Upon hearing these words, Yuan Li was only slightly surprised for a moment.
“Xiao Ce, the strategist who accompanied Zhan Shaoning all the way to Youzhou?”
Yuan Li sat down at the table and gestured for Liu Jixin to sit as well. “The one who stood by Zhan Shaoning’s side, thin with a beard, and touched his great sword when he saw me?”
He neither hurriedly asked for the reason nor dismissed Liu Jixin’s words. Instead, he calmly assumed a posture for a long conversation, displaying a dignified and composed attitude.
Liu Jixin was both surprised and delighted as he sat beside Yuan Li. “My lord, you noticed these things when you were catching up with Zhan Shaoning?”
Yuan Li nodded.
Unable to contain his excitement, Liu Jixin clapped his hands and laughed heartily. “Very well! Since my lord has noticed him, please allow me to speak. Xiao Ce must not be allowed to stay!”
Yuan Li patiently asked, “Why is that?”
Liu Jixin’s expression changed, and he solemnly said, “My lord, as you know, I once followed Zhan Qibo, and Xiao Ce was Zhan Qibo’s closest strategist. This person is talented, but after exhausting all his family property in an unsuccessful attempt to obtain the position of a xiaolian, he developed deep resentment towards the Northern Zhou court. His behavior and actions have become extreme. He is opinionated and particularly fond of influencing his lord’s thoughts. Moreover, he excels at winning people’s hearts and often turns others’ subordinates into his own. Most importantly, my lord, he recognizes his lord as Zhan Qibo, not Zhan Shaoning!”
The last point was the most crucial.
Xiao Ce may not see Zhan Shaoning as his lord, but he accompanied him all the way to Youzhou. No one knows if he really intended to seek revenge for his former master or if he had other motives. However, Zhan Shaoning had an extreme level of trust in Xiao Ce.
Yuan Li recalled his conversation with Zhan Shaoning earlier in the evening. Before Liu Jixin spoke these words to him, Yuan Li had sensed Zhan Shaoning’s excessive reliance on Xiao Ce, but he had only assumed it was due to the deep bond formed between them during their escape. However, upon reflection, Zhan Shaoning’s words and undertones revealed a degree of being influenced by Xiao Ce’s ideas. Whatever Xiao Ce said, Zhan Shaoning would listen, and if this continued, Xiao Ce might turn Zhan Shaoning into a pawn to fulfill his own ambitions.
Yuan Li tapped his fingers lightly on the table as he contemplated.
Liu Jixin whispered, “My lord, keeping Xiao Ce in the rear will only be nurturing a malignant tumor.”
Yuan Li paused his finger tapping, raised his gaze to meet Liu Jixin’s steady gaze, and spoke, “So, do you think I would kill Xiao Ce for this?”
Liu Jixin was taken aback for a moment, then let out a bitter smile. “My lord…”
“I have taken your words to heart,” Yuan Li said slowly. “But you have been by my side for a long time, and you should know what kind of person I am. If I were to kill a strategist who traveled a long distance to join me based on just two of your sentences, would you still believe in me? How would I face Zhan Shaoning and the people of the world?”
Liu Jixin remained silent.
Yuan Li smiled faintly. “I understand your concerns, Chang Yue. I will have someone keep an eye on Xiao Ce and take precautions against him in advance. However, I also want to see for myself who this person truly is. Even if I have to kill him, I will do so only after he has truly made a mistake.”
Liu Jixin looked at his young lord, dressed in a simple inner garment, bathed in the warm glow of the candlelight. The boy smiled gently, yet his tone was remarkably firm. In that moment, Liu Jixin was reminded of the time when he was estranged by Zhan Qibo after a few words from Xiao Ce.
Yuan Li was different from Zhan Qibo, very different indeed.
He would patiently listen to his subordinates, but he had his own judgments and remained steadfast, not easily swayed by others. Despite his young age, Yuan Li showed no signs of indecisiveness or hesitation. Liu Jixin realized that since he had known Yuan Li, he had never witnessed a moment of confusion or wavering from him.
Liu Jixin couldn’t help but say, “If only Zhan Qibo could be like you…”
Yuan Li seemed to know what he was going to say. He smiled and shook his head, then stood up and walked to the window to gaze at the moonlight outside. Suddenly, he became enthusiastic and said, “Chang Yue, why don’t we have a drink together under the tree in the courtyard?”
Liu Jixin breathed a sigh of relief and stood up. “I am willing to accompany you, my lord, and return only when we are drunk.”
“Hahaha!” Yuan Li laughed heartily. “Not returning until we’re drunk won’t do. I don’t have so much alcohol to let you take advantage of.”
With that, he asked Lin Tian to bring the wine and he himself carried the bucket of soapy water to the stone table in the courtyard.
