The rise and fall of empires, leaving their mark on history.

Throughout history, emperors have varied in their goals and actions. Some ruled to govern the nation, while others brought calamity upon the people. Some sought enlightenment through cultivation, while others caused chaos and turmoil.

Emperor Yuanhe undoubtedly belonged to the cultivation faction, lenient and benevolent but lacking in wisdom. Although his son shared similar political views, his style undeniably leaned toward turmoil.

Emperor Li Feng of the Long’an Dynasty never believed in the saying “governing a great nation is like cooking a small fish.” Diligent in governance and resolute in character, he departed from his predecessor’s lax approach to affairs of state, embarking on a vigorous reign from the moment he ascended the throne.

In the first year, he dispatched Marquis Gu Yun to escort the crown prince, Galei Yinghuo, back to the northern frontier. Simultaneously, Gu Yun established new agreements along the ancient Silk Road, opening up trade routes in the Western Regions. Whether it was establishing friendly relations with the Northern Barbarians or tasking Marquis Gu Yun with overseeing the expansion of the Silk Road, the emperor’s deep resentment towards the increasingly strained imperial treasury was evident. It seemed to convey the message, “If Gu Yun can’t earn money for us, he can sell himself.”

In the second year of Long’an, Crown Prince Wei colluded with people from Dongying, attempting to seize the capital by sea and causing havoc. Unexpectedly, their conspiracy was exposed midway, and the Jiangnan Navy swiftly captured the leader of the maritime rebels. Crown Prince Wei was imprisoned and later “took his own life” by poison.

Seizing this opportunity, Emperor Li Feng cracked down on the Jiangnan officials. Eighty-six officials were implicated, with over forty of them beheaded. The execution continued even after autumn had passed, with three batches of executions. The remaining officials were subjected to palace punishments, exile, and a lifetime ban on employment.

That same year, the implementation of new laws began in Jiangnan. The local gentry and landlords who had unlawfully occupied land were thoroughly investigated. However, instead of returning the confiscated land to the commoners, it was all collected by the court, consolidating local power back to the central government. By the third year of Long’an, every crop and construction project required layers of approval. The centralization of power reached an unprecedented level, surpassing even that of Emperor Wu. The restrictions on the use of purple gold had reached an unprecedented level.

No one dared to voice dissent—those who did were supporters of Crown Prince Wei, and they would be met with punishment from above or below.

Two more years passed, and in the fourth year of Long’an, Li Feng introduced the “Command Seal Law,” targeting the military directly. Originally, the Great Liang Dynasty had seven major branches of the military, each with its own commander stationed in Jiangnan, Zhongyuan, Sebei, the Western Regions, and Nanjiang. The appointment and dismissal of military officers, military funds, rations, armaments, and other matters were all coordinated by the Ministry of War. Other affairs were handled by the respective military districts.

Marquis Gu Yun held the Xuantie Tiger Token, capable of mobilizing the entire military in times of emergency.

Li Feng maintained the arrangement of the five major regions and did not touch Marquis Gu Yun’s Tiger Token. However, he established several military monitors outside the control of the regional commanders. These monitors answered directly to the Ministry of War, rotating every three years, and their sole responsibility was to request the “Drum Command.”

Any commander who dared to move troops without the Drum Command would be treated as a traitor.

Aside from the Xuantie Battalion, all garrisons in the five regions had to comply with this law.

The Drum Command caused an uproar throughout the nation, overshadowing the trivial matters of the civilian long-arm practitioners.

The emperor and the civil and military officials argued and debated, but regardless of how the courtiers presented their arguments, the emperor and the cabinet, who were united in their efforts to consolidate power, had one response: “If the long-arm practitioners are not strictly controlled, how can we prevent the leakage of purple gold?”

Just as the debate over the Command Seal Law had yet to yield a reasonable explanation, Li Feng threw another heavy blow: the “Drum Strike Law,” directly targeting the military.

Originally, the Great Liang Dynasty had seven major branches of the military, each with its own commander. However, the new law abolished this system, creating a centralized command structure. Only five commanders remained, with three of them immediately retiring on the same day. The news created a sensation, causing a commotion and alerting Marquis Gu Yun in the distant northwest.

Marquis Gu Yun had no time to express his opinion on the emperor’s reckless decree. He had to hastily stabilize the military’s morale, patiently listening to the old generals vent their frustrations, and tirelessly traveling from place to place.

During the New Year’s festival that year, when Gu Yun returned to the capital to report on his duties, he was bombarded by numerous handkerchiefs thrown by young women and servant girls. He hadn’t even had a chance to revel in this accomplishment when, within a few days, all the handkerchiefs had been given away to wipe people’s tears—more frugal than diapers.

Even the commoners joined the chaos. Scholars from various academies had little else to talk about. They incessantly debated and argued about these laws, dragging them out and dissecting them repeatedly.

The previously lifeless court during the Yuanhe era finally provided them with something to discuss.

