Cheng Bu remained stooped, not standing up.
His posture was humble, and his words were respectful. There wasn’t a single offensive word, but every sentence struck a nerve with Chu Hechao.
Everyone who heard him speak felt a surge of anger from the depths of their hearts, their faces turning ashen.
Li Li was intending to take the initiative and silence them.
Yuan Song had just arrived in Youzhou with his family, and Li Li’s rewards followed closely behind. What did this signify? It meant that as soon as Li Li learned of the murders of Chu Wang and the Yuan family’s relocation, he immediately thought of this plan. Without hesitation, he ordered the capture of the eunuchs and sent someone with generous rewards to accompany Yuan Song and his group to Youzhou, attempting to silence any rumors.
He wanted to distance himself from the deaths of Chu Wang and his wife. It would be best if Chu Hechao accepted his apology, but even if Chu Hechao didn’t, he couldn’t shift the blame for the deaths of Chu Wang and his wife onto Li Li.
This was an imperial decree. To disobey it would be to defy the imperial decree. But if they accepted the decree, wouldn’t it prove that the deaths of Chu Wang and his consort had nothing to do with Li Li? They felt trapped.
The deaths of Chu Wang and his wife couldn’t be avenged with just five eunuchs.
Chu Hechao looked at Cheng Bu with a stern face, slowly gripping the hilt of his large blade at his waist.
Suddenly, Yuan Li reached out and grabbed his wrist, shaking his head in Chu Hechao’s view.
He couldn’t kill.
Cheng Bu and his group had come here with great fanfare, bringing rewards that stretched for ten miles. They didn’t know how many provinces they had passed through or how many people knew that they were heading to Youzhou. If they were killed now, it would be like killing an envoy of the Emperor. Youzhou was far from the Emperor’s reach, and if such an incident occurred, everyone would think that there was a rebellion in Youzhou.
At that time, Youzhou would be in the same dangerous situation as Li Li. Perhaps Li Li intentionally provoked Chu Hechao with Cheng Bu’s words.
Li Li had already prepared for both possibilities. First, he tested the waters by offering generous gifts. These rewards were both a means to kill the enemy and an attempt to please Chu Hechao.
If Chu Hechao accepted his apology, they could peacefully coexist. If Chu Hechao refused, it would anger him and lead to Chu Hechao attacking Cheng Bu. Once Cheng Bu was killed, Youzhou’s situation wouldn’t be any better.
Chu Hechao understood what Yuan Li meant. He straightened his lips, gradually releasing his grip on the knife handle, while his other hand clenched into a fist by his side.
Yuan Li asked, “Do you have anything else to say?”
Cheng Bu casually stood up, continuing, “Apart from these rewards, the Emperor is greatly pleased with the death of the Xiongnu leader. As a result, he plans to grant titles and rewards to those who have contributed. I ask all the esteemed individuals to listen to the decree I will announce on behalf of the Emperor.”
With that, he produced the imperial decree and read aloud the Emperor’s intentions.
Although it was said to be bestowed by the Emperor, it was actually given by Li Li. Li Li spared no expense to pacify Youzhou.
Because Chu Hechao was already a Grand General, the highest rank possible, he was granted ten thousand acres of fertile land, countless gold and jewels. The decree also implied that Chu Hechao could promote and enfeoff his subordinates as he pleased. Regardless of the official position or noble title, as long as Chu Hechao spoke up, Li Li would grant it to him.
Li Li also allowed Chu Wang and his madam, the couple from another clan, to be buried in the imperial mausoleum and be honored by the Northern Zhou Dynasty for generations.
These conditions were incredibly enticing, making it difficult for anyone not to be tempted. Like a poisoned cake, even though it was deadly, it still made one’s mouth water.
Li Li also rewarded Yuan Li generously. He was conferred the title of Duke and promoted to the rank of Valiant Martial General, receiving abundant fertile land and gold.
Upon hearing his reward, Yuan Li frowned.
It wasn’t because the reward was too low but because it was too high.
This was the poisonous needle hidden within the generous rewards.
The highest title among marquises was Duke, and above that were Gong and Wang. Dukes were typically granted to meritorious ministers from different clans. Being appointed as a Duke meant being recognized as one of the feudal lords.
