Let Go of that Shou Chapter 25

Chapter 25

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On the third day of March, the martial arts examination of Dayu began. Since the founder of Dayu, Li Mou, rose to power as a martial artist, it had been four hundred and eighty-six years. Over the years, the examinations for both civil and military talents had developed, displaying an unprecedented prosperity.

Until this year’s martial arts examination, the number of selected candidates had reached nearly four thousand. Starting from the day of the Dragon Head Raising Ceremony on the second day of the second month, large numbers of martial artists from various places surged towards the capital to participate in the selection. For a while, candidates were unprecedented in number, surpassing the scale of the imperial examination held once every two years.

The capital also witnessed the largest number of candidates in the history of martial arts examinations. Similar to the imperial examination, the martial examination consisted of four levels: childhood test, township test, regional test, and palace test. After the regional test on the second day of the second month, nearly a hundred individuals remained out of the initial four thousand, waiting for the martial arts examination palace test scheduled for the third day of March.

Among the nearly a hundred individuals was included Yu Changqing, who, being a constable in the capital, had the privilege of entering the regional test without going through the local examinations. As the saying goes, mastering martial arts could lead to wealth and nobility, bringing peace to the world. Entering officialdom through imperial service could be a prestigious path.

While those in the martial world often looked down upon official salaries from the court, they were still attracted to the prospects of vast fertile lands and beautiful spouses. This indicated that not everyone in the world adhered to the philosophy of “I laugh arrogantly with my sword raised to the sky, and after I finish laughing, I go to sleep.” Comparatively, high-ranking officials and substantial salaries seemed to have a clear advantage over the integrity of martial heroes.

However, martial artists who bowed to the court did not always gain respect in return. The martial arts examination consisted of two parts: an internal examination focusing on strategy, military tactics, camp formations, astronomy, and geography; and an external examination involving archery, lifting stones, and sparring. Those who failed the internal examination were not allowed to participate in the external examination, effectively filtering out nearly half of the illiterate martial artists.

Chaos ensued as the examination papers, filled with irrelevant answers, passed through the hands of the examiners. Over a thousand individuals who lacked martial skills and strategic understanding were filtered out. Even so, nearly a hundred remained.

The martial artists who did not make it through did not return to their hometowns. Instead, they eagerly awaited the sparring event on the third day of March.

The final examination, held in the imperial court, only featured the external component. Archery and lifting stones had already been assessed during the preliminary examination, leaving only the thrilling sparring event. On the day of the final examination, the area was teeming with people, and the imperial palace opened the Xuan De Gate. Three platforms were set up on the field outside the Meridian Gate.

Initially, the Forbidden Army and the Imperial Guards formed an impenetrable barrier, while the cavalry maintained order on the outskirts of the crowd. Martial flags fluttered in the breeze, creating a spectacular scene in the bright spring sunlight.

Emperor Li Yi of the Dayu sat in the ninth and fifth positions on the platform. Rumors of an assassin on the Lantern Festival night had leaked, leading to discussions in the streets and alleys of the capital. Emperor Li Yi had to personally come forward to dispel the rumors.

 Earlier, the assassination case within the palace had left the Forbidden Army on edge, as the presence of martial artists from the Jianghu added an air of tension. Emperor Li Yi, however, assured them that there was no cause for concern. He mentioned that skilled individuals from the Dayu were scarce in the common populace, and the real experts resided within the imperial court.

As the Xuan De Gate opened this year, an estimated ten thousand commoners flocked to witness the event. The commander of the Imperial Guards was initially uneasy, but when he saw a figure taking a seat in the guest area, he finally relaxed.

That person was none other than Zhang Yuanshan. Zhang Yuanshan, known for his exceptional martial skills, rarely ventured out. It was the first time in years that he graced the Martial Examination with his presence. With him in attendance, it was expected that no trouble would arise.

Zhang Yuanshan, clad in a rare black and gold battle armor, arrived when the sun was already high in the sky. He gave a slight bow to the leader of the Imperial Guards stationed near the Emperor’s platform, signaling for You Mengzhe to sit. You Mengzhe was still craning his neck, looking around curiously. Zhang Yuanshan casually patted his head and gestured for him to sit, putting an end to any mischief.

In an instant, all eyes from the three platforms were fixed on them.

For the first time in his life, You Mengzhe witnessed such a grand spectacle. The platform below was densely packed with the Imperial Guards, and the imposing presence suggested not less than eight thousand soldiers. Outside, the common people formed a sea-like crowd, creating a scene that left him astonished.

“Hello, Grand Tutor.”

“Grand Tutor.”

“What wind brought the Grand Tutor here?”

Officials on either side greeted Zhang Yuanshan, who glanced around and signaled to You Mengzhe using hand gestures. You Mengzhe then smiled and said, “My father inquires about everyone’s well-being.”

The Secretaries of the Six Ministries and other prominent officials all chuckled in response to Zhang Yuanshan’s greeting, appreciating the gesture and letting it rest at that.

