… There is one more person worth seeking refuge with, and that is Chen Wang, Chen Liu.
However, Xiang Hongyun quickly dismissed Chen Wang as an option.
Firstly, Chen Wang was already old and had four sons vying for power, making it a complicated situation. Secondly, he was like a duck on land, greatly disliking water, while the rivers and waterways in the Jiangdong region were intricate and extensive.
After careful consideration, Xiang Hongyun narrowed it down to two individuals: Governor Wu Shanshi of Yizhou and Governor Yuan Li of Youzhou.
But Xiang Hongyun soon ruled out Yuan Li.
He was merely curious about Yuan Li. Being young, Yuan Li had ascended to the position of a provincial governor at the age of nineteen, and when the news spread, people across the realm ridiculed the Chu family for being foolish. Xiang Hongyun himself had faced numerous doubts and hardships due to his young age, so he could somewhat empathize with Yuan Li.
However, Xiang Hongyun was quite arrogant himself, looking down on the common people who held prejudices against talented individuals based on their age. Despite the empathy, Yuan Li had not yet reached a point where he could attract Xiang Hongyun’s attention.
After contemplating for a moment, he decided to go to Yizhou and seek refuge with Governor Wu Shanshi.
After faithfully sending a letter to Qin Meng on behalf of Qin Pei, Xiang Hongyun left another letter and packed his belongings before embarking on the journey north.
However, while passing through Yanzhou, he encountered Zhang Liangdong, a great scholar who had fled from Luoyang.
Naturally, one would pay a visit upon encountering a great scholar. After visiting Zhang Liangdong, Xiang Hongyun learned that Zhang Liangdong was heading to Youzhou as well.
Xiang Hongyun had doubts and asked, “Master, your reputation as a scholar is renowned throughout the realm, and wherever you go, the local governors will treat you well. Your students are also well-off in Qingzhou, Yangzhou, and other areas. Why travel such a long distance to Youzhou?”
It was already midsummer, and the heat was unbearable. Zhang Liangdong wiped away his sweat while sitting in the carriage, and his beard was dampened by the sweat. He smiled and said, “I have had correspondence with Ouyang Ting and Yuan Li. As an old man, I also have some understanding of the situation in the realm. Although my students are filial, they are not rulers of a region. I don’t want to cause trouble for them. Although Youzhou is located in a remote area, Yuan Li has governed it well, and it is currently flourishing. When I was idle at home before, he had invited me to visit Youzhou several times. Although I was tempted, I never acted on it. Now, my wish is finally fulfilled…”
Perhaps because Yuan Li was a disciple that Zhang Liangdong had missed out on, he could never forget him. Whenever Yuan Li was mentioned, Zhang Liangdong couldn’t help but praise him, “Yuan Le Jun is someone I know well. I know what kind of person he is. This child has a pure heart, treats people sincerely and kindly, and cares for the people of the realm. His own abilities are also praiseworthy. Although he is young, his achievements are remarkable. I am taking my family to seek refuge with him, and I am at ease.”
Xiang Hongyun nodded thoughtfully.
Initially, he thought that Zhang Liangdong’s constant praise of Yuan Li in the capital was a political maneuver to establish Yuan Li’s reputation in the central government. But now it seemed that Zhang Liangdong was sincerely praising Yuan Li.
Zhang Liangdong also had to pass through Yizhou, so the two of them continued their journey together. After spending a few days together, Zhang Liangdong grew fond of Xiang Hongyun and invited him to temporarily stay in Youzhou. After some consideration, Xiang Hongyun accepted the invitation.
In the following half month, the two of them got along quite well. Zhang Liangdong grew more and more fond of Xiang Hongyun and eventually accepted him as his disciple.
Yuan Li could finally breathe a sigh of relief for the time being.
From April to July, they had spent three months thoroughly investigating the spies and assassins within Youzhou, covering all directions from Ji County outward.
They were startled by what they discovered. They found many individuals with questionable identities and some Huren who oppressed the people of Youzhou.
Yuan Li and Chu Hechao dealt decisively with these individuals. Their stance was clear: they would rather make mistakes than tolerate wrongdoing.
After conducting an internal investigation, the garrison at the borders of Youzhou also strengthened their forces.
Emperor Jianyuan was deceased, and Li Li had begun to commit atrocities. The various states and nobles were beginning to make their moves. Yuan Li had no reservations and, employing swift and decisive measures, had effectively established a solid defense line in Youzhou, isolating it from the chaos outside.
Despite the tumultuous events outside and the refugees fleeing in all directions, the people of Youzhou lived peacefully. During the summer agricultural break, they began learning from the provincial governor how to compost and make fertilizer.
In January of this year, Yuan Li built public toilets in Ji County and had people regularly clean the excrement to produce fertilizer. At first, the local residents were not accustomed to using the toilets, but gradually, they realized the benefits of convenience. The public toilets spread from Ji County to the countryside and were adopted by other county magistrates. Slowly, the practice spread throughout Youzhou.
