Chapter 159: The Heart grew fonder
Nan Xun brought clean clothes to one of the rooms the guards were staying in. The guards remained silent when Nan Xun walked in, like they were used to Nan Xun coming to their room. Once Nan Xun was out of sight, they started whispering among themselves.
"Why does the prince always come to our room to take a bath?" one of the guards asked curiously. "Don't they have a tub to bathe in in their room?"
The other guard hummed. "Maybe gentleman Feng is taking a bath, and the prince simply doesn't want to waste time."
They stopped talking, having decided that they had found the answer to this mystery. It wasn't in their place to discuss their master's personal affairs anyway.
Nan Xun returned to the room he shared with Jun Huang after taking a bath. He looked at the large bed, then at Jun Huang. His breathing quickened a little as he sat down on the bed looking at Jun Huang, who was reading a book by the candle. After a moment, he said, "It's late. You should rest."
Jun Huang looked toward him. She put down the book and walked to the window to look outside. The only light source was the crescent moon. After a day of walking in the city, Jun Huang was tired. She didn't hesitate for long before closing the window and nodding.
Nan Xun slept on the inside of the bed. To prevent them from getting into each other's personal space, they had put up a fortress of blanket at the middle. Jun Huang put out the candle and lay down on the bed. She shut her eyes and tried to put herself to sleep.
The moon shone through the window despite it being closed. The window paper was too thin and translucent to keep the light out. The entire room was covered in a layer of silver frost.
Nan Xun could hear Jun Huang's quiet breathing at his ear. Usually he could fall asleep as soon as his head hit the bed. Now, however, he was wide awake.
He didn't want to cross a line and risk offending Jun Huang, but he couldn't help staring at her, curious what she looked like when she was asleep.
Moonlight kissed her fair face. Her eyelashes fluttered slightly in the air. Her delicate features were even more captivating than usual. Nan Xun could not tear his eyes away. Neither could he stop his heart from racing in frenzy. It felt as if his heart was going to jump out of his mouth.
Nan Xun stole glances at Jun Huang. She opened her eyes suddenly and, with her gaze fixed on the bed canopy, asked, "Are you asleep?"
Nan Xun's heart skipped a beat and his breath hitched. "I'm awake," he said. "What's wrong? You can't sleep?"
A "Yeah" was all Jun Huang said. Nan Xun knew why Jun Huang was unable to sleep, but he didn't know what he should say.
Jun Huang could feel Nan Xun's intense gaze on her even when her eyes were shut. She couldn't take it. There was nothing binding her and Nan Xun together at the moment. She didn't want to deal with the temptation.
"How is it going in Yunzhou?" Jun Huang asked after a moment of silence.
"It's nothing serious," Nan Xun said quietly. "The drought has caused the people to be dissatisfied. On top of that there are bandits running rampage in the area. That's why there's a riot. My second in command has ordered the shadow guard to brief me on the situation there. It's the same old story: being away from the imperial city made the local officials complacent. They are corrupt and have no regard for human lives."
Nan Xun knew Jun Huang didn't like corruption, but there would always be people like those officials. While running a country as big as Northern Qi, it was inevitable for some crimes and atrocities to fall through the cracks. Not everyone was pure-hearted. Too many were willing to sacrifice other people's lives for their personal gain. Addressing the root cause would take time.
Jun Huang knew how difficult it was, of course. In the dark she turned her head sideway toward Nan Xun, which caught Nan Xun off guard. His gaze met hers. A barrage of emotions rippled through his heart.
Jun Huang didn't notice the change in Nan Xun's expression. She thought for a moment before saying, "The emperor has decreed that an in-depth investigation on the local officials is to be conducted. Why hasn't the corruption in Yunzhou been rooted out?"
"Northern Qi is a big country," Nan Xun said. "If every corrupt official is eliminated, the foundation of the country will be at risk. On the surface, it seems as if the emperor has let the Court of Judicial Review take the reign, but he is the one who has the final say. As long as the officials haven't been too blatant in their wrongdoings, the emperor would turn a blind eye to their deeds."
Jun Huang frowned. She didn't think it was as simple as that. "Who was the one who put those officials in charge of Yunzhou?"
Nan Xun searched through his memory, but couldn't find an answer. He shook his head. "I'm not sure. I've been at the border and seldom returned to the imperial city. Besides, the emperor isn't going to tell me anything important. I also rarely talk to the courtiers. I do know, however, that a lot of the local officials were recommended by the royal princes."
