Chu Hechao’s voice remained calm, asking the question without any ripples.
But it felt as sharp as a sudden thunderstorm outside, directly targeting Yuan Li.
In the darkness, Chu Hechao’s gaze seemed to be fixed tightly on Yuan Li.
This was a good question.
The good thing was that Yuan Li didn’t know if he knew or not.
Yuan Li smiled bitterly without a sound, quickly calming down.
He left behind the scene that had just unfolded in his mind and focused on understanding the purpose behind Chu Hechao’s question at this moment.
Yuan Li truly didn’t know where the goods that Yang Zhongfa lost were.
Thanks to Chu Hechao’s constant presence, he suspected that Wang Er and the missing goods might be related, but he had no time to verify the truth.
“What goods did Yang Zhongfa lose?”
Yuan Li’s voice was hoarse and gentle, as if just waking up, blending with the sound of rain, like spring water flowing into a creek. “The General and Mr. Yang always mentioned that a batch of goods was lost, but they never informed me when and how they were lost, nor what the goods were. Mr. Yang said that the batch of goods was military funds, and according to the laws of our dynasty, theft or interception of military funds and intercepting urgent messages within a hundred li are capital crimes. They can even implicate nine generations and harm innocent bystanders. I’ll be honest, General, I don’t have the audacity to send someone to intercept military funds.”
Yuan Li sighed, “Since the General’s military funds were stolen, why didn’t you report it to the court and lead your troops to search extensively?”
This was precisely why Yuan Li wanted to secretly meet Wang Er without Chu Hechao’s knowledge.
If Wang Er truly had taken the military funds hostage, it would be a capital offense, and even Yuan Li’s family, who sheltered the disaster-stricken people, would be implicated.
But even though they could handle the matter openly, Chu Hechao chose to keep it secret and investigate quietly.
Either he was certain that the person who intercepted the goods was related to Yuan Li, and out of consideration for Yuan Li being his “sister-in-law,” he chose to act in such a discreet manner.
Or that batch of goods wasn’t military funds at all and had an unknown origin, so Chu Hechao could only seize the opportunity to pry into it.
Given Chu Hechao’s cold and ruthless temperament, it seemed more likely to be the latter.
Yuan Li even entertained a bold thought.
Perhaps Chu Hechao, just like those disaster-stricken people, was planning to seize this batch of goods and pass them off as military funds, acting as a bandit!
Inside the narrow wooden house, rainwater leaked from the corner of the eaves, dripping incessantly.
Yuan Li couldn’t see Chu Hechao’s expression clearly. In the silence, the man’s fingers seemed to be lightly tapping on his thigh, contemplating the words he had spoken.
After a while, Chu Hechao finally spoke. He said lightly, “That batch of goods consists of ancient calligraphy and paintings, golden silk, and cloth.”
This definitely wasn’t normal military funds. By telling Yuan Li this, Chu Hechao was essentially admitting that those disaster-stricken people didn’t steal military funds.
Yuan Li subtly breathed a sigh of relief and remained composed. “I would like to ask, General, if this batch of goods were to be transported to the northern frontier, how long would it provide rations for the 130,000 soldiers in the north?”
Chu Hechao replied, “If we tighten our belts, it would be enough for two months.”
“And what happens after those two months?” Yuan Li pressed on.
Chu Hechao’s voice turned cold. “I returned to Luoyang precisely for the military funds. Even if the court delays, they won’t delay it for another two months.”
Yuan Li pressed on, “But what if the court truly doesn’t allocate the rations?”
Chu Hechao sneered, about to say something, but then he heard Yuan Li continue, “Or what if they allocate the rations, but only three or four-fifths of the usual military supplies?”
Chu Hechao fell silent.
“General, you are in the northern frontier. You understand better than I do the difficulties of supplying rations over a thousand miles and how crucial logistical transportation is,” Yuan Li pondered where to make his point, speaking each word with utmost caution, “Several light combat vehicles, several heavy transport vehicles, the armored plating of these vehicles needs maintenance and supplies. The provision of rations for 130,000 soldiers, equipment and material supplies, and the expenses of the officers—all of these alone cost a fortune every day.”
Yuan Li paused, his voice sinking as he continued, “When transporting military funds to the north, the weapons, vehicles, camp materials, livestock, and forage for the oxen and horses, starting from the loading of the carts, the escorting teams and the animals will consume a portion of the military supplies. The road to delivering rations is not smooth sailing either. Vehicle damages, horse fatigue, enemy harassment, the need for timely replenishment of armor, arrows, crossbows, polearms, and shields—all of these require attention. Ultimately, at least sixty percent* of the military supplies sent to the front will be lost. Even if it’s only once a year that military supplies are sent to the northern frontier, the cost is enormous. And this doesn’t even include the layers of officials lining their pockets and the embezzlement by the military supply officers.”
As Yuan Li uttered the last word, his voice had become incredibly low, almost drowned out by the wind and rain, unless one listened carefully.
Chu Hechao’s eyes flickered with astonishment. He couldn’t help but sit up straighter, staring intently in Yuan Li’s direction in the darkness. “How do you know all this?”
Yuan Li pulled out the prepared excuse, “My father arranged for a veteran from the Bingzhou region to be my martial arts instructor. He used to be part of the escort teams for delivering rations over long distances.”
Chu Hechao couldn’t determine whether to believe it or not, “Are you trying to tell me that the court won’t be so concerned about the military supplies in my northern frontier?”
Yuan Li restrained himself from rolling his eyes. Chu Hechao was clearly asking a question he already knew the answer to. “What do you think?”
Chu Hechao chuckled twice, with a hint of mockery, and remained silent.
“If you think the court will be concerned, then you wouldn’t be holding onto that batch of goods so tightly,” Yuan Li said, “You are a great general. But allow me, based on my seniority as your sister-in-law, to speak a few words to you.”
