Ruyang County’s Santou Mountain.
At the foot of the mountain, the rice fields were lush with green seedlings, exuding a pleasant fragrance. The farmers gathered in groups at the foot of Santou Mountain, looking up at the young man walking on the narrow mountain path.
The young man stood tall and straight, dressed in sturdy attire that accentuated his slender and solid waistline. His jet-black hair was neatly tied up, and he carried a dagger at his waist and a bow and arrow on his back. He exuded a sense of vitality and charisma with his striking demeanor.
The farmers whispered to each other from time to time, filled with curiosity.
“Whose child is this? He dares to venture into the mountains alone?”
“He looks somewhat familiar. I think he is… the young master of the county magistrate’s family! I happened to see him once when I went to the market to buy medicine for my mother.”
“You mean the benevolent and intelligent young master? How could he enter Santou Mountain? There are man-eating jackals, wolves, and leopards in that mountain!”
“Even our local hunters dare not venture into the mountain alone!”
The murmurs continued, and more and more farmers gathered.
Suddenly, a simple horse carriage with several servants hurriedly arrived at the end of the muddy road. The hooves of the horses kicked up specks of mud, which splattered on their garments, but nobody paid it any mind. After the carriage came to a stop, the leader of the group anxiously and sorrowfully walked up to the foot of Santou Mountain and knelt down directly.
“Young Master, how could you venture into the mountain alone!”
The old servant’s voice choked with tears as he wiped his eyes, his voice growing louder in anguish. “Madam is gravely ill. We have searched all the pharmacies in Ruyang County, but we lack one particular herb. The doctor said that only Santou Mountain has it. But how could you go into the mountain alone!”
The servants behind him began to sob, “Young Master, please come back quickly.”
The old servant’s voice became more hoarse and desperate, each word filled with tears. “This humble servant knows that you are filial to Madam and fear no danger, not even the jackals, wolves, and leopards. But Santou Mountain is too treacherous. Please think twice, Young Master!”
The farmers on the side suddenly realized, “So, the magistrate’s son entered the mountain alone to gather herbs for the magistrate’s wife!”
Some people already had tears in their eyes. “We have heard about the magistrate’s son’s filial piety, but we didn’t expect him to go this far for his mother. Look, the more they call out, the faster the magistrate’s son walks. He just doesn’t want these people to stop him!”
An old man sighed and said, “If only I had such a son, I could wake up laughing from dreaming.”
During the Northern Zhou Dynasty, loyalty and filial piety were the principles governing the country. Anyone who displayed loyalty and filial piety was respected by the people.
But no matter how the servants shouted, the young man in his spring attire continued to walk without stopping, resolutely entering the dense forest.
A weary female voice came from the carriage, “Enough, Steward Lin. Since he insists on showing such filial piety, don’t stop him anymore.”
Steward Lin, stopped shouting and just held his head, weeping.
After a long while, the group hastily left Santou Mountain. The farmers dispersed as there was nothing more to see. Two slender farmers exchanged a glance, then quietly left the rice fields and arrived at a rarely traveled roadside.
The magistrate’s wife’s group of people who had just left happened to stop at this spot.
The farmers approached and whispered, “Steward, everything has been taken care of.”
Steward Lin, who had already wiped away his tearful expression, threw a bag of silver coins to the two farmers and coldly looked at them. “You know what to say and what not to say. Take the money and refrain from unnecessary gossip.”
The two farmers nodded repeatedly and left cautiously with the silver.
Inside the carriage.
The magistrate’s wife, leaning against a soft pillow, had a pale complexion, as if she had just recovered from a serious illness. She had applied rouge on her cheeks to add some color, but it only emphasized her struggling health, making her look extremely haggard.
“Madam, it seems that everything is in order,” the maid said as she handed a cup of tea to the magistrate’s wife, showing a hint of joy. “Now, your efforts haven’t been in vain.”
Upon hearing this, the magistrate’s wife opened her eyes and couldn’t help but show a smile. She reached out and took the tea bowl with a strong wrist, not looking like someone who was sick. “My husband and I have put in a lot of effort for Yuan Li’s provincial examination,” she said.
Today’s “journey up the mountain to gather medicine for mother” was a play they orchestrated.