Such a marquis title was already high enough. Although Yuan Li had indeed achieved a great merit, directly granting him the title of Duke was a bit exaggerated. The reason was simple—Yuan Li had just turned nineteen and had only just begun his career. Giving him such a high title at the beginning meant that if he accomplished more in the future, how could he be rewarded?
Could they promote him to Gong?
Not to mention that Li Li’s bestowed title for Yuan Li was “Yan Jun.”
Youzhou had long been known as the land of Yan. “Yan Youzhou” referred to Youzhou. Chu Wang should have also been called Yan Wang, but they didn’t adhere to ancient customs. Yet here was Yuan Li, the Provincial Governor of Youzhou, being conferred the title of “Yan Jun” by Li Li in Chu Hechao’s territory. It was evident that there were sinister motives behind it.
This was clearly an attempt to sow discord.
To sow discord, Li Li also gave Yuan Li the additional title of Valiant Martial General.
The title of Valiant Martial General was only an honorary general title. Although it was an honorary title, it was a rank reserved for high-level military leaders, requiring significant military achievements to obtain. Killing the Xiongnu leader was undoubtedly a great military merit, but as mentioned earlier, Yuan Li was only assisting in the act and didn’t personally kill him.
The ones who personally killed the Xiongnu were Chu Hechao and his subordinates. It was unexpected for Yuan Li to receive the title of Duke, let alone the additional title of Valiant Martial General. Li Li deliberately disregarded Chu Hechao’s achievements and elevated Yuan Li’s war record, allowing Yuan Li to seize Chu Hechao’s credit.
To have one’s own military achievements divided and claimed by others, who could endure such a situation?
Throughout history, fame and fortune have been matters of life and death. Chu Hechao and Yuan Li may appear as a seemingly harmonious brother and sister-in-law in the eyes of others, but behind the scenes, their relationship might not be as amicable. Even among blood brothers, many have become enemies due to unfair distribution of interests. Can Chu Hechao and Yuan Li truly maintain a relationship without a trace of resentment?
Li Li’s tactic of sowing discord was open, straightforward, and effective.
If it weren’t for the secret relationship between Yuan Li and Chu Hechao, who were pretending to be brother and sister-in-law, Li Li’s plan might have succeeded as intended.
The others also received their rewards, and the rewards were not insignificant. Promotion and enfeoffment were usually a cause for celebration, but Li Li’s grand gestures made it difficult for anyone to feel happy.
Yang Zhongfa looked at Chu Hechao with a stern face, silently asking, “General, what should we do?”
They couldn’t kill, but they also couldn’t reject the decree. Were they truly left with no choice but to accept Li Li’s use of these five eunuchs to apologize to Chu Wang and his wife and then swallow their pride and wait for future revenge?!
It was truly frustrating.
After Cheng Bu finished reading the imperial decree, he smiled and tucked it away, holding it up with both hands. “Please, General, Yan Jun, and esteemed individuals, accept the decree.”
Chu Hechao and the others didn’t make a move, and both sides remained at a standstill.
Cheng Bu showed no signs of fatigue or impatience as he held up the decree.
Chu Hechao looked at the decree, his emotions fluctuating—disgust, hatred, and erupting anger mingled with restraint. Finally, he reached out his hand.
Cheng Bu revealed a satisfied smile.
Just as Chu Hechao’s hand was about to touch the decree, another hand suddenly reached out and grabbed his wrist.
Chu Hechao and Cheng Bu turned their heads to see Yuan Li, who had barely spoken throughout the ordeal.
Looking at the young Provincial Governor of Youzhou, Cheng Bu raised an eyebrow, respectfully asking, “Does the Provincial Governor have something to say?”
“No need to rush,” Yuan Li replied.
The handsome youth stood straight, his expression calm and composed. With an ethereal and jade-like appearance, he possessed the qualities of a young talent. He calmly walked behind Cheng Bu and approached the five eunuchs who were trembling with fear, carefully observing their faces.
Eunuchs, especially those from the Northern Zhou Dynasty, were cowardly fools who feared death.
