Don’t be fooled by Yuan Li’s apparent calmness. His anger is no less than that of Yang Zhongfa, who is stepping on Cheng Bu’s severed head.
No one understands better than him how much pain Chu Hechao carries in his heart. The actions of Cheng Bu and Li Li’s attempt to provoke Chu Hechao were like rubbing salt into his wounds, making Yuan Li furious.
It was precisely because of this anger that he quickly found an opportunity to counterattack.
From the moment he learned about the dilemma of the imperial decree to the moment Yuan Li broke the deadlock, everything happened swiftly and unexpectedly. In the blink of an eye, the situation had completely reversed.
The soldiers from Luoyang who were escorting the rewards were bewildered and at a loss. They were now under the control of Wang Er’s men, surrounded and forced to discard their weapons.
Among the crowd, Guan Zhihuai looked at Yuan Li’s figure with complex emotions.
Just a moment ago, they had no solutions and thought they could only endure the humiliation and lie low for the time being. But it was Yuan Li, the youngest among them, who found a breakthrough in an instant, giving them the upper hand.
At this moment, Yuan Li’s age was ignored, and his reliability was unquestionable. He brought a strong sense of reassurance to everyone.
A person like him undoubtedly made people unwaveringly want to follow him, acknowledge him as their leader, and offer him their loyalty.
Although Guan Zhihuai still had many reservations about Yuan Li, he couldn’t help but admit that Yuan Li’s abilities were indeed formidable. His thinking was quick and far beyond ordinary people. Even his courage and decisiveness had the demeanor of a hero.
With Yuan Li’s intervention this time, Guan Zhihuai understood why his colleagues held such high regard for Yuan Li.
After killing Cheng Bu, Yuan Li didn’t waste any time. He walked over to Chu Hechao and said, “General, we cannot delay any longer. Let’s organize the troops and set off for Luoyang immediately with these people.”
Chu Hechao nodded and swept his gaze among his subordinates before settling on He Lang. “He Lang.”
He Lang stepped forward promptly and said, “I’m here.”
“Lead three hundred men to escort them and depart for Luoyang tomorrow.”
He Lang saluted and said, “I will follow your orders.”
The group of people hurriedly returned to the study, while Yuan Li silently sat in his chair, contemplating the situation.
The others were initially chatting and laughing happily, ridiculing Cheng Bu and cursing Li Li. But when they noticed Yuan Li’s contemplation, they quickly lowered their voices, afraid of disturbing him.
“Lord He,” Yuan Li suddenly raised his gaze and said.
He Lang’s spirits lifted, and he hurriedly responded, “Lord Yuan, please speak.”
“I ask that you delay the journey back to Luoyang with these rewards,” Yuan Li said, “It would be best to publicize the fact that Li Li attempted to recruit us but was rejected by us at every place along the way. If we can arrive in Luoyang only in winter, that would be even better.”
In the cold winter, Li Li would be hindered by the harsh weather and unable to use any means against them. Throughout the winter, this rumor would spread widely. By the time spring arrived, it would be too late for Li Li to do anything.
He Lang cheerfully agreed, “I understand.”
Yuan Li felt guilty and said, “It’s just that it will be hard on you. If you arrive in Luoyang in winter, you may not be able to return until next spring.”
“That’s alright,” He Lang replied directly, “We’ll find a place to spend the winter leisurely. As long as we have enough food and clothing, a few months will pass easily. The North is much colder than Luoyang. We, who have spent a long time in the North, are not afraid of the cold. Maybe we can slowly make our way back to Youzhou during the winter and arrive by the time spring comes.”
Yuan Li nodded and looked at the others, saying, “Li Li will know the news faster than us. The people sent to return the rewards will likely be aware of what we have done even before reaching Luoyang. Our current plan is to reveal the matter to the world before Li Li learns about it. We must make our ‘loyalty’ known to the world and the Emperor. Regardless of the circumstances, we must solidify Li Li’s attempt to bribe and recruit us with generous gifts.”
Only by solidifying it could they stand on the moral high ground and condemn Li Li, the traitor, and make him truly responsible for the murder of Chu Wang and the Madam.
They wanted to become the absolute embodiment of justice. When they avenged Chu Wang and Lady Yang, the people of the world would rise up with them. Only by killing Li Li and the eunuchs could they truly avenge Chu Wang and Lady Yang.
Guo Mao’s eyes lit up, and he asked, “Lord, should we ask Master Cui to write an article?”
Cui Xuan was a grandmaster among scholars, and his influence was undeniable. If they had his assistance, the news of Li Li’s attempt to “recruit us and kill Chu Wang and the Madam” would spread throughout the world at the fastest speed.
