“Your Majesty can rest assured now.” Mr. Ya reached out to support the white-haired man. It turned out that this person who had claimed to be an envoy and had frequent interactions with Daliang was actually the Pope himself.

Mr. Ya said, “Although there have been numerous deviations along the way, the final result didn’t waste the time and effort you spent here.”

The Pope gazed at the ferocious sea monster fleet on the vast ocean surface, his face displaying a tranquil indifference, as if he not only lacked joy but also carried a trace of indescribable sadness and melancholy.

“It’s too early to talk about the result,” the Pope said, “Fate is a mysterious thing. We cannot even predict one person’s destiny, let alone that of a nation. Only God knows.”

Mr. Ya asked, “For example, did that idiot Galleon lose control and reveal that matter to Gu Yun ahead of time?”

Galleon deeply hated Gu Yun, the last member of the Gu family. Besides this hatred, there was nothing else left in his entire life. He had long abandoned the dignity of the Wolf King and became a mad dog. He cared only about striking Gu Yun and didn’t care about disrupting anyone’s plans. Unfortunately, they had no choice but to cooperate with this mad dog. The deep-seated grudges between the Eighteen Tribes and the Central Plains were too profound, and the power that the Divine Maiden had concealed in the imperial capital was too important.

“I truly admire Gu Yun,” Mr. Ya sighed, “If I were him, I might not have done anything extraordinary. Yet, he silently handled those matters. Otherwise, the facts we uncovered today would be even more insane than they are now. The garrisons in various regions might have already… What did they call it? ‘Qingjun Cè’?”

“The effect was not ideal, but we had no other choice,” the Pope said. “The timing was fleeting, and we are all trapped beasts seeking a way out. Either we devour others or be devoured by them. Countless eyes are fixed on this massive and abundant herbivorous creature. We must take the first step, or else in three to five years, we may not have the strength to fight back.”

Mr. Ya looked out over the vast expanse of the sea, where water stretched as far as the eye could see. He couldn’t understand and asked, “Your Majesty, if this is just an herbivorous creature, why do we need to go to such lengths to remove its claws?”

“Whether it is carnivorous or herbivorous is not determined by its size or claws,” the Pope murmured. “You need to look at whether it is greedy, whether it has a heart that desires to devour and tear apart… Can you smell that scent?”

Mr. Ya hesitated. Purple flowing gold, when burned with sufficient purity, almost had no smell. Perhaps only Gu Yun and the dogs could detect it. He tentatively asked, “Your Majesty, are you referring to… the fishy smell of the sea?”

“It’s a stench, my child,” the Pope said in a low voice. “If there is such a thing as a devil, then undoubtedly it is this small mineral, with its blue-purple flames. Since the day it emerged from the ground, it has ignited this cursed era. It has turned God’s children into hearts of iron monsters.”

But isn’t the machine that burns purple flowing gold man-made?

Mr. Ya shrugged, not refuting it, but with a hint of skepticism.

The Pope no longer explained. He simply lowered his head, murmuring words as he began to kiss the ring on which a scepter was engraved, engaging in a simple prayer.

“Please forgive me,” he whispered, “Please forgive me.”

At that moment, a cluster of azure signal fires suddenly shot up from the forefront of the Vanguard Sea Dragons, piercing through the sky.

Fire seemed to merge into Mr. Ya’s eyes as well. He barely restrained his excitement, but his emotions were still difficult to suppress. “Your Majesty, it’s about to begin!”

It was the eighth day of the fourth month in the seventh year of Long’an. Three days after Gu Yun moved from the hot spring retreat to the third day of the imperial capital’s prison.

The prison was quite cool and gloomy. Fortunately, with the arrival of spring in the imperial capital, the chill gradually dissipated, and it was already warm enough. The straw pallet in the cell was softer than a marching bed, making it tolerable to stay here for a few days. Gu Yun considered it a chance to enjoy some coolness.

Silence surrounded him, and there wasn’t even a fellow inmate with whom he could chat and boast. The prison guards were like iron puppets, incapable of conversation. This was the innermost cell of the prison, and only those close to the royal family or nobility, such as the King of Wei, had the qualifications to be confined here. Even the Commander-in-Chief of the Northern Garrison, Tan Hongfei, didn’t meet the requirements.

The last person who had qualified to be imprisoned here was the emperor’s own brother, the Prince of Wei. Gu Yun was given the privilege of a single cell, so he had no choice but to stay alone.

