Chapter 110: Armchair Theorizing
"I'll do it," Nan Xun said politely and cupped his hands at Ji Bo. Ji Bo raised an eyebrow. He didn't know much about Nan Xun, but he did know that Nan Xun was a warrior who had been undefeated in his time defending the border.
Since Nan Xun was a competent fighter, Ji Bo wasn't going to go easy on him. Ji Bo waved a hand at the page boy and had him lead Nan Xun out of the building. Jun Huang was going to follow them, but Ji Bo stopped her. "Why doesn't the gentleman stay here? You won't be of much help to him. If you get trapped in the formation too, you will only be a burden."
Jun Huang fell silent. He wasn't wrong. She stood on the side with her arms crossed, her eyes fixed on Nan Xun as he walked into a blue light.
Nan Xun was befuddled when he first entered the formation Ji Bo had set up. All around him was an empty void. He gripped the hilt of his sword without a word. The lines on his face went rigid, which worried Jun Huang.
Soon, a man holding a broadsword stepped out from the edge of the seemingly endless void. He was as tall and sturdy as a pine tree. The sword in his hand was so heavy that the veins in his arms threatened to break the skin.
Nan Xun's eyes turned cold. He tightened his grip on his sword.
Without warning, the man raised his broadsword and struck at Nan Xun. Nan Xun dodged by a hair's breadth.
The blade hit the ground and sent sparks into the air, leaving a deep cut in its wake.
The attack was so powerful that Nan Xun could feel the force even though he hadn't been hit. His foe wasn't someone he could afford to underestimate. He drew his sword and lunged at the man.
The man narrowed his eyes and blocked the attack with the body of the broadsword. Nan Xun had put a great amount of force behind his strike. His sword was under such pressure that it started to bend a little.
The man continued to push back. Nan Xun knew that if he continued to apply brute force in this futile attempt to break the man's guard, he would lose his weapon. That would be far from ideal.
With a twist of his wrist, he turned the tip of his sword and slided it upward along the broadsword's blade. He kicked at the broadsword, propelling himself backward, and landed on the ground with a flip.
The man was as relentless as a machine. He charged at Nan Xun again. Nan Xun was going to step aside, but his feet were stuck. There was a black serpent coiling around his ankles. He looked to his side. A woman looked back at him with leering eyes and a raised eyebrow. Snakes and scorpions made themselves at home all over her body.
Nan Xun knew he must stay focused. He cut down the snake and rolled to the side. He barely dodged the hit. If he had been a little slower, he would have been killed.
More and more enemies came at him. Nan Xun knew he must deal with them quickly, or he would run out of stamina soon. Originally he was trying to spare these people's lives, but no more. Taking a deep breath, he slashed his sword sideway, sending a short figure flying. He turned into a puff of green smoke upon landing.
Nan Xun raised an eyebrow. So these aren't real people. It seems that I don't have to pull my punches.
From then on, every strike of his sword aimed to kill. He managed to keep his enemies away from him. Even so, Nan Xun didn't get careless. His enemies each had their unique fighting style. Some tricks they used were completely foreign to him. It was better for him to not take unnecessary risks.
A moment of distraction allowed the seductive woman to get close to him. A venomous snake slithered around her fingers, its mouth opening wide, showing its sharp fangs.
Nan Xun would not show her mercy even though she was a woman. He quickly seized her arm. She pouted at him and said in a sweet voice, "Ah! The gentleman is so very forceful. It hurts." She wrapped her fingers around Nan Xun's shoulder. There was a stinging pain. He looked down and saw a scorpion's tail burying into his flesh. Nan Xun threw the woman away with all his force. She turned into dust when she landed. The scorpion had vanished along with her. The pain in his shoulder, however, remained.
After about the time to brew a pot of tea, Nan Xun had taken out all his enemies except for a woman wearing a face veil. The woman's eyes were bright and familiar.
Jun Huang's face flashed through his mind. The woman's eyes looked almost identical to hers. His hands trembled. The woman gazed at him calmly. He wanted to say something, but he couldn't.
The woman's eyes turned cold as she took out a silver needle. His heart clenched and he almost dropped his sword.
The woman gave him a venomous look and threw the needle at him. Nan Xun only recovered from his shock when the needle almost hit him in the face. He blocked it with his sword and charged at the woman. He was inches away from cutting her down.
The woman looked up at him with such lifelike eyes; suddenly the line between illusion and reality blurred. He forgot what was real and what wasn't.