This chaos persisted until the sixth year of Long’an. The reason behind the Drum Command Law remained unclear, and the emperor refused to retract the law but had yet to appoint monitors. The law hung in the air, like a sword ready to strike and spill blood on either side.

Another year passed, and the Jiaonan Dragon Disaster had already been four years ago. Crown Prince Wei’s bones had long grown cold, and the matter became outdated, with no one mentioning it again.

Next to the official road in Shuchuan, there was a small wine house called Xinghua Village. It was said that the most common village name throughout the Great Liang was “Xinghua Village.” If a shed was set up to sell wine, eight out of ten places would be called “Xinghua Village.”

A young man gently lifted the door curtain and entered. At the age of twenty, he wore an old robe, resembling a poor scholar. However, his appearance was truly handsome, almost sharp—high bridge of the nose, sharp sideburns, slightly sunken eyes like cold stars. Yet, he did not appear aggressive, instead exuding a gentle and jade-like aura. At first glance, he was captivating, and the more one looked, the more they could sense an indescribable tranquility and breadth.

The wine house was small, requiring even a tall person to stoop upon entering. Inside, there were only two tables, both of which were already occupied today.

The shopkeeper served as the waiter and accountant, idly playing with the abacus. His gaze involuntarily landed on the young man, silently praising his handsomeness. He politely said, “I apologize, dear customer, but there’s no more seating available. There’s a place about five li ahead if you want to try there.”

The scholar had a good temper and replied, “I’m a bit thirsty after my journey. Could you please pour me a jug of good wine? I don’t need a seat.”

The shopkeeper took the wine jug from him, and as he opened it, a lingering scent of alcohol wafted out. “Bamboo Leaf Green, alright.”

A customer at a nearby table took the initiative to invite him, saying, “Young master, come here and rest. I’ll make room for you.”

The scholar didn’t refuse and thanked him with a nod.

Before he could sit down, he heard someone at another table say, “What’s all the fuss about? I think the emperor is doing just fine. As the emperor, what’s wrong with wielding great power? Speaking disrespectfully, isn’t it better to have an emperor who either neglects everything or indulges with palace ladies?”

The scholar didn’t expect that even in a wine house, there would be people discussing national affairs. He looked up and saw that the speaker was an elderly man who had rolled up his pants. His hands were large, with traces of oil from a year’s worth of handling fire tools. It seemed that he might be a lower-ranked long-arm practitioner.

Immediately, an old farmer-looking man beside him chimed in, “That’s right! Have you ever seen rice prices lower since the beginning of our dynasty?”

Feeling supported, the long-arm practitioner became even more proud, speaking eloquently, “The other day, when I came to the city, I overheard students from various academies discussing the Drum Command. One of those inexperienced young fellows boldly claimed that the emperor is weakening the defensive strength of Great Liang. It’s all just empty talk, so laughable! Didn’t they see what happened with Crown Prince Wei’s rebellion? These commanders are far from the emperor’s reach. If they develop rebellious intentions, not to mention the stability of the empire, wouldn’t us common people be the unlucky ones? I heard that with the military affairs under the control of the Ministry of War, there will be much less military expenditure and the people won’t have to bear so many taxes. Isn’t that a good thing?”

As soon as these words were spoken, the people in the wine house nodded in agreement. The elderly man who had offered the scholar a seat also joined in, saying, “Marquis An hasn’t come out to oppose it yet. But someone has already stirred up a commotion for him.”

The scholar hadn’t paid much attention initially, but when he heard the words “Marquis An,” he instinctively raised his head and asked, “What does this have to do with Marquis An?”

The old man smiled and replied, “Young sir, you don’t understand. The emperor seems to have left the Xuantie Battalion untouched, but in reality, he has divided the military power from Marquis An’s hands. Just think, if the commanders can only mobilize troops with the Drum Command, what about Marquis An’s Xuantie Tiger Token? Those who use troops without the Drum Command will be accused of rebellion. So, if the Ministry of War doesn’t issue the Drum Command, will the five commanders obey the Ministry or Marquis?”

The scholar smiled and said, “I see. Thank you for enlightening me.”

Having said that, he saw that the shopkeeper had prepared the wine, so he no longer listened to the villagers’ idle chatter. He politely thanked the old man who gave him the seat, paid for the wine, and left.

As soon as he left the wine house, he saw that the previously empty area was already occupied by someone who had been waiting there. The person didn’t say a word but seemed somewhat embarrassed upon seeing the poor scholar. They swiftly bowed and stood to the side, like a mural on the wall.

The scholar helplessly rubbed his forehead and thought, “They’re catching up faster and faster.”

This “scholar” was precisely Chang Geng, who had returned to the capital under the “escort” of Xuan Ying after their quarrel with Gu Yun four years ago.

Refusing many of the emperor’s awards, Chang Geng had spent half a year attempting to spar with the household warriors of the Marquis’s residence every day. Finally, he successfully escaped from Marquis Gu’s residence.

