However, before the leg of lamb was fully cooked, Chu Hechao sent another message.
The soldier delivered the message in a strict tone, saying, “The general says that he already reported your military achievements to the court more than a month ago. As per your request, the general also asked the Emperor to reward your military achievements to your father.”
Upon hearing these words, Yuan Li’s anger turned into a mix of laughter and tears. He couldn’t bring himself to be angry anymore.
First, provoke someone, and right before completely provoking them, make a good gesture. Yuan Li had to admit that Chu Hechao was really skilled at pushing people to the edge without offending them.
Yuan Li couldn’t be bothered to send the roasted leg of lamb to Chu Hechao. He simply divided it among his subordinates and enjoyed it himself.
A few days later, Chu Hechao gave Yuan Li five hundred men to escort him and the wounded soldiers back to Jixian.
On the way, Yuan Li discussed the matter of establishing a livestock farm with Liu Jixin.
Liu Jixin said, “If you want to raise livestock, the most suitable animals for rearing in Youzhou are cattle, sheep, and horses. Youzhou has many grasslands, so we can relocate cattle, sheep, and horses there for grazing. On the other hand, pigs are expensive and have a strong odor, so raising them would be a waste.”
Yuan Li pondered for a while and said, “You make a valid point.”
In Ruyang, cattle and sheep were more valuable than pigs, but he almost forgot that it was different in Youzhou. Because Youzhou had grasslands, grazing cattle, sheep, and horses was the most cost-effective approach.
In that case, can we replace the pig fat used to make soap with other animal fats?
After some thought, Yuan Li shook his head in his mind.
While other animal fats could be added, pig fat couldn’t be abandoned.
Among the rewards given to him by the system were agricultural and livestock books like “Postpartum Care for Sows,” which provided methods to increase pork production. Once pigs were raised to be fat and robust, their production would increase, leading to a decrease in meat prices. Throughout history, the demand for pork among the common people far exceeded the combined demand for beef, lamb, and other livestock. Cattle and sheep couldn’t be possessions in every household, but pigs could.
Pigs eat a variety of food and are not difficult to raise if the taste is not a concern. After all, even the character “家” (home) contains the component “豕” (pig), indicating the significance of pigs to the common people. Even now, the social hierarchy in terms of meat consumption remains as “princes eat beef, nobles eat lamb, officials eat pork, scholars eat fish, and common people eat vegetables.”* Common people may not have a chance to eat meat in their entire lives, and cattle are good partners for farming. Not to mention the punishment for killing them, people are also reluctant to slaughter cows. If we want to improve the lives of the common people and have capable soldiers, we cannot give up on raising pigs.
However, Yuan Li didn’t mention these thoughts to Liu Jixin for now. After returning to Jixian, he first went to check on the progress of the labor of the captives.
Zhao Ying and Wang Er were in charge of supervising the captives’ work. They hadn’t slacked off for a single day. Yuan Li had been gone for about a month, but under their supervision, the captives had already built the soap workshop and the livestock farm. In addition to these two places, some wastelands had also been reclaimed.
Yuan Li rewarded them and had them build rows of houses for the injured soldiers, serving as employee dormitories.
Upon hearing Yuan Li’s plans, even the regular soldiers who had escorted the injured soldiers back started to envy. The injured soldiers, on the other hand, were overjoyed. Those who were capable of working felt a surge of energy and joined the captives in their work, eager to accelerate the construction of their new homes.
Some of the injured soldiers lowered their heads and secretly wiped away tears, unable to bear leaving as they looked at the place they would be living in the future.
After completing these tasks, Yuan Li returned to the Chu Mansion.
“My lord, the Chu Mansion received many letters from people who wanted to visit you during your absence,” Guo Lin said, handing Yuan Li a stack of envelopes. “Most of them are from merchants.”
Upon hearing Liu Jixin and Wu Kai referring to Yuan Li by his title, Guo Lin and the others immediately changed their way of addressing him.
Yuan Li took the letters and read through them. When he saw a few names, his eyebrows raised. “The Zhang family from Youzhou, the Liu family from Yanzhou, and the Yu family from Yizhou?”
These were all renowned merchants from the three provinces of You, Yan, and Yi.
Yuan Li became interested. “When were their visitation requests sent?”
“A few days after you left for Shanggu County, the letters arrived,” Guo Lin replied.
Yuan Li pondered for a moment. “That early, huh? Are they still in Jixian?”
Guo Lin nodded. “I haven’t seen them leave, my lord.”
Yuan Li had been away for a month, and these merchants had been waiting for a month. It was evident how much they wanted to meet Yuan Li.
He could already guess why they had come—it was for the soap.
He had anticipated this. After all, he had been selling soap along the way, hoping that these merchants would come to him willingly.
At this point, Yuan Li held the upper hand and was not in a hurry to meet with these merchants. The news of his return to Jixian had spread, and it was only a matter of one or two days before these merchants would come knocking at his door. He could patiently wait for them.
