Liao Ran was taken aback, never expecting that Marquis An Ding would visit the Hu Guo Temple one day. He hurriedly gestured to Zhang Changgeng, “Doesn’t Marquis An Ding think it’s unlucky even to step on a bit of incense ash? Today, he’s going deep into the tiger’s den. Will he come out with a layer of skin washed away by mugwort leaves?”

Zhang Changgeng was too preoccupied to pay attention to him. A look of unease briefly flashed across his face. He wasn’t ready to face Gu Yun’s accusations.

Ironically, both of them believed that they had acted inappropriately while intoxicated and taken advantage of each other. They each had their own guilt.

Liao Ran stared at Zhang Changgeng curiously. Over the years, Zhang Changgeng’s dedication to cultivating tranquility and preserving his qi had reached its pinnacle. He could sit in meditation for two to three days without moving, surpassing even Liao Ran, the “high-ranking monk.” People who were filled with restlessness would naturally become calm in his presence. The elegant young man in white sitting on the old meditation cushion exuded an air of otherworldliness and serenity. But now, those three words “Marquis An Ding” shattered the tranquility like ripples on water.

Zhang Changgeng seemed to fidget uncomfortably, raising his hand inexplicably as if he wanted to touch something. However, halfway through the motion, he noticed that Liao Ran was staring at him intently. He reluctantly suppressed his emotions and placed his hand on the teacup, pretending to drink some water.

Even the master of disguise, Liao Ran, was puzzled. He thought to himself, “Is Marquis An Ding here to collect a debt?”

Gu Yun quickly entered the room. His eyes and brows were raised in a disdainful expression, as if he wished he could tiptoe in, avoiding eye contact with Liao Ran. He greeted him with a fake smile, “It’s been a few years, Master Liao, and you’re looking fairer.”

Master Liao, in his dignified manner, didn’t stoop to his level. He bowed with folded hands, gesturing, “Amitabha. The monk’s mind is like a clear mirror, free from dust.”

So, now even taking a bath wasn’t necessary to quote scriptures! Gu Yun felt a strong sense of foulness in the air. He couldn’t stand to be in this place any longer. He turned to Zhang Changgeng and said, “You’ve disturbed the master’s meditation for several days. It’s time to go home.”

Zhang Changgeng, whose heart had finally settled down, was stirred once again by the words “go home.” He knew that even if he stayed under the Bodhi tree, he wouldn’t be able to recite “Form is emptiness” with sincerity. He obediently stood up, his emotions fluctuating.

Gu Yun, suffocated by the smoky incense in the temple, coughed a few times and quickly retreated outside the meditation room. He waited there with boredom, watching Zhang Changgeng bid farewell to Liao Ran.

Having been so accustomed to each other’s presence, it was difficult for close friends and family to notice whether the other person was beautiful or ugly. Gu Yun had always known that Zhang Changgeng resembled his North Barbarian mother. Now, upon closer inspection, he realized that it wasn’t entirely true. Zhang Changgeng’s refined features were handsome and pleasing to the eye in a unique way.

Gu Yun was taken aback, recalling that there were all kinds of people in the world, including those from the Three Teachings and the Nine Schools. Especially since the opening of maritime trade, the people of Da Liang had become more open-minded, particularly in the coastal areas. It was said that the male fashion trend was also popular there. Zhang Changgeng, dressed in a white robe, wouldn’t have provoked anyone without cause, would he?

So, was that why he was so angry that day?

“Indeed,” Gu Yun’s mind cleared up, and he whimsically pondered, “If I took a bite out of Shen Ji Ping, he definitely wouldn’t take it to heart. With such a miserable appearance, he wouldn’t even think in that direction. Taking a bite out of him would only bring me trouble.”

The more he thought about it, the more it made sense. But as he continued to contemplate, he felt increasingly embarrassed. Quickly, he decided to play dumb. Nonchalantly, he said to Zhang Changgeng, who was approaching, “Why did you take so long? The vegetarian food at Hu Guo Temple is so delicious.”

