Chapter 96: Traveling Long Distance to Yangzhou
Jun Huang could hear the sarcasm drip from Qin Sheng's words, but her expression betrayed none of her thoughts. Only when Qin Sheng was about to be dragged away by the soldier did she ask, "You are a knowledgeable man. Why did you cast aside your dignity for power?"
There was a moment of silence before Qin Sheng broke into laughter. "There are tens of thousands of talented men in Northern Qi. Everyone is doing all they can to stand out in the spring exam. If we don't cheat, how do we make sure that we will rank among the top? Every man taking the exam has diligently studied for more than ten years, but in the end there will only be a handful of winners. We are forced to act this way. There's no point for brother Feng in trying convince me with platitudes."
The soldier who was to take him away pushed him in the back. Qin Sheng stumbled and barely recovered his footing. Jun Huang wanted to say something, but she didn't think there was anything she could say that would be useful. She watched the men who had been prim and proper only a few days ago being taken away. A trace of bitterness sneaked into her heart.
"There are things we cannot control," said Nan Xun.
Jun Huang threw him a glance. She made sure no one was around before she said, "From what the official said, it is clear that someone is behind him. Someone with great power. Do you know who is in charge of overseeing the Ministry of Rites?"
"The ministry is second brother's responsibility, but Sir Shangguan is the one who has been taking care of the daily affairs… Do you mean – " Qi Yun looked over at Jun Huang with wide eyes.
Jun Huang narrowed her eyes. "Sir Shangguan?"
"Shangguan Yue's father," added Nan Xun. "The one and only Grand Chancellor of Northern Qi."
Jun Huang fell silent. Sir Shangguan was a well-respected man. He was also the most powerful person in Qi Chen's circle. The fact that he was able to become the Grand Chancellor was reason enough to be wary of him. They should refrain from make a move on him for now.
"We risk being overheard if we talk here," said Nan Xun. "Let's return first. We have to discuss this issue carefully."
Jun Huang nodded. It wasn't a good place to talk. Qi Yun called out for the servant to bring the coach that was parked outside the court. He waited for Jun Huang to get in before he and Nan Xun did. They left for Jun Huang's house.
Once back home, Jun Huang told the door keeper that she wasn't going to take any guests today before she led Nan Xun and Qi Yun inside.
Inside the front room, Jun Huang took off the fur coat and handed it to Little Girl. She ordered a servant to bring her a pot of tea before sitting down. She drank some tea to warm her body up.
Taking a deep breath, she asked, "What do you think we should do?"
Before Nan Xun could say anything, Qi Yun piped up, "Sir Shangguan is a powerful official who enjoys Royal Father's favor. As you've said before, his every move is watched by Royal Father. It's impossible that Royal Father doesn't know what he's up to. Royal Father just chose to turn a blind eye to his actions. If we make a move on him, Royal Father will be unhappy. We should shift our focus elsewhere."
"What exactly should we focus on?" asked Jun Huang.
"I say we target the prefect of Yangzhou. He is a rich but greedy man. He's been exploiting the local residents rather than protecting them. He is the one we should deal with first." Qi Yun's eyes were cold. His fingers tightened around the teacup. This news must have been new to him. Qi Yun wouldn't have been so furious if there were any signs before.
Jun Huang turned to Nan Xun. He nodded. "Yangzhou is the biggest city in Northern Qi. The officials there are in the best position to oppress people for their personal gain."
Qi Yun laughed harshly. He didn't realize that he had spilled some tea from his cup and soaked his purple silk robe. He growled, "Do you know that he's been enabling his relatives and breaking the law to embezzle money?"
"So? We don't have the evidence to back us up." Nan Xun didn't sugarcoat his response and pointed out directly the problem they were faced with. His tone was sharp and steely.
Nan Xun's complete disregard of Qi Yun's feelings silenced Qi Yun. Jun Huang watched them without a word and sipped her tea with a calm face.
Qi Yun couldn't offer any counterargument. He tightened his fists and stared at Nan Xun. The air in the room grew tense. Finally, Jun Huang broke the silence. "You can't leave the imperial city for now. I'll take care of the problem in Yangzhou."
"It's too dangerous for you to go alone," Nan Xun said without missing a beat.
Jun Huang chuckled. "I only need you to lend me a couple shadow guards."
Nan Xun knew that he wouldn't be able to convince Jun Huang otherwise. He sighed and didn't say anything. Qi Yun was worried. What Nan Xun said made sense. Best case scenario, Jun Huang wouldn't run into any trouble. If something did happen, however, it would be too late for them to help her when they heard of it.
After some time, Nan Xun and Qi Yun left together. Jun Huang was hit by a sudden wave of exhaustion and was going to take a rest, but the page boy watching the door came in.
The page boy cupped his hands. "Gentleman Feng, someone is here to meet you."
Jun Huang frowned. She wondered what this was about. Still, she told the page boy to let her guest in. It was the young official she had recruited. She quickly got to her feet and welcomed him in with a smile. "You have done well. As long as you stay honest and do what you're supposed to do, you will have a bright future ahead of you."
