When leaving, Liao Ran suddenly knocked on the wooden table, catching Chang Geng’s gaze. He gestured and said, “Your Highness, during your meeting with Duke Du, I had the privilege of eavesdropping and there’s something on my mind.” Chang Geng’s slightly trembling eyebrow raised. Liao Ran continued, “Your Highness said that all the interests in the world add up to a large pie. Everyone wants to grab a bit more, which is neither good nor evil. However, some people want to grab more opportunistically. They can push the pie to grow while expanding their own influence. These people can establish a prosperous and peaceful country. But some people go against the trend. The place they occupy is already decaying, yet they want more places to decay along with it. These people can only invite calamity. Now, most of the pie is in the hands of the old aristocratic families. What we want is to break this situation and gradually eradicate the decay in the country.” Chang Geng asked, “Master, is there anything wrong with this?” “No,” Liao Ran shook his head, and his loose robe sleeves made a soft rustling sound with his gestures. “I’m just thinking that under the heavens, there may be no true kingdom. The methods of the past that unified and prospered the land are still vividly remembered. Your Highness has worked hard for all of this, but with a single decree, everything could change. All the efforts might be like a mirage.” Chang Geng lightly tapped his fingers on the small table, showing no expression on his face. It was apparent that Liao Ran’s words had long been under his consideration. “Master is right,” he lowered his handsome brows and lightly smiled. That side profile indeed resembled a menacing deity in a totem. Liao Ran’s heart beat fiercely for a moment, feeling a bit dry in his mouth. In an instant, he understood—did Yan Wang’s apparent struggle against the power of the old aristocratic families actually mask a different true intention behind the scenes?

After receiving the wooden bird from Lin Yuan, Cao Chunhua didn’t dare to delay. After handling his tasks, he quickly set off for the headquarters in Liangjiang. As he approached the headquarters, Cao Chunhua felt a chilling aura rushing towards him from the damp and cold air. It faintly carried the smell of gunpowder. Unconsciously, he straightened his back, stopped singing, and ceased his playful gestures. He put on a serious and composed expression. He noticed the strict sentries stationed everywhere, and all the on-duty soldiers were not engaged in any hushed conversations. The atmosphere was silent, except for the deafening cries from the training grounds not far away. Rubbing his eyes, Cao Chunhua thought he had seen another Xuantie Camp. Just as he approached the headquarters, a guard intercepted him. Cao Chunhua didn’t dare to joke around in the presence of General Gu’s authority, so he promptly presented the travel permit issued by the Military Affairs Office. The guards, averaging eighteen or nineteen years old, checked the permit and, without flattery or rudeness, one of them stepped forward and escorted him towards the command tent. Cao Chunhua glanced back and saw that the vacant spot left by the guards had been filled in the blink of an eye. There was no sign of any gap. The guard leading the way was initially a little shy, but upon hearing that Cao Chunhua had accompanied Gu Yun in dealing with the northern barbarians, he slightly opened up and said, “The Westerners can’t gain any advantage from the General. They can’t win on the frontlines either. They have been circling around the ports in Liangjiang, constantly causing trouble. I heard from the centurion that they might want to compete with us for our resources. Sir, haven’t we always said that our land is vast and abundant? Why are the foreigners so wealthy?” “Don’t call me ‘sir,’ I’m just a runner,” Cao Chunhua waved his hand and continued, “I don’t understand these matters either. But I have heard Duke Du mention a few things. Look at their warships, specially designed for long-distance travel and naval battles. Back then, the Jiangnan Port and Dagukou were both blasted open by them. Our army is the same, not to mention those small coastal countries. They conquer an area and fully exploit it, plundering local resources, establishing factories that we cannot sustain, and forcing captives to work for them, extracting their essence and blood. Over time, they naturally accumulate