Chapter 109: Challenges
After Nan Xun jumped off the tree, he held onto Jun Huang's wrist without thinking. Jun Huang startled, her heart skipping a beat, but she didn't let it show on her face. She forced herself to look away.
A loud bang. The smoke slowly dissipated. A gust of wind cleared out their view. Nan Xun pulled Jun Huang behind his back. After what they had been through the past couple of days, he would take no chances. He waved the smoke away from his view.
Once the air was clear, the house they had spotted up on the cliff turned visible. This close to the house, they marveled at seeing such elegant architecture deep inside the mountain. Not everyone had the luck to live in a place like this.
While the others were appreciating the architecture, Jun Huang had her eyes fixed on the closed door. "It is said that Mister Ji Bo is a master of divination through astronomical observations, and that he possesses unparalleled intelligence. This gentleman and my companions have overcome many obstacles to pass the disorienting formation. Does Mister Ji Bo still refuse to let us in?"
There was no response. The house was as lifeless as an abandoned ruin.
Jun Huang frowned. Is there no one inside? She had heard how difficult it was to track down Mister Ji Bo. Perhaps he had left on a journey somewhere. It was also said that Mister Ji Bo was far from sociable. She was here to ask for his help. She would treat him like the most honored guest.
Jun Huang took a deep breath and turned around. "I'm afraid Mister Ji Bo is unwilling to meet us. Talented men often have their quirks. We should show him our determination."
Some of the guards did not agree with Jun Huang, but they didn't voice their opinions. In their minds, Jun Huang was the most talented man they had known. Over the past few days, they had come to realize that Jun Huang wasn't as unapproachable as she appeared to be. Instead, she was an extraordinary man who was both talented and well-mannered.
Just when the guards were cursing Mister Ji Bo for being arrogant, Nan Xun asked, "What should we do next?"
Jun Huang narrowed her eyes at the door. "We wait. Make camp outside the house. If Liu Bei was able to visit Zhuge Liang thrice to gain his approval, we can as well. I don't believe that we lack the patience to do the same."
Nan Xun nodded. They came here to ask for Mister Ji Bo's help. It wasn't a good idea to get on his bad side. They must look at the big picture and set aside their personal grievances.
Nan Xun ordered the shadow guards to set up camps. Jun Huang sat down under a tree and closed her eyes. Her ears were taking in every little noise around her.
Inside the house, Mister Ji Bo raised an eyebrow when his page boy told him that his visitors had blocked the door.
He put down his cup of tea and walked up into the attic. Through the window he could see Jun Huang and her companions.
Mister Ji Bo stroked his beard, a hint of appreciation showing on his face. "It's been years since the last time someone broke my disorienting formation."
The page boy nodded. "I have been keeping an eye on them since they entered the formation. I didn't expect the young man leading the team to be able to spot the weakness of the formation so quickly."
"The leading one?" Mister Ji Bo pointed at Jun Huang. "Do you mean the one sitting on the rock?"
The page boy nodded without a word.
Surprise flashed through Mister Ji Bo's eyes. He was too far away from Jun Huang to get a good look at her face, but he could see her frail form. To think that a young man who seemed so weak could be so remarkable! It seemed that there were an abundance of talented men in Northern Qi.
Before he left the attic, he said, "Activate the second formation tomorrow. I want to see how good these young men are." With that, he disappeared into the hallway.
Jun Huang waited for the door to open, but it remained shut for the entire day. When she opened her eyes the next morning, their surroundings had changed completely. Identical buildings circled around them. It was unclear which was real, and which was merely an illusion. The guards gaped at the sight. Then they turned to Jun Huang. They hoped that Jun Huang would be able to lead them out of the formation again.
The disorienting formation was indeed unpredictable. Jun Huang scoffed. This man has crossed a line, she thought. They came with a benign purpose and a genuine heart, and yet Mister Ji Bo played tricks on them again and again. She grew angrier the more she thought about it.
Jun Huang looked around with cold eyes. One of the building was the real one, but they must not be reckless. No one knew what dangers awaited them inside the fake buildings. They should put their safety above all else.
That was exactly what Nan Xun thought. He told his guards to remain cautious and to not let Mister Ji Bo's traps get to them. He followed Jun Huang closely, worried that she might get hurt again.
The buildings changed positions at regular intervals, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Therefore they couldn't try their luck and enter every one of them. She thought of the parasol tree from yesterday.
Among the chaos, something must remain constant. This disarray must have a pattern to them; she just hadn't seen it.
What she had to do was to find the center. The one building that remained static.
Now that she knew what she was looking for, she started searching for the eye of the formation. In no time, she found the one building that remained unmoved. She patted Nan Xun on the shoulder and took a step forward. An open laughter rang through the area.
