Chapter 111: The Grand Scheme of Things
Ji Bo gave Jun Huang a doubtful look. He knew who Qi Yun was, but he couldn't say for sure that Qi Yun was the right candidate for the throne. After a thoughtful pause, he asked, "Why him?"
"The world is now split into three countries, with Northern Qi being the strongest, Eastern Wu the most ambitious, and Southern Mu the most cowardly. These I'm sure you know already. As for the reason I choose Qi Yun, it's not only because he is an old friend, but also because he will make a great leader. Take a good look at the imperial court of Northern Qi. Qi Chen couldn’t care less about the people. It's too early for us to tell what kind of a man the youngest prince will grow up to be. The third prince never intends to participate in affairs in the court. Qi Yun is our only choice, and I'm confident that he will live up to our expectations."
"I'm willing to swear on my life that Qi Yun will make a good emperor," Jun Huang proclaimed in a strong voice. It was difficult to not be swayed by her.
Ji Bo looked at Jun Hung's determined eyes. It was clear that even if he disagreed with her, she would persist until her vision came true.
"Please give this gentleman some time to consider," said Ji Bo. He needed to sort through his thoughts. "You must be tired. I have ordered my servants to arrange a room for you."
Jun Huang stood up and patted her wrinkled robe. "Please do consider our offer carefully," she said with a bow. "If we can attain the gentleman's support, it would be like a tiger gaining a pair of wings. Without you, our goal might as well be a pipe dream." She stepped out of the room. The page boy was waiting right outside.
The page boy gave her a friendly smile and led her out. Worried about Nan Xun's injury, Jun Huang picked up her pace. The page boy covered up a smile. "The gentleman doesn't have to be in such a rush. The general wasn't injured badly. A doctor has treated him earlier. Please don't worry about him."
Jun Huang stilled. Her cheeks became flushed in embarrassment. She paced herself, but she still felt as if she was walking on a tightrope. She couldn't express why this tension refused to leave her body.
At the end of the hallway was an open space. Bamboo trees stood before them like an emerald green screen. The scenery was extraordinary. Ji Bo is indeed a man with expensive taste, Jun Huang thought. She broke into a faint smile when she remembered how Ji Bo had put on a fake beard just to appear more mysterious.
The page boy tilted his head in question. Her frown had suddenly turned into an amused smile. He wondered what had caused the change in her expression. He shook his head. It wasn't in his place to ask.
They soon reached another building. The page boy left once he had walked her to the door. Jun Huang cupped her hands in thanks before entering.
The building was large enough to accommodate an army of people. The shadow guards had made themselves comfortable on the first floor. They stopped what they were doing to greet her.
"Where's Nan Xun?" asked Jun Huang.
A guard with a clever glint in his eyes pointed at the ceiling, "The prince is on the second floor. He told us to let you go upstairs once you're back."
Jun Huang nodded. She made her way up and gently knocked on the door. Nan Xun called out for her to enter.
He put down the book in his hands and sat up. "What did he say? Is he willing to help?"
"Mister Ji Bo has not given us a definite answer yet." Jun Huang walked up to him and leaned in to check what he had been reading. She raised an eyebrow. "Are you interested in Chinese medicine as well, Your Highness?"
Nan Xun smiled awkwardly at the book before closing it. "No, not really. I happened to spot it on the desk. The page boy said it belongs to Mister Ji Bo. I started reading because I was bored."
Jun Huang nodded in understanding. She looked over at the wound on his shoulder and frowned. "What did the doctor say?"
Nan Xun pulled at his collar and smiled openly. "Said it was a shallow wound. There's no need for you to worry." He turned the conversation around and said jokingly, "Usually you were the one getting injured. I suppose it's my turn now."
Jun Huang looked down at her healed ankle with a sigh. "What kind of a joke is that?"
"I'm fine, I promise," Nan Xun said, his expression turning serious. "Our priority now is to convince Mister Ji Bo, or this journey will be all for nothing."
Jun Huang nodded. Nan Xun was right. But she had made her case. Ji Bo wasn't one to be swayed easily. They could only hope that Ji Bo approved of their goals. They could not force him to join them.
At night, the temperature in the mountain dropped by a good measure. Jun Huang twisted and turned in the bed, trying and failing to fall asleep. Finally she gave up. She got off the bed and put on a robe before walking out of her room, looking at the mountain range with unfocused eyes.
The sound of light but melancholy flute reached her ears. It was so faint that she wouldn't have heard it if she hadn't been hyper aware of her surroundings.
It didn't take long for her to decide to follow the sound. She stopped at the building she had talked to Ji Bo in earlier.
Ji Bo's graceful form stood under the moonlight, his clothes fluttering in the wind and the jade flute in his hand radiated a faint glow.
Jun Huang looked at him from a distance. The flute didn't sound heavy, but it expressed a deep sorrow. Memories from the night Western Que fell surfaced her mind. She was reminded of the deep pain she had felt that day when the army invaded.
Sorrow gnawed at her heart. She didn't realize how pained her expression was.
Ji Bo opened his eyes when he finished playing the song. He was surprised to see Jun Huang standing before him. Jun Huang collected her thoughts and cupped her hands at him. "Sorry for intruding."
