Gu Yun’s gaze was delicately balanced between “focus” and “freedom.” The corners of his eyes curved slightly, as if there was a natural and revealed smile. It seemed that his eyes could only contain one person, yet at the same time, they seemed involuntarily restless. His eyelashes flickered slightly, but when someone caught him, he lowered his eyelids and naturally put on a slightly “unnatural” smile, gently rubbing his nose with his hand.

Shen Yi: “…”

His hand trembled, almost dropping the unfinished half of the egg.

Chang Geng couldn’t bear to watch anymore. He walked over briskly and coughed heavily.

Gu Yun immediately put down his leg, which was resting on a small table, and quickly put on a dignified gentleman’s face. Shen Yi felt inexplicably embarrassed and stood up, saying, “Your Majesty.”

Chang Geng forced his mildly smiling expression into a “graceful” appearance and waved his hand, saying, “In a private setting, there’s no need for so much formality. Please sit, General Shen.”

Shen Yi vaguely felt that he should bid farewell and leave.

Chang Geng smiled and asked, “I accidentally overheard a few sentences just now. Are they about Miss Chen?”

Shen Yi became even more embarrassed.

“I heard that Miss Chen has admired General Shen’s heroic bearing since the battle in the northern frontier,” Chang Geng casually placed the small wine bottle on the stove to warm it up. Without lifting his eyelids, he flicked away Gu Yun’s hand reaching for the bottle and said to the blushing Shen Yi, “If you both have feelings for each other, there’s no need for so much testing. I recently found some rare medical books in the palace and was planning to send them to Miss Chen. Would General Shen be willing to do me a favor?”

Shen Yi almost knelt down to the Emperor. He felt that those two sentences from Chang Geng were more valuable than Gu Yun’s long-winded speech.

After a stick of incense burned, Chang Geng satisfactorily watched Shen Yi leave with light steps. He was the one who most wished for Shen Yi to quickly marry a wife, so this person wouldn’t keep hovering around Gu Yun. From the time they met in the small town years ago until now, these two were always inseparable. Even if Gu Yun encountered difficulties and didn’t tell him, he would definitely inform Shen Yi… Although there were always reasons behind it, Chang Geng didn’t mind at all.

After sending off Shen Yi, Chang Geng turned to the other person.

Gu Yun quickly gave him a tender gaze.

Chang Geng remained unmoved and slowly began to settle the score, “You can even prepare your gaze in advance. Zixi, you truly are refined through many battles.”

Gu Yun blinked and stretched lazily. He approached Chang Geng, casually opened a slit in his fox fur, and wrapped Chang Geng inside. He lowered his voice and laughed near his ear, “If you’re jealous, you should have said so earlier, Your Majesty.”

Chang Geng: “…”

He was numb from Gu Yun’s lazy whisper and realized that this person truly had a deep understanding of strategies. What he had taught Shen Yi was just scratching the surface.

Gu Yun sniffed his temple and praised, “A sour fragrance fills the air. Your Majesty, let’s make a deal. Since you’ve tasted a vat of vinegar, how about letting me have a sip of wine?”

Chang Geng burst into laughter, “Dream on. Just enjoy the aroma.”

Gu Yun clicked his tongue, “Yesterday you let me lick a chopstick, and today it’s all about smelling? Blame Shen Yi for this nuisance. He had to come and bother us during the festival…”

Chang Geng took out a chopstick from the side and dipped it into the well-heated wine cup, saying, “Take it and taste it. Don’t bargain anymore.”

Gu Yun: “…”

Between the two of them, with a chopstick permeated with the fragrance of wine, they looked at each other in silence for a moment. Just when Chang Geng thought Gu Yun would behave himself today, Gu Yun suddenly pulled out the wine-soaked chopstick, gently sniffed it, and swiftly turned Chang Geng’s chin, wiping the wine off his lips. He then leaned over and licked it clean, discarding the bothersome chopstick with a “clatter” to the side.

Chang Geng stood frozen, his lips taken advantage of by Gu Yun’s intoxicating action, completely caught off guard.

After licking his lips, Gu Yun smiled cryptically and floated away, saying, “Good wine, it’s intoxicating.”

The newly crowned Emperor, who had suffered such a teasing, stood motionless for a while before finally unable to bear it any longer and chased after him. He felt that it was necessary to personally inspect how well General Gu’s injuries were healing.

Chang Geng publicly claimed to avoid suspicion that he never stepped into the harem, even if he occasionally spent the night in the palace. The affairs of the harem still fell under the jurisdiction of the Empress. Fortunately, the harem of Li Feng was not prosperous, and the Empress was barely able to handle it. It was unheard of for an emperor to come to the palace for morning greetings and then leave after attending court. Those who initially spoke out against this unreasonable practice were scolded and sent back. When the Emperor ascended the throne, he declared himself as a “temporary emperor.” Now, he governed conscientiously without exceeding his boundaries. Why were there always flatterers who were afraid of peace and tried to instigate him to seize the country?

