Xin Zhou asked, “General?”
Chu Hechao replied, “Nothing.”
He put down his hand from his forehead where he had been rubbing it, and the handsome expression on his face cooled down, becoming stern and resolute.
Outside the city gate, Yuan Li watched the figures of the army gradually move away until they disappeared completely. In his heart, he repeated the words “return safely” several times before composing his emotions and leading his men back.
Yuan Li naturally noticed Chu Hechao’s reluctance, which was not deeply hidden but rather intense, carrying a tinge of bitterness that made him feel uneasy as well. When Chu Hechao briefly embraced him, Yuan Li even clearly heard the man’s heartbeats.
Yuan Li was worried. What should he do about this?
Since Chu Hechao lost his parents, he became overly reliant on Yuan Li, as if Yuan Li were his second life. Now, having to be away for only a few months, he reacted like this. If he were to go to a farther place for battle, should he tie Yuan Li to his belt?
Yuan Li wanted to sigh, but then he remembered how Chu Hechao always scolded him with a stern face whenever he sighed, so he held back the sigh.
Yang Zhongfa was left behind in Ji County by Chu Hechao, both to protect the safety of Ji County and because Yang Zhongfa was already old. Although he was still valiant and skilled in warfare, he was aging, and Chu Hechao feared that something might happen to him in the icy plains of Bingzhou.
Yang Zhongfa understood the meaning behind this decision. He wasn’t upset, happily following Yuan Li and saying, “General, you’ve spent one year after another like this, celebrating your birthdays amidst turmoil and war. It’s the same this year.”
Yuan Li was taken aback and quickly asked, “When is the general’s birthday?”
That time had already passed, and Yuan Li said absentmindedly, “He never told me.”
“Whether he said it or not, a man who has lost his father cannot indulge in merrymaking on his birthday. I just happened to remember it,” Yang Zhongfa hurriedly advised, “Master Yuan, you must be happy and not be sad. Before the general left, he instructed me not to let you feel sad.”
Upon hearing this, Yang Zhongfa found it strange himself. He joked, “If I didn’t know how much the general cherishes family, that he wouldn’t snatch his brother’s wife, I might have thought that he considers you as…”
He stopped abruptly, awkwardly patting his own mouth. “I’ve said the wrong thing again.”
Yuan Li’s heart tensed for a moment, but he pretended not to hear and smiled calmly, changing the topic, “When the general is fighting for Bingzhou, can I send a message to him?”
“After taking Taiyuan Jinyang as a stronghold, the general will naturally be able to receive messages from you, sir.”
“I understand,” Yuan Li nodded. “I know what to do.”
Last year, during that time of the year, he was immersed in mourning for the passing of his clan’s patriarch, and this year, he was caught up in the snow disaster and the attack on Bingzhou, making everything chaotic. But now that he knew about Chu Hechao’s birthday, he couldn’t just ignore it.
Even though Chu Wang and the Madam had just passed away and Chu Hechao probably wouldn’t celebrate his birthday, Yuan Li wanted to bring some joy to him. Chu Hechao held a grudge in his heart against the matter of Yuan Li and Chu Mingfeng being “mutually in love.” Whenever Yuan Li tried to explain, mentioning Chu Mingfeng’s name would enrage Chu Hechao. Now that Chu Hechao was far away in Bingzhou, it was appropriate to write him a letter and let him know the cause and effect of the situation, which would hopefully make him happy. It could be considered a birthday gift from Yuan Li to Chu Hechao.
With this in mind, Yuan Li paid close attention to Chu Hechao’s progress in capturing Bingzhou.
Chu Hechao led a force of ten thousand light cavalry, each carrying only enough rations for ten days, and launched a surprise attack over a thousand miles, reaching Bingzhou from the northwestern desert within seven days. He first took control of Yanmen Commandery and then swiftly attacked Taiyuan Commandery.
