Fang Qin was fully prepared and had no intention of letting the Yan King regain power. When they nodded at each other during the grand court assembly, Fang Qin could sense that the Yan King had no intention of letting him off either.

During the Yan King’s absence, the conflict between the rising officials and the aristocratic families in the court had become more intense. These two factions, on one hand, considered themselves noble and superior, and on the other hand, were gaining momentum. They fundamentally opposed each other. At times, the rift between the scholars, farmers, artisans, and merchants was no less significant than the gap between the eighteen tribes and the Liang people.

For generations, the aristocratic families had amassed substantial wealth, with each surname owning vast estates and lands. Since the decline in grain prices during the Yuanhe period, the major aristocratic families had secretly engaged in commercial activities for profits. What was once done discreetly before the Wu Emperor had now become an established practice. On one hand, this trend inadvertently allowed previously marginalized merchants to rise in social status, while on the other hand, it continued to harm the small-scale merchants.

In Great Liang, since the reign of the Taizu Emperor, there were laws prohibiting officials, nobles, and aristocrats from competing with the common people for profits. This was because once merchants became associated with the “official” status, they were no longer considered pure merchants. Even if they didn’t actively exploit others, there would always be unscrupulous individuals taking advantage of their position.

The animosity between the old aristocratic families and the rising officials had existed for a long time and was not a recent development.

Now, with the rise of the new officials, it was like a salted fish turning over. Whether it was the east wind overpowering the west wind or vice versa, the old aristocratic families naturally sought to suppress the new officials. The accumulation of new grievances and old resentments, combined with the turmoil in the country, allowed them to put aside their differences and unite. At this time, the barbarians bowed their heads, and there was some relief in the south, as the urgency of the war subsided. Suddenly, the grievances erupted like labor pains.

When the Yan King returned to the court, there was no buffer time. He was met with a heated argument at the grand court assembly.

The dispute escalated from whether or not to abolish the system of military fire tickets, to criticizing the flaws of the new governance, and finally, it even extended to the management of the canal. It went from debating royal authority to popular rights, from the regulations of commerce to ancestral family laws. Ultimately, the conflict even extended to the military, starting with the expenses of the garrison troops in the border areas and escalating to whether the war in Jiangnan should continue. Fang Qin’s faction had seized the fundamental issue. If it weren’t for the huge expenses incurred by the war in recent years and the constant cries of the empty treasury, the Yan King would not have had the opportunity to focus solely on money and make the court so chaotic.

Some representatives of the aristocratic families stepped forward to provoke: “Your Majesty, with the surrender of the eighteen tribes, we will soon have an abundance of Purple Flowing Gold. The national vitality has slowly begun to recover. Within three to five years, it is not suitable to wage war again. I believe the terms proposed by the Westerners in recent days show sincerity. They will withdraw from the Yangtze River, relinquish the occupied land, and only establish Western ports along the coast. They will disperse their troops in several designated ports along the coast, which will not only bring peace to the people but also serve as a transit point for our maritime trade. Why not consider this option? General Gu criticizes everything without distinction and keeps adding conditions. It seems a bit unreasonable.”

Naturally, the faction supporting the Yan King responded: “Why should we give our fertile land along the eastern coast to a group of Western monkeys? Can’t we establish our own ports? Don’t we have merchant ships and caravans of our own? The land passed down by our ancestors, with just a word from Your Majesty, is given to Westerners. There is no one in the entire court as generous as you!”

Fang Qin personally intervened, diverting the sharp focus of the discussion away from accusations of treason. He calmly said, “The Westerners have come from afar, and most of their military supplies need to be provided from thousands of miles away. The soldiers they bring are tired troops who have left their homes. In my opinion, there is no need to treat them as a major threat. What can be achieved through pretense and negotiations? Within ten or twenty years, they will find it difficult to sustain themselves. General Gu has devoted himself wholeheartedly for the prosperity of Great Liang, and these years have been a continuous cycle of injuries and illnesses. Even if it pains me to see the hundreds of thousands of soldiers on the frontlines, it is time to stop the war and recuperate. This matter can be discussed later. I wonder, Your Highness, what are your thoughts on the military fire tickets… and their regulations?” At this point, the Yan King was directly brought into the discussion. He looked up and glanced at Fang Qin, saying, “I don’t think we need to discuss it later, do we? The military fire tickets are associated with ‘military fire,’ and they are fundamentally connected to war. Since you gentlemen want to appease the enemy by offering concessions, there is indeed no reason to issue the third batch of military fire tickets. The court has already pledged five years of tax revenue as a guarantee, and we can surely manage to scrape together a meager sum to settle the debt. It’s enough.”

Shaking his head, Fang Qin smiled and said, “Your Majesty, that remark is simply a gesture of defiance. How can stopping the war be considered appeasement? The Westerners are already in retreat, which is tantamount to their surrender. Once they reach the sea, they are nothing more than a group of rootless drifters. They pose no significant threat to us.”

Long Geng also smiled and said calmly, “Mr. Fang’s understanding of the world affairs without stepping out of his house is truly admirable. To know that the Westerners have become rootless drifters from thousands of miles away requires great foresight. We, ordinary people, can only hope to have such vision.”

