Gu Yun hurriedly put on his clothes and stepped out of the inner room, only to be surprised to find Changgeng in the outer chamber, still awake. It seemed that he had just put on his coat. There was a small pocket-sized oil lamp lit beside him, and on his knee was a book that he had only read halfway through.

The outer chamber was usually where the servants who served at night stayed. Gu Yun was used to simplicity and didn’t keep anyone to keep watch. Only the old steward occasionally came in the first half of the night to add charcoal to the stove in the room.

“Changgeng?” Gu Yun exclaimed in astonishment. “Why are you here? I thought it was Wang Bo…”

“I was waiting for you to fall asleep before leaving,” Changgeng replied.

“You, a prince who has obtained the Jade Tablet, why would you suffer in the same place as the servants?” Gu Yun furrowed his brow and hinted with meaning.

“It’s just a false reputation. It’s better for me to serve as your subordinate comfortably,” Changgeng said indifferently. He got up, took the small kettle that was warming on the stove, poured a bowl of herbal tea, and handed it to Gu Yun. “Are you going to the palace? If you don’t want to wear a fur coat, at least drink something hot to keep yourself warm.”

Gu Yun remained silent.

He felt a strange sense of discomfort. Even when marrying a wife, it probably wouldn’t be as thoughtful as Changgeng. As soon as this thought arose, he slapped himself in his mind and thought, “What nonsense, am I going crazy?”

Gu Yun took the cup of herbal tea and drank it all in one go. When he handed the cup back, their fingers accidentally touched each other. Changgeng seemed to be pricked by a needle and quickly pulled back. Then he turned around as if nothing had happened and put the kettle back in its place.

Watching his back, Gu Yun’s gaze dimmed slightly, and he thought, “I can’t go on like this. When I return from the palace, no matter what, I have to have a good talk with him.”

Outside, the palace servants were urging them. Gu Yun couldn’t delay any longer and had to hurry.

In the frosty January, Gu Yun’s already heavy head became clear as the cold wind blew, as if being pricked by needles.

The leading eunuch dared not raise his head. Walking under the palace wall, on both sides, every three steps there was a crossbow with the heads of mythical creatures lined up, looking fierce with their teeth emitting faint white vapor. The gears in their necks turned slowly, emitting a friction sound resembling a roar, making the crimson walls and glazed tiles even more forbidding to look at.

The personal eunuch of Emperor Long’an, Zhu Xiaoqiao, led a few people out from the Western Warm Pavilion. They happened to cross paths with Gu Yun. They were several Westerners, the leader of whom had white hair, was slim and tall, with features resembling a falcon. He had piercing eyes, a tall and hooked nose, and barely visible lips, only a narrow slit resembling a knife mark.

Zhu Xiaoqiao hurriedly stepped forward and bowed to Gu Yun, saying, “Marquis, these are envoys sent by the Pope from the West.”

The white-haired man carefully sized up Gu Yun and asked, “Is this the esteemed Marquis Anding?”

A layer of light snow fell on Gu Yun’s eyelashes, and he was wrapped in a chill. He politely arched his hand.

The white-haired man also placed his hand solemnly over his chest and bowed to him, saying, “I didn’t expect Marquis Anding to be such a young and handsome man. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Gu Yun replied, “It’s an exaggeration.”

The two groups passed each other, and when the foreigners had gone far, Gu Yun glanced at Zhu Xiaoqiao.

Zhu Xiaoqiao blinked at him and said, “I don’t know what those Westerners discussed with the Emperor, but His Majesty is in a very good mood. He kept saying to invite you. Marquis, don’t worry, it’s not a bad thing.”

This eunuch had a notorious reputation and was truly a master of flattery. But his relationship with Gu Yun was somewhat decent. He had looked after Gu Yun as he grew up. Once, Gu Yun happened to encounter him when he had somehow offended the late Emperor. He took the opportunity to speak a few good words to the late Emperor, saving Gu Yun’s life.

Although Zhu Xiaoqiao had a despicable character, surprisingly, he remembered this bit of kindness and always kept it in mind. He had even helped to establish a connection during the incident with Zhang Fenghan a few days ago.

However, Gu Yun couldn’t help but worry when Zhu Xiaoqiao said that. If the Emperor wasn’t too pleased, he still had some bottom line in his heart—most likely someone had implicated him in buying Ziluojin from the black market.

Well, since he had already taken care of it and there was no evidence, at most they would engage in a verbal dispute… But what did it mean when the Emperor was “in a very good mood”?

Gu Yun’s eyelid twitched even more vigorously.