You Mengzhe looked around for a while, then turned his head to gaze at Zhang Yuanshan. The brilliant sunlight poured over Zhang Yuanshan’s black and gold armor. This man had an impressive figure, and it was the first time You Mengzhe saw him in full armor. The cold wrist guards and the chest armor accentuated his muscular and well-defined physique, as if one could feel the warmth of his bare skin. Zhang Yuanshan had a handsome face, a natural frame for any attire. Whether it was a robe or armor, it looked exceptionally good on him.

“Hey, Dad.” You Mengzhe touched and rubbed him, just wanting to find something to say.

Zhang Yuanshan turned his head to bring his ear close to You Mengzhe’s lips, listening to what he had to say.

On the distant women’s seat, many official ladies, palace concubines, each holding embroidered fans, focused their gazes on You Mengzhe and Zhang Yuanshan. You Mengzhe wore a sky-blue robe, with features like carved jade, lips like vermilion, and eyes like lacquer dots. He even adorned a shining night pearl on his collar and wrapped a fox fur scarf around his neck.

Zhang Yuanshan exhibited a handsome and heroic demeanor, both of them appearing flawless like exquisite jade bi discs.

You Mengzhe chattered away, and Zhang Yuanshan nodded occasionally, sometimes couldn’t help but chuckle, patting You Mengzhe on the back of his head.

“Is this the Grand Tutor’s adopted son?” someone from the front seat turned around and asked.

Zhang Yuanshan remained silent, as if he couldn’t be bothered to speak with anyone.

You Mengzhe chuckled and confirmed, “Yes, yes, yes.”

Soon, the buzzing noise in the training ground subsided, and a eunuch announced, “The Emperor is here—”

“Long live the Emperor!” The officials in the stands stood up to salute.

“Long live the Emperor!” The booming sound echoed through the training ground, with the Imperial Guards and the common people shouting “Long live the Emperor,” creating a spectacular scene.

“Respected ministers, please be seated.” Li Yi’s voice, filled with a smiling tone, echoed from five steps away. Civil and military officials took their seats. On the left side of the dragon throne was the Empress holding the prince, and on the right side was Zhang Yuanshan, followed by You Mengzhe.

There was only one person, Zhang Yuanshan, between You Mengzhe and the Emperor! In the stands, there were at least fifty officials. On the right side of the Empress were the prince, princess, and relatives of the imperial family. Next to Zhang Yuanshan and You Mengzhe, on the left, were the Grand Secretary and the heads of the six ministries, followed by military generals.

Zhang Yuanshan was unexpectedly seated next to the Emperor, indicating an extreme level of favor. No, wait, did the Emperor not have any other brothers? You Mengzhe thought of the matter of granting fiefs in the Dayu; he speculated that the other princes had been granted fiefs, leaving only Zhang Yuanshan in the capital. Thinking about it this way, the relationship seemed quite unusual…

“Yuanshan, is this Mengzhe?” A clear voice rang out.

 Zhang Yuanshan nodded, with one hand embracing You Mengzhe’s shoulder, turning slightly to let Li Yi see.

Does the Emperor still recognize me? You Mengzhe was surprised, recalling the assassination attempt by Sun Bin in the imperial study on the Lantern Festival. At that time, they had a noisy altercation behind the bookshelves, and the Emperor heard his voice. What if he recognizes me?

Hehehe… You Mengzhe forced a stiff smile.

Li Yi felt a bit awkward and asked, “Can Mengzhe… speak?”

Zhang Yuanshan: “…”

You Mengzhe: “…”

Zhang Yuanshan casually tapped You Mengzhe’s shoulder with his fingers, and You Mengzhe understood. It meant not to worry, as it had been nearly two months, and most likely, the Emperor wouldn’t remember. Thinking about it, he sincerely said, “Yes, I can speak.”

Li Yi nodded, momentarily unsure how to continue. On the other side, the Empress was already finding it difficult to suppress her laughter. You Mengzhe said, “Hel…lo. Greetings to His Majesty, long live, long live!”

Everyone: “…”

The Empress burst into laughter with a snort as she raised a teacup to her lips.

Zhang Yuanshan supported his forehead with his fist and burst into laughter, unable to contain his joy.

Li Yi laughed heartily, waving his hand and saying, “You… um, very interesting.”

Zhang Yuanshan, still chuckling, repeatedly bowed to Li Yi, indicating apologies for any rudeness. Noticing You Mengzhe’s puzzled look, he couldn’t help but pat his back.

Li Yi handed over a jade pendant, saying, “Yuanshan, it was dropped in the Imperial Garden that day.”

Zhang Yuanshan took it and handed it to You Mengzhe. You Mengzhe asked, “Is this for me?”

Zhang Yuanshan nodded, and a princess on Li Yi’s right side laughed, “It’s my first time seeing the Grand Tutor smile.”

Zhang Yuanshan shook his head with a smile, gesturing for everyone to be at ease. His handsome smile instantly captivated the attention of the female members. Li Yi was clad in brass battle armor, while Zhang Yuanshan wore dark gold armor, making them the most conspicuous figures today. After a while, Li Yi personally introduced the palace members to You Mengzhe, implying that he treated You Mengzhe as a family member.

