regained consciousness. In the haze, he seemed to know who was beside him. The painful look on his face decreased slightly and he finally released his hand.

Gu Yun gave him a worried look and went out under the cover of the dark.

  

That year's New Year's Eve was incredibly desolated, the lonely sound of firecrackers echoed from inside the gate. The cold wind swept through, and the red paper scraps flew like butterflies in the wind, but there was no sight of children lighting firecrackers anywhere.

Even in the capital city, half of the Qi Yuan Tower had collapsed, and the Red Kite that the wealthy high-ranking nobles and officials scrambled for was now nowhere to be seen.

  

A large group of refugees had crossed the river to come here, a number were frozen to death, the others starved to death. Exchanging the children for food was something that easily happened from time to time.

  

At first, the local governments refused to open warehouses to send out rations. Chang Geng personally took the position of an inspector the year before. On one hand, he ran back and forth between all the major trading groups for the Feng Huo tickets; on the other, he borrowed troops from General Zhong. Along the way, he dealt with a group of vile merchants and rotten officials who had hidden the rations without distributing them, using flashy means to frighten them, finally giving the incredibly crowded group of refugees a place to receive some watery porridge.

  

Whether it be a well-off family or a poor peasant, hundreds of years and generations of people had been reluctant to eat and shop to save up some fortune. But after only half a year, all had been destroyed.

  

This mortal life where the vast sea turned to mulberry fields was much like the storms and torrential winds — materialistic goods could not come with birth and could not be brought along in death. Even after exhausting one's efforts, in the end, one could only do their best, then listen to fate's disposal.

  

The Black Iron Camp at Jiayu Gate, as usual, had prepared three carts of fireworks for the upcoming eighth year of Long An. On New Year's Eve, lanterns were hung on the city buildings, and the guards seemed particularly careless.

  

A scout of the Western Regions wearing dry grass sneaked to the outside of Jiayu Gate, using the Qian Li Yan to keep an eye on it all day. The guards of Black Iron Camp seemed very loose; the soldiers of the post who stood as straight as javelins on weekdays were now half missing. Some kept scratching their heads, looking left and right, some even continuously looked back as if they were expecting something... this absence of mind was explained after a while. It turned out that a batch of letters from home came from the nearest post station. Through the Qian Li Yan, the Western Regions scout could see the messengers go directly to the city gate on that day. Many of the people who received the letters tore them open on the spot.

  

Every day there was only one Light Cavalry on the patrol, making rounds not near or far only for the sake of it, then would turn back.

  

The Black Iron Camp's soldiers were still human beings. At the end of the year, there were always some special days that would affect their hearts and minds.

Since the arrival of the Great Liang Capital envoy, the coalition forces in the whole Western Regions had been nervous, sending people day and night to stare at Jiayu Gate Garrison. Until Jiayu City Tower set off fireworks, when the Central Plains people's firecrackers sounded faint as if they wanted to welcome the new year in peace, only then did the scout on duty that day confirm that the Black Iron Camp did not intend to move. He quietly summoned his men to withdraw.

  

Just after the scout left, the 'boulder' on a small hill not far away suddenly shook and separated from the middle to both sides — it was actually a Black Eagle's armor.

  

The backs of the Black Eagle's wings were painted in the same color as the surrounding gray stones, and even the lines were delineated with fine brushwork. At first glance, it almost appeared like the real deal. He had been waiting for the scouts of the Western Regions to move away, then quietly rushed to the sky, like a thin white fog blade across the night sky, he disappeared.

  

At night, using the firecrackers as a cover, the Black Iron Camp at Jiayu Gate divided into three routes and blended into the night.

  

The lanterns on the walls hung high in the night sky, clearly giving off the aura of liveliness. The long shadows of the lanterns were reflected on the walls of the thousand-year-old ancient city, yet it felt unspeakably lonely and desolate.

  

At the capital, business piled up like mountains. Chang Geng only had time to say a few words to Gu Yun. It was still the old year when he already had to depart for his return. On New Year's Eve, he happened to arrive at the wounded soldier's center inside the gate. Chen Qing Xu had already received the news, holding a wooden bird, waiting for him at the door of the center.

  

Meeting again half a year later, there was no embarrassment between them. It seemed as if Chen Qing Xu never opposed Chang Geng taking over the Lin Yuan Emblem, and Chang Geng never changed her note in secret. The Lin Yuan Emblem had been handed over. Whatever her opinions might be on the choice of her companions, at this time, she must obey the command of the wooden emblem.

  

"Your Highness, don't go in anymore," whispered one of the attendants. "Only a few of them still have all their arms and legs. It would not put you in a good mood to see them."