To become an official nowadays, one can only rely on being recommended for the provincial examination by someone else. If one comes from a powerful and influential family, there is no need to worry about securing a spot for the provincial examination. However, for families of modest means like theirs, securing a provincial examination spot for their descendants requires great effort.
The magistrate’s wife’s maiden name is Chen, and her family in Ruyang County has some influence, but it is not highly regarded outside. Her husband, Yuan Song, is an ordinary person who only had the opportunity to become an official through a good mentor. His network and connections are not as extensive as those of the magistrate’s wife.
To make Yuan Li successful in his official career, they must first establish a good reputation.
The maid approached Lady Chen from behind and massaged her shoulders, comforting her, “Madam, rest assured. With the reputation and intelligence of young master, he will surely be selected for the National Academy.”
To be recommended for the provincial examination, having a good reputation alone is not enough; one must also have knowledge and learning. Nowadays, the provincial examination quotas are monopolized by noble families, so those with humble backgrounds must find ways to enter the National Academy. Once they have completed their studies, they can be recommended by their teachers to embark on the path of officialdom. The students at the National Academy are either wealthy or influential, known for their outstanding talents. If the young master can enter the National Academy, he will have already taken a step toward his official career.
Lady Chen took a sip of tea and revealed a touch of worry. “It’s not that easy. Even for the National Academy, it depends on the official rank and status of one’s ancestors.”
Within the National Academy, there are three different levels of education set up: the National Academy, the Grand Academy, and the Four-Door Academy, each catering to the children of high-ranking officials and nobles.
Her husband is just a small county magistrate, and if they don’t work the connections, he may never enter the National Academy in his lifetime.
“Moreover, it’s not just our Chen family in Ruyang. There’s also the Wei family and the Wang family,” Lady Chen rubbed her temples. “With so many people competing for a single provincial examination spot, the Wei and Wang families are even forming a marriage alliance. Fortunately, our son Yuan Li is talented, diligent, and studious. He outshone the children of both families; otherwise, the name that would be spread throughout Ruyang County wouldn’t be our son, but theirs.”
The maid whispered softly, “Madam, don’t worry. I don’t know why, but whenever I look at the young master, I feel that he will definitely enter the National Academy and learn from a renowned teacher.”
Lady Chen couldn’t help but chuckle. Although Yuan Li is still young, he calculates everything with precision, and his demeanor has already earned him admiration. How can the achievements of such a child be small?
After taking a few sips of tea, Lady Chen reminded, “Go and remind the people in the mountain to take good care of the young master.”
The maid smiled and replied, “I will go now.”
“Wait,” Lady Chen stopped her, using a handkerchief to gently wipe off the tea from her lips, removing the powder along with it, revealing rosy and lively lips. She closed her eyes, “Apply some makeup on me again, make sure I look like someone who has just recovered from a serious illness.”
“You can rest assured, madam.”
The maid washed her hands, let down the carriage curtain, and carefully applied makeup for Lady Chen.
Yuan Li walked quickly into the mountains.
As soon as he reached an area where human presence was scarce, over thirty guards hurriedly emerged from the jungle. The leader, with a lean face, clasped his fists and greeted Yuan Li, “Young Master.”
Yuan Li nodded and smiled, “Guard Meng, you’ve been working hard these past few days.”
Since it was all for show, they couldn’t just stay on the mountain for a day and leave. The longer he stayed, the wider and more genuine his reputation would become. Yuan Li had already decided to stay in the mountains for three to five days.
With that in mind, Yuan Li looked at the system in his mind once again.
【The Encyclopedia System has been activated.】
【Mission: Enter the National Academy.】
【Reward: Soap formula.】
Yuan Li had a secret; he wasn’t actually from this era.
Before his transmigration, he was an excellent battlefield logistics personnel. After transmigrating, he arrived in Northern Zhou with his memories intact, but as a crying infant, with a motionless system in his mind.
However, from the time the system activated until now, it hadn’t provided Yuan Li with the slightest bit of help. It only displayed three lines of text, coldly tempting him with rewards to complete the mission.
