As a ruthless general, Chu Hechao had always appeared invincible and capable of overcoming any challenge.
He had been lucky, narrowly escaping death on multiple occasions. His personality had always been dominant, leaving a strong and courageous impression on his subordinates. Chu Hechao himself believed that as a man, he didn’t need to talk about pain and injuries with others; he could handle it on his own. However, the moment those words slipped out, he instantly regretted it. He felt both agitated and embarrassed, his face turning red. He wished he could take back what he had just said.
Hearing this, Yuan Li still had his back turned to Chu Hechao. His voice was barely audible, blending with the sound of flowing water, “General, I thought you said it doesn’t hurt.”
Chu Hechao’s temples throbbed.
The veins on his arm bulged out, and he seemed ready to leave. But in the end, he forcibly restrained himself, gritting his teeth and admitting, “I lied.”
Only then did Yuan Li stand up, turned around to face him, and looked at Chu Hechao for a long while.
Although the tent was not exposed to direct sunlight, it was still uncomfortably hot and humid. Sweat clung to Yuan Li’s hair and forehead, and his face had a faint flush from the heat. Comparing his fair complexion to Chu Hechao’s bold and heroic appearance, they were like a small deer facing a fierce tiger. However, the fierce tiger looked stiff under scrutiny and dared not make a sound.
Yuan Li gradually smiled and said, “That’s more like it. General, don’t shy away from seeking medical treatment.”
Seeing his smiling face, Chu Hechao’s fingers, which had been tapping his thigh incessantly, relaxed. He repeatedly reminded himself that Yuan Li was his provider of food and shelter and that he couldn’t offend him.
The one who provides rations is like a father, more or less.
After repeating this mantra a few times, his mind calmed down. Chu Hechao turned around and allowed Yuan Li to continue examining his back.
Yuan Li approached and whispered behind Chu Hechao, “Technically, I don’t have the authority to interfere with the General, but we must not underestimate the severity of the injury. If a minor injury turns into a major one, the General might regret it. Besides, this injury was suffered on my behalf, and I consider myself as part of the General’s family so, I kindly ask the General to cooperate with me.”
Saying that, Yuan Li began to apply pressure to the muscles on Chu Hechao’s back.
His hands had been soaked in cold water for a while, chilling them like ice cubes. As soon as they touched Chu Hechao’s body, his muscles instantly tightened.
After a complete examination, Yuan Li relaxed.
Fortunately, there were no injuries to the bones or vital organs, just some subcutaneous bruising. The bruises were already turning purplish, and they would likely look even more shocking by tomorrow.
“Tomorrow, General can seek a physician to massage the bruises,” Yuan Li washed his hands and instructed the soldiers outside to bring a new set of clothes for Chu Hechao. “If the physician’s strength is not enough, the General can come to me.”
Chu Hechao stood up, loosening his shoulders and neck, his tall figure emanating a strong presence. He chuckled upon hearing Yuan Li’s words, “It seems like your strength isn’t that great either.”
Yuan Li didn’t catch it clearly. He turned his head, looking puzzled at Chu Hechao, “What?”
Chu Hechao remained composed, “I mean, thank you, sister-in-law.”
Yuan Li smiled, “General, you’re too polite.”
Outside the gate, a soldier came running and said that the officer in charge of building the watchtower had been found. However, the officer didn’t want to be punished in public and requested to see the general.
Being punished in public would be a great humiliation. A military officer, second only to the general in rank, being publicly beaten in front of subordinates and soldiers, would naturally be unwilling.
Chu Hechao sneered and walked quickly outside. He met a soldier who was bringing him clothes and took them, throwing them on and walking away swiftly.
Yuan Li didn’t follow him. In the afternoon, he took his men and went to Zhuolu County for a tour. After investigating the situation of the common people and the distribution of porridge, he took his subordinates to soak in a hot spring.
The spring water was clear and had been warmed by the sun all day, reaching a pleasant temperature, neither too hot nor too cold. The group of people chatted and laughed while Yuan Li comfortably took a bath. But not long after they left the spring, they began to feel a bit sweaty. Yuan Li wiped his sweat and murmured, “It would be nice to have some ice to cool down…”
His eyes suddenly lit up as he remembered making ice with saltpeter.
Yes, saltpeter for making ice! How could he have forgotten about it!
