Chapter 25: The Third Round

Dusk descended prematurely on the vast expanses of the Northern Plains. Under the glimmering stars, tents after tents from the military stood erect along the borders of the Northern Plains. Beside them, the war horses neighed, filling the air with their wispy white breath as they breathed.

Within the military strategist’s tent, a series of light coughs echoed. As Fan Lingyue sat behind her desk in the not-too-cold weather of October, she was draped in an unusually thick mink coat. Her pallid complexion was especially conspicuous among those gathered tonight. Anyone who looked at her delicate and beautiful face right now would’ve been wracked by a pain in their hearts.

“How is it?” She asked in a soft, almost fragile voice.

“They barely managed to win a round.” At the side, a young general replied in a reverent tone.

“Such an unexpected variable…” She lightly sighed.

Grand Xia was on the verge of losing and yet this person had managed to turn the tides around, forcing her to rethink her plans.

“Did you manage to verify the authenticity of such a person working under Zhang Sun?” She continued.

“We’ve verified his identity, there is such a person.” The young general answered once more.

“How bizarre…”

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She trailed off in thought. Why would such a brilliant person enter the palace as a eunuch.

Furthermore, there’s no way this matter could be faked nor was there any possibility of it being a scheme by Zhang Sun or the Xia Emperor. The reason was simple, an Emperor’s heart could never be so magnanimous as to allow a fake eunuch to enter the Imperial Harem.

Even though she possessed peerless insight and deductive abilities, she was after all, still a human and not an omniscient deity. She simply had no way to predict such a variable. Furthermore, his background was rock solid without any traces of subterfuge. This fact was what confused her the most.

Draped across her desk was a green cloth scroll. On it were the details gathered by the Mongolian intelligence on Ning Chen.

A normal childhood and a normal upbringing. His parents had died early leaving him without any kin. He had undergone several years of education but had nothing notable to speak of. It was this very reason that forced him to enter the palace as a eunuch.

She mulled over it for several moments before turning to the young general beside her, “Force him out of the palace.”

“Understood.” He replied with a military salute.

Unbeknownst to Ning Chen, he had just been targeted by the most terrifying military strategist in the world. If he had known of this, he would’ve probably reconsidered his decision to leave the palace.

At that very moment, Ning Chen was standing outside Qing Ning’s room. He gave the door a couple of knocks but all he received was silence. *knock* *knock* Still no response.

“That’s strange.”

He murmured to himself. Given Zhang Sun’s fondness of peace and quiet, she didn’t require Qing Ning to be by her side most of the time. This was why Qing Ning could usually be found resting in her room.

Having gotten no response after a long wait, he returned to his room, mood slightly deflated. Since it was an inopportune timing, he might as well make use of this time to have some self-practise. After all, it’s just body strengthening, there’s no way that could kill him.

Just as he left, a spurt of blood sprayed onto the floor as Qing Ning’s old injuries acted up again. Her eyes shot open from the pain as she laid quietly in her room.

“Looks like I was too hasty.” She lightly sighed as she wiped the blood off the corners of her mouth.

Recent events had made her feel the need to speed up her recovery even more. However, her injuries were simply too severe, her cultivation base had been damaged by over 50% and simply could not recover in such a short span of time.

While Zhang Sun had no shortage of capable subordinates, the ones that she could truly trust were only a handful. Ever since Qing Ning had gotten injured, the majority of her time had been spent on recuperation causing the burden on Zhang Sun to increase even further.

“If only he was more usable.”

A look of fatigue crossed her eyes. She had actually brought up this matter with Zhang Sun several times. Not counting his ridiculous antics, his performance up till now had been stellar.

Unfortunately, he was always trying to escape. This quirk of his had caused the two of them a lot of headaches.

He didn’t lust after power, wealth or money. Neither was he an immoral villain. However, he wasn’t a saint either as evidenced by his multitudes of quirks. And yet, neither of these quirks could be worked on.

She knew that Zhang Sun valued talented people and was an extremely sentimental person. If it wasn’t for that, she wouldn’t have forgiven him time and time again. The main reason for this confinement was to rein in his desire to leave.

However, neither of them could’ve predicted his astounding performance against the Zhenji emissary. His talent and intelligence had shocked everyone, including the normal citizenry.

If one looked carefully, one would realize that Weiyang Palace was the most peaceful location in the entire Imperial City. Even Ning Chen’s meteoric rise to fame couldn’t disrupt the serenity of Weiyang Palace.

She knew, however, that Ning Chen didn’t care about this one bit. Other than the loss of his 100 taels of gold, he didn’t pay much attention to these matters.

As the silvery moon hung above the serenity of Weiyang Palace, the lone figure of the Ninth Princess could be seen leaving the abode of Zhang Sun, having paid her nightly visit. Even so, the lights within Zhang Sun’s room showed no signs of dimming. On the east, a sole candle burned conspicuously within the otherwise pitch black room of Qing Ning.

It was only within the remote room of Ning Cheng, that this scene had not repeated. The lights were extinguished long ago with its occupant presumably asleep or busy with god knows what.

As the warm light of dawn broke through the horizon, the curtains rose on the last round of the bet with Zhenji. With the start of the daily court session, Ning Chen was summoned over by a junior eunuch. This was the first time she had taken the initiative to summon him to court. However, due to the early timing of this summon, the subject in question was still in a dazed state and didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about it.

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Compared to the previous two rounds, Zhang Sun had placed much more expectation on his performance. However, she just couldn’t stand his slothful attitude. She wanted to rebuke him but changed her mind in the end.