You Mengzhe, unfamiliar with etiquette, asked questions randomly, and no one ridiculed him. The Empress even rewarded You Mengzhe with a pair of jade dice. As the Empress Dowager did not attend, after the introductions, Li Yi took his seat, and Zhang Yuanshan signaled that they could begin.

Upon Li Yi’s command, the golden gong sounded, and the arena echoed with a tumultuous roar. The Imperial Guards formed a square formation, and You Mengzhe casually tied a jade ornament around his waist. Zhang Yuanshan frowned slightly, leaning over to help him secure the jade ornament.

You Mengzhe looked down and saw two people coming up from the stands, leaping onto the stage.

The herald announced loudly, “Lin Wu from Taizhou, Guan Zhan from Sichuan.”

The audience began to discuss animatedly, and Li Yi joked, “Make sure you wear that jade ornament properly; the Zhang family’s heirloom shouldn’t be damaged.”

Zhang Yuanshan earnestly secured the jade ornament around You Mengzhe’s waist, nodding. You Mengzhe asked, “Is this an heirloom?!”

Li Yi nodded with a smile, saying, “Dayu doesn’t recognize people, only this jade ornament. Take a look.”

With that, Li Yi took out the jade ornament from his waist. You Mengzhe saw that it was a pair, and the two pieces perfectly combined to form a complete set. Engraved on the reverse side were eight characters: “A prosperous era under the heavens, picturesque rivers and mountains.”

The Empress held the three-year-old little prince and said with a smile, “Keep it well. In the future, it will accompany the royal child. This has been our tradition since the establishment of Dayu.”

You Mengzhe nodded slowly, and the officials glanced at each other. They thought that this guy had simply acknowledged a godfather, yet he was soaring to great heights. There had never been such a good thing in the world.

Amidst the clattering sounds below, the lively atmosphere continued. You Mengzhe watched for a while as the two opponents demonstrated various martial arts moves. Although he had lost his true energy, having learned from Zhao Feihong and Zhang Yuanshan for quite some time, coupled with his previous teachings on Yuheng Mountain, he could still discern the depth of their skills.

After the first pair finished their endless sparring and playful moves, which were hard to decipher, You Mengzhe leaned over to Zhang Yuanshan and said, “Dad, these two aren’t very skilled in martial arts.”

Zhang Yuanshan turned his head, nodded, and used sign language to communicate with You Mengzhe. However, seeing Zhang Yuanshan’s handsome face illuminated by the sunlight, You Mengzhe’s heart fluttered, and unable to resist, he kissed his lips.  

Zhang Yuanshan: “…”

You Mengzhe smiled, and Zhang Yuanshan, with a frown, looked like he wanted to scold him. You Mengzhe quickly dodged, and Zhang Yuanshan couldn’t be bothered to explain. He gestured for him to just watch and not chatter. After a moment, he took You Mengzhe’s hand and placed it on his knee. You Mengzhe’s hand was a bit cold, and Zhang Yuanshan’s large hand repeatedly rubbed against it, warming it up.

You Mengzhe whispered again, “Hey, Dad, say a few good words for Big Brother Yu.”

Zhang Yuanshan glanced at him without answering.

You Mengzhe, acting like a monkey, stuck to Zhang Yuanshan’s body. Zhang Yuanshan pressed down on his head, making him sit properly. On the other side, Li Yi laughed and said, “What’s all this fuss about?”

Seeing You Mengzhe’s appearance, the Crown Prince also came over, wanting Li Yi to hold him. Li Yi had to smile and let the little Crown Prince sit on his lap.

Zhang Yuanshan simply embraced You Mengzhe, allowing him to lie on his knees. He gestured to Li Yi, indicating that he didn’t need to pay attention to him. You Mengzhe immediately said, “My dad said there’s a person named Yu Changqing, excellent in both character and martial arts…”

Zhang Yuanshan: “…”

You Mengzhe smiled ambiguously at Li Yi, saying, “You know what I mean, right?”

Everyone: “…”

All of them had expressions of helpless laughter. Li Yi, as if recalling something, said, “Yu Changqing?”

You Mengzhe said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s the one. Uh-huh? Uh-huh? Remembered?”

Zhang Yuanshan looked like he was about to get angry, but You Mengzhe was quite clever and immediately stopped talking.

“Yu Changqing… um, I remember.” Li Yi ordered, “General Tang Ze, bring the military selection roster for me to see.”

Although Li Yi’s voice was not loud, everyone was very surprised. You Mengzhe didn’t know Li Yi’s usual character well, but he knew that Li Yi wouldn’t easily be swayed by others, especially in matters like military and civil examinations. Moreover, You Mengzhe’s performance was too obvious. Could there be something fishy going on?

