Chapter 118: Stories of the Past
Everyone was stunned into silence when Jun Huang walked out of the room. Had the turquoise she wore transformed her into an unmatched beauty, or had she elevated the robe into the perfect embodiment of the melancholy sky? What was indisputable was that everything else paled in comparison to her. It was as if she was the only person left standing in the world.
The housekeeper snuck a few glances at her. Gentleman Feng is a man, he thought, but I've never seen anyone so beautiful. He is indeed an extraordinary person with no match in the world.
"What's wrong?" asked Jun Huang. The housekeeper had been staring at her during their trip to Prince Chen Manor. It wasn't obvious, but Jun Huang could feel his eyes on her.
The housekeeper's face turned red in mortification. He was more than forty years old for heaven's sake, and yet here he was, feeling bashful because of Jun Huang's polite but aloof smile. He shook his head and continued forward.
Inside the manor, Jun Huang could see Qi Chen and his two consorts at the door. Nan Guyue wore a blue dress that wrapped around her body like petals of an unbloomed flower. The dangling ornament on her hairpin chimed as she walked. Wei Lanying's face was still pale from the illness she had only just recovered from. Her yellow dress was rendered poignant by her air of sadness. The tassels in her hair dropped to the side of her ears. She sported a more adorned look than Nan Guyue.
Qi Chen had not dressed too differently for the occasion. He wore a dark blue silk robe and a simple white jade cap. He was startled at the sight of Jun Huang as she greeted him. It boggled his mind that Jun Huang could made such a common color so elegant.
"This gentleman has kept Your Highness waiting," Jun Huang said softly.
Qi Chen's head jerked up and his eyes flicked to the side. He huffed out a silent laugh. He had made a fool of himself.
They exchanged some pleasantries. Jun Huang asked Nan Guyue if she was feeling well and if the child was healthy. Jun Huang then turned to Wei Lanying and politely asked if she had recovered from her illness.
In reality, their minds were preoccupied with different thoughts that had nothing to do with what they were talking about. The smalltalk was merely an illusion of diplomacy.
The coach had been prepared. Qi Chen led them in. They set out for Prince Duan Manor.
It only took the time it would take for a pot of tea to brew for them to reach their destination. Outside the manor, there were already a line of officials waiting to enter. It was a clear indication of how much the officials respected Prince Duan.
The housekeeper at Prince Duan Manor had been waiting at the door. He approached them when he spotted Qi Chen and bowed at him. "The prince said to let Your Highness in directly."
Qi Chen nodded before helping Nan Guyue into the manor. He reminded her to watch her steps, his eyes soft and considerate. From the outside, they looked like the perfect couple.
But Jun Huang knew it was merely an act for the courtiers. Qi Chen had always been pretentious.
It wasn't long before she started to get bored. At the time being, not a lot of people had been allowed to enter. Qi Chen was busy engaging Prince Duan in a pleasant conversation.
Jun Huang remembered Prince Duan. She had assigned someone to investigate him. It was said that Prince Duan was completely free of ambitions or desires, and that he was a prince who was content with being a prince. Today, though, for reasons she could not explain, Jun Huang had a feeling that Prince Duan wasn't as indifferent to power as people said. He must have a hidden agenda.
If Prince Duan was ambitious, though, why wasn't the emperor more wary of him? Jun Huang could not figure out the answer. She said a few words to Qi Chen to excuse herself and went outside to get some fresh air.
Prince Duan Manor was intricately designed. Every part of the architecture had a feel of quaintness to it. Decorating the hallway were a number of palace lamps made of colored glass. Not far from her was a fake mountain. It felt as if she had walked into the land of the celestials.
She followed along the path and went deeper into the manor. She wanted to see for herself if any secrets lay within this place.
Opportunities were awarded to those who put in the time and efforts. Not long after, she heard a conversation between two old women. They must have worked in this manor for years.
"Good heavens, Lady Fu has suffered a miscarriage!" one of them said.
The other laughed and responded, "What's so surprising about that? It's not the first time something similar has happened. Many consorts and concubines live in this manor, but none ever give birth to a child successfully."
"You are right," said the old woman. "It is odd that among all the women who have gotten pregnant before, none were able to produce an offspring."
"Yes, yes. Ever since the prince parted with that woman, this manor has not seen any newborns. I heard she is doing just fine in the palace."
Snap! With her attention solely on the conversation, Jun Huang accidentally stepped on a twig, alerting the two old women. Jun Huang's heart started to pound in frenzy.
