Shen Yi ran to the camp tent and reported, "Grand Marshal, the tortoises in the Western Regions shrunk their necks back, handed over a letter for a peace treaty, fearing that they would not be able to explain to their Western parents. They want to exchange the Han people they had taken for prisoners. You see..."
Gu Yun instantly agreed: “Yes!”
As soon as this remark came out, there was an uproar in the Marshal's tent, the line "Marshal, please think carefully" came and went one after another.
Shen Yi was shocked: "Marshal, the war report has not been sent to the court yet. There are many important members of foreign states among these prisoners. To arbitrarily deal with them... is that alright?"
Gu Yun raised a hand to interrupt his voice: "If the Black Iron Camp did not retreat at that time, these people should still be inside the borders now. Even if they become refugees, at least they can queue up for bowls of porridge to drink and will not be taken away for no reason and humiliated as livestock... I am not blaming you, gentlemen. The withdrawal order was sent by Yan...by me, Black Iron Camp was able to be preserved, thus the battle today could be won. The captured and humiliated civilians are still waiting for me. You can mistreat anyone, but you cannot mistreat the people who have given outstanding service.”
As soon as this was said, the tent was silent, no one raised any objections — but they soon found that Gu Yun had no intention of ‘arbitrarily’ disposing the prisoners of war.
The two sides exchanged their captives at the agreed place and time. However, just as the coalition forces in the Western Regions planned to leave, a Light Cavalry suddenly took a wooden arrow pole without an arrow point and gave the chest of a nearby man a light stab. The man had already placed a chicken blood bag in his chest, it broke as soon as it was poked. From a distance, it seemed like blood was gushing out, making it appear as if he had been hit by an arrow.
The man who was ‘hit by the arrow’ was very dedicated, swaying around on the spot once, then safely entering the process of pretending to be dead to the end.
Gu Yun, facing the enemy now with their eyes wide open, relentlessly ordered: "These bunch worse than pigs and dogs are addicted to traitorous and treacherous means. Using the name of exchanging prisoners, they secretly attacked our army; take them down!”
The Light Cavalry at the front scattered, dozens of Heavy Armor came out from the crowd. As Gu Yun finished speaking, heavy artillery sounded.
When Gu Yun settled the rebellion in the Western Regions, he was still a young bird, and he was not so shameless. Later, when the Silk Road was opened and the two sides exchanged friendship, he always maintained the demeanor of a greater country, restrained his subordinates, and always had the attitude of ‘benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom and faith’ like a scholarly general*.
*referring to generals who are well educated and have elegant demeanor
Who knew that he could claim a deer to be a horse, turn black to white, telling lies without blinking!
The Western Regions coalition forces who had indicated their purpose of exchanging prisoners and the captives themselves were both in shock, but they had no time to react furiously. The ambush Black Eagle fell from the sky, cutting off their back route, shooting arrows from the air. The signal bullets were destroyed on their way up. They were cleared out after the blink of an eye.
Gu Yun then turned to Shen Yi and said, "I borrowed the prisoners of war to use as fishing bait. It cannot be regarded as ‘unauthorized disposal’, can it?”
Shen Yi: "..."
Most of the prisoners from Central Plains captured by the Western Regions coalition forces were businessmen who came from thousands of miles away to make a living. One wrong thought had doomed them, as they did not follow Du Wan Qian to withdraw. It had led to this outcome.
Some of these people did small business on their own, others went with the caravan, men, women and children altogether, leaving a total of just over 30 people — the rest had died in the hands of the Western Regions.
That night, the Central Plains people, who had been humiliated by all kinds of means as if cattles and horses, eventually returned to their homeland under the escort of the Black Iron Camp. There were still more than ten yards away from the Silk Road Pass, they had not passed through yet, but someone had taken the lead in kneeling down first, hitting the ground with his head and crying aloud. The cries echoed at the Silk Road entrance, the lone birds flying past could not bear to listen.
Gu Yun waved his hand and ordered the escort officers to stop and wait silently without urging them.
Among these prisoners, there was only one who did not cry. The man was about thirty years old, his appearance was gentle like a scholar. Leading a boy of about sixteen or seventeen years old, he came to Gu Yun and stood at a distance, separated by a group of soldiers.
A personal guard said in Gu Yun's ear, "Marshal, I heard on the way that it seems that this scholar was the one who gathered together the refugees that were captured by the people of the Western Regions, saving many, and also came up with schemes to reveal the whereabouts of those dog thieves, so that the Prince of Lou Lan could have a chance to attack."
Gu Yun was stunned at first. Before he could think about it, he saw the scholar kneeling down with the young man beside him.
Although Gu Yun had just finished playing hooligans, he dared not treat these people lightly. He hurriedly said, "Sir, there is no need to do so. Please get up quickly. What are you called?"
The scholar refused his support and murmured, "Marshal, my name is Bai, last name Chu, a poor scholar who is always failing examinations and has no good future. Because my parents died early and my family was poor, I had given up on it. Last year, I brought my younger brother to the Silk Road to write and calculate for people to make a living. Unexpectedly, Bai, though not talented, is also a learner of wise men. I know the teaching 'Do not bring humiliation to your ancestors nor to yourself, preserving your righteousness, manners, that is the way of a scholar'* but the situation forced us to fall into the enemy. In order to save my life, I have let myself be discriminated against by those dog thieves, imposing punishments…”
*A reference to Sima Qian, a famous historian who was punished through castration, and instead of committing suicide out of shame, wrote the "Records of the Grand Historian"
Gu Yun was shocked and did not know what to say for a moment. He stepped forward from the crowd and went up to the two brothers in person and said quietly, "We were late."