General Tang Ze handed over the roster, and Li Yi began to flip through it on the spot. Zhang Yuanshan was a bit surprised. He looked at You Mengzhe, who made a hand gesture. You Mengzhe leaned close to his ear and explained in a low voice, briefly skipping the matter of the lost royal seal and mentioning only the merits of Yu Changqing.

Li Yi looked up and stared at You Mengzhe. You Mengzhe stuck out his tongue and pretended to know nothing.

Li Yi seemed to be in deep thought, tapping his fingers on the table. Meanwhile, several pairs had changed on the stage, and the preliminary selection seemed to have passed unnoticed.

“Imperial Guard, Yu Changqing—”

Ah, it was him! You Mengzhe’s heart was suspended as he looked down. Yu Changqing was still wearing the red guard robe, holding a dark-bladed blunt knife. The contestants were required to change weapons to prevent blood from splattering on the stage, showing great respect for the emperor.

“Fengguan, Li Hou—”

Another person jumped onto the stage, clad in battle armor, evidently from a military background. The Imperial Guards around the stage cheered for him, creating an imposing atmosphere that overshadowed Yu Changqing’s presence.

As the cheers gradually subsided, You Mengzhe blew on Zhang Yuanshan’s fingertips, producing a melodious and enchanting sound. The voice seemed to come from near the Dragon Throne, surprising the spectators below.

Upon realizing You Mengzhe’s presence, Yu Changqing blew on his fingertips and laughed heartily. He waved, showing a rope tied around his wrist – the knife tassel that You Mengzhe had given him earlier.

You Mengzhe responded with another melodious whistle, and Yu Changqing followed suit. The whistles echoed back and forth between them, creating a tender and harmonious atmosphere that left the audience in awe.

Zhang Yuanshan couldn’t help but shake his head with a wry smile, retracting his hand and playfully poking You Mengzhe’s fingers.

Below the stage, Yu Changqing unsheathed his knife, saluted with a fist, and proclaimed, “Let’s learn from each other!”

Known as the “A Wanderer for Thousands of Miles,” Yu Changqing, while not specializing in internal martial arts, had a solid foundation. He wielded a long knife with the grace of a butterfly, showcasing an elegant and unpredictable footwork. His movements were fluid and stylish, with each step and technique executed gracefully.

Most of the cheers from the surrounding crowd were from women and young people. Li Yi remained silent, observing without offering any comments. The Empress asked, “Yuanshan, as the Grand Tutor, what do you think of this person’s knife skills?”

After watching for a while, Zhang Yuanshan made a few gestures towards Li Yi, suggesting that the knife skills were more for show than practical use.

You Mengzhe translated, “My dad says his knife dance is absolutely fantastic!”

Zhang Yuanshan remained silent.

“That’s right,” the Empress said, and the Crown Princess added, “Mother, look, Marquis Li is being outperformed by him.”

Zhang Yuanshan gestured again. Li Yi, not being fluent in sign language, struggled to understand. Usually, when Zhang Yuanshan met with Li Yi, the steward accompanied him. Occasionally, when they were alone, they used paper and pen for communication. Today, Zhang Yuanshan intended to watch the competition without the steward, thinking that since You Mengzhe understood sign language, they could communicate that way. However, he didn’t expect You Mengzhe to play such a trick.

Zhang Yuanshan casually made a few gestures, looked at Li Yi, nodded, expressing that there were many flaws, but overall, it was acceptable.

Seizing the opportunity, You Mengzhe translated, “My dad says this knife technique is naturally perfect, truly… indescribable. Your Majesty, you decide. Hm, hm?” He then winked at Li Yi.

Zhang Yuanshan remained silent.

He gestured towards You Mengzhe, implying, “You are deceiving the Emperor!” Immediately, he formed a fist with both hands, threatening You Mengzhe by his neck: “Be careful of losing your head!”

You Mengzhe, holding his chest, had a look of “my heart is breaking,” and Zhang Yuanshan, unable to communicate with him effectively, found himself helpless.

“What did the Grand Tutor say?” the Crown Princess asked curiously.

You Mengzhe said, “Nothing much. Dad said that the martial arts of Marquis Li are not reliable in battle, and he’s likely to lose his head easily.” While saying this, he continued to act like a monkey towards Zhang Yuanshan, embracing his neck affectionately. The little Crown Prince also imitated You Mengzhe, going to hug Li Yi’s neck. Laughter erupted on the Emperor’s seat.

You Mengzhe shamelessly continued to act cute, and Zhang Yuanshan had no choice but to let him. He picked up a cup of wine, took a sip, and then fed You Mengzhe some.

The Empress smiled and said, “I’ve never seen Yuanshan so happy before.”

You Mengzhe happily said, “Yeah, hehehe.”

Indeed, Yu Changqing had some real skills. In the initial rounds, he easily dealt with his opponents. When he stepped down from the stage, he blew another “bi’er” and smiled as he jumped down.

Li Yi commented, “In the past, the Yu family was still a big household, and he’s decent at strategic planning in the inner court…”

You Mengzhe looked up and glanced around. Li Yi’s words were, of course, meant for the Empress to hear. The Empress smiled and took over the book. The Crown Princess’s eyes lit up and said, “Is he a constable?”