Zhang Changgeng, seeing that Gu Yun appeared calm, felt slightly relieved and replied, “The sound of the Buddha is conducive to inner peace.”

“You’re still young. You should be vibrant and full of life. Since you’re not planning to become a monk, what’s the point of seeking tranquility?” Gu Yun walked alongside him, habitually wanting to reach out and pat his shoulder. But fearing that Zhang Changgeng might misunderstand, he silently withdrew his hand and clasped it behind his back.

Zhang Changgeng calmly responded, “I’ve considered it.”

He had once thought about severing worldly ties and becoming a monk. Perhaps his mind, filled with delusions, would have been dissolved by the boundless Dharma.

“What?” Gu Yun’s steps halted. At first, he didn’t react, remaining stunned. Then, in disbelief, he said, “You considered becoming a monk?”

Zhang Changgeng, rarely seeing such surprise on Gu Yun’s face, smiled and said, “I only thought about it but didn’t dare to go through with it.”

Gu Yun thought to himself, “Of course you wouldn’t. I would break your legs if you dared.” But now that Zhang Changgeng was no longer the helpless young man sheltered in the Marquis’s mansion, he couldn’t scold him like a son anymore. That’s why he didn’t voice those words.

His face darkened slightly as he asked, “Why?”

Zhang Changgeng courteously exchanged greetings with the approaching young novice monk. He calmly replied, “As a youth, I grew up reading the worldly words in my adoptive father’s study. Later, I traveled with my master, witnessing the hardships of the world. Although I have only scratched the surface of the treacherous world, how could I retreat? Born in this mortal realm, even though my talent is limited, I may not be able to achieve the great accomplishments of the sages, but at the very least, I cannot betray myself and the heavens…”

…and you.

The last two words remained unspoken in Zhang Changgeng’s throat.

When Xiu Niang dragged him behind the horse that day, she failed to end his life. Despite being plagued by Urge Bone, he hadn’t been driven mad yet. Sometimes, Zhang Changgeng felt that he could only face the storms and go against the current until he reached a place where he could respect himself, perhaps allowing himself to occasionally think of his little adoptive father during midnight recollections.

Gu Yun’s expression eased slightly, but he still asked without kindness, “Then why do you keep mingling with the monks?”

Zhang Changgeng casually made up an excuse, “I went to have tea with Master Liao. Sometimes, when my inner fire is too strong, I have trouble sleeping. Chen Gu Niang even gave me a soothing powder. I put it in my wallet, but suddenly I can’t find it these past two days.”

Gu Yun was rendered speechless.

Zhang Changgeng continued, “I don’t know where it went.”

Gu Yun looked disappointed—there was always someone who touched a nerve.

After a moment of silent torment, Gu Yun finally took out the cowhide sachet from his bosom and handed it to Zhang Changgeng wordlessly.

Zhang Changgeng…

This unexpected shock nearly caused him to bite his own tongue. The once dignified Yan Bei Wang now had a layer of cold sweat on his palm. Stammering, he asked, “W-where did you find this, adoptive father?”

Gu Yun shamelessly feigned innocence and replied, “I don’t know how, but it ended up on my bed. Perhaps when I went crazy from drinking that day, I accidentally took it from you.”

Zhang Changgeng scrutinized him nervously.

Gu Yun, with his well-trained poker face, calmly said, “What’s wrong?”

Zhang Changgeng hurriedly shook his head, feeling relieved. He knew this matter had passed, and they could still be as intimate as before. However, at the same time, he couldn’t help but feel a hidden sense of loss.

Seeing that Zhang Changgeng seemed different, Gu Yun thought he was still bothered. In an attempt to please him, he asked, “I forgot to tell you a few days ago. The Emperor wants you to participate in political affairs. What kind of role do you want? I’ll try to arrange it for you.”

