Chapter 31: Meeting with the Senior Grandmaster
Qi Yun nodded. "Don't concern yourself with this matter. Your priority now is to protect yourself. I will insert my people into my second brother's circle."
"As you wish." Jun Huang didn't argue. There was nothing else she could do to help.
"Moreover, my second brother's power cannot be underestimated," said Qi Yun. "There must be someone in a higher place supporting him behind the scenes."
"My thoughts exactly. After he was caught for embezzlement, I expected him to be abandoned in court. Someone, however, secretly gained many officials' support for him, and when they were asked about that person's identity, they gave no answer. It must be someone with great power." Jun Huang's expression was severe. Dealing with Qi Chen had become a more and more complicated matter. It was a gift that kept on giving.
Qi Yun felt a pang of frustration at the sight of her tightly-knitted eyebrows. He spent years cultivating his power. And now here he was, needing the help of a fragile scholar. This shouldn't be a burden for this gentleman to bear.
Qi Yun patted Jun Huang on the shoulder and sighed. "Don't worry too much. Now we just have to wait and see. The rest we will consider later."
"How about the crown prince?" Jun Huang asked.
Qi Yun let out another sigh and told her about what had happened. Jun Huang broke into a smile. "I didn't expect the crown prince to end up like this. Still, it's good news. Finally he got a taste of his own medicine."
"Alright, Qi Yun. We cannot stay here any longer. Qi Chen must have left for his manor now. If I'm late, he will be suspicious of me again. You better return to your manor as well." After that she took her leave.
A sense of loss suddenly hit Qi Yun. He let out a sigh filled with melancholy, whipped open his fan, and returned to his manor. His dreams and ideals were long lost; now he was only an ordinary man trying to survive in a war between brothers.
As Jun Huang expected, she arrived about the same time as Qi Chen did. He was carried here from the palace in a sedan chair – a clear sign he now enjoyed the emperor's favor.
"Brother Feng, where did you go?" Qi Chen spotted Jun Huang at a distance. He commanded the carriers to let him down. Then he ran up to Jun Huang, his eyes crinkled. It was clear from his expression that he was again praised by the emperor.
Jun Huang changed the subject and asked the obvious question. "I went for a walk. Did Your Highness just return from the palace?"
Qi Chen nodded. "I was paying the crown prince a visit when Royal Father invited us to the palace. Then, Royal Father asked me to stay for a talk. He praised me for a job well done for what I did at the border."
"I believe that brother Feng's talent should not be overlooked. If you are willing, I will say some good words for you before Royal Father. You can become an official too."
That got a reaction from Jun Huang. Immediately she replied, "Your Highness, you must not do this. I only want to offer my service to you. If the emperor is to grant me a position in the palace, it would be near impossible for me to continue being your strategist."
What Jun Huang said made sense to Qi Chen. He nodded and entered the manor side by side with her. He even invited her to share a meal with him. Their talk was pleasant enough. Originally, Jun Huang intended to get some information out of him. Unfortunately, in his excitement he got drunk and passed out not long after. There wasn't anything Jun Huang could do.
After getting Qi Chen settled, Jun Huang went to her own building. Wei Qian was waiting for her at the door.
"Where did the gentleman go?" she asked.
Jun Huang was amused. Normally she would just make up an excuse, but today she felt like teasing Wei Qian. She affected a cold tone and said, "Did the prince ordered you to keep an eye on me?"
"Of course not," Wei Qian nervously said, worried that Jun Huang would get the wrong idea.
"If that's the case, I don't have to answer your question. I'm tired now. You can leave as you please." She walked into her room and chuckled as she shut the door.
In Prince Nan Manor, a shadow guard stood beside Nan Xun, awaiting his order. After some consideration, Nan Xun took out a pen and a piece of paper and wrote down a few words. He handed the paper to the guard. "Take this to Prince Chen Manor and gave it to Feng Baiyu. Remember, Qi Chen must not know about this."
"Understood." The shadow guard took the paper and left silently.
Night fell. Within the imperial city only the night watchmen still walked the street. The shadow guard's footsteps were quick but soundless. He reached Prince Chen Manor promptly.
He considered the high wall. A push of his foot and he leaped into the air, landing on the tiles making a quiet noise.
Wei Qian was well-trained, and she wasn't deep in sleep. Immediately her eyes snapped open and she rushed to Jun Huang's room. After a moment of hesitation at the door, she knocked. "Has the gentleman gone to bed?"
There was the rustling sound of clothes. Then the candles inside the room were lit. In the dim light she saw Jun Huang getting off the bed and coming to get the door.
"What's the matter?" Jun Huang asked blearily, rubbing her eyes. She had a gown wrapped around her body, and her hair was a little messy. Her face remained passive as Wei Qian gave her room a once-over.
