Chapter 127: Magic Tricks
"The State Preceptor?" the third prince exclaimed. "You're out of your mind!"
Cold sweat broke out of his skin, and his fingers trembled around the blood jade. To understand the reason why the prince reacted so strongly, one had to look back to what had happened in Northern Qi decades ago. At the time, Northern Qi still had a State Preceptor, whom the then emperor trusted with all his heart. He even allowed the State Preceptor to enter the area where the harem resided in freely.
The now emperor had been a child reared in swaddling clothes. Ever since his birth, he was considered to be the crown prince. His father was very fond of him.
But the emperor's trusted State Preceptor colluded with other officials and laid his dirty hands on the harem. He got involved with one of the emperor's consorts and almost got the crown prince killed for his own gain.
A mere State Preceptor like him was able to manipulate the fate of the entire country. Even the emperor hadn't realized his true nature at first. Things could have gone awfully wrong.
On a stormy and thundering night, the State Preceptor snuck into one of the consort's palace. From the ease with which he navigated the palace, it was clear that it wasn't his first time.
After fornicating with the consort, the consort started complaining how her child was deprived of the opportunity to become a crown prince simply because he was younger. Wasn't it unfair?
The child had been the State Preceptor's son. He, of course, wanted his son to be the crown prince. It was a great shame that his son was the younger brother. The consort's words prompted him to make a plan to put his son on the throne.
An idea formed in his mind. Overnight, the area where the harem resided in was filled with filth. Dead crows could be seen everywhere. The emperor was furious. He ordered the State Preceptor to look into the matter.
It all went according to the State Preceptor's plan. He held a ritual to pay tribute to the gods and rigged the ritual so that all clues pointed to the empress's palace.
Fortunately, the empress was no regular woman. She knew about the State Preceptor's affair with the consort, and she could tell that this was an attempt to frame her. She had no choice but to fight back and give the perpetrator a taste of his own medicine. She found out that the consort and the State Preceptor were behind this, and that they had a child.
The empress told the emperor her findings in private, who doubted her at first. But then he himself witnessed the State Preceptor making his way to the consort's room. The rest was easy enough to figure out.
In rage, the emperor decreed that there would be no State Preceptor in Northern Qi from then on. Northern Qi became the first country to abolish the position. At first people mocked Northern Qi for doing so, but then the memory started to fade from people's minds.
"If you claim to be Mister Ji Bo, how can you not know about Northern Qi's rule?" the third prince sneared.
Ji Bo looked up at him with calm eyes. "This gentleman knows the history that lead to the abolishment of State Preceptor. However, once Your Highness becomes the emperor, it will only take an order for you to change that. If this gentleman can truly help Your Highness, it isn't unreasonable for Your Highness to grant me the position."
"The gentleman certainly talks big," said the prince. "In this world, however, too many people are all bark and no bite. How can you prove that you are as good as you claim to be? Besides, I still don't believe that you are the lauded Mister Ji Bo. If you truly are an extraordinary asset, I may consider making you the State Preceptor. But are you?"
Ji Bo looked into the third prince's eyes. "If Your Highness has doubts, this gentleman will show you what I'm capable of."
Ji Bo pulled his lips into a smile, waving his fan slowly. The prince had become tempted to fight for the throne.
Ji Bo didn't say when he was going to prove himself to the third prince. Instead, he simply told the prince that he needed some time to prepare.
The third prince was in no rush. He would see for himself what Ji Bo was going to do.
When Jun Huang was little, she once left the palace on a trip with Qi Yun.
At the time, Northern Qi and Western Que were on friendly terms. Every once in a while Qi Yun would be sent to Western Que by the emperor to get to know Western Que's customs. That was how Northern Qi showed their goodwill. To return the favor, Western Que too would send their royal princes to Northern Qi.
It was similar to how kingdoms in ancient time sent their princes to the other kingdoms as hostage to ensure peace, but in this case, the princes were not hostages. Rather, they served as a window for cultural exchange.
Once, Qi Yun came to Western Que on the Lantern Festival. Western Que's celebration was different from that of Northern Qi.
Before Qi Yun departed from Northern Qi, his mother had fallen ill. He wanted to ask the emperor to let him stay, but his mother forbade him from doing so. She told him that men had to be responsible and not give in to their emotions. Qi Yun had been upset ever since he arrived at Western Que.
Jun Huang always spent time with Qi Yun whenever he visited. This time, seeing how troubled Qi Yun looked, Jun Huang decided to drag Qi Yun out of the palace to see the celebration in the city.
