Yang Zhongfa’s determination to persuade them to separate made Yuan Li’s heart sink further.
He had to think about it.
If even Yang Zhongfa resisted so strongly, how much more resistant would his parents be?
Chu Hechao’s lips tightened.
His face was obscured by shadows, making it impossible to discern his expression. But it certainly wasn’t a good mood. Yang Zhongfa was familiar with Chu Hechao. Even if Chu Hechao stood still, his tall and upright figure appeared indomitable. But Yang Zhongfa knew that every word he said struck a nerve with Chu Hechao. Some words might only be a few words long, but they could hurt like a knife.
However, as long as they were together, such words would only increase and become more frequent.
Yang Zhongfa steeled his heart and continued to look at Yuan Li. “Lord Yuan, you have great aspirations and exceptional talents. Engaging in an incestuous relationship with your in-law will only tarnish your reputation. People all over the world will suspect the legitimacy of your position as a provincial governor and your achievements. You are eight years younger than the General – eight years! You are still young, while the General is already established. The General might appear ageless now, but what about ten years from now? Twenty years? Thirty, fifty years from now… I don’t want to see you waste your prime time on the General. Please, Lord Yuan, return to your normal life.”
Every word he said seemed to be leaning towards Yuan Li, but he was actually protecting Chu Hechao.
Yang Zhongfa’s expression pleaded, and his eyes were heavy with emotion. Yuan Li’s lips were dry, the previous sweet taste of the candied haws had vanished, leaving a bitter aftertaste. Just as he was about to speak, Chu Hechao spoke first.
“… I said, if you have something to say, say it to me, why talk to him? He just turned into an adult, what does he understand? It was me who deceived him and crossed the line with him. I stand by my words. If he dares to agree to anything you say, I’ll break his legs. Do you hear that, my good sister-in-law?”
Yang Zhongfa’s face turned iron-blue. He never expected Chu Hechao to be so unreasonable. He was so angry that his breathing became erratic. “General, how dare you do this?!”
Chu Hechao’s breathing gradually became slow and heavy. He grinned slightly, “What can’t I do? I dared to kidnap him while he was alive, would I not dare to do so after he died?”
“Go back,” Chu Hechao said, “As for tonight’s events, pretend you saw nothing and know nothing. Don’t speak of it to anyone else.”
“…” Yang Zhongfa took a deep breath, gritting his teeth. “That’s impossible. This matter must be resolved tonight, and it cannot be delayed any longer!”
Yang Zhongfa’s attitude was even more agitated than Yuan Li had imagined, and it furrowed Yuan Li’s brows.
Clearly, Yang Zhongfa couldn’t listen to anything at the moment, and persuasion wouldn’t work. Yuan Li didn’t rush to speak, contemplating how to handle the situation, and at the same time, observing Yang Zhongfa’s expression closely.
Just as Yang Zhongfa was about to walk towards Yuan Li, he raised his voice, “Lord Yuan, you’ve heard what the General said. Are you really going to continue this wrong path with him?”
Chu Hechao reached out and stopped him.
Yang Zhongfa shouted at Chu Hechao again in a low voice, “General, forcing a melon to ripen will not make it sweet. You don’t want me to talk to Lord Yuan because you have doubts, don’t you? You feel that the two of you can’t continue like this forever, right? You know it in your heart, you know that this road is difficult, and I don’t need to say much, but sooner or later, you will fall apart. If your feelings are true and steadfast, why would you fear my few words? Don’t you want to hear what Lord Yuan thinks?”
Chu Hechao raised his eyelids, the bloodshot eyes deepening. He opened his mouth, his voice low as he firmly blocked Yang Zhongfa in front of him, “Stop talking.”
The candlelight flickered, the dim light swaying over him, and Chu Hechao whispered again, “Yang Zhongfa, stop talking.”
Yang Zhongfa looked at him like this, suddenly unable to say anything.
Since his youth, Chu Hechao had been on the battlefield. Yang Zhongfa knew he was the son of Chu Wang, and he had always taken care of him. He had watched this young brat transform into a young general, then into an invincible and revered war god, becoming the Great General who dominated the Northern Zhou.
Yang Zhongfa had followed Chu Hechao for fifteen years, fifteen years, and he had never seen Chu Hechao show such an expression.