Li Yi nodded and said, “He’s one of Old Wang’s closed-door disciples.”

The battles resumed below, with pairs of contestants occupying half of the platform each. The losers stepped down, while the winners continued to fight. After about a dozen rounds, nearly two-thirds of the participants were eliminated.

You Mengzhe understood that this platform couldn’t determine much; it was merely a showcase of everyone’s strength for the examiners. As the sun gradually set in the west, the final round approached.

Yu Changqing had fought in four consecutive rounds and was a bit out of breath. His last opponent was a burly man. While reaching the final round didn’t guarantee a top-three placement, it at least left a lasting impression on the Emperor in the audience, ensuring a smooth path in the imperial court.

The other big man left in the competition, whose name You Mengzhe didn’t catch, was also fighting fiercely. However, despite this being the most exciting moment, the spectators were starting to grow impatient. Yu Changqing wasn’t widely known, and the other contestant, being a man from the Southern Tribes, was unrecognized by most in the capital. The interest waned.

Li Yi, Zhang Yuanshan, and General Tang Ze were all focused on the ongoing matches below. As the western sun gradually burned, a hint of blush appeared on You Mengzhe’s face. He heard Li Yi say, “Yu Changqing indeed has some foundation.”

After a brief contemplation, Zhang Yuanshan nodded and made a gesture. You Mengzhe, without looking, translated, “He does have a solid foundation… Oh, oh.” His words were cut off as his ear was firmly pinched by iron-like fingers, causing him to yelp in pain.

The Princess and the Empress Consort burst into laughter. Even Zhang Yuanshan, while holding You Mengzhe and pinching his ear, couldn’t help but chuckle. He hugged You Mengzhe, patted him, and used his fingers to write on You Mengzhe’s neck: “Speak less; the Emperor has made a decision.”

You Mengzhe understood. Yu Changqing’s achievements this time were undeniable, and he seemed to want to help him in some way.

Yu Changqing, exhausted from the battle on the platform, demonstrated his martial foundation as the fatigue set in. The more exhausted one became, the more one’s martial roots could be discerned. At this point, all the feints and flashy moves became impractical. What remained were solid attacks and defenses. Both sides closely observed each other’s movements, searching for any possible opening to defeat the opponent.

The burly man wielded a heavy hammer, a sign of prolonged physical exertion. Body and mind gradually tired, and at this stage, sheer willpower sustained the fight. Without a chance for the first place, achieving second was already an unexpected and commendable result. When he lost interest in the fight, his face reflected his intention to give up. Several consecutive attacks were dodged by Yu Changqing. Finally, as Yu Changqing leaped into the air, flipped over the burly man’s head, and struck with his knife in a reverse grip, the burly man staggered and tumbled off the platform.

Onlookers couldn’t help but sigh with regret and disappointment. They didn’t expect the martial arts competition to end in such a way.

Sweating profusely, Yu Changqing, on the brink of collapse, gasped for air. Bowing with his knife in hand, he saluted towards the imperial seats and then knelt on one knee.

You Mengzhe cheered loudly, “Well done!”

The applause around was sparse, showing some acknowledgment for Yu Changqing’s performance, likely owing to the face given to You Mengzhe.

Li Yi beckoned, and the chief examiner quickly approached, holding the roster respectfully. He recited in a low voice, “Yu Changqing, originally from Jiangzhou, currently residing in the capital. As a constable under the Judicial Office in the capital since the seventh year of Zhangwu. His father, Yu Lin, has passed away, leaving only an elderly mother…”

After completing the formalities, Yu Changqing stood in the center of the platform with a calm demeanor, the small area beneath his feet already dampened by sweat.

“He does have a good appearance,” Li Yi remarked, smiling at the empress.

The empress nodded in agreement. Yu Changqing’s handsome appearance, coupled with his martial demeanor, appeared much more reliable compared to the contestants before him who had bulging faces, pale lips, withered skin, or an odd mix of youthful looks and gray hair.   

The chief examiner’s voice was not loud, audible only to a small area near the platform, presumably intended for the emperor’s ears. He continued, “…In the eighth year of Zhangwu, participated in the judicial review of civil cases in the capital, punished with twenty strokes; known for being frivolous and disrespectful…”

You Mengzhe furrowed his brows, but Zhang Yuanshan immediately restrained him, preventing any interruptions. He gestured repeatedly, signaling that it wasn’t a big deal. Even the empress smiled at him, lightly swaying her jade-like hand at her side, nodding in agreement.

While Yu Changqing had a somewhat lax reputation in his personal conduct, the charges mentioned were relatively minor. There were no stains of serious misconduct, and his family’s three generations maintained a decent reputation. You Mengzhe, upon hearing this, discovered that Yu Changqing’s grandfather was once a high-ranking official decades ago, known as the Protector of Maritime Transportation. However, it remained unclear why the family’s status had declined to its current state.

“He seems quite charming,” Li Yi casually remarked.

