On August 8th, it was a sunny day.
Flags fluttered around the training ground, and the selected one thousand soldiers stood in perfect formation at the center of the field.
Under the scorching sun, they were quickly sunburned, their skin turning red, and sweat rolled down their bodies.
The soldiers nervously looked ahead at the dignitaries seated under the canopy. Many of them swallowed their saliva and stood as straight as possible, trying to appear more imposing.
The soldiers in the front row, who could see the faces of the dignitaries clearly, stared intensely at the provincial governor seated in the middle.
The outskirts of the training ground were filled with more soldiers who, although not selected, were curious about the competition. Yuan Li instructed Wang Er and Guan Zhihuai to take them to watch from outside the training ground, to fuel their longing and admiration, and to cheer and encourage from the sidelines.
Yuan Li had a strange feeling.
His heart rate slightly increased, and he reached out to touch the armrest of his seat. Suddenly, he found this feeling to be truly wonderful.
It was somewhat addictive.
A thousand may sound few, but in reality, it was a considerable number. Especially when these one thousand soldiers stood in the same posture, the gaps between each person aligned perfectly, and the rows appeared as if they formed a straight line, creating a magnificent scene.
Seated on Yuan Li’s right side were Chu Hechao and his subordinates. On Yuan Li’s left side, Guo Mao swiftly secured the position next to the Lord.
At this moment, Guo Mao held a feather fan and considerately fanned Yuan Li, praising him, “Lord, our new soldiers have only trained for a few months, yet they possess an awe-inspiring presence. I’m afraid that only Lord’s new soldiers can achieve this level of excellence in the entire world.”
Basking in the cool breeze, courtesy of Yuan Li, Chu Hechao glanced at Guo Mao.
Guo Mao quickly smiled and said, “General’s troops are also renowned as formidable.”
Yuan Li couldn’t help but laugh. “Indeed, it is praiseworthy that they have achieved such results in just a few months. Thanks to the efforts of Wang Meng and General Guan. However, compared to the battle-hardened soldiers under General Chu’s command, these new recruits still have a long way to go.”
Wang Meng was the new name Yuan Li gave to Wang Er.
Wang Er’s credit was extraordinary for training the new recruits to this level. But when Yuan Li said these words, it wasn’t just modesty. These new recruits had yet to experience war and bloodshed. Even if they were skilled and physically strong, they couldn’t compare to the soldiers under Chu Hechao’s command, who had been tempered in multiple battles.
But they would eventually step onto the battlefield and become a truly elite force.
Yuan Li named the military camp competition the “Youzhou First Tournament Cup.” The competition consisted of four events: wrestling, weighted marathon, wilderness survival and ambush, and swimming.
These four events assessed the soldiers’ strength, endurance, knowledge of wilderness survival, and swimming skills, which were not typically strong suits for soldiers in the northern region. The competition focused on the soldiers’ individual combat abilities.
The first event was wrestling. The one thousand soldiers were paired off, and the winner was determined by who could throw their opponent to the ground. In this round alone, five hundred soldiers would be quickly eliminated.
With a command from Wang Er, the soldiers quickly found their opponents. Once they received Yuan Li’s approval, the strong and robust soldiers roared lowly and pounced on their opponents.
The training ground immediately became a bustling scene of intense combat.
These soldiers who had made it to this stage were the cream of the crop, having surpassed numerous others step by step from squad to company. None of them were paper tigers. Whether they relied on pure strength or techniques, the wrestling and grappling of these soldiers were all worth watching.
Soldiers paired off, gripping each other’s arms and locking their legs, using all their strength, their faces turning red, and their necks bulging. The collision of such formidable strength ignited the blood and filled onlookers with excitement.
Kong Ran encountered a formidable opponent. He gritted his teeth, his veins popping, determined to throw his opponent to the ground.
He absolutely couldn’t lose!
That’s what he thought in his heart.
But as he looked at his opponent’s flushed face and tightly clenched teeth, he knew that his opponent also didn’t want to lose.
No one wanted to lose here; all the soldiers exerted their utmost effort.
The weather was hot, and even hotter than the weather was the cheers and applause from the soldiers outside the training ground. “Take him down, good!”
“Trip him! Attack his lower body!”
At first, no one dared to shout, afraid of disturbing the dignitaries and incurring their displeasure. But the captains and centurions understood the intention of the provincial governor and took the lead in shouting. After a few shouts, the soldiers were motivated.
“Hold on! Steady your lower body!”
“You’re about to win, hurry!”
The people under the canopy also became excited. Yang Zhongfa was so overwhelmed with excitement that he stood up from his armchair, clapping vigorously and shouting, “Great!”
He Lang was also caught up in the excitement and stood up, craning his neck to watch. “Wow, they’re really impressive!”
Yuan Li couldn’t take his eyes off the scene, feeling nervous himself, beads of sweat rolling down his forehead.
Chu Hechao was also sweating, but unfortunately, he couldn’t take off his clothes in front of everyone to cool down. He glanced to the side and became annoyed when he saw Guo Mao leisurely fanning himself with a feather fan. He stretched out his hand and said, “Give it to me.”
Guo Mao turned his gaze away from the field and looked at the general’s hand, then at the feather fan in his hand. He wisely handed the feather fan to the general.
Chu Hechao took the fan and vigorously fanned, with the breeze brushing past Yuan Li and lifting a few strands of hair at his temple. The beads of sweat on his face paused, and Yuan Li immediately felt a refreshing coolness.
