The fragrance of tea wafted gently, and white mist slowly floated upwards from the teapot’s spout.
The autumn wind blew in through the door, dispelling the room’s stuffiness.
Zhang Liangdong stroked his beard, his brows furrowed with concern. “The Emperor’s situation is indeed difficult. If we let Li Li continue to act recklessly, it won’t be good.”
Xiang Hongyun pondered for a moment and seemed to understand. “Are you suggesting that Master should get rid of Li Li?”
Zhang Liangdong nodded slightly.
Xiang Hongyun understood.
He picked up the teapot and poured a cup of tea in front of Zhang Liangdong. “The words you truly want to say are ‘we, as courtiers, should do our best to alleviate the Emperor’s worries.’ His Majesty’s greatest concern now is probably Li Li.”
Zhang Liangdong didn’t confirm or deny it, just said, “You continue to guess.”
Xiang Hongyun smiled lightly and continued, “Everyone in the world can go hungry, but not the Emperor. But now, even the Emperor is suffering from hunger. Isn’t it due to Li Li’s negligence? If Master really delivers the grain you sent to Luoyang, upon seeing such a large amount of food, Li Li will undoubtedly become greedy and continue to demand more grain from Youzhou. The Grand General also holds a grudge against Li Li for killing his family, and he won’t tolerate it. There will be a conflict between them.”
As he spoke, Xiang Hongyun became more and more certain of Zhang Liangdong’s intentions. He paused for a moment and continued, “If Master didn’t send the grain to Luoyang, your words also imply that it’s time for Master to wage war against Li Li. After all, Li Li has given them a perfect excuse to attack him. Many feudal lords in the realm are dissatisfied with Li Li. If Master and the Grand General rise up now, the other feudal lords will surely respond and join forces to overthrow this usurper.”
“That’s right,” Zhang Liangdong looked at Xiang Hongyun with appreciation. “I do indeed want to use the hands of Yuan Li and Chu Hechao to get rid of Li Li. But not only that, I also want Yuan Li and Chu Hechao to gain military achievements through this.”
He sighed, a trace of melancholy on his face. “Li Li is a well-known usurper in the world. If we can kill this usurper, their reputation will reach an unmatched level. Reputation may seem intangible, but having lived for so long, I know how important it is. If Yuan Li and Chu Hechao can kill Li Li, they will be renowned as loyal and righteous figures in the world. The people will rally around them, and they will earn the respect of the people. Countless wise men will join them, and their deeds will be deeply recorded in history. High-ranking positions and titles will be within their reach… These are tangible benefits that cannot be seen or touched, but they are real.”
With a bitter smile, Zhang Liangdong continued, “If I say I believe all the feudal lords in the world are loyal, that would be too naive. Among the feudal lords I know, Yuan Li and Chu Hechao are the rare few who genuinely consider the country and the people. They are among the few loyal courtiers who truly serve the Northern Zhou. If they kill Li Li and welcome the Emperor to Youzhou, I will feel relieved. But if other feudal lords get this opportunity, I can’t guarantee that it won’t turn into another Li Li situation, holding the Emperor hostage to issue orders to the feudal lords.”
That’s why Zhang Liangdong wanted to urge Yuan Li and Chu Hechao to take the lead in killing Li Li. When the time came, Yuan Li would be appointed as one of the Three Excellencies, and Chu Hechao would become the top military commander. With these two individuals, both civil and military, by the Emperor’s side, the Northern Zhou would gradually stabilize.
Xiang Hongyun nodded slightly.
However, there was one thing he didn’t say, and he would never say it to Zhang Liangdong.
Yuan Li and Chu Hechao… were not individuals that the current young Emperor could control.
Yuan Li also guessed Zhang Liangdong’s intention. Regardless of whether Zhang Liangdong hinted at it or not, Yuan Li and Chu Hechao had already decided to march against Li Li next year.
Now, what was in front of Yuan Li was Chu Hechao’s issue of completing the mourning period.
At this time, it was the time of clear autumn weather when the grains ripened, and the people were busy with the autumn harvest. The smell of food filled the air in the fields, and children carried baskets on their backs, picking rice on the paths, enough to fill half a basket in a day.
The captives were also busy harvesting grain, digging potatoes, and picking cotton.
Late autumn weather was unpredictable; at noon, it could be hot enough to make people’s clothes soaked, while in the evening, it was cool enough to require blankets. The ginkgo tree outside Yuan Li’s window turned golden, and the leaves fell day by day, accumulating in a thick layer on the windowsill.
Chu Hechao grabbed Yuan Li and took him to climb the mountain to pick peaches.
The peaches in Youzhou during autumn were very sweet, and there was a peach mountain in the countryside. Early in the morning, Chu Hechao took Yuan Li to rush to Peach Mountain, and they arrived around noon.
The sun was scorching, and their lips were dried by the heat.
They rested and drank some water at the foot of the mountain before starting to climb up.
The peach trees at the foot of the mountain were all picked bare. After walking further in, they found more trees with ripe, reddish peaches hanging one after another, a sight that delighted them.
Yuan Li carried a bamboo basket and wore a straw hat to protect himself from the intense sun. He reached out and plucked a ripe autumn peach. With a slight squeeze, the juicy, sticky liquid oozed out. Yuan Li sniffed it lightly, enjoying the sweet aroma, and placed the peach in the bamboo basket with satisfaction.
