To be honest, if it weren’t for Zhan Shaoning calling out to him, Yuan Li wouldn’t have recognized him as Zhan Shaoning.

The group of people all had dusty and dirty faces, and their war horses were covered in grime and mud.
Everyone looked exhausted, including Zhan Shaoning, who had visibly lost a lot of weight.

Yuan Li couldn’t believe his eyes.
How could he see Zhan Shaoning in Youzhou?

Zhan Shaoning rushed all the way to the gates of Chu Wang’s residence, and before his horse even came to a stop, he slid down from it.
His heart was filled with tremendous excitement, almost bringing him to tears at the sight of his old friend.
But as soon as he took a step forward, Zhan Shaoning halted, becoming uneasy.

Yuan Li was dressed in luxurious attire, while Zhan Shaoning looked like a beggar.
This made Zhan Shaoning hesitate to approach any further.

He didn’t know how Yuan Li would treat him.

“Yuan Li…” Zhan Shaoning looked anxious, tightly gripping the reins as if ready to escape on his horse at any moment.
He had disheveled hair, a scruffy beard, and his clothes were full of rips.
The look in his eyes held a mixture of pleading, hope, and guarded caution.

Xiao Ce, the strategist behind him, closely watched Yuan Li’s every move, discreetly clutching the large blade at his waist.

Seeing Zhan Shaoning in such a timid state, Yuan Li felt a pang in his heart.
He broke into a smile, quickly walked up to Zhan Shaoning, opened his arms, and embraced him tightly.
“Shaoning, it’s been so long.
I’ve been worried sick about you!”

Zhan Shaoning had an unpleasant odor about him, almost nauseating in the scorching weather.
But Yuan Li showed no sign of disgust.
He held Zhan Shaoning tightly, patting his back a few times with force.

Zhan Shaoning coughed a few times from being patted on the back, but his heart instantly settled.
He sniffed and the grievances and hardships he had endured along the way almost instantly welled up in his eyes.
“Yuan Li… I, I want to seek refuge with you.
Are you willing to take me in?”

“Why even ask?” Yuan Li released Zhan Shaoning, his bright eyes filled with a smile, showing no signs of rejection or neglect.
He still held him intimately, just like before, as he pulled him towards the mansion.
“Bring people to properly settle Shaoning’s subordinates, provide good fodder for the horses, and let everyone rest and recover.
No need to be restrained here in my presence!”

Saying that, he turned back to look at Zhan Shaoning with a playful wink and teased, “Shaoning, in order to get the sand table you wanted from me, you’ve gone through countless hardships and even rushed thousands of miles to catch up to me.”

Zhan Shaoning choked up, knowing that Yuan Li was saving face for him.
Such kindness had been rare on their journey.
Its scarcity almost made Zhan Shaoning lose control of his emotions at this moment.
He took a moment to compose himself before replying hoarsely, “Of course.
For the sake of that sand table of yours, even if you had fled to Xianbei beyond the borders, I would have pursued you.”

Yuan Li burst into laughter, and the two young men walked briskly side by side, gradually moving away.

Behind them, Liu Jixin, who had been standing near the mansion gate for quite some time, walked up to Xiao Ce with a smile, “Li Mou, it’s been a while since we last met.”

Xiao Ce hadn’t expected to encounter Liu Jixin here, feeling slightly surprised.
He nodded politely to Liu Jixin, “Chang Yue, I never expected to see you here.
So, you left our lord’s side to follow the new master to Youzhou.”

Liu Jixin chuckled twice, “When I followed our lord, he hadn’t arrived in Youzhou yet.
It’s quite an unexpected fate to meet you here in Youzhou.”

Xiao Ce was amazed.
Had Liu Jixin actually found a new lord to serve?

While Zhan Qibo was still around, Liu Jixin followed him closely, but Xiao Ce could tell that Liu Jixin didn’t truly consider Zhan Qibo as his wise lord.
Xiao Ce couldn’t see through Liu Jixin’s true intentions, and considering Liu Jixin’s previous betrayal, Xiao Ce often advised Zhan Qibo not to trust Liu Jixin too much.

Zhan Qibo heeded his advice and treated Liu Jixin with courtesy but not intimacy.
As expected, Liu Jixin once again left Zhan Qibo and went in search of another wise lord.

However, Xiao Ce didn’t expect that the friend mentioned by Zhan Shaoning, Yuan Li, was the wise lord recognized by Liu Jixin.

What abilities did that young lad, who hadn’t even reached adulthood, possess to capture Liu Jixin’s loyalty?

“It is indeed an unexpected fate,” Xiao Ce contemplated, testing the waters.
“But Chang Yue, did you anticipate the current situation when you left our lord?”

Liu Jixin was immediately taken aback and said, “Li Mou, what do you mean by that? I am just a humble strategist who never left my home.
How could I have the ability to foresee such matters?”