Yuan Li was cautious about this thing in his mind, but he and the system shared the same goal: to enter the National Academy and become an official through passing the examination. He decided to see what changes would occur if he truly entered the National Academy.
But it had to be said that the soap formula was indeed a considerable temptation for Yuan Li.
Because when Yuan Li discovered that this era was on the brink of a major upheaval, his goal shifted to adopting and raising soldiers and horses, in order to establish a firm foothold in the chaotic times.
Yuan Li’s expertise in his previous life was precisely in raising soldiers and horses and managing logistics, so he knew how much money it would require.
The problem was, as the son of a small county magistrate, he simply didn’t have that much money.
Regrettably, Yuan Li withdrew his gaze from the system.
Santou Mountain was the largest mountain in Ruyang County, extending not only within Ruyang County but also to the neighboring Sanchuan County.
Yuan Li had gathered a good number of herbs, and without realizing it, their group had traveled from the southern side of Santou Mountain to the northern side. As they entered the shaded area, a sudden chill swept over them. Yuan Li shivered and looked down. This place was like a completely different world from where they had ascended the mountain, with sparse vegetation, bare ground, and a desolate scene of withered branches and grass.
The expression on Guard Meng’s face suddenly changed, and he pointed in the distance, saying, “Young Master, quickly look.”
Yuan Li followed his direction and saw a group of ragged-dressed commoners climbing into the mountains through the dense forest.
These people were so thin that they only had a thin layer of flesh on their bodies. Each of them held an axe or a stone knife in their hands, their mouths dry and cracked, swallowing saliva in a constant state of hunger and thirst. The strange thing was that this group consisted entirely of able-bodied men in their prime.
They didn’t look friendly.
Yuan Li frowned and gestured for the people around him to keep quiet as they quietly followed behind.
Up ahead were the farmlands of Ruyang County, Yuan Li thought to himself as he tightened his grip on the dagger at his waist.
After observing the group of people for a while, Guard Meng remembered something. “Young Master, there was no snowfall in Hanzhong last winter, and since spring began, there hasn’t been a single drop of rain. The rice fields have dried up, and a severe drought is bound to bring locust infestations. To escape the disaster, many people have fled with their families to Luoyang. Judging from the appearance of these people, they should be refugees from Hanzhong.”
Yuan Li pondered, “But how did they end up in the mountains of Ruyang County?”
Guard Meng sighed bitterly, “You don’t know this but Luoyang is the imperial capital; how could they allow refugees to enter freely? These commoners have nowhere to go, so many of them sought refuge in the surrounding counties and towns. But since Luoyang doesn’t accept refugees, naturally, these counties and towns dare not accept them either. Some refugees starved to death, while others became bandits in the mountains. From what I see, these people also resemble a group of mountain bandits.”
Yuan Li lowered his gaze and sighed deeply.
Ever since he found out that he had transmigrated to the ancient times, Yuan Li knew he would face a cruel world.
This world would be more brutal than the future, with the common people having even fewer rights. That’s precisely why he wanted to secure a place for himself in this chaotic era. Yuan Li couldn’t save everyone, but he wanted to do his best to save as many people as possible. Despite being mentally prepared, witnessing this scene still brought him pain.
However, Yuan Li quickly suppressed such emotions. When he couldn’t accomplish anything, indulging in sentimentalism was nothing more than a show.
Guard Meng asked, “Young Master, if these people are indeed mountain bandits, should we still follow them?”
“We will follow,” Yuan Li decisively replied, “but for now, let’s avoid causing harm. Take two men with you, bring some food supplies, and pretend to be farmers when you approach them. See how they react. If they only take the food without hurting anyone, then we’ll give them half of our provisions.”
Yuan Li’s expression turned cold in an instant. “If they intend to kill and plunder, execute them on the spot to prevent them from harming the people of Ruyang County.”
Guard Meng saluted. “Yes!”
He and two others took off their outer robes, rolled in the muddy ground, and then packed some dry rations, water skins, and a few silver coins into their bags. They approached the disaster-stricken people from another direction.
In truth, this test of human nature was not fair to the victims of disaster. They were in a state of extreme hunger, thirst, and poverty, which made them more prone to impulsive behavior than usual.
