Unedited due to hectic new job's schedule, mea culpa.

“Annie, are you ok?”
--‘Smooth Criminal’, Michael Jackson

Chapter 213 - Typical, recycled plot

Prince Chu Feng swallowed and suddenly found his throat was dry. The woman before him was giving off a soft glow, an almost ethereal aura radiating pureness and vulnerability. He almost lurched forward to sweep her into his manly, powerful arms; to protect her from all manner of dangers.

It was not just him, even his usually stoic and proud veterans were affected.

Before he could really understood what had happened, he had brought the woman back into his personal tent, dismissing his attendants along the way.

When he finally shook aside his stupor, he realized that he was alone with the enormously desirable woman. He could only look at her stupidly as she slowly walked closer to him, his eyes transfixed at her every move.

A delicate rose gently towards his face, causing her sleeve to slide down and reveal flawless alabaster skin.

“Bwuh…” he mumbled intelligently as her fingers came up to his eye level. Then those enticing fingers curled inwards to rub against each other.

Instantly a sharp, spicy smell hit his nostrils. It was as if someone had suddenly shoved pounded bird’s eye chilli into his nose. Almost immediately, his eyes watered from the sensation. The violent pain jarred him back into awareness. The prince staggered back as the mist that clouded his mind dispelled.

“What did you do!?” he exclaimed in shock.

“Apologies, your highness. It was the remedy to my perfume arts,” the woman replied serenely.

“What?” the prince gasped, instinctively clapping a hand over his nose and mouth. His eyes widened as the woman seemingly come into focus.

The woman chuckled, dropping the façade of fragility to reveal sultry confidence.

“Do not worry, the effects only serve to dull the senses for a short time. It cannot be used as a means of controlling someone.”

“Who are you?” the prince demanded warily.

“A professional,” the woman answered with an assured smile. From within her sleeve she retrieved a small fan, unfurling it with a snap of her wrist.

It was such a stark contrast to the mourning beauty that he had seen previously that Prince Chu Feng did a double-take, looking at her up and down as she fanned herself. Thoroughly disorientated and not a little intimidated by her, the prince kept a wary distance.

‘No wonder mother is so confident of success, this woman is just like her,’ he thought.

Behind her fan, Qiong Ying exhaled in satisfaction. She had not lied to him: the perfume she had used was not a long-term solution to her mission. Else she would have used it liberally to addle the prince’s mind and turn him into a puppet. It was commonly used in her Lichun Brothel to make the clients more pliant to her girls and to damp their otherwise rowdy tendencies. Prolonged exposure however would build immunity, and so she had to educate the young ladies in her care to use all their wiles to tame the men that they would encounter before the effectiveness of their perfume wore off.

Putting that aside, she was pleased how her spy network had accurately prepared her for this.

‘Definitely a mama’s boy,’ she thought as she eyed the prince.

She had discussed with Huang Ming, and he had vaguely said with that infuriating smile of his: “The best strategy is to let your opponent know your next move. Even better is to let your opponent know your next two moves.”

And so they decided that Qiong Ying make obvious her fake identity to the prince, so as to draw him near to work ‘together’ against Chu Xiong.

“Once you have demonstrated your skill to him, it would be easier for you to convince him to follow your plans and thereby entrap him,” Huang Ming had said.

“You mean, reveal a bit of skin with him around and then call for help, so that he is labelled as a perverted beast?” she had asked.

“What, that old, stale plot line so often used by novels for women?” Huang Ming scoffed. “No, this drama deserves a better class of criminal.”

“So I’m a criminal now?” she said with narrowed eyes.

“Of course,” he had answered without skipping a beat. “You are a criminal… a smooth criminal who had stolen my heart,” he said with a wink.

She rolled her eyes and visibly shuddered.‘Men are simple creatures,’ she had complained silently.

“Who are you really?” Prince Chu Feng asked again.

“Concubine Yang hired me via intermediaries to solve your little problem,” she said, hiding her smirk behind the fan.

“I do not have a ‘little’ problem!” the prince fired back testily, annoyed by her choice of words.

‘Simple creatures,’ she repeated mentally. “I meant regarding Prince Chu Xiong.”

“Why don’t you use that perfume of yours on him?” the prince grumbled. “It should be a simple matter of causing him to fall into your embrace, then you can scream for help and let his shame be seen by the world.”

Qiong Ying snapped her fan shut. “Do you think this is some sort of novel read by women? How often have such plots been used and recycled by storytellers?” she said waspishly, channelling an impression of Huang Ming at the prince.

“Then, what?” Prince Chu Feng scowled, unused by the lack of respect she was showing him.

It intrigued him.

“It is difficult,” she replied. “It has only been a few days, but that Huang Ming is constantly on his guard. It is impossible for me to catch Prince Chu Xiong by himself.”

“Mother did say I was to help you by splitting them up,” Chu Feng mused, conveniently forgetting that he was not supposed to approach the woman in the first place.

“But things are moving along as planned,” Qiong Ying said. “Thanks to Huang Ming’s constant presence, Prince Chu Xiong is now irritated and can’t wait to be away from Huang Ming. You saw the little drama outside their camp earlier?”

“Yes,” Chu Feng admitted. “Was it you who had played the zither?”

Qiong Ying nodded. “The prince held a feast to comfort me, but then Huang Ming brought up questions about my background. The prince tried to change the subject by asking if I had any musical talents, and I took the opportunity to play a mournful tune and thus provoked an argument between them.”

“Then your job is already halfway done!” Chu Feng said in admiration.

“But it is not done,” she huffed, giving the impression of a peeved professional. “That Huang Ming is constantly suspicious of me, and he will not let up. By my estimates, he is set in his mind that I’m out to harm them. Which of course, is correct.”

She then narrowed her eyes at the prince. “You should have returned earlier and made some contrived reason or another to invite him or your brother away so as to split them up. What took you so long?”

“I thought it would look too suspicious,” Chu Feng said defensively, unconsciously ceding dominance to her. “What should we do then? Tomorrow we will reach the temple.”

“No matter, I have a helper in place,” Qiong Ying said. “They surely would not expect a two-pronged attempt.”

Chu Feng was astonished. His mother had not told him anything of the sort, he was only aware of the one agent who was now before him. A conspirator in the inviolate Bright Filial Piety Temple?

“You have someone in the temple itself? How is that even possible?”

Qiong Ying snapped her fan open once more.

“Don’t worry,” she smiled, “We are smooth criminals.”

Guest and host exchanged roles,
A twist in the plot of old.​