The Imperial Censorate, led by Xu Ling, became the official water-spraying squad, labeling themselves as “reforming the old and establishing the new.” Every day, they specifically searched for various theoretical justifications to argue about various governmental policies in a more legitimate manner.

The Emperor, who did not reside in the palace, would sometimes pretend to return to the Yan Palace, treating it as a “living room” for occasional private audiences with courtiers before sneaking into the Marquis’ residence—after all, it was just a short walk away.

The rain this year came much earlier than usual, with continuous drizzles on the eve of Qingming.

Gu Yun, who rarely stayed at home, though he had not taken off his armor, could finally settle down in the capital. He rarely felt such a strong sense of belonging to his own home, so he ordered someone to tidy up the overgrown Marquis’ residence. The once nearly haunted Marquis’ residence was busy inside and out for several days before finally resembling a place where people could live.

During the process of repairing the garden and tidying up the buildings, they discovered many old items from years past. So every day, Gu Yun followed behind Huo Tongling, rummaging through the old things, which became an unconventional hobby for the Emperor’s evening stroll.

“Is this the old item of the Crown Princess from back then?” Chang Geng asked, pointing to a square box. He didn’t want to be disrespectful, so he didn’t touch it right away.

The old housekeeper took a glance and smiled, saying, “Indeed, it was specially made for the young Marquis.”

Saying that, she opened the box, and inside the box that looked like a treasure box with hidden pearls, there was actually a “chicken feather duster.”

Chang Geng: “…”

The old housekeeper said, “The young Marquis was quite mischievous when he was young. No matter how much he was scolded, it never stayed in his heart. Even if he was locked up in the punishment room, he would pick the lock and come out by himself. He even knew how to sneak into the kitchen to steal food. Light punishments were useless, and the Marquis had a hot temper. If things escalated, he would resort to corporal punishment. The Emperor knows about those methods used for family discipline, and the Marquis’ methods were even harsher. How could a child withstand them? The Princess was afraid of causing trouble, so one time, while on a military march, she saw a village woman scolding her son with a broom and came up with this trick to deal with him.”

Chang Geng respectfully “requested” the chicken feather duster that had beaten General Gu, only to see that it had a thin rod inside. If used too forcefully, it could break, but it wouldn’t cause any harm. The thick “chicken feathers” on the outside were not real chicken feathers but thin bamboo strands and some kind of stiff hair from an unknown animal. With just one stroke, it gave a certain feeling…

Having grown up in the Marquis’ residence, he was more like a master than the legitimate owner. Although the old servant had changed her address to “Your Majesty,” she showed no sign of formality and happily said, “Our Marquis was truly mischievous when he was young. He would pull off roof tiles from the main house and cause mischief. Later on, he became afraid of this punishment. No matter what happened, as long as it was mentioned, he would behave for a while.”

Gu Yun always appeared before Chang Geng with the demeanor of a capable elder. His childhood and youth were blank spots in Chang Geng’s memory, so he listened with great interest.

“It was fun when the Princess wanted to scold him. He would run around the courtyard, crying while running. He cried so much that it seemed like a real event.”

Chang Geng asked in surprise, “A real event? Was he pretending?”

“Of course, he was pretending,” the old housekeeper said with a sigh as she walked. “Our young Marquis, in his childhood, didn’t shed real tears from a few spankings. Don’t expect him to shed real tears. When he cried throughout the courtyard, thunder would rumble but no rain would fall. The words he said were all sets of well-rehearsed lines, like ‘Mother, don’t you like me anymore? Don’t you want me anymore? Aren’t I your flesh and blood? Or, ‘Does Mother want to replace me with a better younger brother? I’ll change, please don’t replace me with a younger brother. I only have one mother. If she doesn’t love me either, then I’ll become an unwanted wild child.’… It made people’s hearts tremble. Even the Princess couldn’t bear to discipline him.”

Imagining that scene, Chang Geng laughed so hard that he couldn’t catch his breath. Gu Yun was truly a master of military strategy, knowing from a young age that “creating illusions” and “attacking the heart” were crucial.

A fleeting smile appeared in the wrinkles at the corner of the old housekeeper’s eyes, and then her tone suddenly changed, “But everything changed after he went to the border and returned.”

The smile on Chang Geng’s face gradually faded.