Interestingly enough, they were enemies of Li Li.
Their godfather, godson, good friends, fellow compatriots, and even rival eunuchs from the Imperial Harem had all been killed by Li Li to a great extent. If there was anyone in this world who hated Li Li the most, it would undoubtedly be the eunuchs from the Imperial Harem.
Amidst the bewildered gazes of others, Yuan Li reached out and gripped the face of the most terrified eunuch, exerting considerable force. The eunuch’s face comically contorted under the pressure.
The Eunuch looked at Yuan Li in fear, not knowing what Yuan Li intended to do.
“Speak! Who instructed you to frame Chu Wang and his wife?” Yuan Li’s gaze was cold and stern, his fingers pinching the eunuch’s jawbone, exerting increasing pressure. His fingers nearly sank into the eunuch’s fat flesh. “What kind of person is Chu Wang? How could he be driven to drink poison and die by you five insignificant eunuchs? There must be someone behind all this. Who is that person? If you tell me, you still have a chance to redeem yourselves. If you don’t, I will make you experience the agony of Lingchi execution.”
Under his intense scrutiny, the eunuch shivered violently. His face was painfully squeezed, as if his bones were about to be crushed. He wanted to plead for mercy but could only produce a hoarse “ah ah” sound, unable to utter a single word.
Yuan Li glanced backward with the corner of his eye.
Following his gaze, the eunuch saw Cheng Bu.
In an instant, he understood everything. The hatred towards Li Li and the eunuch’s innate nature of fearing death made the eunuch’s eyes light up. In that moment, he found hope for survival and knew exactly what to say. With great difficulty, he uttered, “It’s Li, Li…”
Cheng Bu’s expression drastically changed as he shouted, “Shut up!”
But Yuan Li had already loosened his grip slightly, and the eunuch trembled as he said, “It’s Li Li! Li Li instructed us to kill Chu Wang and the Madam!”
“Outrageous!” Cheng Bu angrily stepped forward, drawing his accompanying guard’s large sword, ready to kill the eunuch. “Even at the brink of death, you eunuchs dare to utter slanderous words against Lord Li. Provincial Governor, you must not believe the words of these eunuchs. We scholars have suffered greatly at the hands of eunuchs. This eunuch clearly wants to incite conflict between Lord Li and all of you!”
Cheng Bu didn’t hesitate, and as soon as he finished speaking, he beheaded the eunuch. The eunuch’s head rolled on the ground, rolling several rounds.
The remaining four eunuchs, witnessing this scene, trembled in fear, not daring to say a word.
Cheng Bu coldly looked at them, then turned and handed the large sword to his guard, bowing apologetically to Yuan Li with folded hands. “The eunuch spoke nonsense, I hope the Provincial Governor will not take it to heart. You don’t know, Lord Li has killed numerous eunuchs in Luoyang. He despises eunuchs. How could he possibly instruct them to kill Chu Wang and the Madam?”
This statement was indeed true. Li Li himself could openly admit it. He only intended to imprison Chu Wang and his Madam and never planned to kill them.
The scent of blood quickly filled the air, stirring the nerves of everyone present.
Yang Zhongfa and the others, who had just regained their spirits and thought they could resolve the situation, clenched their teeth once again, feeling infuriated.
However, Yuan Li stood a step away, without any anger or excitement. He calmly looked at Cheng Bu.
He displayed no intention of stopping Cheng Bu from killing, and he even took a step back when Cheng Bu executed the eunuch, ensuring that the eunuch’s blood didn’t splash on him.
At this moment, as Yuan Li looked at Cheng Bu’s expression, a subtle and strange emotion appeared in his eyes.
Cheng Bu, seeing Yuan Li’s demeanor, felt a slight disturbance, as if something was unexpectedly amiss.
“You, as an envoy sent by the Emperor, claimed loyalty to the Emperor, but you flew into a rage just because a eunuch mentioned Li Li’s name. Furious, you killed the eunuch, not allowing him to speak the truth. Your master, who is he exactly?”
