Chapter 103: A Man of Integrity
The more she thought about it, the more convinced Jun Huang was that being Qi Yun's strategist was too small a responsibility for Zhang Yuan. He was a man with real talent and wisdom. It would be unfortunate if he ended up not reaching his full potential.
Seeing Jun Huang's furrowed brows, Nan Xun wondered what she was thinking about. After a moment of hesitation, he asked, "What happened? Have you run into trouble?"
Jun Huang had been agonizing over this matter for a while. And Nan Xun wasn't some stranger she couldn't be honest with. She told him about Zhang Yuan.
Nan Xun hummed and curved his lips into a smile. "You can let him take the credit for this investigation. With the achievement, he will be allowed to take the exam as a special case."
Jun Huang had a moment of sudden realization. She clapped the back of her own head. A smile found its way to her lips. "Right. How did I not think of that?" She told Little Girl to retrieve Zhang Yuan immediately.
Zhang Yuan was studying hard by the candlelight. Seeing Little Girl hurriedly walk up to him, he assumed that something bad had happened. He rushed to the garden following Little Girl. Before he could ask any questions, Jun Huang said, "If you can attend the upcoming metropolitan exam, are you confident that you can pass the exam with high marks?"
Zhang Yuan stared owishly at Jun Huang. He then turned to Nan Xun. He could tell that his man was someone not to be trifled with. He had an unusual aura about him. Zhang Yuan ruminated over Jun Huang's words. "Even though the exam is near," he said confidently. "I am sure that I will be able to rank first."
"If so, give the exam all you have," Jun Huang said in a low voice, her lips quirked. "Do not disappoint me."
It felt as if there was a thunderstorm inside his chest. Perhaps those ten years of hard work was all for this moment. He had thought that he could be nothing more than a study companion who would always be a dirty secret. Jun Huang and Qi Yun were the ones who changed the course of his life. And now Jun Huang and Nan Xun were planning for his future, giving him a chance to earn his own glory.
He dropped down to his knees before Jun Huang. "If Zhang Yuan is able to rank first in the imperial exam, it is all because of the gentleman. If not for you, Zhang Yuan will still be locked in that tiny room. You have turned my life around."
Jun Huang helped him up with a frown. "A man's obeisance is worth a great fortune. You don't have to be on your knees before me. I only gave you a gentle nudge. You only have yourself to depend on to earn top rank in the exam. No one will be able to help you."
The metropolitan exam came to an end as the prosecution of the Yangzhou's prefect reached a conclusion. There was now a lot less corrupt officials within the imperial court.
The result of the exam was not yet announced, but from the way Zhang Yuan had been acting, he must have performed well enough to earn top rank.
Jun Huang thought back to how Zhang Yuan had behaved a few days ago. The man who had lost his purpose in life now glittered like the purest gold. It was amusing to observe his transformation.
It's probably a good time for a field trip, Jun Huang thought. That way, he can get the excitement out of his system.
"The weather is beautiful. If you can all make the time, how about we go to the temple outside the city together? We can enjoy the scenery in springtime."
Qi Yun had never said no to Jun Huang. He nodded. "Good idea. The cases the Court of Judicial Review are dealing with now have seen good progress. I have some free time. It's good to go out for a walk every once in a while."
They were both eager about the plan; Nan Xun didn't want to rain on their parade. Besides, it had been a while since the last time Jun Huang looked so relaxed. Feeling his heart soften at the sight, he nodded in agreement.
The others had all agreed to go. Zhang Yuan wasn't going to argue otherwise. They picked a day when the weather was comfortable and left for the temple together.
In April, the flowers that bloomed in early spring had wilted. Birds perched on the branches and chirped. On the streets the pedestrians wore only a thin layer of clothes. Children laughed in jolly on the arch bridge. Beneath it was a little boat floating along the river.
It looked not unlike the imperial city of Western Que before it was destroyed. Western Que had been so beautiful that travelers were often reluctant to leave. Now, however, Western Que was no more. It was but a dream she could never recover.
Dressed in plain robe, Jun Huang took the lead. The breeze brought to her the pleasant smell of the earth. She waved her foldable fan like an elegant gentleman, attracting bashful smiles from the onlooking young women. They shyly handed their silk handkerchieves to her, many of which were decorated with the pattern of a mated pair of mandarin ducks1.
Among the group, Jun Huang was the only one whose eyes were curved upwards like the shape of a peach blossom petal. Those eyes were as gentle as the river in spring. The faint smile on her face made her seem more approachable than usual. Her companions were either pulling a stoic face, staring at Jun Huang, or acting like your typical scholar. Hence Jun Huang was the one who stood out in the women's eyes.
"Brother Feng is indeed popular," Qi Yun couldn't help but tease.
"In terms of popularity, this gentleman is no match for you," Jun Huang said with a smile. Nan Xun bit down a laugh.
Jun Huang had been to the temple a few times, but the place looked different in April. Stunningly vibrant cherry blossoms covered the sky. Many talented men had fallen in love with the view. Thus there were a lot more visitors in the temple.
"The last time we came the temple looked different." Jun Huang chuckled. "The view in the imperial city sure changes frequently. I wonder if the place will be just as beautiful the next time I visit."
There was a touch of melancholy in her tone, which Zhang Yuan did not know her enough to notice, while Qi Yun noticed but didn't know the reason for. Nan Xun was the only one who understood. Bitterness spread through his heart. He looked away. He didn't want to see the smile Jun Huang put on to cover her sorrow.
