“I’ll ask your master to come with us,” said Nan Xun. “Just in case you need treatment.”
He sought out Oleg Cragfiend. The two of them discussed what might go wrong during the journey.
Before Nan Xun and Jun Huang departed, rumors that Nan Xun had been entranced by a woman spread within the imperial city. It was the talk of the peasants, and Jun Huang and Nan Xun had been preparing for the trip. They therefore hadn’t heard anything until they set out.
The rumors were outrageous. Nan Xun was off to protect Northern Qi, and yet people claimed that he’d forgotten about his duty because of a woman. They said that he was taking the woman on a trip and called her the reincarnation of a fox spirit.
If Nan Xun was the only one targeted, he wouldn’t care that much. However, they criticized Jun Huang as well. And residents in the imperial city was getting agitated. Nan Xun sent a man to the palace and ask Qi Yun to trace the source of the rumors.
Without delay, Qi Yun sent his people to investigate and soon zeroed in on one man. After interrogating the man, he found out that the man had been a discarded pawn of Ji Bo. He was also the one who leaked the report from the border to the officials.
Nan Xun and Jun Huang had been a popular topic in the imperial city. Worried that Jun Huang would collapse during the journey, Nan Xun had Oelg Cragfiend prepare a great many pills for treating poison, all of which were of the finest quality and cost him a fortune. In addition, Nan Xun had been attending to Jun Huang’s every need. One way or another, his actions cemented the rumors circulating in the city.
Nan Xun was too focused on getting rid of Ji Bo to care, but Jun Huang noticed. When Qi Yun caught the man planted in the palace, Jun Huang studied him and concluded that he wasn’t anyone of importance.
Still, Jun Huang wrote a letter to Qi Yun and asked him to go harder on the man. The man ended up giving them the locations of a few operation bases.
Jun Huang had been following up the situation in the city, which was physically and mentally taxing. Nan Xun tried to talk her out of it, but she refused to give in.
Halfway through their journey, Jun Huang was still exchanging letters with Qi Yun. Nan Xun frowned when he sought her out in the coach and saw her reading a letter.
“I told you to rest. If you’re so concerned, I’ll read the letters for you.” Nan Xun took the letter from her and browsed through the words. The pawn of a man had given them the location of another operation base.
“Men like him hold onto their secrets,” Nan Xun said, sitting down next to her. “He knows that once he’s given us everything, he’s as good as dead.”
Jun Huang nodded. “You’re right, but we’ll get all his secrets out of him with enough patience.”
Nan Xun sighed. Jun Huang chuckled and took the letter back. “Enough with that. There are more important things for you to take care of. I’ll deal with the more trivial tasks. I know what I’m doing.”
Nan Xun huffed. He didn’t want Jun Huang to work herself too hard, but he couldn’t stop her from wanting to help. “You know your condition. If your master hears that you’ve been working again, he’s going to add more herbs to your medicine. If you refuse to rest, we have to make you.”
Jun Huang shuddered. She knew Nan Xun meant it. She put down the letter with an awkward smile and finally lay down to rest.
Exhaustion set in. She fell asleep quickly. Nan Xun sighed in relief. He was about to get out of the coach when he heard her muttering something in panic. He turned to see her face tighten with fear, her brows furrowed deeply.
Seeing her like that made Nan Xun resented Ji Bo even more. There was nothing he hated more than seeing her suffer. He stayed by her side and held her hand, silently letting her know that he’d never leave her.
When Jun Huang woke up the next day, Nan Xun wasn’t around. The coach continued on at a deliberate pace. Jun Huang knew it was for her benefit. She was moved but also feeling useless. She swore that she would get to the bottom of what was happening in the imperial city.
Soon, another letter came from the palace. Jun Huang unfolded it. The messenger didn’t leave immediately. Instead, he said that Qi Yun had a message for her.
Jun Huang put away the letter and asked, “What is it?”
