Nan Xun sighed and patted Jun Huang’s back. He understood her concern, but there was nothing they could do to change the situation.
The scion of the Eastern Wu’s royal clan was convinced that the officers were responsible for his humiliation. He ordered to increase their training and decrease the number of breaks, claiming that the soldiers should work harder in order to win the war. That further drove a wedge between the officers and the scion.
Eastern Wu’s army was falling into chaos, while Nan Xun led his troops with capable hands. He drove Eastern Wu further and further into their territory.
Ji Bo studied strategies night and day. He swore he would retaliate in kind.
It was late at night when he put down the book. He was about to go to sleep when he heard a commotion outside. He sat up and levelled the burly man barging into his tent a cold look.
“There’s a problem, sir.”
Ji Bo frowned. “What happened?” He put on a robe and got off the bed, pouring himself a cup of tea.
The burly man took a deep breath. “The scion took a team of elites and our supplies back to the imperial city after dinner.”
Ji Bo threw the cup to the floor and cursed. It took some time for him to calm down.
“What do we do?” asked the burly man.
A ferocious glint flashed through Ji Bo’s eyes. He scoffed. “Assassinate him and frame Nan Xun as the killer.”
The next day, news got out that Nan Xun had killed a member of Eastern Wu’s royal clan. Nan Xun laughed incredulously when he heard.
“It was Ji Bo,” Jun Huang murmured.
Nan Xun turned to her, waiting for her to continue. She explained, “We’ve made the scion resent the officers. He must have done something in retaliation. If that’s the case, the officers must hold a grudge against him as well. It’s said that the scion died suddenly on his way back to the imperial city. People believe we’re responsible, but we didn’t even know about his death beforehand. Ji Bo must be using this as a way to motivate the officers.”
“Shouldn’t their soldiers be pleased that the scion died?” asked Nan Xun.
Jun Huang huffed, her eyes dark. “That’s if they were the one who did it. If they think we’re responsible, they’ll feel compelled to seek revenge.”
Realization dawned on Nan Xun. As they had expected, Eastern Wu marched out immediately. They exchanged a glance and prepared for the encounter.
Driven by the scion’s death, Eastern Wu gained a slight upper hand in the battle. Nan Xun gave as good as he got. He pulled back at the right moment and minimized the casualties.
The news reached Northern Qi’s imperial city in no time. Before Qi Yun received any explanation from Nan Xun, there were already officials speaking up against the general.
“Your Highness, General Nan Xun has made a questionable move,” exclaimed an official as he knelt down at the center of the main hall. “How could he do something like that? It’s as if he’s provoking Eastern Wu on purpose! He has his own agenda, Your Highness.”
Qi Yun scoffed. “You scholar officials do nothing but banter all day. If you’re so worried about Nan Xun, why don’t I summon him back and send you to fight at the frontline?”
His voice wasn’t urgent or loud, but there was an edge to it. The officials were too intimidated to say anything. The one who had spoken up fell silent, worried that Qi Yun would make good on his words.
After the officials was dismissed, Qi Yun stayed behind and contemplated their conversation. He’d always trusted Nan Xun despite them not being biological brothers. However, it was difficult not to get suspicious after he took the throne. He worried that Nan Xun was trying to increase his power by prolonging the war.
After some deliberation, he wrote a letter to Nan Xun, asking him to address the rumors.
Nan Xun was exasperated. He told Qi Yun everything. The scion had antagonized Eastern Wu’s soldiers and ended up killed. Nan Xun was innocent. He wouldn’t allow others to slander him.
Qi Yun looked at Nan Xun’s responding letter thoughtfully. Unconvinced, he asked Nan Xun for evidence. Given the wide population the rumors had reached, it wouldn’t be enough for Qi Yun alone to believe in his story.
Nan Xun had no choice but to look for proof. Jun Huang didn’t comment when she heard. They both knew that although Qi Yun claimed it was the officials who wanted evidence, it was Qi Yun who was doubting Nan Xun.