This kind of… panic and pleading expression.
Suddenly, Yuan Li spoke, “Sir, do you want to hear what I have to say?”
Chu Hechao froze imperceptibly, and Yang Zhongfa looked at him with pity and suppressed his sympathy, saying, “You’re right.”
Chu Hechao thought Yang Zhongfa was too naive. Yuan Li had already promised not to change his mind, so why would he give Yang Zhongfa the response he wanted to hear?
But he couldn’t help feeling nervous, his whole body tense, his pounding heart clinging to his flesh.
Then, he heard Yuan Li’s voice, “You’re right, Lord Yang.”
Chu Hechao felt like he had fallen into an ice cave and stood there motionless.
Yang Zhongfa felt both sad and happy, looking at Yuan Li with a complex expression.
Yuan Li remained calm, almost too indifferent, saying, “Lord Yang’s words have given me much to ponder. You are right, being together with General will only lead to disdain and criticism from the world. After all, our identities don’t match, and there is a significant age difference. Upon careful consideration, it seems I have no reason to continue this wrong path with General.”
Chu Hechao stood with his back to Yuan Li, feeling like he must have misheard Yuan Li’s words.
His expression was one of astonishment, and he even looked a bit pitiable.
… How could Yuan Li say such things?
These were not the words Yuan Li would say.
“Since you discovered the relationship between the two of us, we should think about how to handle it properly,” Yuan Li rubbed his forehead and stood up, “Please give me some time to think it over. After the Lantern Festival, we can discuss it further.”
After speaking, he nodded slightly at Yang Zhongfa and turned away mercilessly.
The cold wind blew into the study, and the candlelight was blown out instantly.
In the darkness, Yang Zhongfa felt his throat clogged. Yuan Li’s actions were too unexpected. At the moment, he didn’t dare to look at Chu Hechao. He turned his head and gazed at the stiff figure in the darkness, at a loss for what to say. “General…”
“… Go,” Chu Hechao said, suppressing his voice.
Chu Hechao suddenly exploded, “Go!”
Yang Zhongfa opened his mouth but left in a sorry state.
Chu Hechao stood in place for a long time. Just a moment ago, he was sharing a candied haw with Yuan Li, and now, he was as cold as ice. His hands felt cold, and he felt lost.
It was all gone, everything was gone.
Even his only lifeline was about to abandon him.
The darkness enveloped Chu Hechao, as cold as an icy abyss. As he sank deeper and found it harder to breathe, a warm hand suddenly touched his.
Chu Hechao heard Yuan Li’s voice, the voice that had tormented him to no end. “Brother, has Yang Zhongfa left?”
Chu Hechao turned back in confusion and saw Yuan Li’s faint figure. He stared at him for a long while before hoarsely saying, “Yes, he left.”
After a pause, Chu Hechao asked cautiously, “Le Jun, did you say those things just to deceive him?”
Yuan Li nodded decisively. “Yes, it was just to temporarily appease him. His emotions are too volatile right now, and there are too many people in Jixian during the Lantern Festival. We can’t let this matter spread. I wanted to pretend to appease him for now and talk more effectively after these three days of the festival.”
Chu Hechao instantly returned from the darkness to reality. He raised his trembling hand and touched Yuan Li’s cheeks, chin, and eyes, his lips trembling with excitement and joy. “I knew it… I knew you were just deceiving him.”
Yuan Li’s face was a bit sore from being touched, and he smiled at Chu Hechao, touching his face and pressing their foreheads together, “Brother, did I scare you?”
Chu Hechao looked disheveled, and there was a hint of moisture in his eyes. Fortunately, the darkness concealed it all. “Mm, you scared me.”
Chu Hechao had lost many things in his life, his subordinates, his older brother, his parents… This was the first time he had experienced the joy of losing and regaining something.
This joy was both bitter and sweet, satisfied, extremely satisfied.
“I’m sorry…” Yuan Li’s nose felt sour, “After the Lantern Festival, we’ll be honest with our trusted confidants.”
Chu Hechao held him gently, “Okay.”
Yuan Li said, “Don’t listen to Yang Zhongfa’s nonsense. I don’t think of you as old at all.”
Chu Hechao’s expression changed slightly, and he snorted, “Tch, old? It’s just big.”
