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Chapter 117: An Invitation from Qi Chen
Only those who were involved in affairs of the court understood the dangers lurking within the imperial city. One wrong move could mean the difference between life and death. Vigilance was an integral part of survival.
"How about the a.s.sa.s.sins who attacked me that night? Have you found anything?" Jun Huang was suddenly reminded of the incident. Too many things had happened since then. She had forgotten about it.
Nan Xun shook his head with his brows furrowed. A sigh escaped his lips. "No. Not at all. They were well-prepared. I couldn't find any clues that may lead me to the perpetrator."
"Don't concern yourself too much about it," Jun Huang said. "The fact that you couldn't find anything is an answer in and of itself."
"I will keep on investigating."
Jun Huang gave him an noncommittal smile. She didn't think it would be an easy task. Nan Xun wasn't able to find anything after such a long period of time. It was likely that his investigation would only lead him to a dead end.
She looked at him seriously. "Clearly someone powerful was behind the a.s.sa.s.sination attempt. Be careful when you are investigating. Don't wake the sleeping dog from its slumber."
Nan Xun nodded. "What do you plan to do now?"
Jun Huang shook her head after a moment of silence. She took a deep breath and said, "I can only take one step at a time and cross the bridge when I come to it."
"Do take care of yourself." Nan Xun noticed that Jun Huang was acting differently from how she had been before. Ji Bo must have said something to her, and he wouldn't be wrong to do so. This wasn't a good time to take Qi Chen out. Being hasty would only attract troubles.
Clever people like her was born this way. They had to think through every option they had, and would always choose a slow but reliable solution over a swift but risky one.
At the beginning, Jun Huang sought to only take her revenge. She could afford to follow her heart. Now with Ji Bo in their ranks, she had to come up with a plan before making every move, which wasn't a bad thing per se, but it was an added weight on Jun Huang's shoulders.
Nan Xun felt a bitter taste in his mouth when he noticed how slim Jun Huang had become. She looked as if she was wasting away right before his eyes. His feelings threatened to burst out of his chest and he could feel his unspoken words forming a lump in his throat. "Jun Huang, you… you have to take better care of yourself," he said, apropos of nothing.
Jun Huang looked up at him with questioning eyes, but she didn't voice her confusion. Instead, she gave him a nod, again keeping him at arm's length.
He wanted to ask Jun Huang if she knew that her ailing body would collapse if she continued to overtax herself both physically and mentally. He wanted to ask if she knew that her days were numbered and she was sacrificing her life in her pursuit of revenge.
But he was in no place to question her, was he? Jun Huang knew what she was doing. She gave more thoughts to her every action than Nan Xun ever did.
He didn't say anything.
After lunch, Nan Xun offered to walk Jun Huang back, but she turned him down. "I want to stretch my leg a little. It's daytime. Nothing will happen to me. Besides, Qi Chen might have someone keeping an eye on my place now. If he knows we have been talking, I'll need to find an excuse again."
Nan Xun opened his mouth to argue, but decided against it. Jun Huang, as usual, was in the right. He watched her walk away with Little Girl in tow.
Jun Huang wandered back to her house with Little Girl. Little Girl was beaming as she played with what they had bought before. Her bright smile was in stark contrast with Jun Huang's expressionless face.
Upon their arrival, the door-watching page boy rushed to them. "You have finally returned, gentleman Feng."
"Is something wrong?" Jun Huang asked with a frown.
"The crown prince sent a man," said the page boy with a finger pointing inside.
Jun Huang took a quick look inside before nodding at the page boy and entering the main hall. Qi Chen's housekeeper walked up to her with a wide smile and cupped hands. Jun Huang returned the gesture. "Did the prince send the housekeeper here for something urgent?"
"The prince told me to invite the gentleman back to the manor," said the housekeeper.
Jun Huang frowned. "Has the prince told you what for?"
"This servant cannot possibly question the prince's order. The gentleman will know what the prince wants when you meet with him." His answer was perfectly in line with his status. His respectful tone gave her no reason to feel offended.
Jun Huang knew she wouldn't be able to get an answer out of the housekeeper. She nodded and followed him to Prince Chen Manor.
With the privileges granted by Qi Chen, she was able to enter the manor without asking for permission. The housekeeper left after walking her to the door. She entered the main hall on her own.
Qi Chen was drinking tea on the main seat, waiting for her arrival. At the center of the hall was a long table, on which was a piece of fine silk topped with a great variety of exotic items. It was quite an impressive sight.
Masking her confusion, Jun Huang walked up to Qi Chen and bowed. "What does Your Highness need this gentleman for?"
Qi Chen got to his feet and put down his teacup before approaching Jun Huang. He gestured at the table. "Brother Feng is a talented man who has an eye for rare artifacts. Come take a look at these things."
