Chapter 104: Wary
Wan'er jerked back and shook her head, her face flushed. She couldn't think of anything to say, so instead, she darted her eyes away without a word. The smell of ink lingered in the air even after Zhang Yuan had stepped away.
Silence followed. Looking around, Zhang Yuan didn't see Jun Huang or the other. Perhaps they have left to attend to something important, he thought. He turned back to Wan'er and cleared his throat. "If the lady isn't going anywhere else, may this gentleman accompany you on a walk in the back garden? Earlier I heard that the peach trees in the temple have bloomed. If you are free, maybe we can enjoy the view together."
Zhang Yuan's words were polite, and his tone was gentle. It made it easy for her to accept his offer.
Wan'er nodded and lowered her eyes. "If the gentleman is willing, this woman is glad to oblige."
They walked along the quaint path. Pink peach blossoms falling down from the sky. It felt as if they were walking into the land of the celestials.
Wan'er rarely left the palace. She didn't know that at the back of the temple was a hidden scene of beauty that could rival the scenery in the palace. She watched with her mouth agape.
Zhang Yuan tilted his head to look at Wan'er. There was a small smile on his face. He shielded her from the passing visitors as they followed along the path.
A few petals landed on her head. They complimented her beautiful face like plum blossoms on white snow. A mellow fragrance filled the air. Zhang Yuan reached out to take the petals off her hair. Wan'er flinched reflexively and turned around, her eyes meeting Zhang Yuan's. Zhang Yuan was the one who turned away first.
He seems like an honorable gentleman, Wan'er thought. Not as stunningly handsome as Feng Baiyu is, but still good looking enough to leave a strong impression. If Feng Baiyu truly will never fall for me, perhaps this man would be a better choice.
Jun Huang and Nan Xun saw Qi Yun back to the Court of Judicial Review. Afterwards, they left for Qi Chen's manor under the setting sun.
To fill the silence, Jun Huang asked, "Do you know what happened to the prefect of Yangzhou?"
Nan Xun guided her to walk on the inside of the street. It had been pouring the night before. There were puddles everywhere on the ground. He didn't want Jun Huang's robe to get dirty if a coach passed by and brought up a splash of water. "What else could his fate be? He is a criminal who cannot be redeemed. It's said that birds of a feather flock together. None of his family members are innocent, either. They were exiled to the border along with the prefect. However, the woman he forcibly married has commited suicide. The reason is still unknown."
Jun Huang turned to Nan Xun. He stopped to look back at her. "The emperor was the one who was in charge," he said with a sigh. "Even though I was helping the Court of Judicial Review investigate, some decisions were out of my hands. You don't have to look at me like that."
Jun Huang cleared her throat and looked away. A ray of sunlight shone through from the horizon before the sun vanished, covering the entire city in a warm orange glow. After winter came the spring, but the weather could still turn chilly from time to time. Even though it was April, Jun Huang still felt a little cold. She hugged her arms before her chest.
After a moment of silence, Nan Xun said, "I'm afraid you will have to do some work with Qi Chen to maintain his trust."
It didn't take long for Jun Huang to catch his drift. They had taken out quite a lot of Qi Chen's people the past couple of days. Qi Chen was now hypervigilant. It was a good thing that Jun Huang had ordered people to feed Qi Chen information that would mislead him. Otherwise a man as mistrustful as Qi Chen would have guessed she was the one who had been undermining him in no time.
She put away her foldable fan. They were getting close to Prince Chen Manor. Jun Huang turned to Nan Xun. "Let us part way here. I will go talk to Qi Chen. You and Qi Yun must be careful in the imperial court as well. Don't let Qi Chen grow suspicious of you."
"Of course. There's no need for you to worry."
Jun Huang nodded. Without another word, she walked towards the manor. Nan Xun watched her go until she disappeared from his sight. He turned away and returned to his manor.
The pageboy watching the door went up to Jun Huang with a sickly smile. "What has the gentleman come here for?"
"It's a simple visit," said Jun Huang. Inside, she was scoffing. These greedy men acted friendly to her only because she was favored by Qi Chen. Otherwise, what came out of their mouths would have been harsh insults rather than pleasant greetings.
With privileges granted by Qi Chen, Jun Huang was allowed to enter the manor without asking for permission. She didn't want to waste her time on the pageboy, so she walked straight inside. Her robe brought up some dust from the ground. The foldable fan in her hand emitted the smell of sandalwood.
Upon Jun Huang's arrival, one of the servants had gone to notify Qi Chen. Qi Chen had been sitting in the pavilion feeding koi fish in boredom. Hearing about Jun Huang's arrival, he ordered someone to walk her in. He sat with his back straight and dropped the remaining fish feed into the pond. The koi fish fought for the pellets with gusto.
Jun Huang followed the servant to the pavilion, her lips curved into a faint smile. She cupped her hands respectfully at Qi Chen. "This gentleman is pleased to meet Your Royal Highness."
Qi Chen gestured for Jun Huang to take the seat next to him. He pointed at the koi fish. "Can you see what's special about them?"