Outside was much cooler than inside the house. When the night breeze blew, the leaves rustled, dissipating the warmth. Liu Jixin looked at the jars of wine on the table, feeling the temptation rise within him. His mouth watered, and he went to the kitchen to see if there were any snacks to go with the wine.
Lin Tian looked at Yuan Li’s rare enthusiasm and thought of making it livelier. He asked, “My lord, two might be a bit lacking. Should we invite a few more people?”
Yuan Li subconsciously considered his alcohol supply and realized it was sufficient. He breathed a sigh of relief and nodded. “If there are still some who are awake, ask them if they want to join us.”
Lin Tian hurriedly left, and in a short while, several people rushed over.
In addition to Wu Kai and Guo Lin, who were already in Chu Wang’s residence, Zhan Shaoning unexpectedly came along as well.
Yuan Li never expected Zhan Shaoning to also come. He quickly walked up and asked, “Zhan Shaoning? Weren’t you going back to sleep?”
“I drank too much water before going to bed and just got woken up by the urge to use the bathroom,” Zhan Shaoning chuckled awkwardly. “I saw your people looking for drinking companions, so I decided to come along.”
Yuan Li laughed, “Now it’s lively! With so many people here, how much of my wine will you all drink?”
Once everyone gathered, there wasn’t enough room around the stone table. Guo Lin and the other two decided to sit on the ground, each holding a bowl, waiting for Yuan Li to open the wine jars.
Yuan Li opened the first jar, and the aroma of the wine wafted out. The wine poured into the bowls wasn’t clear and bright but rather a bit murky.
At this moment, the taste of the wine wasn’t particularly strong. Drinking it was no different from drinking water with a hint of acidity, which Yuan Li didn’t particularly enjoy. He politely poured himself half a bowl, giving the rest to others.
The others were already accustomed to the taste. Apart from Liu Jixin, everyone at the table was reserved, but after a few bowls of wine, they started to relax and enjoy themselves.
Zhan Shaoning enjoyed this atmosphere very much. It made him feel relaxed, as if nothing had happened, as if he were still the carefree son of the capital’s magistrate, a student of the National Academy.
Although Zhan Shaoning wasn’t drunk, he felt a certain intoxication in the air, and it made him ask casually, “Yuan Li, do you plan to trade horses with the Wuwan people? Are you planning to use silver coins? If you use silver coins, you’ll need to prepare gold, as the Wuwan people only like gold.”
Yuan Li refilled his cup and replied, “I don’t plan to give them gold. I intend to trade goods with them.”
Zhan Shaoning added nonchalantly, “That works too. However, the Wuwan people are savage and rough. If you want to trade, they only favor salt and iron. But Yuan Li, you don’t have salt and iron in your hands, do you?”
Yuan Li smiled and didn’t say much. Instead, he raised his cup to toast him.
He planned to send people to the seaside to extract sea salt within a month.
For the Wuwan people living on the border, salt had always been a scarce resource. Not only humans needed salt, but the cattle, sheep, and horses on the grasslands also required it. Zhang Mi could exchange salt and cloth or tea with the Wuwan people for horses, which proved that bartering was feasible. However, Zhang Mi had very limited salt resources, as it was obtained through clandestine smuggling.
Salt had always been controlled by the state, and the Northern Zhou Dynasty was no exception. The government had officials responsible for managing salt taxes. The Wuwan people indeed didn’t appreciate fine items like soap or calligraphy and paintings, but they couldn’t resist salt.
Yuan Li could obtain enough horses as long as he could acquire sufficient salt.
If it were a peaceful time, in Ruyang or Luoyang, Yuan Li wouldn’t dare openly engage in the salt trade. However, it was currently a chaotic era, with the imperial court preoccupied and uprisings erupting everywhere. Moreover, Youzhou was a thousand miles away. Who would pay attention to such “minor matters” in such times?
Furthermore, the salt Yuan Li could produce was completely different from the coarse salt available at present.
The coarse salt in Northern Zhou had a yellow or greenish color and a bitter taste upon consumption. But the common people didn’t have many requirements for table salt; as long as it was edible, it sufficed. Ideally, they preferred lower bitterness, stronger saltiness, and cleanliness, which the aristocrats and nobles pursued.
However, salt was consumed daily, and if given the choice, who wouldn’t want salt with lower bitterness, finer grains, and a whiter appearance?
Present-day table salt was mostly extracted from seawater, lake water, wells, or mines without much further processing. It was of poor quality and potentially harmful to health. Yuan Li believed that once he extracted pure, snow-white fine salt, the Wuwan people would become addicted to it once they tasted it. It would be irresistible.
