After Guo Mao arrived in Ji County, he quickly adapted to the affairs of the Ministry of Government Affairs and developed good relationships with his colleagues.
He soon showcased his abilities and managed to persuade the remaining members of Cai Ji’s group, who were left behind when he escaped, to join Yuan Li’s command.
Since Cai Ji had abandoned these members, they were not highly regarded by him. Among them, those who were unwilling to follow Yuan Li left on their own.
Most strategists and attendants were opportunistic and held the idea of seeking refuge under a good master. They willingly became advisers and attendants under Yuan Li, continuing to handle the affairs of Guangyang County, which were previously handled by Cai Ji.
With the inclusion of these people, the burden on the Ministry of Government Affairs was somewhat alleviated.
In addition to conscripting soldiers, Yuan Li also recruited craftsmen.
He made it known that all craftsmen were welcome, regardless of their background. It was not just artisans and blacksmiths, but also craftsmen with expertise in agriculture, textiles, and water conservancy who were recruited without restrictions.
As long as they had sufficient skills, anyone could receive preferential treatment under his leadership.
However, there was a shortage of craftsmen, so those who met the criteria and were available were sent by Yuan Li to the Artifact Division to mass-produce the three-bed crossbows and the small crossbows known as “Divine Crossbows.” The few remaining blacksmiths were appointed by Yuan Li to create military equipment, horse stirrups, and horseshoes.
Yuan Li had always wanted to make horseshoes, but due to the scarcity of iron, he prioritized making horse stirrups. Now that there was more iron available, it was only natural to equip the warhorses with horseshoes, a divine tool.
Chu Hechao was also busy strengthening the defense in Youzhou and the border regions, investigating spies within Youzhou, and warning the Wuhuan and Hu people who had migrated into Youzhou.
They were all secretly preparing to face the huge changes that would occur after Emperor Jianyuan’s death.
Yuan Li also made time to visit the cattle, sheep, and pigs that could already be taken out to graze.
The cattle and sheep were driven to the grasslands to graze, while the pigs were left to forage on a mountain slope.
During winter, over 400 pregnant sows gave birth to more than 3,000 piglets, and by spring, 2,832 piglets had successfully survived, with 40% of them being female piglets.
The male piglets had already been castrated in February. After three months, they had grown fat and healthy. When they ran, their fat shook, and according to the convalescent soldiers who took care of them, the castrated pigs became more docile and lost much of their gamey smell. Their meat grew faster, and the food they consumed quickly transformed into fat.
Yuan Li looked around and was quite satisfied. He directly took away fifty pigs and had ten of them slaughtered that evening, hosting a grand feast with meat and wine to reward his subordinates and generals.
One reason was to reward everyone for their hard work, especially the officials from the Ministry of Government Affairs and the Artifact Division, as well as the three people who accompanied him, Guo Lin and the others. The other reason was simply to pay homage and satisfy his own appetite before the news of Emperor Jianyuan’s death arrived. After all, after Emperor Jianyuan’s death, the people would observe a three-month mourning period during which feasts, marriages, and the consumption of meat were prohibited.
Before three months of vegetarianism, they had to indulge in meat.
Upon learning that they didn’t have to work in the afternoon and could attend the feast with a whole roasted pig, Liu Jixin, Zhan Shaoning, and the others were almost moved to tears.
They rarely put aside their official duties, returning home early to rest and bathe. As dusk approached, they changed into clean clothes and rode their horses to Yuan Li’s manor.
Colleagues greeted and exchanged pleasantries with each other.
Wang Er, who trained soldiers, brought Guan Zhihuai along. Although Guan Zhihuai rarely smiled and had a somewhat displeased expression, he still nodded slightly in acknowledgment of Yang Zhongfa and Wang Er.
Cui Yan, who had been absent recently, looked at the lush trees and the beautiful scenery of the manor and couldn’t help but feel rejuvenated. He invited Yuan Dan and Yuan Lou to walk by the lakeside together.