When he entered, Li Feng was bowing his head to read a memorial. Emperor Long’an, under the lamp, didn’t look particularly imposing. He looked even more haggard than Gu Yun, who had just recovered from a headache. Before he could pay his respects, Li Feng waved his hand and said with a pleasant expression, “There’s no one else here. Uncle, you don’t need to be so formal with me.”

Li Feng then turned to Zhu Xiaoqiao and said, “Go and see if there’s any soup left from the afternoon meeting. Bring a bowl to warm Uncle’s hands.”

“Being overly attentive,” Gu Yun sighed inwardly, “he’s either being hypocritical or a thief.”

Li Feng didn’t know how Gu Yun was arranging things in his mind. He asked cheerfully, “I remember Uncle mentioned before that some of the Ziluojin obtained by the rebel Fu Zhicheng came from Nanyang?”

Gu Yun replied, “Yes, I’m sorry for my incompetence. I couldn’t ascertain the source of this batch of Ziluojin.”

Li Feng didn’t take offense at all. “No worries. Those rebels are very cunning. Uncle is unfamiliar with the place and managed to capture them by surprise, breaking their secret tunnels. It’s already a great achievement. If you consider yourself incompetent, then the entire court of civil and military officials would be worthless.”

Gu Yun didn’t dare to say anything.

“The black market for Ziluojin within Daliang is rampant,” Li Feng shifted the topic quickly, “I’ve been sending people to privately investigate and found that a large portion of the supply actually comes from outside the country.”

Gu Yun understood immediately. Those within the country who leaked the goods from the official oil must have received the news through various channels, causing them to remain silent. The people Jiang Chong and the others uncovered were just small fish involved in illegal mining, so he didn’t respond.

Li Feng continued, “Yes, the small-time miners usually appear on the grasslands of the Northern Barbarians.”

“Correct,” Li Feng smiled, “but you didn’t say it all—Uncle, take a look at this.”

Gu Yun hesitated as he took the secret report thrown to him by Li Feng. He quickly scanned through it, and his mind buzzed.

The report detailed several routes for illegal mining and selling of Ziluojin, and Gu Yun was familiar with most of them. The exception was the last one, where it was written “Loulan Country.”

How could Loulan be involved?

Gu Yun’s Xuantie Camp was stationed near the entrance of the ancient Silk Road, adjacent to Loulan Country. He had never heard that those drunkards in Loulan were aware of Ziluojin…

Where did this secret report come from?

What was the purpose of the confidential envoy who submitted it?

Li Feng asked, “What’s wrong?”

Countless thoughts raced through Gu Yun’s mind, and he felt a cold sweat forming. “Your Majesty, Xuantie Camp has been neighboring Loulan Country for many years, and I never knew there was a Ziluojin mine in Loulan Country. Forgive my rudeness, but may I ask who submitted this report and what evidence supports it?”

“Oh, why is Uncle still so suspicious?” Li Feng laughed, “I didn’t say that you had any connection with those petty miners. But it’s not surprising that you don’t know about this matter.”

Gu Yun took a deep breath and suppressed his emotions, making an appearance of listening attentively.

Li Feng continued, “It’s a long story. In September of last year, Uncle led a group of people to the southern border. While you were away, Loulan Country sought help from the remaining Xuantie Camp soldiers to suppress a gang of bandits. General Qiu Wenshan sent troops there, and they achieved a great victory, capturing and killing about a hundred bandits. They also rescued a group of Indian merchants who were held captive by the bandits. Because these merchants had customs documents from our Daliang, General Qiu escorted them to the Western Gate Post. Unexpectedly, the post discovered that the documents were fake.”

Li Feng was in a great mood and paused intentionally, as if deliberately arousing curiosity. However, when he turned his head, he saw Gu Yun listening with an inexplicably grave expression, without any intention of pursuing further questions. The Emperor couldn’t help but feel a little annoyed.

He had no choice but to continue with a dull tone, “According to the law, those who forge customs documents should be handed over to the Inspectorate for investigation and punishment. After the inspection by the Northwestern Inspectorate, it was discovered that these Indian people were not a trading caravan but a group of ‘Jindouzi’ from the black market of Ziluojin!”

‘Jindouzi’ referred to the desperadoes who smuggled Ziluojin.

“It’s quite a coincidence. My confidential envoy had just arrived in the Western Regions, and his feet hadn’t even touched the ground when he caught this group of ‘Jindouzi.’ According to their confessions, they were originally operating in a private mine outside Beida Pass. Recently, they obtained a ’treasure map’ that marked the presence of a large amount of Ziluojin in the underground of Loulan Country, so they came to try their luck. Isn’t this an extraordinary event? I actually found out about what lies beneath Loulan before the Loulan people themselves.”

Suddenly, Gu Yun recalled the group of bandits he had captured four years ago, and his hairs stood on end.

