After Chu Hechao ruined the shorts, he secretly stuffed them to the bottom of a box.
For an entire half month, Yuan Li didn’t notice anything unusual. By the end of August, another imperial edict arrived in Youzhou from Luoyang.
Early in the morning, Yuan Li received the news and called for Chu Hechao to get up. He grabbed his clothes and went to take a bath.
They bathed together, and Chu Hechao washed Yuan Li from head to toe, scrubbing his skin until it turned red and felt burning hot. As soon as he stopped, Yuan Li hurriedly jumped out of the bathtub and put on the nearby shorts.
Chu Hechao took a glance at Yuan Li and noticed the crooked stitching at the back of the shorts he had sewn.
“…” He instantly felt guilty.
Yuan Li looked back at him, puzzled, and urged him, “Hurry up, I want to have breakfast before the imperial edict arrives.”
Chu Hechao mumbled an acknowledgment and stood up, walking behind Yuan Li with dampness, casually grabbing a towel to wipe off the water stains on his body, while sneakily stealing glances at the seams of Yuan Li’s shorts.
Yuan Li was not fat, but he had flesh in certain places. When he moved, the centipede-like seams also moved along with him. Whether the shorts looked good or not was another matter; all Chu Hechao knew was that he felt an itch in his heart.
As Yuan Li dressed, he noticed that Chu Hechao’s gaze was not entirely honest, and he chuckled, “Chu Ciye, what are you looking at?”
Fearing that Yuan Li would discover the seams on the shorts, Chu Hechao quickly averted his eyes and coughed, “Do you want to change into another pair of shorts?”
Yuan Li was confused, “Why should I change?”
Chu Hechao mumbled vaguely, “These shorts don’t look good.”
Yuan Li didn’t hear clearly, “What?”
“…Nothing,” Chu Hechao’s expression didn’t change, “Hurry up and get dressed; let’s go eat.”
After breakfast, the imperial edict arrived. They went to receive it, and this time the edict was delivered by a minor official from the court. He was trembling with fear and didn’t dare to look at Yuan Li and Chu Hechao.
The content of the imperial edict consisted of two items. The first appointed Yuan Li as the governor of Bingzhou, concurrently holding the position of governor of Youzhou. The second item praised Chu Hechao and Yuan Li for their loyalty to Northern Zhou, expressing that they were loyal subjects of the kingdom. The emperor ordered them to travel to Luoyang immediately to accompany him.
The first item was obviously a scheme by Li Li to sow discord between Yuan Li and Chu Hechao. Li Li was clearly feeling uneasy about them taking Bingzhou. So he used the words they had spoken last year when they refused his compensation to paint them as loyal to North Zhou, cunningly arranging for them to go to Luoyang and meet the emperor.
Once they went to Luoyang, they might not return. But if they didn’t go, their previously claimed loyalty to the emperor would become a joke.
Accompanying the imperial edict was a request from the emperor. Luoyang was running out of grain, and the emperor wanted Youzhou to send a batch of food to the palace for use by the officials.
This was clearly Li Li using the emperor’s name to ask for grain from Youzhou, but it was difficult to refuse this request.
Yuan Li’s expression remained unchanged as he first reassured the delegation that brought the edict before convening his trusted aides, including Chu Hechao, to discuss how to handle the situation.
Their opinions were unanimous in not going to Luoyang and coming up with polite excuses to decline the invitation. As for whether to provide the grain, there were two factions.
One group led by Liu Jixin Guo Mao suggested giving Luoyang some grain to stabilize the situation and show their loyalty while expressing their inability to go to Luoyang.
The other faction, led by Yang Zhongfa and He Lang, also had a firm stance. The couple, Chu Wang and his wife, were killed by Li Li, and they harbored deep hatred towards him. They absolutely could not provide grain to Luoyang and let Li Li use it to support his people.
Once they provided grain to Luoyang, and Luoyang benefited from it, they would undoubtedly keep coming to Youzhou for more grain.
“D*mn it!” Yang Zhongfa’s face turned red with anger. “When we begged the court for grain, they turned a deaf ear to our pleas, and the grain they finally gave us was soaked in water. Now Luoyang dares to ask Youzhou for grain? Do they not know what kind of place Youzhou is? This is truly bullying!”
