Yuan Li began to suspect if Chu Hechao’s brain had gone bad. With a smile on his face, he playfully hit Chu Hechao several times, almost knocking him off the horse.
Chu Hechao didn’t retaliate until someone turned their heads to look at them. He suddenly grabbed Yuan Li’s wrist, coughed, and sternly said, “Alright, you’ve hit me enough, calm down.”
He then quickly lowered his voice, “Le Jun, show me some face in front of others.”
Yuan Li’s expression remained unchanged.
Because of Chu Hechao’s annoying remark, Yuan Li was angry with him the whole day and didn’t want to pay him any attention.
When they went to sleep that night, Yuan Li decided that Chu Hechao’s infuriating behavior needed to change, and he had to rectify his unruly character.
Early the next morning, Yuan Li dragged Chu Hechao into the study, made him sit down, and instructed him to read and practice calligraphy to clear his mind.
He placed the Confucian classic, “Spring and Autumn Annals,” on the table and said seriously, “You need to finish reading this book within three days.”
Chu Hechao was a clever person, and he had the rare ability of photographic memory. Yuan Li had been hoping to utilize his talent, but Chu Hechao was reluctant to read more books. In Yuan Li’s eyes, this was a complete waste.
Chu Hechao frowned, “Do I really have to read it?”
Yuan Li straightforwardly responded, “Yes, you do.”
He patiently explained, “Common people from ordinary families might never see the appearance of ‘books’ in their entire lives. But you come from a noble background, and there are the Four Books and Five Classics for you to read. So, you must read them.”
Chu Hechao helplessly said, “But I have already read ‘Spring and Autumn Annals’ before.”
“Then read it again,” Yuan Li took over the conversation, “There’s nothing wrong with learning more and gaining knowledge.”
Chu Hechao had no choice but to pick up the book and start reading.
Yuan Li pressed him to read the book for the whole day, and whenever Chu Hechao tried to slack off, he would frown at him. Reluctantly, Chu Hechao managed to finish about half of the book and surprisingly remembered quite a lot.
Yuan Li became even more delighted, and he was determined not to let Chu Hechao’s talent go to waste. He collected all the books he could find and calligraphy practice scripts that scholars had used, making Chu Hechao read the books while practicing his elegant handwriting, “You have great potential. You only had limited learning opportunities when you joined the army as a youth. But it’s never too late to start now. Once you finish reading these books, you’ll be accomplished.”
Chu Hechao felt a headache looking at the books on the table and sighed, “My parents wanted me to study, but I never did. I never expected to end up studying under you.”
Yuan Li chuckled. He wasn’t trying to exploit Chu Hechao, but rather treating him fairly, “I’ll study with you too, how about that?”
Chu Hechao’s interest still wasn’t very high, “What’s the benefit of learning all these?”
“Well, there are many benefits,” Yuan Li replied.
Yuan Li talked endlessly, explaining to Chu Hechao the numerous benefits of learning and reading more. But before he finished his words, Chu Hechao lazily held Yuan Li’s chin and taught him, “Yuan Le Jun, we’re both mature adults. If you want me to do something, you naturally need to offer me some benefits I’m interested in…”
His gaze was ambiguous, and Yuan Li understood what he meant.
“Alright,” Yuan Li thought for a moment and said, “but I want to see how serious you are about it.”
Chu Hechao looked at him blankly, then quickly followed up with a low curse and asked, “Do you know what I’m talking about?”
Yuan Li replied, “Isn’t it about sleeping together?”
“…” Chu Hechao swallowed, suddenly feeling dry in the mouth, and cautiously asked, “Are you willing?”
Yuan Li thought for a moment and said, “If you can finish reading one book every day and complete what I teach you, then I’ll sleep with you.”
As a recently initiated adult who had just entered the realm of desires, nothing was more tempting to Chu Hechao than this sentence.
Since sleeping with Chu Hechao, Yuan Li had maintained the habit of intimacy, meeting Chu Hechao once every two or three days for no more than an hour. This way, it didn’t harm his body and allowed him to maintain good sleep quality.
While Yuan Li had his good night’s sleep, Chu Hechao was entirely deprived of rest.
Having tasted the feeling, his mind was occupied day and night with thoughts about it. He would willingly die under Yuan Li. However, Yuan Li was unwilling, leaving Chu Hechao feeling even more aggrieved than before, even though he had recently opened himself up to physical desires.
The downside of being so frustrated was that when they met once every two or three days, Chu Hechao was more aggressive, like a beast, rushing to make up for what he’d missed, determined to get what he wanted.
But the more aggressive Chu Hechao was, the more cautious Yuan Li became, wanting to control the timing.
Yuan Li didn’t dislike the act itself, but every time he and Chu Hechao did it, he felt frightened, afraid of things going awry. The loss of control and trembling sensation were too dangerous, leaving Yuan Li’s mind in a daze, unsure if he should indulge in it or reject it.
Once Chu Hechao confirmed that Yuan Li was telling the truth, he wiped his face with his hand and picked up the book to continue reading, “Shall we start today?”
Yuan Li blinked and nodded, “Okay.”
Chu Hechao fell silent, looking unusually focused.
Yuan Li slowly said, “Actually, we could start tomorrow…”
Chu Hechao gestured for him to stop, “Be good, go play outside, don’t disturb me while I’m reading.”
Yuan Li: “…”
As the cold gradually set in, in the capital city, Li Li also received the grain and news sent from Youzhou.