The old woman continued to reminisce, “Every day, he locked himself in his room, ignoring everyone, not even crying. When we brought him food, we had to push it in and push it out the same way. He shut the front door and never stepped out. He used to be like a little monkey, but when he came back, he turned into a little devil. He completely changed—two or three months later, the Marquis finally settled the matters in the north and returned home… sigh, it would have been better if he hadn’t come back. Let me tell you, the Marquis was really ruthless to his own son. Maybe it was because of that incident. He was afraid that his son would end up useless.”

Chang Geng asked softly, “What happened?”

“The Marquis kicked open his room door and dragged him out. You see, his eyes were severely injured, so how could it not hurt when exposed to daylight? He stumbled along, tears streaming down his face. This time, they were real tears, but he didn’t utter a word.” The old servant pointed with her hand, “It was that small pond. The Marquis made a circle with a horsewhip and put it around the Marquis’ neck. He pressed his head down and forced him to look into the water while shouting in his ears, ‘Look at yourself now. Are you worthy of the Gu surname?’”

Following her finger, Chang Geng looked at the pond that had been barren for many years. It had only recently been filled with water again, and there were a few new fish swimming leisurely.

“The young Marquis struggled with the horsewhip around his throat and shouted back, ‘I can’t see.’”

Chang Geng seemed to be transported back to several years ago as he slightly clenched the hand holding the chicken feather duster.

“The Marquis pressed his head into the water and said, ‘Look at yourself lying in the water. Otherwise, stand up by yourself, or find a beam to hang yourself. The Gu family would rather be extinct than keep a waste!’” The old servant shook her head. “Even after so many years, I remember every word. It was truly harsh.”

There was a brief silence between the two. After a while, Chang Geng asked softly, “Did the Marquis feel reluctant?”

“As parents, they naturally felt heartache, but if they didn’t feel reluctant, what else could they do? The Marquis said that when a bone is broken, you can only use steel nails to hold it together. The more painful the extreme situation, the less he should feel any reliance or support. Otherwise, he would lean on it for the rest of his life and never be able to stand on his own.” The old servant said, “If the Marquis hadn’t been reluctant, who could have taken charge and organized the scattered Xuantie Battalion more than ten years ago?”

Without the Xuantie Battalion, the Great Liang would have been gradually swallowed up during the first rebellion of the Western Regions, and the Westerners would not have needed to travel such a long distance to take a bite. How long could they, the illustrious old nobles, continue to enjoy prosperity and wealth?

“In the cold winter months, family members were not allowed to give him a warm cotton coat. That child’s hands and feet were all blue from the cold. He couldn’t even hold a bowl when he returned to the room. Over a dozen iron puppets surrounded him all day long, and the Marquis watched. It seemed like even if he died, the Marquis wouldn’t blink an eye… After two or three years, both the couple passed away, and Emperor Yuanhe brought the young Marquis into the palace.” The old servant paused, and then a sharp bird cry came from around the corner. Both of them looked up and saw Gu Yun coming over with a birdcage in his hand. The unfortunate bird named Shen was shaken by him and couldn’t even make a sound. It could only scream at the top of its lungs.

Since Gu Yun had the time to repair the bird, he never fell behind in the battle between humans and birds. Now, with a victorious air, he came out with his accomplishment. He felt quite pleased—so pleased that he could clearly see what Chang Geng was holding in his hand. Gu Yun squinted his eyes, and his face suddenly turned dark.

Gu Yun quickly walked over and snatched the “chicken feather duster” away. “What kind of trash did you find and start playing with? Get lost!”

Even if the long-standing injuries were healed, there were often lingering effects. For example, Gu Yun would never fully regain his hearing and vision, and Chang Geng, although free from nightmares, still had dreams when he was tired or worried.

That night, perhaps still thinking about the “chicken feather duster” that Gu Yun had taken away, Chang Geng had a strange dream. He dreamt that he entered the Marquis’ residence, but it wasn’t the familiar An Ding Marquis’ residence, or at least it wasn’t as desolate as he remembered. People were bustling about, giving it a more lively atmosphere.

In the distance, Chang Geng heard the sound of clanging iron. Following the sound, he saw a group of menacing iron puppets attacking a young boy in the empty backyard. The boy had a black cloth covering his eyes, obscuring half of his face. He struggled to dodge from side to side.

Suddenly, an iron puppet approached him from behind, and the long knife in its hand had turned into an iron club. It swept towards the boy, as if sensing the danger, the boy instinctively tried to avoid it.

Wait, don’t dodge like that!

Chang Geng’s heart was momentarily filled with words someone had told him many years ago: “If you feel anxious inside, your feet will waver. If your feet can’t stand firm, even the most powerful swordsmanship is like water without a source, a tree without roots… It’s natural for people to retreat, but it’s difficult for you to gather the strength to counterattack in a short period of time. Instead, you will panic and fall into your opponent’s hands.”