“After your reminder, the prince had his men go through the treasury and found out that some of the silver is missing,” admitted the man. “He’d like some advice. The scandal will create a stir if exposed.”
Jun Huang didn’t immediately respond. “Is it serious? Can the prince fill in the loss?”
The man nodded. “The prince has done that by having those in the harem wear plain clothes. However, the one responsible must be identified. If there’s a next time, it’ll be impossible to make ends meet.”
“I understand,” Jun Huang said. “Tell the prince to keep an eye on the Ministry of Rites and Ministry of Personnel.”
The man looked at her curiously. “Do you mean someone from either of the two ministries is responsible?”
Jun Huang smiled instead of giving him an answer. The man was smart enough to not push. After asking about her health, he rushed away. Jun Huang silently picked up the letter and continued reading it.
It said that the mole had given them another location, which was on one of the Minister of Rites’s properties. That was cause for suspicion.
Qi Yun hadn’t been paying attention to the feud between the courtiers, so he didn’t know the premise was the minister’s. Jun Huang happened to know about it.
However, the Minister of Rites was cowardly, not foolish. If he’d been one of Ji Bo’s pawns, why would he use his property as an operation base?
Further investigation was needed.
When Nan Xun found Jun Huang, she was writing something, her strokes hesitant. On the paper were “Ministry of Rites” and “Ministry of Personnel”. “Ministry of War” had been struck through.
“What does this mean?” Nan Xun sat down by her side and put his arm around her.
“The Ministry of War is led by one of your people, isn’t it?”
Nan Xun nodded. “Right after our last victory, the former Minister of War passed away. Qi Yun asked me to recommend a successor. I believe my second in command would be a good fit, so I put his name through.”
“What kind of man is he?” Jun Huang asked. “Is he close to Ji Bo?”
Nan Xun didn’t know what exactly Jun Huang wanted to know, but he didn’t hide anything from her. “He’s an honest man who’s followed me since the start of his career. I don’t know about his relationship with Ji Bo, but when Ji Bo tested him during the last conflict between Northern Qi and Eastern Wu, he remained loyal to me. He asked me about it afterwards and said that Ji Bo had complimented him. I didn’t know Ji Bo’s true nature at the time, but he must have been trying to turn my officer to his side.”
“He’s trustworthy then,” muttered Jun Huang. Making the right guess didn’t make her feel any better.
Nan Xun didn’t like seeing her so concerned. He smoothed a finger over her frown. “What is it? Why don’t you discuss the issue with me?”
Jun Huang explained the situation.
After a long pause, Nan Xun said, “Although the Minister of Rites was the first to barge into the palace before we marched, I don’t think he’s capable of treason. If he’s Ji Bo’s man, he’d have gotten himself killed long ago. The Minister of Personnel, on the other hand, is a formidable man. He seems unassuming, but he’s capable of terrible deeds.”
“What do you mean?” asked Jun Huang.
“The Minister of War didn’t die of illness,” Nan Xun said after a long pause. “He was poisoned. Very few know the truth. An official story has been made up to avoid alerting the lurking threats, luring them into a false sense of security.”
“Is there something connecting him to the poisoning?”
“It’s said that a woman working in a brothel caught the Minister of War’s fancy. The formidable fighter claimed proudly that he would buy her freedom, and the woman returned his feelings. However, things didn’t end happily ever after. The Minister of Personnel, who never showed that much interest in women, took the courtesan away first.”
Jun Huang’s eyes widened, but she patiently waited for Nan Xun to continue. He patted the back of her hand. “That marked the start of their feud. After some time, the woman died. The Minister of War was furious and threatened the Minister of Personnel with death. Then, however, the Minister of War fell ill. People assumed he’d collapsed due to the loss of his beloved woman, but it was murder.”
Jun Huang fell silent. She knew what Nan Xun was suggesting. It was unusual that a man with few desires would suddenly set his eyes on a woman - and a woman working at a brothel at that. Not long after, the woman passed away. Everything seemed to happen according to some unknown plan. There was something fishy about the situation.