Li Li was an almost fifty-year-old grizzled veteran. His eyes sparkled, his face full of flesh, giving him a sinister appearance.
After hearing Chu Hechao and Yuan Li’s reasons for refusing to come to the capital, he coldly snorted, not surprised at all. “I knew these two wouldn’t easily come to the capital.”
His confidant, Wang Chun, worriedly said, “Their reasons seem flawless. Chu Hechao is the Great General appointed by the late Emperor, responsible for guarding the northern border against foreign invaders. As for Yuan Li, it’s reasonable for him, as the governor, to be busy with post-disaster repairs in the aftermath of the widespread snow calamity in the north.”
Li Li sneered, “The Emperor’s invitations are becoming less effective.”
His words silenced those present, as no one dared to speak.
Li Li didn’t mind and sighed, “I’m afraid that the forces north of the Yellow River have already united.”
Someone among his subordinates asked in confusion, “Why does the Lord say that?”
“This Chu Hechao and Yuan Li have already gained control of Youzhou and Bingzhou,” Li Li stroked his beard and said, “Not long ago, Wu Shanshi of Jizhou even submitted a memorial recommending Yuan Li as the governor of Bingzhou. For Wu Shanshi to do such a thing, it’s evident that the three of them have joined hands. And the people they want to deal with, apart from me, are few.”
Upon hearing this, the subordinates were in an uproar, and someone asked in panic, “If these three provinces in the north unite, how can we resist?”
Li Li’s face was not pleasant either.
He had only been in power for three years, and he was already deeply infatuated with authority, enjoying the fear and awe that officials had for him. When he learned that Chu Hechao had captured Bingzhou, he had a bad feeling, and when Wu Shanshi recommended Yuan Li as the governor of Bingzhou, that bad feeling reached its peak.
If these three joined forces, it would be a massive force. Li Li had to find a way to dissolve their alliance; otherwise, he himself would be the one to suffer.
After a moment of contemplation, Li Li slowly said, “Send someone to Jizhou to offer rewards, see if we can win Wu Shanshi over by giving him everything he wants. Tell him that if he’s willing to assist me, I’m willing to share the power of the empire with him.”
Wang Chun was surprised, “My lord?!”
Li Li raised his hand to silence him, “My mind is made up. Wu Shanshi is an ambitious man, and he loves great achievements. Offering half the empire as a show of sincerity might pique his interest. But he has many clever men under him, and my reputation is infamous. It is more likely that, like Chu Hechao and Yuan Li, he will refuse my reward and give me a good scolding to bolster his reputation.”
He suddenly burst into laughter, “These people, they are all hypocrites. They value their reputation more than life itself, but each one is very cautious. If they were in my position, I don’t believe they wouldn’t be tempted. They talk about being loyal subjects serving the Emperor, but when the time comes for them to die, they will be afraid, and at that moment, they won’t care about their reputation. They care about their reputation, but I don’t. What matters is having real power in my hands; everything else is just empty talk… Wu Shanshi’s love for great achievements is his flaw, and I don’t expect him to stand with me, but I want to make Chu Hechao and Yuan Li suspect that Wu Shanshi is already standing with me. I want to put Wu Shanshi in a difficult position, making it necessary for him to accept my offer. Do you understand?”
The subordinates pondered for a moment, “Is my lord trying to use persuasion rather than force?”
“Exactly,” Li Li replied calmly, “but that’s not enough. I still need to be cautious and recruit more allies… Go and invite the Great General Yan Hui to see me!”
Yuan Li and Chu Hechao spent a month touring Bingzhou, visiting the capitals of the nine counties and strengthening the defenses of the frontier. They also checked on the progress of conscription in Bingzhou.
Yuan Li specifically instructed Guan Zhihuai and Xin Zhou to train the soldiers according to his requirements.
Guan Zhihuai and Xin Zhou had witnessed the bravery of the soldiers from Youzhou, so they had no reason to refuse. They promised Yuan Li that they would train the soldiers according to his methods, striving to transform the hundred thousand soldiers of Bingzhou into an elite army.
In early December, as the weather grew colder, they finally returned to Youzhou.
As soon as they arrived, the first snow of the year fell, and within a short hour, everything outside was covered in a white blanket.
Upon returning to the Chu mansion, Yuan Li lit up the heated brick bed. They prepared a hotpot with broth and a freshly slaughtered lamb, and they both enjoyed a hearty and satisfying meal.
Halfway through the meal, they were both sweating profusely, so they took off several layers of clothing, feeling a little more comfortable to continue eating.
Yuan Li, enjoying the spicy hotpot, said with gusto, “This is delightful! Eating hotpot in winter is the most delicious!”
Chu Hechao, his shirtless body glistening with sweat, said, “The heated brick bed in this room is too hot.”
Yuan Li was also feeling hot, but he pretended to be calm, “A calm heart brings natural coolness. Just think about the contents of the books you’ve read, and you’ll feel cooler.”
Chu Hechao sneered, “I’ve read all the books, but they’re all in you.”
Helpless, Yuan Li looked at him and picked up another piece of food. Unexpectedly, it was laden with Sichuan peppercorns. His lips turned red from the spiciness, and his tongue went numb as he breathed heavily, desperately searching for water to drink.
Seeing Yuan Li in such a pitiful state, Chu Hechao couldn’t help but darken his gaze and leaned forward to kiss him, sweeping away the peppercorns in his mouth.
After parting, Yuan Li felt that his tongue no longer felt like his own.
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