The commanderies and counties in Bingzhou were all in distress due to the snow disaster, but Chu Hechao, being a renowned general, easily captured them without much effort. Upon learning that the troops from Youzhou were led by Chu Hechao, the county magistrates didn’t even attempt to resist and fled, leaving the city gates wide open.
On the 16th of February, Chu Hechao continued his successful streak and easily took over Taiyuan Jinyang, which was caught off guard due to the escape of its governor.
By the 20th of February, fifteen counties in Taiyuan Commandery fell one after another, with officials either fleeing or surrendering, and five thousand soldiers were captured.
After capturing Taiyuan Commandery, Chu Hechao immediately sent a message to Youzhou, ordering Yuan Li to lead fifty thousand Youzhou soldiers to Taiyuan Commandery to assist in capturing the remaining eight commanderies.
Upon receiving the news, Yuan Li immediately counted his troops.
The garrison in Youzhou couldn’t be moved, leaving only the newly trained Youzhou recruits. These one hundred thousand recruits had shown some progress, so Yuan Li sent Wang Er and Guan Zhihuai to lead them to Taiyuan Commandery.
Yuan Li didn’t casually appoint his own men as the commander; instead, he appointed Guan Zhihuai as the main commander and Wang Er as the deputy commander.
The choice of main and deputy commanders was deliberate. Wang Er had only led a thousand men in battle and had never led ten thousand, so letting him lead fifty thousand recruits into battle would only harm both sides.
There’s a distinction between commanders, and some can only lead hundreds or thousands in battle. Once the numbers become too great, they would become overwhelmed. Being able to lead an army of ten thousand or more is a defining threshold for being considered a renowned general in that era.
Guan Zhihuai was indeed a renowned general who could lead ten thousand in battle, and Yuan Li’s decision to appoint Wang Er as the deputy was a way to let him learn from Guan Zhihuai.
Upon hearing the news, Wang Er wasn’t the least bit resentful about being the deputy commander; instead, he was ecstatic. This was the first time he participated in such a large-scale battle, leading such a significant number of soldiers into the battlefield. Wang Er couldn’t contain his excitement and immediately prepared his baggage.
Apart from the letter, Chu Hechao also sent a birthday gift for Yuan Li – a cart of Zhu Ye Qing (a type of green tea) and a cart of Fenjiu (a type of Chinese spirit).
Both of these beverages were specialties of Taiyuan Commandery in Bingzhou. Zhu Ye Qing was clear, pure, and sweet, while Fenjiu was mellow and had a long-lasting aftertaste. Both were renowned as fine beverages. Chu Hechao remembered Yuan Li’s comment about not liking certain alcoholic drinks, so he sent these two carts of beverages as a gift.
The soldier delivering the letter to Chu Hechao said, “The General said he couldn’t make it in time for your birthday on the 13th of March, so he sent these in advance. He’ll celebrate with you properly when he returns.”
Yuan Li’s heart was filled with mixed feelings but ultimately couldn’t help but smile. He walked up to the carts and touched the wine barrels, suddenly wanting to see Chu Hechao.
He took a deep breath and told the soldier, “Go back and tell your General that I’ll be waiting for him to return, and then we can open these together to celebrate our victory in Bingzhou.”
The soldier respectfully acknowledged and agreed.
Yuan Li then took out another letter and handed it to the soldier, saying, “Deliver this letter to the General personally. Don’t let anyone else know about it.”
The soldier’s face turned solemn, carefully keeping the letter close to his chest, and said, “Please rest assured, Lord Yuan. Even if I have to die, I will deliver this letter into the General’s hands.”
The fifty thousand Youzhou soldiers couldn’t match the speed of the light cavalry, and it took them half a month to arrive at Taiyuan Jinyang, where Guan Zhihuai and Wang Er were already waiting.
Chu Hechao had already begun the attack on Shangdang Commandery, taking advantage of the slow response from the Yellow Dragon Army and winning several victories.
