Chapter 145: New Formula
Jun Huang took off her clothes and stepped into the bath, letting her eyes drift closed. Finally she could have some peace and quiet. She thought back to what had happened earlier.
If the needles she had thrown had been treated with poison, she would have fared much better than she had. Those men wouldn't have been able to gain the upperhand.
She never anticipated how many needles she would need before she came to Northern Qi. The poison needles she had prepared had been used up. It was time for her to make some more.
The ingredient she needed was prohibited, however, and she wouldn't be able to acquire them on her own. Again, she would need Nan Xun's help.
Jun Huang got out of the bath when the water had cooled down. She dried herself and put on her clothes. When she walked out of the door, Nan Xun was waiting right outside.
Nan Xun turned around when he heard the door open. He let out a relieved sigh when he saw that Jun Huang was looking better. He smiled at her. "Feel better?"
Jun Huang nodded. She made sure that no one was around before inviting Nan Xun in. She poured him a cup of tea once he was seated. Nan Xun could tell that something was troubling her before she even opened her mouth. He asked with a frown, "What's the matter?"
Jun Huang's head snapped up. She only realized then that she had failed to keep her expression in check and thus had let Nan Xun get a glimpse into her mind. She said after a long pause, "I need a favor."
"What favor? Just tell me. If I can help, I will gladly do so."
Jun Huang had not planned to ask Nan Xun to do anything dangerous for her, but she still felt like a candy had melted in her mouth when she heard Nan Xun's response. She covered up the glee in her heart and lowered her eyes, her fingers rubbing along the rim of the teacup. "I would like to ask you to acquire some herbs for me."
"Herbs?" Nan Xun asked.
Jun Huang nodded. She put down her teacup and took a deep breath. "There's a few important ingredients I need, but they are forbidden for trade in Northern Qi. I can't buy them myself, or I'll attract others' suspicion. You are a general. You often have to acquire medicine for physical injury. I was thinking… if it's possible, can you perhaps smuggle some in along with the medicine?"
Nan Xun hummed. It wasn't that difficult a request, but it could have significant repercussions. Jun Huang was a peasant here in Northern Qi. If she was found out, it would be bad for her. He needed a plan to make sure that even if the herbs were found, no one would suspect that Jun Huang was involved.
His silence was a clear sign to Jun Huang that her request wasn't as simple as she had thought. She put on a forced smile and said, "If it's too much trouble, I can ask someone else – "
"It's not too much trouble. Leave it to me. You've saved my life before we knew each other. I'm also not entirely blameless for your condition now. I will do whatever I have to to get the ingredients. There are arrangements to be made. You may put your trust in me. Give me a list of things you'll need. Once I've acquired everything, I will have them delivered to you."
In his rush, Nan Xun had put down the teacup with too much force, spilling some tea over his fingers. Jun Huang hurriedly retrieve a handkerchief and handed it to him.
"Then I will leave the matter in your capable hand," Jun Huang said with her lips curved.
"No need for you to be this polite." Nan Xun smiled back at her and took a sip of his tea. He teasingly said, "Do you know that all the good tea in this manor has been brought to you by my servants?"
Jun Huang felt her heart soften as she looked at Nan Xun's handsome face. She had been prepared to explain to Nan Xun why she needed the herbs, but Nan Xun didn't ask her anything. It was as if he had never even thought about questioning her. Jun Huang felt warmth blooming in her chest. Her smile deepened.
"Why didn't you ask me what I need the herbs for?" asked Jun Huang.
Nan Xun blinked. The question had flashed through his mind, but he had never thought about asking it. Sometimes it could be difficult to convey one's true feelings with words. A simple question could be misunderstood as a show of suspicion. He didn't want Jun Huang to misunderstand him. He didn't want her to think that he was someone who allowed others to keep no secrets. That was why he hadn't said anything. He didn't expect Jun Huang to open up to him of her own accord.
Jun Huang chuckled. "I'm using the herbs to make poison needles so that I can better defend myself. I made some before I came to Northern Qi, but not enough. I hadn't expected the imperial city to be this dangerous. I don't want to be at someone else's mercy again."