He quickly moved his chair closer to the right, openly saying, “General, you’ve worked hard. May I borrow some cool breeze?”
There were people all around, and their every move was being watched by many pairs of eyes. The more attention they received, the less they dared to reveal anything in front of others. Chu Hechao’s gaze swept across Yuan Li’s fair neck and the beads of sweat hanging from it, then lazily retracted his eyes, looking at the field, and asked, “When you borrow something, will you return it, my sister-in-law?”
Those who heard this had nothing to say.
Was the general joking with the provincial governor?
Many people secretly pricked up their ears, wanting to hear what these two influential figures in Youzhou would talk about.
Yuan Li’s ears twitched, and he smiled indifferently. “Then I’ll switch with you in a moment and let the general borrow my cool breeze as well.”
“Good,” Chu Hechao replied.
They watched the training ground and exchanged a few meaningless words. After a while, Yuan Li took the feather fan from Chu Hechao’s hand and took over the task of fanning.
Because of the intense heat, Chu Hechao didn’t wear the annoying gloves. When the feather fan was handed over, their fingertips inevitably touched a few times.
In such a public setting, this simple and ordinary touch became secretive and romantic. Yuan Li raised his gaze and locked eyes with Chu Hechao for a moment before quickly averting his gaze.
With just a few strokes of the fan, the winners and losers among the soldiers on the training ground had already been determined.
The victorious five hundred soldiers stood there panting, some still having some energy left and looking relatively relaxed. However, some were pale-faced and nearing exhaustion.
Kong Ran panted heavily, supporting his knees to recover his strength. Covered in sweat, some of which dripped into his eyes, he wiped his eyes and suddenly felt an overwhelming joy.
He had won!
After allowing the five hundred soldiers a short rest, someone brought them thirty-pound backpacks. The backpacks contained food, water skins, fire starters, cooking utensils, tools for building camps, sharpening stones, and oil for maintaining weapons and armor. Finally, there were their own weapons.
In addition to these, there were also some medicinal herbs.
These were the things soldiers would carry with them during expeditions. They needed to put on their leather armor and carry the thirty-pound backpacks while running to the foot of the Pan Mountain outside Ji County within an hour.
Whoever reached the foot of the mountain within the hour would win, while those who didn’t make it would be eliminated.
The soldiers already knew what they had to do. They quickly put on their leather armor, shouldered their backpacks, and rushed toward Pan Mountain.
Under the canopy, Yuan Li and the others rode ahead and arrived at the foot of the mountain in advance.
When they arrived, there was still a long time before the hour was up. Everyone tidied up and patiently waited for the arrival of the soldiers under the shade of the trees.
It was much cooler at the bottom of the mountain compared to the training ground, and Yuan Li felt relieved. He was worried that if the soldiers continued to be exposed to the scorching sun, some of them might suffer from heatstroke.
In their free time, Yuan Li asked Guo Mao about the southern merchants. “They’ve been in Youzhou for a month now. Are they in a hurry to return?”
“They were originally eager to go back, but after the death of the late emperor, they also realized the danger of returning now. They didn’t need me to say much; they begged to stay in Youzhou,” Guo Mao said with a smiling face. “The white sugar in the workshop is ready. The white sugar made from the sugarcane brought in by five carts is actually limited. I estimate it won’t be enough for them to buy. So I only took out a small portion to give them a glimpse. Lord, you have no idea how many things those merchants have sent me in their eagerness to buy the white sugar. But privately, I thought it would be better to tease their appetites a bit. The North is not suitable for cultivating sugarcane. If possible, I want these merchants to grow sugarcane for us in the South and establish a stable and long-term cooperation.”
After Emperor Jianyuan’s death, Yuan Li entrusted the matter of selling white sugar to Guo Mao. Guo Mao was a shrewd person and knew how to talk. Even cunning merchants might not be able to outwit him, and it seemed to be the case now.
Yuan Li smiled and joked, “Oh? What good things did they send you?”
“Gold, silver, jewelry, silk, beautiful women,” Guo Mao took out a piece of paper from his body and respectfully handed it to Yuan Li. “Although these things are common, their total value is considerable. Although I accepted them, I dare not keep them for myself. I have recorded everything on this paper, including the beautiful women the merchants sent. I have arranged for them to stay outside the mansion.”
Yuan Li casually glanced at it. “To restrain oneself and serve the public*, you can handle these matters. I trust you.”
* It means being self-disciplined and putting the needs of the public or the greater good above one’s own desires or interests. It emphasizes the virtue of selflessness and dedication to serving others or the community.
After that, he teased, “Placing the beautiful women outside the mansion, are you afraid of angering your wife?”
Guo Mao’s wife was known for her fierce temper within a hundred-li radius. If Guo Mao dared to bring a beautiful woman home, he would surely be beaten and kicked by his wife before being kicked out of the house.
Yuan Li admired Guo Mao’s wife’s temper. Despite Guo Mao’s ruthless tactics, his moral bottom line was better than that of many righteous gentlemen. It was thanks to his wife that he had the opportunity to learn to read and become Yuan Li’s counselor, and even after becoming a counselor, he didn’t forget to repay the favor. He always kept his wife in mind and conscientiously fulfilled his role as a good son-in-law, remaining virtuous to the end.
Guo Mao touched his ear with lingering fear. “Lord, I still want my ears!”
Yuan Li burst into laughter.