Even if someone were to talk to him, he wouldn’t hear it—he had already lost his hearing since he hastily drank the medicine before leaving. The color of the small mole on the corner of his eye and earlobe had faded to the point of almost being invisible. He didn’t carry the colored glass mirror with him, so he could only vaguely count his own fingers when he opened his eyes. The sound of the iron puppets coming in and out was barely audible, somewhat indistinct.

Of course, all the iron implements on his body had been confiscated, but Gu Yun still had a way.

He possessed an exclusive secret—a game he used to play with Shen Yi when they were young, competing to see who could dismantle the small parts from the puppets in the Marquis’s residence at the fastest speed. The two mischievous kids often gathered to study how to disassemble the iron puppets guarding the Marquis’s mansion. On one occasion, Shen Yi failed to dodge in time and was mistaken as an enemy by an iron puppet, resulting in a direct blow that almost cost him his life. Of course, Gu Yun didn’t escape a severe beating from the old Marquis as well.

The lesson learned from that incident didn’t make Gu Yun more cautious; instead, it fueled his determination. They researched extensively, believing there must be a way as intuitive as picking pockets to swiftly dismantle a part with a single move.

Later, they discovered that there were indeed places that could be dismantled, but it was limited to insignificant parts such as the iron monsters’ masks and the markings on their arms. As a result, Gu Yun’s exceptional skill remained unseen.

But now, he finally had an opportunity to demonstrate it.

The previous day, when the iron puppet prison guard brought him his meal, Gu Yun quickly grabbed and plucked the slightly rusted identification plate from its arm—it was effortless. He ground the metal piece on a stone, first removing the shackles on its hands and feet. He stretched his body lazily, then tore a segment of the bedsheet to make a makeshift rope. He caught a little mouse and kept it as a pet, saving a couple of bites from each meal to feed it and playing with it whenever he had spare time.

This incident was deliberately brought to light by someone with ulterior motives. Gu Yun was aware of it. Five years ago, during his covert investigation, he had already erased some damning evidence, but he didn’t touch Wu He. Firstly, because he was just a dying old dog, and secondly… perhaps he had his own selfish reasons. He was unwilling to let that deeply engraved truth disappear without a trace.

Gu Yun acknowledged that it was his mishandling. If he had the same level of composure and astuteness as he did now, he would have understood that he should either gather all those things and release them when the timing was right or ruthlessly destroy everything from the past, burying it forever, never to see the light of day again.

A thousand mistakes and ten thousand errors, he should not have hesitated when he should have been resolute.

Just like the late Emperor Yuanhe. If he hadn’t been so hesitant and indecisive, there might not have been a Gu Yun in the world, and perhaps there would be a different kind of peace.

Gu Yun didn’t know what would happen next, nor did he know if the inexperienced Chang Geng could truly stabilize the military’s loyalty. But now, trapped in the prison, worrying was useless. He could only relax and gather his strength.

Later, the mouse found him annoying and didn’t want to deal with him anymore, so it pretended to be dead and refused to acknowledge him.

The little Marquis, who was despised by the cat and ignored by the dog, had nothing to do and sat against the wall, practicing meditation. He felt that the mouse’s attitude was similar to Chang Geng’s when he was young.

Gu Yun’s mind wandered aimlessly as he thought about Chang Geng, and he couldn’t help but sigh. He turned the iron piece on his fingertip into a windmill and exclaimed to the mouse, “He’d rather complain about me disturbing him every day.”

The mouse responded with a round, plump buttock.

Gu Yun took a deep breath and forcibly expelled all these distracting thoughts. Indifferently, he reached out and grabbed the moldy old blanket from the straw pallet, placed it on himself, and closed his eyes to rest.

To face the upcoming challenges, he needed to be in good spirits.

No one could disturb the half-deaf man in the dungeon. Gu Yun soon fell asleep. He had a dream in the cold, musty air.

Gu Yun dreamt that he lay face up beneath a gigantic guillotine. The weight of the massive blade, exceeding a thousand kilograms, pressed against his chest, gradually crushing his flesh and penetrating his bones, slicing him apart bit by bit. He lost all connection with his body, except for the wound on his chest, causing him excruciating pain that gripped his heart and tortured his liver. The cries, sounds of gunfire, the mournful wailing of the border cities, and the intermittent, disordered melody of a pipa like a thin thread… all resounded in his ears.

He was cleaved by the guillotine, but there was no blood at the wound. Instead, a signal arrow fell out, emitting a shrill screech as it shot into the sky, causing the mountains and rivers to tremble.

Gu Yun abruptly groaned and woke up. The old wound on his chest inexplicably throbbed, and the penetrating sound of the signal arrow from his dream lingered in his ears, forming a distinctive tinnitus.