“Leave it to me,” said Jun Huang. “If he wants proof, I’ll give him proof.”
Before Nan Xun could say anything, she walked away. Worried that she’d worked herself too hard, Nan Xun assigned a shadowguard to help her.
Ji Bo had cleaned up after himself well. It wasn't easy to find concrete evidence. That wasn’t what Jun Huagn was trying to do, anyway. It’d take too much time. She mixed truths with lies and created their own proof.
That was easier to accomplish. They soon found out that the scion had been with a group of elites when he left. Ji Bo killed only the scion, but spared the elites. The group had later been split up and embedded into the army. Ji Bo bought their silence with promises of great fortune.
That was an opening.
Jun Huang had the shadowguard pick a cowardly Eastern Wu soldier from the prison and convinced the man to claim that he had been one of the elites accompanying the scion. He made up a story about how Ji Bo had ordered the scion’s death.
The soldier had been caught after the scion’s passing, and he was from Eastern Wu. No one knew where he’d gone afterwards. What mattered was Nan Xun’s reputation had been restored. The morale was high.
Ji Bo, on the other hand, was having a difficult time. He cursed at Jun Huang for not knowing what was good for her. It worried him that the soldiers were starting to get suspicious of him.
His reprieve came because of the weather.
It started snowing heavily. One couldn’t even differentiate between a man and an animal. Both nations had no choice but to cease the war.
Nan Xun took the opportunity to spend some time with Jun Huang, enjoying the view.
Jun Huang had rarely seen snow. Even when she did, it had often been tainted by men or animals. She’d never seen such vast patch of pure, white snow. She could almost feel the color like it was a physical quality.
Jun Huang almost jumped in delight when Nan Xun said he was going to take her out. She quickly schooled her expression and put on warmer clothes before leaving the camp. They made their way through the snow shoulder to shoulder.
They were allowed some peace and quiet at the moment, but they didn’t dare go too far. They didn’t ride a horse, either, and instead walked on foot, hand in hand. They picked an unoccupied place and watched the boundless snow.
Jun Huang was feeling playful. She cleared her throat and said, “Wait here for a moment.”
With that, she ran off. Nan Xun didn’t know what she was trying to do, but he obliged. She stopped not far from him and turned to smile at him. She looked stunning in the snowy afternoon.
When he wasn’t looking, she picked up a handful of snow, made it into a ball, and threw it at Nan Xun. Nan Xun was caught off guard, but he managed to tilt his head in time to dodge out of the way. Now he knew what it was Jun Huang wanted to do.
Nan Xun’s quick reflex didn’t deter Jun Huang. She tried again.
Nan Xun didn’t retaliate, worried that he’d hurt her by accident. He made his way to Jun Huang, who laughed and backed away as she threw snowballs at him. Nan Xun soon caught her.
In a fit of rare, childlike glee, Jun Huang lay on the snow and refused to get up. Resigned, Nan Xun stayed on the ground with her. Both of them had snow in their clothes, but they didn’t care.
They were young. No matter how stoic and aloof they usually were when facing other people, they were only themselves when they were alone. They started having fun. Nan Xun even threw a few snowballs back at Jun Huang a few times. Jun Huang beamed, her eyes as bright as the stars.
Exhausted, Jun Huang and Nan Xun lay on the ground. She rested her head on his arm, feeling snow landing on her face.
After some time, she sat up and got to her feet. Nan Xun turned her down this time when she suggested another snowball fight.
Jun Huang pursed her lips but didn’t argue. She began to build a snowman. It took some time for her to make a crude one. Her eyes crinkled as she smiled.
She turned to Nan Xun and noted the snow covering him. The white clothes he wore made him blend with the environment.
“I have an idea,” Jun Huang said suddenly. Nan Xun sat up and gave her a questioning glance.
Jun Huang sat down next to him and let him take her chilled, reddened hands. “This is our chance to strike back. We can have our troops put on camouflage and attack Eastern Wu. Think about it. If the soldiers wear white and hide in the snow, will anyone be able to spot them?”