"I don't fear death, but I refuse to be killed by anyone from Eastern Wu. They slaughtered my family. I have not taken my revenge yet. I will not let those villains have the satisfaction of killing me."
Jun Huang tightened her hands into fists. Her whole body started trembling in fury.
Nan Xun frowned. He knew about Jun Huang's story, but this was the first time he saw for himself the hate Jun Huang bore toward Eastern Wu. Worried that her heart would be harmed by her anger, Nan Xun took Jun Huang's hands in his. Her fingers were so cold it was as if she had just walked out of a cooling chamber.
Feeling warmth enveloping her hands, Jun Huang jerked awake from her memories. She took a deep breath when she saw the concerned look on Nan Xun's face. She pulled her hands away and cleared her throat.
The awkwardness in the air was thick enough to choke her. Jun Huang was suddenly reminded of the formula for a medicine she had seen from a book when she was being taught by Ole Cragfiend.
Nan Xun had showed her kindness without asking anything back. Jun Huang decided to tell him the formula. "I know a different way of making medicine for physical injuries. It's more effective, and it costs less to make. It will be beneficial to your army."
Nan Xun widened his eyes in surprise, excitement flashing through his expression. A better type of medicine could make a huge impact. His soldiers were still using traditional medicine, which was far from effective. It often took people dozens of days to recover from their injury. The cost was unreasonably high as well.
Nan Xun had tried to make changes many times, but he couldn't find a better type of medicine. If there was a more effective and cheaper medicine, the resources they had could be used in other areas. The soldiers would be training and fighting in a much better condition.
His gratitude was clear on his face. He couldn't find the words to express the current of emotions in his heart. He looked at Jun Huang with tender eyes.
Jun Huang felt her face flushed. She cleared her throat and stood up, pretending that she was sorting through her possessions.
"If that's a success, it will make a big difference. I thank you on behalf of all the soldiers and the officers. I'll take care of buying the herbs you need. And I'll pay for everything."
Nan Xun followed behind Jun Huang closely. His words came out in a rush because of his excitement.
Jun Huang turned around. Realizing how close Nan Xun was standing, she took a small step back. "There's no need for that. I just happened to think of the formula. Besides, the herbs will cost quite a lot. You are careful with spending your money. There's no need for you to splurge on this. I can afford to pay you."
"I can't let you pay," Nan Xun took a step forward and said seriously. "You don't know how much this has troubled me. I have to pay for the ingredients for the medicine. Don't turn me away."
"I'm already thankful that you are willing to help me acquire the herbs. You don't have to pay for me. I don't know what else to say to you other than a thank you." She looked right into Nan Xun's eyes. She wasn't trying to be polite. She genuinely meant what she said.
They were both serious about their offers. Nan Xun looked at Jun Huang with soft eyes. The tenderness he showed was arresting.
"This subordinate has something to report, Your Highness," a man said suddenly as the door creaked open, breaking the silence in the room. Jun Huang startled and tripped. Nan Xun quickly caught her hand and they fell onto the bed. Their added weight made a loud thud on the mattress.
Nan Xun's second in command was worried that something bad had happened. He barged into the room. His jaw dropped when he saw the two of them.
Jun Huang was on top of Nan Xun. Her hair, which she had not tied up after the bath, ran down her shoulders, giving her a relaxed and lazy look. She also had not put on a formal wear after her bath.
Beneath her lay Nan Xun, whose cheeks were tinted with red.
The officer jerked out of his trance and babbled, "I had thought that the rumors were fake, but I was wrong. I hope Your Highness will forgive me. This subordinate is getting out of your hair. I will not bother you further." With that, he fled the room.
When Jun Huang finally recovered from what had happened, she looked down and saw Nan Xun's crinkled eyes. She shot up to her feet. In her rush, she stepped on her robe and stumbled back onto the bed.
Chapter 146: Watching the Two Beasts fight
Nan Xun's smile dropped. He sat up and asked if Jun Huang was alright.