The princess interjected, “Men being charming is quite common…”

 The empress’s face turned black, and she scolded in a hushed voice, “Can you not say such things?!”

The princess awkwardly fell silent, exchanging knowing glances and smiles with You Mengzhe.

“Yu Changqing,” Li Yi spoke up after the recitation of the registry, “Your family is said to have a martial heritage known as the ‘Sun Pursuing Spear.’ Do you have any unique skills? Demonstrate them for us.”

This was customary; if a top-ranked candidate claimed a family martial tradition, they were required to showcase their skills. After a brief rest to recover some strength, Yu Changqing respectfully acknowledged the order. He drew a long iron spear from the weapon rack and assumed a stance. Suddenly, from the platform, You Mengzhe chuckled, “I’ll practice with you!”

In an instant, countless eyes from the platform focused on You Mengzhe. He looked towards Zhang Yuanshan for approval, and after a moment of contemplation, Zhang Yuanshan gestured for him to go ahead.  

So You Mengzhe briskly leaped down from the viewing platform, climbed onto the stage, and with his clumsy movements, he unintentionally elicited laughter from the surrounding crowd.

“You…” laughed Yu Changqing, “Younger brother, come down quickly, don’t cause trouble.”

You Mengzhe waved his hand, hoisted an iron rod, took a few awkward steps with a wobbly gait, and stabilized himself by pushing with a single palm. This prompted a small burst of laughter from the audience.

“I don’t have inner strength,” You Mengzhe said, “I’ve learned a bit of staff technique. How about we compare some moves? Stop when you’ve had enough.”

Yu Changqing immediately understood that You Mengzhe was afraid of getting tired, and if they focused only on techniques without using inner strength, there wouldn’t be any issues.

“Well…” Yu Changqing hesitated for a moment. Suddenly, Li Yi’s voice came from above, “Show a few spear techniques, that’ll do.”

With the Emperor’s permission, Yu Changqing raised both hands, brandishing a spear, and said, “I’ll follow the order.”

You Mengzhe, holding a staff in a reverse grip, whispered, “Where’s your sweetheart?”

Yu Changqing raised an eyebrow, teasingly remarking, “Isn’t he right in front of me?”

You Mengzhe taunted, “Get lost! I’m talking about the one you saw flying kites that day.”

Yu Changqing chuckled, “He got scared away by you, and you’re not making a move?”

You Mengzhe retorted, “Come at me – ha!”

With a loud exclamation, You Mengzhe unfurled the long staff. Having trained with Zhao Feihong for a long time, the sixty-four movements of the Soaring Dragon Staff technique were already ingrained in him. He swiftly aimed a strike directly at Yu Changqing’s chest!

Yu Changqing let out a hearty shout, shouldering the long spear. Like a whirlwind, he swung it around, his body following the spear’s movement. The staff and spear, moments away from touching, created a circle in the air. You Mengzhe’s staff techniques were expansive, while Yu Changqing’s spear techniques had the momentum of sweeping through a thousand troops. At first, the spectators were not particularly impressed, but when they witnessed You Mengzhe’s move “Azure Dragon Stirring the Sea,” they couldn’t help but cheer loudly!

This technique encapsulated Zhao Feihong’s lifetime of staff skills, achieving perfection. The staff moved seamlessly, from bottom to top, lifting the dusk that covered the entire imperial city, gleaming with an arc of light. It seemed to churn rivers, lakes, and seas, with the staff striking down like a dragon.

Yu Changqing somersaulted in mid-air, then pulled back the long spear. With a light clang, the spear and staff gently collided. Following this, he deftly dodged a spear thrust and, using the escaping momentum, swiftly counterattacked with a spear thrust to the chest, reaching the pinnacle and unraveling You Mengzhe’s staff techniques!

At this moment, all onlookers were deeply moved. Although there was no sound of thunder and wind accompanying the staff and spear movements, they embodied two aspects of martial arts – strategy and combat. In the sunset, it carried an indescribable artistic conception.

“Once more!” You Mengzhe withdrew his staff, deflecting the spear that aimed for his chest. With a swift shake, the staff tip began to draw circles—one, two, four, eight. In an instant, countless phantom images appeared, a continuous series of staff techniques pressing towards Yu Changqing.

Cheers erupted as You Mengzhe’s staff techniques, while not swift, completely blocked Yu Changqing’s path. Yu Changqing retreated, executing a sweeping leg kick, while You Mengzhe leaped into the air. The two clashed their weapons in mid-air, palms striking each other, leveraging the force to spring apart.

In the blink of an eye, You Mengzhe discarded his staff, and Yu Changqing discarded his spear. Both simultaneously clapped their hands, meeting in an unarmed confrontation!

You Mengzhe moved swiftly, stepping and employing a variety of palm strikes, chops, and cleaves, resembling an eagle soaring through the sky. Yu Changqing, on the other hand, countered with tiger-claw techniques. In just a brief moment, the two exchanged dozens of moves, and the spectators in the stands erupted in applause. You Mengzhe retracted his techniques, and both stood on opposite sides of the arena, exchanging a distant salute. Yu Changqing, half shrouded in the twilight and half concealed in the shadows, mouthed something with a smile, while the tassel on his wrist refracted a five-colored radiance.