Bai Chu: "This Bai had reserved his last breath until now only to see the Emperor recover the lost land with his own eyes."
Gu Yun solemnly put his hand together: "Master's merit is great, I will make sure to report this to the court."
Bai Chu laughed low: "How dare this broken body talk of merit, but this peasant has one daring request."
Gu Yun: "Please say so."
Bai Chu said, "I have a younger brother named Zheng, who is sixteen years old and has not had time to come of age. Fortunately, he is born with strength. Although most of the six skills* of a gentleman are not good, his skills in riding and shooting are still acceptable. I know that the Black Iron Camp is a national weapon, the generals are all elite. With his qualifications, he is not deserving of joining. I only hope for him to become a servant running errands next to Marshal. In the future, I pray that there will be spirits in the heavens, to bless him to grow up to be a man who stands upright.”
*Six skills include: courtesy, music, archery, driving horse carriage, calligraphy and accounting.
Gu Yun looked at the teenager and saw that he appeared strong and genuine, he did not interrupt them, only standing on the side wiping tears from his red eyes. Gu Yun sighed quietly, "Sir, please get up quickly. These are all trivial matters..."
Bai Chu pressed the young man's head forward a few steps and forced him to kneel in front of Gu Yun: "Bow to the Marshal."
Bai Zheng was a sincere child, bowing wholeheartedly as he was told, the stones under his head were vibrating from his bow. Helpless, Gu Yun had to bend down to help him up, but as he touched the shoulders of the teenager, he was stunned, only to feel that the shoulders of the child did not stop shaking, it was not like excitement, but... fear.
Several thoughts suddenly flashed through Gu Yun's heart ——
The Western Regions coalition forces were attacked at Silk Road due to the leak of their tracks and suffered heavy losses. How come they were not at all angry?
The prisoners of the Central Plains were the first to take the heat. Being the most suspicious, they would certainly be executed by the Western Regions troops. Not mentioning other people, as the leader, whether or not he was related to this matter, it was absolutely certain that he would be implicated. The enemy would not care whether there was injustice or not, and there was no need for evidence either. With only a little bit of doubt, they would not preserve this man's life.
In the exchange, releasing the elderly, weak, sick and disabled people was enough, how could they even return this Bai Chu?
Back then, he could already faintly sense something was unusual, but when Bai Chu uttered those kinds of words in the background of a dozen of people's mourning and crying, his heart was both agitated and guilty for a moment and had not thought about it further.
As Gu Yun was alerted, he retreated back immediately. Just then, he heard a loud roar. The whole body of ‘Bai Chu’ swelled up, his thin face became round, his skin cracked. A mask made of human skin fell from his face.
Without hesitation, a Heavy Black Iron Armor rushed over, hugged Gu Yun in one hand, turned around while moving and shielded him with three layers of steel plates on his back——
There was a loud, deafening noise. That ‘Bai Chu’ exploded; a huge heat wave swept all around. The body of the juvenile kneeling was separated on the spot. Gu Yun's ears were buzzing, a sharp pain suddenly arrived, his back strongly collided with the ground, the front of his eyes went dark.
Shen Yi, who was ordered to cut off the back route, heard a loud noise. He looked back, almost spitting out his lungs from fright, instinctively wanting to run towards it for a moment.
But General Shen, who had been rolling around at the frontier for many years, was no longer a spirited scholar in the Ling Shu Institute of that year. In a state of shock, the steed under him only shook its head once, Shen Yi had already come back to his senses, pulling the rein tightly. He instantly made a long whistle with his lips: "Light Cavalry, do not fall into disorder. Black Eagles, go to investigate the enemy's unusual movements, give my orders..."
But he did not even finish his words when a scouting Black Eagle landed in front of him: "Report! Marshal!"
"Slow down, Marshal is busy," Shen Yi stopped him. "What's the matter? Just tell me first."
"General Shen, after the withdrawal of the sixteen countries in the Western Regions, they have reorganized their drums and flags, collected eighteen battle chariots that have been preserved from various countries. They are marching towards our base, I'm afraid they intend to fight back..."
Shen Yi murmured, "How many people are there?"
"Not counting the chariots, observing from the sky, with armor and cavalry they have at least at twenty to thirty thousand..."
A personal guard of Gu Yun came rolling and crawling towards him. Shen Yi abruptly turned his head, almost tightening his neck tendons, his scalp was numbing and tingling. He could not imagine what would happen if Gu Yun truly met with an unfortunate accident. How could they be able to guard the twenty-seven passes at the entrance of the Silk Road?
Would they have to retreat once again?
The soldier gasped for breath. "Marshal has ordered you to execute the king of Kucha Kingdom in front of the two armies, then hang his head on the flagpole, cutting off all means of retreat. The Black Iron Camp will not leave a single soldier to guard the city, directly sending out troops to meet the enemy!"
Shen Yi listened to the first half of the sentence. His heart that was hanging in the middle about to be spat out fell back to his abdomen, he could hardly hear the second half of the sentence. Breaking his usual habit, he made the nervous guard repeat it once more, only then did he shout, "The, cough, the rebels are at the end of their struggle, the grasshoppers' final moment after the last harvest after autumn. Listen to my orders and prepare for war!"
At the moment of the explosion, Gu Yun was protected by a Heavy Armor.
The body of the Black Armor officer was separated on the spot. Gu Yun fainted for a moment, spitting out a mouthful of blood, one ear instantly going deaf.