While Yuan Li himself didn’t want to provide grain to Luoyang, he also knew that Liu Jixin and Guo Mao’s approach was the most reasonable. He turned to Chu Hechao and asked, “General, what do you think we should do?”
He didn’t want to force Chu Hechao to provide grain to their enemies. If Chu Hechao refused, they could simply reject the request.
Chu Hechao closed his eyes for a moment and calmly said, “Give them the grain.”
He Lang exclaimed, “General?!”
“Just a small amount, enough for three months’ rations for the palace and officials,” Chu Hechao calmly stated. “Exchanging three months’ rations for a year of stability, it’s a fair deal to provide this grain. As for Li Li…”
He glanced around at everyone, his jaw tightening, and a fierce expression appeared on his handsome face. Finally, he turned to Yuan Li and said seriously, “My parents have been dead for nearly three years, Bingzhou is now stable, and Youzhou is full of grain. With a total of 100,000 soldiers in Youzhou and 130,000 in the Northern Frontier Army, we also have over 30,000 cavalry. It’s time to prepare for revenge.”
Chu Hechao had 23,000 cavalry in his army, and Yuan Li originally had a 1,000-man cavalry unit. Over the years, Zhong Ji and Zhang Mi had gradually purchased around 10,000 horses from the Wuwan people. In total, they had around 35,000 cavalry soldiers.
Yuan Li had previously mentioned that they would have a major battle with Li Li in about three years, and now the time had come.
Yuan Li nodded decisively, his eyes also filled with determination, and he said boldly, “Good!”
The next day, Yuan Li began to gather the grain to send to Luoyang.
Meanwhile, in Bingzhou, after Zhang Liangdong heard about the emperor’s lack of food, he quickly dispatched a large quantity of grain from the local granaries to be sent to Yuan Li, to be included with the grain going to Luoyang, so that Yuan Li could deliver it to the emperor.
The disciple who accompanied the grain said, “Teacher, I have been constantly worried about the emperor’s situation. I want to tell you that if the emperor is in trouble, as his subjects, we should do everything in our power to ease his difficulties. How can we let the emperor go hungry when everyone else is starving?”
Seeing the three times more grain carts than expected for Luoyang, Yuan Li frowned slightly, “Is this the grain from Yanmen County in Bingzhou?”
The disciple of Zhang Liangdong looked uneasy and replied, “Yes.”
He felt somewhat embarrassed.
After all, this was grain from Bingzhou, and their teacher didn’t obtain Yuan Li and Chu Hechao’s consent before sending it over. It was indeed inappropriate.
They had tried to dissuade him, but Zhang Liangdong was a loyal subject of North Zhou. He was deeply concerned for the emperor and was so anxious that he wanted to give away all of his own family’s belongings to Luoyang. He sent the grain to Yuan Li without hesitation. After being advised, he even got angry and told his disciples that Yuan Li was also a loyal subject to the emperor and would undoubtedly be happy to see him sending grain over.
However, Yuan Li was not happy.
Although Zhang Liangdong was the governor of Yanmen County in Bingzhou, it did not mean that the people and grain of Yanmen County could be arbitrarily disposed of by him, especially these precious grains.
Yet Zhang Liangdong was a loyal subject, and his act was out of concern for the emperor. He was well-regarded and offered great help to Yuan Li, so Yuan Li couldn’t say anything.
He sighed softly in his heart and casually said, “Alright, leave this grain here with me. Please go back and tell your teacher that Bingzhou has just stabilized, and the most important task now is to cultivate farmland and increase food production. As long as Bingzhou is stable and produces enough grain, we can send more grain to the emperor. Let us handle the other matters; your teacher doesn’t need to worry too much. Just focus on managing Yanmen County well.”
Seeing that Yuan Li didn’t scold them and didn’t return the grain, Zhang Liangdong’s disciple breathed a sigh of relief and wholeheartedly acknowledged Yuan Li’s loyalty to the emperor, admiringly saying, “Governor, your loyalty to North Zhou is truly admirable.”
After they left, Lin Tian looked at the grain carts and hesitated, “My Lord, do you really want to send all this grain to Luoyang?”