Yuan Li’s expression gradually darkened, and he looked down at Cheng Bu from a higher vantage point. His tone became more severe and sharp. “These eunuchs claim to be instigated by Li Li, yet you deprived them of their lives, preventing them from speaking the truth. The person you are loyal to is not the Emperor but Li Li!”
He sneered, “Li Li killed Chu Wang and the Madam and used the eunuchs as scapegoats. Look at these rewards spread over ten li, does this look like rewards bestowed by the Emperor for killing the enemy? It is clearly Li Li’s attempt to bribe and recruit us with extravagant gifts!”
“Guards!” Without waiting for others to react, Wang Er, Liu Jixin, and Guo Mao quickly stepped forward and bowed, saying, “We’re here.”
“Take away their weapons, behead him,” Yuan Li pointed at Cheng Bu firmly, “Even if Li Li offers treasures worth a thousand gold, we will never deign to associate ourselves with this thief. Behead Cheng Bu and let these people carry the rewards while holding Cheng Bu’s head back to Luoyang. Let Li Li know that both I and the General are loyal subjects of Northern Zhou, we are loyal to the Emperor, Emperor Zhouyan, not this thief who uses the Emperor’s name to conspire with scoundrels!”
This statement was resolute and unwavering. Everyone present was moved to tears, their emotions soaring. Wang Er immediately responded, raising his large sword and surrounding the people escorting the rewards.
Yuan Li played the tricks used to deal with those who took advantage of the Emperor’s authority in troubled times.
If the Emperor’s decree favored them, they would obey it. If the Emperor’s decree was unfavorable to them, they would proclaim it to be the intention of wicked officials and refuse to obey.
The world was already in chaos.
Yuan Li deeply realized this fact.
Since chaos had ensued, they could employ the methods suitable for troubled times.
After all, Li Li was far away in Luoyang, and Yuan Li himself was still trying to establish a solid foundation. He couldn’t dispatch troops to Youzhou, so he displayed a strong stance.
Liu Jixin concealed a smile at the corner of his mouth and shouted loudly in his mind, “Well done, my lord!”
In this way, they would turn the rewards sent from Luoyang into Li Li’s attempted bribery, and they would openly return them. Who would dare to accuse them of disobeying orders? What orders were they even disobeying? It was Li Li’s orders!
Furthermore, the people would praise their loyalty to Northern Zhou and the Emperor.
Cheng Bu didn’t know how he had lost his advantage in such a short period of time and couldn’t find a starting point to argue. He had prepared himself to die, but he didn’t expect to die like this. If he died like this, wouldn’t it be in vain?
He already regretted killing the eunuch in the heat of the moment. If he hadn’t, there might have been a chance to turn things around. But now that he had killed, it only confirmed his guilty conscience.
Yuan Li had seized control of the narrative.
But there was one point Cheng Bu needed to clarify, even if he died.
“Sir, these gold, silver, and jewels are truly the rewards bestowed by the Emperor for killing the Xiongnu leader.” Cheng Bu’s face was covered in sweat as he shouted loudly, “They are definitely not the extravagant gifts given by Lord Li to recruit you and the General!”
Before he could finish his words, his head had already fallen.
Liu Jixin immediately said, “Li Li actually thought he could bribe and recruit you with these common goods. Such an unfaithful and unrighteous person is truly delusional!”
Guo Mao joined in, “Not only that, he killed Chu Wang and the Madam but refused to admit it. He even attempted to use the eunuchs to appease the General’s anger. This eunuch spoke the truth and was killed in anger by the envoy. Does Li Li really think he can manipulate the truth as he pleases? No matter how high his titles and ranks are, we disdain associating with him!”
The remaining people were still dazed, but they gradually regained their senses from the words of Liu Jixin and Guo Mao.
Yang Zhongfa’s eyes lit up, and he immediately stepped forward, kicking Cheng Bu’s severed head. “Li Li is truly despicable. He used the Emperor’s name and thought he could buy our loyalty. Countless people along the way know about this incident. General, we must prove our innocence and inform the world about how shameless Li Li is. We are loyal ministers and do not want to be associated with Li Li, the thief.”
Chu Hechao’s rage diminished by half as he curled his lips, looking at Cheng Bu’s corpse. He said lightly, “Indeed, it should be done this way.”