Jun Huang gave the items on the table a once-over before turning to Qi Chen. She knew what he had asked her here for, but she pretended to be oblivious. "What are these for?"
"Prince Duan's birthday is coming," said Qi Chen. "Naturally I have to pick a good gift for him." After a pause, he added, "I want only the best for him."
Jun Huang nodded in understanding and turned to the table. In her heart remained a trace of doubt regarding Qi Chen's action. She could tell that these were things Qi Chen had collected over the years. She wondered why he was suddenly being so generous. Her instinct told her that it wasn't merely a birthday gift for Prince Duan, but she couldn't be sure.
While she was still deep in thoughts, Qi Chen started going through the items. He took out a piece of fine jade from a delicately forged box. The jade was warm to the touch. From afar one could see a faint glow shrouding the jade. It certainly was a rare treasure.
"What about this?" Qi Chen asked with the warm jade in his hand. Jun Huang collected her thoughts and took the jade from Qi Chen. It was of good quality, but she didn't think it would make a good gift.
She shook her head and returned the jade to the box. Looking over at the other items, she wondered how Qi Chen had acquired these things. Had he been exploiting people where she could not see?
A premium piece of sandalwood. An ink stone emitting a elegant fragrance. A luminous pearl as clear as crystal gem. These were luxurious but impractical things. They would never be of use. Her gaze settled on an open scroll of painting.
Time had tinted the paper a brownish yellow, which did not take away from the painting's beauty, but instead added a touch of uniqueness to the already stunning picture. Splattered ink formed a river running down from a mountain range. On the riverbank stood an old tree. A tired crow perched on top of it. In a distance white smoke rose from a cooking stove into the air. With only black ink, the artist was able to create a vivid picture. She could imagine herself being within the world it had depicted.
Jun Huang could not tear her eyes away. She walked towards the painting and took a closer look. This was it. She was sure this would be the perfect gift. "How about this painting, Your Highness?"
Qi Chen came to her side and looked down at the scroll. "This is the work of an old master, but the other parts of the painting are missing. Won't it be inappropriate if I gift the prince with only one part of the whole artwork?"
Jun Huang only knew then that this was merely a piece of the puzzle. The entire picture must have been a real sight to behold. Art pieces were often lost because of wars. It must not have been easy to acquire even a single scroll.
"This gentleman doesn't think so. Everyone knows that Prince Duan is a jade connoisseur. However, Your Highness must know as well that what Prince Duan truly loves are artifacts with historical value. He must have received lots of jade every year, but not a lot of people would think of giving him ancient paintings. He will appreciate it if Your Highness gifted this painting to him." Her tone was genuine. Originally Qi Chen had decided to give Prince Duan jade, but she had changed his mind. He nodded.
"Brother Feng is right. I will do as you suggested." He ordered a servant to wrap the painting up, taking great care to specify how it should be protected and what kind of box should be used. The attention to detail made Jun Huang even more suspicious of his intention.
While she was thinking about what Qi Chen was trying to do, he handed Jun Huang a jade pendant. "What does the gentleman think about this?"
Jun Huang darted her eyes to the jade. What was Qi Chen trying to do? She took the pendant and checked it over. "It is of great quality…"
"You can have it then," Qi Chen said. He then turned back to the table and fell silent.
Jun Huang remembered him saying that he would give her a piece of green jade on his birthday. She had thought he was joking, but it turned out he was being serious.
Jun Huang looked down at the jade with a quiet laugh. She wasn't going to turn his gift away and offended him. She put it away.
Jun Huang wasn't actually a jade lover. She simply thought that wearing an accessory would help her project the image of a graceful gentleman. That was why she either wore a jade pendant or a satchel. Many were drawn to the illusion of an elegant man she had created.
Nan Guyue entered the room. Her expression changed when she saw the jade pendant in Jun Huang's hand. Jun Huang huffed out a silent laugh. She knew what Nan Guyue was worried about. Jun Huang wouldn't do things that would harm herself. She bid Qi Chen farewell and took her leave.
On the day of Prince Duan's birthday, Qi Chen sent a man to Jun Huang's place early in the morning. The man brought her a set of clothes worthy of the occasion and said that Qi Chen would like Jun Huang to accompany him.
Jun Huang had been wondering about Qi Chen's relations.h.i.+p with Prince Duan. At Qi Chen and Nan Guyue's wedding, she had exchanged a few words with Prince Duan, but it wasn't enough for her to get a good feel of the man. This would be a good opportunity.
She changed into the clothes the man brought her. The turquoise robe was decorated with intricate patterns, its sleeves lined with golden silk. It was a luxurious piece of clothing. Jun Huang narrowed her eyes at her reflection in the bronze mirror. She picked up the white jade cap from the table and tucked her hair under the cap. She then took out her foldable fan and the jade pendant Qi Chen had given her. One she held in her hand and the other she hung on her waist. It looked as if she had walked right out of a painting.