However, Yuan Li couldn’t ignore the potential danger they posed to other innocent people just because they were unfortunate.
Soon, Guard Meng and his group encountered the disaster victims.
As Yuan Li expected, as soon as the victims saw the bags carried by Guard Meng and his companions, they became restless. They stared intently at them, swallowing saliva at an increasingly rapid pace, their eyes emitting a green glow.
One person even raised a stone knife and reached out towards Guard Meng. Just as Guard Meng and his two companions were about to take action, the leader among the victims stopped them.
The leader was a young man who was nothing but skin and bones. His gaze was sharp, and he was also swallowing saliva. He threatened, “Put down everything you have and get out of here!”
Guard Meng’s face turned pale. He exchanged a glance with his two subordinates, recalling the instructions from Young Master Yuan Li. They reluctantly put down their belongings, turned around, and prepared to leave.
The leader quickly snatched the bags, swiftly rummaging through them. He took out the dry rations and water skins and balled up the remaining items, throwing them to Guard Meng and his companions. “We only want food and water. We don’t need anything else. Keep your money!”
Guard Meng and his companions quickly turned around and caught the bags. They lowered their heads, looked at the money pouches, and exchanged glances. Then, they returned to Yuan Li, dazed, who had been watching the whole time.
Yuan Li looked at the leader thoughtfully. “Let’s go. We’ll meet them.”
Among the crowd of refugees, people were devouring the dry rations greedily. However, each person only received a small piece the size of a palm. The rest was bundled up, seemingly intended for other purposes.
Upon hearing noise, the entire group of people raised their heads with vigilant expressions, holding their weapons in front of them. When Yuan Li and his guards appeared, the expressions of these people suddenly changed to one of nervousness and unease. It seemed they mistook them for someone else, and there was a hint of resentment.
The young man standing in the middle, his face covered in dirt and ash, appeared calmer than the others. He immediately recognized who was in charge here and stared at Yuan Li before speaking in a hoarse voice, as dry as a withered tree, “Who are you?”
Yuan Li took off the water skin from his body and threw it to him, indicating that he meant no harm. “Brave warrior, are you refugees from Hanzhong?”
The young man caught the water skin with one hand but didn’t drink. He remained even more vigilant. “So what if we are? So what if we’re not?”
“Don’t be tense, I mean no harm,” Yuan Li smiled. “The water is safe. To put it bluntly, the money to buy poison is worth more than your lives.”
The refugees fell silent, and the young man suddenly removed the cap of the water skin, staring at Yuan Li as he took a sip. His throat greedily swallowed the water, but he quickly restrained himself and threw the water skin to his comrades.
Yuan Li threw a few more water skins to them and asked the young man, “What’s your name?”
The young man hesitated. “Wang Er.”
Yuan Li continued, “Why did you enter the mountains? Why are there only a few of you? Didn’t the elderly and children from your families flee with you?”
After the three questions, Wang Er’s relaxed muscles immediately tensed up again, and he remained silent.
Yuan Li was patient. “If it’s only you few, we can give you some rations, but not much. If you have wives, children, and elders with you, I can provide you with a livelihood.”
This statement struck a chord in the hearts of the disaster victims who had endured countless hardships. Many of them clearly became interested, turning their heads to look at Wang Er. Wang Er pursed his lips and asked, “What kind of livelihood?”
“Work on my farm,” Yuan Li said. “Apart from cultivating the fields, the men among you will also have to guard the house and courtyard. In addition to that, you’ll receive free meals, accommodation, and wages. Although it’s not a lot of money, you’ll have enough to eat and be well-clothed.”
Wang Er hesitated for a moment. “Become your subordinate?”
Subordinates, servants, and maidservants were all household servants.
In times of peace, they would only serve as household servants, but when trouble arose, with a wave of their arms, they would become private soldiers.
During this era, every noble family and wealthy merchant would have household servants.
Yuan Li spoke in a gentle tone. “That’s right.”
The disaster victims looked at each other, and Wang Er clenched his teeth, questioning, “We don’t even know who you are. How can we trust you?”
Guard Meng snorted coldly from the side. “This is the young master of the magistrate’s mansion in Ruyang County. You should believe him.”
