These people had already heard about the changes in Youzhou from the local merchants, but when they actually saw the well-paved roads and the content and happy people, they were greatly shocked.
Times had changed, and as soon as they arrived in Youzhou, Yuan Li received the news. He sent two outstanding local men, Kong Ran and Gu Yue, to welcome these Confucian scholars and took them to visit some famous sights in Youzhou before arriving in Jixian.
During this time, Yuan Li quickly began to arrange the lantern festival.
A month ago, Yuan Li had ordered the announcement of the upcoming Lantern Festival in Jixian in mid-May on every market day. It was the first time Jixian was holding a lantern festival, and it had to be lively so that the people would come and enjoy it.
It was also an opportunity for these southerners to see the difference between Youzhou and the outside world.
While there were hidden undercurrents in the outside world, the people in Youzhou were living peacefully and even had such a bustling lantern festival, subtly indicating Youzhou’s strength.
Making lanterns was easy to learn and affordable. After hearing that the government was buying lanterns, many common people used grass and wood to create lanterns to make some extra money.
The completed lanterns were gradually displayed in the market, under houses, along the roadsides, and by the riverside. Lanterns were everywhere.
The people were excited, and whenever they met, their conversations were filled with questions like, “Have you made a lantern?” “Are you taking your children to the Lantern Festival?”
Many merchants who were interested in the lantern festival didn’t leave after the big market but found a place to stay and waited for the Lantern Festival to begin.
Yuan Song soon came to Yuan Li and said, “Jixian should be expanded again. More and more people are coming to live in Jixian. If we don’t expand further, there won’t be enough space for everyone.”
Yuan Li readily agreed and let Yuan Song handle it.
Yuan Song was in a good mood and smiled, “The population in Guangyang Commandery is increasing. I believe the harvest in the next two years will be very good.”
That was indeed certain.
After the influx of 500,000 refugees into Youzhou following the snow disaster last year, Yuan Li had distributed them to various counties in Youzhou and allocated uncultivated land for them to farm. The refugees from Bingzhou were also given land. The Yellow Dragon Rebellion wreaked havoc on many powerful landlords in Bingzhou, allowing Yuan Li and his followers to gain tens of thousands of hectares of fertile land without lifting a finger against the powerful landlords.
Why were the tax revenues collected by the Northern Zhou government getting lower and lower? It was precisely because of these powerful landlords and aristocratic families, each one of them possessing numerous hectares of fertile land and tenant households, essentially making them emperors of small territories.
As a result, ordinary people were left without food to eat, and as long as the rebels conquered one powerful landlord, it was like puncturing a mouse’s nest, and they would gain spoils to sustain their ongoing development.
Now that Youzhou and Bingzhou no longer had such powerful landlords, all the land was firmly in Yuan Li’s hands, and the grain production naturally increased year by year.
Yuan Li was truly short of people to work the land, but it was changing… rapidly. In the past few months, more and more refugees had fled to Youzhou, and the situation in Bingzhou was gradually stabilizing. Yuan Li believed that by the end of this year, the population of Youzhou would double.
He was planning to recruit new soldiers again in the fall of this year.
The Lantern Festival was set for the 15th of May.
It wasn’t a traditional festival or significant date, so Yuan Li decided to make it Youzhou’s annual Lantern Festival, using the pretext of celebrating last year’s bountiful harvest and looking forward to another fruitful autumn this year.
Thus, this lantern festival was called the “Harvest Anticipation Festival.”
Two days before the festival, Kong Ran and Gu Yue finally arrived in Jixian with the Confucian scholars from the south.
Yuan Li personally welcomed them and prepared a feast to drink and enjoy together. During the banquet, he casually mentioned the upcoming “Harvest Anticipation Festival” tomorrow, inviting the Confucian scholars to join in the festivities.
Those who were willing to travel a long way to Youzhou were either extremely curious about Yuan Li and Chu Hechao or curious about Youzhou itself. They readily accepted the invitation and indeed went to participate in the Lantern Festival the next evening.
Originally, these Confucian scholars had not held much expectation for this unheard-of “Harvest Anticipation Festival.” After all, how could remote and desolate Youzhou compare to places like Yangzhou and Xuzhou in terms of prosperity?
But when they saw it with their own eyes, they were greatly surprised!
It was so lively, no less than the Lantern Festival of Shangyuan!
Even before entering the market, they could already see lanterns shining all around, in various shapes and colors, shining brightly in the slanting sunlight, a vibrant display of colors.
There were countless stalls on both sides of the street, making it all look dazzling. There were also many stalls selling masks, intended for shy girls and young men.
The strong and appetizing aroma wafting from somewhere made those who hadn’t had dinner yet involuntarily salivate.
What caught their attention even more was the crowd on the streets.