“Arrange a team to take it to the Northern Frontier,” Yuan Li said calmly, “And send some people to Yanmen County to keep an eye on Zhang Liangdong.”
Lin Tian bowed, “Yes.”
Ten days later, Liu Jixin and Guo Mao saw off the team heading to Luoyang.
Before parting, Guo Mao looked haggard and worried, unable to bear the sight of the grain being loaded onto the carts.
He reluctantly shifted his gaze away from the grain and said to the leader of the Luoyang team, “Alas, our northern regions suffered a rare snow disaster last year, and I believe the court has heard about it. Several provinces were affected, and the land was devastated. It took a year for things to barely recover. Thus, last year’s grain harvest was not high… My Youzhou is not as wealthy as Jizhou and Qingzhou, and we can provide this grain only because the Governor and the General did their best to allocate it from their own supplies. I hope the Emperor can understand.”
Liu Jixin also smiled bitterly and said casually, “Originally, we were also planning to petition the court for grain…”
As soon as they said this, the people from Luoyang didn’t dare to be dissatisfied. They quickly thanked them and hurriedly left with the grain carts, fearing that they might be asking for grain from Luoyang in earnest.
Watching their fleeing figures, Guo Mao and Liu Ji slowly relaxed their expressions and looked somewhat sarcastically as they disappeared into the distance.
The imperial court had really fallen to such a state.
Guo Mao shook his head. “Brother Liu, let’s go back too.”
During the attack on Li Li, a significant portion of the military force had to be deployed, leaving a shortage of troops behind.
With the people from Luoyang gone, Youzhou and Bingzhou began the conscription process.
Youzhou aimed to recruit 50,000 troops, while Bingzhou aimed for 100,000.
Once the conscription order was issued, there was a constant stream of people coming to join the army.
In recent years, the treatment of soldiers in Youzhou had become well-known. They were equipped with the latest weapons, warm clothing, and were even provided with sufficient food to eat.
This alone made the common people envious and eager, but that was not all. The most astonishing fact was that the soldiers in Youzhou were able to have a meat meal every month!
Not just a tasteless morsel of meat for each person, but a large bowl filled with meat juices!
For most impoverished people, it was nearly impossible to taste meat in their lifetime. When they heard rumors about soldiers being able to eat meat, they were skeptical and didn’t believe it.
It was only after seeing the changes in the Youzhou soldiers with their own eyes and hearing them speak about it that they realized it was true.
The soldiers were granted furloughs, and when many soldiers returned home for the New Year, their parents were almost unable to recognize their grown and mighty sons.
After experiencing battles and taking lives on the battlefield, the Youzhou soldiers had transformed into elite troops, becoming a truly sharp edge.
Furthermore, due to Yuan Li’s daily drills, strict military regulations, and moral guidance, their spirits had undergone significant changes as well. At first glance, they were completely different from the people who joined the army. They exuded a righteous aura but lacked neither fierceness nor bravery. During the New Year, they even helped with various chores at home, and when asked if there was meat in the army, they honestly replied.
“There is indeed meat to eat. We get to eat meat once a month, and not only does it fill us up, but it’s also so delicious that you’d want to swallow your tongue!” A soldier smacked his lips, reminiscing, and couldn’t help but swallow his saliva, saying with envy, “We get less, but for cavalry, they can have meat once every ten days!”
Upon hearing this, the common people were even more tempted.
Therefore, despite Youzhou’s goal of recruiting only 50,000, there were more people applying to join the army.
When Yuan Li learned that there were many more applicants than the target, he didn’t know whether to be happy or troubled.
Since they were about to fight Li Li, a portion of the grain could not be used.
Yuan Li wanted to recruit even more soldiers, but they had previously taken in many refugees and provided large amounts of grain to help Bingzhou during the snow disaster and civil unrest. Now, the 50,000 from Youzhou and the 100,000 from Bingzhou were almost reaching the limit of what he could bear.
On the second day, he personally went to the conscription site to take a look.
Many young men who learned that the recruitment was full were unwilling to leave. They knelt on the ground, clutching the legs of the officials, weeping and begging to join the army, even if just for a place to live.
Yuan Li observed the scene for an entire day without saying a word.
That night, he solemnly dragged Chu Hechao into the study and asked him, “General, have you heard of the policy of garrison farming?”