Chapter 141: Truth behind the Casual Words
The next morning, Jun Huang went to Prince Chen Manor. The page boy greeted her at the door, and the housekeeper stopped to welcome her as well. It was unusual for a strategist to garner so much respect from the servants.
"Here for the prince, gentleman Feng?" asked the housekeeper.
Jun Huang nodded with her eyes lowered. "Yes. I hope the housekeeper can tell me where the prince is."
"The prince is in the garden. Gentleman Feng may go ahead."
"Much appreciated," Jun Huang said with a smile. She cupped her hands at the housekeeper before making her way to the garden. Her turquoise robe brushed against the green shoots under her feet. Morning dew left dark patches on the fabric.
Even though Qi Chen was now familiar with how Jun Huang looked, he still couldn't help but be struck by her elegance every time he saw her.
"What has Your Highness asked me to be here for?" Jun Huang asked with a smile.
Qi Chen invited Jun Huang to take a seat before saying, "Does Brother Feng know that Royal Father has arranged a marriage between Wan'er and the top scholar?"
Jun Huang nodded. "Princess Wan'er is a goddess among women. It is worth celebrating for her to find a good husband."
Qi Chen nodded in agreement. "Zhang Yuan is someone with real talent, and he seems like the honest type. I don't think he will wrong Wan'er. There are two things I asked you here for. First is to discuss with you if we should recruit Zhang Yuan. Second is to ask you if you are willing to take charge of Wan'er's wedding. There are many preparations to be made. You already have experience in holding a wedding. What do you think?"
"Zhang Yuan is going to marry Princess Wan'er. He will fall into place without us doing anything. As for the wedding, if Your Highness is willing to place your trust in me, this gentleman is more than willing to take the responsibility." Jun Huang glossed over the issue with Zhang Yuan's allegiance. As for Wan'er's wedding, Jun Huang did believe that she should help. She could not reciprocate Wan'er's feelings, and she had hurt Wan'er because of the circumstances preventing her from telling the truth.
Jun Huang left after talking to Qi Chen for a few more minutes. She decided to visit Zhang Yuan back at her place. It made sense that she should congratulate Zhang Yuan in person.
She happened to run into Zhang Yuan at the door. Zhang Yuan knew Jun Huang had been staying in Prince Nan Manor. He was therefore a little surprised by her presence. He ran up to her with a smile he couldn't hide even if he had wanted to.
"Congratulation," Jun Huang said in a teasing tone, her lips curved into a faint smile.
Zhang Yuan blushed. He cleared his throat and said, "Is the gentleman back for something urgent?"
Jun Huang shook her head and led Zhang Yuan to the garden. Zhang Yuan fell into steps a little behind her, waiting for her to get into business. After the time for a pot of tea to brew, Jun Huang said, "The situation in the court has become clearer now. Since you are going to marry Princess Wan'er, you have to make up your mind about Qi Chen. I'm not sure what your goal is, but…"
"Gentleman Feng is being needlessly formal with me," Zhang Yuan hurriedly said, worried that Jun Huang would misunderstand where his loyalty lay. "This gentleman has never forgotten how gentleman Feng helped me out of my misery. You are my Bo Le. If not for you, I would still be a secret kept in the corner of a dark room. I wouldn't be able to earn a spot on the list of top scholars, and I wouldn't have a chance to meet Princess Wan'er, let alone to marry her. I will never forget what you have done for me. The gentleman can be sure of my loyalty."
Jun Huang let out a relieved sigh. It was fortunate that Zhang Yuan wasn't someone who blindly sought out power and fortune. She spent some more time talking to Zhang Yuan before bidding him farewell. She had a wedding to prepare for.
Before she left, she took a piece of blood jade off her waist and handed it to Zhang Yuan with a small smile. "I've left my room in a hurry today, and I wasn't sure what I should give you as a gift. If you are willing, please accept this."
Zhang Yuan was going to turn her down, but he couldn't possibly do so after hearing what Jun Huang had said. He took the jade and thanked her before carefully putting the jade away.
It was a sunny day. Jun Huang reminded him, "Princess Wan'er is a young woman after all. If you have time today, visit her and take her on a walk. She will be appreciate the gesture."
"Gentleman Feng is right."
Once Jun Huang had left, Zhang Yuan went to the princess's manor, which had been vacant until Wan'er moved in after the emperor arranged the marriage. She would stay there until the wedding.
In order to make Wan'er give up on Jun Huang once and for all, Qi Chen ordered a man to tell Wan'er that her wedding would be arranged by Jun Huang. What little hope left in her heart that Jun Huang might have a change of heart was quickly distinguished. She didn't expect Jun Huang to deal her this final blow.