After waking up, Gu Yun did not pay anything else in mind. The first reaction was that the enemy wanted to take this opportunity to fight back. The Western Regions rebelled twice, their deep hatred for Great Liang was not something that could be resolved in one or two generations. At present, they were suppressed by the Black Iron Camp growing at a rapid speed, perhaps they finally knew fear. This would probably be their last blow.
He Rong Hui was scared to death, pulling Gu Yun out from under Heavy Armor. Gu Yun's body was soaked in blood — there was his own, there was someone else's. In this second, all the strength accumulated in his body exploded. With his heart fluctuating with innumerable thoughts, he seized He Rong Hui's arm and passed on the order to execute the prisoner and heed the battle. Afterward, he seemed to burn out his last bit of strength and intermittently said, "The related military situations will now be handled by Shen... Ji Ping, he will be temporarily in charge in my stead, do not let words get out..."
He Rong Hui almost cried.
Gu Yun's ear was buzzing. For a moment, he could not hear anything clearly. Naturally, he could not perceive the sorrowful sound coming from others. He only murmured, "Block the news… what happened today, if anyone dares to reveal a... a single word, will be punished by military law... Go to the wounded soldier's center and invite Miss Chen to come... urgh..."
As Gu Yun said this, there was a sharp pain in his chest — the old wounds obviously had not yet had time to heal, but there were already new ones. At present, a burst of blackening occurred in his vision, but his mouth was still not idle: "Wait, wait! Tell the messenger to make certain that the carriage of Yan Wang has left before inviting Miss Chen. First, don't tell her what had happened here, invite her in secret, and be sure to..."
He could no longer go on talking, the hand that was gripping He Rong Hui fell down powerlessly for a moment. He Rong Hui was scared half to death. He shakily extended his hand to check for his breathing, feeling that although it was weak, for better or worse, it somehow still remained. Only then did He Rong Hui gasp for breath. He stooped and held Gu Yun who had fainted.
Shen Yi exchanged a look with the red-eyed He Rong Hui from afar, he then whistled and roared angrily, "Behead the king of Ku Cha, all brothers, follow me to eliminate the rebels!"
The coalition forces in the Western Regions knew that they could not match the Black Iron Camp. On their hasty retreat, they put together a menacing plan and arranged a suicide soldier well-versed in disguise from the Western Regions to assassinate him. At this time, as they heard the explosion, assuming that they had succeeded, they were planning to take down the Silk Road intersection with one move. Unexpectedly, even before reaching the Silk Road, they were already confronted with the entire Black Iron Camp coming out of their hive.
The explosion seemed to have completely angered the black steel god of war that was countless in number. The commander-in-chief of Ku Cha thought that they could welcome their king's return by pushing back the Black Iron Camp. Unexpectedly, at that moment when he looked up, he could see the king's head hanging high on the flagpole, waving along with the flag resembling a knotted mocking tassel. The commander of Ku Cha let out an 'ah' and fell directly off his horse.
The leading general of the Black Iron Camp had an iron mask over his face. One could not tell who was under his heavy black iron armor. As if afraid that the enemy could not see what was hanging on the flag, the general waved his hand in the fierce wind. A Light Cavalry turned the Wind Slasher into a flower, cutting a rope on the flagpole. The king of Ku Cha fell to the ground. The commander rolled over, holding the king's head, staring wide-eyed at the bald head for a moment. Finally, he could not help but let out a cry before the two armies.
This voice seemed to serve as the horn of Black Iron Camp. In the next moment, Heavy Armors moved as a whole. The commander, dressed in Light Armor, sitting on the horse's back, raised the Wind Slasher in his hand, slashing down suddenly. Only then did the silent twenty thousand black crows start advancing, the sounds of shouting and killing were suppressed under their rumbling footsteps.
The officers and soldiers in the Western Regions were terrified. Apart from Gu Yun, which other general in the Black Iron Camp could dare to arbitrarily kill the king of Ku Cha directly?
Did Gu Yun not die?
Looking at this situation, not only did they fail to bomb Gu Yun to death, they had instead angered the Black Iron Camp.
This night, the sea of sand was dyed in blood. Black Heavy Armors confronted the Western Regions chariots, forcing the enemy to retreat twenty miles away from the ancient Silk Road. The Western Regions allied forces failed to fight back and were scattered once again. The Black Iron Camp pursued them viciously all the way to the territory of the Western Regions, slaughtered nearly 10,000 enemies, eliminating all of Ku Cha's nobility.
Chen Qing Xu had only just sent Yan Wang's convoy bringing the news of victory back to the capital. Before she could get over the excitement and joy that brought her to tears, two Black Eagles flew directly to the Northwest wounded soldiers center: "Miss Chen, Marshal has invited you."
When Gu Yun woke up again, someone was forcing him to open his mouth to take medicine.
Gu Yun gasped for breath and felt a sharp burning pain in his heart and lungs, his tears were almost about to come out. He still had not fully regained consciousness, thinking vaguely, Is death going to come soon?
As soon as the idea came out, Gu Yun gritted his teeth.
No, he thought, Jia Lai is still alive, Jiangnan is still under siege, I cannot die.
This drive was like a dose of chicken blood, directly pumped into his heart. Gu Yun was startled, waking up.
Shen Yi, who was feeding him medicine, could not pry his mouth open even after trying to the point of breaking out in a cold sweat. Suddenly, he could feel Gu Yun's jaw become more relaxed, able to swallow it himself. Overjoyed, he continuously shouted, "Zi Xi! Zi Xi, open your eyes and look at me."