"The gentleman is indeed clever, but you have forgotten that the center can move too. Once it does, everything else follows." The laughter faded out. The unmoving building started spinning at a speed that made it impossible to follow with human eyes. Jun Huang tried her best to track the movement, but in the end she lost it. She clenched her fists in anger.
"It seems that Mister Ji Bo is being difficult on purpose," said Jun Huang. She grabbed Nan Xun's hand and barged into one of the buildings.
Once they entered, all illusions merged into the one they were in. Not far from them, there was a man sitting on a divan. Recognition flashed through his eyes when he saw Jun Huang.
Jun Huang scoffed. "Is this how you treat every guest? This gentleman has learned something today."
Mister Ji Bo didn't reply. He had recognized Jun Huang at the first glance. He was the one who said that whoever possessed the Blood Phoenix would be able to attain the world. He couldn't help feeling guilty.
Jun Huang had no way of knowing what had happened before her time. She looked at Mister Ji Bo straight in the eyes. Hers was not the attitude of someone asking for help. Quite the contrary, it looked as if she was here to collect a debt.
Mister Ji Bo quickly adjusted himself and cleared his throat. "What are you here for?"
"We are here to ask Mister Ji Bo to leave retirement," stated Jun Huang. She didn't intend to beat around the bush.
What I said led her country and family to destruction, Mister Ji Bo thought. And her brother Jun Hao is still missing. His chest tightened. Even though he was living in the middle of nowhere, he was in no way out of touch with the world. He knew that Jun Huang was Ole Cragfiend's apprentice. That old man had once helped him too.
He could not say no to Jun Huang's request.
Mister Ji Bo cleared his throat. "I can leave my retirement, but – "
"But what ?"
"If you want me to help you, you have to show me what you are made of," Mister Ji Bo said in a righteous tone. "If you have neither talent or character, how am I going to offer you my assistance? Even if you are not worried, I still have a reputation to maintain."
He waved a hand at the page boy at his side and asked him to pose the questions.
The page boy stepped forward. "You must pass three challenges."
Jun Huang threw a glance at Nan Xun. At this point, she was willing to go through thirty challenges to get what she wanted. She nodded and cupped her hands. "Please go on."
The first challenge was a test of intelligence. The page boy would tell them a couple riddles for them to solve.
"The crescent moon hang on top of the east building. What character does it refer to?" The page boy met her eyes, waiting for her answer.
She quirked her lips and, without any hesitation, answered, "The answer is 'He', which means grain." She added, "In the lyric poem A Joyful Rendezvous by Lord Li Yu of Southern Tang, it went, 'Alone, I ascend the west building in silence. A crescent moon hangs above. Deep inside, lonesome parasol trees trapped the brisk autumn.' You used this poem as the basis of your riddle. Taking the left half of the character Lou, which meant building, and combining it with the image of a new moon, gives us the answer to this riddle."1
Her explanation demonstrated to the page boy her immense talent. He reflexively glanced at Mister Ji Bo before telling her the next riddle.
"Southern Song remained, while Northern Song has fallen. What character am I referring to?"
Jun Huang lowered her head in contemplation. Then she looked up at the sparrows flying in the sky. The answer didn't come to her immediately.
The others didn't dare to make a sound. They were soldiers. They knew nothing about wordplay and riddles. After the time for an incense stick to burn, realization struck Jun Huang. She smiled and said confidently, "The answer is 'Lin', which means forest."
The page boy widened his eyes. He asked in a hopeful tone, "Does the gentleman knows the thought process behind the riddle?"
Jun Huang nodded. "You based this riddle on the Jing Kang Incident, which marked the end of the Northern Song dynasty. The key is the two Songs. One dynasty has fallen, while the other remains. Combining the southern part – in other words the bottom part – of the two Song characters makes the character 'Lin'.2" She cupped her hands at the page boy. "You are a page boy, but you are knowledgeable. How admirable."
The page boy blushed. He was not used to being complimented.
He turned to Ji Bo, who turned to Jun Huang. Ji Bo didn't expect a woman to possess such a quick mind. If she had been born as a man, she would have become the most well-respected official of this generation.
It was a shame that she had been born in such chaotic times.
Jun Huang saluted Ji Bo. "I have passed the first challenge. May the gentleman start with the second one?"
Ji Bo clapped. "The gentleman is remarkably bright. Let us go into the next stage. This is a test on your ability to remain calm in face of dangers. Enter the formation I have set up and fight ten enemies. Which one of you wants to volunteer yourselves?"
The left half of the character 樓 (lou) is 木 (mu). If you add a diagonal stroke on top of 木, you get 禾 (he). ↩ Bottom part of 宋 (song) is 木 (mu), which means wood. Two 木 make a 林 (lin), forest. ↩