His surprise didn’t seem feigned, and he sighed with a touch of sadness, lamenting, “Who could have anticipated the rise of the White Rice Gang? Who could have imagined that the emperor would be so ruthless? When I heard about it, I was also shocked and couldn’t sleep at night.
Every time I think of the tragedy at the Zhan Mansion, my heart aches… Fortunately, although Lord Zhan suffered, Young Master Shaoning is alive and well.
With you by his side, Young Master Shaoning has someone to rely on.
Li Mou, this is a fortunate event amidst misfortune.
Our lord is benevolent and kind.
You and Young Master Shaoning can rest and recuperate here without worries.”

Xiao Ce listened quietly and didn’t sense anything amiss.
He nodded and said, “Then I thank Brother Chang Yue and Young Master Yuan for their kindness.”

Yuan Li had someone prepare water and clothes for Zhan Shaoning.
After a refreshing bath and shaving off his stubble, Zhan Shaoning emerged from the bath, and Yuan Li had already prepared a meal for him.

Zhan Shaoning didn’t have time to speak and quickly swallowed three bowls of rice before placing down his chopsticks and burping contentedly.
He complained to Yuan Li, “It’s been a long time since I’ve had such a satisfying meal.”

Yuan Li comforted him and asked about their journey.

It turned out that after Zhan Shaoning fled the capital with his old subordinates, he hurriedly made his way to Yuan Li in Youzhou.
However, they encountered numerous difficulties along the way due to the White Rice Gang’s rampant activities.
They were greatly outnumbered, and with a large number of horses, they were repeatedly targeted by the White Rice Gang and bandits.
They had to constantly hide and faced many hardships.
By the time they arrived in Youzhou, less than fifty of their original two hundred men remained.

Zhan Shaoning spoke numbly about their experiences.
“I am now a fugitive from the court.
Whenever we arrive in a new place, we cannot stay for long, fearing that local officials might discover us.
Yuan Li, I had no other choice but to seek refuge with you.”

Yuan Li silently patted his shoulder, offering wordless comfort.

Zhan Shaoning managed to force a smile at Yuan Li.
“Enough about me.
How about you? I was shocked when I heard that you were captured by Chu Hechao and brought to Youzhou.
Did he do anything to you? Did he mistreat you?”

Yuan Li’s expression subtly changed.

Mistreat him? It seemed more like he had ignored Chu Hechao even more.

Yuan Li shook his head and briefly recounted what had happened in Youzhou to Zhan Shaoning.

Upon hearing that the Yu family in Yizhou had sent two beautiful women to Yuan Li, Zhan Shaoning smiled and said, “That’s only natural.
It has been five months since the passing of the Young Gelao, and you and General Chu have already completed the mourning period of one hundred days.
You and the Young Gelao were only married for a few days back then, so they naturally assume that you were not acquainted.
Moreover, you are still so young, at the age of youthful admiration and vigor.
It’s not uncommon for households like ours to exchange beautiful women.
Even if you don’t like them, you can simply accept them and keep them in the backyard.
It’s just a few extra mouths to feed in the mansion.
The Yu family of Yizhou is quite renowned for their beautiful women.
He probably never expected that you would refuse them directly.”

Yuan Li raised an eyebrow.
“So, you know about the Yu family of Yizhou?”

“I do,” Zhan Shaoning nodded, familiar with the topic.
“The Yu family of Yizhou is a famous merchant family in the Northern Zhou Dynasty.
They used to visit my father when they traveled to Luoyang.
There was a Madame Yu among the women they sent to my father’s residence.
She spoke softly and was indeed a beauty.”

As Zhan Shaoning mentioned this, he also recalled the image of a family being beheaded.
Seeing him pause, Yuan Li understood that he had touched upon a painful memory for Zhan Shaoning, so he subtly changed the subject, “Shaoning, do you happen to know about the Zhang family in Youzhou?”

“I know a bit.
The Zhang family of Youzhou is a prominent and influential family,” Zhan Shaoning regained his focus and continued speaking nonchalantly with Yuan Li, “They are quite honest and can establish good relationships with various forces.
Their hands are involved in many valuable goods like salt, tea, cloth, and horses.
However, they lack powerful backing and often need to spend a considerable amount of money to appease officials at all levels.”

As he spoke, Zhan Shaoning rubbed his chin and contemplated, “Now that you are stationed in Youzhou, they must be eager to establish a connection with you.
Asking them to find avenues to purchase horses for you is a good move.
I believe they will be able to handle this task.
But Yuan Li, if you intend to accumulate wealth, why not sell your soap in Yangzhou or Xuzhou? The land in the eastern Jiangdong region is much more prosperous.
Just take Chen Wang’s Chen Liu as an example; the wealth accumulated by his family through generations could probably crush you and me.”

Yuan Li couldn’t help but laugh.
“What you’re thinking is exactly what I have in mind.
Today, I will write a letter to my teacher and send the soap to Xuzhou.
I’ll ask my teacher to find one or two wealthy merchants in Xuzhou and Yangzhou to do business with.”

Zhan Shaoning sighed, “How is Lord Ouyang doing in Xuzhou?”

Yuan Li had sent a letter to Ouyang Ting when he had just left Luoyang, and he received a reply before reaching Youzhou.
In the letter, Ouyang Ting vehemently criticized Chu Hechao for his shamelessness, and after venting his anger, he consoled Yuan Li, urging him to focus on his work in Youzhou and not slack off.
If there was anything he didn’t understand or needed, he could inform Ouyang Ting, and he would send someone from Xuzhou to deliver it.

