Sunday's chapter.

“I'm yours, and I'm not yours.”
--Samantha, ‘Her’ (2013)

Chapter 161 – Lack of communication

It was a celebratory feast, with a plethora of delicious foods and exotic dancers as the evening’s entertainment. The mood was jovial, the guests flushed from the drinks and seeing the alluring dancers turn and twist their bodies and flung their silk ribbons enticingly.

Perched on the seats of honour were the leading couple of the day, the pride of the Jins. The Prince and Princess of Jin were still young, yet they were already celebrated figures and venerated by the masses.

Prince Jin Bao the Jade Dragon was a handsome man with a physique tempered by years of horse-riding, archery and swordsmanship. He was no soft-skinned heir to the throne; he had ably demonstrated his intelligence in courtly struggles and his valour in the country’s military endeavours.

His consort Princess Jin Hua the Golden Flower was even younger, yet her accomplishments were no lesser than the prince’s. In only a few short years, she had sparked innovations and reforms throughout the country. The Jins had a nomadic culture, but with her relentless drive and miraculous inspiration they were rapidly transforming into an agricultural one.

Of course, such changes did not sit well with everybody. There were a few who had sneered at the very thought of farming, yet when even their revered prince smilingly picked up a hoe and obeyed the directions of his wife to start a small garden of their own; it quickly sparked a trend for others to follow.

They were truly a heavenly pair, a matchless couple. The way they had openly displayed their love for each other, the way they had rebuffed jealous rivals, the times they had stood together against malicious plots and bitter gossip had earned them lavish praises.

Yet despite the splendid and merry festivities, the Princess of Jin showed little cheer. She had pecked at her food distractedly, only looking up with a fake smile and pretending to drink a toast whenever she heard her name being mentioned by the guests.

The Prince of Jin looked worriedly at his consort. With the guests suitably intoxicated by the drinks and the exotic dancers, he finally had the chance to lean close to his wife.

“Are you alright? Is the food not to your liking?” he whispered with concern.

Jin Hua shook her head and the golden braids on her resplendent headdress tinkled.

“Just a little tired,” she said softly. The gleams of light reflecting off her jewellery gave her an ethereal feeling.

“I told you to rest more and not work so much,” Jin Bao said, handsome face frowning.

“But there is so much to do,” she said with a rueful sigh.

Prince Jin Bao’s frown deepened. “What is it? Is there something I can do?” he asked plaintively. If it was another woman who saw his wounded puppy look, surely her heart would have melted.

But not Jin Hua. The Golden Flower gave her husband a reassuring smile and nodded towards the dinner party to hush him, silently urging him to drop the matter.

Jin Bao knew his wife well. Despite being married, he knew she was loathed to give up her secrets. It was one of the qualities that had intrigued him, her mysteriousness a component to his infatuation with her.

Yet it could be a little frustrating whenever he was made to feel helpless to alleviate her burden. Sometimes he was a little jealous of her talented and eclectic group of subordinates, there were times when he had felt she depended on them more than he would have liked.

But recently his heart was more piqued than usual. Jin Hua had been very distracted of late; ever since a spy report from Wu reached her desk. He had asked her about it, only to be rebuffed. And now this…

Thus he could only exhale in sulky resignation. His own cheerful mood dissipated, and he too pasted a fake smile on his face for his guests.

After the feast, the prince tried to ask his wife once more. At the very least, let him help in any way he can. Surely there was something he could do…

“I have my plans, do not be such a worrywart,” she laughed, a sparkling sound that soothed his soul. In the end he dropped the matter, and allowed her to have her way.

Thereafter Jin Hua convened a meeting, summoning her trusted subordinates. Each had their special talents that made them important to Princess Jin Hua’s strategic vision, and she kept them close to be at her beck and call. They were her personal assistants; even her husband the prince had no authority over them.

“Well, shall we begin?” an elderly man with a pronounced hunchback asked, a sheaf of papers in his hands.

“We are not all here,” another person reminded him, an alluring woman who wore her silk gown loosely so that her pale shoulders were exposed.

“Where is that oaf? He is always late!” a gloomy young man in black robes grumbled. His long hair was combed down so that half of his face was obscured. The exposed half showed a devilishly handsome face with cruel eyes and thin lips.

Just then, the doors swung open, and a squat looking man walked in. He had a broad, muscular chest and an unruly beard. A number of daggers were stuck prominently on his belt.

