Wu Shanshi was also taken aback, “This…”
Zhou Gongdan smiled slightly, “Youzhou is a military fortress, much more important than Bingzhou. Moreover, Youzhou is the rear base for Chu Hechao and Yuan Le Jun. If we can take control of Youzhou, what fear do they have? Lord, this is a great opportunity. Don’t look at Youzhou’s past desolation and poverty; it’s different now. Yuan Le Jun has made many improvements in Youzhou. Just by looking at what he has achieved with a piece of land in Youzhou, you can see its potential.”
Wu Shanshi was tempted, but he quickly sighed, “Jizhou is short of food, we can’t even intervene in Bingzhou, how can we take over Youzhou?”
“That’s one of the reasons why I feel my ideas are naive,” Zhou Gongdan sighed with regret and shook his head, “But this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is right in front of us. Youzhou’s attention is all on Bingzhou. When Chu Hechao leaves with his troops, Youzhou will only have snow disasters and refugees. It’s a pity we don’t have enough food to mobilize our troops.”
Wu Shanshi felt more moved when he saw how regretful Zhou Gongdan looked. He couldn’t help asking Wang Yun again, “Is it really impossible to gather enough food for the troops?”
Wang Yun smiled bitterly and shook his head, “Indeed, it’s impossible.”
Wu Shanshi mumbled, “What a pity… it’s such a pity…”
“Even if we can gather enough food, we still can’t attack Youzhou at this moment,” Wei Ji coughed a few times, his voice as old as a withered tree, “Have you forgotten what happened during the New Year? Li Li killed Chu Wang and his Madam and even tried to pin the blame on the eunuch. He used a large sum of money to win over Chu Hechao and Yuan Le Jun, but they rejected him with strong words. Their loyalty and righteousness are known throughout the world. If you attack Youzhou now, you’ll be attacking the loyal ministers of Northern Zhou. Do you want to tell the world that you’re rebelling?”
Wu Shanshi broke into a cold sweat, and his previous excitement had disappeared long ago. “Uncle Wei is right.”
Wei Ji’s murky gaze then turned to Zhou Gongdan. “Your idea is good, but we can’t implement it now. Do you have any other ideas?”
Zhou Gongdan’s palms began to sweat, but he didn’t show any sign of it on his face. He thought carefully for a moment, “Since we can’t stop Chu Hechao from taking over Bingzhou, and that has become a reality… if we can’t stop them from the outside, then we can only make them collapse from within.”
Wei Ji’s eyes flashed with a glint of interest, “Go on, elaborate.”
Zhou Gongdan respectfully lowered his head, “I followed Yuan Le Jun in the past, and you all know that. But there’s something I haven’t told Lord Shanshi.”
Wu Shanshi appeared curious, “What is it?”
Zhou Gongdan continued, “Yuan Le Jun and Chu Hechao are not on good terms and have already developed a hidden rift. However, it’s not appropriate to speak ill of the former lord behind his back, so I’ve refrained from mentioning it.”
Of course, the real situation was different.
When Zhou Gongdan came under Wu Shanshi’s command, he used his experience of fleeing from Youzhou to Jizhou to get closer to Cai Ji and established a relationship with him by claiming to have also escaped due to embezzlement.
Cai Ji embezzled funds for himself, so he believed that everyone in the world must be corrupt. He trusted Zhou Gongdan’s words because they shared a similar experience, and their relationship grew closer over time.
After getting closer, Zhou Gongdan learned from Cai Ji that he believed there was tension between Yuan Li and Chu Hechao. Cai Ji even used this information as his pledge of loyalty when he joined Wu Shanshi.
This kind of opportunity, how could Zhou Gongdan not make use of it?
Wei Ji, Mi Tai, and the others exchanged glances.
Zhou Gongdan’s words aligned with Cai Ji’s, which meant he wasn’t lying.
Mi Tai’s expression became solemn as he pretended to hear about this for the first time, “Is this true?”
“Zhou dare not speak half a word of falsehood,” Zhou Gongdan said with a sincere tone, “Not long ago, Yuan Li was rewarded with the title of Duke Yan in Youzhou, even though he clearly wasn’t the main force in killing the Xiongnu leader. But he received more rewards than Chu Hechao. Li Li’s instigations have probably deepened the rift between Yuan Li and Chu Hechao.”
The strategists exchanged smiles once again. Mi Tai said in a measured tone, “Please continue, Wenning.”
Zhou Gongdan smiled meaningfully, “Youzhou is Chu Hechao’s territory, but Yuan Li was given the title of Duke Yan. I don’t believe Chu Hechao can swallow this humiliation. Lord, we only need to wait for Chu Hechao to take Bingzhou. Once he has it, you can petition the emperor to appoint Yuan Li as the Governor of Bingzhou. In this way, we will give Yuan Li a favor, and without any direct action on our part, the two of them will start to quarrel.”
“Excellent!” Wang Yun’s eyes lit up, “After all the hard work Chu Hechao put into conquering Bingzhou, it ends up in Yuan Li’s hands. How can he be willing to accept that? Once these two fall apart, they won’t be much of a threat. Without Yuan Li, Chu Hechao is just a simple warrior, and without Chu Hechao, Yuan Li is nothing more than a kid. At that time, you can make your move, Lord, and swallow both Youzhou and Bingzhou in one go!”
Wu Shanshi also felt that this plan could work, considering it as an example of using strategy to defeat the enemy without fighting. He nodded in satisfaction, “Uncle Wei, I think this plan can work. What do you think?”
Wei Ji pondered for a while before saying slowly, “Then let’s go with Wenning’s plan.”
Wu Shanshi nodded in agreement.