Chen Qing Xu hurriedly said, "It is alright as long as he regains consciousness and is able to drink the medicine. General Shen, don't shiver, you will choke him. Leave it to me!"
Gu Yun did not die in the hands of the Western Regions suicide bomber, who would have thought he would fall into a life and death situation due to a bowl of medicine from that Shen. Somewhere, he still had a little strength saved, he struggled to push that source of danger away. As soon as he moved, the whole Marshal's tent boiled up. A group of large and crude men cried out, hurriedly running over to try and help.
Chen Qing Xu could not bear it any longer: "Enough! Everyone, get out!"
Gu Yun could keenly sense a peculiar fragrance of a woman. He knew that Chen Qing Xu had come. Turning his head slightly, he avoided the medicine bowl that was delivered to his mouth, trying to open his eyes with great effort.
Chen Qing Xu knew what he was worried about. She quickly wrote in his palm word by word, "Yan Wang has returned to the capital. He does not know."
Gu Yun's pale lips curved up slightly. It seemed to be a smile; he drank the medicine reluctantly. His spirit was dispersed again.
Gu Yun's organs were injured, combined with the recurrence of old wounds. He repeatedly broke into a fever throughout the night. The four words of 'death with everlasting regret' supported him like a large rock. The next day, he was able to climb up under the amazement of others. Drinking medicine like water, he summoned all the generals under him and listened to every war report.
When the meeting was over, Chen Qing Xu brought a bowl of medicine to him. Gu Yun drank it. He wondered if it was due to the strong collision on his head, or the explosion had hurt his ears, but those ears of his that always relied on medicine to function did not stop ringing.
Putting down the empty bowl, Gu Yun asked in the first sentence, "When did Yan Wang leave?"
Chen Qing Xu saved words as if they were gold: "Early in the third day of the new year."
Gu Yun breathed a sigh of relief — the Western Regions front was under his control. As long as Chang Geng had left, words of this matter would never reach the capital.
So far, he was at ease in both public and private matters, automatically counting the matter as a false alarm. He laughed at Chen Qing Xu and said: "I have been too eager lately and have not thought carefully, making myself to be a laughingstock."
But Chen Qing Xu did not laugh, she instead pulled over a chair and sat down, appearing to be ready to engage in a long conversation: "Marquis, I have a few words I must make clear to you."
Gu Yun was stunned.
Some doctors were quick-tempered — as soon as the patients did not cooperate even slightly, they would immediately be scolded. Other doctors were the sheep-raising type — anyone who sought them, they would be treated; if they were not willing to be treated, they would not be forced to, it was up to them if they wanted to die.
Chen Qing Xu undoubtedly belonged to the latter. No matter if Gu Yun wore the steel plate to go on the front line, or repeatedly increased the dosage of drugs willfully, she had not said anything, she had rarely ever shown such a grave look.
Gu Yun: "Miss Chen, please."
Chen Qing Xu: "There is no place in a body that is acting alone, the eyes and ears are connected with the organs. The aftermath of the Marquis' poison since childhood has continued to this day. But in this campaign, you have been injured continuously, affecting the lungs, and five of your internal organs were in a state of unrest — since the chaos in the Western Regions has been suppressed, in my opinion, it would be better for Marshal to take the opportunity of escorting prisoners of war to return to the capital to rest one or two days, otherwise..."
Gu Yun: "Otherwise, one day, even panacea or elixir, nothing will be able to cure me anymore, is that right?"
Chen Qing Xu's face did not show any changes. She nodded and said, "The Marquis' own body, you certainly must understand it best."
Gu Yun replied with an 'Mm'. For a long time, he did not say a word.
When people were in their twenties and thirties, it was very difficult to feel the sense of 'old' and 'sick' brought about by the passage of time. Occasionally, there would be days where they'd feel uncomfortable, but they did not think of it in a serious direction either, there was no real sensation. Such lines as 'wish you well' and 'take good care' coming from others mostly resembled wind passing by one's ears. There were too many things lined up before this rotten body: fame and wealth, loyalty and righteousness, family and duty... even romance, love and hatred.
Gu Yun was not an exception either.
Until this moment.
He always thought his final destination was to bury his bones in the frontier, dying for this nation. He regarded himself as a handful of fireworks — after blowing up, it could be said that he had preserved the renowned name of the Gu family with its every loyal member.
But a Chang Geng suddenly emerged out of nowhere, pushing his established trajectory away from its original direction. He could not help himself from having delusions, wishing for more — for example, after his duty for the nation came to its end, there would still be a few years left where he was not sick, not hurt, to save them for Chang Geng.
If he died early and Chang Geng carried the evil curse of the barbarian woman alone, what would he do in the future? If one day the Bone of Impurity broke out, if he really did … who would look after him? Who would care for him?
Chen Qing Xu was not good with talking, she was afraid that her clumsy speech would not be able to persuade Gu Yun. Unexpectedly, Gu Yun had not waited for her to draft her thoughts inside, he suddenly said, "I know, thank you, there are more things that I will need to trouble Miss Chen for in the future. Now under this situation, resting may not be possible, but as long as I do not need to enter the palace and there is no emergency military situation, I will minimize using that medicine as much as I can, alright?"
Chen Qing Xu was stunned, she suddenly found that Gu Yun seemed to have changed.
Three generations of Black Iron Camp were handed down to Gu Yun, as solid as metal. A single sentence from him became the order of prohibitions with absolute authority. With Gu Yun blocking the news, the capital only received the news of the grand victory at the Western Regions.
