Chapter 140: Arranged Marriage
Little Girl nodded. She wondered why Jun Huang reacted so strongly. Jun Huang hummed and told Little to leave her.
Jun Huang couldn't put her worries aside. She went to the east wing.
Before she entered the room, she heard Zhang Yuan reciting the book he was reading. Jun Huang stayed in the hallway for a moment before leaving with a sigh.
Zhang Yuan had obviously set his mind to proving himself at the Qionglin Banquet. There was no need for Jun Huang to intervene. One could not fake intelligence forever. The only thing Zhang Yuan could depend on to stand out was his own knowledge.
Jun Huang didn't have a reason to take this opportunity away from him.
Zhang Yuan put down the book he was reading. He thought he had heard something. When he walked out of his room, however, there was no one around. He scratched his head. He must have heard it wrong. He returned to his room, picked up the book, and continued reading. He would prove himself to everyone at the banquet… especially to her.
He could still remember the young woman standing under the cherry tree. Every little change in her expression captivated him. He had been on his own for more than twenty years, and yet he fell so readily for a woman who was of a higher status. His heart skipped a beat every time he thought of her.
Outside the window flowers and leaves fell from the sky. Inside the room smoke wound its way up from the sandalwood incense to the ceiling. Zhang Yuan recited words of ancient sages with his hands behind his back. A breeze swept in and brought his hair into the air. He was dressed in peasants' clothes, but there was a graceful air around him that was unique to scholars. It was pleasing to be in his presence.
The Qionglin Banquet was an important state event. The emperor held the banquet for hundreds of military and scholar officials and, more importantly, for the scholars who had earned a spot on the list of excellent scholars. The one who ranked first in this exam was a peasant – Zhang Yuan.
The emperor was pleased. He raised his cup to Zhang Yuan. "Our top scholar is a handsome young man. What do you want to say about your achievement? What words of encouragement do you have for your peers?"
Zhang Yuan parted his robe and knelt down in the main hall. "This gentleman was able to come to this imperial city because of the many nights I spent on studying under candlelight. I was able to realize my ambitions because Your Majesty has ruled Northern Qi with a kind heart and a sure hand."
Zhang Yuan was on his knees, but his posture was still dignified, which the emperor appreciated. After a short pause, the emperor said, "There are a number of things in life that are worth celebrating. The first is earning a spot in the metropolitan exam; you have already earned the top rank. The second is meeting an old friend in a different city; as someone as kind as you are, you must have a good number of close friends. The last is getting married to a beautiful woman. A talented man like you must have been married already, have you not?"
Zhang Yuan rubbed his fingers together. A moment passed before he looked up with a faint smile tugging his lips. "This gentleman has not married yet."
That surprised the emperor. Zhang Yuan was a handsome young man, and he had proven himself to be talented by earning the title of top scholar and entering the palace. There must be quite a lot of women who adored him. Why had he not married yet?
"There is someone I have fallen for," Zhang Yuan added.
"Ah, the official may tell me who it is you have fallen for. If it's a good match to you, I will arrange a marriage for you."
It was clear that Zhang Yuan had earned the emperor's affection.
Zhang Yuan looked at Wan'er, who was sitting next to the emperor. Noticing his gaze, Wan'er let out a quiet laugh and looked away, unwilling to spare Zhang Yuan another glance.
"This official adores her," said Zhang Yuan. "But I'm afraid she doesn't reciprocate my feelings."
The emperor frowned. "That can't be true. You are the top scholar. Why would a woman not accept your affection? Besides, if I arrange the marriage for you, she will not go against my will."
Zhang Yuan bent down and knocked his head against the floor. "The one this official loves is none other than Princess Wan'er. This official knows I came from a humble background. I intended to keep my feelings for her to myself. But… with her here, it would be cowardly of me to not say anything."
The emperor glanced at his beloved daughter before turning to the young top scholar kneeling on the floor. He laughed and turned to Wan'er. "The top scholar has given me a challenge, Wan'er. Royal Father has promised to arrange a marriage between him and the woman he loves. I didn't know the one he loves is you. What about…"
Wan'er looked at Zhang Yuan, then at the guests attending the banquet. The ethereal gentleman who had always occupied her mind was nowhere to be seen. Her heart sank. She let out a soundless laugh and said, "The top scholar is knowledgeable. There is very few men in the world like him. It is Wan'er's luck to be the object of his affection. I will let Royal Father make the decision for me."
"Good, good! Then I hereby announce that Wan'er is to be married to the top scholar. Now I can rest easy knowing my beloved daughter has found a good husband." The emperor raised his cup in salute. His appreciation of Zhang Yuan was clear in the tone.
"Thank you, Your Majesty." Zhang Yuan kowtowed again. He couldn't suppress his smile.
At the end of the banquet, the other guests went up to Zhang Yuan to congratulate him for getting the woman of his dream. Zhang Yuan thanked them one by one.