It seemed there was a peculiar connection between him and his Xuantie Battalion. That night, at the ancient Silk Road military camp in the Western Regions, the first ominous signal arrow exploded into a dazzling display in the night sky.

The urgent report only arrived in the capital city one day later. The messenger eagle had only one leg remaining and gasped for breath as it arrived at the panic-stricken Northern Garrison. It didn’t have the chance to utter a word before it fell to the ground and died.

Two hours later, news of the assault on the Western Regions’ Xuantie Battalion spread throughout the imperial court and the nation, creating shockwaves.

The sand tiger war chariots were the greatest nemesis of the lightly armored iron cavalry. For a moment, the air was filled with dust and smoke, the flames engulfed the scene, and the warhorses let out long neighs as they perished, with the iron cavalry falling in large numbers.

However, the Xuantie Battalion was, after all, the Xuantie Battalion. After a moment of chaos, they quickly responded. Without hesitation, the Xuan armor pressed forward. Upon receiving the news, He Ronghui immediately led the Xuan Eagles back and decisively intercepted the sand tiger’s reinforcements from the air. Giant war chariots consumed an excessive amount of fuel, and once their supply was cut off, they would become nothing more than a pile of scrap metal.

But the approaching sand tigers were not bluffing. Behind them, to everyone’s concern, was an army of tens of thousands, with banners reaching the sky.

People from various foreign nations, the rebellious Western Regions, and even the plundering Indians who took advantage of the chaos… There were even more than they had imagined. Even though they were an unruly mob, they were still a “mob.” With the sand tigers at their side, the Xuantie Battalion could only rely on their heavy armor to withstand the attack. Soon, both sides reached the point of a fierce clash.

He Ronghui urgently opened the Ziluojin reserves in the Western Regions’ arsenal, only to be surprised to find that the supplies were already stretched thin. When Emperor Long’an thoroughly investigated the smuggling of Ziluojin, Gu Yun had no choice but to temporarily halt his hidden channels. The portion allocated to the Xuantie Battalion by the court was only enough to sustain their routine patrols and couldn’t possibly cope with such a sudden large-scale battle.

He Ronghui dispatched people to arrange the distribution, but the path for transporting Ziluojin was once again obstructed. The news of Marquis Anding’s imprisonment had already spread, and no one could clearly explain the situation. In this critical moment, who would dare to send Ziluojin to the Xuantie Battalion without a direct order?

What if they were planning to rebel and march to the capital city?

He Ronghui had no choice but to send the Xuan Eagles to the capital while personally seeking assistance from the nearby Northern Frontier Garrison. However, before the messenger could depart, the 18 tribes outside the Northern Frontier unexpectedly launched an attack. The Wolf King, Galei, led his bewildering troops southward for a personal campaign, and the news “crashed” down like thunder.

After five years of stability, everything outside the iron walls had already turned upside down.

Galei, with his tens of thousands of elite soldiers and thousands of heavy armors, even possessed a type of “eagle” that was unstoppable. It was larger and more deadly than the Xuan Eagles, and it lunged towards the continuous, unwavering Northern Frontier defenses.

The Northwestern region was falling into irreparable chaos. Without the command of Marquis Anding, even if the Xuantie Battalion fought to the last man, they wouldn’t dare to retreat half a step. He Ronghui endured for three days and two nights, depleting his military resources until they reached the bottom. This divine army, painstakingly built up by the efforts of three generations, was on the verge of losing more than half of its strength.

And just at this moment, Chang Geng’s messenger finally arrived.

This inconspicuous prince from the outskirts of the capital city brought Gu Yun’s personal seal, flawlessly imitating Gu Yun’s handwriting.

He handed two letters to the messenger—If the border situation was still stable, the first letter would be given to He Ronghui. It instructed him not to worry about the court, to secretly replenish the Ziluojin reserves in the Western Regions by any means necessary, whether through the black market or other methods, and to immediately restore the military armaments, preparing for battle at any time.

If the border had already changed, then the second letter would be given to He Ronghui, instructing him not to hold his ground and not to linger in battle. Instead, he should swiftly withdraw his forces two hundred miles eastward to within the Jiayuguan Pass, awaiting reinforcements.

Longing for a secure grip on the situation, Chang Geng knew that this deployment was far from sufficient if the worst-case scenario happened.

He couldn’t control the hundred thousand mountains in the southwest, even though Shen Yi was there. He was an airborne commander-in-chief with no foundation, and it was impossible for him to mobilize troops without the drumming orders. The Jiangnan naval forces on the eastern coast were also a cause for concern because General Zhao Youfang belonged to Li Feng. It was impossible for him to use Gu Yun’s personal seal to mobilize troops.