“Sorry for the lateness!” the short man said. It was an unconvincing apology, for he belched loudly right after. The others in the room wrinkled their noses in various degrees of disgust.

“How nice of you to join us,” the alluring woman said with a barely concealed sneer.

“I’d join you any time! ” the squat man leered back.

The elderly hunchbacked man rapped his knuckles on the table to prevent an argument.

“Princess, we are here,” he said to remind them of Jin Hua’s presence.

“Finally!” the gloomy young man exclaimed. “But why have you called for us? The scheduled meeting isn’t for another week.”

Princess Jin Hua shook her head. “This is not about your progress reports, it is regarding another matter.”

The alluring woman arched an enticing eyebrow. “Another matter? Is it about Wu?”

Jin Hua nodded.

“Bah, those southerners,” the short man said scornfully. “I don’t understand why you are still stopping us from invading them. Send me! Send me! I’ll sweep them aside for you!”

“That is boring,” the Princess of Jin said with a roll of her eyes.

“Agh, you wound me,” the squat man said forlornly, beating a fist over his heart exaggeratedly.

“Let me go instead,” the gloomy young man volunteered.

“You are more boring than he is,” Jin Hua replied, a grin taking the sting out of the criticism.

“I didn’t want to go anyway,” the gloomy young man muttered, still slightly miffed.

“What sort of matter in Wu that requires our attention?” the hunchbacked old man asked gravely.

“There is an unknown quantity in Beihai,” Princess Jin Hua said.

“Beihai? There is nobody worth mentioning ever since General Yin was transferred,” the squat man scoffed.

“Isn’t Li Jing the new commander there?” the alluring woman asked.

The gloomy man sniffed. “Just a man with terrible hygiene,” he sneered. But he then rested his eyes on his squat colleague.

“What was that?!” the shorter man bristled with anger.

“I meant Li Jing,” the gloomy man said, but still keeping his eyes on him.

The squat man swung violently at him, and the gloomy young man had to leap back to avoid it. The movement caused his hair to flutter, and for a fleeting moment his full face could be seen. The half which was obscured by his long hair was hideously scarred and deformed.

“Enough,” the hunchback elder intervened wearily. “Princess, do you want us to investigate and remove this… ‘unknown quantity’?” he asked.

Jin Hua tapped her fingers on the table, and the room fell silent. They knew she was gathering her thoughts, and even the rudest and impatient among them waited respectfully for their princess.

“I want to know if he’s worth recruiting into our fold,” she finally said.

“Oh? Who is this person?”

“You might know of him. They say he was the one who gave Wei’s General Ran Wei a bloody nose at Tigertrap Pass, and that he all but orchestrated the fall of Wu’s Prime Minister Tong Xuan,” the princess informed them.

It provoked varying reactions from them. The eyes of the short man widened and blazed with rivalry, while the gloomy young man narrowed his in deep suspicions.

“Mmm,” the alluring woman smiled and licked her lips with relish. “I have heard of him. They say he is a very handsome young man. Still unmarried too!”

The hunchbacked elder frowned. “If he is that talented, what is he doing at Beihai? Why wouldn’t the King of Wu keep him at his palace as an advisor?”

“Who cares!” the squat man shouted. “Send me! Give me soldiers, I’ll bring him back for you!”

“You’re just looking for a fight,” the gloomy young man scoffed.

“Damn right I am!”

The alluring woman ignored them. “Well, I’d be more than happy to investigate him for you, princess,” she said breathily.

“You slut!” the two arguing men exclaimed in unison, causing the alluring woman to screech back at them.

The hunchbacked elder rubbed his creased brows at the disorder. He looked back at the princess helplessly and saw that she was smiling, as if taking pleasure at the infantile fighting among them…

Later, a decision was reached and those given their various responsibilities went their separate ways. Princess Jin Hua then retired and went to bed, filing the matter into a mental compartment knowing that she had already made her mind and it was pointless to change it. It was one less distraction, and she could turn her focus on to other matters.

Little did she know that what she decided in the meeting soon found its way to the Prince of Jin. Jin Bao was enamoured with his wife, and Jin Hua have no one to blame except for herself as she was the one who wilfully ensnared him to love her and her alone.

Yet it also meant he was deathly afraid of losing her, and thus he had her monitored without her knowledge. This news about her interest regarding a rising star in Beihai was like a gnawing pain that clutched at his heart.

Thus the Prince of Jin too dispatched his own agents to Beihai…

He is unaware of the trouble,
That he had brought to this couple.​