Yuan Li’s mouth felt numb, and he spoke indistinctly, “Chu Hechao, maybe you should eat less lamb.”
Chu Hechao was puzzled, “Why?”
“I’m worried you’ll get too much heat in you,” Yuan Li looked at him pensively, “What if you start having nosebleeds again?”
Chu Hechao laughed, “Can’t you wish me well?”
Yuan Li looked concerned, “Then just make sure you don’t drip into the hotpot.”
Chu Hechao felt like pulling him over and spanking him. He smiled without a smile, “Don’t worry, that won’t happen.”
Busy with their affairs, time passed quickly. After the new year, it was Chu Hechao’s birthday, which was not particularly significant. However, this year was different as it marked his thirtieth birthday.
On this day, Chu Hechao and Yuan Li came to pay their respects to the late Chu Wang and Madam.
Next to the graves of Chu Wang and Lady Yang, there was another tombstone, which was Chu Mingfeng’s grave.
All three graves were empty coffins.
As the ashes scattered in the cold wind, falling on Chu Hechao’s hair, he sat on the ground, burning paper offerings for a while before suddenly speaking, “Father, Mother, I have found someone I want to marry.”
Yuan Li placed a golden ingot into the incense burner and glanced at Chu Hechao.
“You have met him before, and you might be angry when I tell you,” Chu Hechao smiled amidst the flames, “He is Chu Mingfeng’s former wife, Yuan Li, but now he’s my wife.”
The flames licked at his fingertips, and the cold wind whistled by, as if it were the rebuke of Chu Wang and Lady Yang and the astonishment of Chu Mingfeng.
“You know that there is nothing between him and Chu Mingfeng,” Chu Hechao quietly listened to the wind for a while before smiling again, “Stop scolding. He is mine now, and even if I die, I won’t let him go. Even if you get angry enough to come out of the coffin, it won’t change the fact that he’s mine.”
The withered branches trembled wildly, and the ashes in front of Yuan Li were blown up by the cold wind, covering his face. He almost thought that Chu Wang and Lady Yang had been angered and had shown their spirits. The corner of Yuan Li’s mouth twitched as he wiped his face.
In his heart, he said, “I will take care of Chu Hechao and live a good life with him. You can rest assured.”
After a while, Lin Tian reminded them that it was getting late. Yuan Li looked up at the sky, then said to Chu Hechao, “Brother, it’s getting late; let’s go.”
“Okay,” Chu Hechao replied, “Le Jun, you go ahead.”
Yuan Li knew that Chu Hechao wanted to have a private moment with his family, so he nodded and left.
Chu Hechao burned the last piece of yellow paper, looking at the words on the tombstone, he stood up, patted the ashes off his clothes, and whispered, “If you can really hear what I’m saying, then bless Yuan Li to live a long life.”
His face gradually cooled down, and he finally glanced at the tombstone, “Don’t let me curse him again.”
After returning from the graves, Chu Hechao didn’t say much. In the evening, Yuan Li came up to him with a smile, hands clasped together, “Guess what I got you?”
Chu Hechao pulled him over and sat next to him, “What, something to eat?”
Yuan Li was speechless, “Can you hide something to eat in your palm?”
Chu Hechao hugged him, feeling his empty heart suddenly filled; it was like something was missing until now. He sighed and half-closed his eyes, the slightly aching temple slowly relaxing, “What is it then?”
Speaking lazily, as if about to fall asleep.
Seeing him like this, Yuan Li lost some confidence in what he had brought, “What do you want?”
Chu Hechao, with his eyes closed, curled his lips, “I like whatever you give me. Even if you fart in front of me, I’ll think it smells good.”
“…” Yuan Li’s mouth twitched. “You can’t have some dignity when speaking?”
“What do you mean without dignity?” Chu Hechao said, “Is it wrong to have a private conversation with my wife?”
Yuan Li couldn’t say a word. He pretended not to hear and revealed the Guanyin jade pendant in his hand, “How about this, do you like it?”
Chu Hechao opened his eyes and sat up, taking the jade pendant and rubbing it between his fingers, “Guanshiyin?”
“Yes,” Yuan Li said, “Try wearing it.”
Chu Hechao lowered his head and let Yuan Li put it on for him. Unable to suppress a smile, he said, “Why did you suddenly get this for me?”
“Your temper is too stubborn, always thinking about improper things,” Yuan Li put it on him while deceiving him, “Wearing it will help you clear your mind and be less irritable.”
Chu Hechao touched the jade pendant curiously, not quite believing, “Can it really work?”
Yuan Li whispered, “I hope it does.”
Chu Hechao narrowed his eyes and carried Yuan Li to the bed, “I heard that.”
A month passed, and the wedding between the Chu family’s eldest daughter and Yuan Dan was settled. Marriage alliances were common among the noble families of the Northern Zhou Dynasty, so there was no objection to the match. Both of them wanted to complete the marriage before starting the war with Li Li. Having descendants from the Chu family would bring peace of mind to Chu Hechao’s subordinates.
On a propitious day in mid-March, the Chu family’s eldest daughter married Yuan Dan.
Since the girl’s parents were no longer alive, Yuan Li decided on the dowry and arrangements. On the day of the wedding, Yuan Li dragged Chu Hechao aside and spoke to him about the Chu family’s eldest daughter, “Although he is my cousin, you are also my sister. If he ever mistreats you, just tell me or your elder brother, and we will stand up for you. Don’t be afraid after marrying into the family. You are Chu Wang’s sister, a girl from the Chu Wang household. Remember that you have someone backing you up.”
With the veil covering her face, the Chu family’s eldest daughter’s eyes became moist as she spoke, “Thank you, second brother and sister-in-law.”
Chu Hechao’s face turned dark instantly.