Nearby, the Zhenji emissary had just arrived with five white-robbed Confucian scholars in tow. All of them were relatively young with the oldest coming in at only 20 years of age. What was even more striking was their lack of bookish demeanor. Rather than Confucian students, they seemed more like fortune tellers.

Ning Chen was slightly heartened by what he saw. Confucianism was at the height of its glory in Grand Xia. The court officials were all adherents of Confucianism with Grand Duke Taishi being at the forefront. Confucian scholars were the last thing Grand Xia lacked. If the emissary really wanted to have a Confucian debate, it would be akin to suicide.

Given that the last round was about luck and fate, were these five fellows truly fortune tellers?

While he wasn’t familiar with fortune tellers, he did have a fateful meeting with a particularly impressive one. Previously, on his trip to purchase a new pair of shoes with Li Er, he had met a fortune teller. He didn’t think much of that fortune teller then but thinking back on it, he truly had some skill in him.

After all, that fortune teller said that he couldn’t run away and here he was, back in the palace once more.

No wonder it was said that there was a scholar in every field. He himself knew of the existence of True Qi; was fortune telling that hard to accept given this fact?

The Xia Emperor sat atop his throne, straight faced as ever. As the monarch of the strongest dynasty, every action of the Xia Emperor has the potential to stir up waves in the world. No matter which generation he was, the Xia Emperor didn’t sully the name of an Emperor.

As Ning Chen entered the grand hall with Zhang Sun, the eyes of the officials gathered on him. They all knew how formidable this eunuch was. If it wasn’t for his status as a eunuch, he would’ve been the target of recruitment from multiple sides.

Unfortunately, he was a eunuch.

Due to the chaos created by eunuchs in the previous generation, the eunuch faction had been severely suppressed. There was basically no chance of a eunuch grasping any form of power. This was why Ning Chen was only given one hundred gold taels despite his momentous achievements.

Of course, Ning Chen didn’t care about all these political machinations. All he cared about was his confiscated taels.

The court session was just as uninteresting as ever. This was especially so with the presence of the detestable Zhenji emissary. At least this would have been so if not for the truly shocking third question.

A maze!

There exists a maze within the palace grounds constructed by craftsmen of the previous generation. As for why such a thing existed, no one knew. All they knew was that it was an extremely complicated feat of engineering. Having entered it, one could expect to be trapped in there for at least three to five days. The third challenge posed by Zhenji was simple: both sides would dispatch a person in there and whoever made it out first, won.

Logically speaking, Grand Xia had an enormous advantage going into this round. This was, after all, their own palace. They should, at the very least be more familiar with its terrain than the Zhenji emissary.

However, even an idiot knew that this matter couldn’t be that simple let alone the court officials who were clearly not idiots.

What was concerning were the Confucian scholars/fortune tellers brought in by the emissary. Only a fool would think that there was nothing behind this action.

“Truly a test of luck..”

One of the Confucian officials sighed. If one was lucky, one could exit the maze in three to five days. If not, starving to death was the most likely outcome.

With the test question set, all that remained was choosing a candidate. However, who to choose was a difficult question in of itself.

While they were all looking at Ning Chen, it wasn’t that they truly expected another showing from him, but given his track record of shocking feats, who knows, he might just surprise them once more.

Seeing everyone turn towards him, Ning Chen shyly lowered his head and kept his silence.

If there was another candidate, he definitely didn’t want to participate in this test. His agreement with the Ninth Princess only stipulated that Grand Xia won, as for who it was that entered the maze, that didn’t matter at all.

Seeing the look on his officials, the Xia Emperor couldn’t help but furrow his brows as he blandly proclaimed: “Who among you wish to volunteer for this task?”

Within the halls, a Confucian scholar tried to step out but was immediately held back by his companion. He lightly shook his head, his meaning clear, this wasn’t the time for heroics. No matter what, Grand Xia mustn’t lose this round or it would suffer massive losses.

At the front of the officials were the three grand dukes of Grand Xia, clad in their opulent court uniforms. Duke Xiyu glanced over at the five white-robed men and smiled lightly.

“Taishi, these five aren’t simple.”

“Hmph, the Unified Heart technique. Nothing more than parlor tricks.” Duke Taishi calmly rebutted as he sat there in his austere Confucian robes.

“Looks like Grand Xia has underestimated their preparations. It can be said that we’ve given up the first battle already.” Duke Jingwu chimed in with his honest opinions.

It was a simple conversation which ended in the usual silence by the three grand dukes. This matter wasn’t one which they would interfere in.

“Do you have a solution for this?”

Zhang Sun asked, turning towards Ning Chen with an exasperated look on her face. The inaction by the officials had greatly disappointed her.

“That would depend on whether Her Majesty and His Majesty are willing to pay the price.”

He laughed, slightly embarrassed by the shamelessness of his own method. It was a violent method but it was an effective one.

“What do you mean by that?” Her curiosity clearly piqued by his enigmatic reply.

He leaned in and whispered several words in her ear. Her expression immediately darkened as if an impending thunderstorm was about to strike.

“Are you sure about this!?” She asked through gritted teeth.

“Mostly.” He ended up committing the same error of humility once more.

“Hmm?” Her eyes immediately narrowed as a dangerous glint flashed through them.

“100%.” He immediately changed his answer amidst the pounding of his heart.

“Approved. You may get the preparations readied. This Queen will bring up this matter with His Majesty in the meantime.”

“Understood.” He answered and swiftly left the hall.

At the back of the grand hall, a certain eunuch could be seen next to an officer clad in inkish-green armor. Having exchanged a couple of sentences, the pair broke into a roguish grin as they set off for the Imperial Physician’s courtyard.

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