After this show of force, Da Dan became much more obedient. Amidst eating and drinking, he didn’t forget to ask Chu Hechao for rewards, but Chu Hechao brushed him off with the excuse of “working for the court and receiving rewards from the court.”
Da Dan dared not voice his anger but had a ferocious look as he bit into the meat, as if he wished to crush the bones as well.
However, even though he had accumulated a lot of anger, Da Dan also noticed that there was something different about this meal.
He couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was different, but there was a noticeable difference in taste, which was better than what he usually ate.
After the banquet, Da Dan felt somewhat unsatisfied. At that moment, someone brought a small dish of snowy white powder.
Da Dan took a closer look and realized it seemed to be salt, but he wasn’t certain. He dipped his chopsticks into it and tasted it, immediately becoming astonished.
His subordinates also tried a bit of the salt and showed expressions of shock after tasting it.
Seeing their naive reactions, Yang Zhongfa couldn’t help but mock, “Lord Wuwan, have you never tasted such good salt before?”
Da Dan shook his head with an unpleasant expression on his face.
Yang Zhongfa and the others laughed heartily without any reservation. Even some of the generals who were seeing such delicate and pure white salt for the first time managed to hold back their expressions of surprise to save face.
After the laughter died down, Yang Zhongfa clapped his hands twice. Soldiers brought a cart full of salt and stopped it by the banquet.
With a tone that implied “you’re getting lucky,” Yang Zhongfa said, “Recently, we obtained a batch of extremely high-quality fine salt. Originally, we planned to keep it for ourselves. However, considering your contribution in helping us pacify Pan County and Xia Luo County, we decided to share a portion of it with you for a taste.”
Da Dan’s eyes lit up, and he stood up, walking to the cart and using a dagger to cut open one of the sacks, revealing the white fine salt.
Although there were still some yellowish coarse salt among these fine salt grains, the quality was truly the best Da Dan had ever seen, and the bitterness was almost non-existent. Da Dan’s heart was enticed, and he chuckled greedily, saying, “So, Lord Yang intends to give all this salt to me?”
Yang Zhongfa sneered, “Lord Wuwan, you’re overthinking. Naturally, we are offering this salt to you for trade.”
Before Da Dan could inquire further, Yang Zhongfa stated the price for one liter of salt, which was several times higher than the normal salt price. As soon as the price was mentioned, Da Dan’s expression changed, and he gritted his teeth, saying, “This price is outrageously expensive!”
“Buy it or not, I don’t care,” Yang Zhongfa couldn’t be bothered and turned to Yuan Li sighing, “I didn’t expect Lord Wuwan of Shanggu County to be unable to afford even this little thing. If he doesn’t have the money to buy, then we have no intention to sell! This salt is limited in quantity, and the more we sell, the less we have. It’s salt that not even Gulichi has tasted. Why should Lord Wuwan of Shanggu County have the privilege to taste it first?”
Not even the leader, Gulichi, has tasted it.
Da Dan struggled to contain his anger, and his inner resolve began to waver.
Yuan Li chuckled softly, speaking in a gentle tone that was laced with contempt, almost piercing Da Dan’s face, “Wuwan people are only deserving of consuming inferior coarse salt.”
The anger that Da Dan had been suppressing suddenly erupted like a volcano. Seizing the opportunity, he pointed at Yuan Li and shouted angrily, “How dare a young boy who hasn’t even reached adulthood humiliate me like this! Guards!”
Several of his subordinates immediately picked up their weapons and stood up.
Yang Zhongfa, He Lang, and a few other deputy commanders also stood up, their faces filled with anger as they stood unwaveringly by Yuan Li’s side and retorted, “You defeated subordinates, how dare you lay a hand on our Advisor General!”
Da Dan couldn’t believe it. His eyes shifted, and he loudly called out to Chu Hechao, “What is the meaning of this, Grand General? I tolerated sitting together with a young boy who hasn’t even reached adulthood, and now he dares to disrespect me? Are you going to stand idly by and watch us being humiliated? Or is it that even though we Wuwan people belong to Northern Zhou, we are still regarded as barbarians in the heart of the Grand General, just like the Xianbei and Xiongnu?”
Chu Hechao looked at Da Dan and leisurely asked, “So, what do you want me to do?”
Da Dan snarled ferociously, “Cut off this person’s fingers as an apology to me.”
As soon as these words were spoken, everyone burst into laughter. Da Dan was bewildered, but he saw Chu Hechao also laughing. Chu Hechao looked at Yuan Li and couldn’t help but suppress his amusement, “Sister-in-law, Da Dan wants me to cut off your fingers. What do you think I should do?”
Da Dan gasped, shocked as he looked at Yuan Li realizing belatedly that he had spoken out of turn.