  

"You already feel unwell by looking at them, what do you think those who had lost their arms and legs feel?" Chang Geng glanced at him; the guard blushed from embarrassment.

  

"I came to give New Year's greeting to the brothers who serve the country and the people," Chang Geng turned to Chen Qing Xu. "The reward and support funds from the court are being sent down, they could also be considered as New Year gifts...just in time, I will stop here to wait for a while."

  

Chen Qing Xu: "What are you waiting for?"

  

"News of victory." Chang Geng said, "The first news of victory, I will be bringing it back while on the way, for the Grand Council to discuss the next step for suppressing the countries in the Western Regions."

  

Chen Qing Xu carefully watched Chang Geng's face and said, "I heard that Your Highness has been on a non-stop journey. First went south to Jiangbei to rectify the cruel officials and traitors along the canal, then returned to the capital to instruct the Ministry of Housing and the Ling Shu Institute, then rushed to the Northwest before the New Year no matter the cost. You have not rested, yet you seem to still be in a good mood?"

  

This was quite strange. When she left the capital, Chang Geng's Bone of Impurity was almost beyond control. She assumed that as he had been exhausted both physically and mentally for more than half a year, there was no telling what stage he would be in. When she received the Lin Yuan wooden bird, Chen Qing Xu had been worried about seeing that ominous red glint in his eyes.

  

Who knew that Chang Geng's face would be much better than she imagined? The state of ‘even if heaven falls, I am at peace’ seemed to have returned on Yan Wang's body.

  

It was almost the same as those years when he followed General Zhong while living a simple life, wandering the pugilist world.

  

But there seemed to be another difference: he did not appear to be bland to the extreme as before, he now carried a hint of the smoke and fire of the mortal world.

  

"Only running a few errands, it isn't much." Chang Geng said indifferently. "It is said that everything is difficult at the beginning, but in truth, I don't think it's necessarily the most difficult at the beginning. You see, now the whole dynasty has reached the point of breaking. Even if I were to do a more horrible job, the only thing that could happen is that the Westerners will surround the capital once again, there are no worse outcomes. This matter will soon be accustomed to by the gentlemen in the court, they would not blame me much.”

  

"... His Highness's heart truly...shines brighter near the light, you have received parts of the Marquis' passed down experiences.” Chen Qing Xu obscurely pulled out Gu Yun, who never took anything to heart even once. Then, as she carefully assessed it, she felt that there was some truth in Chang Geng’s words, she said, "Yes. Sometimes, compared to rebuilding the nation, it is more difficult to accept the descending path after prosperity."

  

"That does not affect my business." Chang Geng said to her with a somewhat casual attitude, "Zi Xi has had poor health since young. He has to rest as soon as possible. If he no longer fights in wars, he will not stay in the Black Iron Camp for many years. If he leaves, I would follow him."

  

Chen Qing Xu: "..."

  

It took her a long time to realize who this ‘Zi Xi’ was referring to. Turned out, the thing that had covered thousands of miles of wind and dust on His Highness Yan Wang's face was not ‘good complexion’ but the ambience of spring!*


*ambience of spring refers to the glow of someone who's in love.

  

Chen Qing Xu did not know what word to say for a time — if such feelings that went beyond the norm could blossom, then a grown woman who was not that unsightly like herself spending all her time in the midst of men, how come no one had ever expressed anything towards her?

  

Was her naturally cold face too lethal?

  

...Or perhaps, although General Gu's upper beam was incorrect, his lower beam was not at all distorted, and the strictness of his rules in the army were that much awe-inspiring?*

  

Nevertheless, Chang Geng's careless remark, although it aroused a sorrowful emotion for Miss Chen, it was no doubt an equivalent to giving her a tranquilizing pill.

  

Although the Northwest Frontier was far from the Emperor, His Highness Yan Wang's tactics of constantly changing attitudes in the court could still be heard.

  

Aside from immense admiration, Chen Qing Xu also had some worries that he would sink into power in the future. It was not that she did not trust in Chang Geng's character, but the Bone of Impurity would always remain a dark cloud that could not be dispersed. For three to five years, he could still maintain himself, but what about in eight to ten? Would power and poison speed up the erosion of his mind? At that time, he would be holding the Lin Yuan wooden emblem in his hand. With such great power, who would be able to stop him?

  

It was not until she heard this that she felt a little relieved. No matter what, as long as the Marquis was alive and well, there would always be someone in the world who could pull him back.

  

In this way, Chen Qing Xu was somewhat secretly glad that Lin Yuan Emblem was not affected by her one opposing vote and was finally handed over to Chang Geng. Otherwise, Great Liang would not be able to have room to take a breath in a short half year period.