A ten-mile long street illuminated by lanterns. People of all ages, men, women, and children, stopped to admire the lanterns. The lively atmosphere resounded with people’s voices. They wore patched clothes and simple straw shoes, but their faces were ruddy and contented under the illumination of the lanterns.
For a moment, these Confucian scholars thought they were witnessing a prosperous era.
The people here were clearly living very peacefully.
Was this truly the Youzhou that had once exiled criminals?
They stood there stunned for a moment before walking into the street. Once they entered, their eyes were not enough to take in everything.
Countless things they had never seen in the south were displayed in abundance. There were also utensils introduced by the Hu people. As they walked, money was gradually spent, and the servants behind them were carrying more and more items.
When they followed the scent to the food market, even these knowledgeable Confucian scholars couldn’t help but show a stunned expression.
What kind of food was this?
Why had they never seen or heard of it before?
The diet in the Northern Zhou was too meager, with only steaming, boiling, stewing, and roasting as cooking methods. Even the aristocrats who enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle had never seen these foods. They were both amazed and ashamed.
Like a group of unworldly country folks, they kept asking, “What is this?” “What is this made of?” “How should it be eaten?”
After coming out of the food market, these Confucian scholars didn’t escape the fate of feeling a little nauseous and uncomfortable like Cui Yan. Their faces faintly revealed a hint of green.
Accompanying them on the tour were Guo Mao and Wang Er. Seeing their expressions, Guo Mao knew that they had eaten too much, but he maintained a polite demeanor and didn’t mention their embarrassing condition. He smiled inwardly and kindly signaled Wang Er to slow down, giving them time to recover.
As the night grew deeper, the lanterns lit up the sky like falling stars, concealing the radiance of the bright moon.
The Harvest Anticipation Festival lasted for three days of all-night revelry. The later it got, the livelier it became, with the clamor of merchants’ shouts and the sounds of merriment filling the air.
Yuan Li also went to join the festivities.
The crowd was bustling, and Chu Hechao tightly held onto Yuan Li’s arm, afraid of losing him in the crowd.
The crowd was too dense, and Chu Hechao was tall and robust, attracting curious gazes from passersby, who would glance at Chu Hechao and then at Yuan Li. After a while, Yuan Li noticed Chu Hechao’s annoyed expression with furrowed brows.
Yuan Li immediately bought two masks, one for himself and one for Chu Hechao.
However, wearing masks didn’t stop the crowd from pushing and shoving. After exploring one street, Yuan Li decided not to go any further into the crowded areas. He bought some candied hawthorns made by the locals and walked with Chu Hechao towards the riverbank, leisurely strolling.
By the river, there were groups of people enjoying the water and the moon. With the dimming sky, they could only see silhouettes of people, which seemed like a scene straight out of a painting.
Chu Hechao grabbed Yuan Li and walked to a lush weeping willow by the riverside. The willow branches acted like curtains, creating a private space where no one could pry.
Occasional ripples gently moved on the water, causing the lanterns on the river to sway.
Chu Hechao and Yuan Li shared a candied hawthorn. The candied hawthorn was made from sugar cane, and only Yuan Li had enough sugar cane to make this snack. The sweet and tangy taste filled their mouths.
When he tasted a sour one, Yuan Li nearly lost a tooth, “So sour!”
Chu Hechao laughed and teased him, “If you can’t handle it, spit it out.”
Yuan Li stubbornly swallowed it, “Can’t waste it.”
Seeing Yuan Li’s distressed expression, Chu Hechao couldn’t help but feel hot all over. He took advantage of the situation and joked with him, “The one in my mouth is sweet. Why don’t you try it?”
“Chu Ciye,” Yuan Li scolded him, “You shameless guy.”
After finishing the one in his mouth, only one candied hawthorn remained. Yuan Li didn’t dare to try it and gave it to Chu Hechao.
Chu Hechao refused, “Unless you kiss me.”
Their voices were low, hidden by the rustling of the willow branches. However, anyone familiar with them could vaguely guess who they were from these blurred voices and figures.
Yang Zhongfa couldn’t believe his eyes as he stared at the two figures under the willow.
When they walked over, he had a feeling of familiarity with their figures. He was about to greet them when he heard their conversation, making him tremble with fear.
Coldness surged from his feet to his head, and Yang Zhongfa even felt that he must have misheard or misunderstood. How could it be the General and Lord Yuan? It couldn’t be, it was impossible!
How could these two people…
How could Chu Hechao and Yuan Li…
This couldn’t possibly be them!
“Dad…” a tender voice came from the riverbank, and it told Yang Zhongfa that this was not a dream. “Have you fished out the lotus lantern for me?”
Under the weeping willow, Yuan Li and Chu Hechao also recognized the voice of Xuan Er.