That group of bandits had already been secretly silenced by him and Shen Yi. Afterward, Gu Yun had sent people to secretly investigate Loulan Country on multiple occasions but found neither the so-called “Ziluojin mine” nor any similar incidents.

Unexpectedly, after several years, just as he had gradually put this matter aside, it resurfaced in such a manner!

Moreover… why was Qiu Wenshan the one who ordered the military intervention?

Qiu Wenshan was a major general in the Xuantie Camp who was in charge of defense arrangements. He wasn’t involved in commercial routes. If someone experienced had handled it, they would not have directly handed the people over to the Northwestern Inspectorate without verifying the authenticity of the documents—since the Northwestern Inspectorate directly reported to the central authority, once they took over the case, the Xuantie Camp would have no authority over subsequent matters.

Gu Yun took Shen Yi away, but the three commanders of the camps were present. Where did everyone go at that time?

Gu Yun asked, “May I dare to ask Your Majesty when the bandits attacked?”

Li Feng replied, “It was at the end of last year. Why?”

Gu Yun forced a smile and said, “It’s nothing. I’m just a bit curious. The Western Region bandits have been eradicated for a long time, so why did they suddenly resurface?”

His headache worsened, as if the suppressed effects of the medicine were resurfacing again. That’s right, at the end of the year, there was the Grand Gathering of Nations at the entrance of the ancient Silk Road. The Xuantie Camp was supposed to send additional personnel to provide protection, and the annual tribute from the North Frontier was to be transported to the capital through the Northwest. Usually, a portion of the Xuanqi would be temporarily reassigned… but everyone was sent out.

Why did it happen at this particular time?

Why did the arrival of the “Jindouzi” discovered by the Northwestern Commander coincide with the arrival of the Emperor’s confidential envoy, leaving no room for maneuver?

And amidst all this, why didn’t he receive any information beforehand or afterwards?

Gu Yun’s mind was in chaos, and he suddenly felt breathless in the warm pavilion that felt like spring all year round.

Li Feng said, “The Western Region bandits usually roam outside Daliang, and it would not be appropriate for you to send troops without receiving a request for assistance. It’s indeed difficult to deal with them. Today, I specifically summoned Uncle not to inquire about the number of bandits over there, but to entrust Uncle with an important matter.”

Gu Yun looked up at him.

Li Feng’s eyes blazed, “My confidential envoy has already infiltrated deep into Loulan’s territory. It’s highly likely that there is indeed a rare Ziluojin mine underground in Loulan… Does Uncle understand what I mean?”

Gu Yun’s heart sank slowly, and he said word by word, “I apologize for my dullness. Please clarify, Your Majesty.”

Li Feng patted his shoulder. Gu Yun’s body felt as if it would never warm up, always like a stone that had been frozen for three days.

“I share my heart with Uncle. I am well aware of the internal and external troubles in Daliang,” Li Feng sighed and said, “I am deeply worried. In the midnight dreams, there is no place to vent. Bearing the weight of the country is not easy.”

Gu Yun carefully pondered his words and said tactfully, “Your Majesty, you have countless responsibilities and are the hope of the people. Please take good care of your health. I am not familiar with political affairs, but in the past few years, I have witnessed the gradual development of the ancient Silk Road. It becomes more active every year, and the merchants from the northwest have begun to expand their business. The people in the Central Plains have always been hardworking. I believe that in just a few years, this prosperity will spread throughout Daliang. By then…”

He chose his words carefully, but Li Feng wasn’t foolish. He could clearly hear the rejection in Gu Yun’s words. Emperor Long’an had initially summoned Gu Yun with great enthusiasm, but instead of receiving flattery and praise, he was doused with a basin of cold water.

“Gu Qing,” Li Feng suddenly changed his address and interrupted him without ceremony, “You really are unfamiliar with political affairs. The prosperity of the trade route and the money earned in recent years are undeniable, but can you guarantee that it will continue like this? Can you understand the affairs of merchants? I, for one, don’t know. An Ding Hou, besides being capable of fighting on the battlefield, now also understands the ways of commerce and trade.”

Gu Yun knew that when he heard the words “Gu Qing,” he should immediately shut up and follow orders, doing whatever he was told to do. He fell silent for a moment. The oil lamp behind the Emperor, for some reason, suddenly flickered unsteadily and made a slight “crackling” sound.