Li Yi was the first to applaud, cheering loudly, and the surrounding applause resembled a sea. The two simultaneously bowed to the imperial seat.

The empress nodded in approval, and the chief examiner descended to present rewards. You Mengzhe received two golden tassels, while Yu Changqing obtained a finely embroidered python-patterned martial robe and a pair of martial boots. It was an unprecedented honor! Yu Changqing was likely to be appointed as the top martial scholar, and many influential officials who sought favor came over to greet him.

The Emperor and Empress left their seats, and Princess Chang, after observing for a while, also departed. You Mengzhe playfully punched Yu Changqing’s shoulder and suggested, “How about some drinks?”

An elderly eunuch announced, “By the Emperor’s order, Lord Yu is to proceed to the side hall for bathing and changing. There are further instructions to follow.”

You Mengzhe looked disappointed, and Yu Changqing reassured him, “I’ll come find you once everything is settled.”

You Mengzhe waved his hand, saying, “No worries, let’s meet up in a few days.”

Yu Changqing nodded with a smile. When Zhang Yuanshan descended from his seat, he respectfully bowed. Zhang Yuanshan, adorned in a dark gold armor that gleamed in the twilight, held You Mengzhe’s hand and left without glancing at Yu Changqing, taking his son along.

“Dad, you don’t like him, huh?” You Mengzhe swayed his hand, holding Zhang Yuanshan’s hand. His dark gold wristguard, connected to a metal glove, covered half of his palm. The dark gold armor felt cool, yet his fingers were warm, providing a peculiar sensation when touched.   

The Imperial Guards dared not obstruct, allowing Zhang Yuanshan to roam freely. As the number of people diminished, the Forbidden Guards closed the inner gates of the Imperial City. The sun set behind the western mountains, casting a fiery red hue over the entire city.

Zhang Yuanshan raised his hand lightly at his brow, pointing to his chest, meaning: Do you really like him? You Mengzhe smiled, fists clenched, and the knuckles pressed together, with the thumbs bent, indicating: We are good friends. Zhang Yuanshan raised his finger, making a disdainful gesture, and ignored him.

You Mengzhe laughed heartily, climbed onto Zhang Yuanshan, touched his armor, and wrapped his arms around his waist. After standing for a while, Zhang Yuanshan seemed to think of something and signaled him to follow.

Crossing the Imperial Garden, Zhang Yuanshan stood outside a side hall. You Mengzhe peeked inside and saw that Yu Changqing had changed into the robe presented by Li Yi. He looked refreshed and handsome, standing in the hall, awaiting someone.

“His Majesty has arrived!” the eunuch announced. Li Yi crossed the front porch and approached. Seeing Zhang Yuanshan and You Mengzhe still standing behind the rockery, he waved for them to come over. Zhang Yuanshan gestured to decline, and Li Yi didn’t insist. He turned and entered the hall.

Yu Changqing quickly knelt on one knee, paying respects to the Emperor. Li Yi personally helped him up, offered a seat, and their conversation inside the hall was faintly audible, with only a few phrases distinguishable, such as inquiries about his mother at home.

While You Mengzhe was eavesdropping, Zhang Yuanshan poked him on the shoulder. You Mengzhe turned around in confusion, only to see Zhang Yuanshan’s left hand positioned vertically, and his right index and middle fingers mimicking a little figure, moving behind the cover of the left palm.

You Mengzhe: “???”   

Zhang Yuanshan closed his hand, quietly watching You Mengzhe. After a while, You Mengzhe, not understanding at first, suddenly had a realization and said, “Is it true?”

Zhang Yuanshan smiled helplessly. You Mengzhe grabbed his hand, leading him to the other side of the side hall to observe.

Inside the hall, without the aid of lamps, the golden sunset covered the floor tiles like a layer of gold and red. Standing behind a folding screen was the graceful Princess Chang, holding a round fan, quietly listening to the conversation between her elder brother and the Martial Arts Champion from behind the screen.

The princess noticed them outside the window, gently beckoning with her fan to invite You Mengzhe in, but he gestured for her not to bother. The Emperor was arranging a marriage for his sister, and most likely, Yu Changqing would become the Princess’s husband.

You Mengzhe felt a complex mix of emotions, happy for Yu Changqing yet with a tinge of disappointment. He chuckled wryly, and Zhang Yuanshan made a gesture. The two of them silently walked out of the corridor, their footsteps echoing in the spacious corridor.

While walking, Zhang Yuanshan looked at You Mengzhe with an understanding gaze, as if asking, “How do you feel now?”

You Mengzhe made a sign language gesture, meaning, “I’m happy for him.”

Zhang Yuanshan chuckled and gestured, “Really! I’ve encountered good fortune, so, of course, I hope Brother Yu enjoys a happy life too.”