Chu Hechao sneered inexplicably and said casually, “Please, sister-in-law, go ahead.”
Yuan Li cleared his throat, and then he heard the sound of the man picking up a cup and swallowing tea. He was already thirsty and couldn’t help but swallow his saliva along. “General, may I trouble you to pass me a cup of water?”
Chu Hechao felt around the table, and the only cup on the table that had been used was the one he had used. He casually rinsed the cup with some cold tea from the pot and poured a cup of water to hand to Yuan Li.
After drinking enough water, Yuan Li wiped his mouth and assumed an elder’s posture. “General, if you haven’t made plans for the future, even if you find that batch of goods, it will only be robbing the west wall to fix the east wall. If those goods are used up as military funds and it’s still not enough afterwards, are you prepared to rob again?”
“Indeed, sister-in-law,” Chu Hechao displayed an unusually patient and attentive attitude. “I am foolish, do you have a brilliant plan?”
Instead of answering yes or no, Yuan Li changed the subject and asked Chu Hechao about the location of Chu Wang’s fiefdom, the number of households in the food villages, and the annual rice production.
Chu Hechao uttered two words, “Youzhou.”
Yuan Li’s eyes widened suddenly.
The Chu Wang’s fiefdom was actually in Youzhou!
Youzhou was the northeasternmost region of the realm, remote and treacherous in terrain. As a result, it was difficult for imperial decrees to reach there, making it prone to the rise of local separatist forces. Moreover, due to its proximity to the northern borders, it often faced invasions from minority tribes from the forests and grasslands. In the eyes of the common people in the Central Plains, Youzhou was just a backward, impoverished, remote, and dangerous place, a destination where imperial criminals were exiled, not much better than the realm of the dead.
Youzhou being the Chu Wang’s fiefdom, situated right behind the northern frontier, was undoubtedly an excellent condition for raising troops. However, looking at Chu Hechao’s predicament, it was evident that Youzhou couldn’t provide him with the necessary military funds.
But Yuan Li knew that by simply looking at a map, one could understand that Youzhou was an incredibly advantageous and picturesque place.
In the northern part of Youzhou laid the Yanshan Mountains and the Bashang Plateau, to the west were the Guan Gou and the Taihang Mountains, and to the east was the resource-rich Bohai Sea.
Heading northeast through the Liaoxi Corridor led to the vast Northeast Plain.
Although Youzhou had its mountainous and treacherous terrain, it also had a large plain in its interior. It was traversed by major rivers like the Juma and the Masang, suitable for both agriculture and animal husbandry. More importantly, it was an extremely important region for horse breeding.
As long as it is properly utilized, Youzhou can become a major granary for a nation, and there will never be a shortage of food.
People from the Central Plains are ignorant of Youzhou, which leads them to underestimate its value. However, Youzhou possesses the power to shake the political authority of the Central Plains. If there were loyal ministers and capable generals who could make good use of Youzhou’s advantages, it would undoubtedly serve as an excellent protective wall. But if chaos were to erupt in the realm, Youzhou would be an ideal place for rebellion.
With its natural defenses and the ability to launch offensives, it is highly suitable for waging prolonged battles against the Xiongnu and Xianbei.
Such a remarkable place, and yet Chu Hechao has fallen to the point of going to Luoyang to beg for food. Yuan Li suddenly felt an urgent desire, like a dusty treasure yearning to shine. He started worrying about Chu Hechao.
“You…” Yuan Li hesitated, sighing repeatedly.
But it’s not entirely Chu Hechao’s fault.
Although Youzhou is excellent, it is currently an undeveloped and impoverished land. Coupled with Chu Hechao’s long-term garrison in the northern frontier and the Chu Wang’s household residing in Luoyang, how could they discover the various advantages of Youzhou?
However, Yuan Li’s determination to cooperate with the Chu Wang household grew stronger.
He wanted to become the logistics support for Chu Hechao’s army, thereby gaining influence within his forces. With the combination of favorable timing, advantageous conditions, and capable people, Yuan Li had no doubt that he should seize this opportunity.
Chu Hechao’s brows furrowed as he sighed, “Sister-in-law?”
“…I will keep an eye out for the goods that the General mentioned,” Yuan Li replied.
Chu Hechao furrowed his brows as Yuan Li’s words clearly remained unfinished, leaving him in an uncomfortable state of uncertainty. He wanted to ask more, but then he heard Yuan Li let out a small yawn and curl back into bed.
The room became gradually quiet, with a few mosquitoes buzzing near Chu Hechao’s ears, their noise irritating him.
It occurred to Chu Hechao that his sister-in-law had not yet officially entered adulthood and was still in need of rest.
The room grew stuffy and humid, exacerbating his already fiery temperament. Beads of sweat formed on his body due to the heat.
Sitting calmly on the chair, Chu Hechao wore an expressionless face. Despite appearing composed during the conversation with Yuan Li, he had never truly settled down. He relied on the darkness to conceal the internal fire burning within him, simmering his frustration beneath his pants.
Chu Hechao was always difficult to handle, and once he became angry, it was challenging for him to calm down. However, he wasn’t typically impulsive to the point of getting worked up from a few touches. Perhaps it was the hot and dry spring weather that had caused him to feel irritable.
Yuan Li’s slow and steady breathing, one breath after another, became more annoying than the buzzing of mosquitoes.
Chu Hechao drank from the teapot, taking large sips, tilting his neck against the chair’s backrest, maintaining a calm and unruffled demeanor.
After a moment, he reached out with his hand.
After a while, a strong, pungent smell spread, and Chu Hechao’s back relaxed. He took a deep breath and removed the clothing wrapped around his waist. He quickly wiped off the object.
The evidence was completely destroyed.