Seeing the two individuals exchanging sharp and sarcastic remarks as they wished each other a Happy New Year, Li Feng had to step in and say, “Military matters are determined by those in the military. We summoned you here to discuss the urgent matter of the military fire tickets. Why are you arguing about the battles in the Two Rivers region? It has been such a long time, and you still can’t settle the accounts. It’s needless worry. Amin, say a few words less too.”

The Minister of Revenue timely followed the emperor’s words and spoke, “Your Highness, the Yan King has just returned from the north, and perhaps he hasn’t fully understood the reasons for the obstruction of the third batch of military fire tickets. As you know, although the salaries of the civil and military officials of our dynasty are considered generous compared to the previous dynasty, it is still only enough to maintain a bit of face for their families. They cannot become excessively wealthy… At this difficult time for the country, they are truly unable to assist. Since the subscription of the military fire tickets was included in the evaluation of officials’ performance, how many people have been ruined? At present, there is simply no money to be obtained. Your Highness, you have a close personal relationship with the prominent merchants and businessmen like Du Wanquan. Would it be possible for you to approach them again and seek their assistance?”

Long Geng refused to fall into this trap with a hidden agenda and replied calmly, “On my way back to the capital, I have already visited Duke Du and others. Now that factories are being established across the country, as responsible merchants, sometimes we have no choice but to provide for the refugees, resulting in significant expenses. Currently, a large portion of our wealth is tied up in the management of the canal. Even if we have the intention to sacrifice our families to relieve difficulties, does it mean we should abandon the many refugees who have been painstakingly resettled? I don’t hide it from you, but Duke Du told me that he truly has no money left.”

Fang Qin couldn’t let him off easily and asked, “Didn’t Your Highness leave a way out when you actively promoted the military fire tickets? "

Long Geng coolly glanced at him and said, “Mr. Fang, I made it clear at the time. We borrowed money first, and when it is due in two years, the treasury will have recovered and we can repay it. If we can’t free up funds for now, we can try to resolve the urgent situation with the third batch of military fire tickets. When the funds flowed into and out of the Ministry of Revenue, Mr. Fang was already in charge of the ministry and did not object. Now you come to question me. I actually wanted to ask Mr. Fang, where has the money that has flowed through the ministry in the past two years gone? Why is there such a significant discrepancy?”

Finally, Fang Qin couldn’t contain his anger any longer and retorted, “The account books are all there. If Your Highness has doubts about me, you can investigate!”

Long Geng replied with a sly smile, “That’s true. The esteemed officials of the Ministry of Revenue surely cannot even balance a mere account book. Then I suppose, Mr. Fang, you must have been confused at the time and made a mistake, right?”

Li Feng intervened, saying, “That’s enough!”

Fang Qin quickly apologized, while Long Geng nodded slightly and stood quietly to the side. Most of the time during the grand assembly, he remained silent, letting others speak. It was rare for him to confront someone like this. Fang Qin couldn’t help but glance at him and felt that something was amiss.

The Yan King must have been prepared for the awkward situation with the military fire tickets. Why would he rather argue with the emperor than openly discuss it? What was he setting up?

The grand assembly adjourned without joy, and the Yan King was left behind. He walked silently with Li Feng, his leg injury having recovered but leaving a lingering weakness. Walking too quickly would make it seem a bit lame.

“Accompany me for a walk in the garden,” Li Feng said.

Coincidentally, the Crown Prince had just finished his studies and was playing in the garden with the Third Prince. When he saw his father and uncle, he respectfully ran over to greet them. The Crown Prince had grown a lot over the past year and now had the appearance of a young boy, while the Third Prince was only five years old and in the process of losing his baby teeth, causing his speech to sound a bit lisping.

Upon seeing the Crown Prince, Li Feng naturally had to assert his authority as a father. He first found fault with him out of thin air and then sternly questioned his studies.

At first, the Crown Prince responded properly, but as time went on, his gaze kept shifting toward his younger brother. Following his line of sight, Li Feng couldn’t help but burst into laughter.

The toothless Third Prince was not yet at the age where he would be subjected to his father’s questioning. He stood silently to the side, and later, he was called over by the Yan King. The Yan King sat down on the ground, haphazardly grabbed a few stalks of grass, and made a grasshopper and a mantis. The children in the palace had never seen such countryside creatures. The Third Prince’s eyes widened as he dumbfoundedly looked on. Before long, he had a grasshopper in his left hand and a mantis in his right hand, completely disregarding the fact that he was missing one of his front teeth.

Li Feng said with a disapproving tone, “Playing with toys leads to a loss of ambition. What nonsense.”

He glared at Long Geng, who had a smile on his face, and sent the two reluctant children away. From a distance, Li Feng saw the Third Prince tiptoeing to put a grasshopper into the Crown Prince’s hand, and the Crown Prince held his free hand, making the two older and younger brothers look like an ordinary family.

The Crown Prince had a gentle temperament, just like his grandfather.

Li Feng was rarely moved and when he turned to Long Geng, his expression softened quite a bit. He asked, “It has been so long. Do you still not want to start a family?”