Saltpeter, known as “Xiaoshi” at this time, was a medicinal material in traditional Chinese medicine. After Yuan Li remembered it, he couldn’t sit still anymore. He immediately ordered someone to ask the doctor for some saltpeter and locked himself in his tent with several basins of water, not allowing anyone to disturb him until dinner time.
Liu Jixin didn’t know what he was up to, and he was quite curious, but he didn’t bother him too much.
Wu Kai had been standing guard outside the tent, following Yuan Li’s orders and not allowing anyone to approach. Even the dinner brought by the soldiers was personally received by him and placed in front of the tent.
When Chu Hechao heard about this, he frowned and asked, “How long has he locked himself in?”
His trusted aide replied, “It has been two hours.”
“He hasn’t come out once in two hours?”
The aide nodded, “Young Master Yuan hasn’t come out at all, and he doesn’t allow anyone to enter.”
Yang Zhongfa, who was eating while holding a bowl, put it down nervously and said to Chu Hechao with a worried expression, “General, is it because we made things difficult for Young Master Yuan when we asked for half a month’s rations this morning? Does he think that the army’s food is not enough, so he refuses to eat?”
Chu Hechao glanced at him. There was no need to be so concerned. He didn’t think anything bad would happen to Yuan Li, but just in case, he decided to go and see for himself. He said, “I’ll go take a look.”
When he arrived in front of Yuan Li’s tent, he saw Wu Kai standing guard without moving an inch. Seeing Chu Hechao approaching, Wu Kai saluted and said in a low voice, “General, Lord Yuan ordered that no one is allowed inside the tent.”
Chu Hechao glanced at the food placed in front of the tent and furrowed his brow. He raised his voice and called out, “Sister-in-law?”
Soon, Yuan Li’s voice came from inside the tent, “Is it the general? General, please come in.”
Chu Hechao didn’t hesitate and took a big step forward, lifting the tent flap. As soon as he lifted it, a refreshing coolness greeted him. Chu Hechao instantly felt invigorated, and the heat on his body dissipated. Surprised, he looked closer and saw Yuan Li standing in the middle of a pile of water basins, with visible traces of cool air emanating from them. Some basins contained a mixture of ice and water, while others had solid blocks of ice.
Chu Hechao’s face showed astonishment. “Where did the ice come from?”
Yuan Li smiled and gestured for Chu Hechao to come closer. “General, come and take a look.”
Carefully, Chu Hechao approached the ice basins. The closer he got, the more comfortable he felt with the coolness. It was a rare relief in the scorching summer. Chu Hechao squinted his eyes, and the perspiration on his forehead disappeared.
As he got closer, Chu Hechao could see the situation of the ice in these basins. Apart from the water basins, there were also some grayish-white stones placed on the dry ground nearby.
Chu Hechao looked at the stones and asked, “Saltpeter?”
“It’s indeed saltpeter,” Yuan Li opened his palm, holding two pieces of saltpeter. He smirked, “By adding an adequate amount of saltpeter to the water, you can quickly make ice.”
Astonishment flashed in Chu Hechao’s eyes as he carefully examined the saltpeter. He couldn’t believe that such an unremarkable substance had such an effect. Then, Chu Hechao stared intently at Yuan Li and asked, “Can we produce a large amount of ice?”
Yuan Li replied, “As long as we have enough saltpeter, we can produce a large quantity of ice.”
A gleam of excitement appeared in Chu Hechao’s eyes. He lowered his head and looked at the ice in the basin, then suddenly squatted down, picked up a piece, and brought it close to his lips, as if he wanted to taste it.
Yuan Li quickly reached out to block the ice from touching Chu Hechao’s lips, but Chu Hechao’s lips ended up directly against Yuan Li’s hand.
Both of them were somewhat caught off guard. Chu Hechao glanced downward with his narrow eyes and then looked back at Yuan Li.
Yuan Li casually withdrew his hand, feeling both amused and helpless. He said, “General, this water is dirty, and the ice formed is not clean. It’s not suitable for consumption!”
Chu Hechao frowned, feeling somewhat disappointed. “Ice made from saltpeter is also inedible?”