Liu Jixin frowned, “Master Cui doesn’t like getting involved in such matters. We had to put in a lot of effort when he was asked to come down the mountain. Now, if we want to use his reputation, he probably won’t be willing.”
“Cui Yan is currently under your command,” Guo Mao smiled faintly, a glint in his eyes, “If Master Cui refuses, let Cui Yan go and ask him. If even Cui Yan fails, then…”
He waved his feather fan, implying subtly, “I’ve heard that Master Cui is a pragmatic person.”
This means they want to forcibly pressure Cui Xuan.
Liu Jixin instinctively wanted to say “It’s not possible,” but in the end, he swallowed the words and wanted to hear what the Lord had to say.
“Don’t worry,” Yuan Li said those two words calmly, “Chang Yue, you and Pingzhi will go to Mang Mountain to visit the old master. Remember to bring generous gifts and have Lin Tian help you choose a few calligraphy and paintings to bring along. Ask the old master if he would be willing to lend us a hand. Be respectful in your words and don’t offend the old man.”
Guo Mao and Liu Jixin stood up together and agreed.
Yuan Li then looked at the generals under Chu Hechao’s command and sincerely said, “Although the rewards sent by Li Li are intended to please and make amends, they are also rewards for the merits of your killing the Xiongnu. If I send them back to Luoyang as they are, you will be missing out on a share of the rewards, and that would be my fault.”
As soon as he said this, Yang Zhongfa waved his hand dismissively, not caring at all, “Lord Yuan, you don’t need to say that! If it weren’t for your Thunder Cannon, we wouldn’t have been able to defeat the Xiongnu or kill Huyan Wuzhu! We don’t need Li Li’s rewards, that person is treacherous, and we would be relieved without those rewards.”
The others nodded in agreement. He Lang also added, “You and the General are the greatest heroes. Those rewards are probably meant for the two of you. If we talk about losses, it would be you two who suffer the most. What are our things compared to that? Don’t worry about it.”
Yuan Li smiled.
Although they said so, Yuan Li knew that he couldn’t just leave it at that.
Managing subordinates is not easy. Leaders must be strict but also generous and not too demanding.
What needs to be given must be given, especially when it comes to rewards for military achievements. People follow you and fight for you for fame, fortune, and power. These things cannot be denied.
Yuan Li also believed in the genuine intentions of Yang Zhongfa and the others at the moment, but who could guarantee how long that sincerity would last? If the gradually eroded sincerity resurfaced in their memories of this matter, would they accumulate resentment?
Resentment that can be erased with money should not be taken lightly. Having recently received an unexpected windfall from Cai Ji, Yuan Li was confident enough to provide the rewards himself.
Yuan Li looked at Chu Hechao and the two exchanged glances. Chu Hechao spoke in a firm tone, one that couldn’t be argued with, “Although we can’t accept Li Li’s rewards, you should not receive any less than what you deserve. Later, Le Jun and I will send someone to deliver the rewards to you.”
The tone was forceful, leaving no room for refusal. Yang Zhongfa and He Lang felt somewhat afraid and nodded, not daring to refuse any further.
After finishing this matter, everyone dispersed. He Lang had to go back home to prepare his belongings, so he was in a hurry.
Yuan Li and Chu Hechao had a simple dinner and quickly washed up before returning to their room. Once the servants left and the room was empty, they slept together on one bed, speaking softly about the events of the day.
“I don’t think Cui Xuan will involve himself in the matter between us and Li Li,” Yuan Li lowered his voice, “He has been in seclusion for decades, avoiding getting involved in politics. Unless we use his family’s lives to threaten him, he won’t cooperate. But if I use his reputation without permission, wouldn’t I be worse than a beast?”
Chu Hechao squeezed Yuan Li’s hand and said, “Don’t force him.”
Yuan Li sighed with worry, “Our sources of information are far inferior to Li Li’s.”
These past few days have fully exposed their weaknesses. Youzhou is in a remote location, and information arrives slowly. Without a complete intelligence network, they were unaware of the news of Chu Wang and the Madam’s death or the imperial decree sent by Li Li. They were too late to react when the situation was right in front of them.
Intelligence is time, it’s life, and it’s even more crucial in turbulent times. However, if they want to wait for the intelligence personnel from the Liangliao Institution to become fully operational, it will take several years at least.
The only consolation is that the various factions are still testing each other, and a full-blown conflict has yet to erupt.
Li Li is holding onto the Emperor and firmly seated in Luoyang, so he dares not initiate a fight. With the Emperor in his hands, he can command the feudal lords. Today’s methods against Li Li may be the first time he has acted in the name of the Emperor and faced failure since taking control of Luoyang.