wealth.” The guard remained silent for a moment. They led Cao Chunhua all the way to Gu Yun’s tent. The guard entered to report, and during this moment, he said to Cao Chunhua, “Sir, I’ve heard the old soldiers talk about the previous naval garrison in Liangjiang. They said that when they served under General Zhao, their pay was meager, and their daily training was lighter compared to other garrisons. When they were off duty, they could even stroll along the banks of both sides and enjoy the scenery. They thought they were born at the wrong time. If it were during peaceful years, they might have become ‘military officials.’” Cao Chunhua looked back at him, and the young guard smiled awkwardly, saying, “After hearing what you said today, I realize how limited my knowledge is. People who can wield swords and knives are probably luckier than pigs and dogs being driven by others.” At that moment, a personal guard came out of the command tent and said, “Master Cao, the General is waiting for you inside.” Cao Chunhua snapped out of his thoughts and walked into the command tent. At first glance, he saw Gu Yun wearing a particularly ostentatious lapis lazuli glass on his nose. The intricate hollow patterns behind the lens overwhelmed the majority of his face, almost resembling a mask rather than a pair of spectacles. Cao Chunhua was momentarily stunned, and his first thought was, “What’s wrong with the General’s eyes?” However, the matters in the command tent were serious, so Cao Chunhua didn’t dare to interrupt. Shen Yi and Yao Zhen were also present, with Yao Zhen currently reading a letter from the Westerners. “Those foreign devils say that they come with a friendly and harmonious intention, sincerely inquiring whether the four counties in Jiangnan can be designated as a communication zone, allowing their troops to govern autonomously and protect the interests of foreign merchants. They claim that this place could become a link for maritime trade between the two sides… Oh, they also say that they deeply love this land and do not want to subject this fertile land to the ravages of war.” Shen Yi asked, “Yesterday it was three counties. How did it suddenly increase by one today?” Yao Zhen glanced at him helplessly and replied, “Perhaps it’s because of their ‘deep love’?” “Damn it,” Gu Yun wore the cultured and ostentatious lapis lazuli glasses on his face, but his words were far from congenial, “What’s the point of this blind love? Do they think they have a chance?” Shen Yi: “…” He couldn’t find a suitable response. Cao Chunhua couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Shen Yi hurriedly waved at him and said, “Little Cao, we’ve been waiting for you for a long time. Come here and tell Mr. Gu when our ‘iron centipede’ will be completed.” “Ah, Mr. Shen, your nickname for me is so unpleasant… It will be done soon,” Cao Chunhua replied cheerfully. “We have no shortage of labor. The sections in the north are already almost finished, and the southern section is even better. We won’t stop construction even in winter. Once all the sections are connected, the steam carriages will be able to run from the outskirts of the capital to the riverside. Duke Du said that if everything goes smoothly, it could be completed by the end of the year. By the way, why is the General wearing the lapis lazuli glasses?”

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Gu Yun smiled at him, his peach-like eyes almost flying away. Shamelessly, he said, “I broke the previous one a few days ago, so I had someone replace the frame. I specifically invited a renowned artisan from Yangzhou to carve it personally. I couldn’t bear to hide its beauty, so I have to wear it every day for everyone to see.” Shen Yi’s stomach ached. “Oh, my General, you should really keep it hidden. We ordinary mortals don’t deserve such beauty.” Gu Yun ignored him, turned his face to let Cao Chunhua get a clear view from all angles, and casually said, “If all else fails, I’ll personally use my charm. Perhaps a million troops would be too much, but thirty or fifty thousand should do the trick, right, Xiao Cao?” Cao Chunhua’s face turned red. Shen Yi and Yao Zhen turned their faces away, unable to bear the sight. “You came at just the right time,” Gu Yun stood up and reached out, hooking his arm around the blushing Cao Chunhua’s shoulder, pushing him towards the sand table. “I have something that I need your help with. I want to send you