Zhang Changgeng swiftly composed himself and replied earnestly, “Each of the Six Ministries has its own sphere of influence. I shouldn’t intervene and create disturbances. These years, I’ve excelled neither in literary pursuits nor martial arts, and I’ve become accustomed to idleness. If the Emperor wants me to participate, I’ll simply listen and provide my input. Alternatively, I can investigate cases with Jiang from the Great Li Ministry.”

Gu Yun didn’t know if that was what Zhang Changgeng truly desired, but it was certainly what the Emperor wanted to hear. He felt a pang of sympathy and didn’t want to subject Zhang Changgeng to humiliation in the Long’an Palace.

However, that was impossible. Gu Yun bore the surname Li, and even if he became an idle prince in the future, he couldn’t hide in the An Ding Marquis’s residence forever.

“If you want to join the Great Li Ministry, you can do so later. Don’t go now,” Gu Yun said, “Recently, the Emperor has been investigating the Ziluojin black market. Jiang is already overwhelmed. It’s chaotic enough as it is. Don’t get involved and drag the Lin Yuan Pavilion into it.”

Zhang Changgeng replied with an “Oh,” not surprised by this news. “So soon? The Emperor indeed can’t wait. I was wondering when he would revive the Rongjin Order.”

Gu Yun asked, “How did you know?”

“I guessed,” small snowflakes started to fall, and Zhang Changgeng casually picked up a small oil-paper umbrella from outside a monk’s quarters. The umbrella was small, and Zhang Changgeng kept pushing it towards Gu Yun. Soon, the exposed shoulder was covered with a shallow layer of snowflakes. He didn’t brush them off and continued walking at a steady pace, as if enjoying the sight. “In fact, it’s not really a guess. My adoptive father and I think that regardless of the Emperor, the late Emperor, or even the Martial Emperor—they all view Ziluojin as a major threat. Although they have different levels of wisdom and martial prowess, they are united in their determination to strictly control it. Otherwise, from now on, every major merchant, foreigner, savage, and even corrupt officials with access to resources… everyone would be wielding such a blade.”

Gu Yun: “Like those bandits in Nanjiang.”

“Not wrong,” Zhang Changgeng replied. “That’s just the black market, just bandits, just a few mountains in small Nanjiang. What if it expands to the entire Daliang region? What if everyone has a ‘blade’ in their hands? The court cannot cater to everyone’s interests. At that time, they will inevitably be at the mercy of the ‘biggest blade.’ Everyone will want to grasp that dragon-slaying treasure sword. They will become lawless, fighting and devouring each other, like nurturing venomous creatures. Once the venomous king emerges, whose throne will it be?”

Gu Yun frowned. “Changgeng, I’ll listen to these words, but don’t mention them to anyone else. So, according to your opinion, is it imperative to revive the Rongjin Order?”

“Not necessarily. Ideally, we should continue the late Emperor’s controlled regulation of Ziluojin, maintaining stability. We should focus on solving the pressing issue of silver… Since the introduction of the Puppet Cultivation, a lot of the annual harvest has rotted in the granaries. The price of rice has become increasingly low, and hoarding has turned from grains to gold and silver. With such a meager amount of gold and silver stored in the granaries, the national treasury cannot be replenished out of thin air. Increasing coin minting seems inadequate at the moment. We have to rely on the foreigners. Once the Ancient Silk Road is fully opened, it will be an extraordinary achievement for my adoptive father. Even a hundred rebellions would not compensate for it.”

“With money, it’s like a house having beams, and people having a backbone. We can slowly adjust internal affairs while simmering on a low heat. Although the problems remain, the situation won’t be exacerbated. A century of peace and prosperity may be secured, smoothly transitioning for one or two generations, and perhaps we will find a way out.” Zhang Changgeng sighed, “It’s a pity that the recent rebellions were all related to the black market. It’s not surprising that the Emperor’s reaction has been excessive. That’s why I’ve been suspecting that the matters in the East Sea and Nanjiang are not coincidental. They are using the power of the Lin Yuan Pavilion to investigate. I’ve just faintly grasped a lead, but they are cunning. Adoptive father, you must be careful.”