Of course, the boy couldn’t be faster than the iron puppets. After hesitating for a moment, he was quickly caught up by the iron puppets. With a loud bang, the monster’s iron club viciously struck his tender back, causing his clothes to burst open, revealing the protective armor underneath. The boy was sent flying.

Chang Geng hurriedly caught up and lifted the boy covered in dust. At the same time, he drew his sword from his waist and consecutively pinned down several relentless iron puppets that were chasing after him.

He threw away the sword and, with trembling hands, tried to remove the cloth covering the boy’s face. But he heard footsteps behind him. Chang Geng turned around and saw a middle-aged man walking slowly with his hands behind his back. The man was dressed in casual clothes and had a refined appearance, like a scholarly gentleman. However, his eyes carried a fierce gaze, as if there were thousands of troops and horses in his gaze when he faced someone directly.

Chang Geng had never seen this person before, although the adult Gu Yun didn’t resemble him much. However, as soon as they met, Chang Geng recognized his identity—their facial features and face shape might be different, but there was something similar that flowed through their father and son.

The man stopped and said to Chang Geng, “Even if you take him away from here, you won’t be able to raise him. Even if you reluctantly raise him, he won’t be able to withstand the slightest wind and rain…”

Carefully, Chang Geng lifted the boy’s small body. “He can rely on me.”

The old Marquis shook his head. Chang Geng suddenly heard a roaring sound behind him, and he quickly dodged while holding the boy, just in time to see the iron puppets that he had pinned down earlier organizing themselves and surrounding him in an orderly manner. In just a moment, they turned into a group of heavily armored soldiers made of iron, staring at him with predatory eyes. In the distance, a vague and indistinct sound of a gong came, and the iron puppets moved as a collective, rushing towards him.

Chang Geng had no choice but to hold little Gu Yun and run desperately, stumbling along. In his heart, he wanted to shout at the indifferent old man—Even if it’s the crumbling old kingdom, I can still manage it. Can’t I even protect Gu Yun?

However, he couldn’t make a sound in the dream. In his frantic escape, he stepped into empty air. Chang Geng’s heart skipped a beat, and he reached out and grabbed a hand. He suddenly opened his eyes and saw the gas lamp in the room already lit. It was still dark outside, and he was tightly holding Gu Yun’s hand.

Gu Yun patted his head. “Why couldn’t I wake you up today? Are you feeling unwell?”

Chang Geng looked at him blankly for a moment. “I had a dream.”

Gu Yun was startled.

“It wasn’t a nightmare, nor was it a hallucination.” Chang Geng turned over and held Gu Yun’s arm, bringing it into his embrace. He gently rubbed his forehead against Gu Yun’s elbow and whispered, “I dreamt that I snatched you away from Marquis An. Your father sent a battalion of iron puppets to chase after me.”

Gu Yun was initially stunned, but then he laughed carelessly. With a little force, he pulled the reluctant Emperor out of bed and freed his arm. “You have quite the courage, Your Majesty. His old man has a hundred thousand ghost soldiers on his side. Alright, the grandeur is over. Get up quickly, there’s a grand court assembly today. Oh, it’s also Qingming Festival. Maybe he’s running out of paper money over there and came to remind us on purpose?”

Chang Geng sat on the edge of the bed, watching him, taking in his appearance from head to toe under the lamplight. He couldn’t take his eyes off until Gu Yun finished dressing. Then, reluctantly, he averted his gaze. “Why did your father come to me instead of you when he needed paper money?”

“He probably thinks you’re easier to bully,” Gu Yun laughed and then his smile gradually changed its tone. “I don’t owe him anything, and I guess he doesn’t feel comfortable coming to see me.”

On Qingming Festival, Chang Geng purposely set aside half a day to accompany Gu Yun in paying respects at their ancestors’ graves.

Gu Yun stood before the ancestral tablet as if he had just performed a silent meditation, without uttering a word. He simply burned the paper offerings as if completing a task, and then stood indifferently to the side.

Over the years, he had done so much that didn’t need to be said. Those two individuals should know.

On the other hand, Chang Geng solemnly lit incense and poured wine. He couldn’t say it out loud in front of Gu Yun but silently recited in his heart, “I will take care of him in the future. Rest assured, both of you. Don’t drive him to the edge with steel nails anymore.”

“Let’s go,” Gu Yun gently pulled him.

Chang Geng snapped back to reality and was about to follow him when he saw Gu Yun turn indifferently towards the princess’ memorial tablet. “Watch over your husband and let him behave down there. Don’t send anyone to bother me.”

Chang Geng: “…”

Huo Dan, who was accompanying them, almost knelt down and kowtowed in front of the old Marquis upon hearing these blasphemous words. Gu Yun snorted and then turned to pull Chang Geng away.