Yuan Li noticed his aversion to the word and thought for a moment. “The ointment I gave you earlier, if you use it after washing your face every day, you won’t age… or at least age more slowly.”
Chu Hechao was half doubtful, “Really?”
Yuan Li nodded emphatically, “Really.”
Chu Hechao reluctantly said, “Then I’ll try it every day from now on.”
Yuan Li thought that Chu Hechao had already been comforted by his words, but he realized at night that Chu Hechao was still uneasy.
Chu Hechao stuck to Yuan Li like glue, even in May. When they went to sleep, they clung tightly to each other, and both of them were covered in sweat.
Yuan Li tried to soothe him to sleep, saying, “Actually, there’s one thing Yang Zhongfa said that is quite right.”
Chu Hechao tensed up, “What is it?”
“He said I walk ten steps ahead,” Yuan Li smiled, “And that’s true. When I decided to be with you, I had already thought about the day when someone else would discover our relationship. You like me, and I like you. Our secret may be hidden for a while, but it can’t be hidden forever. Brother, since I decided to be with you, I have prepared myself for the worst.”
Chu Hechao held Yuan Li’s hand and kissed it in front of his lips, his eyes deep, “I will handle this matter.”
He spoke softly, “Don’t worry, don’t be afraid. I will protect you and make sure you don’t suffer any injustices.”
Yuan Li whispered, “I’m not suffering. I want to work with you to find a way to make Yang Zhongfa accept us.”
Chu Hechao’s Adam’s apple rolled, and he said hoarsely, “Alright.”
In the middle of the night, Yuan Li woke up feeling the urge to pee. He opened his eyes drowsily and saw Chu Hechao sitting by the bedside, one hand hugging him and the other arm resting on his body, his eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling as if lost in thought.
Feeling only half-asleep now, Yuan Li asked, “You can’t sleep?”
Chu Hechao snapped back to his senses, “I can’t sleep. Do you need to go? I’ll accompany you.”
“No need,” Yuan Li got out of bed, “I can go by myself.”
But Chu Hechao still accompanied him. After Yuan Li finished washing his hands, he returned to bed and yawned, “Brother, go to sleep.”
Chu Hechao nodded, “Mm, I’ll sleep now.”
Yuan Li could tell that he was just saying it but had no intention of sleeping. After some thought, Yuan Li suddenly crawled under the blanket, “I’ll give you a kiss, then you go to sleep quickly.”
Chu Hechao was surprised by the sudden gesture, “Why are you suddenly giving me a kiss?”
Yuan Li rested on top of him, “Don’t talk, go to sleep.”
Yuan Li kissed him until his lips were sour, and his throat ached. When Chu Hechao was about to fall asleep with his eyes closed, he muttered, “Alright.”
Yuan Li climbed out of the blanket, and his cheeks were flushed from the heat. He was too tired to go outside and rinse his mouth, so he swallowed the water in his mouth and rinsed his mouth twice with the tea water by the bed before deciding to sleep.
Chu Hechao raised his chin to bring their lips together and gently murmured, “Sleep.”
Yuan Li mumbled incoherently, “You’re not afraid of getting dirty.”
Chu Hechao smiled, “It’s all my stuff, what’s there to be afraid of?”
Yuan Li mumbled a few more words unclearly, and Chu Hechao didn’t catch them. Soon after, Yuan Li fell asleep, and his long, peaceful breathing brought tranquility to Chu Hechao’s heart.
His mind stopped wandering, and Chu Hechao gradually fell asleep.
The following two days passed smoothly with the Lantern Festival. The crowds that were stranded in Ji County gradually dispersed.
Almost 70% of the scholars and literati who came from the south decided to stay in Youzhou for a while.
On these two days, Yang Zhongfa also calmed down quite a bit. Shortly after the Lantern Festival was taken down by the government, he went to the Chu Wang Mansion.
Yuan Li and Chu Hechao were waiting for him in the study.
Yang Zhongfa didn’t dare to look at Chu Hechao. He felt heavy-hearted as he said, “Lord Yuan, have you made up your mind?”
He had already anticipated the outcome of these two men.
After twenty-nine years as a general, this was the first time he fell for someone, and it resulted in being obstructed by him… Yang Zhongfa’s heart ached. But he had no choice but to play the villain.
Yuan Li calmly said, “Lord Yang, please wait a moment.”