After listening, Gu Yun remained silent for a long time, and his face showed no signs of joy or anger. Zhang Changgeng didn’t bother him and slowly accompanied him out of the Huguo Temple. The evening drum resounded in the temple as they wandered in the mountains, surrounded by silence, with the distant cawing of ravens. The mountain snow fell silently.

General Zhong Chan had the ability to stabilize the country and ensure the peace of the nation. However, he couldn’t teach the talents needed to govern and rule the country. For the first time, a strong sense of regret arose in Gu Yun’s heart, and he thought, “Why did he have to bear the surname Li?”

If he didn’t bear the surname Li, it would have been as easy as turning one’s hand over to enter officialdom through the imperial examination. Perhaps he would have already risen swiftly, becoming a famous statesman of his generation, instead of speaking only a few words to himself in this dilapidated temple, declaring that he wanted to be nothing more than an idle prince, a decorative flower vase.

…It’s all fate.

Zhang Changgeng said, “The weather is bad, adoptive father, your clothes are too thin. When we return, don’t ride the horse. Sit in my carriage.”

Gu Yun was lost in thought. When he heard Zhang Changgeng speak, he suddenly turned his head but unexpectedly met Changgeng’s gaze. Gu Yun’s heart skipped a beat. He had never noticed before that Changgeng’s eyes were like this—so focused, faintly reflecting a touch of snow, as if he wanted to encapsulate Gu Yun entirely within them.

Zhang Changgeng was initially taken aback but quickly averted his gaze. He pretended to casually lower his head and brushed his sleeve, which had become wet and sticky from the snow. Gu Yun then noticed that half of Changgeng’s shoulder was covered in a layer of cold mist from the snowflakes. Yet he had not uttered a word, and he had walked alongside Gu Yun throughout.

Gu Yun reached out and touched it, feeling the icy coldness. “You…”

With his raised hand, Changgeng’s expression subtly tightened for a moment. Although it was fleeting, it couldn’t escape Gu Yun’s eyes.

Gu Yun was usually unconcerned about trivial matters, carefree and seldom observant. However, after that awkward incident, he became somewhat sensitive.

In addition to that, he had to worry about the Rongjin Order and the Emperor’s crackdown on the Ziluojin black market. He also had to indirectly bring out the Ling Shu Academy’s top figure, Master Feng, with a letter. It was truly mentally and physically exhausting, and the bitterness was beyond words.

On the twenty-third day of the first lunar month, Gu Yun bid farewell to Shen Yi, who was about to depart for his assignment in the southwest.

On the twenty-fifth day of the first lunar month, the Emperor went to the Imperial Garden. Somehow, the dragon sedan chair broke halfway, and a eunuch unintentionally mentioned the incident where Master Feng knelt on the ground to adjust the steam-powered sedan chair for him. This reminded the Emperor, and his anger subsided by half. After inquiring a bit, he learned that the old man had been lonely and deserted since his imprisonment. Apart from the students from the Ling Shu Academy who visited him, not even a family member came to bring him food. The Emperor happened to be in a good mood and felt a bit sorry for the old man. He sighed and ordered Zhang Fenghan to be released, only punishing him by deducting half a year’s salary as a slight reprimand, thus letting the matter pass.

With these two matters resolved, Gu Yun felt that he couldn’t stay in the capital for another day. He immediately submitted a memorial requesting to return to Loulan.

There was no objection from the Emperor, and it was approved on the same day.

On the day before Gu Yun’s departure, it was already late at night. After taking his medicine and lying down, although Changgeng had given him an acupuncture treatment, it was only for temporary relief and couldn’t cure his headache. As he was tossing and turning, having difficulty falling asleep, someone suddenly arrived from the palace. The Marquis of Anding was urgently summoned to the palace for an audience.

Whether it was due to the effect of the medicine or something else, Gu Yun’s eyelid suddenly twitched.