Using sign language, Zhang Yuanshan asked, “What good fortune did you encounter?”

You Mengzhe stopped and earnestly signed back, “I gained a father.”

Zhang Yuanshan didn’t show any further reaction. They walked home hand in hand, swaying in the night, and returned to the Zhang residence.

That night, everything remained the same. You Mengzhe, exhausted from the afternoon, sealed his inner energy again. Feeling a bit fatigued, he couldn’t muster much energy. After dinner, he felt drowsy. With a slight chill lingering in March, You Mengzhe curled up in his blanket and asked, “Hey, Dad, when will you help me release my inner energy?”   

Zhang Yuanshan, dressed in a white single shirt and knee-length pants, revealing his ankles, stood in front of the desk, personally tidying up You Mengzhe’s jade ornaments.

You Mengzhe asked, “Do I have to wait for my master to come back? Why hasn’t he returned yet?”

Zhang Yuanshan nodded thoughtfully and then shook his head. It seemed that Zhao Feihong hadn’t sent any news; he was probably delayed by something in Sichuan.

Footsteps approached from outside, and a servant whispered, “Master, Young Master.”

Zhang Yuanshan frowned slightly, flicked his fingers, and a gust of wind blew out the oil lamp, leaving only the cold moonlight on the floor.

You Mengzhe stood up and asked, “What’s going on?”

The servant didn’t answer. Zhang Yuanshan lifted the blanket and lay down on the bed. You Mengzhe, puzzled, moved closer to Zhang Yuanshan, brushing against him. The touch of his dry skin was quite pleasant. Just as he was about to touch Zhang Yuanshan’s abdominal muscles, a faint sound came from outside—


“Bi Bi’er——”

You Mengzhe got up, and Zhang Yuanshan was a bit impatient. He sat up, indicating that You Mengzhe should wear more before going out. You Mengzhe said, “I’ll be right back.”

He quickly put on a robe, wore wooden clogs, and hurriedly ran out of the corridor. Zhang Yuanshan’s bedroom was in the east wing. Going out, there was a hundred-step corridor, then through the garden, into the backyard, and finally out of the woodshed, which led to the back door. You Mengzhe ran out of breath, stood for a while, and the servant following him quickly lit a lantern and opened the door.

Yu Changqing was dressed in the robe bestowed by the emperor, still blowing on the pipa. You Mengzhe said, “It’s already past midnight. Aren’t you going back to sleep?”

Yu Changqing hurriedly turned around and said, “Mengzhe.”

You Mengzhe smiled, “What’s up? Have you achieved great success so soon?”

Yu Changqing said, “Want to have a drink? The palace just allowed me to come out.”

You Mengzhe quickly said, “No, I’ll accompany my dad… my foster father.”

Yu Changqing said, “I’m going to become a son-in-law, Mengzhe.”

You Mengzhe smiled, “Congratulations. You won’t be bullied anymore.”

There seemed to be something flickering in the star-like eyes of Yu Changqing as he looked at You Mengzhe, then at his hand. For a moment, he seemed hesitant, but finally said, “Thank you, Mengzhe.”

You Mengzhe said, “It’s nothing. This time, it’s all thanks to your own efforts. Hey, do you know? When the emperor heard the name ‘Yu Changqing,’ he immediately thought of you.”

Yu Changqing smiled awkwardly, and You Mengzhe continued, “I’m genuinely happy that you’re doing well.”

After contemplating for a moment, Yu Changqing then said, “Mengzhe, my feelings…”

You Mengzhe understood and quickly said, “There’s no need to say anything. Just be a good son-in-law, aren’t we good brothers?”

You Mengzhe extended his arms, and Yu Changqing’s breath trembled. He stepped forward, and they tightly embraced each other. In that hug, the complex emotions were expressed, and they patted each other’s backs.

The romantic atmosphere of that night seemed to transform into the youthful sentiments and lingering emotions of their past, leaving no traces of a fleeting dream in the night breeze.

“Bi Bi’er——” The whistle sounded from afar.

You Mengzhe couldn’t help but smile, knowing that Zhang Yuanshan was using the same trick to get him back. He said, “My dad is calling me.”

Yu Changqing nodded understandingly and said, “We’ll have plenty of opportunities to meet in the future.”

You Mengzhe added, “You should get some rest early.”

Yu Changqing patted You Mengzhe’s head, then turned around, waving his hand as he left. You Mengzhe personally closed the door, and in that instant, he felt as if something had been shut out, as if locking away some emotions in his memories.

He stood in front of the door for a moment, the orange glow from the glass lamp reflecting on his youthful face. From afar, the whistle from Zhang Yuanshan reached his ears. He smiled, turned around, and went back to his room to sleep.

Walking through the corridor in the backyard again, in the moonlit garden, You Mengzhe suddenly stopped.

“Who’s there?” The servant asked, on alert.

Huge shoutout to @_nyanmaru_ on Discord for commissioning this! The chapter will be posted regularly, show your support for Ciacia at Kofi.

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