Upon hearing the news, Guan Zhihuai and Wang Er hurried to meet Chu Hechao in Shangdang Commandery.
Chu Hechao was currently discussing with Xin Zhou in the military camp whether to annihilate the Yellow Dragon Army or force them to retreat to the Taihang Mountains and make them a headache for Wu Shanshi. When he learned that Guan Zhihuai and Wang Er had arrived, he immediately asked them to come in.
As the two entered, they saw their brilliant and powerful general staring at them with fierce and intimidating eyes. In the slightly dim tent, his eyes were like a fierce tiger, almost startling them.
Chu Hechao seemed to have something to ask, but ultimately didn’t inquire right away. Instead, he waved for them to come closer and assigned tasks to each of them.
He instructed Guan Zhihuai to lead thirty thousand troops and march westward, capturing the three major commanderies of Xihe, Shangjun, and Shuofang. Then, he ordered Xin Zhou to lead twenty thousand troops and head north, capturing the four smaller commanderies of Yanmen, Yunzhong, Wuyuan, and Dingxiang.
Chu Hechao himself led the light cavalry to capture the most formidable and hard-to-conquer Shangdang Commandery, and he would hold down both Taiyuan and Shangdang, overseeing the entire operation.
Chu Hechao had always been like this – if the enemy was easily dealt with, he would give the opportunity to make military merits to his subordinates. But if the enemy was formidable, he would take the lead and face the challenge.
“We came here quickly and urgently. Due to the snow disaster in Bingzhou, most of the commanderies have lost communication, and they can’t send urgent messages to Taiyuan and Shangdang in time. This is to our advantage,” Chu Hechao’s gloved hand quickly swept over the map as he spoke concisely, “You must leave immediately and seize this opportunity.”
All three of them knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. With a little effort, they could achieve military merits! They couldn’t hide their excitement and answered loudly, “Yes!”
After discussing the main business, the atmosphere in the military camp became more relaxed. Chu Hechao sat down casually, tapping his armrest with his fingers. After a while, he raised his eyelids to look at Guan Zhihuai and Wang Er and asked, “Did you bring any message from Ji County?”
Guan Zhihuai and Wang Er were momentarily stunned. Was there something they should have brought?
Everyone’s gaze involuntarily fell on Wang Er, as he was Yuan Li’s trusted confidant among them.
Wang Er was even more bewildered. He racked his brain, trying to recall, and seeing the general’s expression growing darker, he hesitated and shook his head, saying, “Lord Yuan didn’t give me any specific message. He only asked me to follow General Guan and learn how to lead the troops.”
Chu Hechao stared at him for a while, making Wang Er break out in a cold sweat, before saying in a low voice, “Is that all?”
Wang Er replied, “Yes, that’s all.”
“…Heh.” Chu Hechao’s face showed fluctuating emotions. “Hmph.”
This cold snort made Wang Er’s hairs stand on end.
Once Chu Hechao dismissed them, Wang Er was the first to run out of the tent.
In the empty tent, Chu Hechao drank a glass of water, trying to cool down his frustration.
Good, it had only been a month and a half, and he wasn’t even thinking about him?
That ungrateful person!
Just when he was annoyed, the soldier who had gone to Ji County to deliver the letter came out and whispered to Chu Hechao, “General, Lord Yuan sent me to tell you that he is waiting for you to return before opening the wine barrels, celebrating together the joy of capturing Bingzhou.”
Chu Hechao’s frustration dissipated, and his expression gradually relaxed. He muttered to himself, “Not bad, at least he has some conscience.”
His thick eyebrows unfurrowed, and a smile appeared at the corner of his mouth. His mood was much better now.
The soldier continued, “Lord Yuan also asked me to deliver a letter to you.”
Chu Hechao sat up abruptly, and the chair made a few creaking sounds. His eyes gleamed with anticipation, and he said eagerly, “Quick, give me the letter!”