Master Feng Han was crying as he listened in the court. The entire country was boiling up. Even as Gu Yun later wrote a letter asking for forgiveness, saying that he had arbitrarily beheaded the king of Ku Cha, this only seemed like a trivial matter. Either Way, Gu Yun's tough means on the battlefield were not something that happened within a day or two. Even Li Feng felt that this was very similar to something he would do.
Only Chang Geng frowned at the report sent to the Grand Council —— although he could not explain why, he had a feeling there was something else hidden in this.
Unfortunately, before waiting for him to think about it, the Black Eagle envoy sent another letter: "Your Highness, this is the home letter from the Marquis to you."
The last time Gu Yun wrote home to him, it was within the two years that the man had just left for the Silk Road. There were two letters in total, one of which was written by Shen Yi in his stead.
Chang Geng maintained a first-class martial skill of self-restraint, received the letter, and gave thanks calmly, courteous words both sincere and caring came out of his lips. The Black Eagle envoy who had not seen much of the world was tearful, wishing he could bow deep and make an oath to repay the home country; he was sent away in a dizzying state.
When the envoy left, Chang Geng immediately dismissed the young eunuchs who were accompanying him on both sides. He could not wait to open it. He was handy by nature; his opening motion was also of utmost care. The envelope was not torn at all, it could even be reused.
As soon as it was opened, a small dried apricot blossom fell out.
It was as if Gu Yun had been possessed by Shen Yi, talking of every matter big and small. He naturally had a sharp tongue, describing the cowardly behavior of the Western Regions coalition army without sparing any details, the scene of the enemy wetting themselves seemed as if it had appeared in front of him. If there were still people left in the Grand Council, they would be frightened — who had ever witnessed Yan Wang laughing so happily behind the desk with papers and reports piling up like mountains?
At the end, Gu Yun wrote again: There are several apricot trees at the crossing, harmed by the flames of war. The trunk of the tree is burnt, even most of the insects and ants could not survive. I assumed they had died. But one day as I came back to camp from patrol, I saw these dead trees had met spring, a flower bud was rising from the ash, blooming overnight. It is both pitiable and endearing. The army is filled with those that do not know how to appreciate beauty. Talk of admiring flowers would only resemble playing music for an ox's ears, hence I have acted first and plucked a branch to play with you...
In the Kai handwriting that was passed down for generations, there was a sentence, Chang Geng could vaguely recognize that it said: "wishing I could cut several branches of plum blossoms in the Marquis' Manor myself in the early spring of next year", but later perhaps he thought it would be unlucky to discuss the future, he then painted over them and signed his name.
He did not know whether it was intentional or coincidental, there was a faint imprint left behind by the apricot branch, cutting across the word 'Gu'. One could sense the fragrance by looking at the letter pressing atop the flower mark, the unmatched elegance was indescribable.
Chang Geng was composed on the outside, but his heart was going crazy.
Whether these young masters of noble families appeared crude, mindless, or careless, there was not a single one who did not know of these little teasing tricks, they all had a few up their sleeves.
Chang Geng could not help recalling the space between elegance and improper when Gu Yun had had too much that time. Instead of being jealous about the romance and affairs that might or might not have happened, he felt that Gu Yun was very adorable this way.
Chang Geng sipped a cup of cooled tea and read the home letter three or four times over from beginning to end, wishing that he could imprint each and every word in his mind, so that even with his eyes closed, he could recreate an identical one. Only then did he put the letter and the dried flowers in his pouch, keeping them close to him.
He then wrote the words 'noble family' on one side of the paper and closed his eyes slightly.
The word 'Yan Wang' coming out of the lips was the representation of royalty. At the moment of national crisis, the interests between the noble family and royalty were the same. As long as he did not act out of place, there would be absolutely no one who would be blind enough to jump out and hinder him. Many well-off noble families with plenty of money to spare even expressed great support for the Feng Huo ticket. This time, more or less, a bit of their wealth had been given out...
But what would be the next step?
Once the border crossing started engaging in wars, it would devour an enormous amount of military expenses. The endless stream of refugees was still crossing the river to come. People in Great Liang were panic-stricken and no longer had the heart to do business. The amount of gold and silver gathered in emergency by the Feng Huo tickets would soon come to an end. The court could never live on borrowed money.
Reforming the farmland system, tax system, civil and commercial system was imminent. Wherever one touched, it would have to affect the bones and muscles.
At that time, all the noble families of the court would become his enemies.
Chang Geng's warm expression from just now that was still carrying a hint of a smile had turned cold, he flicked the wolf hair brush and struck a cross on the word 'noble family'.
Under the lamp, the young prince appeared very handsome, yet incredibly cold.
Master Feng Han or Ge Pang Xiao or Miss Chen... and even Gu Yun, they all seemed to think that the person who carried the girder could gently drop it after the building was completed and just go away with a sweep of their robes.
But how was that possible?
The word 'power' had always been a dead end in times of danger, no two opposing parties could coexist.
A few days later, the news of the Western Region countries seeking truce came to the capital. After the Grand Council reported to Emperor Long An, discussing urgently for a day, they replied to the Marquis of Order. There were two things that needed to be ensured: first, let the traitors have no power to turn over in the next three to five years, to avoid inner conflict when dealing with the foreigners; second, demand Ziliujin, the more, the better. The danger of the Treasury was relieved temporarily, but the predicament of Ziliujin in Great Liang had not yet been released. All four fronts were encircled, the reason why they chose to act from the West first was because the Black Iron Camp was stationed there, on the other hand, it was because they hoped to solve the Ziliujin problem at the fastest speed.
