Chapter 139: Qionglin Banquet
Placing his teacup on the table, Qi Yun nodded with an impassive expression. He swallowed down the barrage of words threatening to come out of his mouth and said with feign nonchalance, "I have found some clues, but the answer isn't clear yet. I'll keep on looking."
Jun Huang nodded. She could tell that Qi Yun was in a dark mood. He was clearly troubled by whatever he found in his investigation. She looked up at the sun and said, "We have discussed what we can. If you have some time, how about we take a walk in the back garden? Your Highness may think that Prince Nan Xun didn't care much about the manor, but in the garden there are a good variety of rare plants you cannot acquire even if you have the money…"
"I'm sorry," Nan Xun cut Jun Huang off and gave her a look. "Today there are a few workers here to maintain the garden. We can't really allow guests to enter."
Jun Huang hadn't heard anything about that, but she knew Nan Xun must have lied for a reason. She kept quiet.
Qi Yun wasn't paying attention. He looked up at Nan Xun and put on a stilted smile. "That's quite alright. I don't enjoy wandering in the garden much anyway. It's not a very productive use of my time."
Jun Huang smiled awkwardly. "That's a shame. I realize that I should train more as well. I won't keep Your Highness here."
Before Qi Yun could say anything, she walked to the courtyard and started practicing the moves again.
There was a bone deep tiredness in Qi Yun's gait. He couldn't stay any longer. "It's about time," he said, cupping his hands at Nan Xun. "There are matters I have to attend to in the Court of Judicial Review. Please excuse me."
Nan Xun nodded and pointed at Jun Huang. "Aren't you going to tell her you're leaving?"
Qi Yun followed Nan Xun's gaze and pulled his lips into a smile. He shook his head. "I've always known that gentleman Feng is an intelligent man with great talent," he said wistfully. "Now I can see that his resolve is also unmatched by others. It's a good thing that he's been training hard. I won't bother him further. Farewell, brother."
He turned to leave, his shoulder brushing against Nan Xun's.
Jun Huang stopped to watch Qi Yun walk away. When she turned back, Nan Xun had come to her side.
"What's wrong?" Jun Huang asked.
"He's preoccupied," said Nan Xun. "It's not going to help him if he stays here. He probably wants to be alone for a while."
Jun Huang could tell what Nan Xun was implying: she shouldn't have asked Qi Yun about his investigation on his mother's death. She opened her mouth for a retort, but Nan Xun knew what she was going to say and beat her to it.
"Qi Yun must have made more progress than we expected. The cat is out of the bag." His tone was worried and heavy.
Jun Huang stilled. She thought back to what she and Nan Xun had found out. The truth was too cruel for Qi Yun, so she kept it from him. She only told Qi Yun to look into those who reside in the palace.
She had thought that the emperor must have gotten rid of anyone who knew about the truth, and yet…
"Do you mean that there are still witnesses the emperor has not taken care of?"
Nan Xun gave her a non-committal smile and said, "There might be. Besides, Do you really think that Qi Yun would only look within the palace? If we could find that old maid, he could as well."
Jun Huang wasn't convinced, but Qi Yun was clearly troubled. No matter what he had found, it rattled him deeply. If he wasn't going to say anything, however, Jun Huang wasn't going to ask him. She was no longer the princess she had once been.
Jun Huang sat down and drank some tea. What would happen if Qi Yun knew that the emperor had been behind his mother's death? She couldn't imagine it. She knew that Qi Yun had always looked up to the emperor. If he knew the truth, it would destroy him.
Nan Xun had misinterpreted her silence. He thought that Jun Huang was still mad at him for cutting her off. He decided to talk it out with her. "When we were talking about Prince Duan, I only stopped you because we don't know enough to come up with a theory yet. It's nothing personal."
Jun Huang blinked at him. She didn't expect Nan Xun to apologize. She chuckled. "I didn't take it as an attack. I know you're right. What we should do now is to find evidence, not making assumptions."