Long Geng’s smile from earlier immediately faded away.

Li Feng saw that Long Geng didn’t like to bring up this topic, so he sighed and said, “Why don’t you let our eldest brother make a decision and have a child from our clan adopted by you? When you grow older, there should be someone to care for you and be filial to you.”

Long Geng paused, twisted his hand, and it seemed that there was still grass juice on his fingers. He glanced in the direction the Third Prince had left, his expression seeming somewhat moved. However, after a while, he still didn’t nod.

Long Geng said, “Thank you, Your Highness, but it’s unnecessary.”

“If a child follows you and inherits the title in the future, even if they don’t have remarkable achievements, they would at least be a marquis, with a promising future. There are plenty of people willing to offer that. You don’t need to worry about depriving others of their offspring and incurring negative karma.”

Long Geng suddenly bowed to the ground and said, “Your Majesty, I am willing to emulate Lord Shang and have no intention of burdening my descendants.”

Li Feng’s eye twitched slightly as he turned around and silently looked at him.

Long Geng bent over, refusing to stand up. He appeared young and vigorous, yet also desolate and bleak.

To emulate Lord Shang meant resorting to any means necessary for reform and renewal, being despised and vilified by the people, and eventually being torn apart in the marketplace… becoming the coal residue left behind by this era’s vigorous burning.

That day, all the palace attendants were kept at a distance, and no one knew what the Li brothers discussed in the garden. From noon until nightfall, the Yan King left the palace on his own.

Only a few bare patches of grass, which had been plucked to make the grass insects, remained, standing alone.

The next day, Jiang Chong received an order from the Yan King—not to let the Marquis of Anding return to the capital. The battle could be avoided, but he must stay in the Two Rivers region.

The heavy rain in the south was somewhat cruel. Just a few days ago, it was so hot that people couldn’t sleep, but suddenly a strong wind and rain changed the weather. The dampness seeped into people’s bones.

Mr. Ya wiped the mist from his face and quickly ascended the steps, climbing up the iron steps protruding from the grotesque shell of the Western sea monster. At the top, there was an old man with glaring white hair, his back facing him, hunched over something. His waist, bent like a scorched bamboo strip, was resting on it.

Mr. Ya cleared his throat lightly and said, “Your Majesty, why are you still not resting at this late hour?”

“When one grows old, sleep abandons them,” the Pope waved his hand and said, “Come here and take a look at this.”

At the top of the sea monster was the “Thousand-Mile Eye.” It was not a small gadget that could be clipped to the nose bridge. It was more than three feet long, made of copper, with concentric rings resembling bamboo joints on the outside. It was firmly fixed to the ground with a triangular frame. The copper tube had complex markings in concentric circles, all in Western script.

This was the real “Thousand-Mile Eye,” capable of seeing a thousand miles at a glance.

Through this long tube, they could see the vast territory of the Great Liang on the opposite bank, even though it was floating in the East Sea. The brightest and most concentrated lights were the watchtowers of the stationed troops. Behind them were the softer lights, the lights of many newly built factories working and keeping watch at night. It wasn’t bustling, but they were distributed everywhere, like scattered stars.

Mr. Ya asked curiously, “Your Majesty, what are you looking at? Is there any unusual movement from the enemy?”

“The enemy has always been on the move,” the Pope whispered, “Those people in the Holy Land first submitted to their own greed, then placed unrealistic hopes on negotiations, losing the initiative. They could only retreat, again and again. Now, the command ship has retreated to the sea. In a while, the people of Great Liang might send troops to cut off our supply line with the mainland. I don’t know how it will end.”

“But didn’t we retreat to the coast for a reason? At that time, the Japanese archipelago could serve as a dedicated supply channel… We can go through the open sea. Although the people of Liang have imitated our fast and maneuverable tiger shark and dragon, their overall fleet design is still not suitable for long-range naval operations.”

“The people of the Japanese archipelago are like a pack of wild dogs. When you have the advantage, they will eagerly come forward to claim the spoils. Once you lose power, don’t count on their loyalty,” the Pope sighed lowly, “Furthermore, can we be sure that the conclusion that the Great Liang navy cannot adapt to long-range naval operations is accurate? Just a few years ago, they didn’t even have a decent navy… How can we build our chances of victory on the assumption of the enemy’s weakness?”

Mr. Ya fell silent for a moment and then said, “But Your Majesty, the envoy…”

“I called you here for this matter,” the Pope took out a letter from his pocket, his hand trembling like autumn leaves, but his expression was extremely cold and stern, showing none of his usual gentle and kind demeanor, “It came from the mainland. Take a look.”

Mr. Ya quickly took it and then his expression changed, “Is this… true?”

The Pope lowered his voice and said, “The Holy Land has changed.”

The conservatives sat on the cold bench of the Liberal Party, tilting the seesaw, borrowing tens of thousands of people from several vassal states to approach the Holy Land under the pretext of protest, causing unrest. They deposed the king, executed over thirty members of the old nobility, including the first in line for succession, and enthroned a pitiful king who barely filled a map of three thousand li.