Yang Zhongfa was puzzled but nodded. Unbeknownst to him, Lin Tian’s voice came from outside the study door, “My lord, someone has come.”
Someone? Who else was coming?
Yang Zhongfa was puzzled and looked outside the study.
Yuan Li said, “Come in.”
Lin Tian opened the door, and Liu Jixin, Guo Mao, Zhao Ying, Wu Kai, and Wang Er, the five trusted confidants, entered the study behind him.
Yang Zhongfa was taken aback and turned pale. Why were these people here?!
After exchanging greetings with Yuan Li and Chu Hechao, Liu Jixin took the lead and asked, “My lord, did you call us here for something?”
Yuan Li smiled, “No rush, please have a seat first.”
The five men sat down as instructed, with Liu Jixin sitting directly across from Yang Zhongfa. Liu Jixin nodded slightly, indicating to Yang Zhongfa, who responded stiffly. Liu Jixin found it strange. Why did Yang Zhongfa seem off today?
After everyone sat down, Yuan Li spoke slowly, “Tonight, the people who are here are all my trusted confidants.”
Liu Jixin and the others put on smiles and said, “Thank you, my lord, for your trust.”
Yuan Li looked at each of his subordinates and solemnly said, “I have something important to tell you all. This matter is of great importance, and if it is known by anyone other than you, both General Chu and I will suffer ruin and scorn from the world!”
The words startled them. Guo Mao and Liu Jixin exchanged quick glances, and Guo Mao was already sweating profusely, his heart pounding.
What kind of matter could make the lord say words like “suffer ruin” and “scorn from the world”?
Liu Jixin was equally puzzled, and he had already thought of a thousand bad possibilities.
Wu Kai, Wu Kai, Zhao Ying, and the others had serious expressions. Their loyalty to Yuan Li was unwavering, and they did not hesitate. They immediately stood up and pledged their loyalty, “Please rest assured, my lord. Even if we die, we will never reveal this matter to outsiders.”
Yuan Li looked gratified. He then looked at Guo Mao, who had joined him last and was the most cautious, and said, “If you’re afraid of this matter, you can leave now, and I won’t blame you.”
Guo Mao did have the thought of leaving in an instant, but in the next moment, he suppressed that thought firmly.
He knew that if he left now, he would never gain Yuan Li’s trust again. If he stayed to listen to this “secret,” he would be tied to Yuan Li. They would share the glory and shame together. If Guo Mao wanted to leave later, there would only be the prospect of “death.”
His expression gradually became resolute, and he finally lifted his robe and kneeled on the ground, performing a deep bow, “If calling you my lord means being willing to die for you, then I am willing to die for you. Be it facing knives or fires, I will not hesitate. If I ever speak a false word, let the Five Thunders strike me dead.”
“Good!” Yuan Li said loudly, “I believe you! Please rise, all of you.”
Yang Zhongfa was looking at this scene, and he already had a faint guess about what Yuan Li was going to say.
But, but it was different from what he had imagined.
Yuan Li let out a sigh of relief and calmly held Chu Hechao’s hand. He said to the people present, “General Chu and I are already husband and wife.”
A thunderbolt struck in everyone’s minds.
After a long while, they looked at Yuan Li in disbelief, then at Chu Hechao, and finally at their hands, which were clasped together.
The lord and the general were together?!
How was this possible!
Chu Hechao looked down at Yuan Li’s hand, his expression briefly showing some strangeness, but he quickly recovered and held Yuan Li’s hand back, devoid of any change in his expression.
When did they get married?
Why was he not aware of it?
Liu Jixin, Guo Mao, and the others had no idea what Chu Hechao was thinking. They were all so frightened that their legs went weak. If it hadn’t been for the lord asking them to sit in chairs, they might have fallen to the ground in embarrassment.
Guo Mao forced a bitter smile as he wiped the sweat off his forehead. So, this was the secret, and that was why the lord was so solemn.
On the other side, Wu Kai turned his stiff neck and looked at Wang Er, “Brother Wang, did I misunderstand the lord’s words?”
Wang Er was also dumbfounded, and he stuttered, “Brother Wu, I, I, I’m afraid I misunderstood too.”
Yes, they must have misunderstood.
Otherwise, how could they have heard the lord say that he and the general were already married?