Yuan Li could only be grateful that Ouyang Ting didn’t know about Chu Hechao publicly abducting him; otherwise, Ouyang Ting would have been furious and unable to continue writing the letter.

Apart from that, Ouyang Ting was deeply saddened by the beheading of Zhan Qibo and his family.
He also didn’t believe that Zhan Qibo would embezzle the disaster relief funds.
He blamed himself for not being in Luoyang at that time; otherwise, he would have joined Zhang Liangdong in pleading with the emperor for mercy.

However, it wasn’t suitable to discuss these matters with Zhan Shaoning, as it might reopen his wounds.

Yuan Li sighed inwardly and shook his head.
“My teacher said he’s doing well, but I don’t think it’s as good as he claims.
He told me that Chen Wang has openly started recruiting soldiers and buying horses to suppress the rebels according to the imperial decree.
My teacher believes that this move will only create more problems in the long run.”

Zhan Shaoning sneered, “The emperor has short-sighted vision and naturally cannot see the consequences.”

After a few more exchanges, Yuan Li noticed the exhaustion on Zhan Shaoning’s face.
He led him to the bedroom and spoke softly, “Rest well.
Since we’ve arrived here, just focus on getting some peace.
Don’t think about anything else and have a good sleep.
It will be a dark and quiet night.”

Zhan Shaoning wanted to say something, but couldn’t find the words.
In the end, he nodded heavily.

Night fell.

After a long time, Zhan Shaoning laid on a clean and tidy bed.

The bedding was filled with a fragrance, and Zhan Shaoning buried himself in it, taking a deep breath of the scent.
The window was wide open, allowing the cool evening breeze to enter.
The bells at the four corners of the bed curtains gently tinkled, accompanied by the chirping of cicadas and frogs outside, lulling him to sleep.

Unknowingly, tears wet the bedding beneath Zhan Shaoning.
He laid on the bed, closed his eyes, and forced himself to sleep.

Fortunately, he hadn’t misjudged his character…

Fortunately,Yuan Li was willing to take him in.

In this vast world, he still had a place to stay.

Zhan Shaoning’s tightly wound nerves suddenly relaxed, and before long, he fell into a deep slumber.

At night, there were too many mosquitoes.Yuan Li brought a basin of water into the room and was squatting by it, preparing to make a basin of soapy water to kill the mosquitoes, when a worried Liu Jixin approached.

After seeing Yuan Li, Liu Jixin curiously asked, “My lord, what are you doing?”

“…,” Yuan Li glanced down at himself, resembling a child playing with mud, and quickly came up with a reliable excuse, calmly saying, “Washing my hands.”

Liu Jixin didn’t say much, but went straight to the point, “My lord, how long will we stay in Jixian?”

“About ten days,” Yuan Li replied.

Liu Jixin continued, “My lord, how do you plan to arrange Zhan Shaoning and Xiao Ce’s group?”

Yuan Li put the soap aside, washed his hands, and stood up.
He said, “Zhan Shaoning comes from a prestigious family and is familiar with dealing with various forces.
I intend to have him assist me in the subsequent soap trade.”

In simple terms, Yuan Li believed that Zhan Shaoning’s character and background in a prominent family made him well-suited to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

From their first meeting, Zhan Shaoning took the initiative to get to know Yuan Li.
During his time at the National Academy, Zhan Shaoning thrived and was well acquainted with powerful clans and factions.
He was truly a rare talent in diplomacy.

Liu Jixin frowned, “My lord, do you intend to leave them in Jixian?”

Yuan Li nodded, puzzled by Liu Jixin’s response.
He humbly asked, “Sir, do you think there’s something inappropriate about this?”

After pondering for a moment, Liu Jixin didn’t immediately answer Yuan Li’s question.
Instead, he continued, “My lord, Wang Er is also a talented military officer.
Why did you only bring Wu Kai with you to Shanggu County this time and not bring Wang Er?”

“Wang Er is indeed talented,” Yuan Li smiled and said, “But as for why I only brought you and Wu Kai, why don’t you take a guess at my intentions?”

Liu Jixin smiled helplessly.
“My lord, this time you not only didn’t bring Wang Er, but also left out Guo Lin and the others.
It’s because you have concerns about Jixian, so you decided to leave these trusted individuals behind and only brought me and Wu Kai, one civil official and one military officer, to the battlefield.
The ones left behind don’t mean you don’t value them, and the ones taken along don’t necessarily mean you completely trust us from the beginning.”

Yuan Li laughed heartily.
“Your words resonate with me.”

“If I can’t even see through these things, then I’m not qualified to be your strategist,” Liu Jixin shook his head.
“When we leave Jixian next time, will you still leave them here?”

Yuan Li nodded slightly.
“That’s correct.”

Taking a deep breath, Liu Jixin’s expression changed, and he suddenly performed a deep bow.

“My lord, if you want stability in Jixian, it’s acceptable to keep Zhan Shaoning, but his companion, Xiao Ce, must be eliminated without a doubt!”

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