Wan'er had thrown away her reservations and put aside her pride as a woman, and yet she wasn't able to get Jun Huang to stop and look at her properly. She didn't resent Jun Huang for that, but she was regretful that all her affection had been in vain.
When Zhang Yuan arrived at the manor, Wan'er was sitting in the hallway looking at the crabapple flowers in the garden, her eyes unfocused. Puzzled, he slowly approached Wan'er. His footsteps jerked her out of her thoughts. She looked up and saw Zhang Yuan.
Zhang Yuan didn't expect Wan'er to turn this way so suddenly. His heart skipped a beat and he lost his composure. His helpless look was endearing.
Wan'er let out a quiet chuckle as she got to her feet. She bowed slightly in greeting.
Zhang Yuan couldn't bear to see her bend her back. He hurriedly helped her up. With his eyes on Wan'er, he opened his mouth to say something, but stopped himself for fear of offending her.
"What has gentleman Zhang come here for?" asked Wan'er, breaking the silence. She looked up to meet his gaze.
In panic, Zhang Yuan took out a trinket and placed it on the stone table next to him. He fumbled with his fingers as he said, "I don't know what the princess like, but I heard the servant said you seemed troubled. Therefore I bought a little something, hoping to make the princess happy. I will be satisfied with having seen the princess smile."
Wan'er looked at Zhang Yuan, then at the item on the table. It was a doll with a smiley face. Its body was shaped into a cylinder with a round bottom. When it was pushed, it swung back to its original position rather than falling down. It always reverted back to its upright position.
As someone who had been staying in the palace, Wan'er had never seen anything like that. It was a novelty for her. She played with the doll for quite a while before looking up at Zhang Yuan with a grin, "What is this?"
"It's called a tilting doll," said Zhang Yuan. "It's a common toy within peasant households. If the princess likes it, I will go buy some more tomorrow."
Wan'er felt her heart soften. She had never known the feeling of being cherished. The pain caused by her unrequited love for Jun Huang seemed to lessen by a little. She sighed and pulled her lips into a small smile, nodding without a word.
Jun Huang had always felt guilty toward Wan'er. She worried that Wan'er would waste too much time on her. Now that Wan'er had found someone worth loving, she was more than happy for her.
It was getting close to the wedding. There were still a lot of arrangements to be made. Jun Huang was so busy that sometimes she would disappear from the manor for an entire day.
With the experience holding a wedding for Qi Chen, she was a lot more at ease this time. The senior officials in the palace offered their help as well. She completed her tasks all according to her plan.
Even with so many responsibilities occupying her mind, she still thought about her brother whenever she stopped working. Months had passed. She wondered where Jun Hao was. She still hadn't heard anything about him, which worried her.
She was suddenly reminded of a common saying: Loneliness grew louder in a joyous crowd. She never realized how true the saying until now. She had been wandering the world like a kite with its string cut. She didn't know where she would return to after everything.
When Nan Xun came back to the manor, Jun Huang was sitting in the hallway with a wistful expression. The orange glow of the candlelight somehow made her sorrow look even more profound.
"What are you thinking?" asked Nan Xun. He walked up to her side. "It's a good day. If you are free, how about coming with me for a walk?"
Jun Huang frowned. Why would Nan Xun suddenly want to go on a walk at night? She, however, was stressed. A walk might help alleviate the burden on her shoulders. She nodded and walked side by side with Nan Xun.
At night saw brisk winds sweeping through the city. Nan Xun frowned at how little Jun Huang was wearing. He wanted to return to his manor to fetch Jun Huang a robe, but Jun Huang turned him down. "It's early summer," she said with a sigh. "It's not going to get any colder. Don't concern yourself too much with my health. It's unnecessary."
Nan Xun fell silent and put aside his worries. They walked along the street, watching the prosperous imperial city. No one would ever describe the place as desolate.
They made their way to the edge of the moat. Someone had placed a lantern on the river. The lonesome candle floated along the river, its light wavering. A gentle breeze would have put out the fire.
Nan Xun came to a halt. Jun Huang didn't know why he had stopped walking, but she followed suit. Her frosty eyes looked like marbles under the moonlight. Nan Xun could drown himself in her gaze. Only then did Nan Xun fully understand why Wan'er had been consumed by her urge to stay on Jun Huang's side.
"If you were to marry someone, who would it be?" Nan Xun asked, his tone carefully casual. "What kind of person would she be?"
Jun Huang blinked. This was purely a hypothetical question. The first person flashing through her mind was Nan Xun, but she knew it was an impossible dream. She snorted. It was already a miracle that they had become friends. She didn't dare to hope for more.
She huffed out a bitter laugh. "Someone I can spend my life with. They don't have to be beautiful. I seek only their company. I wish only for them to keep me in their thoughts. And I hope they are someone with a pure heart. I hope they never have to get involved in the troubles we face in this mundane world."