Gu Yun sent people to pursue him several times, and the two sides engaged in a painful tug-of-war for a whole year. Eventually, Gu Yun, seeing that the child resembled an untamed and struggling eaglet, had no choice but to compromise and let him go.

However, no matter where Chang Geng went, he would always encounter a few undercover Xuan Tie Battalion guards following him.

Later, with the introduction of Monk Lianran, Chang Geng became a disciple under the tutelage of an unknown martial arts master from the common folk. He began living a life of stealth, traveling to remote places across the country where no one else went. For a while, he managed to elude the Xuan Tie Battalion.

But whenever he appeared near a post station, he would be once again closely monitored. He had only just arrived in Shuchuan when this young soldier was waiting for him.

However, the Chang Geng of today was no longer the stubborn and obstinate youth from before. He walked up to the person, leading his horse, and spoke with a pleasant expression, “Brother, thank you for your hard work. How is my foster father doing?”

The young soldier was somewhat at a loss for words, not expecting Chang Geng to approach him for a conversation. He replied in a confused manner, “Young… Lord, your foster father is doing well. He said that if the border stabilizes by the end of the year, he will return home for the New Year.”

“Good, I will start my journey back to the capital in a few days.” Chang Geng nodded after listening, but it was hard to tell whether he was delighted or reluctant. He then handed over the newly filled wine jug, saying, “You’ve worked hard. Have a sip of wine to warm yourself along the way.”

The young soldier, not wanting to make a mess, didn’t dare to touch the jug with his own mouth. He drank a sip from a distance, making sure not to spill a drop, and handed the jug back, before tending to Chang Geng’s horse.

Chang Geng said, “I actually went to the northwest during the spring. However, my foster father was busy with military affairs, so I didn’t bother him by appearing. The ancient Silk Road is truly bustling. Even the vast deserts and yellow sand can become crowded. There are few places in Great Liang that are as prosperous.”

The young soldier glanced around to make sure no one was nearby and whispered, “With the general in command, the bandits have gradually disappeared in recent years. Many people have settled near the ancient Silk Road and engaged in business. They have various items from different regions. The general said that if you have any favorite things, he will bring them back for you when he returns to the capital next year.”

Chang Geng paused and calmly said, “As long as he comes back, that’s enough.”

The young soldier couldn’t discern the deeper meaning behind his words. He thought Chang Geng was merely speaking casually. Being accustomed to military life, he knew better than to flatter others and remained silent obediently.

Chang Geng walked on the official road of Shuchuan as if nothing had happened, but there was a slight warmth in his chest. He had thought that parting was like water, a splash that could wash away everything, including Zhu Sha, Teng Huang, Cong Lv, and Zhe Shi. However, Gu Yun’s mark remained engraved. No matter how much he tried to wash it away, the trace only deepened.

Upon hearing that Gu Yun would return to the capital at the end of the year, which was still early in the autumn, Chang Geng realized that he was already feeling homesick. He had just blurted out “planning to return to the capital” in a rush of emotion, but now he regretted it and wished he could retract his words, vowing to run as far as possible from the ends of the earth.

Lost in his thoughts, Chang Geng noticed a thin woman carrying someone coming towards him. The woman was struggling to walk, stopping every few steps to rest and panting heavily. She tripped over a stone on the roadside and cried out as she fell to the ground.

Chang Geng immediately snapped back to attention and stepped forward to help both of them up. He asked with concern, “Auntie, are you alright?”

The woman had walked a long distance and was too exhausted to speak. Tears were already streaming down her face before she could even utter a word.

Chang Geng was momentarily taken aback but didn’t ask why she was crying. He simply assisted the elderly person who was unconscious and leaned over to feel his pulse. After a moment, he softly said, “This old gentleman is just physically weak from years of hardship. It’s just an excess of internal heat. A slight application of two needles will suffice. There’s no danger to his life. If you trust me, please follow me for now.”

The young soldier from the Xuan Tie Battalion didn’t expect that His Highness was knowledgeable in medical theory as well. He hurriedly stepped forward to help carry the sickly old man on his back.

Chang Geng allowed the woman to mount his horse and led the way, with the horse’s reins in his hand. They arrived at a village in no time. At the entrance of the village, there was an elegantly built house with a string of cured meats hanging at the door.

Chang Geng skillfully tied up his horse and pushed the door open, guiding the patient inside and placing him on a small couch. He reached under the pillow and pulled out a box of silver needles, rolling up his sleeves to administer the treatment himself.

The young soldier cautiously asked, “Are you… planning to stay here?”

Chang Geng quickly looked up and smiled at him. “No, this is just a friend’s house…”

Before he finished speaking, a slender woman in white pushed aside the door curtain and entered. The young soldier stiffened, becoming nervous instinctively. He hadn’t even noticed someone approaching the door. The other party’s skills must be superior to his own.

Chang Geng continued his work without pause, unaffected by the situation. He said, “Miss Chen, I thought you weren’t here.”

That person was precisely Chen Qingxu, who had been on the East Sea pirate ship all those years ago.