Wang Er was taken aback, and his facial expression visibly softened. He deeply bowed to Yuan Li and said, “So you’re Lord Yuan of Ruyang. It’s truly an honor to meet you in person.”
Yuan Li blinked, understanding the role his “reputation” played.
In this era, anyone known for their loyalty, righteousness, and filial piety would not be considered a bad person by the common people. If someone was so filial to their parents, how bad could they be?
Yuan Li felt for the first time the usefulness of his reputation.
Wang Er and his group now believed in Yuan Li, so they made arrangements to bring out the others. According to them, there were many refugees sheltering below the mountain, including women, children, and the elderly, totaling around a hundred people.
Yuan Li had a clear understanding and instructed Guard Meng to accompany Wang Er in bringing these people over. When night fell, they would be taken to the farm.
That night, Yuan Li and his guards dug up some wild vegetables and cooked porridge to temporarily fill their stomachs. Many people trembled as they received the bowls and chopsticks. Their lips touched the porridge, and they quietly burst into tears, whether out of joy for not having to starve to death or out of grief for their loved ones who hadn’t made it this far.
Wang Er also held a bowl of vegetable porridge and ate voraciously. Liu Dagen approached him and whispered, “Wang Er, if we follow the son of the county magistrate, should we still rob the corrupt officials?”
“Of course we will,” Wang Er sneered. “In the midst of a severe drought in Hanzhong, that corrupt official sent carriage after carriage of silver and jewelry to Luoyang. I wonder who he’s trying to bribe to cover up the disaster. Even if we die, we must rob him of the ill-gotten gains he squeezed out of the people before dying! But young master Yuan is the son of the county magistrate. After all, we can’t put him in a difficult position. Let’s keep this plan secret from him. We shouldn’t involve our benefactor.”
Liu Dagen nodded heavily. “I understand. You can rest assured.”
Wang Er calculated that it would take another two or three days for the corrupt official’s convoy to reach Luoyang.
After robbing the convoy, they wouldn’t keep the dirty money for themselves. They would present it to Young Master Yuan and plead for his help in saving the refugees in Hanzhong.
With Young Master Yuan’s benevolence, he would surely extend a helping hand to them.
A hundred miles away, in Luoyang.
Chu Wang Mansion.
Chu Wang and his wife, Lady Yang, were also thinking about Yuan Li.
Lady Yang’s eyes were swollen, showing signs of not having slept for days and nights. Her voice was hoarse and weak. “The marriage proposal has been sent to Ruyang through our trusted person. Once the Yuan Mansion agrees, we can start preparing. Feng Er is not in good health and cannot personally attend the wedding ceremony. Fortunately, Ciye is back. We’ll have him stand in for his brother.”
“Will Chu Hechao be able to listen to us?” Chu Wang snorted coldly. “If you let him stand in for his brother at the wedding ceremony, I’m afraid he will frighten the young master of the Yuan family and make him immediately regret the marriage.”
Lady Yang fell silent for a moment. “What can we do? Our Feng Er…”
Her voice choked, unable to continue.
The expression on Chu Wang’s face turned grim. After a long while, he changed the subject and asked, “How is the child from the Yuan family?”
Lady Yang’s expression softened slightly. “He’s a good child, but his family background is somewhat unfavorable.”
Chu Wang sighed, “It’s hard for these two children.”
Lady Yang shook her head, not wanting to say more. She took out the old almanac and carefully looked through it. Afterward, a faint smile appeared on her face. “My lord, how about this auspicious date?”
Chu Wang looked and was surprised, “In six days? Madam, isn’t that too hasty?”
Lady Yang whispered, “My lord, if we wait any longer, Feng Er won’t be able to hold on.”
Chu Wang’s eyes welled up with tears. After a long silence, he nodded silently.
My dear readers, I’m back! It’s been a while since I indulged in idleness, but now I’m here with a new chapter. Within the next three chapters, there will be a wedding celebration, and in the final chapter, I’ll give out red envelopes!
- The background is fictional, neither modern nor ancient.
- The seme’s name is Chu Hechao, with the courtesy name Ciye. Both the seme and uke are adults, but the uke hasn’t reached the age of 20, so he currently doesn’t have a courtesy name.