They were stunned and looked to the side, seeing Yang Zhongfa standing not far away, dazed.
Yuan Li’s heart skipped a beat.
He swallowed hard and followed Chu Hechao out from under the willow. The faint light of the lanterns briefly illuminated their faces, and Yang Zhongfa’s heart sank as the last trace of hope vanished completely.
Xuan Er: “Dad?”
Yang Zhongfa’s hand trembled as he quickly said, “Let the servants take you back, Dad will bring you the lotus lantern later!”
Yang Zhongfa shouted, “Go back now!”
Xuan Er was taken away in confusion by the servants.
Yang Zhongfa’s hands were shaking, and he forced a smile, “General, Lord Yuan, what are you doing here?”
Chu Hechao pulled Yuan Li behind him and looked deeply at Yang Zhongfa, “You saw everything.”
Yang Zhongfa could no longer deceive himself. His lips quivered as he spoke, “General, how could you… How could you do this… You and Lord Yuan are relatives, in-laws!”
Chu Hechao replied, “We are fake in-laws.”
“But that’s still in-laws!” Yang Zhongfa suddenly exploded, but he still lowered his voice, afraid that others would overhear their conversation. “General, do you want to be condemned by thousands? Have you forgotten how General Huyan Wuzhu cursed you? Lord Yuan is your sister-in-law! How can you do this, how can you justify the late Gelao, the late Chu Wang, and the Madam? Chu Hechao, don’t let me think you are heartless and ruthless!”
Yang Zhongfa knew that what he said might hurt Chu Hechao, but he had to say it. This kind of thing must be cut off firmly before others found out!
Chu Hechao’s chest heaved, his lips tightly pursed, showing a hint of iron-blue.
The fresh wound that hadn’t fully healed was brought up again by Yang Zhongfa.
His emotions churned, and there were things in his eyes that fluctuated between pain and restraint. Finally, his expression became calm.
“You are right, I am heartless and ruthless,” Chu Hechao said indifferently. “Throughout history, there have been many who have taken others’ spouses, and one more like me won’t make a difference.”
Yang Zhongfa’s anger burst forth, “General!”
“That’s enough, Lord Yang!” Yuan Li stepped forward, his expression now calm. “This is not the place to talk. Please accompany us to Chu Wang’s Mansion.”
Yang Zhongfa could only hold back his emotions and follow them to Chu Wang’s Mansion.
On the way, he looked at Yuan Li’s composed appearance, and his worry deepened.
Yuan Li was only twenty-one years old this year, only twenty-one!
He was still young, with plenty of time ahead. Young people were fickle, and he had never been involved with women before. Could Yuan Li really be with Chu Hechao? The General was so determined, but Yuan Li seemed so calm and rational. Did he genuinely like the General?
Yang Zhongfa felt like he was walking down a pitch-black maze. He couldn’t see Chu Hechao and Yuan Li’s future at all.
Back at Chu Wang’s Mansion, the three of them sat in the study. After the servants brought them tea, they left and closed the door.
Silence enveloped the room, and the tea leaves sank to the bottom of the cup.
With closed eyes, Yuan Li tried to calm down the anger ignited by Yang Zhongfa’s accusations.
“How long have you been together?” Yang Zhongfa finally asked.
Chu Hechao’s expression was concealed in the shadows, his strong jaw outlined coldly by the lamplight. He replied, “Two years.”
“Two years, and you’ve been together for two years,” Yang Zhongfa wiped his face with a bitter smile. “I see, I see…”
Memories of past events that had seemed off suddenly flashed in his mind. The clues had started when they went to invite Cui Yan’s daughter from the Cangshan Mountains. He had ignored those signs, subconsciously believing that it was impossible for the General and Lord Yuan to be together.
How could it be possible?
Yet, they were really involved with each other.
“Now that no one has discovered it yet, you should break it off as soon as possible,” Yang Zhongfa said to Yuan Li, “Lord Yuan, you have always been someone who plans ten steps ahead. You must be aware of the consequences if your relationship is discovered.”
Chu Hechao’s face creased, his hand gripping the armrest tightly, and he sneered, “If you have something to say, say it to me, why tell him?”
Ignoring the fierce look in Chu Hechao’s eyes, Yang Zhongfa continued to gaze at Yuan Li firmly.
Yuan Li opened his eyes and said, “I know the consequences.”
Yang Zhongfa said in a deep voice, “You are still young, and you have your parents and a limitless future ahead of you. I advise you to stop here.”
Chu Hechao erupted in anger and stood up with a thump. “Yang Zhongfa!”
Yang Zhongfa looked up at Chu Hechao, his face muscles trembling. He spoke one word at a time, “Even if I die here, I must persuade you to end this relationship and say these things.”
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