“Chu Hechao,” Yuan Li said softly, “You’re quite cunning…”
Chu Hechao suspected he misheard, “What did you say?”
Yuan Li gazed at him silently, as if seeing through all the foul language Chu Hechao had in his mind.
Chu Hechao blushed from being seen through, and changed the topic, “Your Liangliao Institution is indeed impressive. It has only been half a year since you sent them out, and they’ve already shown such effectiveness.”
Yuan Li glanced at him, “Yes, I have already sent people to try to contact Zhou Gongdan. Zhou Gongdan is alone in Jizhou, and I am always afraid that something unexpected might happen to him. With people from the Liangliao Institution by his side, he will at least have some assistance.”
In Jizhou, the people from the Liangliao Institution were trying to make contact with Zhou Gongdan.
Half a month later, they sent back a secret letter.
The letter bore Zhou Gongdan’s handwriting. He stated that he had met up with the people from the Liangliao Institution and that he was fine, reassuring Yuan Li.
Zhou Gongdan hadn’t expected Yuan Li to send someone to assist him, and he was pleasantly surprised by this.
Each member of the Liangliao Institution was an elite. Even if they couldn’t help Zhou Gongdan directly, they would still find a way to ensure his safety.
Since making contact with the people from the Liangliao Institution, Zhou Gongdan felt much more at ease. He could finally sleep soundly and focus on the affairs in Jizhou. In his letter, he briefly explained all the recent events in Jizhou to Yuan Li.
Li Li’s men, led by Luo Yue, were not doing anything significant in Jizhou. Their carefree and leisurely behavior made people like Wu Shanshi drop their guard. However, after a while, Luo Yue used some means to make Wu Shanshi’s mother and concubines accept numerous gold, silver, and jewels as generous gifts from Li Li.
Rumors of “Jizhou Governor Wu Shanshi accepting Li Li’s generous gifts” began to spread rapidly in Jizhou.
Wei Ji, the military commander, was furious and ordered the execution of several commoners spreading these rumors, but the rumors persisted. Wu Shanshi was also infuriated by this situation. He killed several of his concubines, but he couldn’t do anything to his legitimate wife and mother.
In the Northern Zhou dynasty, filial piety was highly valued. How could Wu Shanshi dare to harm his own mother?
His legitimate son pleaded tearfully for his mother’s life. How could he not give face to his own son?
Wu Shanshi was full of anger and embarrassment from being played with, and he wished to capture Luo Yue and kill him, but his counselors stopped him.
Wei Ji didn’t want Wu Shanshi to have any connection with Li Li. He asked Wu Shanshi to return all the silver given by Li Li to his mother and wife and let Luo Yue take these things back to Luoyang.
However, Wu Shanshi felt that since Luo Yue had framed him, he had already been slandered, so returning the money would be even more humiliating. He thought it would be better to use the money as military funds, recruit more soldiers, buy more provisions, and use them to kill Li Li.
Wei Ji was so angry that he fell ill.
While Wei Ji was ill, Wang Yun thought it through and believed that since the situation had become clear, they might as well use their own plan. So he proposed a strategy to Wu Shanshi: he should pretend to conspire with Li Li, and then take the opportunity to kill Li Li first.
At this point, there was no better solution. Wu Shanshi pondered for a long time and felt that killing Li Li was almost certain. So, he accepted this suggestion, ostensibly agreeing to be recruited by Luo Yue and others, preparing to lead his troops to Luoyang to “meet” Li Li.
All these events happened in a short half-month, turning the once peaceful Jizhou into turbulent waters. And the mastermind behind all this was Luo Yue, who successfully completed his mission and withdrew.
“Wu Shanshi pretends to conspire with Li Li…”
Yuan Li furrowed his brows and pondered carefully, “He is indeed daring.”
This piece of news would definitely cause a huge uproar, and all the good reputation that Wu Shanshi had built up would be ruined in an instant. Unless he could truly kill Li Li with his own hands and reverse the situation, Wu Shanshi would forever carry the stain of this accusation.
This plan was quite risky, and the drawbacks outweighed the benefits. However, for Yuan Li and his group, it presented a great opportunity…
Yuan Li’s eyes lit up.
When Zhou Gongdan received this piece of news, did he intend to make them fully believe in Wu Shanshi’s infamy?
However, Wu Shanshi still had a chance to kill Li Li.
Jizhou was closer to Luoyang than Youzhou, and Wu Shanshi had brilliant strategists under his command. Li Li also had no guard against Wu Shanshi. Considering this, there was indeed a good possibility that Wu Shanshi could succeed in killing Li Li.
Just as Yuan Li started to worry, Zhou Gongdan added at the bottom of the secret letter, “Please rest assured, Lord. Li Li will certainly be wary of Wu Shanshi and won’t be easily fooled. Gongdan once advised Wu Shanshi to write to you, nominating you as the Governor of Bingzhou, and when Li Li hears about this, he will likely mistake it for Wu Shanshi’s alliance with you and the Grand General. With this prior situation, Li Li won’t believe Wu Shanshi’s sincerity in surrendering.”
