Chapter 120: A Stroll under the Moonlight
Jun Huang hadn't dropped her pensive expression ever since they left Prince Duan Manor. She was so focused on her musings that she failed to notice the bumps on the road. She stumbled and almost fell. Fortunately, even though Nan Xun was preoccupied as well, he had been keeping an eye on Jun Huang. He quickly caught her.
It took a moment for Jun Huang to recover. She awkwardly pulled away from Nan Xun's warm embrace and put some distance between them. In the dim light it was difficult to get a clear look of his expression, but Jun Huang could tell that Nan Xun was smiling.
Insects chirped from both sides of the road. The sound was faint, but it was audible. It somehow softened the chilly night where the sky was free of neither stars nor moon. A tender feeling snuck up on them, unbidden. They both pretended to not notice.
Jun Huang looked at the scenery surrounding her. A sense of rue crept into her heart. Many have spent their lives pursuing the throne, but sometimes she wondered if being an emperor was a good fate for anyone. The mantle was a shackle that one had to wear for life. Only in death would the burden be taken away. Would someone like Qi Yun be able to shoulder such weight?
Nan Xun didn't know what Jun Huang was thinking. He assumed that Jun Huang was upset with their brief physical contact. He wondered how he should apologize, but he couldn't find the words. He ended up looking into the distance like Jun Huang was, as if a solution would pop up if he stared hard enough.
The dark clouds in the sky gradually dissipated, revealing the crescent moon. Silver light covered the mossy green stone road with a layer of white glow. From afar, it looked like a fog had risen from the ground, adding a touch of mystical feel to the path.
It felt wonderful to stroll under the moonlight. Jun Huang's steps were slow and relaxed. She wanted to enjoy the scenery as long as she could. Nan Xun wasn't going to deprive her of such a simple joy. He stayed at Jun Huang's side.
Finally, Jun Huang broke the silence. "What do you think about Qi Chen and Prince Duan?" She tilted her head to face Nan Xun.
Nan Xun gave it some thoughts, but couldn't give her an answer. Jun Huang fell into deep contemplation, stroking her chin. Qi Chen and Prince Duan's relationship wasn't what it appeared to be.
"Qi Chen is Consort Zhen's son," Jun Huang continued. "Consort Zhen used to be Prince Duan's lover, and was taken away by the now emperor. Not only did Prince Duan not hold a grudge, but he also let Consort Zhen get every one of his unborn children killed. And he maintained a close relationship with Qi Chen. It doesn't make sense." Jun Huang scoffed. There was a simple answer that could explain everything. The speculation was a bold one. She didn't have enough proof yet, so she kept quiet about it.
"What do you think?" Nan Xun asked, coming to a stop.
Jun Huang narrowed her eyes at the dark alley next to them and pointed at it. "Don't you think Prince Duan resembles a beast lurking in a dark alleyway? Hidden in shadow, his agenda remains unknown to anyone. But he is still there, a threat that we must not ignore."
Jun Huang's words weren't baseless, but for now, Prince Duan had not yet shown his hands. They couldn't do anything but to wait for Prince Duan and Qi Chen to slip up. Then they could eliminate the two in one swift attempt. The mantis had not yet caught the cicada; the oriole could only wait patiently.
The street broadened gradually as they walked. Soon, they had reached the main street where there were more activities. Jun Huang noticed a blushing young woman and a poor scholar who followed after her. He held the poem he had written for the woman in one hand, and the hairpin the woman had gifted him in the other.
Jun Huang watched them curiously. Nan Xun wondered if she was envious.
"One day, someone will treat you the way the scholar treats his lover," said Nan Xun. "Someone will hold you dear to his heart. He sees you and only you." He spoke as if he was telling a joke, but in truth, he was speaking from the very bottom of his heart.
Jun Huang threw him a glance, her heart beating as steady as it had ever been. She hadn't expected Nan Xun to say something like that, but her surprise was quickly masked by a lopsided smile. "Your Highness is truly an expert in romantic affairs."
She fell silent. The couple had disappeared from her view.
When they were approaching Jun Huang's house, Nan Xun suddenly asked, "If there is a way to cleanse the poison in your body, will you put off making Qi Yun the emperor and put aside the schemings that followed, and instead focused first on treating your ailment?"
Surprised, Jun Huang looked at him with her brows furrowed. In her calm eyes there were reflections of the bright moon. Her expression was as distant and faint as a half-forgotten memory.
She didn't usually dwell on the fact that her death was less than a year away. If Nan Xun hadn't mentioned it, she wouldn't have spared her fate any thoughts. She curved her lips into a smile. "I know about my condition. I have ordered a few people to try to find a cure; it's just that – "
"What? Tell me if you have encountered any problems. I may not be clever like you are, but I can help you." Nan Xun's tone was hurried. He barely stopped himself from grabbing Jun Huang's hands. He wanted her to take better care of herself, to not tire herself for others' sake to this extent.