Other major and minor matters were to be decided by the Marquis as he saw fit.
Yan Wang then entered the Palace to make a brief report on the war and the achievements of the Feng Huo ticket.
Li Feng calculated with his fingers and was almost shocked by how effective the tickets were, he couldn't help asking, “How come there are so many?"
"It is not surprising either. There are countless people in the court who are eager to give all their wealth. There is no reason for self-preservation at a critical moment. For better or worse, they had provided some of their strength." Chang Geng first casually flattered him in no hurry and said, "As for the people, there is a saying that 'merchants purchase leather in summer, silk in winter, boats in a drought and carriage in a flood, waiting for the day where they could sell them for a profit'. People who can become a giant are not small businessmen who only chase small profits in front of their eyes."
Li Feng quietly pondered for a moment and asked, "According to you, what are they seeking from me?"
Chang Geng said without hesitation: "Businessmen are rich in wealth, but they also need to come and go in the wind and rain. To some extent, they are no better than the peasants who need to assess God's face to make a living. Sometimes a court decree can make their property collapse, or when meeting with bandits on their business trips, their lives and the lives of their families will not be guaranteed. Now the country is in trouble, the giants from the trading group came forward with Du Wan Quan, the richest man in Jiangnan as their head. On one hand, it is to serve the country, on the other hand, is it not to look for a place of support from Royal Brother?”
Li Feng had listened to many flatteries and was not so easily moved. He gazed at Yan Wang’s hidden meaning with a faint look.
Chang Geng did not let out the bait for too long either, he took advantage of the opportunity to press on: "At the moment, money is needed, the court also plans to issue a second batch of Feng Huo tickets. My Royal Brother, you see... should we give these head merchants a little appropriate profit in order to encourage more people to donate their money?”
Li Feng remained silent and looked at Chang Geng with an unusual expression.
Sometimes, such things as 'sincerity' were only effective in a certain amount of time and would expire without waiting. For example, when the capital city was besieged, Emperor Long An was full of grief, anger, and guilt. He wished he could crash into the mausoleum of his predecessor, and his decision to pass the throne to Chang Geng was sincere.
But perhaps right now, as the situation was stabilizing, his point of view about Chang Geng that was slowly deflecting with each day was also very sincere.
Yan Wang Li Min was only in his early twenties. If he were to be placed in an ordinary family, he would still be a young man who had just begun to learn how to carry household matters. But in a short period of only six months, he had single-handedly eased the danger of Great Liang. At this time, as he was standing in the pavilion quietly, with extraordinary talents, maturity, and stability, it truly made one feel… indescribably envious.
Imagine a supreme ruler, who just a few years after their accession to the throne, was met with two rebellions, causing irritation to pile up, creating a strange story of the 'The Northern Camp Rebellion', becoming a laughing stock for the world, finally, the mountains and rivers were infected by the iron hooves of foreign countries, civilians being displaced everywhere... and all of this, after going through the lowest point, had begun to improve slowly after Yan Wang entered the palace and took control of the Grand Council — what would Li Feng feel inside?
How should historians evaluate this period of history after a hundred years?
Li Feng truly did not want to know at all.
Most importantly, Li Min — his fourth brother, was still so young.
Li Feng's heart was full of gloom, his attitude had also grown cold with him. He said lightly, "There is no place that is not part of the kingdom, they are the children of Great Liang, serving the country and the people. Even if it were to ruin their property, is it not a part of their duty? What other profit would they hope to seek from me? Would that not be the same as buying and selling positions? Where would dignity be!”
Chang Geng was very good at observing words and expressions, meeting Li Feng's eyes lightly. He immediately understood where the Emperor's unprovoked indifference came from. Although he was sneering in his heart, his face was shocked and puzzled with no hint of pretense: "Royal..."
Li Feng interrupted him impatiently: "All right! How to reward the understanding righteous folk businessmen, return to the Ministry of Housing and the Ministry of Rites to work out a proper measure, only within the limit, we cannot award and spoil them too much.”
Chang Geng put on a ‘depressed’ face for a while before reluctantly saying "Yes".
Li Feng looked at him and suddenly, seemed to have unintentionally or intentionally said, "The Ministry of Administration Wei Shu is already of old age. As it happened to rain last night, when he got up early and rushed to court, without paying attention, he had fallen and broke his leg in his home. He was already being seen by the doctor, it seemed to not be very good. His family had brought forth the retirement request to me ... in this way, the Minister of Administration will have to be vacant. You are in charge of the Grand Council, A Min, do you have someone to recommend?”
This sentence was a not so clever test, but not clever did not mean ineffective.
For a doubtful person like Li Feng, whether Chang Geng pushed his boat along the river flow, to recommend someone on his side to the position, or if he answered too carefully, both were not what Li Feng hoped to see. The former showed that he was too ambitious, and the latter showed that he was too preoccupied with calculations.
Chang Geng was stunned at first then instinctively blurted out, "What? Something happened to Master Wei?”
He appeared as if he truly was unaware of this matter.
After blurting out this sentence, Chang Geng seemed to have 'just returned to his senses’ and found himself answering the wrong questions. He frowned and pondered for a long time and sighed anxiously to Emperor Long An: "This... Royal Brother forgive me, Your Subject has been running around for bits of gold and silver these days, I truly had no time to pay attention to anything else. I may not have read the request of the minister yet. This... the position of a minister is very important; Your Subject momentarily cannot think of any candidate…”
Li Feng suspected that he intended to stall: "It's alright, go on."
