Upon arriving at Chu Mingfeng’s secluded residence, Yuan Li was guided by an elderly slave with white hair who had been waiting for him at the front gate.
The old slave silently led him into the bedroom.


As Yuan Li entered the room, his vision darkened.
The room was dimly lit by candlelight, and he caught a strong and bitter medicinal scent in the air.
Along with the medicinal aroma, there was an indistinct peculiar odor that seemed to emanate from something unusual.

Yuan Li pursed his lips.

It was the smell of decay that only came from someone on the brink of death.

The room was tightly sealed, with no trace of sunlight or breeze seeping through the windows.

Yuan Li kept his gaze straight ahead as he was led to the bedside.
The bed was surrounded by double-layered white curtains, and within the faint shadows of white, there was a blurry figure lying on the bed.

Kneeling on the floor beside the bed was a trembling servant.

Upon seeing this servant, Yuan Li couldn’t help but be slightly surprised.

This person was Steward Liu, the steward responsible for procurement in the Chu Wang Mansion.
He had served in the palace for twenty years.
During Yuan Li’s stewardship, Steward Liu had defied Yuan Li’s orders due to his seniority and even complained privately about Yuan Li’s strictness.
It was only when Yuan Li publicly punished him that he finally became obedient.

Why would this person be here?

The elderly slave whispered, “Sir, Young Master Yuan has arrived.”

The sound of two coughs came from the bed, followed by a weak but smiling hoarse voice, saying, “So wife has arrived.
This husband will get up, please wait a moment, wife.”

After speaking, there were indeed rustling sounds coming from the bed.

Yuan Li was taken aback, then couldn’t help but chuckle and said, “Sir, there’s no need to be so polite.
Just lie down and rest properly!”

Only then did Chu Mingfeng stop and sighed, “This husband is in poor health, making the wife witness such a spectacle.”

His tone was playful, using terms like “wife” and “husband” without any hint of romantic ambiguity, only teasing.

Yuan Li hadn’t expected this young Gelao to have such a personality.
Clearly, he was on the verge of death, yet he could still humorously converse with others.

Yuan Li had always admired and respected such people.
“Sir, you should focus on recuperating now.
Why did you summon me here?”

There was another bout of short coughs from within the canopy.
The force of it seemed as if he wanted to cough out his lungs.
After a moment, Chu Mingfeng finally stopped coughing.
He reached out a thin and slender hand from behind the bed curtain and pointed at Steward Liu, who was kneeling beside the bed.

“This cunning servant is dissatisfied with your control and came to report you to me,” Chu Mingfeng said in a calm tone.
“He claims that you have ulterior motives, oppressing subordinates and deceiving my parents for personal gain.
The entire household is dissatisfied with you.”

Chu Mingfeng paused for a moment, then chuckled lightly.
“Ever since I fell ill, there are always people who think I know nothing, daring to present lies before me.”


His voice became increasingly soft, but his words were clear.
Steward Liu couldn’t help trembling and sweating profusely.

Finally, Chu Mingfeng turned his head slightly and looked hazily at Yuan Li.
“This cunning servant is now in your hands, wife.
How would you like to punish him?”

Yuan Li looked at Steward Liu, who was kneeling before them.

Steward Liu trembled all over, his expression filled with fear.
He gritted his teeth and didn’t turn to plead with Yuan Li at this moment.
Instead, he hurriedly crawled forward, banging his head on the ground, tears streaming down his face as he desperately pleaded, “Sir, everything this humble servant said is true! This humble servant has devoted twenty years of loyalty to the Chu Wang’s Manor.
Please, sir, take a look at this humble servant’s heart that is loyal to the Chu Wang’s Manor! Young Master Yuan is an outsider.
How can such a valuable estate like the Chu Wang’s Manor be entrusted to him? He will scheme to seize your family’s wealth!”

Yuan Li listened quietly and couldn’t help but laugh.

Steward Liu’s wailing abruptly stopped, and he couldn’t believe it as he turned his head to look at Yuan Li.