Wei Ji closed his eyes, feeling tired, and said, “Wenning is clever and wise, truly a fine general of yours, Lord. Don’t forget to reward him generously.”
Zhou Gongdan immediately replied, “I dare not.”
Wu Shanshi walked up to Zhou Gongdan, patted his shoulder with a smile, and said, “There’s no need to hold back. Take the rewards I give you. I’m not like your previous lord, suspecting you of embezzling if you take a little more.”
In fact, Wu Shanshi liked it when his subordinates showed desire for money, beautiful women, or power. He believed that by understanding their desires, he could better control them.
Zhou Gongdan was moved and said gratefully, “Thank you, Lord. Your generosity is rare in the world.”
Wu Shanshi laughed heartily.
Zhou Gongdan bowed again, lowered his head, and finally released the tightly bound rock in his heart. At this moment, he was just grateful that it was winter, so no one could see that his undershirt was already soaked with cold sweat.
But in the end, he achieved his goal.
With a smile on his face, Zhou Gongdan stood up, and those who didn’t know would think he was happy about the rewards from Wu Shanshi.
Attacking Bingzhou turned out to be the easiest campaign in the military careers of Xin Zhou and Guan Zhihuai. In mid-April, they had completely taken control of Bingzhou.
They completely crushed the rebel forces in Bingzhou, as well as the unruly Hu people.
The battle was a complete rout; the rebels and Hu people had little chance to fight back. This was not only because they were affected by the snow disasters and had lost some of their combat capabilities, but also because the soldiers from Youzhou were formidable.
From cavalry to infantry, from their physical strength to their equipment, everything surpassed the imagination of the rebel forces and Hu people. They were defeated and could only cry and beg for mercy.
Even the generals leading the troops were surprised.
They led new soldiers into battle, expecting heavy casualties and numerous issues, but when the actual fighting began, these new soldiers showed remarkable resilience. They became more fluid and smooth as they fought, and in just a few months, these new soldiers looked like an elite force that had been battle-hardened.
Xin Zhou was both surprised and delighted when they found out that the soldiers were trained by Guan Zhihuai and Wang Er. They immediately sought their advice on how they trained the troops.
Guan Zhihuai’s expression was complicated, while Wang Er grinned and said, “Although we trained these soldiers under the guidance of our lord, the credit doesn’t belong to us. It’s because we followed our lord’s methods in training them.”
“Lord Yuan?!” Xin Zhou was astonished, “Lord Yuan is also involved in military training?”
Whenever their lord was mentioned, Wang Er felt proud and said, “Our lord is well-versed in many areas.”
Even assisting a sow in giving birth, their lord could do it!
Who could compare to him?
Xin Zhou admired him greatly, “Truly worthy of Lord Yuan.”
Even Guan Zhihuai, who rarely praised anyone, couldn’t help but confirm, “Indeed, he is a rare genius, one in a million.”
When Chu Hechao passed by them, he overheard them praising Yuan Li. His steps paused, and he casually joined the conversation, “What are you talking about?”
Feeling a bit uneasy in his presence, they replied, “We were just discussing the military training methods taught by Lord Yuan.”
Chu Hechao laughed, “When he first conscripted soldiers, he told me that he would train an elite army. Yuan Li keeps his promises, and indeed, he has trained an elite army.”
With further honing on the battlefield, this elite army would become unstoppable.
Chu Hechao couldn’t control his intense yearning whenever Yuan Li was mentioned. He immediately decided, telling Guan Zhihuai and Wang Er, “I will take Xin Zhou back tomorrow, and you two will stay in Bingzhou to guard it until Youzhou sends someone to take over. Only then can you leave, understood?”
The two of them nodded.
The next morning, Chu Hechao hurriedly led his cavalry and the spoils of war away from Bingzhou.
Ten days later, they finally returned to Ji County in Youzhou.
Yuan Li was already waiting at the city gate to welcome them. From a distance, he saw Chu Hechao leading the group of people.
As they approached, Yuan Li could clearly see Chu Hechao at the forefront.
Chu Hechao had some stubble on his chin, a tense jaw, sharp eyes, and an air of killing intent that seemed to have just come down from the battlefield.
His crimson cloak billowed as he donned his armor, looking tall and imposing like a towering mountain. He held the reins firmly in his hand, gazing straight ahead toward the city gate.
When he saw Yuan Li, his eyes, hidden behind a cold exterior, suddenly became burning hot. Chu Hechao urged his horse forward with a flick of the reins, and the yellow sand rolled as he approached Yuan Li.
The wind stirred up, and Yuan Li’s clothes fluttered as he closed his eyes to shield himself from the sand.
Chu Hechao stared at him with burning intensity, from his hair to his toes, from his robe to his collar. He felt as though everything about Yuan Li resonated with his heart, making his blood surge.
Without a word, Yuan Li could feel Chu Hechao’s gaze examining him inch by inch, and he even felt as if his clothes were being stripped away in front of everyone. His eyelids trembled, a faint blush rising on his face as he slowly opened his eyes and said somewhat uneasily, “You’re back?”
Chu Hechao laughed hoarsely, “Mm, I’m back.”
Yuan Li was momentarily at a loss for words, but after a brief pause, he asked, “Are you injured?”
“Let’s talk about it at home,” Chu Hechao replied. He reached out his hand to Yuan Li, his lips curling up into a genuine smile. “Walking back to the residence is too slow. How about you ride with me on the same horse?”
Yuan Li was composed again and placed his hand in Chu Hechao’s.
Chu Hechao exerted force on his arm, pulling Yuan Li onto the horse with him, and then he whipped the reins. “Let’s go!”
The warhorse surged forward, leaving the rest of the people behind in an instant.