"I am, but…" Jun Huang trailed off, pointing at the open door with a finger. It took no time for Nan Xun to figure out what her unspoken words were.
He let out a silent laugh and blinked at Jun Huang like a kicked puppy. "He has misunderstood our pure relationship! After a lifetime of fighting on battlefields, I've never felt this insecure… Gentleman Feng should take responsibility."
Jun Huang was used to Nan Xun's stoic look and half-smile. She had never seen Nan Xun acted so shamelessly. She snorted, tension draining out her body. She put aside her awkwardness and put what had happened behind her.
Nan Xun relaxed when he saw the carefree look on Jun Huang's face. He sat up and helped Jun Huang up. He then started massaging her arms.
Jun Huang had felt much better after soaking in the medicinal bath, but her limbs and eyelids started to grow heavy when Nan Xun massaged her. The soreness in her muscles seemed to spread through her entire body. She leaned against the bed frame and slowly closed her eyes.
Nan Xun considered her openly. Every inch of her face radiated a bone deep tiredness. Jun Huang had been training hard and making arrangements for Wan'er's wedding the past few days. Her health was bad enough as it had been, and now she had taken on so many responsibilities… Nan Xun didn't like to see her push herself. He wanted to give her a life free of concerns. She shouldn't be running herself to the ground for other people.
He let go of Jun Huang's hand when he noticed that Jun Huang had fallen asleep. He lay her on the bed and tucked her in before leaving the room.
Nan Xun's second in command was waiting for him in his study. The man gave him an awkward smile and briefed him on the affairs at the border.
Nan Xun was tired as well, and it showed. He supported his head with a hand and rubbed at his forehead with the other.
After a good while, the officer had finally finished his report. He snuck a few glances at Nan Xun. He couldn't suppress his curiosity. "Are you serious about him, Your Highness?"
Nan Xun opened his eyes and gave his second in command a puzzled look. The officer didn't know what else to say. He sighed and left without another word.
As he walked through the winding hallway, the officer thought back to what he had witnessed. Nan Xun and Jun Huang actually looked like a good match –
He quickly shook away his thoughts. It was Nan Xun he was thinking about, for heaven's sake! Nan Xun was a general in command of the army. He stood above many others. Jun Huang, similarly, was a graceful gentleman known to many as an ethereal figure. How could people like them be into men?
It must have been a misunderstanding, the officer thought. He shook his head again and quickened his pace.
The third prince had not met with Ji Bo for a while. Today, he went straight to Ji Bo after returning from the palace. Ji Bo invited him to take a seat and poured him a cup of tea, which pleased the prince.
"This gentleman can tell that Your Highness is in a good mood," Ji Bo said with feign nonchalance as he handed the cup of tea to the prince. "Has something good happened?"
The smile on the third prince's face deepened. "The gentleman is observant. A few days ago some of the courtiers started talking to me personally. Today quite a few of them came to me and expressed their interest in an alliance."
Ji Bo thought for a moment before breaking into a smile. "Congratulation, Your Highness, for winning their support. It won't take long before Your Highness gains the same level of influence in the imperial court as the crown prince. Then you will be able to easily replace him."
Ji Bo had as good a silver tongue as Jun Huang. The third prince had been in a good mood already. Ji Bo's words made him feel even better about himself. His eyes crinkled.
Ji Bo looked up at the prince, who had clearly forgotten himself, and drank some of the herbal tea. "What does Your Highness plan to do next?"
The third prince thought for a moment before pulling his lips into a grin. "The gentleman has proposed a good plan earlier. I'll like to do that."
Ji Bo had advised him to try to fit in with the other courtiers. He told the prince to undermine Qi Chen's influence under the table to the best of his ability. The third prince had been hesitant; he hadn't wanted to go head to head with Qi Chen. Now he was seriously considering Ji Bo's words.
"To do great things, one must put aside all trivial considerations. It's said that to catch a tiger cub, one must venture into a tiger den. Besides, does Your Highness truly think that everyone in the crown prince's circle is loyal to him? Some only join the crown prince because they can't afford to get on Qi Chen's bad side. If Your Highness lets them know that you are a candidate for the throne as well, they will reconsider their options."