on an errand.” Gu Yun’s unconventional “charm” may or may not work on the Westerners, but it certainly worked on Cao Chunhua. His face immediately turned even redder, and the back of his neck broke into a sweat. It felt like no matter what Gu Yun said, he would readily agree with a “yes, yes, yes.” After stumbling out of the command tent, Cao Chunhua finally snapped back to reality and shivered intensely. Wait a minute, wasn’t he sent by Yan Wang to take care of the General? How did he end up being deceived by the General and sent to the southwest border in just a few words? Earlier, Gu Yun specifically told him that this matter was confidential and should be kept to himself, not even to be disclosed to the Military Affairs Office… How was he supposed to explain when he returned! Shen Yi personally arranged the dazed Cao Chunhua and then turned back to find Gu Yun. Yao Zhen had already left, and the inside of the command tent was dimly lit. Gu Yun propped his long legs on a nearby stool, crossed his arms, and seemed to be lost in thought—ever since he became unable to hear, he had been free from the distractions of observing his surroundings and listening to everything. He was easily able to focus on his own thoughts. The cool breeze brought in by Shen Yi’s entrance disturbed him, and Gu Yun finally looked up at him. “Is everything arranged?” Shen Yi nodded and asked, “Do you really want to use Xiao Cao, or are you afraid he’ll report back to Yan Wang?” “Am I the kind of person who can’t distinguish between public and private matters?” Gu Yun raised an eyebrow, but before Shen Yi could feel guilty and apologize, he continued, “Both.” Shen Yi: “…” He had never seen someone so blurred in their boundaries between public and private matters. “With the start of this war, there will inevitably be changes within the court. His situation shouldn’t be too burdensome. Under the current circumstances, I don’t want him to be distracted by any mistakes I make. Besides, this matter does require someone flexible and trustworthy,” Gu Yun said. “That old man on the other side thinks he’s impressive because he sailed all the way here. I’ll let him see the difference between a general and a marshal.” Gu Yun’s words left Shen Yi torn in half. The left side, as a former member of the Xuantie Battalion, wished he could follow his own general with unwavering loyalty, while the right side made him feel disgusted by Gu Yun’s sincerely pretentious words, causing goosebumps to rise on his skin. Once again, he was at a loss for words and could only plead, “Zixi, even if you want to play, can you at least wear a normal pair of spectacles?” Gu Yun, dressed in armor and ready to go out on an inspection tour—personally conducting inspections every day was a characteristic of the Liangjiang Camp—even though he was blind. “No,” he replied seriously. “I want to emulate the Prince of Lan Ling.” Shen Yi thought that this bastard called him over not to share his burdens but purely for entertainment! Since arriving in Jiangnan, Cao Chunhua only managed to send one letter to Chang Geng, saying that General Gu was busy with military affairs and teasing Mr. Shen, and that everything was fine. After that, he received no news. He didn’t know if he had been sent out by Gu Yun to handle something or if he had simply “forgotten his worries.” Chang Geng couldn’t help but feel a pang of jealousy, knowing about Cao Chunhua’s infatuation. However, while feeling a little jealous, he also let go of his worries—no news was good news. If it kept Cao Chunhua busy daydreaming all day long, then Gu Yun’s side was probably as smoothly sailing as Venerable Liao Ran had said. Meanwhile, Chen Qing Xu arrived in the capital around the time of the Double Ninth Festival. Chang Geng had been tirelessly working at the Military Affairs Office for over a month and finally took half a day off to receive her. When he received Gu Yun’s letter about discovering a printed version of the “Mysterious Maiden Technique” in Galle, Chang Geng’s heart was filled with anticipation and unease. It was a feeling akin to an old demon in the mortal realm, who had been hiding and suddenly learned that he could become a mortal. However, after returning to the capital, he was busy with his constant scheming and had to deal with various political enemies. He couldn’t spare a thought for anything else until he met Chen Qing Xu, at which point he picked up his old train of thought.