“Saltpeter-made ice is non-toxic and harmless to the body,” Yuan Li patiently explained. “However, if you want to eat the ice, it needs to be prepared in a separate container. For example, placing a smaller basin with water inside a larger basin. The saltpeter is added to the larger basin with water to freeze, and then you wait for the water in the smaller basin to freeze. If you want to eat ice, I can put a bowl of water in the basin, and it will freeze after a while.”
“No need,” Chu Hechao tossed the ice block back into the basin in his hand. “As long as it’s edible.”
He smiled silently and added, “If we only need saltpeter, there are many saltpeter deposits in the northern frontier of Youzhou.”
The Central Plains have many saltpeter mines, and people in the late Tang Dynasty used saltpeter to make gunpowder and ice. Yuan Li speculated that there would be many saltpeter deposits in the mining area of Youzhou, as saltpeter mines were naturally abundant there. However, he assumed that the saltpeter mines had not been exploited yet. When he heard Chu Hechao’s words, his eyes lit up. “There are saltpeter mines in Youzhou?”
Chu Hechao nodded and smiled faintly. “I will have people excavate the saltpeter for you tomorrow.”
Yuan Li was delighted. “Great. General, what do you plan to do with these ice blocks?”
Chu Hechao said, “Part of it will be given as rewards to my subordinates and those who have military achievements, and the other part will be sold to wealthy landlords. What do you think, sister-in-law?”
Yuan Li smiled at him, sharing a tacit understanding. “General, that’s exactly what I had in mind.”
The method of using saltpeter to make ice is not suitable for widespread use among the common people at present. Firstly, Youzhou has not yet been completely pacified, and it is not an iron bucket. Secondly, the people have suffered greatly from the turmoil of war. They can barely afford to eat, let alone use ice. It is most suitable and maximizes benefits to distribute the ice blocks as rewards to the soldiers instead of expensive spoils of war, and to engage in business with the local landlords.
Before a large quantity of ice blocks can be produced, the use of saltpeter to make ice needs to be kept secret. Although Yuan Li had previously instructed the messenger who asked for saltpeter from the doctors to keep it quiet, anyone who wanted to know could easily find out. If people were to find out that Yuan Li had managed to produce ice within two hours in the tent, they would easily associate it with saltpeter.
Chu Hechao asked Yuan Li to stay in the tent along with the ice water, while he personally went outside to dismiss the people. He said, “Sister-in-law is exhausted today, suffering from the heat and sun exposure. After taking a bath, he felt a little dizzy and uncomfortable. I’ll take care of him here, so you all can leave.”
Liu Jixin was shocked and quickly said, “General, please allow me to go and visit the Lord!”
“Sister-in-law is just suffering from a mild heatstroke,” Chu Hechao said calmly. “He has already gone to sleep. I will have a doctor by his side to take care of him. You can all go back.”
The rest of the people could only retreat. Chu Hechao ordered someone to guard the four sides of the tent and walked inside, lifting the curtain and bending down.
Yuan Li heard every word he said from inside. When Chu Hechao entered, he considerately said, “General, you don’t have to stay with me all night. You can go back in a while.”
Chu Hechao glanced at Yuan Li, then slowly walked in and naturally sat down by the bed. He took off his boots and laid on the bed, saying, “Sister-in-law, no need to be polite. When acting, we must do the whole performance. I will stay with you tonight.”
Yuan Li’s lips twitched.
Did he think I couldn’t see that he came here for the ice?
Chu Hechao was tall and really unreserved. When he stretched out and laid on the bed, he completely occupied the entire bed, leaving no space for Yuan Li.
Yuan Li walked to the side of the bed, his face showing a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. he said, “General, if you sleep on my bed, where am I supposed to sleep?”
Chu Hechao didn’t open his eyes. The coolness in the tent made him feel drowsy. Hearing his words, a mischievous smile appeared on his lips. “If sister-in-law doesn’t mind, naturally we can sleep on the same bed.”
Yuan Li replied coolly, “Should I sleep on top of you?”
Chu Hechao was about to suggest that he could sit on him, but then he remembered Yuan Li’s status. He moved his jaw slightly and swallowed the suggestive words that were about to come out. He opened his eyes and got up cleanly, moving aside and giving up the bed. He assembled the two chairs near the table and squeezed his large figure onto them, looking cramped and uncomfortable.
The chairs were still not enough for him to lie down, so Chu Hechao furrowed his brows and lifted his legs, placing them directly on the table.