"On the surface, the crown prince seems to be in control of the court. Anyone observant, however, will be able to tell that the crown prince doesn't have real power. His relationship with the emperor is troubled. He won't be able to put too much attention on Your Highness. The officials will weigh the pros and cons and decide to defect to Your Highness."
Ji Bo had not said anything that another strategist would not be able to say, but the third prince's honored guests never told the prince their true opinions for fear of angering the prince. They usually showered the prince in only praises.
Ji Bo looked closely at the third prince. It was a good thing that he had accidentally uncovered the third prince's ambition. Otherwise the prince would have become a bigger trouble if he had been allowed to conserve his power.
"What is the gentleman thinking?" the third prince asked, putting down his teacup. "Do you think I've made the wrong decision?"
Ji Bo shook his head. "It's good that Your Highness has decided to take the initiative. We have to treat the people we have won over from the crown prince well. We must show them that Your Highness is as determined to become the emperor as the crown prince, if not more. Only then will they be able to feel confident in their decisions, and they may even bring their friends to our side."
The third prince nodded in agreement. He drank some tea and said, "However, I've been having troubles attracting Royal Father's attention. If I can't change that, everything else I do will be in vain. I'll be making enemies without gaining anything. Under the circumstances, I don't dare to do anything. I hope the gentleman can enlighten me."
"If Your Highness is so scared of antagonizing the crown prince, there's nothing this gentleman can do for you," Ji Bo said with an indifferent expression.
The third prince thought back to the tricks Ji Bo had show him. He still remember the awe filling his heart that day. He trusted that Ji Bo must have good reasons backing his advice up.
The third prince put aside his reservations and took a deep breath as if he was preparing himself for a trial. He looked into Ji Bo's eyes and promised, "I have nothing to fear now. I hope the gentleman can point me to the right direction."
Ji Bo lowered his eyes, contemplating how he could best utilize the third prince. What would make Qi Chen feel threatened?
He remembered the canal construction the third prince mentioned a few days ago. The emperor had been troubled by the issue. Qi Chen had shown interest in taking on the responsibility, as the potential to profit was great.
"Will Your Highness be willing to sacrifice some of your interest for the throne?" asked Ji Bo.
"What does the gentleman mean?" The third prince sat up with his eyes fixed on Ji Bo, waiting for Ji Bo to continue.
Ji Bo didn't immediately respond. "The emperor and many officials are now trying to solve the issues facing the construction of the canal. They do not yet have a set plan or a candidate. The crown prince, however, is eager to profit off the construction. He wants nothing more than to rush to the site right now. Let's ignore the potential profit for the time being. If the matter is well taken care of, the emperor will be pleased. That's not what we should think about though. Your Highness isn't going to take on the task yourself."
The third prince frowned at Ji Bo in confusion. What was he talking about?
"The emperor has been trying to find a solution to the problems with the construction. If Your Highness fight for the job with the crown prince, the emperor will be displeased. The image Your Highness has tried so hard to build will be destroyed instantly. On the contrary, if Your Highness can help the emperor solve the problem, the emperor will look at you differently."
"Does the gentleman mean that I should just let second brother have the job?" The third prince is unwilling to take that as an answer. Everyone, including him, knew that there was profit to be made from the construction. If he gave up on the opportunity, he would become the butt of the joke.
Ji Bo scoffed inwardly, but his derision never showed on his face. Instead, he put on a mysterious smile. "Your Highness has misunderstood me. This gentleman means that neither Your Highness nor the crown prince is going to take the responsibility. Once Your Highness helps the emperor find a solution, he will ask Your Highness who you think is the right person to take on the job. Your Highness can then recommend an official who is loyal to you. Then the emperor will believe that you are more selfless and can look at the big picture better than the crown prince."
The third prince had never been smart. His head was spinning and he didn't know what Ji Bo's point was. He wanted to argue, but everything Ji Bo said seemed to make sense. He couldn't find a good argument.