“Wait,” Guo Mao walked over quickly from behind, wearing a smile on his face as he greeted the three of them respectfully. “Is this Mister Cui Yan? I have long admired you. Could I have the honor of accompanying you?”
Seeing his bold and confident demeanor, Cui Yan readily agreed, “Of course, my friend, please.”
The willow branches swayed gently as a breeze passed by. When the evening sun dyed the western sky red, the group slowly returned to their seats.
Today was a celebration, so they didn’t discuss official business. Yuan Li skipped the pleasantries and had the roasted pig served first.
Half of the people present were not lacking a piece of pork. However, when the roasted pig was divided into pieces and placed on their tables, the tantalizing aroma made their mouths water, and they felt ravenous.
As they fixed their gaze, they saw the pig with golden and glossy skin, crispy to the touch, and a perfect combination of lean and fat, exuding glistening oil and a rich, dominant meaty fragrance.
“Wait, is this really pork?” Zhan Shaoning had tasted many delicious dishes and naturally had eaten pork before, but he didn’t particularly like it because of its strong smell. He preferred venison and beef.
He had joined this grand feast just to join in the fun and take a break from his busy schedule. However, he didn’t expect that the sight of the roasted pig in front of him would awaken his appetite. Zhan Shaoning picked up a piece of meat and examined it carefully before putting it in his mouth.
As soon as the flavor of the roasted pig touched his taste buds, Zhan Shaoning’s eyes lit up. The pork in his mouth not only had no gamey taste, but it was also incredibly delicious and tender. Each bite was both fragrant and hot, making him want to swallow his tongue along with the meat.
Zhan Shaoning took another bite and looked up, only to see that everyone around him had stopped chatting and was now focused on eating the roasted meat.
Cui Yan was also sweating profusely from eating. After swallowing the meat in his mouth, he took a sip of wine, exhaled with satisfaction, and turned to Yuan Dan, saying, “Wen Han, am I mistaken, or does the pork from Lord’s house taste much better than any pork I’ve had before?”
Yuan Dan, unfazed, ate with an oily mouth and replied, “Le Jun has always had a way with these things. The pigs he raises have never had much gamey taste. They are the best and most robust pigs from Ruyang County. What we had in Ruyang County was the same kind of pork, but other pigs didn’t have this flavor.”
Cui Yan seemed to understand but also showed no particular interest in probing further. He comfortably squinted his eyes, raised his wine cup to drink with Yuan Dan.
Yuan Lou, who overheard their conversation, joined in, saying, “Mr. Cui, Le Jun told me that you used to live a carefree life at the foot of the mountain, enjoying tea and rain. These past two months have been busy. Have you been able to adapt?”
Cui Yan nodded happily, “I can adapt, I can adapt.”
He looked at the people toasting and feasting, some singing and dancing, and he also wanted to sing along. But he was shy and didn’t want to make a fuss, so he took a sip of wine and calmly said, “The previous busyness makes these short moments of leisure even more precious and joyful. Look at these esteemed gentlemen. If they were idle every day, would they be as content and joyful as they are now? Although my previous days were comfortable, compared to now, I prefer the present and even feel that it’s not busy enough.”
Yuan Dan: “…”
He looked at Cui Yan, dumbfounded, and dropped his chopsticks on the table.
Yuan Lou listened to the conversation, feeling a sense of respect. He raised his cup to Cui Yan, feeling guilty about his previous joy in avoiding official duties. “Compared to Mr. Cui, I have been too lazy.”
Feeling increasingly ashamed, Yuan Lou wished to apologize and make amends with Yuan Li immediately. Le Jun entrusted him with important tasks, so how could he be afraid of the workload?
When he left the Ministry of Government Affairs, he was so happy and rushed. If Yuan Li found out, he would be extremely disappointed.