Gu Yun thought that not long ago, he had solemnly told Jiang Daren that he “dared not demean himself”…

Li Feng rubbed his temple with his hand, suppressing his anger, and gave them both a way out. He said somewhat stiffly, “Forget it, you should go back and rest for now. I have entrusted this matter to you. Take your time to think about it. It’s still not spring yet, and the northwest is bitterly cold. There’s no need for you to rush back…”

“Your Majesty.” Gu Yun closed his eyes slightly and suddenly knelt down, saying slowly, “I beg Your Majesty’s pardon. Ziluojin is undoubtedly important, but forgive my dullness. I fail to understand Your Majesty’s intentions. The prosperity of the ancient Silk Road has not come easily. Is Your Majesty truly willing to abandon it for the sake of a fictitious Ziluojin mine?”

“The ancient Silk Road has achieved its current state thanks in no small part to your efforts, Gu Qing. I also understand the years of hard work you have put into it. Do you think I don’t feel heartache?” Li Feng patiently argued with him. “But in such a vast country, it’s like a dilapidated house with leaks everywhere. With even a little wind and rain, I have to exhaust myself trying to plug one hole after another. Where is there not a shortage of resources?”

Gu Yun sneered in his heart but couldn’t show it on his face, so he remained expressionless.

“The ground is cold. I see that Uncle’s complexion is not good, and the medicinal effects have not completely dissipated. You don’t have to kneel all the time,” Li Feng’s expression softened, attempting to reason with Gu Yun, “I remember when I was young, Grand Tutor Lin once said that the strength of a country lies in ‘heaven’s bestowal’ and ‘human effort,’ does Uncle remember?”

Gu Yun said, “I remember, he said, ‘Heaven’s bestowal includes the mountains, rivers, plants, animals, and underground gold; Human effort refers to the wisdom of sages, craftsmanship, fire, machinery, and armor. These two aspects are like beams and pillars, relying on each other, and neither can be neglected. Those who rule must keep this in mind.’”

“Uncle truly has an exceptional memory,” Li Feng lowered his gaze and looked at him. “Now, both of these beams and pillars have been hollowed out by worms. What should I do?”

In truth, Gu Yun wanted to say, “If you didn’t implement that absurd Command Law, maybe there wouldn’t be so many worms.” But saying it wouldn’t make a difference. He was repenting for his past mistakes, holding his dog son in his arms, behind closed doors.

This exchange reminded Li Feng of their younger days when they studied together. Gu Yun had been weak and frequently fell ill, taking medicine every few days. He had a bad temper and didn’t like to interact with people, but he treated their little group of brothers like a responsible uncle. Even though he was younger than the Prince Wei, whenever there was something delicious or fun, he would save it for them without competing for it. He would answer any question and fulfill any request. Li Feng had always liked him very much.

“Get up quickly,” Li Feng’s face finally lost its anger. “Uncle is the sharp edge of the nation, and I still rely on you to stabilize the four corners.”

Upon hearing this, Gu Yun slowly bent down and lightly touched his fingertips to his forehead, which was resting on the ground.

Li Feng let out a sigh of relief, feeling that this person had finally come around. Gu Yun had become more tactful over the years, understanding the situation and no longer exploding like he did a few years ago. Perhaps his slightly excessive reaction to the mention of “Loulan” was because of his deep emotional attachment… Gu Yun had spent over five years there, and it was understandable.

With this thought, Li Feng’s heart softened considerably. He even intended to reach out and personally support Gu Yun.

However, before he could extend his hand, Gu Yun had already stood up straight and calmly said, “Your Majesty, although Loulan is small, it has always been friendly towards our dynasty. During the rebellions of many Western Region countries in the past, our army was besieged in the desert for over twenty days. The only people who provided us with information and secretly transported provisions were the people of Loulan. Later, many countries, including the Western Regions, the Western Territories, and Tianzhu, entered into a new agreement with Daliang through the ancient Silk Road, and Loulan was among them—”

Li Feng’s hand, which had been reaching out, froze in midair. He was momentarily stunned, then became extremely angry and shouted, “Enough!”

“Forcing an attack due to coveting another country’s possessions is unrighteous; forsaking old friendships and breaking treaties is unjust!” Gu Yun showed no sign of stopping. Every word was sharp, landing on the floor of the warm pavilion like a knife, without any hesitation.

Li Feng was so angry that he trembled. “Shut up!”

He swept his hand over the writing materials on the desk and picked up an inkstone, fiercely hurling it. Gu Yun didn’t dodge, allowing the inkstone to strike heavily against the light armor on his shoulder, making a crisp sound. The ink, still wet, flowed down the brocade robe of the Marquis of Anding.

Li Feng said, “Gu Yun, what are you trying to do?”

Gu Yun remained composed as he finished speaking, “It is inauspicious to serve an unrighteous and unjust leader. The 50,000 soldiers of the Xuantie Camp, though unafraid of death, dare not follow this order. I implore Your Majesty to retract your command.”