Chang Geng stretched out his hand and pressed his furrowed brows. He paused and answered, "In this way, isn't it better for Royal Brother to publicly appraise in the court, seeking a talented individual?"
Li Feng: "..."
The answer was really unexpected. Li Feng was frightened by Yan Wang's unusual means of doing things and was almost led by him. He blurted out, "How should the evaluation be?"
"For example, the official's resume, his achievements, his merits over the years and so on are all recorded," Chang Geng paused, changing his voice. "It can also be added whether this person has the criteria of responsibility and righteousness, such as whether they had purchased the Feng Huo ticket or not. Speaking of this, Your Subject is suddenly reminded of one thing: in the future, in order for the tickets to work smoothly, would Royal Brother include how many tickets one possessed in the evaluation criteria? This does not count as buying and selling positions, does it?”
Li Feng: "..."
Speaking for half a day, he was led back here again by this kid. Li Feng felt that if he prized off the beautiful head of Yan Wang at this time, the brain inside must have formed into the shape of a gold ingot.
Emperor Long An did not know whether to cry or laugh: "You... such outrageous words!"
Chang Geng could not afford to press on this time, he lowered his voice to apologize, his face dyed with a hint of sorrow unable to be concealed.
After a few sentences of conversation that did not quite meet, Li Feng's gloomy doubts in his heart were already scattered for the most part, and it seemed that Yan Wang's aim truly was not in the Minister of Administration.
Either way, Li Feng thought, It could be said that he has done his best.
Just as this thought came out, his attitude also eased up, he waved to Chang Geng and said, "Alright, you go back first to rest, let me think about it again."
Chang Geng answered, paid his courtesy, and retreated, knowing in his heart that he had overcome this test.
However, just as he was about to exit the pavilion, Li Feng suddenly stopped him.
"Wait a minute, A Min, there's one more thing," Li Feng said with a gentle expression, speaking in the tone of discussing family matters: "Now you're no longer little, it is not good to be alone all the time. After all, it is time to start a family.”
Chang Geng’s heart jumped.
Li Feng said pleasantly, "The eldest granddaughter of Grand Scholar Fang is seventeen years old. She is waiting to be wed. I heard that this lady has long had a good name. She is a girl of a scholarly family, she must be well-educated, her origin would not be a disgrace to you either, it could be said that you both will make a good couple. Your elder sister-in-law heard about this, she would love to help you more or less take care of this matter. I took it upon myself to ask you this question. If you like it, Royal Brother will initiate for you, how about it?”
This marriage was not only good, but very good — although Fang Hong was a scholar who had been in office for many years, most of the important members of the court still wished to worship him as a teacher. He had three sons in total, each of whom had good foundations, one of them had just taken up the position of the Minister of Housing. Since the years of Yuan He, the noble families had somewhat considered the Fang family to be their lead.
Yet Chang Geng's expression turned unsightly in an instant.
Li Feng raised his eyebrows, asking: "What's the matter?"
Chang Geng lifted his robes and knelt down. His face was tense, but he said nothing.
Li Feng asked in surprise: “What are you doing?”
Chang Geng continued to kneel in silence.
No matter how friendly and caring Li Feng could be, he was also the Emperor. When he saw him like this, his face had also changed for the worse. "If there is any dislike about their lady, you can say it, you are Yan Wang, who would be able to force you to get married? Who are you displaying such an expression for?”
“Your Subject does not want to," Chang Geng performed a grand courtesy, his voice also became different: "Elder sister-in-law is like a mother, Her Highness, the empress's care is wasted on me. My Royal Brother should punish me."
Li Feng frowned and said, "What is the reason? Did you hear that there is something not good about that lady, or do you have another person in your heart? There are no outsiders here, don't shy away from anyone, you can say it."
Chang Geng's eyes swept around the pavilion, stubbornly refusing to squeak, his eyes were slightly red.
Of course, Li Feng was not trying to find a good marriage for Chang Geng, he would never want to watch the Fang and Yan Wang become a family. Mentioning this matter with ingenuity, in truth, it was because he was not finished with his test, but he did not expect to arouse such a fierce emotion from Yan Wang either. At the moment, he had also become quite curious. He signaled for the servants inside to withdraw to the outside and await further command.
There were only the two brothers left in the pavilion. Li Feng said, "Can you speak now?"
Chang Geng offered him a deep bow, but without saying a word, he slowly opened the collar of his court attire.
Li Feng was surprised, standing up abruptly: “This..."
The young Yan Wang's chest was covered with old scars. The most striking and frightening one was a burn wound, placed very close to his throat, it was quite thin, seeming to have been created by being whipped with a hot fire stick.
“Royal Brother, please forgive my impoliteness." Chang Geng whispered; his voice carried a tremor that was difficult to detect.
As the shock passed, Li Feng immediately came to a realization. After a moment of being puzzled, he softened his voice and asked: "Was it... the barbarian woman that time?"
Chang Geng’s complexion was pale, he slowly pulled his clothes together again.
The fingers that had drawn the bow and shot an arrow through the head of the Dong Ying spy trembled violently. He lowered his eyes and whispered, "Although it is the behavior of a coward to disdain the world for one person's fault, but…”
He gritted his teeth, his voice breaking involuntarily, bowing to the ground: "Fang family’s lady is gracious and prestigious, deserving of someone who could be a life-long support. Your brother has a strange temperament, I truly do not like to be close to another. The matter of marriage… Royal Brother, please never mention it again."