Ji Bo put away the jade flute and waved a hand at her. "You were merely following your heart. Perhaps you were meant to hear that song, princess."
Jun Huang let out a quiet laugh. "Please don't call this gentleman princess anymore. That girl died along with her family and country. Now, only Feng Baiyu walks the earth, and his sole focus is on getting revenge."
"It is said that the white jade is pure and flawless1," said Ji Bo, smiling. "I hope gentleman Feng can live up to your new name."
Jun Huang looked up at the crescent moon without responding. An indescribable feeling sneaked up on her. "Standing here, it seems as if the mountain and the river will always be this serene. The gentleman is indeed a man who prefers the quiet. I almost feel bad for asking you to come with us."
Ji Bo looked out of the hallway. This late at night, even the stars had disappeared from the sky, leaving only the bright moon. Every once in a while, a tired bird would fly through the woods to return to its nest.
After a long silence, Ji Bo said, "I have something to talk to you about."
"Then let's talk." Jun Huang didn't ask what he wanted to talk about. She motioned for Ji Bo to take the lead and followed after him.
The building was brightly lit. Ji Bo took a seat and poured her a cup of tea. "I've heard that the gentleman has a deep passion for tea. Is it true?"
Jun Huang paused. She wasn't sure why Ji Bo asked, and she wondered how Ji Bo knew. She waved a hand and didn't respond.
It only took a glance for Ji Bo to tell that Jun Huang's body was lacking in energy and blood. "Consuming too much tea is bad for your health. The gentleman is meant for great things. You should take better care of yourself."
Jun Huang made a sound in acknowledgement. She knew drinking tea at night was bad for her health, but she could not quit the addiction. In the past she simply enjoyed the bitterness of the tea. Now she needed the tea to help sooth her pain.
Ji Bo didn't interrupt her musings. When Jun Huang broke out of her trance, the candle on the table had burned through half its length. The table was covered in melted wax.
"What did the gentleman invited me in so late at night for?" asked Jun Huang.
Ji Bo took a sip of tea. "The gentleman spoke the truth earlier today. I have given it some consideration, and I came to the conclusion that you are right. That's why I invited you for an in-depth discussion. I was hoping we can talk about where the world is leading to."
Jun Huang relaxed. Thankfully, Ji Bo still longed to achieve great things. Men like him would be a great asset for Qi Yun. When her inevitable death came, there would be someone who was devoted in serving Qi Yun. She couldn't ask for more.
She gave him a salute and said genuinely, "The gentleman truly considers people to be the foundation of the country. And you are a disciple of the Ghost Valley school. We cannot match your talent. With your help, Qi Yun will be able to create a peaceful and prosperous world."
"Spare me the compliments," Ji Bo said. "Let us talk about what we are dealing with today."
They talked about everything that had happened in details. When they disagreed, they put the issue aside first. They would discuss those issues after they had gone over the important developments they had observed.
Most of the time Jun Huang was the one doing the talking while Ji Bo listened. Every once in a while he would make some insightful comments. The effects, good or bad, of her actions were clear after their thorough discussion.
When Jun Huang talked about their investigation into the corrupt officials, Ji Bo interrupted her for the first time. "I think you have been too hasty in this matter."
Jun Huang stopped talking and waited for him to continue. She didn't take it as an offense. Those who possessed real strength were willing to listen to other people's opinions in order to learn about their shortcomings.
"Northern Qi is home to many talented people, and yet you have shrouded the country in fear by investigating the corruption. You even punished many men for buying the exam questions, among whom were a good number of scholars with great potential. Those scholars were only trying to ensure their own success, and yet you dealt with them without any mercy. As for the prefect of Yangzhou, it is true that he must be dealt with, but you have alerted your foe by doing so. Qi Chen's benefactor will be even more careful now."
"Almost every courtier is now under great pressure. They don't dare to speak up even if they have complaints. That isn't ideal. Have you thought about how Northern Qi is going to fight Eastern Wu if they invade now? Do you know you are damaging the foundation of the country?"
Ji Bo's expression was calm, but Jun Huang could hear his frustration clearly. She could tell that he must be cursing her in his mind.
"I am waiting for Eastern Wu to invade Northern Qi," said Jun Huang. "I need them to. Otherwise all I've done will be in vain."
Ji Bo shook his head. "That's your mistake."
"What does the gentleman mean?"
"Eastern Wu was able to break through the defense of Western Que because there was a mole within your country. Only with the help of the mole were they able to destroy the city gate that had stood intact for hundreds of years. They will not send out their armies again so soon. Even though they had an inside man, they still suffered a great loss in their fight against Western Que. It took them eight hundred deaths to kill a thousand soldiers. They need time to recover. They won't make a move in the near future."
"Are we supposed to just wait?" Jun Huang asked urgently. She didn't have much time left. She couldn't afford to stand idle.
Ji Bo didn't give her an answer. Instead, he directed the conversation back to the question he had posed, "The only force capable of opposing Eastern Wu is Northern Qi. And yet you have destabilized its foundation. It is inevitable that some of the senior officials must have been angered by your actions. If someone decides to sell their country out for their own gains like your royal brother did, what do you think the odds are that Northern Qi will be able to come out triumphant?"
Bi means white and Yu means jade. ↩