Chu Hechao raced day and night, and upon arriving in Luoyang, he received a report from Yang Zhongfa.
To his astonishment, the goods that Yang Zhongfa had been monitoring for almost half a month had been snatched away by another group of people.
Chu Hechao almost beheaded Yang Zhongfa on the spot in his anger, but he restrained himself and listened coldly to the clues Yang Zhongfa had found.
Yang Zhongfa had been keeping an eye on these goods since they were in Hanzhong. Along the way, he encountered nothing but refugees. Despite his disbelief, Yang Zhongfa concluded that the goods had been seized by the refugees fleeing from Hanzhong.
However, ordinary refugees wouldn’t have the capability to pull off such a feat. There must be someone behind them. They were likely similar to Yang Zhongfa, targeting the goods from the moment they left Hanzhong. But the number of refugees from Hanzhong was enormous, scattered in all directions like eels in a river, making it difficult to trace their whereabouts.
However, in the past two days, Yang Zhongfa noticed a strange occurrence: many scattered refugees were slowly making their way to Ruyang County.
The day after the goods were stolen, the refugees started to show unusual movements. Yang Zhongfa didn’t believe there was no connection between the two. He sent someone to secretly infiltrate Ruyang County and indeed discovered several pieces of cloth from Hanzhong in the market of Ruyang County.
These cloths were vibrant in color, adorned with intricate patterns outlined with gold thread, and were extremely precious. It was likely that the thieves knew they couldn’t keep these cloths for themselves, so they sold them to cloth shops at very low prices.
This cunning and subtle approach irritated Yang Zhongfa to no end. However, precisely because of this, Yang Zhongfa was convinced that the culprits who stole their goods were in Ruyang. But Ruyang was a county with three competing factions: the Chen family, the Wei family, the Wang family, and the county magistrate, Yuan Mansion. In this small county, various forces intertwined, and no matter how hard Yang Zhongfa investigated, he couldn’t determine the true mastermind behind it all.
Chu Hechao punished him with thirty cane strikes, and with a heavy air, he led his men straight to Chu Wang’s mansion.
Upon seeing Yuan Li dressed in wedding attire in the hall, Chu Hechao recalled his identity as the son of the county magistrate of Ruyang. Such a coincidence couldn’t help but make Chu Hechao wonder. From the very first sentence, he began to deliberately probe this new “sister-in-law.”
Chu Hechao was not a friendly visitor.
Yuan Li couldn’t understand and spoke cautiously, “General, you must have remembered incorrectly. We have only just met, so I haven’t sent you any significant gifts.”
Chu Hechao smirked, “Sister-in-law, nobles often forget things.”
Yuan Li had a face that could put others at ease.
He had a gentle temperament, clear eyes, and when he smiled, it was like spring grass and willow branches, full of vibrant vitality.
However, instead of dispelling Chu Hechao’s suspicions, such a person made him more guarded.
Yuan Li’s smile became stiff.
Chu Hechao was robust and, despite the weather in March, honey-colored sweat dripped from his temples. The contours of his face were deep and distinct. Although he was smiling, there was no trace of mirth in his eyes as he looked down at Yuan Li, his gaze as cold as ice in the twelfth lunar month.
Yuan Li suppressed his smile and said directly, “General, please speak your mind.”
Chu Hechao gave a meaningless cold smile, then turned and saluted Chu Wang and Lady Yang. Lady Yang hadn’t seen her second son for a long time, her eyes turned red, and she was about to say a few words when a maid beside her reminded her in a low voice, “Madam, the auspicious moment is approaching.”
Lady Yang hurriedly wiped her tears with a handkerchief and forced a smile, saying, “Ciye, since your elder brother is bedridden, you will represent him in the ceremonial bow.”
Chu Hechao remained silent for a few seconds before saying, “I can do that.”
With that, he turned around, and once again, a scent of blood permeated the air. He looked down at Yuan Li from above and said, “Sister-in-law, you shouldn’t mind, right?”
Yuan Li’s head throbbed faintly as he replied, “Of course, I don’t mind.”
He began to doubt whether he had offended Chu Hechao in any way.
But since crossing over to the present, Yuan Li had never left Ruyang County. He should have had no connection with this fearsome general.
From this perspective, it could only be Chu Hechao who had a problem in his head.
