Phoenix Ascending

Chapter 20

Chapter 20: Trip to the Border

Qi Chen rushed to the palace without pause. His steps were hurried as he wished dearly to meet with the emperor now and alleviate some of his burdens. When he saw Nan Xun in the hallway, the look in his eyes grew deep.

“Your Highness, the emperor will see you now.” An official close to the emperor walked over to Qi Chen.

Qi Chen’s eyes snapped away as he nodded. When he entered the palace, he saw the emperor seated in front of a table with a deep frown, reports scattered all around him.

“This subject greets my royal father.” Qi Chen raised his cupped hands, respect radiating from every fiber of his being. It was only then that Qi Qiang finally raised his head and took note of his son, waving his hand to indicate that Qi Chen could dispense with the ceremony.

“Is something plaguing my royal father?” Qi Chen feigned ignorance and asked in confusion.

“A natural disaster is plaguing the borders and the people are in abject misery. Chaos threatens the region, and the officials only know to send me a mountain of reports. None of them offer any solutions. It’s indeed a tragedy that such a large nation as ours has no one who can offer up a good stratagem.” The emperor sighed and reached to try and smooth out the creases on his forehead. Many days worth of fretting had caused a tiredness to start to settle in his bones, but he still hadn’t come up a decent plan.

“Royal father, your son has an idea, but I’m not sure if I should speak of it.” Qi Chen smiled.

“Let’s hear it.”

“The best plan would be to send someone from court to the borders. No matter what, calming the people should be the priority, as well as helping them rebuild their homes.” Qi Chen recounted Jun Huang’s plan just as she’d told it to him.

“Although your plan sounds good, who would be willing to journey to that poor, remote region? The imperial treasury is also rather lean at the moment. From where would we obtain the gold and silver to help them rebuild?”

When Qi Chen saw how meticulous the emperor’s thoughts were and how he was already considering all aspects of the situation, he was deeply gratified that Jun Huang had foreseen the emperor’s concerns and prepared the appropriate responses. He offered up the following after a moment of thought, “The border citizens are also people of Northern Qi. How can we sit by and do nothing in their time of need? There are so many rich merchants in the capital who request our protection. Now that the country is in need, how can they not step forth and offer aid? I feel that we should increase the taxes levied on the richest merchants and request donations from the most senior officials. That would be the best plan.”

“Your words make sense, but who might you think would be the most suitable person for this?” Qi Qiang asked.

“If royal father trusts me, I am willing to go forth on your behalf.” Qi Chen’s gaze was resolute and his tone even more committed. Appreciation appeared for the first time in Qi Qiang’s eyes as he looked upon his son. He walked over to Qi Chen as he took a proper look at his son for the first time. They’d rarely met, but now Qi Chen had finally grown up and learned to take on some of the emperor’s burdens.

“You’ve indeed grown up and are capable of sharing some of my burdens.” A fatherly smile still on his face, Qi Qiang patted Qi Chen’s shoulder and sighed.

Qi Chen only felt bitterness in his heart, but accepted the emperor’s sentiments without a flicker in his expression. He smiled along with the emperor, the irony of the situation weighing heavily on him.

An official came in to indicate that it was time for lunch. Qi Chen wanted to take his leave, but the emperor had him stay. As Qi Qiang sat at the carved wooden table, he asked, “My son, it still worries me a little if you head for the border region by yourself. How about this, I’ll have Nan Xun accompany you?”

“All shall be as royal father decides.” Qi Chen nodded.

The emperor’s smile grew even more gratified. Qi Chen departed the palace in wonderful spirits after lunch. He had sworn silently when his father had looked at him with that gratified expression that he would handle this matter properly, so that his father would commend and recognize him even more.

Upon return to his manor, Qi Chen had someone summon Jun Huang. She didn’t have much of a reaction when he relayed the emperor’s words. All that had happened had been within her expectations. When Qi Chen saw how insightful and bold Jun Huang was at such a young age, he truly felt that Sir Feng was a stroke of good fortune that the heavens had sent him. He couldn’t stop smiling in his delight. “Brother Feng, you are truly my lucky star. I would have you join me on this trip to the border. What are your thoughts?”

Jun Huang nodded and flicked a glance at her healed arm, seemingly unconsciously reminding Qi Chen of the importance of maintaining his composure and being patient. If anyone laid hands on any of his secrets at this time or others, he would end up the same as the crown prince. She raised her head to look at Qi Chen, a curve on her lips. “Whatever Your Highness decides.” She wasn’t opposed to going to the border, she’d just felt slightly complicated emotions when she heard that Nan Xun would also be going.

Qi Chen didn’t detect Jun Huang’s shift in emotions and happily went out the door. As Jun Huang watched his figure grow smaller in the distance, her smile turned a bit cold. She naturally knew that it wouldn’t be easy to uproot the crown prince. But in order to help Qi Yun, she would need to borrow Qi Chen to eliminate the crown prince’s faction.

The money was quickly gathered for the campaign. As the border citizens were still sunk in agony, the emperor had Qi Chen set out with all due haste. Qi Qiang saw them out of the capital, and the entourage began their arduous journey to the border.

This particular region of Northern Qi was covered with mountains of yellow sand. The drought had caused even hardy grass to wither, and dried creeks and riverbeds lay exposed beneath the sun. There wasn’t the slightest hint of green for miles. Which was no surprise, since not a drop of rain had fallen from the skies in months. The people had even dug out all of the grass roots and eaten the land clean. Jun Huang quite empathized with the people as she traveled over the barren soil. She’d long heard of the long drought on the borders this year, but had no idea it had grown this bad. It was as if this land had never flourished with life, sending one’s thoughts spiraling.  The fierce sun overhead elicited even more pity for the barren scene before them. Having experienced the fall of her country, Jun Huang could deeply empathize with the citizens when she witnessed this ravaged land.

Nan Xun followed behind them on his tall, stocky horse, a slight frown on his forehead as he monitored the slender man up front. He really couldn’t understand why Qi Chen had brought Jun Huang to such a place. He remembered that Jun Huang had been injured, how could she suffer through such hardship?

Jun Huang was mounted atop a fine specimen of a steed and looked very dashing. Meanwhile, Qi Chen, accustomed to a life of easy comfort, actually had someone prepare a luxurious carriage. He didn’t look like he was going to help at a disaster zone. The entire entourage looked more like a rich dandy going on vacation. Some shook their heads internally. Most knew that Qi Chen was just here for show. How would someone like him truly care about the the life of the refugees?

Qi Chen had likely never imagined that he would one day be standing on such poor soil. Thanks to Jun Huang, he was being battered daily by the dust stirred up from the dry wind. Qi Chen covered his nose and mouth, “To think that my Northern Qi would have such a place!”

Jun Huang vaulted off her horse and walked up to Qi Chen, looking into the heart of the area in front of them. Things were much more severe than she’d imagined. The people were barely clothed in rags and tatters, their waxy complexions and malnourished appearances inviting pity. There were children sitting on collapsed walls and wailing. Perhaps due to the long lack of water, they weren’t shedding any tears. They were merely keening brokenly.

Apart from the yellow sands filling the air, there were many shrieking black crows soaring overhead. They hovered and refused to leave, since every so often someone would topple over. Then they would swoop down, their sharp beaks piercing through skin to consume the flesh of the newly deceased.

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