And Chang Geng had a premonition that even if he could quell the fires elsewhere, there must be a fatal blow lurking in the East Sea.

The disastrous news from the Xuan Eagles confirmed his worst assumptions. Chang Geng took a deep breath and released the final wooden bird. He turned around and said to Huo Dan, who had blood blisters forming on the corners of his mouth, “Prepare the horses. I’m going to the palace.”

At the palace gate, Chang Geng was intercepted by the Monk of Enlightenment. The monk, covered in dust, remained calm and composed, as if even the most urgent matter could be dissolved within his neatly arranged scars, dispersing with a Buddhist chant.

Monk of Enlightenment: “Amitabha, Fourth Prince…”

Chang Geng cut him off indifferently, “Master, there’s no need to say more. I’m going to the palace to request an audience, not to force a coup.”

A slight change appeared in the expression of the Monk of Enlightenment, who gestured, “The humble monk believes that Your Highness understands the limits.”

“I don’t have any restraint,” the eloquent Fourth Prince tore apart his gentle facade and spoke frankly, “Since the division of Qinling Mountain, the southeastern and southwestern regions are beyond our control. Even if I could kill Li Feng on the spot, I wouldn’t be able to tidy up the current chaos. Moreover, there is no one who can ascend the throne at the moment. The Crown Prince is only nine years old, and the Empress is nothing more than a useless sickly child. Zixi has a tainted reputation and no support. I…”

He sneered, “I am the son of a barbarian woman from the Northern Wilderness.”

Concern filled the eyes of the Monk of Enlightenment as he looked at him.

“Master, rest assured, I am inherently poisonous. If I were even more willful, I would have already caused calamity to the country and the people. Haven’t I done nothing yet?” Chang Geng’s expression turned calm again. “Now is not the time for these discussions. The enemy has invaded, and I suspect they have long been plotting. This matter is not over. However, their response was too fast. I suspect there are insiders within the palace… perhaps even around Li Feng. Does the Linyuan Pavilion have anyone who can be of use within the palace?”

The Monk of Enlightenment’s expression turned serious, and he gestured, “Your Highness, are you referring to…”

Chang Geng interrupted, “This matter is connected to an old case from twenty years ago and is undoubtedly related to the Northern Barbarians. Investigate anyone who had contact with those two Northern Barbarian women in the palace—anyone. The Northern Barbarian witches are skilled in poison, and they have all sorts of chaotic methods. Don’t let any clues slip away.”

When he mentioned “those two Northern Barbarian women,” his voice remained calm, as if they were unrelated to him.

“I should have found it strange long ago,” Chang Geng murmured, “It was too easy for Li Feng to release Galei, and there was certainly more to it behind the scenes. Unfortunately…”

Unfortunately, he was too young at the time, and his heart, as big as a fist, could only hold a little worry about leaving his hometown.

“If I were born ten years earlier…” Chang Geng suddenly said.

The Monk of Enlightenment’s eyelids twitched.

Chang Geng spoke deliberately, “This world is not the world it claims to be.”

He would never let go of Gu Yun.

“Zixi said that the East Sea Navy is ten years behind other military branches. I am worried that the East Sea is not calm. General Zhao is talented in defending the city, but he may not be able to handle a major battle,” Chang Geng said. “I have already written a letter to my master. The Linyuan Pavilion has a solid foundation in the Jiangnan area. I ask the master for assistance. Please accompany—me!”

The Monk of Enlightenment rarely furrowed his brow. For some reason, the sound of Chang Geng mentioning “Zixi” made him feel alarmed and terrified.

However, there was no time to dwell on a title at this urgent moment. The monk draped himself in coarse, hemp robes and swiftly disappeared into the morning light, rushing off.

As Chang Geng stepped into the palace, a series of bad news came crashing down. The frontline military reports, one after another, caught Emperor Long’an and the entire court off guard…

The Xuantie Battalion retreated from Jiayuguan Pass.

Seven cities in the Northern Frontier were lost overnight… and they couldn’t even wait for the reinforcements from Cai Min.

The rebels in the Southern Frontier conspired with the Southern Sea pirates, launching surprise attacks on the southwestern supply depots…

“Report—”

Everyone in the grand hall turned pale and looked towards the entrance. Li Feng didn’t even have time to make Chang Geng pay respects.

“Emperor, urgent news from eight hundred miles away. A hundred thousand Western Sea navy forces are taking a detour through the Eastern Islands and invading—”

Li Feng’s eyes widened, “Where is Zhao Youfang?”

The messenger choked, tears streaming down his face, “General Zhao has already died for the country.”