Yuan Li, as if hearing something amusing, shook his head with a smile.
“Why would you think that I would covet the Chu Wang’s Manor’s wealth?”

Steward Liu stared at him with resentment in his eyes, speaking firmly, “The Chu Wang’s Manor owns numerous shops, such as grain shops, oil shops, meat shops, fabric shops, and many fertile fields.
With such wealth, how can you not be greedy?”

Yuan Li chuckled in response.
In his eyes, the Chu Wang Manor, which could only maintain its superficial prosperity, was unexpectedly coveted by Steward Liu.

“It’s different, truly different,” he sighed.
“What you see and what I see are completely different.
You think this is unimaginable wealth and that everyone would be tempted by it.
But in my eyes, are these meager things really worth my scheming?”

He looked at Steward Liu, leaned down, and his eyes seemed to flicker with fire.
“In the vast world, with great achievements, what I see in my eyes is not just this plot of land.”

Steward Liu stood frozen in place.

Yuan Li stood up straight and looked at Chu Mingfeng.
“I am only temporarily assuming the role of steward.
Let madam handle this person.”

Chu Mingfeng didn’t say much and gently clapped his hands.
Someone came forward and took hold of Steward Liu, who was limp and had a vacant gaze, and led him out of the bedroom.

Chu Mingfeng had someone help him sit up and instructed them to tie up the bed curtains.
Slowly, he asked, “Does Young Master Yuan dislike managing?”

With the change in address, Yuan Li understood that the conversation had become formal.
“It’s not that I dislike them, but I simply don’t want to waste too much time on this matter.”

A servant draped a robe over Chu Mingfeng’s shoulders, and only then did he look at Yuan Li.
He had the countenance of a refined and elegant gentleman, with eyebrows as dark as ink and a smile in his eyes.
He bore a slight resemblance to Chu Hechao, exuding a sense of literary elegance and free-spiritedness.
However, his complexion was pale, his figure extremely thin, and his cheeks so hollow that they had a slight concave appearance.
Even his lips, when he smiled, had a faint bluish tinge, lacking vitality.

Anyone who looked at him would feel that this person had little time left, beyond the reach of medicine.

“After falling ill, my appetite has been poor, resulting in much emaciation and an unattractive appearance,” Chu Mingfeng smiled faintly and teased, “Madam, upon seeing me, are you disappointed in your heart, wishing to end the marriage and be done with it?”

Yuan Li pursed his lips and smiled, joining in the jest.
“Not bad, it adds a touch of flavor.
I dare not say anything else, but in front of you, it seems I have become a little more charming.”

Chu Mingfeng chuckled softly.


Through the swirling dust in the dim candlelight, Chu Mingfeng had long since seen Yuan Li’s appearance.

The young man had an upright posture, rosy lips, white teeth, and clear and bright eyebrows and eyes.
This child was only eighteen years old but had been “married” to him, who was approaching his thirties, which was truly a grievance.

Chu Mingfeng leaned against the bedpost, his chest barely rising and falling, resembling a lifeless person.
“Since Young Master Yuan thinks it’s a waste of time, why did you accept the stewardship?”

Yuan Li replied, “Naturally, I wanted to meet you, sir.”

Chu Mingfeng responded with an “Oh” of curiosity.
“Meet me?”

Yuan Li explained, “Isn’t it because Madam entrusted me with the stewardship at your request? You wanted to test my abilities through this.”

Chu Mingfeng was momentarily surprised but couldn’t help but laugh.
“Young Master Yuan is astute.”

Initially, Yuan Li thought that Madam Yang merely used his name to retrieve the stewardship from Madam Zhao.
However, he later realized something was amiss because Madam Yang’s determination to transfer the stewardship to him was too firm.

Yuan Li found it hard to understand why Madam Yang would do this.
His relationship with the Chu Manor was essentially a transaction.
He had only known Madam Yang for a few days, so how could she trust him so readily?

Madam Yang was not a foolish person, and there must be another reason behind her actions.