"It was nothing." Wei Qian looked away and shook her head. "I'm only here to check up on the gentleman."
Jun Huang nodded. "I'm fine."
"Then Wei Qian would take her leave." She turned around and walked away. Jun Huang's eyes followed her until she went back into the side room. Jun Huang shut the door after herself.
The shadow guard had left, leaving the window open. Jun Huang frowned, a little bewildered. Then she noticed a slip of paper on her desk.
"Qi Chen now holds power over the imperial court. Even though the embezzlement is a stain on his reputation, there are still people supporting him behind the scenes. Now the only viable plan is to convince someone whose loyalty to him has already wavered. This I cannot do myself. I'll leave it in your capable hands. Tomorrow, the Senior Grandmaster will be at the tavern waiting for you."
The letter was written in strong and decisive strokes. Jun Huang considered the situation carefully. This was a good move on Nan Xun's part. She took another look before holding the paper over a candle. Her mind was clear as the paper turned into ashes.
The next day, Jun Huang woke up at the crack of dawn. Wei Qian would be accompanying Qi Chen today, and Qi Chen normally let Jun Huang freely go as she pleased. There was nothing stopping her from leaving the manor.
It was still early when she got to the tavern. Jun Huang told the clerk to brew her a pot of tea, then she sat on a stool and started drinking it. She looked at home where she sat. Her violet silk gown was fanciful, but not flamboyant. Her skin was fair, and the white jade cap framing her black hair was fairer.
That was what the Senior Grandmaster saw when he arrived. He had never met Jun Huang before, and was rendered speechless for a moment, unsure of what to do. Jun Huang gave him a smile and put down the tea cup before standing up.
"This gentleman is Feng Baiyu. I have been waiting for you, sir." She cupped her hands in greeting with a measured smile. It was disarming; the Senior Grandmaster visibly relaxed.
He took his seat. Jun Huang poured him a cup of tea. "Sir, this is Bamboo Leaf Green tea of the highest quality. I've heard that it is a favorite of yours."
The Senior Grandmaster didn't expect this young man he'd just met to know his preferences. He took the cup with a smile and took a whiff. He knew it was a rare premium breed even before he tasted it.
"Do you like it?" Jun Huang asked.
"The smell doesn't fade as time goes by." He took a sip. "And the taste lingers in my mouth. Indeed a good tea." He was generous with his praises, but Jun Huang still had a calm expression on her face, as if she had anticipated his reaction.
She lowered her eyes and blew the tea leaves floating on her tea. Then she took a sip and smiled at him. "Good things should be left for the person who deserves it. Do you agree, sir?"
The Senior Grandmaster frowned. He wasn't sure what she meant by that.
"I will stop beating around the bush here. There are things we both know that don't need to be brought up. Today I came to meet you, sir, because I want to make a deal with you."
"I heard that in your early life you were unable to fulfil your potential. It was because of second prince Qi Chen's support that you became the Senior Grandmaster. To you, Qi Chen was your Bo Le1, the one who discovered your talent. Or have I perhaps been mistaken?" Jun Huang met his eyes. Everything she said was the truth.
The Senior Grandmaster broke out into cold sweat, soaking his collars. He didn't know how to react in order to not raise any suspicion. Jun Huang, however, wasn't looking at him. Instead, she walked to the window and looked out over the imperial city.
"I also heard that you, sir, were troubled by Qi Chen's embezzlement. This gentleman knows that you are a good official who truly cares about the people. Naturally, you cannot stand for what Qi Chen did." Jun Huang turned to look at him with a soft smile. Senior Grandmaster was shocked. He had not expected anyone to understand him so well. It was as if she was a part of him.
It made him wary. He could feel his heart pounding against his ribcage. Who was this person, exactly? "I wonder what gentleman Feng asked me to be here for. There is no need for pretense."
Jun Huang smiled. "I only wanted to find out if you are on my side."
"What do you mean?"
"The world is now governed by three countries, and the three are at peace. But for how long, do you think? Northern Qi is in good hand for the time being, but how about the next emperor? Do you still think that the second prince will be a good leader?"
"The crown prince is a failure and is not suited for the position. The second prince, however, is willing to sacrifice the wellbeing of the people for his own gains. I will ask you one thing: If he becomes the emperor, will the nation be at peace? Will the people be cared for?" Jun Huang grew more and more agitated as she spoke. Qi Chen's crimes were many, and they filled her with rage.
The Senior Grandmaster fell silent. What Jun Huang said was the hard truth. It hit him where he was most tender. Qi Chen's actions were intolerable. If someone like him became the emperor, it would be bad news both for Northern Qi, and for its people.
A famous horse tamer. It was said that he was able to recognize a good horse at a glance. Refers to someone who can spot hidden talents. ↩