Jun Huang wasn't oblivious to his feelings, but something was better left unsaid. She didn't know how much time she had left. There might be a cure, but the odds that she would be able to find it was slim. She couldn't see a future in which she was alive and well. She wasn't someone who would bet on a solution that wasn't yet in her grasp.
That was why she had continued to push herself even though her health was deteriorating. Every night, she had to rely on calming medicine to drive the nightmares away, which was the equivalent of trying to put out a forest fire with a cup of water. The root problem remained unsolved.
She couldn't allow herself to relax. There were too many things she had yet to do. If she didn't do all she could while she was still capable, she would die with a heart heavy with regrets.
Nan Xun could tell what Jun Huang's decision was from her expression. He sighed. There were many things he would like to say, but he didn't think it was in his place to say them. He kept silent. In his heart, he promised to help Qi Yun gain the support he needed as quickly as possible. Only then would Jun Huang be able to stop pushing herself.
After a moment of silence, Nan Xun bid her farewell. Jun Huang let out a long breath as she watched him leave. A trace of panic crept up to her. She pushed it away and walked into her house.
She didn't feel like sleeping after she had bathed herself. She picked up a book and started reading under the candlelight, word by word and line by line.
When she heard three rings of a gong indicating that it was past midnight, she finally put down the book and placed some calming herbs at her bedside. She took off her outer robe and lay down, covering herself with the blanket. Slowly, she closed her eyes.
It had been a busy day. Her body was exhausted, but her mind was wide awake. It took a long time for her to be lulled into slumber by the scent of the herb.
Ever since that day, Jun Huang had been having troubles sleeping. Her brain refused to rest even when her body was dead tired. The calming herb helped a little, but any little noises would be able to wake her up. Whenever a servant walked past the hallway with slightly heavier footsteps, she would be jerked out of her sleep. Even when she did fall asleep, it was a restless one at best. She often found herself stuck in an endless nightmare. She couldn't find a way out.
Finally, her body collapsed from all the work she had forced it to go through. Today, when day broke, she didn't open her eyes. Little Girl saw how pale Jun Huang was when she entered the room to serve Jun Huang. Jun Huang's hair was stuck to her forehead because of her sweat.
Little Girl flung herself to the bedside and shook Jun Huang's body. Despite her illness, Jun Huang was still conscious. She could hear Little Girl crying by her side, but she couldn't open her eyes.
Jun Huang wanted to ask Little Girl to stop wailing at her ear, but she was stuck in her frozen body. She sighed inwardly.
It didn't take long for Little Girl's bawling to attract other servants' attention.
"What happened?" a servant asked. "Why are you crying?"
Everyone working here knew that Jun Huang didn't like it when other people entered her bedroom. Normally, Little Girl was the only one who served Jun Huang personally. The servant stayed outside the door.
Little Girl was young. Jun Huang's collapse had scared her. She didn't know what to do. The servant's voice was like a lifeline to her. She clung to it as if her life depended on it. "The gentleman – he won't wake up no matter what I do – "
The servant understood how grave the situation was. He put aside his reservation and ran in. He glanced at Jun Huang, then at Little Girl. There was a tangled mess of emotions in his heart, but he forced himself to calm down.
"Go get a barrel of hot water so you can wipe the gentleman's face clean." With that, he went outside and sent for a doctor. Then he told someone to send a message to Nan Xun. Afterwards, he ran back to Jun Huang's bedroom, his forehead covered in sweat.
The doctor came. When he was about to take Jun Huang's pulse, Jun Huang, who had been immobile since the morning, suddenly opened her eyes and leveled the doctor with a frosty stare. For a split second, it seemed as if there were two pupils in each of her eyes, but it was as fleeting as a trick of the light.
Her cold look wasn't aimed at the doctor, but the doctor staggered back in shock all the same. He swallowed down the lump in his throat and said, "The gentleman has finally woken up. May this old man take your pulse and see what the cause of your illness is?"
"This gentleman is fine," Jun Huang said, pushing herself up. She turned to Little Girl. "Walk the doctor out."
With Jun Huang's order, the doctor had no choice but to follow Little Girl, but he paused when he reached the screen at the door. "This old man has spotted the calming herb placed at your bedside. It seems that the gentleman has troubles falling asleep. Your face is also too pale to be healthy. You are preoccupied with too many thoughts all the time. It's no wonder that your body cannot take it. The gentleman is still young, but you will be suffering in old age if you continue to live like this… The gentleman should consider giving yourself a break. Let yourself be carefree for a few days."