Yuan Li maintained a calm expression and innocently looked at Da Dan. “Did I say something wrong? Judging from the hesitant look on Lord Wuwan’s face, I thought it was because Lord Wuwan couldn’t afford our fine salt, so I spoke the truth. Could it be that I misunderstood?”
He stood up and declared loudly, “If Lord Wuwan can afford the salt, then indeed I must be ignorant. I will apologize to Lord Wuwan. But if I didn’t say anything wrong…”
He turned his head and provocatively said to Yang Zhongfa, “The fact that Wuwan people are only deserving of consuming inferior coarse salt should spread throughout the world soon, shouldn’t it?”
Da Dan suddenly found himself in a precarious situation.
If he bought the salt, the amount of money involved would be painful for him. If he didn’t buy it, it would be embarrassing and subject to ridicule, showing him as a stingy Lord Wuwan.
Da Dan’s expression darkened. “If I buy it, how do you plan to apologize to me?”
“If Lord Wuwan buys it, then we will make a further concession regarding the fine salt. When selling you the salt, we will accept part of the payment in gold and silver, and for the rest, we won’t take your money. Instead, we will exchange goods as a gesture of my apology. We can exchange livestock, such as cattle and sheep, raised by your tribe, as well as the captured White Rice Gang and commoners from Pan County and Xia Luo County. One liter of salt for fifty people. What do you think?”
After listening to this proposal, Da Dan was indeed tempted.
The captured common people were not important to them. Bringing them back would only lead them to be treated as slaves and killed. They relied on herding and didn’t need these people for farming. Exchanging the captured commoners for fine salt would be a profitable deal for them. Besides, the Wuwan people had plenty of surplus livestock such as cattle, sheep, and horses.
Moreover, they had just looted the spoils from two counties, so Da Dan felt quite wealthy. He calculated in his mind and thought the price was acceptable, but he still said, “No, one liter of salt for a maximum of thirty people.”
Yuan Li was waiting for this response and promptly said, “Alright, thirty people it is.”
Da Dan questioned further, “Can you make the decision?”
Yuan Li smiled but remained silent. He turned his head to look at Chu Hechao and winked quickly.
If it weren’t for the firelight illuminating his face and the fact that he had been speaking, Chu Hechao’s gaze would have missed this wink.
However, Chu Hechao suddenly felt a teasing impulse and wanted to play with this cautious little sister-in-law.
He casually shook his wine cup and asked in return, “Can you make the decision?”
Yuan Li: “…”
Fortunately, Chu Hechao only teased Yuan Li for a moment before giving a positive reply, “He can certainly make the decision.”
They didn’t tell Da Dan that the salt was obtained by Yuan Li to protect him from the Wuwan people’s attention. Da Dan had no inkling that these fine salts were related to the young man, Yuan Li.
Because of this transaction, the Wuwan people spent the entire night organizing the traded goods. They carried the gold, silver, treasures, and slaves with them, but the livestock, including cattle and sheep, had to be delivered to Chu Hechao after returning home. Chu Hechao was not worried that they wouldn’t fulfill their end of the deal. Early the next morning, both parties exchanged goods—the Wuwan people took the salt while Chu Hechao received the livestock. Da Dan’s face trembled with distress, and he had no desire to stay in Zhuolu County any longer. He led his men and left directly.
After they had traveled far enough from Zhuolu County, Da Dan’s expression darkened, and he instructed his subordinates, “Go and deliver a message to the leader, informing him of the changes we witnessed in Chu Hechao’s army. Also, find out more information about that young lad who hasn’t reached adulthood yet and pass it on to the leader.”
His subordinates acknowledged and quickly rode away.
Da Dan’s face remained gloomy.
He tightly gripped the reins and looked at the overgrown road ahead, harboring sinister thoughts.
The humiliation and loss of wealth he experienced today would be repaid tenfold in the future.
After pacifying Shanggu County, the twenty thousand troops left Zhuolu County.
Instead of returning directly, they followed the order of the captured cities, inspecting the conditions of the cities built by the common people.
As they continued their journey, the weather gradually became less scorching, hinting at the coolness of autumn.
The fields were adorned with a golden hue, indicating that it was the season of harvest.
Due to the disruptions caused by the war, many people had fled with their families. The fields were left unattended, especially the tens of thousands of acres of land owned by the wealthy, where the rice had ripened without anyone to harvest it. After Yuan Li noticed this situation, he suggested that the soldiers should be involved in rice harvesting.
Chu Hechao agreed.
The fighting prowess of the twenty thousand troops was not to be underestimated, and they could complete the harvest of tens of thousands of acres of land in just one day. After each location was harvested, they would stop and regroup for several days. It was not only necessary to thresh the rice, but also to provide sufficient rest time for the soldiers.
To boost morale, every evening after the rice was harvested, the soldiers would receive an extra bowl of steaming hot new rice.