  

This breath finally slowly accumulated on New Year's Eve into the force that swallowed mountains and rivers — the Black Iron Camp divided into three routes, launching a surprise attack on the Western Regions Coalition Garrison.

  

The Western Regions Coalition Army and Jiayu Gate had been engaged in a back and forth battle with each other. For a long time, they had not received any supplies from the Westerners. Their own technology was not good. The broken armors and chariots could not be repaired. Looking around, their allies were only fools who could not be described by words, ego could not count on it at all. They already had the intention to withdraw.

  

On the same day, the coalition of the sixteen countries received a scolding report, saying that Black Iron Camp was still motionless, thus they had let their guard down.

  

The guards were loitering, the commanders of all countries were unprepared, coming together and concentrating on quarreling, the whole station was dim, and the sudden appearance of black crows truly felt like they fell from the sky.

  

Many people would like to rush into battle without putting on their pants and be swept away by the Black Iron Camp like fierce wind blowing across fallen leaves.

  

There was a small country far away realizing that the situation was not good. When quickly calculating their own strength that had no foundation, the king and the commander-in-chief made a decision in time to first of all lead the crowd to run.

  

Their run was like a signal. The whole coalition army was in an uproar. When everything was out of control, Black Eagles poured a large number of copied letters from the sky and scattered them all over like paper money. Before that, several small western countries had written some personal letters in an attempt to ally with Gu Yun in secret. At this time, they were mass reprinted by the Marquis of Order and were scattered in the air. Combined with the first batch of the escapees, it appeared to be particularly shocking.

  

Before the small Western countries could swear their oaths to their allies in a desperate manner, the sound of Great Liang's horn resembling the roar of mountain and sea came from the sky.

  

A Black Eagle ordered several small rebellious countries in Great Liang Mandarin and the common language of the Western Regions, he declared bluntly, "When you have surrendered, you will disarm yourself and withdraw to one side. If the unconscious weapons are to hurt the ally by mistake, the Black Iron Camp will not take responsibility!"

  

The coalition forces in the Western Regions blew up. Who would have the time to stop and read and analyze the contents on the paper carefully? A quick glance at the beginning and the end revealed the nauseating pronunciation plus the lenient attitude — they had regarded this as evidence and already believed it eighty to ninety percent.

  

The contingents of all the countries in the Western Regions were in disorder. With strong enemies outside and traitors inside, no one they ran into appeared to be the good guys. At present, regardless of ally or enemies, they all but engaged in a fight with one another.

  

It was the first day of the eighth year of Long An, leaving the old to welcome the new.

  

The Black Iron Camp that had been dormant and retreated, after the return of their commander, they finally showed their fangs which had been suppressed for half a year. The iron sword roared westward, like cutting through vegetation, sweeping across the Western Regions Coalition Garrison.

  

The coalition troops were defeated and fled in all directions in a short time. Overnight, they could witness the effectiveness in combat of the Black Iron Camp that could sweep eighteen tribes with thirty Heavy Armors.

  

On the second day of the New Year, a group of remnants of the Western Regions were defeated and retreated. The Black Iron Camp captured the King of Ku Cha kingdom, the head of the 16-nation coalition forces.

  

At the same time, the report was sent to the center of wounded soldiers inside the gate.

  

This was the first real news of victory for Great Liang since half of the country was besieged. The whole center was boiling up. Whether it was a group of wounded Northwest soldiers lacking arms and had broken legs, or decent attendants of Yan Wang, they all became one, hugging one another and crying together.

 

Chang Geng heavily let out a sigh of relief. He wanted to open his mouth and tell his men to get ready to return to the capital at once, but no one seemed to hear him. He shook his head helplessly and gave a handkerchief to Chen Qing Xu, who was shedding tears in silence next to him.

  

They had been waiting too long for this day. A building could collapse in the wind and rain, however, as long as the rock beam and pillar remained intact, the Black Iron Camp remained strong, there would always be a day where they could tidy up the ruined nation.

  

On the fourth day of the new year, the coalition troops in the Western Regions retreated to the entrance of the Silk Road. The news of their whereabouts was leaked by the Han slaves they captured, and they were ambushed by the people of Lou Lan. When the coalition troops in the Western Regions invaded Great Liang, they once occupied Lou Lan, killed their old king, and forced the young drunkard prince to exile. This time, they finally had the chance to take vengeance.

  

At this point, the coalition forces had suffered heavy losses and were defeated.

  

On the fifth day, the Black Iron Camp recovered twenty-seven passes on the Silk Road and directly attacked the former garrisons of the coalition forces. All the foreigners who had not yet had time to evacuate were captured.