He set aside the letters and stretched lazily. “Prepare some hot water for me, not too hot, I’ll take a bath.”
It was currently summer, and the heat was enough to make one sweat profusely. Yuan Li could even smell the sweat on his own body after rushing all the way back.
Knowing that he was coming back, the mansion had already prepared hot water and refreshing fruits.
Yuan Li leisurely took a bath, sat in the cool courtyard with a damp body, had dinner and fruits, played a game of chess with Liu Jixin, and then had a good night’s sleep. The next day, he woke up refreshed and washed his face in a copper basin, feeling like a clean and fresh handsome man.
After enjoying a satisfying breakfast with a good mood, someone came to pay their respects.
As Yuan Li had expected, upon learning of his return to Jixian, merchants took the initiative to visit him. These merchants were indeed the representatives from the Zhang family of Youzhou, the Liu family of Yanzhou, and the Yu family of Yizhou.
Yuan Li changed into fresh clothes and received these individuals in the main hall.
The three individuals cautiously entered the main hall, their heads bowed and hands raised to salute in the direction of Yuan Li.
“Esteemed sir, I am Zhang Mi/Liu Xin/Yu Fang, paying respects to the young master.”
After bowing, they didn’t dare to rise immediately, afraid of violating the protocols in the presence of a person of high status. As they trembled in fear, a clear and refreshing voice came from above, “Please rise, and have a seat.”
The three of them straightened up, finally getting a clear view of Yuan Li’s appearance. The rumors of the benevolent and virtuous young master of the Chu family had spread far and wide. He was seated at the top, dressed in luxurious silk and satin garments, his face filled with a gentle smile. His eyes were like stars, and his eyebrows resembled a bow. With rosy lips and white teeth, he exuded extraordinary charisma.
Although these three individuals knew that Yuan Li had not yet come of age, they dared not be complacent, even though he appeared extremely approachable. Under the guidance of the servants, they nervously took their seats, not even daring to sit properly on their chairs. “Thank you for the seat granted by the young master.”
Yuan Li had someone serve them iced tea, and he took a sip of the fragrant beverage with a smile before asking them, “What brings you all here to visit me?”
Despite the scorching weather outside, with the incessant chirping of cicadas, Yuan Li seemed unusually calm and composed. His smiling face as he held the tea bowl didn’t show the slightest hint of heat. Every move he made exuded an air of nobility, clearly displaying his privileged upbringing. This caused the merchants to feel somewhat apprehensive.
Zhang Mi, Liu Xin, and Yu Fang exchanged glances. Finally, Zhang Mi gathered his courage and stood up, clasping his fists. “Young master, I am from the Zhang family of Youzhou. I have come to visit you regarding the soap you sold during your journey through Yanzhou and Yizhou.”
Liu Xin and Yu Fang quickly stood up as well, expressing that their purpose was the same as Zhang Mi’s—to inquire about the soap.
Yuan Li gently placed down the tea bowl, his expression unchanged. He spoke warmly, inviting the three individuals to share their thoughts.
These three merchant families wanted to collaborate with Yuan Li and have the exclusive rights to sell soap in the three provinces of Youzhou, Yanzhou, and Yizhou. They intended to market the soap specifically to the local aristocrats, powerful landlords, and influential families.
To demonstrate their sincerity, each of the three individuals had brought many gifts for Yuan Li. Besides the usual gold and silver treasures, notable items included the twenty warhorses from the Zhang family and two beautiful women from the Yu family.
The Yu family was famous for its beauty, both male and female. Through marriage alliances, the Yu family had become the largest merchant family in Yizhou. They were closely tied to the Provincial Governor of Yizhou, Wu Shanshi, who was the son-in-law of the Yu family’s patriarch.
Yuan Li looked at the two beautiful women and fell silent for a moment before calmly saying, “I appreciate the Yu family’s kind gesture. However, I have recently lost my husband and cannot accept such goodwill.”
Yu Fang’s face turned pale, and he knelt down with weak legs, anxiously kowtowing, “Please forgive me, young master. It is all my fault!”
Yuan Li observed the anxious and uneasy expressions on Yu Fang’s face and the pale faces of the two Yu women. He sighed and smiled helplessly, soothing Yu Fang for a while before he finally stood up, trembling.
Among the surprises, the most unexpected was the gift of twenty warhorses from the Zhang family. Yuan Li praised Zhang Mi profusely, and his words even carried a hint of affection. By the time they finalized the business agreement, dusk had already descended.
Yuan Li agreed to sell soap to them but had a condition: the profit from selling soap would be split 60-40, with Yuan Li receiving 60% and the merchants receiving 40%. This division was not entirely fair, but for these three families, it was undoubtedly an unexpected joy.
In addition to the profit sharing, Yuan Li requested that the money earned from selling soap be converted into other commodities. He wanted 40% of the earnings to be exchanged for long-term storage items such as grains, medicinal herbs, and fabrics. Another 30% was to be exchanged for livestock such as cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens. The remaining 30% would be exchanged for gold and silver.