Yang Gonggong, who was standing on the side, forced a smile and said, “Second Young Master, shall I take you to freshen up and change your clothes?”
Chu Hechao was still wearing his armor, with his sword at his side, covered in dust and dirt. He tainted this joyous occasion of marriage with a sense of hostility. How could a groom bow like this?
“No need,” Chu Hechao raised an eyebrow. “If we delay any longer, we’ll miss the auspicious moment for my sister-in-law.”
Every time he called him “sister-in-law,” Yuan Li’s eyebrows would slightly furrow, feeling uncomfortable all over. “General, it’s enough to address me by my name.”
Chu Hechao smiled. “Sister-in-law, that wouldn’t be appropriate.”
The two words “sister-in-law” were intentionally emphasized, as if they were forcefully squeezed out from his tongue, carrying a strong desire to bite them into pieces.
Yuan Li, also being a man, felt his anger rise in response to the provocation. He calmly said, “If that’s the case, I’ll address the general as little brother.”
That was the custom in Northern Zhou. Chu Hechao was Yuan Li’s younger brother-in-law, but the term “brother-in-law” was mostly used in written language, while in daily life, people addressed each other as brothers following the husband’s lead. Even though Yuan Li was younger than Chu Hechao by a considerable margin, addressing him as “little brother” wouldn’t be a mistake.
However, when it came to Chu Hechao, being called “little brother” by a young man who hadn’t even come of age yet seemed somewhat ridiculous.
Chu Hechao’s smile gradually faded away.
In the crowd of onlookers, someone couldn’t help but burst into laughter, but quickly disguised it as a cough.
“We’re all family, no need for formalities,” Chu Wang, who didn’t understand the subtle exchanges, impatiently urged them, “Chu Hechao, control your bad temper! Let’s get on with it.”
The ceremonial attendants began their congratulations. Yuan Li and Chu Hechao walked to the center of the hall. As Yuan Li raised his robe and knelt down, he heard the sound of someone beside him lifting their heavy armor and kneeling by his side.
His shoulder and arm could feel the warmth transmitted from the other person. Yuan Li was someone who had a strong sense of personal space, and he didn’t mind weaker males getting close to him. But when another male, who had a stronger aura of aggression, invaded his personal space, it made Yuan Li uncomfortable, to the point where he wanted to kick Chu Hechao away.
But he restrained himself.
After the ritual ceremony, it was time for the wedding banquet. Yang Gonggong approached Yuan Li and whispered, “Young Master Yuan, would you like me to take you to meet the Eldest Young Master?”
Yuan Li nodded slightly, his eyes lowered, and the shadows of his eyelashes danced on his face. After impeccably performing the ritual greeting to Chu Hechao, he followed the servants and left the guest hall.
Chu Hechao supported the sword at his waist, his gloved fingers deliberately or unconsciously caressing the hilt as he watched Yuan Li’s figure, his expression inexplicable.
Yang Zhongfa limped over to his side, wearing a miserable expression on his face. “General, have you figured anything out? Is it really your sister-in-law’s doing? If he truly took away that batch of goods, then we have a family feud on our hands! Why don’t we just have your sister-in-law return the items directly?”
Chu Hechao asked, “Are you sure those people are in Ruyang County?”
Yang Zhongfa’s expression turned serious. “I, Yang Zhongfa, stake my life on it. They are definitely in Ruyang County!”
Chu Hechao’s fingers, tapping on the hilt of his sword, paused for a moment, and then continued their rhythm. “It’s hard to tell…”
“Exactly, I couldn’t tell either,” Yang Zhongfa sighed as he watched Yuan Li’s departing figure. “If they are indeed his people, it would be extraordinary. Just look at his young age, yet so mature and experienced. If it weren’t for me and my men tirelessly investigating day and night, we wouldn’t have discovered even a trace of evidence in the Ruyang County market.”
Chu Hechao laughed directly and coldly said, “If you hadn’t wasted two hours because of drinking, those goods wouldn’t have been stolen by someone else.”
Yang Zhongfa wiped the sweat off his forehead and said, “General, I was wrong. I won’t be so reckless again. The urgent matter is to retrieve that batch of goods. The 130,000 soldiers in the Northern Frontier are relying on that money to have a decent meal.”
“You know,” Chu Hechao’s tone turned chilly, “that laughter just now, it was you, right?”
Yang Zhongfa remained silent.