Inside the temple, the air was filled with incense smoke. There were a good number of visitors here. The temple saw the most activity in April. Fortunately, there was some distance between the temple and the prosperous imperial city. Therefore, the place wasn't completely packed.
They crossed the threshold and walked in. Jun Huang wasn't a believer in gods, but she held a healthy reverence to fate. Zhang Yuan, on the other hand, was here to seek comfort. He knelt down on the prayer mat and closed his eyes with his hands put together.
Jun Huang quirked her lips up. There was never a lack of believers in the world. How could the Buddha possibly take care of everyone?
Wan'er had not forgotten about Jun Huang. She thought about the handsome man every day. How many young men possessed the same elegance as Jun Huang?
After some hesitation, she decided to leave the palace. It had been a long time since she last saw Jun Huang. Her chest tightened at the thought that Jun Huang might have forgotten about her.
Wan'er put on a set of clothes that were worthy of her status and left the palace with her maids. She went straight to Jun Huang's place, but she was stopped at the door.
The pageboy looked at her helplessly. "The gentleman really isn't home, princess."
"You swear you're telling the truth?" Wan'er demanded with wide eyes.
The pageboy nodded earnestly. He wanted nothing but for this lady to leave him alone.
Wan'er had been convinced that the pageboy's response was an excuse, and Jun Huang simply didn't want to see her. Now she wasn't so sure. After a moment of consideration, she asked, "Do you know where your master is?"
Jun Huang had not told the pageboy to keep her whereabouts a secret. And Wan'er seemed to only want the best for Jun Huang. He took the liberty to tell her that Jun Huang had gone to the temple.
Wan'er felt a rush of satisfaction for reason unknown to herself. She remembered the moment she fell for Jun Huang. Jun Huang was standing before a crabapple tree appreciating the flowers' smell. Her face was so delicate the image had been forever burned into her memory.
Wan'er made her way to the temple. Once she arrived, she immediately rushed to the palace without a pause. Jun Huang, however, wasn't there. The only man she saw was Zhang Yuan, who knelt before the Buddha statue with a reverent expression.
Zhang Yuan was dressed in plain clothes, but he was a handsome young man. His face was tilted up with his eyes closed. Light reflected from the statue covered his face with a gentle glow. Wan'er couldn't help being drawn to him.
Earlier Jun Huang had left to attend to some business. She startled when she saw Wan'er. She was about to hide when she noticed that Wan'er's attention was on Zhang Yuan. She blinked. Had Wan'er set her eyes on Zhang Yuan?
A sly look flashed through her eyes. She smiled. From where she stood, Wan'er and Zhang Yuan looked like a match made in heaven. It would be unfortunate if Wan'er stubbornly waited for Jun Huang to reciprocate her feelings. Perhaps it would be best to bring Wan'er and Zhang Yuan together.
Zhang Yuan was an honest man. He would not wrong Wan'er. In addition, even though Zhang Yuan didn't come from a powerful family, he would be able to achieve great things once he got top rank in the imperial exam. Wan'er, on the other hand, was stubborn, but kind-hearted. If they got together, they would lead a happy life.
Besides, Zhang Yuan was part of Qi Yun's circle. He would be under his protection.
Jun Huang turned away and went to the path outside the temple to find Nan Xun and Qi Yun. She told them about her idea.
Nan Xun agreed with her. From her description, it was clear that Wan'er was at least attracted to Zhang Yuan. They weren't plotting against her per se. They were only going for a gentle push…
"If Zhang Yuan – "
"I simply feel like they will make a good couple," Jun Huang said with a laugh. "I'm not forcing them to be together. It's up to them how their relationship plays out."
Nan Xun nodded. Qi Yun, too, understood what Jun Huang was planning. He had grown up with Wan'er. Even though they were not born by the same mother, he still wanted Wan'er to find a man with whom she could build a life, rather than wasting her time on Jun Huang.
Once they had reached an agreement, they left Zhang Yuan in the temple. Nonetheless, Jun Huang was worried for Zhang Yuan's safety. She asked Nan Xun to order a shadowguard to protect Zhang Yuan. Once that was taken care of, she left for the city with Nan Xun and Qi Yun.
Zhang Yuan got to his feet when he had finished praying. He turned around and saw Wan'er staring at him from the door. Puzzled, he cupped his hands at her in greeting.
He was about to leave, but then in her trance, Wan'er dropped the silk handkerchief from her hand. She bent down hurriedly to pick it up. Zhang Yuan had walked up to her and reached for the handkerchief as well.
Their hands landed on the opposite sides of the handkerchief. Wan'er looked up at him. Their eyes met. Zhang Yuan quickly pulled his hand away.
With her eyes downcast, Wan'er picked up the handkerchief and muttered, "Thank you."
Zhang Yuan waved a hand in the air.
A group of people passed through and someone knocked into Wan'er. When she was about to fall, Zhang Yuan shot out a hand to steady her. He led her to the side of the room.
Wan'er was about to lash out in anger, but she swallowed down her words when she looked up and saw Zhang Yuan's delicate face. It was rare for a man to be able to render her speechless.
Zhang Yuan blinked at Wan'er questioningly. "Are you alright, young lady?"
A symbol of love and marriage. Often used to refer to a couple. ↩