Nan Xun remained seated at his table, drinking wine with an aloof expression. When he was thinking about leaving, Wan'er came up to him.
Nan Xun looked at her with his fingers around the wine cup. He didn't say anything. His raised eyebrow was the only indication that he had noticed her. When Wan'er was close enough for him to see her delicate shoes, he got to his feet and fixed his sleeves. "Congratulation, Wan'er."
The corners of Wan'er's mouth twitched. She let out a sigh as she darted her eyes to Zhang Yuan, who was surrounded by a group of men. She looked down to hide her sorrow. "Wan'er can tell that brother Nan is friendly with gentleman Feng. Yesterday, sister-in-law told me that brother Nan has gotten injured because of gentleman Feng, and gentleman Feng has been staying in your manor to take care of you. I wonder if brother Nan is feeling better?"
"I am," Nan Xun said, looking straight into Wan'er's eyes like he could see through her.
Unable to stand the pressure, Wan'er admitted, "Wan'er doesn't love the top scholar. There's one man and one man alone I love, but he doesn't care for me at all. I accept Royal Father's offer today only because… Well, if brother Nan cares about Wan'er, please pass down a message to him for me."
Nan Xun looked around. Good thing that no one had noticed their conversation. He hadn't expected Wan'er to be this straightforward. "What message?"
"If he is willing, Wan'er will gladly throw away everything for him. What I want is merely for him to look at me." Wan'er choked out a sob. She could not forget the graceful figure Feng Baiyu cut – His faint smile when his head was lowered. His bright eyes when he turned around to look at her. Someone like him should never exist in the world. A banished god such as him was someone no one could attain, but everyone couldn't help coveting.
Nan Xun was at a loss of what to say in face of Wan'er's declaration of love. It took a moment for him to find the words. "Is it worth it to throw everything away for a man as untouchable as the moon?"
Wan'er curved her lips into a smile. She lifted her chin in remembrance. Moonlight hit the side of her face, her hairpin, her light yellow clothes. The dangling ornament on her hair waved gently. "If it's him, then nothing is too heavy a price. When he smiles, he looks like he's been blessed by the gods. How can I question if anything I do is worth it? My only wish is to stay by his side."
Nan Xun fell silent. His love had never been as intense as hers. It was difficult for him to indulge in tender feelings such as this after his long stay at the border. His relationship with Jun Huang was ambiguous and vague like a strand of silk. There was a veil between them that neither of them had tried to part.
Wan'er covered up her rueful look and bowed at Nan Xun. "Wan'er has said more than I should have. I hope brother Nan will not blame me for that. It's late now. Please send the message for me, brother Nan. Wan'er will take my leave now."
She left with her servants and maids in tow. Nan Xun turned to the side and saw Zhang Yuan staring after Wan'er with a tender look. The hard lines of his face softened under the moonlight.
Perhaps this was how love was. It appeared to be a complicated web of knots and threads, but everything was as the matchmaking god Yue Lao had intended. The couple connected by his red threads were meant to be together.
Suddenly, Nan Xun thought of the woman who was handsome in men's clothes and stunning in women's clothes. She was someone he could not give up on pursuing.
When Nan Xun returned to his manor, Jun Huang was watching the moon in the garden. He walked up to her.
Noticing his approach, Jun Huang looked towards him and asked with a smile, "Does things go as I expected?"
"Yes, your prediction has been accurate. Zhang Yuan has gotten what he wanted. Wan'er… she accepted the arrangement without hesitation too."
Nan Xun kept Wan'er's parting words to himself. He didn't want to burden Jun Huang further. Wan'er could never be Jun Huang's wife. Since Jun Huang didn't want to hurt her, he would play the villain here and stop this hopeless love from growing in Wan'er's heart.
Jun Huang hummed. She didn't expect Wan'er to accept so readily. Zhang Yuan, of course, was a better candidate for husband than she was. Jun Huang could never give Wan'er a future. Wan'er was right to take Zhang Yuan's hand.
"Zhang Yuan would make a good husband," said Jun Huang. "He's an honest man who knows how to take care of people. He will not wrong Princess Wan'er."
She took another sip of tea. Nan Xun frowned and took her teacup from her.
Before Jun Huang could say anything, one of Jun Huang's servant came and said that Qi Chen asked her to meet him in the manor tomorrow. She accepted and said she would be there.
"Do you know when Princess Wan'er and Zhang Yuan's wedding will be?" asked Jun Huang.
"I don't know," said Nan Xun. "It's likely to be sometime soon. Wan'er is at the age for marriage. She should have been seeking a good husband two years ago, but the emperor let her have another two years."
Jun Huang nodded. The moon was now hidden behind a patch of dark clouds. She got to her feet. "It's late. I'm retiring back to my room."
Nan Xun stood up and watched her make her way to her building through the green stone path. Her turquoise robe waved and fluttered as her hair danced in the air. Nan Xun couldn't look away from her.