When it was time for spring planting, Yuan Li encouraged the people to use compost and fertilizer. Experimental fields were selected in various locations, and grains were planted using the fertilizer.
By the end of May, the seedlings had grown, but the effects of the fertilizer were not yet apparent. By June, they had surpassed the neighboring fields by a palm’s height, and the people were already puzzled. By July, the difference in crop growth was even more pronounced. The grains in Yuan Li’s experimental fields were a whole head taller than those in other fields and exceptionally lush.
The common people whispered in private, saying that it was all because the provincial governor was virtuous and cared for the people that the Land God favored him, causing the crops in his fields to grow better than others’.
Upon hearing these rumors, Yuan Li couldn’t help but laugh and cry. Before the rumors became even more exaggerated, he had people spread the word that it was the effect of fertilizer.
The so-called fertilizer was the product of composted excrement.
Yuan Li also sent the wounded soldiers who had learned about composting to explain to the villagers in various villages what fertilizer was and how to compost and use it.
After the people learned that their excellent crop growth was due to their own excrement, they were half skeptical, but the excrement in the toilets started to be stolen from time to time.
Yuan Li had no idea how many people had stolen the excrement and started composting with it. All he knew was that in these few days, even when he went to the countryside, he couldn’t see any filthy things on the road, and the air within a radius of one hundred li became noticeably cleaner.
Liu Ji and others were amazed every time they inspected the crops in the fields. They felt that the rural areas of Youzhou were even cleaner than Luoyang city.
In addition to fertilizer, the new recruits under Yuan Li had also made some progress in their training.
He trained the soldiers according to scientific methods, rather than simply squeezing them. He would give them regular rest time, chat with them, sing songs, and allow those with special talents among the soldiers to perform their skills. This not only relieved the soldiers’ tension but also made the army more harmonious, united, and proactive.
On their rest days, the soldiers could wash their clothes, air their bedding, and after each rest day, their spirits visibly became invigorated.
Guan Zhihuai silently observed the changes in the soldiers.
The longer he stayed in Yuan Li’s camp, the more silent he became. However, he saw and heard more, and he learned many things.
For example, when he first heard about giving the soldiers rest and engaging them in recreational activities, he wanted to stop it, thinking it was a waste of time. However, after seeing the results, he had nothing to say.
Yuan Le Jun’s training methods were unprecedented and unheard of. These unconventional and peculiar methods, in Guan Zhihuai’s eyes, were effective to a surprising degree, making him doubt the effectiveness of his own previous training methods.
In addition to rest and recreation, Yuan Li also held a competition among the new recruits to test what they had learned in the past two months and to identify talented individuals.
Competitions were essential in the military as they could stimulate soldiers’ competitiveness and potential, creating a healthy competitive environment.
To motivate the soldiers to give their all, Yuan Li established a set of reward rules.
The top fifty soldiers in the competition would become Yuan Li’s personal guards. The top three would receive additional rewards: the first-place winner would receive five jin of gold, the second-place winner three jin of gold, and the third-place winner one jin of gold.
The participants in the competition were not restricted by their background, age, or reputation; it was purely based on their abilities.
Such rules were not uncommon in later times and were even somewhat similar to the imperial examination system that would emerge. However, in an era where advancement was monopolized by the gentry and one’s background was a significant constraint, the opportunity to advance based solely on one’s abilities was a strong and powerful impact, causing all the new recruits, numbering one hundred thousand, to boil with excitement.
They couldn’t believe it and doubted whether it was just a rumor. But upon learning that it was true, the soldiers were ecstatic.
The cheers in the camp were about to collapse the tents. Many soldiers who came from poor backgrounds, enduring the hardships of rigorous training every day, leaned against their beds and stifled their voices, shedding tears of excitement.
Among the one hundred thousand soldiers, many had abilities and ambitions but had no way forward except to join the military. They realized clearly that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for advancement.
It was truly rare, incredibly rare.
The rarity of it kept their emotions unsettled for a long time, to the point that their breathing became heavy and their spirits were heightened.
The chance to become personal guards of the provincial governor regardless of their background was more thrilling than gold. Some of the soldiers had made up their minds to strive for a place in the top fifty.
As long as they could become personal guards of the provincial governor, there would be a qualitative leap in their status. If they performed well and became strong enough, there might be a chance that the provincial governor would notice them, and they could fight in battles, achieve merits, and be awarded official positions by the governor.
This could change their background.
Even the ordinary soldiers who didn’t have such lofty aspirations and didn’t understand the significance of the competition were also excited.
Gold, that was real gold. Whether it was five jin or one jin of gold, it was money that ordinary people could never earn in their lifetime. Not to mention earning it, most common people had probably never even seen gold.
And now, the opportunity to obtain gold was right in front of them, so they were determined to give it their all.
Since there were too many soldiers, totaling one hundred thousand, Yuan Li first had each squad select one person through internal competition. The squad leaders didn’t participate in the internal competition but competed with other squad leaders for spots.