Yuan Li tugged at his sleeve and glared at him, signaling him to behave.
Chu Hechao finally spoke, “Your sister-in-law is right.”
After saying these words, Yuan Li and Chu Hechao left. After a while, the remaining two Chu family sisters came in to accompany their elder sister.
The younger sister asked curiously, “Elder sister, what did second brother say to you?”
The eldest sister whispered and gently advised, “Sister-in-law and second brother do care about us, but it seems that second brother doesn’t like us calling sister-in-law ‘sister-in-law.’ In the future, if you address her, just call her ‘sister.’ Sister-in-law has good character, loyalty, kindness, and righteousness, and second brother respects her a lot. If you need something, you can ask her for help.”
The two younger sisters kept those words in their hearts.
When the auspicious time arrived, Yuan Dan arrived with joy and a procession of people. Without the girl’s parents present, many formalities were skipped. Yuan Li and Chu Hechao sat in the main hall and accepted the bows of the newlyweds, acting as their “father” and “mother.”
Afterward, Chu Hechao personally carried his sister into the bridal sedan.
The tears of the eldest daughter wet Chu Hechao’s back as she sat in the bridal sedan, filled with anticipation and anxiety about the future.
After the wedding, Chu Hechao felt a sudden relief from the burden on his shoulders. Seeing how energetic Yuan Dan and the eldest daughter were when they returned, Yuan Li also relaxed.
At the end of March, Yuan Li appointed Guo Mao as the Garrison military official and put him in charge of the garrisoning in Guangyang County.
Then, he began to conscript troops, gather provisions, and prepare for the war against Li Li.
He had his eloquent subordinates write several heart-stirring proclamations, making dozens of copies and sending them to various states in the world, revealing the grievances suffered by the Emperor, being imprisoned and starved by Li Li. He also elaborated on Li Li’s multiple crimes, telling the world that Chu Hechao and Yuan Li of Youzhou would lead the army to punish the usurper Li Li and calling on all heroes to join forces to conquer Li Li!
The proclamations stirred up the emotions of the heroes throughout the world, and there was a response everywhere. This was a well-known opportunity to fight against Li Li, and gaining an advantage here would be a great achievement. Who wouldn’t be eager to participate? The letters from various states and counties poured into Jixian, all expressing their desire to join Chu Hechao and Yuan Li in defeating Li Li.
Everyone reached a consensus that there was no need to waste words. They should prepare their troops and start attacking Li Li’s forces.
The first to learn about Yuan Li and Chu Hechao’s plan to attack Li Li was Wu Shanshi of Jizhou.
At first, he was overjoyed, thinking that he would definitely get a share of the credit and gain a reward. However, his advisers did not share his excitement, and their faces turned serious. Wei Ji, who was already quite old, asked directly, “Does the lord think this is something to be happy about?”
Wu Shanshi was puzzled for a moment, then suddenly realized and said, “Uncle is right. If Li Li is gone, the Emperor’s restraint will be gone, and we can stabilize the world. Once the world is stable, there won’t be a chance for me to stand out. Considering this, removing Li Li is indeed not a good thing.”
Wei Ji shook his head in disappointment, sighing softly.
The other advisers were also somewhat disappointed, but they were already used to it and quickly returned to their normal demeanor.
The adviser Wang Yun said with a frustrated tone, “Lord, your words are incorrect. Removing Li Li is a good thing for the world and the people. It is a great act of eliminating evil for the country and the people. We are loyal ministers of Northern Zhou and must not hesitate to go and attack Li Li!”
Wu Shanshi didn’t like the reprimanding tone of his speech and frowned, feeling displeased, “If that’s the case, why do all of you wear such expressions, and why don’t you feel happy about this?”
Wang Yun was about to say something, but Wu Shanshi coldly snorted and bypassed him, looking directly at Zhou Gongdan, “Wenning, you speak.”
Zhou Gongdan stood up gracefully, first bowing to Wang Yun, “What Mr. Wang said is right, and it’s exactly what I want to say.”
Wang Yun’s embarrassed face looked a little better in public.
Zhou Gongdan bowed again to Wu Shanshi, respectfully saying, “My lord, you said this is a happy event, and of course, you are right.”
Being favored by someone who spoke nicely and looked good, Wu Shanshi was delighted. He softened his tone and asked in confusion, “Then why are you not happy?”
“This is indeed a happy event, but it also depends on who it is happy for,” Zhou Gongdan said, “For Yuan Li and Chu Hechao, of course, it’s a happy event. After all, they are the leaders of the expedition against Li Li. Once they succeed, they will be the ones with the greatest merit. But for you, my lord, all the limelight and credit will be taken by these two. Others will just be passed over in a rush. If they get such great achievements, even with the background of the Wu family of Runan, you won’t be able to match their reputation.”
Only then did Wu Shanshi understand. His face changed, and he became serious, “You’re right.”
Wei Ji coughed twice and slowly said, “Moreover, once they kill Li Li, they will be able to welcome the imperial court to Youzhou. By then, they will have a righteous cause and the Emperor with them. They can do whatever they want under the name of the Emperor and control the world. It’s only a matter of time.”
Wu Shanshi’s eyes brightened, and he eagerly said, “If I kill Li Li first, won’t I be able to seize the credit and welcome the Emperor to Jizhou?!”
Wei Ji stroked his beard and smiled, nodding slightly.
Immediately, Wu Shanshi discussed with his advisers how to be the first to take down Li Li’s head.
Zhou Gongdan’s heart sank, thinking about how to pass this information back to Youzhou, when someone outside reported, “Sir, people from Luoyang, Li Li’s side, have arrived!”
Zhou Gongdan was taken aback, and his eyes flickered.
Why would Li Li’s people come to Jizhou at this time?