Li Feng said in astonishment, "What are you saying? You are a prince, how could there be such a thing as never getting married in your whole life?"
Chang Geng said expressionlessly, "Then Your Majesty might as well take back my royal status and let me wander the pugilist world with the monks?”
Li Feng: "..."
Although Yan Wang appeared bright, big-hearted, knowledgeable, and reasonable, in truth, he had a big petty temper. Moreover, when throwing a fit, he did not cook up a storm either, he had but one sentence: "I am abandoning my duty, find whoever else as you please.”
Li Feng was powerless with him, instantly growing furious and ordering Yan Wang to get out. Yan Wang did not say more either, obediently getting away at once.
A keen servant slowly ran up to him and asked, "Your Highness, do you want to go back to the Grand Council?"
Yan Wang did not necessarily go home for ten days to half a month. He almost lived in the Grand Council.
Chang Geng stopped for a moment, his focus scattered, seemingly standing in a daze in one place. The servant did not dare to disturb him, staying on one side silently.
"... No," Chang Geng whispered. "Go home.”
The old scars on Chang Geng's body, even Gu Yun had never seen them, he thought it would be a period of time that could not be touched. Unexpectedly today, it had turned out to be a tool for him to stall with Li Feng.
The carriage rumbled across the broad and all-rounded bluestone road of the capital. Chang Geng, who closed his eyes to rest, suddenly opened them.
One day, these things would come to a point of being irremediable.
Someday he would use any means, even more than he did now.
But he always felt his heart was not uncomfortable, because each step he took was his own decision, he had long thought about it carefully, there was no regret.
All the way back to the cold and quiet Marquis' Manor, he did not disturb anyone, nor did he eat anything, going directly to Gu Yun's incomparably clean and simple bedroom to lie down, closing his eyes. It was as if the light medicinal fragrance was still lingering on the blanket.
More than half a month later, after numerous wrangling arguments in the court, Emperor Long An finally rejected Yan Wang’s absurd proposal that the first people who bought the Feng Huo tickets should have official positions and ranks according to the amount of money they spent.
He only promised to the trading group that once the situation was stable in the future, they would open commercial roads escorted by the military to protect them from thieves and bandits. At this time, the people who bought the Feng Huo tickets could obtain the right to join. No fee was required to qualify for membership.
And more than a month later, a law shocking the government and the countryside came into effect from top to bottom — the Feng Huo ticket was declared an important indicator for the examination of officials.
The blade of a knife, which no one could see at this time, slowly formed into shape.
As soon as this decree came out, the whole world was shocked. The Great Liang court did not treat officials unfairly, salaries were not low. However, the human relations and expenses in the official circles were also high. Especially under Yuan He regency, the national power had been unprecedentedly strong under the iron blood of Emperor Wu, and the extravagant display had somewhat become a trend. At this time, officials were encouraged to buy Feng Huo tickets to reinforce their future.
Would this not be the same as encouraging corruption and fraud?
It had only been a few days, the frontier had caught wind of this.
"Zi Xi!" Shen Yi threw the reins into a personal guard’s hands and charged into the handsome tent. He was about to speak, but as he saw Gu Yun had a platinum glass mirror on his nose, he knew that he had not taken any medicine, so he swallowed the following words back.
Regarding Gu Yun recently, he did not know what had happened. As long as there was no need to see outsiders, he would take the medicine less and less, as if he intended to be a blind and deaf man with a peaceful state of mind.
Shen Yi raised his hand.
Gu Yun instantly said, "No need, you can say it, I also need to practice lip reading."
Shen Yi sighed: "... Have you heard about the reform of official administration?”
Gu Yun did know lip reading, but these years, he had been relying on drugs, people around him were also considerate of him and used sign language instead, thus he was not so familiar and had to slowly get accustomed to it. It took a while for him to understand what Shen Yi meant, Gu Yun's eyebrows slowly wrinkled up, he slowly nodded.
"What is the matter with His Highness Yan Wang? Is he not afraid people will say he is a corrupted official? Even if we can solve the urgent problem for a while, what will we do in the future? Well-known families with money to spare is one thing, will the disciples and students in the country not want to pierce his backbone? You see, he was in charge of the Grand Council alone, already being a large tree easily catching the wind of jealousy, I really...”
Shen Yi's words were full of worries, as soon as he was worried, his mouth was as fast as a chicken pecking rice, causing Gu Yun to be dizzy looking at him. He was not able to ‘listen’ to more than half of the words, but he understood the last sentence.
Shen Yi: “How is he going to end this in the future?”
Gu Yun was silent.
Shen Yi: "Zi Xi, say something."
"No more fighting." Gu Yun made a completely off-base answer.
Shen Yi: "..."
He sighed heavily and suspected that Gu Yun had not ‘heard’ what he had said at all. He thought to himself, Practice lip language my ass, more like training my lip muscles.
As Shen Yi was planning to change communication methods, Gu Yun spoke up: "I was a little too impatient and rushed in before, served me right being exploded by them. Fortunately, there is no real danger here, I have been thinking a lot these days... Jia Lai is not a bunch of scraps like those on the West side. I'm afraid there will be several fierce battles on that side. But as we are right now, we do not have enough money to serve as an inspiration — we need to make a more thorough discussion.”
Shen Yi was stunned: "You are planning to..."
"Our side has dragged the court spinning around," Gu Yun whispered. "It is time to rest and recuperate."