After each squad selected one person, the competition proceeded from small to large, from groups of ten to one hundred, one thousand, and ten thousand, selecting one hundred elite soldiers from each group of ten thousand.
The squad leaders, platoon leaders, and company commanders were exempted from competing with ordinary soldiers and squad leaders for spots.
To ensure fair selection of the soldiers, the squad leaders and other military officers would be randomly reassigned and supervise each other. For example, a squad leader would be assigned to supervise the soldiers of another squad leader to maximize fairness.
Yuan Li also made secondary preparations by having someone stay by the sidelines every day. If any soldier felt that things were unfair, they could report it to their representative.
In this way, the selection process began among the one hundred thousand new recruits, and all the soldiers were eager to participate in the competition in ten days.
After hearing about Yuan Li’s plan, Yang Zhongfa specifically ran up to him and gave him a thumbs-up, admiring him wholeheartedly. “You’re amazing, Lord Yuan.”
After that, he rubbed his hands together and pleaded with Yuan Li to take him along to watch the competition.
Yuan Li smiled and said, “If Master Yang wants to come, then come.”
After receiving approval, Yang Zhongfa was overjoyed. He turned to He Lang, who had come along with him, and grinned. “Lord Yuan, can I…”
Before He Lang could finish his sentence, Yuan Li nodded.
Afterward, Yuan Li discovered that not only Chu Hechao and his subordinates were interested in the competition, but also his subordinates who diligently performed their duties and were as busy as 996 workers. They were extremely interested in the competition as well.
Yuan Li waved his hand and decided to bring everyone to watch the military camp competition in ten days.
In the evening, while chopping vegetables in the kitchen and learning cooking from Yuan Li, Chu Hechao asked in a low voice, “How did you come up with this idea?”
Yuan Li replied, “Because I’m exceptionally talented.”
“…” The man became snarky again. Stone knife cut through the vegetables, and he chuckled, lowering his voice. “I didn’t realize it.”
Yuan Li secretly rolled his eyes.
Chu Hechao felt like he was going crazy. He found Yuan Li’s eye-rolling adorable. His expression became somewhat strange, and his gaze at Yuan Li was as if he had been drugged by a love potion.
A chill ran down Yuan Li’s back, and he couldn’t help but ask, “Why are you looking at me like that?”
Chu Hechao couldn’t say, “I like the way you roll your eyes,” so he pretended to be impatient and turned his face away, blurting out, “You haven’t wiped off your eye boogers.”
Yuan Li: “…”
He touched his eye, but he didn’t find anything. Yuan Li took a deep breath, suppressing his anger. He stared at the man’s pert buttocks as he cooked, daringly kicked him and then ran out.
Chu Hechao’s temple bulged. “Yuan Le Jun!”
During official duties, Liu Jixin and others discussed the military camp competition.
Guo Mao took a sip of tea and sighed, “Lord Yuan is truly benevolent.”
As someone who didn’t have a good background and had to marry into a magistrate’s family even to learn literacy, Guo Mao understood the significance of the competition very well. He knew what kind of opportunity Lord Yuan had given to the soldiers. Because of this understanding, Guo Mao’s emotions were complex, and he even felt envy and jealousy for the fifty soldiers who would eventually become Lord Yuan’s personal guards.
Why didn’t he have such an opportunity despite his hard work and enduring many humiliations and mockery to reach this point?
However, Guo Mao quickly adjusted his mood and regained his composure. He had already sworn allegiance to Yuan Li and was fortunate to be under his command. Moreover, Guo Mao had an ambition that he couldn’t share with outsiders.
His gaze swept over the people in the Ministry of Government Affairs, especially Liu Jixin.
To put it bluntly, Guo Mao wanted to be the one who received the most favor from Yuan Li. Even if he couldn’t be the most favored, he wanted to be the most considerate, the one who understood Yuan Li’s needs the best, and the one who spoke the most pleasing words.
But for the sake of camaraderie with his colleagues, Guo Mao wouldn’t voice this thought.
After hearing his sigh, Liu Jixin and Zheng Rong nodded in understanding, feeling the pain of having a disadvantaged background that made advancement difficult.
But once the topic passed, Zheng Rong couldn’t help but say, “The soldiers themselves aren’t fortunate; it’s fortunate that they encountered Lord Yuan. Brother Guo, you don’t know how tough the training is for the soldiers in the military camp.”
Guo Mao burst into laughter. “Look at your words, Brother Zheng. You seem to have experienced it yourself.”
Zheng Rong showed a pained expression.
Wang Er, despite being busy, didn’t forget to train Zheng Rong. After months of persistent training, Zheng Rong appeared much stronger than when he first arrived in Youzhou. Even his too-pale skin had darkened considerably. Among the group of literati in the Ministry of Government Affairs who didn’t see much sunlight, he now looked like a military general.
After the laughter and banter, everyone focused on handling government affairs, eagerly awaiting the day of the camp competition.
Time flew by, and soon, the highly anticipated day of the military camp competition arrived.