The official knelt down before her. Jun Huang staggered back. She didn't expect him to do this. "What is the meaning of this?"
"If not for the gentleman, I will still be helping a bad man exploiting the people," he choked, his eyes brimming with tears. "I have told my wife about this matter. She also said that gentleman Feng is my Bo Le. If not for your trust, I would have…"
Jun Huang never thought of herself as anyone's Bo Le. She was only trying to recruit talented people. The official had the potential to be great. That was why she decided to help him.
Seeing that the official was unwilling to get up, Jun Huang sighed. "What do you come here for?"
Her tone was polite, but distant. It was as if she was hidden in a heavy fog and was unknowable and untouchable by others. The official blinked. How could someone like her be made of flesh and blood like him?
It took a moment for the official to form a complete sentence, "If the gentleman has any use of me, just let me know. This gentleman will not turn you down."
Jun Huang smiled and nodded. "If I need your assistance, I won't hesitate to tell you. You don't have to feel like you're indebted to me. This is simply a fair trade."
"Then… this gentleman will stop bothering you."
Jun Huang nodded and told Little Girl to walk the official out. It was still early. She thought about what she had promised Qi Yun. She decided to visit Qi Chen.
When she arrived at Prince Chen Manor, Qi Chen was in the garden with Nan Guyue, enjoying the warm sun. Nan Guyue's swollen belly had become more prominent in the past few days after Jun Huang had moved out. Her face was softer, too. She was in a lively conversation with Qi Chen with a smile on her face.
Qi Chen spotted Jun Huang and beckoned her over. "What is brother Feng here for?"
"The anniversary of my parents' death is in a few days. I've planned to leave the city for a while."
Qi Chen was a little surprised. "In a few days?"
Jun Huang nodded.
"Where were they buried?"
Qi Chen nodded. It was human nature to want to mourn your loved ones. There was no reason for him to deny Jun Huang this request. "I understand. Be careful on your way there. Do you need me to make arrangements for you?"
Jun Huang shook her head with a smile and looked up at the bright blue sky. Her heart was aching, but she didn't let it show.
She knew that some pain was meant for her to shoulder alone. It was meaningless to tell anyone else. They wouldn't be able to understand. A few sympathetic looks were all she would get.
Qi Chen trusted Jun Huang. Jun Huang knew that he had been on edge ever since he received the confession letter from the young official. He most likely wanted nothing but to find the person who had been undermining his influence.
Jun Huang huffed. Even a careful man like Qi Chen slipped up every once in a while. He would never have expected that the one person he trusted the most was the one he should be most cautious of.
After bidding Qi Chen farewell, Jun Huang walked out of the manor. She was going to leave for Yangzhou. It was best for her to start preparing for the trip immediatly. On her way back, she was stopped by a man.
Jun Huang looked up at the familiar and stoic face. With a frown, she looked around to see if any of Qi Chen's people were nearby. She let out a sigh of relief when she was sure that no one was following her. "What are you doing here?" she asked with a lowered voice.
"I'm going to Yangzhou with you," Nan Xun said, his voice determined.
Jun Huang widened her eyes. "What?"
Nan Xun chuckled and looked at Jun Huang with curved lips, his usually cold eyes shining with tender light. "I have told the emperor that I need to take a leave," he said gently. "So don't be worried that it'll affect me in any way."
Jun Huang still had questions in her mind, but she was never a nosy person. Since Nan Xun had the time to accompany her, she might as well take him with her. It would be a much easier trip.
They bought themselves some necessities before returning to their respective homes. They agreed to meet outside the city the next morning to avoid any scrutiny.
Jun Huang woke up at the crack of dawn. The world was only beginning to rouse. She ordered a servant to prepare a ferghana horse for her.
Little Girl had finished packing for Jun Huang. She was worried. Over the past few weeks she had gotten to know Jun Huang. She knew that Jun Huang appeared to be cold and distant, but she actually had a good heart. She was quiet, but she treated the servants well. The payment was higher than in other households, and she never set up rules for them to follow. Everyone in this household adored Jun Huang.
"Are you sure you don't want to take anyone with you, gentleman Feng?" Little Girl asked worriedly, her brows furrowed. "You may be gone for weeks. This servant can't help but be worried."
Jun Huang smiled and shook her head without a word. The sun had risen. She took the package Little Girl handed her and mounted the white horse. She asked the servants to take good care of the house before riding the tall horse outside the city.
Nan Xun was already waiting for her when she arrived. He came up to her and gave her a canteen. "It's going to be a long ride. Take this."
She accepted readily. Looking over at the path leading away from the city, she asked, "How long will it take for us to reach Yangzhou?"
"If we aren't delayed, we'll be able to reach the city before nightfall."
Jun Huang nodded. There was a faraway look in her eyes as she contemplated their plan. The investigation into the corrupt officials was a hot topic in the imperial city. It was impossible to be oblivious to the news. It must have reached Yangzhou as well. They had to get there as quickly as they could.