Chu Hechao turned around and headed towards the wine table. “Since you said it’s in Ruyang County, then go and retrieve the goods. If you can’t find them, you can use your own head to make up for the 130,000 military pay.”
Yang Zhongfa’s facial muscles twitched. “Yes.”
The noise grew fainter, and Yang Gonggong spoke softly, “Yesterday, you arrived at the mansion too late, and the Eldest Young Master has already gone to bed. But today is your joyous day with the Eldest Young Master, so it would be best to meet him.”
Yuan Li nodded and quietly followed behind him.
The place where Chu Mingfeng resided was quite far away. They wandered around for some time until they finally reached a secluded and exquisite courtyard.
Two guards stood in front of the courtyard. Yang Gonggong approached them and said a few words. One of the guards nodded and went inside to report.
However, not long after, the guard returned with an apologetic expression. “Yang Gonggong, you’ve come at an inconvenient time. The Eldest Young Master has just fallen asleep.”
“Sleeping again?” Yang Gonggong sighed. “Forget it, forget it. Don’t wake the Eldest Young Master. We’ll come back later.”
The guard bowed and saluted, then returned to stand at the front gate. Yang Gonggong turned around, his face filled with shame, and apologized to Yuan Li, “Young Master Yuan, it’s this servant’s fault. I’m sorry for making you come here in vain.”
Yuan Li looked at the closed courtyard gate and shook his head. “It’s nothing.”
Chu Mingfeng was cunning and unpredictable, so the less Yuan Li had to meet him, the better.
When they returned to the Wendao Courtyard again, the sky had already turned dark.
Yuan Li and Chu Mingfeng didn’t have a real marriage, so there was no bridal chamber for them. The three young servants who understood his character had already anticipated his early return and prepared hot soup and tea for him.
Even though the weather in March was pleasant, Yuan Li was still sweaty and hot. As soon as he entered the room, he took off his elaborate wedding attire and had someone bring him a basin of warm water. He quickly wiped his body with a towel in the room.
As the towel passed over his waist and abdomen, a thin layer of muscles could be seen, not exaggerated but beautiful and firm. Yuan Li’s lips curled up, satisfied with the results of his consistent training. He fastened the belt of his inner robe and called out, “Lintian, bring me the measuring tape.”
Lintian was the servant responsible for Yuan Li’s daily needs. He brought the specially made measuring tape, and Yuan Li measured his height. He happily discovered that he had grown another two centimeters.
It was not in vain that he exercised and ran every morning. With this rate of growth, even in the ancient times when nutrition was not abundant, he would have a good height of 180 centimeters.
Suddenly, a guard ran over and whispered, “Young Master, someone is coming.”
Yuan Li raised an eyebrow, tossed the measuring tape to Lintian, and grabbed the outermost layer of his wedding attire from the bed. He put it on in reverse and slipped on his shoes and socks. “Who is coming?”
“A group of people, it’s not very clear,” the guard said. “But judging from their appearance, it seems like they’re carrying wine.”
Yuan Li was taken aback and then his expression turned subtle.
Could these people be here to disturb the bridal chamber?
But the reality was even stranger than he thought. These people were not here to disturb the bridal chamber but to deliver the wedding wine.
Yuan Li found it amusing. “Wedding wine? Who am I supposed to drink with?”
“Naturally, you’ll drink with me,” came a lazy voice from behind the crowd. The servants made way, revealing a tall figure leaning against the door with a wine jug in hand. Chu Hechao smirked, his gaze carrying a hint of scrutiny. “Who does Sister-in-law want to drink with?”
He had somehow removed his armor and was now only wearing a thin black spring shirt. His tall and robust figure was fully exposed, and even the beautiful lines of his muscles on his arms could be seen. His back was straight, his shoulders broad but waist narrow. The black leather gloves on his hands, strangely, were still not taken off, as if they were an extension of his skin.
Yuan Li felt a headache coming on at the sight of him and couldn’t help but put on a forced smile. “I never expected to bother my little brother even for the wedding wine.”
Chu Hechao walked in from the door, and it was only then that Yuan Li noticed the large blade hanging at his waist. His eyelids twitched slightly as Chu Hechao pulled out the seat next to him and sat down, bending his legs. “Indeed, it’s troublesome. Since you know you’ve caused me trouble, drink up quickly and be done with it.”