Chen Qing Xu never beat around the bush. As soon as she saw Chang Geng, without any greetings, she straightforwardly said, “I can cure it.” With just those two words, Chang Geng was stunned in place for a while. It wasn’t until he had used up all the air trapped in his chest that he slowly exhaled and calmly pointed out, “Can you really cure an ingrained ailment that has been present since birth?” Chen Qing Xu nodded, “Yes.” Chang Geng clenched his hand hidden in the wide sleeves of his court attire, his voice still calm and piercing, “People say that the Evil God fuses the flesh and blood of two individuals, but I was born as two people. How… can Miss Chen separate them?” Chen Qing Xu smiled rarely, “It will take some time. Your Highness may have to endure some hardships.” Chang Geng’s heart rose to his throat, “Then Zixi…” Chen Qing Xu interrupted, “There are relevant records in the Mysterious Maiden Technique, but the medicinal system is different from ours. I still have many things to verify, so I need to organize my thoughts.” Taking a deep breath, Chang Geng’s heartbeat was about to burst out of his chest. For a moment, he forgot what night it was. He turned to leave, eager to inform Gu Yun. However, after taking a few steps, he suddenly stopped and slapped himself on the forehead, thinking, “I’m confused. I can’t let him know. The battlefield is unpredictable. If he relaxes even a little, what if something happens?” But there was nowhere to share this. So Yan Wang secretly did something quite embarrassing. He settled Chen Qing Xu and then returned to the Marquis’s residence at night, hiding in Gu Yun’s room to write a letter. However, he didn’t send it immediately. After drying the ink, he placed it under Gu Yun’s pillow. Still not satisfied, he dug out all the letters Gu Yun had written and kept hidden, lying on the bed and mentally replaying all the words from that person. He amused himself by stitching together a “reply” from Gu Yun, performing a delightful monologue. In the following days, Chang Geng found Fang Qin much more pleasing to the eye during the day. Unfortunately, Fang Qin was not having an easy time. These days, the stack of accusations against Yan Wang on Li Feng’s desk was over two feet thick. If one carefully read through them, it would seem that Yan Wang was always at fault. Even if he coughed while walking on the road, there were people ready to imitate his coughing posture and accuse him of deceiving the emperor. However, in stark contrast, the newly rising figures in the court, below the Military Affairs Office, were either burdened by affairs or simply lying low. They unilaterally began to make concessions, unlike their previous confrontational approach. Li Feng remained indifferent, especially when faced with those who relied on their age or the late Emperor, even the Emperor Wu. The person in the most urgent state was not the cautious Military Affairs Office but Fang Qin. Fang Qin strongly opposed this rush to join in, “His Majesty has a clear mind. Gentlemen, at this time, if you continue to be aggressive, aren’t you afraid of losing his trust?” Someone retorted, “Lord Fang always talks about His Majesty’s trust. Your perspective is too limited. Back then, the late Emperor was just a relatively insignificant prince of the Li family, so why did he have the right to enter the palace so smoothly? When we supported the late Emperor, my ancestors stood against public opinion and took the lead. What great contributions! The royal decree and iron tokens are still kept in my house. Now that their descendants have securely occupied the throne, do they want to hide away and leave us with nothing?” Another person said, “If they really push us to a dead end, we might as well bring out the spirit tablet of the late Emperor. Does His Majesty dare to disregard the ancestral laws and go against the will of his ancestors?” Fang Qin took a deep breath and sternly warned, “Gentlemen, please be cautious in your words!” Everyone gave him face and fell silent for a while, but their expressions clearly showed that they were not completely satisfied. The noble families and officials in Daliang, regardless of their official positions, had family trees that could blind people. They were connected through marriages, forming powerful alliances. Throughout generations, they had been entangled in power struggles with the royal family, and it was impossible to suppress anyone effectively—everyone was relatives. Who was more noble than whom? Why should matters concerning one’s own life and interests be decided by the Fang family? Fang Qin could only appeal to their emotions and reason, saying, “His Majesty greatly desires military achievements and cannot tolerate challenges to his authority. With the Westerners launching a major invasion, it inevitably reminds him of the siege of the capital in the past. If he had any hesitation before, he is now determined to win this battle. Why do we need to trouble ourselves with such accusations at a time like this? I also ask everyone to think from a different perspective!”