Chapter 106: Going astray
"Is there anything else troubling you?"
"None of us can predict what will happen," Qi Yun said. He was still restless. "Even if you haven't found Mister Ji Bo, remember to put your safety first."
"We will find Mister Ji Bo," Jun Huang said in a determined voice. "I will not give up until we find him. Don't worry about us."
Nan Xun was getting impatient. Qi Yun's concerns weren't going to help them in any practical way. "Let's go," he urged. "The rain has stopped, but it might start again."
Qi Yun felt as if a fish bone was stuck in his throat, stopping his words from coming out. He saw that there was no use for him to say anything, and he had important things to attend to. He reluctantly left the tavern.
Nan Xun had been covering his ears. He was glad for the return of silence. He turned back and saw Jun Huang staring at him.
He awkwardly put his hands down. "He talked a little too much."
Jun Huang ignored his comment and said, "Why did you insist on leaving after noon?"
Nan Xun paused. That was an unexpected turn of the conversation. "This journey may turn out to be dangerous," he said with a smile. "Neither of us know what's ahead of us. I decide to bring more people. That way, we’ll have some support even if something does happen."
"I can't let people see me leaving the imperial city. If the emperor hears about a large group of men passing through the city gate, he will get suspicious. A few of the guards stationed at the gate are my people, but they are on the afternoon shift. That's why it's better for us to wait until now."
Jun Huang nodded without a word. With her rucksack in hand, she followed Nan Xun out. They surveyed their surroundings. There wasn't anyone who seemed like Qi Chen's informant. Nan Xun waved a hand at the dark alley. From the shadow out came a group of men wearing plain clothes and armed with long swords. Their pulsing temples were a clear sign that they had a deep reserve of inner force.
Her expression betrayed none of her surprise. The men followed after her and Nan Xun. They were well-trained. Their movement was so silent it was as if they didn't exist.
Soon they reached the city gate. Nan Xun and Jun Huang stopped before the guards. One of them nodded when he saw Nan Xun. These must have been Nan Xun's men.
"Come on," Nan Xun whispered at Jun Huang's ear.
Jun Huang nodded and walked out of the city with Nan Xun by her side. No one had stopped them for a routine check.
Nan Xun had made the necessary preparations the day before. A coach and some horses were hidden in a residence not far from the city. They only needed to retrieve it, and they could be on their way.
Nan Xun didn't hesitate to tell Jun Huang that the property was his. Generals like him were not allowed to enter the city without the emperor's decree. It didn't matter if the emperor had summoned them before, or if they were back from a triumphant battle. That was why he had bought a house outside the city. After an arduous fight, he would come here to recuperate.
His tone was casual, but Jun Huang couldn't help judging the emperor in her mind. How typical the emperor was! When the country was at risk, he expected his generals to spill their blood on the battlefield; Once they had triumphed, however, he kept them out of the city for fear of a coup. It was laughable.
Seeing the coach Nan Xun had prepared, Jun Huang chuckled.
Puzzled, Nan Xun asked, "What's wrong?"
"Mister Ji Bo now lives deep inside a mountain," she said, curving her lips into a small smile. "It's difficult to find a path where a coach can travel on. Riding a horse will be the better choice."
Nan Xun fell silent in embarrassment. Jun Huang didn't have time to make him feel better. She went straight to a black horse and pointed at it. "I'll take this one."
Nan Xun didn't care which horse Jun Huang picked as long as she liked it. They mounted their horses and left for Mount Wuming1.
Jun Huang thought back to the time she traveled to Yangzhou with Nan Xun. The two of them had been silent like they were now, but they had been riding faster at that time.
Finally they arrived at the foot of Mount Wuming. Jun Huang tilted her head up. Perhaps only someone like Mister Ji Bo will be able to lead a life of peace in such chaotic time, she lamented. He must have been living like a celestial being.
Many had said that she was as aloof as a celestial being, but they didn't know how much was weighing her down. She could never transcend the mundane life. She had no other choice but to wade through the chaos in this mortal world in order to find her way out.
Seeing the distant look in Jun Huang's eyes, Nan Xun frowned and patted her on the shoulder. "Is something the matter?"
Jerked out of her trance, Jun Huang shook her head with a smile. She looked at the narrow winding path and the black horse she was riding. She sighed. "It seems that we will have to walk from this point onward." She let out a soundless laugh. "Maybe it's for the best. If we make our way to the top on foot, perhaps Mister Ji Bo will see how earnest we are and decide to help us."
Nan Xun knew Jun Huang was only trying to lighten the mood. He gestured for his men to dismount. Then he ordered some of them to stay and watch the horses. He would bring only a handful of people with him.
His people had been following him for more than a decade. They trusted Nan Xun to know what he was doing. No one posed any opposition.