When Jun Huang found Qi Yun, he was at the door, staring into the distance. Jun Huang ran up to him and patted him on the shoulder. "Hey, what are you worrying about?"
Qi Yun cocked his head at Jun Huang and told her about his mother's illness. Jun Huang pursed her lips in sympathy. Then, suddenly, her eyes lit up. She said, "Today is the Lantern Festival. There are a lot of things to see in the city. How about I take you out of the palace? There may be some interesting trinkets you can buy for your mother. She will be happy."
"What if your father knows of it?" Qi Yun asked worriedly.
"How would he know if I don't tell him? Besides, it's Royal Father. Nothing too bad will come of it. There's no need for you to worry. Royal Father is very kind to me. He can't even raise his voice to me. If we are found out, just tell him I have forced you to come with me. Now let's think about what your mother may like."
Jun Huang was only seven or eight back then, but she acted like a little grown-up. Her features were gentle and delicate. The pink dress she wore made her look even more adorable.
Qi Yun nodded. "You're right. Don't worry. If we're caught, I'll share your punishment." He got to his feet and patted his chest as he spoke.
Jun Huang nodded in satisfaction and dragged Qi Yun to her room. After rummaging through the dresser she managed to produce two set of peasant clothes. There were also a number of silver bills. Once prepared, they made their way into the city.
Jun Huang was a mischievous child. She had snuck out of the palace many times. It went just as smoothly this time.
They walked along the crowded street. Qi Yun hadn't had the opportunities to leave the palace when he was in Northern Qi. He gaped at all the pedestrians roaming the city. It was the first time he truly understood why people would describe crowd as a sea of floating heads.
This must be a rare sight for mother since she entered the palace, he thought. I'll tell her about what I saw in detail once I'm back!
"Come. Let's go that way." Jun Huang pointed at the other side of the street. Following her gesture, Qi Yun saw a performer being surrounded by spectators. He nodded and followed Jun Huang.
They were tiny enough to make their way to the front of the crowds. There was indeed a man performing tricks. He blew fire out of his mouth and made living men appear out of thin air. The crowds roared up in cheers. The energy in the area was electric.
Then, a group of men appeared. The leader of the group was a burly man with enormous ears. Behind him were a good number of pointy-faced servants who resembled monkeys more than they did men. They elbowed through the crowds and stopped before the performer. Without warning, the leading man pushed at the performer.
No one dared to stop the thug. Jun Huang watched the intruders with a clever glint behind her cool gaze. Worried that they would get hurt, Qi Yun grabbed Jun Huang and tried to pull her away.
The thug ordered his servants to beat the performer up. Those men did not pull their punches. In no time, the performer was bracing against the pain on the ground, his face bruised and swollen.
Little Jun Huang had a kind heart. She could not stay on the sideline when someone was suffering. She broke out of Qi Yun's hand and ran up to the performer. Qi Yun wasn't able to stop her.
She stood before the performer and glared at the thug. "In broad daylight you dare to violate the law? Do you know what punishment you will be getting? If the emperor knows you are bold enough to hurt people without regard on his land, it wouldn't save you even if you had nine lives."
Jun Huang was born with a strong presence. She managed to make the thug pause with her words. The thug recovered shortly when he reminded himself that he was facing a little girl. There was no reason for him to be intimidated.
Qi Yun tensed up when he saw that the thug was going to grab Jun Huang. Before he could step in, the performer pulled Jun Huang behind him and said, "She is only a child. I will pay you back. Just give me a few more days."
"Ha, a few more days, you said. I have waited long enough! It's clear that you don't plan to pay your debt. I shouldn't have lended you money when your old man died. Look how much trouble that has brought me."
So that's what this is about, Jun Huang thought. Her eyes darted between the two men. She broke out of the performer's arms and cleared her throat. "If it's about money, there's no need for you to turn to violence. Now, how much does he owe you?"
The thug glanced at Jun Huang in surprise. He held up two fingers. "Two hundred silver taels."
Jun Huang considered taking out the money she had hidden under her clothes, but that wasn't appropriate for a girl. She looked up and happened to spot Qi Yun. She waved him over and asked him to pay the thug.
Once the thug had left, Jun Huang and Qi Yun stayed to help the performer clean up the mess. When they were about to leave, the performer stopped them. "Thank you for what you've done today. This gentleman does not have anything to give you in return…"
"There's no need," said Qi Yun. "You are an unusual talent who can use spells! Why do you act like you are inferior to others?"