Jun Huang looked over at the pond with a frown. The fish swirled and swished in the water like regular fish. There was nothing unusual about it. She shook her head. "This gentleman has not noticed anything out of order."
"Understandable," Qi Chen said with a quiet laugh. "Brother Feng is a talented man. Even without me, you would be an asset every courtier tries to win over. You probably don't know how many people have fought until their hands were soaked with blood in order to achieve their goals."
Jun Huang sat in silence without giving him a response. She didn't know what Qi Chen's point was. It was safer for her to keep quiet. She didn't want to rouse his suspicion.
Qi Chen laughed lightly in response to her silence. He moved a cup of tea towards Jun Huang before raising his own. He sighed. "I wonder when I will be able to truly gain Royal Father's approval. I understand less and less of what his thoughts are"
"What makes Your Royal Highness say so?" Jun Huang knew Qi Chen must have been scolded by the emperor in the imperial court, but she pretended to be oblivious.
"Early this morning, Royal Father asked me to see him and reprimanded me severly. He knows who among the courtiers are my people. The investigation on the officials in the imperial city has concluded that quite a few of my people have been taking bribes. He scolded me for not knowing how to tell the loyal officials from the dishonest ones. Ha. That's not something I have control over, is it?" Qi Chen couldn't stop himself from complaining.
Jun Huang listened without a word, but in her mind she agreed with what the emperor had said. Qi Chen was too short-sighted in his pursuit of power. Everyone knew that about him. His people naturally were men who didn't shy away from getting their hands dirty. Otherwise they wouldn't have chosen Qi Chen as their master.
Most of his people had committed crimes, ranging from petty misbehavior to serious felonies. Usually Qi Chen was the one who cleaned up their mess. Now that their deeds had been exposed, Qi Chen had to focus on saving himself. He had neither the time nor efforts to spare for his people. As a result, Qi Yun was able to catch quite a few of them.
The prefect of Yangzhou was another example. He was the main source of income for Qi Chen. His exile meant that Qi Chen had lost one of his biggest supporters. Under these circumstances, he didn't dare to make a move.
Nonetheless, he now bore a burning hatred for the people responsible for the decline of his power. He wanted nothing more than to find out who it had been and tear them to pieces.
Thinking of the prefect, Qi Chen remembered that Jun Huang had visited Yangzhou a few days ago. "The prefect was arrested around the same time as your visit to Yangzhou. Did you hear anything when you were there?"
Jun Huang's eyes flashed. She looked down and shook her head. "This gentleman did not hear anything. People from the imperial city suddenly came to arrest the prefect when I was still in Yangzhou. I had to ask around to find out what happened. I was worried that trouble might come knocking if I stayed around. That was why I rushed to return to the imperial city."
Qi Chen nodded. "He is to blame for not cleaning up his own tracks. Yangzhou is far from the imperial city, but he crossed a line. He deserves the punishment he received."
Jun Huang huffed silently. She thought back to what she had discovered when she was helping with disaster relief at the border. Had Qi Chen forgotten about what he himself had done? He was in no place to criticize the prefect.
"The prefect exploited his people without restraint, but he failed to clean up his own mess. It may be a blessing in disguise that he was exposed. Your Royal Highness should stay out of this. Don't make the emperor grow suspicious of you."
Qi Chen nodded. "I understand. It's going to get better once the scandal has faded from people's memory."
"What does Your Royal Highness plan to do?" Finally Jun Huang had directed the conversation back to what she came to talk about. As soon as she said so, however, Qi Chen's expression changed. She thought back to her question. There wasn't anything suspicious about it. Something was wrong with the way Qi Chen reacted.
Qi Chen didn't immediately answer. He looked at Jun Huang, then at his surroundings, making sure there were no unwanted eyes watching. "I plan to wait and observe," he said in a low voice. "Those who have been plotting against me are bound to slip up one day."
"Your Royal Highness is indeed clever," Jun Huang praised.
It was getting late. She got to her feet and bowed at Qi Chen. "Your Royal Highness should take some time to relax. This gentleman will take care of the rest."
Qi Chen nodded and ordered a servant to walk Jun Huang out. He waited in the pavilion. It took the time for an incense stick to burn for the servant to return. The servant said quietly, "Gentleman Feng has not done anything suspicious. He went straight back to his place."
Qi Chen let out a sigh of relief. He was glad that Jun Huang hadn't been the one who betrayed him. What he didn't know was that Jun Huang knew someone was following her. She pretended to be oblivious on her way back. Once she arrived at her place, however, she sent a message to Nan Xun.
At night, Nan Xun sneaked into Jun Huang's place. She was waiting for him in the garden.
The teapot on the table was filled with only water. Little Girl had somehow learned that Jun Huang shouldn't drink tea at night, so she told the servants to stop serving Jun Huang tea after dinner. Jun Huang wanted to laugh. At the same time, she couldn't help but feel touched.
Nan Xun appeared suddenly before her like a gust of wind. Jun Huang wasn't surprised. She knew Nan Xun was a master in martial arts. Otherwise he wouldn't have been able to break into Prince Chen Manor several times without the trained fighters in Qi Chen's circle noticing.