Chapter 124: Provocation
After a few days, Qi Yun, who Jun Huang hadn't heard from for a while, came to visit. As soon as Jun Huang walked into her house, a servant came to notify her that Qi Yun was waiting for her.
Jun Huang was surprised. In order to not worry Qi Yun, she had asked Nan Xun and Ji Bo to keep her collapse earlier a secret. She didn't want people to make a big deal out of her condition.
Qi Yun was drinking tea when she got to the garden. She stepped on a twig and the sound jerked Qi Yun out of his thoughts.
Qi Yun got to his feet and patted his wrinkled robe. He whipped his broad sleeves loose before cupping his hands in greeting. "Please forgive this gentleman for intruding."
Jun Huang shook her head with a smile. "What happened?" She took the seat across from him and turned to him.
The Court of Judicial Review had a lot less cases to deal with lately. Therefore, Qi Yun had moved back to the palace. He was allowed less freedom than when he had been living in the court, so it had been a while since he last came to visit Jun Huang. He didn't know she had been ill, but he did notice that she had lost weight, and that she smelled of herbs.
"Didn't we talk about a hidden force at play in supporting second brother? After some time spent on thinking about this issue, I believe that it is likely to be related to Consort Zhen."
Jun Huang raised an eyebrow at him. "Why do you say so?"
"I know what power every courtier possesses, but the members of the harem remain unknown to me. In addition, this force seems to have been helping Qi Chen ever since he was born. Even the banished empress still has her people. Consort Zhen, who has maintained her influence in the palace for decades, must hold considerable power in her hands." Qi Yun kept his eyes on Jun Huang as he talked, worried that he might have made a mistake.
Jun Huang considered his words. It was obvious from Qi Yun's expression that he was nervous. She commented, "It's worth considering."
Jun Huang had just recovered. With everything she had to worry about, she didn't really have the patience to deal with Qi Yun. "Is there anything else?"
Qi Yun could tell that Jun Huang was asking him to leave. He hurriedly stood up and cupped his hands. "It's about time for me to return to the palace. Please excuse me."
Jun Huang nodded. "If you don't have any responsibilities at the Court of Judicial Review, you should visit the emperor more. You don't need any more achievements for the time being. Leaving a good impression on the emperor is your priority."
"I understand." Qi Yun walked outside. Soon, he was out of Jun Huang's view.
Jun Huang sat quietly in the garden. She poured himself a cup of tea and took a sip. In the end, she decided that she had to go to Prince Chen Manor. She had to find out something from Qi Chen. Even if she couldn't get a direct answer, she could at least get a feel of his attitude.
She stood up and fixed her sleeves before walking outside. It didn't take long for her to reach the manor. The page boy watching the door knew that Qi Chen was inside. He let her in.
Qi Chen happened to be free when Jun Huang visited. He walked up to her and asked her how she had been. When they were left alone and Jun Huang felt like it was about time, she asked, "There is something this gentleman has been wondering, Your Highness."
"What is it?" Qi Chen asked, turning to face her, still fumbling with a crabapple flower with a hand.
"At critical times like this Your Highness still remains confident, as if nothing will be able to hurt you. I'm wondering what Your Highness's reasons are, and if there is someone helping you behind the scenes."
Jun Huang had tried her best to mask her intentions, but the questions still are suspicious. She was betting on Qi Chen's trust for her.
Qi Chen leveled Jun Huang with a heavy gaze. Jun Huang knew she must not insist on getting an answer. She dropped down to her knees and affected a respectful expression. "This gentleman has nothing to hide. It's just that it's difficult to understand what the scholar officials and military officials in the court are thinking. Your Highness needs their help in your pursuit of the throne."
Looking at Jun Huang, Qi Chen felt a pang of guilt for the flash of doubt in his heart. Jun Huang had been his most loyal supporter. Without her, he wouldn't be where he was today.
He sighed and helped Jun Huang up. "Come with me," he said, pointing at the garden.
Jun Huang nodded and followed him. She maintained the perfect mask of aloofness as she wondered how Consort Zhen, who was a member of the harem, exerted her influence on the imperial court.
The past couple of days, Ji Bo had not been lazing about. He needed a plan that would make sure that he entered the third prince's manor without arousing suspicion. The prince must be willing to trust him with important matters.
He went to Jun Huang for advice. He was sure that Jun Huang would be able to help him come up with a good plan.
The day he went to visit Jun Huang was a sunny day. Jun Huang looked at him questioningly. It was rare for Ji Bo to come find her on his own accord, but over the past few days he had been here twice already.