To avoid getting peach fuzz on himself, Yuan Li wrapped himself up from head to toe, though it made him feel hot and sweaty.
Chu Hechao finished picking a basket of peaches and felt it was enough. He found a nearby stream with Yuan Li and had him wash his face to cool off.
Yuan Li took off his straw hat, his hair disheveled, and washed his face eagerly in the creek, taking a deep breath. “How is it still so hot in October?”
Chu Hechao washed the peaches nearby and handed a cleaned peach to Yuan Li. “It’ll cool down in a few more days.”
Yuan Li checked the weather forecast and couldn’t help but admit that the man was right. In four more days, the weather in Youzhou will drop significantly.
He took a bite of the peach, and the sweet and juicy flesh instantly quenched his thirst. Yuan Li’s eyes brightened. “This peach is so sweet.”
After finishing one, Chu Hechao washed another for him. After eating three or four peaches, Yuan Li shook his head. “I don’t want to eat anymore.”
Chu Hechao washed another peach for himself and swallowed it in two bites. After quenching his thirst, Chu Hechao stood up and said to Yuan Li, “Let’s go. I’ll take you to a nice place.”
Curious, Yuan Li followed, asking, “What nice place?”
Chu Hechao replied, “The head of the stream. The water there is sweet, and the peaches are even sweeter.”
Yuan Li asked, “Is it far?”
“Not too far.”
Chu Hechao hid their bamboo baskets under a tree and covered the two baskets of peaches with dried leaves, making them secure. Light on his feet, he walked with Yuan Li towards the head of the stream.
Yuan Li removed the scarf from around his neck, dabbed some water on his neck, and treated it as if they were climbing a mountain.
Peach Mountain was not high, and for two individuals with good physical strength like them, it took less than half an hour to reach the head of the stream.
Chu Hechao did not lie; the peaches at the head of the stream were even sweeter, and the water was clear and cold. They were larger than the ones halfway up the mountain.
Yuan Li didn’t want to pick too many, afraid they wouldn’t finish eating them. He picked about ten peaches and turned to Chu Hechao, saying, “Take off your outer robe for me.”
Confused, Chu Hechao took off his outer robe and handed it to Yuan Li. “What are you doing?”
Yuan Li used his outer robe to wrap up the peaches, “To carry the peaches.”
Chu Hechao: “…”
He looked at his robe covered in peach fuzz, his mouth twitching.
Could he still wear it?
The two wandered around the area, not in a hurry to descend the mountain. As they were walking, they heard voices coming from the east.
Yuan Li and Chu Hechao exchanged glances and walked slowly towards the source of the voices. They saw a man and a woman in a clearing in the forest, pulling at each other’s clothes. Their robes and shoes were scattered on the ground, and their voices sounded embarrassed, making their faces turn red.
In just a moment, the woman let out a loud cry, and the man kept calling her “wife” and “darling.”
Yuan Li didn’t expect to witness such a scene and felt uneasy. He wanted to leave.
But the man standing behind him suddenly reached out and hugged him, his fingers circling his waist, his arm exerting more force, and his breath becoming heavy.
Yuan Li turned his head to look, and Chu Hechao was fixedly watching the two people, his expression focused.
Yuan Li asked, “Is it interesting?”
“Not really,” Chu Hechao replied absentmindedly. “Just learning from them. I’ll do the same to you later.”
Yuan Li almost blurted out a response, he trembled a bit and pulled his arm, saying, “Let’s go back; it’s impolite to stare.”
The two silently left the scene. When they reached where they had hidden the peaches, they picked up their bamboo baskets and walked down the mountain.
Yuan Li felt that Chu Hechao’s gaze towards him was becoming bolder and more dangerous. He cleared his throat and attempted to change the subject, patting the man’s head full of yellow straw, “This peach mountain isn’t yours, right?”
Chu Hechao lazily pulled a piece of grass and held it in his mouth, swaying it back and forth. He mumbled, “I don’t have the money to plant a peach mountain.”
“True,” Yuan Li nodded, agreeing with Chu Hechao’s self-proclaimed poverty. “So, are all these peaches here grown by yourself? It’s quite strange; they are all over the mountain.”
“No,” Chu Hechao calmly replied, “this is someone else’s peach mountain, and I brought you in to steal the peaches.”
Yuan Li: “…”
His expression twisted slightly.
A Governor of Two Provinces and a Great General of Chu, sneaking into someone else’s mountain to steal peaches?
He felt embarrassed to even think about it.
Yuan Li covered his face and groaned, “Chu Hechao, you’re really…”
He wiped his face and urged Chu Hechao to leave quickly. On their way down the mountain, Yuan Li looked around cautiously, afraid of getting caught in the act, and decided to have Lin Tian send some money to the owners after they returned.
When they arrived, they had ridden two horses, but on their way back, one horse carried the two baskets of peaches while the two of them shared the other horse.
Yuan Li was in front, and Chu Hechao was behind.
As the horses swayed, the back was pressed against the chest.
Yuan Li’s face turned red and pale alternately, helplessly saying, “Chu Hechao, can you control yourself under the broad daylight?”
Chu Hechao raised an eyebrow and chuckled, whispering, “But my ‘stick’ wants to poke you.”
Yuan Li covered his mouth, feeling troubled.
The man chuckled a few more times, refraining from saying annoying things.
After returning to the Chu Mansion, the two baskets of peaches were finished in just a few days. When they were gone, Chu Hechao finally completed his mourning period.
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