Seeing that Nan Xun had froze and the needle was going to bury into his pulse point, Jun Huang rushed forward and panickily shouted, "Focus, Nan Xun! Don't let the illusion blinded you."
Nan Xun's unfocused eyes lit up. With a strike of his palm, the woman flew back like a fallen leaf. The face veil fell when she landed. Nan Xun could finally breathe properly again when he saw the face.
It wasn't Jun Huang.
It couldn't have been her, but he was relieved nonetheless.
Sweat broke from his forehead, wetting his collars. All his strength seemed to have drained from his body. He almost fell over.
Ji Bo deactivated the formation. Jun Huang rushed to Nan Xun's side and supported his weight. "Are you alright?"
Nan Xun met her gaze. There was a fleeting flash of nervousness in her eyes. He took a deep breath to steady himself. "I'm fine."
Ji Bo walked up to them. "Congratulation, gentlemen, on passing the second challenge. Let us begin with the third one."
"The third challenge is a test on your heart," said the page boy. "Please follow my master to his building, gentleman Feng."
"What do you want?" Nan Xun leveled Ji Bo with a frosty gaze, holding onto Jun Huang's hand to stop her from leaving.
Ji Bo spared him a single glance before looking away, waiting silently for Jun Huang to follow him. Jun Huang knew Ji Bo was trustworthy. She patted Nan Xun on the shoulder comfortingly. "Go get your wounds treated. Mister Ji Bo is a talented man who has no match in this generation. He can be trusted. You don't have to worry." She pulled away from Nan Xun and motioned for Ji Bo to take the lead.
Nan Xun held onto the wound on his shoulder, his face pale as he watched Jun Huang and Ji Bo walk away. He was restless. He wanted nothing but to follow them, but the page boy would not let him.
"The gentleman is hurt," said the page boy in a respectful tone. "Please follow me and allow us to treat your wounds."
The shadow guards tried to talk Nan Xun into getting treated as well. Nan Xun had no choice but to follow the page boy.
Jun Huang and Ji Bo walked through a winding hallway. After the time for a pot of tea to brew, they arrived at the door to Ji Bo's residence. Ji Bo opened the door and stepped inside. Jun Huang looked around before following him.
It was a minimalistic room. The sandalwood incense filled the air with a comforting smell.
Once they were seated, Ji Bo poured Jun Huang a cup of tea. The fragrance was strong. She could tell it was a premium brand of spring tea. She took a small sip. The pleasant taste lingered in her mouth.
Ji Bo was an elegant man. His features were delicate, and his clothes finely-tailored. The beard on his chin, however, looked out of place. This close, Jun Huang was able to tell that it was a fake one. She quirked up her lips. "It was unexpected for a talented man like you to pretend to be old. This gentleman has not met anyone who has done so."
Ji Bo touched his chin and realized that the beard he had taken such care to stick on was close to falling off. He awkwardly cleared his throat and peeled the fake beard off.
"The gentleman has talked about the two Song dynasties," said Ji Bo. "The two Songs cannot co-exist. The same is true of great talents. Does the gentleman understand what I mean?"
Jun Huang lowered her eyes. "Mister Ji Bo cannot deny that for a short period of time, the two Songs did co-exist. It's a fleeting part of the grand history, but it cannot be ignored."
"A desire for peace and quiet drove you to hide in the mountain. And yet you have done all you could just to trap us here. Can you explain to this gentleman what your intentions were?"
Jun Huang had always had a sharp tongue. Ji Bo could not find any valid arguments.
He was only thirty, which was the age when men were at their most ambitious. He knew a fractured world would merge into one country after a long period of time, and a single country would break down into several. He too dreamed of serving a great leader and uniting the world. However, he did not know what had been happening in Northern Qi, and he didn't know if Jun Huang truly wanted to put a wise man on the throne, or if she had ulterior motives.
He turned to Jun Huang. "Gentleman, no, Princess, do you truly want the best for the world? Or are you trying to achieve your own personal goal?"
Jun Huang startled. How does Ji Bo know what has been happening in the world? More importantly, he knows about my real identity and doesn't try to hide it?
"To be honest, this gentleman does have his own agenda. However, everyone knows what Eastern Wu is trying to do. Do you really want to see endless wars continue to make people suffer?"
"As long as Eastern Wu stands, wars and conflicts will never cease to happen. Western Que was only the start."
Ji Bo didn't expect Jun Huang to be so blunt, but he could not deny the truth of her words.
After a moment of silence, he asked, "Who is the princess trying to put on the throne?"
"The fourth prince of Northern Qi, Qi Yun."