But even today, Yuan Li did not openly defy the imperial decree. He only provoked Cheng Bu to make mistakes, which gave him the opportunity to break the deadlock.
However, by openly provoking them like this, Li Li will definitely not remain idle. Without an intelligence organization, Yuan Li can only speculate on what Li Li will do next based on his temperament and methods of dealing with people. Yuan Li tugged at Chu Hechao’s sleeve and asked, “What about the letter that Chu Wang gave you?”
Chu Hechao got off the bed to retrieve it for him.
The two of them read the letter several times, focusing on the detailed descriptions of Li Li.
As they read the letter again, Chu Hechao’s emotions remained unchanged, and his face was calm.
The letter clearly and concisely described what kind of person Li Li was. Yuan Li, lost in thought, nudged the person beside him with his elbow and asked, “What do you think Li Li will do next?”
“He won’t give up so easily,” Chu Hechao sneered, “The Emperor is in Luoyang, and he will use the Emperor’s name to deal with us.”
Yuan Li smiled, “I think so too.”
The Emperor’s card was very useful, but Li Li still didn’t dare to use the Emperor’s name to suppress his opponents because he had no troops and no supplies. His time ruling Luoyang was too short. Even if he wanted to suppress his opponents, he wouldn’t be able to reach Youzhou.
Because Youzhou was really far away.
Unless Li Li wasn’t afraid of his rear defense being breached by Yanzhou, Yizhou, Yuzhou, Bingzhou, and other places, he would boldly come forward.
At times like this, Yuan Li began to appreciate the geographical location of Youzhou, far from the Central Plains.
Chu Hechao touched Yuan Li’s chin, his voice tired, his eyes dark and heavy, “Today, it was thanks to you.”
Yuan Li said, “You don’t know how close he came to driving me death.”
Chu Hechao’s breath hitched, and his brows immediately furrowed as he reprimanded, “Don’t say that word.”
Yuan Li blinked and obediently replied, “Oh.”
Chu Hechao’s tightly furrowed brows eased slightly as he lightly rubbed Yuan Li’s cheek with his finger and said hoarsely, “Don’t scare me, your brother can’t handle being scared right now.”
Yuan Li agreed, “I won’t say that word again in the future.”
Chu Hechao made a sound of acknowledgment.
Yuan Li made a pained expression, “Brother, you’re rubbing my face too hard.”
Chu Hechao laughed, “There’s nothing I can do. I’m already using very little force, and it’s still bothering you.”
Yuan Li took his hand and felt the uneven scars, which were painful to touch. “How did you get these wounds on your hand?”
Chu Hechao didn’t want to say much and casually brushed it off, “You can get all sorts of wounds on the battlefield.”
True enough, Yuan Li compared his hand with Chu Hechao’s, and after looking at it for a while, Chu Hechao said, “Your hand looks good.”
Yuan Li humbly replied, “Your hand looks good too.”
Chu Hechao smiled, “So you like me this much? You even like the scars on my hand.”
Yuan Li: “…”
After a few more words, they returned to discussing important matters. Yuan Li said, “It’s not advisable to confront Li Li now. The harvest season is approaching, followed by winter. This winter…”
Yuan Li hesitated, unsure of how to continue.
Chu Hechao raised an eyebrow, “What about this winter?”
Yuan Li eventually spoke up, looking into Chu Hechao’s eyes and said seriously, “If I were to say that there might be a snow disaster this winter, would you believe me?”
Chu Hechao’s expression turned serious, sensing that Yuan Li wasn’t joking. His heart sank, “How widespread and how long would the snow disaster be?”
“I don’t know,” Yuan Li sighed, “I’m not even sure if it will happen this winter or the next.”
Yuan Li had previously speculated that there might be a snow disaster after he entered government service and obtained cotton. But now he had entered government service a whole year earlier than expected. If calculated based on the normal age, next year would be the true year for him to enter government service with an official rank.
So he couldn’t determine whether there would be a snow disaster this year or next year.
This uncertainty made Yuan Li hesitate about what to do.
But he didn’t expect Chu Hechao to believe what he said about the snow disaster—despite this man being so suspicious.
“Regardless of whether it happens this year or next year, it’s best to prepare early,” Chu Hechao’s words ended Yuan Li’s doubts, and he firmly said, “If we safely get through this year, we will have a year to prepare for the snow disaster. If there is a snow disaster this winter, then starting from tomorrow, we should collect firewood and coal, organize the granaries, and build houses.”
Yuan Li’s restless heart suddenly settled, and he nodded, unable to help but smile, “Okay, let’s start preparing from tomorrow then.”
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