These three individuals believed that Yuan Li was simply considering the welfare of the 130,000-strong army in the northern frontier and didn’t think much of it. They gratefully agreed to his request.
While the Liu and Yu families left contentedly, Zhang Mi was asked to stay by Yuan Li and had dinner with him.
During the meal, Guo Lin hesitantly approached and reported to Yuan Li, “Lord, when Yu Fang left, he left behind the two Yu women. He said they can be used as foot-washing maidservants for you or the General. If you don’t want them, they will be given to the General as an apology for offending you.”
Yuan Li’s smile faded slightly. “Send them back.”
“They refuse to leave,” Guo Lin said with difficulty. “They are crying and pleading not to be sent back. They say they won’t have a good life there. They are willing to stay and serve you as concubines, even willing to work like cattle and horses.”
Yuan Li rubbed his temples with a headache.
“Fine, then arrange to have them placed in the General’s courtyard,” Yuan Li said. “Handle it as you see fit.”
Chu Hechao didn’t have anyone to take care of him either, and he didn’t seem like someone who would mistreat his partners. Moreover, he was handsome and tall, so he would likely provide these two beautiful women with a stable life and not make things difficult for them.
Yuan Li, even after being in the Northern Zhou for eighteen years, was not accustomed to the exchange of beautiful women. He felt that he didn’t deserve the favor of having concubines, but he also shouldn’t have refused on behalf of Chu Hechao.
After saying that, Yuan Li stopped thinking about it and focused on talking with Zhang Mi.
Zhang Mi was nervous but also knew that this could represent an opportunity. He obediently had dinner with Yuan Li, but he was so anxious that he couldn’t taste anything.
After finishing their meal, servants came forward to clear the table. Yuan Li invited Zhang Mi to take a walk with him in the courtyard to aid digestion.
While walking by the lakeside, Yuan Li casually remarked, “Zi Bo, your horses were bought through connections with the Wuwan tribe, right?”
Zi Bo was Zhang Mi’s courtesy name. Zhang Mi cautiously nodded, “Indeed, these horses were purchased from the Wuwan tribe in Liaoxi County and Liaodong County.”
The Wuwan tribe originally belonged to the Donghu tribe, along with the Xianbei. After being defeated by Chu Hechao, they came under the control of the Northern Zhou and migrated southward into Youzhou, obediently serving the Northern Zhou to resist the Xiongnu. The Wuwan tribe was distributed among five counties: Shanggu, Yuyang, Right Beiping, Liaoxi, and Liaodong. They were the largest force among the ethnic people who migrated into Youzhou under Northern Zhou’s rule.
Yuan Li got straight to the point, “I want to buy horses from you. Can you make it happen?”
Zhang Mi hesitated, “This… Lord, it’s not that I’m unwilling, but my relationship with the Wuwan tribe’s chieftain is good, yet the number of horses I can obtain from them is limited. I can only trade some horses with them using salt, fabrics, tea leaves, and other goods. However, the Wuwan people are coarse and uncivilized. They wouldn’t appreciate fine items like soap.”
Yuan Li smiled, “I know that the Wuwan people won’t appreciate soap. But don’t worry, I have something that they will like.”
Zhang Mi asked in confusion, “Lord, what is this thing?”
“Don’t worry, Zi Bo,” Yuan Li said loudly, “for the next month, try to keep as many horses as possible in your possession, and establish better channels for buying and selling horses from the Wuwan people. After a month, I promise to give you something even better than soap.”
Taking a deep breath, Zhang Mi finally gritted his teeth and said, “This matter is not for me alone to decide. Please give me some time to discuss it with my family.”
The Zhang family in Youzhou was a major merchant family, but they didn’t have any officials or powerful connections behind them. They understood that Youzhou ultimately belonged to Chu Wang, and if they relied on other powerful families and local officials in Youzhou, they would eventually face consequences from Chu Wang.
In these years of no clear ruler in Youzhou, the Zhang family had been living cautiously, being repeatedly exploited by various powerful families. Now, after waiting so long for Chu Hechao and Yuan Li to return to Youzhou, the Zhang family immediately sought them out, not only for the soap but also to seek a background to rely on.
Zhang Mi took Yuan Li’s words very seriously. He didn’t even have time to finish exploring the Chu Wang’s residence with Yuan Li before hurriedly taking his leave to prepare to return to his family.
Yuan Li saw him off outside the residence, smiling as he watched Zhang Mi walk away. Just as he was about to turn back, he suddenly heard the sound of hurried horse hooves in the distance. He looked up and saw a group of people riding dustily and wearily towards him.
The person leading the group was exceptionally young, with a face covered in black dust. When they saw him, their eyes lit up, and they exclaimed, “Yuan Li!”
Yuan Li stood frozen in place, surprised, and exclaimed, “Zhan Shaoning?!”