After this passage, the letter ended. Yuan Li was invigorated, reading the letter repeatedly with excitement, “Marvelous! Gongdan is indeed a strategist beyond compare.”
Curious, Chu Hechao took the envelope and read it, nodding in agreement, “A remarkable person indeed.”
Yuan Li sighed, “Such a remarkable person must return to us safe and sound.”
Chu Hechao’s expression turned cold, “Wu Shanshi aspires to kill Li Li without even asking me if I agree. If I don’t kill Li Li with my own hands, I can’t ease the hatred in my heart.”
“Li Li’s life will naturally be taken by us,” Yuan Li said with a determined tone, “Since Wu Shanshi plans to take the initiative, we should expedite our actions as well.”
Chu Hechao pondered for a moment and said, “The troops and military funds are already prepared.”
Yuan Li checked the weather forecast and made the final decision, “Then we depart in five days.”
Five days later.
Fifty thousand Youzhou troops, clad in leather armor, stood tall and upright in front of the gates of Ji County. Their expressions were serious and majestic.
Flags with the word “You” fluttered in the wind, creating a crisp sound.
The drums thundered.
The cavalry was in the front, and the infantry followed behind. Among tens of thousands of soldiers, there were one hundred three-person-operated triple-bow bed crossbows.
In this war against Li Li, it would be the first time the triple-bow bed crossbows would make their appearance. They would play a crucial role and perhaps leave a significant mark in history.
Yuan Li was also wearing a dignified black armor, his long hair meticulously tied up. His handsome face was filled with a calm and relaxed smile.
He leaned on his waist-hung sword, instructing Liu Jixin, Guo Mao, and others to take good care of Youzhou.
For this campaign, Yuan Li left Liu Jixin and Guo Mao in the rear. Guo Mao had important tasks related to military garrisoning, and Liu Jixin was responsible for handling official documents in the government office. They could not leave Youzhou.
Yuan Congyun and Wang Er, the two generals, would also stay in Youzhou to defend the city securely. With them staying in Youzhou, Yuan Li could be at ease.
Yang Zhongfa, despite his old age, was still vigorous and not inferior to young generals. As Chu Hechao’s deputy, he could not be absent in the campaign against Li Li.
After writing down Yuan Li’s instructions one by one, Liu Jixin and Guo Mao couldn’t suppress their worries and looked at Yuan Li with concern, “Lord, take care of yourself.”
Yuan Li nodded with a smile, “Don’t worry, I will return safely.”
Yuan Dan stood behind Yuan Li, patting his chest with a cheerful smile, “I will protect you with my life!”
This was his first time going to battle with Yuan Li, and he was so excited that he couldn’t sleep the whole night. Now, dressed in black armor, he felt as if he had become mighty and had the appearance of a renowned general.
Yuan Li laughed and replied, “You? You better take care of yourself.”
Yuan Dan scratched his head embarrassedly.
Both Yuan Dan and Zheng Rong from Bingzhou would accompany Yuan Li to broaden their horizons. Zheng Rong and Guan Zhihuai would wait for them in Guangchang to join forces.
Yuan Li also took Wu Kai, as well as the outstanding figures promoted to junior commanders, Lu Hui and Gong Bin, as his accompanying military officers to go to Luoyang.
Liu Jixin and Guo Mao were reassured by the auspicious signs on Yuan Li’s body, well-equipped weapons, and strong soldiers. Liu Jixin took a deep breath and deeply bowed, “We will protect Youzhou well and eagerly await your victorious return, Lord.”
Yuan Li nodded, and after taking one last look at the gates of Ji County, he walked towards Chu Hechao.
Both of them mounted their horses, and Chu Hechao raised his horse whip, shouting, “Let’s go!”
The command flag waved forward, and the soldiers followed suit, their marching steps creating a dense vibration on the ground. Those who witnessed this scene were filled with excitement.
As the grand army gradually disappeared from view, Guo Mao and Liu Jixin deeply hoped that the Lord would return safely.
Their current positions were all thanks to Yuan Li. If anything happened to Yuan Li, it would be a disaster for them.
“Ah,” Guo Mao suddenly let out a long breath, his eyes burning, “The Lord will surely return victorious.”
Liu Jixin smiled, rubbing his beard, and said firmly, “That’s for certain!”
After leaving Ji County, the large army met with Guan Zhihuai, who led the 30,000 Northern Border troops, in Guangchang.
The 80,000-strong army pushed forward swiftly towards Luoyang.
They did not bring more people along.