Yuan Dan wanted to say if Cui Yan was just drunk and talking nonsense, but he watched Yuan Lou’s agreeing yet guilty expression.
This doesn’t seem right.
Yuan Dan twitched his lips.
He looked at the subordinates of General Chu Hechao on the opposite side.
Yang Zhongfa and He Lang, these two esteemed gentlemen spent their days drinking and playing, either accompanying their wives and children at home or fishing and spring outings. Compared to the subordinates of the general, each of them woke up earlier than a rooster and slept later than a dog.
And they called that being lazy?
Yuan Dan hesitated, then tactfully said, “Brother, Mr. Cui, don’t you think our days are already too busy? Shouldn’t we take it easy?”
Yuan Lou adjusted his expression and spoke with righteousness, “Wen Han, how can you think that way? Our busy schedule is Le Jun’s trust in us. When we came to Youzhou, we were determined to help Le Jun share the burden and make achievements. But now, after just five months, are we already slacking off?”
Yuan Dan, who had lost weight during the past two months of busyness, started to doubt whether he had been too lazy. He recalled his initial determination and felt ashamed. He lowered his head and admitted his mistake, “Brother, I know I was wrong. Starting tomorrow, I will work even harder.”
Yuan Lou nodded approvingly, “We have all not done well enough. We should learn more from Mr. Cui.”
The two brothers, after repenting, sincerely toasted Cui Yan again.
The atmosphere at the feast was too good, even Guan Zhihuai had drunk several bottles of wine with his colleagues, loosened his belt, and had a smile on his face.
He Lang asked, “General Guan, how have you been in the military camp? Are there any differences between Lord’s training methods and our camp’s methods?”
Upon hearing this, Guan Zhihuai frowned again and said in a deep voice, “His methods are better than ours.”
“Really?” Yang Zhongfa exclaimed, then laughed, “Then you should remember these methods and use them to train our soldiers when we return to the Northern Frontier.”
Guan Zhihuai’s heart sank even more. He stared at Yang Zhongfa, his eyes sharp. “Don’t you realize how serious this is?”
He lowered his voice and expressed his concerns about Yuan Li in just a few words.
However, Yang Zhongfa’s reaction was indifferent, and he sighed, “Old Guan, I advise you not to overthink it.”
Guan Zhihuai’s frown deepened. “How can I not think about it?”
“You’re thinking about it for nothing,” Yang Zhongfa said. “The General and Lord are as close as family. If you keep going like this, you’ll only anger the General.”
Guan Zhihuai’s anger surged to his face, but he forcibly suppressed it. He snorted coldly, “Yang Zhongfa, it seems you’ve been blinded by temporary peace!”
Yang Zhongfa was not angry. He swirled his wine cup, his gaze distant, recalling the scene where Yuan Li had predicted the heavy rain.
Even though more than a month had passed, he still felt fear and terror whenever he thought about it, causing goosebumps to cover his entire body.
Guan Zhihuai didn’t understand.
He didn’t understand the feelings of those who had witnessed Yuan Li’s supernatural abilities firsthand, the shock they experienced, and the deep admiration and worship hidden in their hearts.
“A month ago, in mid-April, there was continuous rain for three months in Youzhou,” Yang Zhongfa whispered, “At that time, I was with the General. It was rumored that the rain was brought by the Lord for Youzhou, but it was and wasn’t.”
Guan Zhihuai’s face hardened. “Guan doesn’t believe that there are people in this world who can bring rain through prayer.”
Yang Zhongfa seemed to ignore his words and continued, “A moment before the rain fell, Lord had a premonition of its arrival. He told us that in a moment, there would be heavy rain. At that time, I, like you, didn’t believe it. But a moment later, the downpour began.”
Guan Zhihuai’s expression turned to astonishment for the first time, and he instinctively said, “That’s impossible!”