The hilt of the knife swayed, lightly touching the tabletop.
The matchmaker cautiously handed a cup of wine to Yuan Li.
Yuan Li looked at the wine in the cup for a moment, then reached out and took the wine glass with a gentle smile. “General, please.”
Under the warm yellow candlelight, the turbid wine in the cup swayed, creating faint ripples that resembled swimming golden fish on his wrist and cheek.
Yuan Li’s lips curled up, his eyes lowered, exuding a gentle and obedient demeanor. The fingers holding the wine glass emerged from his red sleeve, youthful and jade-like, with a hint of moisture and a touch of coolness.
Chu Hechao’s expression subtly changed. He raised his hand and picked up another glass of wine, lightly tapping it against the glass in Yuan Li’s hand before downing the contents in one gulp.
The wedding wine, also known as the cup of union, was not suitable for intertwining arms in their case, as they were sister-in-law and younger brother-in-law.
Just as Yuan Li was about to drink the wine, his brain suddenly felt a disturbance from the system.
【The Encyclopedia of All Things system has been activated. The task of enrolling in the National Academy has been completed, and the reward has been issued. Please explore on your own, host.】
【Task: Find a mentor.】
【Reward: White Sugar Refining Method.】
Yuan Li’s hand trembled, spilling all the wine onto Chu Hechao’s thigh.
Chu Hechao immediately stood up, his face turning pale as he coldly sneered, “Young Master Yuan, what do you mean by this?”
Yuan Li no longer paid attention to him. It turned out that just now, the Chu Mansion had already secured a place for him to enroll in the National Academy. But what surprised him even more was that his mind actually received real information about the production of soap.
Wood ash mixed with filtered alkali water made from lime powder and clear water. The alkali water was then mixed with lard, ultimately producing pure and smooth soap. By infusing essential oils extracted from flowers, scented soap could be made.
This knowledge not only included soap-making but even provided him with information on how to extract essential oils.
A tremendous wave surged in Yuan Li’s heart.
He looked at the system in his mind, his gaze lingering on the seven words “White Sugar Refining Method.”
He doubted the existence and purpose of the system, but it had actually given him knowledge about soap-making. And the next task reward was white sugar.
If he completed the apprenticeship, could there really be a method for refining white sugar?
Soap and white sugar, either of these two things could bring immense wealth. And with money, what would he have to fear about being unable to support his troops?
After truly obtaining the rewards from the system, Yuan Li knew that even if the source of the system was unclear and its purpose may have ulterior motives, he couldn’t abandon this golden finger and not use it. Otherwise, he would be foolish, giving up a lifeline out of stubbornness.
Yuan Li tightly pursed his lips, sweat beads forming on his forehead.
Just as he delved deeper into his thoughts, a sinister voice sounded beside him, “Young… Master….Yuan….”
Chu Hechao reached out and grabbed Yuan Li’s shoulder, forcefully turning him around. His gaze was icy cold as he gestured toward his pants, indicating for Yuan Li to explain. “Don’t you have anything to say?”
“…,” Yuan Li snapped out of his daze, subconsciously smiling apologetically. “It’s my first time drinking the ceremonial wine. I was a bit nervous. General, I hope you won’t take offense.”
Chu Hechao sneered, not saying a word, but his meaning was clear: Do you think I would believe that?
Yuan Li simply poured another glass of wine and swiftly downed it, his slender neck bobbing as he swallowed. He handed the empty cup to Chu Hechao, calmly looking at him. “I speak the truth. General, you should hurry back and change your clothes.”
Silence filled the room, and no one dared to speak.
The servant holding the wine trembled, sweat dripping down, frightened.
Suddenly, Chu Hechao moved. He slowly stood up and looked down at Yuan Li.
“Sister-in-law has given me another gift,” he said, his thin lips curling, his eyes slightly narrowed. “When the opportunity arises, I will definitely repay sister-in-law in kind, one by one.”
After speaking, he turned and left.
Yuan Li watched his figure.
The large blade hanging at Chu Hechao’s waist swayed conspicuously with every step he took.
Suddenly, Chu Hechao stopped in his tracks. He turned his body unexpectedly and met Yuan Li’s gaze.
Chu Hechao’s eyes were as cold as an ancient well, as if he was smiling, yet seemingly expressionless. Eventually, he disappeared into the night.