Freshly harvested rice was the most delicious, and with these additional bowls of rice, the soldiers worked diligently each day, without complaints of hardship or fatigue.
As the commander of the army, Chu Hechao took the lead and personally participated in the rice harvesting and threshing. When he moved, the other generals followed suit, and the group of soldiers who were accustomed to fighting suddenly transformed into farmers working in the fields.
Although the weather at this time was not as hot as in summer, it was still scorching. Especially at noon when the blazing sun was overhead, it was so hot that it made people dizzy.
Chu Hechao then issued an order for the soldiers to start harvesting rice before sunrise, take a break during the scorching midday sun, and resume work in the afternoon when the sun was no longer as intense.
Yuan Li didn’t slack off either. Filled with enthusiasm, he wholeheartedly joined in the labor, harvesting the abundant golden crops alongside everyone else.
After working for a while, the sun began to rise. The coolness of the morning lasted only for a short hour, and now even the last trace of coolness had been worn away. The sun was scorching, the ground was restless, and the insects in the rice paddies crawled around. If they spat on the ground, their saliva would evaporate instantly.
Soon, Yuan Li’s face turned red, drenched in sweat.
He bundled up the harvested rice and looked around. Several generals working nearby had boldly taken off their shirts, revealing their bare upper bodies as they worked.
Yuan Li blinked and glanced at Chu Hechao beside him.
Although Chu Hechao hadn’t taken off his shirt, he had rolled up his sleeves, and beads of sweat moistened his chest and back. He worked much faster than Yuan Li and had already finished his own portion of the field. He was now sitting on a pile of grass, resting comfortably as sweat dripped from his chin, looking quite leisurely.
Yuan Li couldn’t help but speak, “General, there are many small thorns on the rice stalks. Aren’t you bothered by the itchiness when you roll up your sleeves to harvest?”
Before Chu Hechao could respond, He Lang, who was not far away, stood with hands on hips and shouted, “It’s itchy! But don’t worry, Lord Yuan, there’s a river nearby. After we finish harvesting the rice, we can jump into the river for a refreshing swim!”
Yuan Li suddenly remembered, “Oh, that’s right.”
There was a river nearby.
Chu Hechao cast a cold glance at He Lang, then shifted his gaze to Yuan Li. Seeing Yuan Li’s flushed face and the small thorns sticking to his neck, he pinched a blade of grass, put it in his mouth, and suddenly asked, “Are you tired?”
Yuan Li paused for a moment and nodded, “Yes, I’m tired.”
Chu Hechao chewed on the grass in his mouth, savoring the sweetness. He squinted his eyes and wiped the sweat from his chin. “Do you want me to help?”
Yuan Li was somewhat surprised by the favor, “Can you?”
Chu Hechao smiled, got up, patted off the thorns on his pants, and turned around leisurely, waving his hand casually, “See you tomorrow. If we meet tomorrow, I’ll help you harvest the rice.”
Yuan Li felt that there was a deeper meaning behind his words. Just as he was thinking about it, a drop of sweat from his forehead fell onto his eyelashes. He looked up and wiped his eyes, but the fragments from his hand landed directly on his eyelids, causing a burning sensation that made it impossible to open his eyes.
Yuan Li thought to himself, “Oh no,” and with his eyes closed, he fumbled around to find the towel he had placed aside to wipe his face. But when he accidentally kicked the stone sickle, narrowly avoiding getting hit, he suddenly felt a strong grip pulling him to the side and into a hot embrace.
Chu Hechao was breathing heavily, as if he had rushed over from a faraway place in one breath. With anger in his voice, he gritted his teeth and said, “Sister-in-law, are you playing music and dancing here?”
Yuan Li still couldn’t open his eyes, his eyelids were red. He grasped Chu Hechao’s arm in confusion and said, “A thorn got into my eye, and I can’t open it.”
Chu Hechao muttered a curse under his breath and sternly told him to stand still. He went to fetch his towel from the side, but upon inspection, he saw that the towel was covered in rice thorn fragments. Using it would only make the situation worse.
Chu Hechao came back and grabbed Yuan Li again, striding towards the edge of the field.
Yuan Li couldn’t see, so he was cautious and didn’t dare to take big steps. After walking five steps, Chu Hechao’s pull caused him to stagger twice. He didn’t say a word and quickly adjusted to Chu Hechao’s pace. But suddenly, Chu Hechao stopped in his tracks.
Yuan Li’s face felt itchy and was stinging, but he resisted the urge to scratch. He turned his head and asked, “What’s wrong?”
Before he could finish speaking, Yuan Li felt someone approaching from behind, and two strong arms reached over, firmly holding his waist, lifting him up from the ground as if an adult were picking up a child. Without delay, Chu Hechao strode briskly with him towards the edge of the field.
Yuan Li was suspended in the air, his waist aching from the pressure. As he realized what position he was in, his expression instantly cracked open.