Jun Huang got off her horse and looked up at the darkened sky. "It's going to rain again," she said with her brows furrowed. "Let's hurry and try to find Mister Ji Bo before that happens."
"Alright," said Nan Xun. He walked into the woods with Jun Huang. His men trailed after them silently.
There was a path that should take them to the top of Mount Wuming, but it was clear that no one had been here for a while. Thorny vines hung from above at the mouth of the path, blocking their way in.
The men exchanged a look. They were unwilling to damage the land. Jun Huang knew what her priority was. She took Nan Xun's sword from him and cut down the vines with a decisive slash, making way for them to pass.
It was going to be difficult to navigate through the path. One wrong turn could cause them to get lost.
The men shared a look as they walked. They silently commended Jun Huang for having the endurance to travel through the difficult terrain. They had thought that Jun Huang was merely a frail gentleman. She couldn't possibly make it to their destination. And yet she persisted. She didn't even once fall behind them.
They walked and walked, but they couldn't find a way out of the woods. The path had led them to the middle of nowhere.
Suddenly, thunder cracked through the sky, splitting the gloomy grey of thick clouds. The falling rain obscured their view.
They were deep inside the woods. The road forward was unknown to them, and they had no way to return. They were stuck here.
There was no living places in view for them to seek refuge in. Soon, they were soaked wet from head to toe.
Jun Huang tightened her jaw and wiped away the rain on her face. "Since we're drenched already, let us check what's over there." She took the lead and go forward.
Nan Xun hurriedly caught up with her. He brushed branches away as he walked. The rain didn't bother him at all.
It was getting darker and darker. One could see no further than three meters away. And the rain had further decreased the visibility. It was almost impossible to even see what was right in front of you. To make things worse, there were a lot of vermins in the woods. They had to keep their eyes on not only the raod, but also on their surroundings.
Something snapped. Jun Huang looked over at Nan Xun, the muscles in her neck tightening so much it might break. She slowly breathed out when she saw that Nan Xun had simply broken a tree branch that was in their way. Her skin was covered in cold sweat. The rain caused her body temperature to drop further.
She turned back and walked forward. In her haste, she slipped and fell towards the edge of the hill. She yelped as her body pitched sideway.
Nan Xun had been watching Jun Huang. Seeing that she was about to fall off, he leaped towards her and caught her hand.
He pulled Jun Huang into his arms and shielded her with his body as they tumbled down.
It all happened in an instant. When the guards heard the sound and rushed to where they had been, they were nowhere to be seen. The guards hurriedly split up to search for the two of them.
Nan Xun held Jun Huang tight against his body. His one hand was on her waist, and the other was shielding the back of her head. He clenched his teeth as tree branches clawed open the skin of his back. Fortunately, this area of the mountain was mostly covered in soft soil. There weren't a lot of rocks. And they had not fallen from a great height. His injury wasn't severe.
Once they had landed, Jun Huang looked up at Nan Xun's face. Her heart skip a beat when she saw how close they were. She quickly pulled away and helped Nan Xun up.
"Are you alright?" she asked worriedly.
Nan Xun moved his head and elbows experimentally. He let out a relieved sigh. "I'm fine. The cuts are shallow. My bones and tendons haven't been damaged."
Jun Huang wasn't convinced. She circled Nan Xun to check over his body. His clothes were tattered, and his sleeves were torn by the branches. He looked like a ridiculous mess.
Jun Huang couldn't find it in herself to laugh. She leveled Nan Xun with a sharp gaze. "Do you know how dangerous your action is? What do you expect to achieve by jumping off after me like that? You're only getting yourself hurt along with me."
Nan Xun didn't expect Jun Huang to be so agitated. He scratched his head and awkwardly said, "At that moment I couldn't exactly think. Besides, I couldn't possibly let you fall off on your own. I have promised to protect you."
"To protect someone, you have to first protect yourself," said Jun Huang. "If you can't even save yourself, how can you save other people?"
Nan Xun didn't know what to say in response. He stopped talking. There was no use in arguing with Jun Huang.
He looked around. He couldn't tell where they were now. The trees around them were tall enough to cover the sky. Rain fell through the cracks between the leaves.
There was a cave a little away from them. Nan Xun said to Jun Huang, "We shouldn't stay here in the rain. Let's take refuge in that cave until the rain stops. We'll talk about what to do next."
Jun Huang nodded. She helped Nan Xun towards the cave. The soil was as soft as snow. Their footprints were clear on the ground, one set of which were lighter than the other set.
Jun Huang took a look inside when they reached the cave. It was a shallow one formed by piles of rocks, but it was more than enough to shield them from the weather.
Literally means mountain without a name. ↩