Li Li’s forces numbered no more than 150,000 troops. The various states and counties in the Central Plains responded to Youzhou’s call and sent troops to attack Li Li. With all the forces combined, there would be around 300,000 troops, so Youzhou’s 80,000 soldiers were already a considerable force. They had to leave opportunities for other states and counties to gain merits in defeating Li Li.
After the Youzhou army set off, news spread to the other states and counties in the Central Plains, and they also sent troops to Luoyang.
Li Li also received news about several armies advancing towards Luoyang.
Among them, three forces were particularly powerful. One was Chu Hechao, who sought revenge for his family, and the other two were the two imperial uncles of the Emperor, Qin Meng, the Governor of Yizhou, and Qin Pei, the Governor of Yuzhou, who led 50,000 troops each.
The third force was an 80,000-strong army led by Chen Wang Chen Liu.
What made Li Li most wary was the 80,000 Youzhou soldiers.
It was not just because of the fierce Youzhou and Northern Border armies, but more importantly, because they were led by Chu Hechao.
He was none other than Chu Hechao.
Within Northern Zhou, there were only two Grand Generals, and besides Chu Hechao, there was General Yan Hui, who was drawn to Li Li’s side. But among the young and formidable generals of Northern Zhou, Chu Hechao stood alone. He was hailed as the God of War of Northern Zhou for a reason. Thinking of his remarkable achievements, Li Li felt a chill down his spine.
The name “Chu Hechao” represented an undefeatable force in the Central Plains.
Li Li immediately called for the Grand General Yan Hui to discuss countermeasures.
Before they could finalize their plan, the army of Qin Meng and Qin Pei, who were closer to Luoyang, were about to reach Yingchuan.
Yingchuan County was not far from Luoyang!
Li Li immediately asked Yan Hui to send someone to attack the Qin army and prevent them from getting closer to Luoyang.
If they waited until the rebels reached the gates of Luoyang before counterattacking, it would be too late, and Li Li wouldn’t be able to escape. It was best to keep the fighting as far away from Luoyang as possible.
Yan Hui, an experienced veteran, understood this and without hesitation, dispatched Zhonglang General Wan Liang to lead 50,000 soldiers to intercept the Qin army in Yingchuan.
Li Li’s expression turned serious as he instructed, “We must win this battle.”
Though many people came to fight Li Li, most were just looking for rewards and were not reliable. If Li Li could secure a resounding victory in the first battle, more than half of these rebel soldiers would be scared to take further action.
Conversely, if they lost the first battle, the world would see Li Li as a paper tiger, and they would all rush to tear him apart.
Yan Hui also spoke solemnly, “I understand.”
On the same day, Zhonglang General Wan Liang led 50,000 troops to Yingchuan. Ten days later, they clashed with the Qin army in Yingchuan.
Compared to the irregularity of the Qin army, Wan Liang had steadily risen to become a Zhonglang General through step-by-step promotion. He was also one of the renowned generals of his time and was truly a capable officer.
Qin Pei and Qin Meng, who relied on their royal bloodlines to become Governors of Yuzhou and Yizhou, respectively, were defeated by Wan Liang in a short time. Their army was routed, and they escaped from Yingchuan under the protection of their personal guards.
Their soldiers were captured by Li Li, who was delighted and incorporated the 30,000 prisoners into his own army. Before Chu Hechao and Yuan Li could lead their armies to attack Li Li, he had taken the opportunity to strengthen his forces.
With these additional 30,000 soldiers, Li Li’s momentum soared. When the news of Qin Meng and Qin Pei’s humiliating defeat spread among the other rebel soldiers, they were shocked.
The 50,000 troops of the Qin army were defeated so easily?
Li Li won without any effort?
Li Li… was so powerful?
The resounding defeat of the Qin army made the majority of rebel soldiers, who had come seeking rewards, fearful and hesitant to approach Luoyang. They stopped in Jiyin County, eating and drinking, waiting for someone else to take the lead in attacking Li Li so they could follow and share the spoils.
While they hid like timid turtles, Li Li took advantage of the situation to recruit heavily, even resorting to compulsory conscription.
He forced common people into the army, gave them a few worn-out weapons or sticks, and sent them to the battlefield after just ten or twenty days of training.
These soldiers were not true soldiers; more accurately, they were just ordinary farmers. They only served one purpose on the battlefield – to die.
They used their bodies to block the enemy’s advance, and their flesh and blood to delay the enemy’s draw of their swords.
Yan Hui didn’t like using these soldiers because they hadn’t received proper training and were prone to disperse and flee at any time. Once one soldier fled, the others would be filled with fear and follow suit. Once a collapse occurred, the whole army would be in disarray, leading to a crushing defeat.
However, if he placed these soldiers, who had only trained for about ten days, at the forefront as human shields, Yan Hui had nothing to say. This approach might be cruel, but in his view, it was a simple and effective tactic.
In September, the formidable Youzhou army, which Li Li dreaded the most, finally arrived in Henei County, a thousand miles away from Luoyang.
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