Yang Zhongfa said, “At that time, several Wuwan tribal leaders were present, and even a lightning bolt passed above the Lord’s head. Guan Zhihuai, every word I say is true. You can ask He Lang and Wang Er, ask our subordinates. Whether you believe it or not, it’s the truth!”
Guan Zhihuai stared at Yang Zhongfa, his expression stern, momentarily speechless.
Yang Zhongfa softened his expression, patted his shoulder, then turned and clinked glasses with He Lang.
The roasted pigs were just appetizers. After everyone ate to their satisfaction, Yuan Li smiled mysteriously and said, “Next, we have stir-fried dishes. Make sure to save some room.”
“Stir-fried dishes?” the others asked in confusion. “Are they local dishes from Youzhou?”
“I’m from Youzhou, but I’ve never heard of ‘stir-fried dishes’ in Youzhou.”
A few days ago, Chu Hechao had tasted the flavor of stir-fried dishes. It was a dish cooked in an iron wok. Chu Hechao had learned for the first time that iron could be used not only as a weapon but also for cooking. The resulting dishes were unique and unforgettable.
He enjoyed the wine, listened to the curious questions of others, and smiled even more.
Yang Zhongfa exclaimed loudly, “Lord Yuan, don’t keep us in suspense. What exactly are these ‘stir-fried dishes’?”
Yuan Li didn’t intentionally delay and ordered the dishes to be brought out.
Two iron woks were set up in the kitchen, and with the availability of iron woks for stir-frying, the cooking methods expanded. Yuan Li guided the cooks to make a stir-fried meat dish and a braised pork dish. The cooks quickly grasped the use of the iron wok.
Due to the lack of rock sugar and refined sugar, sweetgrass or honey was used as a substitute for sweetness in the dishes. Due to the shortage of ingredients, the flavors were not as wonderful as in later generations. However, for the people of Northern Zhou accustomed to steaming and roasting in clay pots, these stir-fried dishes were eye-opening and filled them with pleasant surprise.
Everyone dug into the dishes stir-fried in the iron woks and found the fragrant flavors irresistible. Even those who couldn’t eat much ended up having an extra bowl of rice, not to mention the generals who had large appetites.
In a break from his devouring, Yang Zhongfa jokingly said to Chu Hechao, “If my family had a suitable daughter, I would have considered kidnapping Lord Yuan to be my son-in-law.”
Chu Hechao sneered, “You don’t even need to consider that.”
He was about to drink another cup of wine to calm his temper when Lin Tian, who was beside Yuan Li, approached him and whispered, “General, my lord advises you to drink less.”
Chu Hechao raised an eyebrow and looked at Yuan Li. Yuan Li was looking at him, his brows furrowed and his mouth slightly pursed, appearing unhappy.
“Do you even control how much I drink?” Chu Hechao muttered to himself, sneering. He put down his wine cup lazily and said, “Alright, I got it. You can go back now.”
Lin Tian saluted and quietly retreated.
Yang Zhongfa didn’t hear what they were saying and asked curiously, “What’s going on?”
Chu Hechao mumbled vaguely, “My sister-in-law doesn’t want me to drink too much.”
Yang Zhongfa had always called Yuan Li his little sister-in-law and didn’t find anything wrong with it, but he was surprised. “Your little sister-in-law even cares about that?”
Chu Hechao smirked. “Yeah.”
Yang Zhongfa, annoyed by his wife’s control over his drinking, sympathized, “Do you really listen, General?”
“I do,” Chu Hechao tapped the table with his fingers, smiling meaningfully. “If I don’t, would I still have these things to eat?”
Yang Zhongfa suddenly realized, “You’re right.”
Everyone enjoyed the grand feast, and afterward, Yuan Li presented each person with a small pig.
Ten days later, merchants from Xuzhou and Yangzhou set foot on the land of Ji County.
They had come for the soap and brought not only a large sum of money but also something specially delivered by Ouyang Ting for Yuan Li—five carts filled with sugarcane from the south.