Zhan Shaoning had no idea what Yuan Li was thinking. He continued drinking bowl after bowl of alcohol until he became intoxicated. In the end, he started sobbing loudly, holding his wine cup and crying out for his parents and apologizing to his older brother. He mumbled incoherently, and the others couldn’t understand his words, but they remained quietly by his side, allowing him to vent.
Finally, Zhan Shaoning trembled as he grasped Yuan Li’s hand, laughing as if he were crying, “Yuan Li, do you know… I smothered my little nephew with my own hands. He was only five months old.”
Yuan Li was taken aback. “What happened?”
Zhan Shaoning stuttered as he explained, and Yuan Li furrowed his brow. “Who allowed you to bring the infant with you before fleeing?”
“It was… it was me,” Zhan Shaoning slurred, “Uncle Xiao saw my nephew being discovered by a soldier. I… I rushed forward and risked my life to save my nephew before leaving Luoyang. Yuan Li, I was wrong, I regret it so much. I’m sorry to my older brother and my little nephew…”
As he spoke, Zhan Shaoning closed his eyes and fell backward onto the ground. The moonlight faintly illuminated the anguish and damp trails of tears on his face.
Yuan Li slowly picked up the wine cup from the table. Just as he lifted it, a surge of anger suddenly surged up in his chest, and he forcefully placed the cup back on the table.
The wine cup instantly shattered into pieces, and the turbid wine dripped onto the grass.
Perhaps Yuan Li was overthinking, but he couldn’t help but entertain conspiracy theories.
Did Xiao Ce intentionally let the infant die in Zhan Shaoning’s arms? Even if Zhan Shaoning hadn’t smothered the child, on a long and perilous journey, the infant would have likely died from the jolts of the horses or from starvation. Would Xiao Ce not know that the slightest dust could cause the suffocation and death of a five-month-old baby?
He clearly knew that bringing the infant along wouldn’t save him. When he saw the baby, he should have acted as if he hadn’t seen him, and Xiao Ce should have stopped Zhan Shaoning. Did Xiao Ce not have the slightest thought of preventing it? Did he just let Zhan Shaoning desperately try to save a doomed infant?
Anger boiled within Yuan Li’s heart.
Or is all of this intentionally orchestrated by Xiao Ce?
Because he hates the Northern Zhou court, he made Zhan Shaoning’s closest kin die in his arms, causing Zhan Shaoning to harbor even greater hatred towards the Northern Zhou court and the emperor, leaving him more isolated and dependent on Xiao Ce, making him easier to control?
Everyone around was startled and immediately stood up in astonishment, saying, “Lord?”
Yuan Li closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, he appeared calm.
He looked at Lin Tian and said, “Carry Zhan Shaoning back to his room.”
After Zhan Shaoning was taken away, Yuan Li turned to Guo Lin and said, “Have someone from the Zhao Camp keep an eye on Xiao Ce and the movements of his subordinates.”
Guo Lin saluted and agreed.
Finally, Yuan Li looked at Wu Kai and Liu Jixin and said, “Before returning to the battlefield, I will have Zhan Shaoning assist me in procuring medicinal herbs. Xiao Ce will surely follow him. You two will work together with them every day, observe and determine who is truly in charge between the two of them. Also, be on high alert and prevent them from approaching the Soap Workshop.”
Both of them replied solemnly, “Yes.”
As the crowd dispersed, Yuan Li sat alone for a while.
To be honest, in that fleeting moment, he did have a murderous intent towards Xiao Ce.
But he forcibly suppressed that intent because it was all just his speculation without concrete evidence.
Yuan Li had personally killed four people, causing them to bleed to death. He had also shot Ma Renyi, piercing an arrow through his skull.
But killing these people didn’t burden Yuan Li in the slightest.
Just as he had once said, in this era, amidst the chaos, one cannot avoid killing.
Yuan Li has always been clear about his goals, and to achieve those goals, he will not spare those who deserve to be killed. He doesn’t have a fondness for killing, but he has prepared himself for hands stained with blood.
However, Yuan Li is also a very stubborn person.
He has his own principles and values. If a person hasn’t reached the point where they must die, what right does Yuan Li have to raise his butcher’s knife against them?
The education he received in his previous life intertwines with his experiences in this life, and neither can outweigh the other. Justice and evil, order and chaos, all of these conflicting aspects form Yuan Li’s contradictory soul.
Even though some people in this era find certain aspects of Yuan Li’s behavior difficult to understand, and even consider him excessively kind and seemingly fake after having killed people, as if he were putting on a show, perhaps some think he’s not ruthless enough, or others believe he is too hypocritical. However, Yuan Li won’t deny himself based on others’ opinions. He currently has no intention of changing himself.
He wants to preserve the kindness and fairness in his heart and continue walking on this path.