Once Yuan Li guessed that it might be at Chu Mingfeng’s behest, he no longer hid his intentions and quickly reorganized the Chu Manor, fully demonstrating his capabilities.

Chu Mingfeng jestingly said, “You and I can be considered a married couple in spirit.
I want to meet you, and you also want to meet me.
If my health was better, I would definitely enjoy drinking and chatting with you.”

Yuan Li was about to speak and console him, but Chu Mingfeng shook his head slightly.
“There’s no need to say any comforting words.
I’ve heard enough of them.
Who in this world doesn’t die? I no longer mind, and you don’t need to worry for me anymore.”

Yuan Li glanced in the corner and saw the old servant with snow-white hair silently wiping away tears.

Chu Mingfeng tightened his grip on his clothes.
“Why do you want to see me, Yuan Li?”

Yuan Li asked Lintian to come forward, holding a delicate box with him as he approached Chu Mingfeng.

Inside the box were four small soaps molded into the shapes of plum blossoms, orchids, bamboo, and chrysanthemums, each about the size of a baby’s fist.
The four soaps were exquisitely carved, lifelike, resembling white jade sculptures with a delicate and smooth luster.
From a closer distance, a faint fragrance emanated.

Chu Mingfeng couldn’t help but extend his hand to touch the soaps, but Lintian evaded his touch.
In a low voice, Lintian said, “Sir, these soaps need to air-dry for another month.
It’s not time yet, so they shouldn’t be touched.”

Chu Mingfeng retracted his hand and marveled, “These things are called ‘soaps’?”

Yuan Li then handed him a detailed plan.

Chu Mingfeng took the plan and started reading it.
After a while, his smile gradually faded, his expression becoming serious as he immersed himself completely in the plan.


The plan not only included the marketing and packaging strategy for the soaps but also outlined Yuan Li’s proposed reforms for the governance of Youzhou and the management of the military.

However, the plan he wrote was not in-depth.
It was understandable to others, and they would know it could work, but it lacked the level of detail that would prevent Yuan Li from encountering crucial obstacles.

After a long time, Chu Mingfeng finished reading.
His jaw tightened, and instead of speaking to Yuan Li, he instructed the old servant to bring a candle and proceeded to burn each page of the plan, watching the papers turn to ash.

The flames briefly illuminated the room before quickly extinguishing.
Ashes drifted down onto the white veil, leaving a layer of dirty gray.

Chu Mingfeng slowly wiped his hands.
“What does Young Master Yuan Li want?”

The young man, not yet reaching twenty, maintained a calm expression with bright eyes.

He spoke deliberately, word by word.
“I want full responsibility for the logistics of the 130,000 troops in the northern frontier.”

Chu Mingfeng paused, sighing softly.
“Young Master Yuan Li, your ambition is truly immense.
Controlling the logistics of an army is tantamount to controlling the entire army.”

Yuan Li remained noncommittal.
As an old saying goes, in the era of cold weapons, war was not fought with tactics and numbers alone, but with logistics.

Due to insufficient financial resources, the Northern Zhou Dynasty disbanded most of its military forces after they were no longer needed.
Even the generals themselves were responsible for raising troops to serve the court.
The majority of the Northern Zhou’s military strength was deployed along the borders.
However, because the emperor did not trust the Chu Wang Mansion, he tightly controlled the military funds for the border troops.

For the soldiers, whoever provided their rations was their patron.

Chu Mingfeng said, “Taking charge of the logistics for a 130,000-strong army is not something that can be accomplished by mere words.”

Yuan Li raised an eyebrow, rare traces of a confident smile appearing on his face as he retorted, “If I don’t take charge of the logistics for the northern frontier troops, then who do you plan to assign it to? The other ministers in the cabinet? Or the Imperial Household? Or perhaps the Emperor himself?”