Before the old women could find their way her, a pair of strong and callused hands pulled Jun Huang into an artificial cave behind the fake mountain.
"Who's there?" One of the old woman was approaching. Jun Huang could see her delicately adorned shoes. Jun Huang didn't know who it was that stood behind her. Neither did she knew if the old woman would spot her. Nevertheless, she managed to keep herself silent. The only thing she could hear were her thundering heartbeats.
She held her breath. A racoon jumped out of nowhere and landed at the old woman's feet. The woman relaxed her guard and picked the racoon up.
If she had tilted her head even by a little, she would be able to see Jun Huang. Jun Huang could feel the person behind her drawing a dagger, preparing for the worst to happen.
"What did you see?" the other woman asked. "Who's it?"
The woman near Jun Huang straightened and held the racoon up, patting dirt from its body. "No one. It is the racoon Lady Fu has lost. Now that I have found the racoon, it is best that I return at once. Otherwise the lady will be most displeased."
"Go, quickly. Lady Fu has been in a foul mood because of her miscarriage. If you're late to return, she won't hold back from scolding you."
The two women left together. Jun Huang let out a sigh of relief. The moment she relaxed though, she felt warm breaths hit the nape of her neck. Her body tensed up again, and sweat started breaking out from her forehead.
"It's me," Nan Xun said, letting out a soft laugh.
The familiar voice finally allowed Jun Huang to relax her guard. She glanced at Nan Xun before walking out of the cave. She smoothed a hand over her wrinkled robe. "Why are you here?"
"I took a walk because I was bored," Nan Xun said honestly. "Didn't expect to run into you."
Jun Huang nodded without a word. She thought back to what the old woman had said. Who was the woman in the palace they spoke of? Jun Huang turned to Nan Xun. He must know something as someone who had lived in Northern Qi all his life. She asked, "Did you hear what they said?"
Nan Xun nodded without a word.
"Do you know who they were talking about?"
Nan Xun told Jun Huang a story. It was a story that no one in the palace dared to bring up.
Similar tales had been performed on stage in different parts of the country. When Prince Duan was young, his brother – the current emperor – was only the crown prince, and Prince Duan was not yet granted the title. Prince Duan had grown up together with Consort Zhen. They promised to marry each other in the future. Unfortunately, Prince Duan had neither power nor supporters. Life did not always go the way he wanted.
Everything changed once the crown prince took over the throne. Consort Zhen was forced to enter the palace because of the selection process to fill the emperor's harem. Prince Duan lost both his brother and his lover that day.
He had been close with the emperor. He never expected his brother to rob him of his love, and he didn't expect the woman who had shared many nights with him to marry another man.
"Rumors had it that Prince Duan cannot forget about Consort Zhen, but Consort Zhen was heartless. Afterwards, Prince Duan never fell in love again. In his manor, there were concubines, but no wives. Without a principal wife, the servants treated every concubine with the respect they would show to a wife."
Jun Huang lowered her head, humming. "Why did you say Consort Zhen was heartless? Why did the old women say that Lady Fu lost her child because of the consort?"
"That's a long story."
Nan Xun could tell Jun Huang was interested. He told her everything he knew.
It turned out that Prince Duan had thought that Consort Zhen had been forced to enter the palace by the emperor. After a long period of dark days passed in wanton abandon, he finally pieced himself back together. He didn't marry anyone. There were, however, always serving concubines at his side to satisfy his needs.
Every time a serving concubine was pregnant, she would have a miscarriage. It took some time and efforts for Prince Duan to find out that Consort Zhen was responsible.
Jun Huang frowned. "Why would she do it?"
Nan Xun huffed out a laugh. "What else could the reason be? She simply cannot bear to see Prince Duan have a child with another woman." Nan Xun cocked his head at Jun Huang. "Is something wrong?"
"Do you really think that Prince Duan would just let the emperor take away the woman he loves and do nothing? If he has let Consort Zhen marry the emperor and hasn't stopped her from killing his offsprings, he must be more calculating than he appears to be. I don't think this matter is as simple as it seems."
Jun Huang's analysis made sense. There must be something hidden behind it.
After a moment of silence, Nan Xun asked, "What do you want to do?"
Jun Huang narrowed her eyes in bemusement. Before she could open her mouth, a page boy showed up. Jun Huang knew him as one of Qi Chen's servant.