Nan Xun let out a sigh of relief. He was glad she didn't take offence. His smile deepened and his heart felt lighter.
Jun Huang was still worried about Consort Zhen and Prince Duan's secret meeting, and the fact that Qi Yun had found something that troubled him. Her eyebrows remained closely knitted.
Nan Xun knew this was how Jun Huang always was. If you stopped her from dwelling on things, she would be unsettled. She never stopped thinking. Someone like her cared deeply about the world. She tackled all injustice and unfairness in the world headon with a calm smile and a straight back. Not everyone could do that.
Nothing in the world could keep her down. She worried too much. She didn't have room in her heart for another person.
Nan Xun sighed. What he wouldn't give to be Jun Huang's support! He wanted to keep her safe. He wanted to protect her beautiful smile. He wanted her to not have to feel the suffering in the world.
He wished that within Jun Huang's eyes was gentle feeling rather than cold calculation. He wanted her to feel safe being vulnerable.
"What are you thinking?" Jun Huang asked. Nan Xun had been staring at her for a while.
Nan Xun turned to her. His musings had filled his heart with a bitter feeling. That was the kind of woman Jun Huang was. If she was any different, many would have overlooked her. Perhaps he would not have noticed her either.
Nan Xun shook his head and smiled. "I'm simply wondering when you'll be good enough to defend yourself."
In a few days, there would be a national banquet in the imperial city. It was known as the Qionglin Banquet – a celebration for the scholars who stood out in the metropolitan exam. To congratulate them for earning a spot on the list of excellent scholars after all the hard work.
The banquet was always held in summer. It was a state event. It never occurred to Jun Huang that she should go, but Nan Xun insisted that she had to attend with him.
"It's a state banquet held for the courtiers," said Jun Huang. "It's not a place for a peasant like me."
Nan Xun arched an eyebrow at her. "Are you sure you're not going?" He ended his sentence with a lilt.
Jun Huang looked at him questioningly. Nan Xun sighed. "Do you still remember Zhang Yuan?"
Jun Huang thought back to the poor scholar living at her place. She didn't need any further reminder for her to understand what Nan Xun was trying to say. "Right. How did I forget about him?"
After their chance meeting at the temple, Zhang Yuan had fallen hard for Wan'er. Wan'er was a princess, though, while Zhang Yuan was a peasant. They hadn't had a chance to meet.
Now, Zhang Yuan had earned top rank in the exam. And Wan'er would be there at the banquet. It was said that the emperor was going to find a good husband for Wan'er then.
"That's all the more reason for me to stay back," said Jun Huang.
"Why?" Nan Xun was surprised. He thought that Jun Huang would want to help bring the two together, but instead Jun Huang was even more determined to not go.
"I have decided to not give Princess Wan'er any false hope. I should try to see her as little as possible. Besides, Zhang Yuan is a talented man who cares deeply. He adores Princess Wan'er. They seemed to connect well the last time they met. They will make a good couple. There's no need for me to intervene. Might as well let Zhang Yuan prove himself at the banquet. Then maybe Princess Wan'er will fall for him."
Nan Xun sighed. "As you wish."
Jun Huang suddenly shot up to her feet, startling Nan Xun. He looked up at her in confusion, wondering what she was going to do.
"I should go back to my place. Zhang Yuan is too honest for his own good. If we want him to stand out at the banquet, I should talk to him myself."
With that, she walked outside. Nan Xun was going to follow, but his housekeeper asked him to go try on his clothes for the banquet. He sighed and let Jun Huang go.
Back to her place, Jun Huang ran into Little Girl at the door. Little Girl had gone out to buy some daily necessities. She ran up to Jun Huang and asked, "Why has gentleman Feng returned today?"
"Is Zhang Yuan still in the east wing?" Jun Huang asked without stopping her strides.
Little Girl nodded. "For some reason, gentleman Zhang Yuan has been staying in his room the past couple of days. He's been eating less as well. I wonder if he's sick."
Jun Huang slowed to a halt. "Really?"