Lowering his voice, Yuan Li continued, “You are ill, and I am bound to Chu Wang Mansion.
As long as I do not want to bear the reputation of disloyalty and injustice, my position will always align with that of the Chu Wang Mansion.
You tested me by granting me the authority of the management, precisely because of the matter concerning the logistics of the Chu Hechao’s northern frontier army, right?”

Chu Mingfeng fell silent for a moment.
“You are right.”

He instructed someone to bring out three sealed envelopes and handed them to Yuan Li.
He smiled lightly and sighed, “Yuan Li, I have imposed upon you by having you marry into the Chu Wang Mansion for the sake of my recovery.”

Yuan Li smiled indifferently.

Chu Mingfeng coughed softly.
“I have no interest in men, but if I were to marry a woman for the sake of recovery, her life would be miserable.
After much consideration, I realized that a man would face fewer restrictions.
Thus, you became the one for this marriage.
However, I, Chu Mingfeng, can hold my head high throughout my life, except for the fact that I have let you down.
I know you also do not favor men.
Rest assured, once I pass away, I will instruct my family to allow you to marry freely.”

Yuan Li listened silently.

Chu Mingfeng’s voice became increasingly ethereal.
“However, in front of Ciyue, we must conceal the secret of our ‘false marriage.’ I will tell him that I consider you my true wife and that he should treat you as his sister-in-law.
His temper will yield a little toward his family, and whether it is him or me, I can rest assured that the matter of managing military funds will be entrusted to our own people.
After my death, with him protecting you, taking care of our children, it can be considered a fortunate outcome.
I ask for very little, only that you help me look after the Chu Wang Mansion and safeguard the frontier defenses of Youzhou and the northern border.
This land and this army must not fall into the hands of others.”


“Very well,” Yuan Li finally agreed.

Chu Mingfeng’s suggestion of deceiving Chu Hechao struck a chord deep within Yuan Li’s heart.

Why did Chu Hechao jump into the water to save him on their way to Ruyang County? Why was he willing to help him in the fields? And why did he only engage in conflicts and tests with him through words?

Wasn’t it all because Yuan Li was his nominal sister-in-law?

In order to jointly control the army in the future, Yuan Li definitely couldn’t discard the identity of “Chu Hechao’s sister-in-law.” It was only by holding onto this status that Chu Hechao would listen to him.

After speaking these words, Chu Mingfeng closed his eyes, visibly weakened.

A servant approached with medicine and softly urged, “Sir, please take your medicine.”

Chu Mingfeng waved his hand lightly, his veins bulging on the back of his hand.
The servant hesitated in silence and retreated.
The old servant retrieved a packet of crushed herbal medicine, Five Stone Powder, from the cabinet and fed it to Chu Mingfeng.

Sensing Yuan Li’s gaze, Chu Mingfeng turned his head, smiled faintly, and uttered two words, “Pain relief.”

Yuan Li felt a mix of emotions.
He bid farewell and left with Lintian.
Once they were outside the courtyard, he turned back for a final glance at the tranquil surroundings.

Chu Mingfeng was waiting for death.

Or rather, he was deliberately tormenting himself to death.

Yuan Li felt puzzled about why Chu Mingfeng would choose to do this.
He withdrew his gaze and opened the three envelopes given to him by Chu Mingfeng.
Inside, he found letters addressed to influential officials and scholars of the current court.

The letters were sealed with Chu Mingfeng’s personal seal, and their contents praised Yuan Li.

These were three subtly worded recommendation letters, recommending Yuan Li as a disciple to the esteemed officials.

The author has something to say:

Chu Mingfeng’s instructions for his affairs: Younger brother, Yuan Li will be your true sister-in-law from now on.
You must take care of him, listen to him, and watch over him as he gets married and has children.

Chu Hechao, seemingly indifferent: Okay.

Upon being moved,

Chu Hechao (his expression twisted, struggling with a dark transformation): She is my true sister-in-law, I cannot act on my feelings!

Note: The author is referring to Chu Hechao’s internal struggle and turmoil regarding his growing feelings for Yuan Li, which he perceives as forbidden due to their relationship as relatives.

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