Despite her surprise, Jun Huang was still able to treat him with the proper courtesy. She invited Ji Bo inside and poured him a cup of tea. "Mister Ji Bo has said you are going to pledge yourself to the third prince. You should be careful in visiting me. People will talk if they see you here."
"I know there is a risk," said Ji Bo. "But the third prince is exactly what I'm here for."
With her brows furrowed, Jun Huang looked up at him, waiting for him to continue.
"This gentleman has found a way to pledge my allegiance to the third prince, but I'll need your help." Ji Bo met her gaze, cataloging every minute change of her expression.
Jun Huang's face remained passive. She knew as soon as Ji Bo stepped into her place that Ji Bo must have something to ask of her.
After a moment of silence, she said, "You can be frank with me. If it's something I can help with, I will do all I can."
"This gentleman possesses a piece of jade of the finest quality. A layman's eyes may not be able to see its value, but anyone who knows how to appreciate jade will know it's worth more than a thousand gold taels. Even if they like it, it will be too expensive for them to pay for it. If I show them this piece of jade, how do you think they will react?"
Jun Huang didn't respond immediately. Ji Bo's plan could work. They just had to find someone who appreciated good jade, but was stingy and greedy. That would be the first step.
"I need to find a good target," added Ji Bo.
Jun Huang spared him a glance before nodding. "I know."
It had to be someone important. Someone who would be able to provoke a conflict between the third prince and Qi Chen. It had to be… one of Qi Chen's confidantes. Her eyes lit up and her smile deepened. She had an idea.
Ji Bo knew Jun Huang must have thought of someone. Even though he had a keen observation for the development of the political landscape, he didn't know Qi Chen's circle of supporters enough to know who among them was partial to jade.
The first person who came to his mind was Prince Duan, but Prince Duan was the emperor's brother. He might be willing to pay for the jade. Besides, his relationship with Qi Chen was still unclear to them.
What was more, the third prince wouldn't be foolish enough to fight his own uncle for a piece of jade. Ji Bo wasn't willing to take the risk.
The one Jun Huang thought of was the Minister of Rites. The Ministry of Rites was under Qi Chen's care. Sometime ago it was hit by the scandal of leaked exam questions. Qi Chen had found a scapegoat to keep the minister untouched, but there were rumors that the minister was not an honest man.
The minister was one of Qi Chen's confidantes, and he was greedy. He was the best candidate Jun Huang could think of now.
"I have someone in mind," Jun Huang said with a smile. "Mister Ji Bo may take your leave. I will make the arrangements for you."
Ji Bo trusted Jun Huang to get things done. He cupped his hands and sauntered away. This matter could be either simple or complicated. It all depended on how one went about it.
After some hesitation, Jun Huang made her way to Prince Nan Manor late at night. Nan Xun had ordered the door watcher to let her in when she came. She was therefore able to enter quickly.
The temperature had dropped by a good margin after sunset. She tightened the black fox fur around her shoulders. Her illness had made her even susceptible to cold. She had to dress warmly whenever she went outside.
From the distance, she could hear the sound of a blade splitting air with the sheer velocity of its strike. She knew Nan Xun must be training his swordsmanship. She quickened her pace and saw his tall and handsome form standing under the moonlight, his breathing slow and his grip steady around his sword. The blade reflected the silver light to his dark and steely eyes.
He was dressed in a robe with narrow sleeves, which was suitable for fighting on a mount. Strings tied his sleeves tightly around his wrists. No matter how much force one exerted, the strings would not break.
Nan Xun noticed Jun Huang the moment she arrived, but he continued with his training, leaping and slashing open the air with the blade. His movement was quick and decisive. His robe fluttered whenever he did a flip.
Finally, he was done with his practice. He let out a breath. A maid waiting on the side came up to him and handed him a cup of water. Then she gave him a square handkerchief. He wiped away the sweat on his forehead. When his heartbeats had slowed down to the usual pace, he turned to Jun Huang.
"What brought you here so late at night?" he asked.
"I need your help," Jun Huang didn't hesitate to answer him.
Nan Xun wasn't going to turn her down. He looked into her eyes and asked, "What is it? Just tell me."
Jun Huang told him what she and Ji Bo had planned to do. She added, "I need to know the minister's routines, which I can't find out myself. You are part of the imperial court. You must have more opportunities to observe the minister. I hope you can give me a hand."
Nan Xun fell silent. Someone who didn't know him would assume he was debating if he should help Jun Huang, but in reality, he was simply going through the minister's routine in his head. He remembered he had run into the minister in the southern part of the imperial city several times. "I think I know where the minister passes through every day."