"Do you think it is Qi Chen or the third prince that recommended the officials at Yunzhou?"
Surprised, Nan Xun rolled to his side to face Jun Huang fully. "You suspect that it is the third prince?"
Jun Huang pursed her lips without a word, but her expression was a clear enough answer. Nan Xun gave the situation some thoughts. This could turn out to be either a serious problem, or a small nuisance, but they must not overlook the issue. How, though, did Jun Huang come to this conclusion?
Noticing Nan Xun's confusion, Jun Huang chuckled. In a deliberately casual tone, she said, "It's clear from the emperor's order to you that he has always been wary of you. He only agreed to the marriage Sir Shangguan proposed because Sir Shangguan is a senior official. He knows better than anyone that if you gain Sir Shangguan's support, he will not be able to control you, but he has to accept to maintain his face. In his heart he must have been hoping for something to happen to disrupt the marriage, but before that happened, you turned down the marriage without hesitation."
"The emperor is the son of heaven. Even though he didn't want you to marry Shangguan Yue himself, your blunt refusal still felt like an insult to him. Him letting you kneel outside the palace for the whole day was merely for him to vent his anger."
"The riot in Yunzhou seems to happen at the right time coincidentally, but in truth the emperor has always wanted to eliminate the growing corruption in this area. He was hesitating over who to send. Your disobedience presented an opportunity to him. Now there's a good reason for you to not marry Shangguan Yue, and he has someone to send to suppress the unrest."
Jun Huang explained her arguments clearly and eloquently. She was in her element as a strategist. Nan Xun couldn't help being drawn to her. How many women could look at the big picture the way Jun Huang do? How many are open-minded enough to understand both the world and human hearts?
Nan Xun went through Jun Huang's words in his head. He still had some question. He tilted his head and asked, "How do you know Yunzhou's officials answer to the third prince?"
"That's only my speculation," said Jun Huang. "Think about it. Even if the emperor doesn't like Qi Chen, Qi Chen is still the crown prince. Besides, Qi Chen has solved a number of difficult problems for the emperor since he got the title. Qi Chen is the crown prince the emperor appointed. He isn't going to let others find faults in his actions. The logical thing to do is to protect Qi Chen's reputation. Now the emperor is the one who instigated the conflict. Clearly he is trying to win over people's heart for Qi Chen. The third prince has now come to his own. The emperor simply doesn't want his sons to be at each other's throat again."
Jun Huang's explanation made sense to Nan Xun. After a pause, he continued to ask, "Then why did the emperor send me to Yunzhou?"
Jun Huang didn't immediately respond. She tightened the blanket around her and curled up her body. It was still chilly at night. Her fingers had gone cold. She answered when she had warmed up a little, "The emperor is trying to suppress the third prince's influence. He has to pick an outsider. He can't let Qi Chen or Qi Yun take care of the unrest. They are both of his blood. If you are able to take care of this issue, you get only a small boost in your fame. It's useless. The third prince won't dare to put the blame on the emperor; he will blame you and see you as an enemy. That's what the emperor wants."
She felt like she had said too much. She added, "Of course, these are all theories. Who knows what the truth is? One day the answers will come to us."
Jun Huang slowly closed her eyes. After the conversation, the smothering awkwardness had melted from the air. When Nan Xun had finished digesting Jun Huang's words, she was already asleep. Her breathing was so faint it might as well be silent. Her quietness created the illusion of serenity.
Nan Xun stared at Jun Huang's face. His heart pounded hard in the darkness. He could not tamp down the feelings threatening to burst out of his chest.
When Nan Xun woke up the next day, Jun Huang was still asleep. It was foggy outside, and the sun wasn't visible. He gingerly sat up and looked at Jun Huang.
He had spent a lot of time looking at her last night, but it had been dark. His imagination had to fill in the blanks. Now the day had broken, and she was still asleep. The air was still and time passed slowly. He knew Jun Huang had been exhausted. She probably wouldn't wake until a while later.
In the dim light Jun Huang looked like something out of a dream. Nan Xun's gaze was fixed on her, and his fondness for her were overflowing from his eyes. If Jun Huang woke up, she would be surprised by his genuine love for her. A lot of time the story did go like this: the falling flower was in love of the river, and the river did reciprocate the flower's feeling; the river simply didn't know that his love was not one-sided.
Covered in the soft light of dawn, Jun Huang looked at peace. Her hair spread over the pillow. Without the usual cold glint in her eyes, she looked soft and gentle. It made Nan Xun's heart flutter. Now he knew from the bottom of his heart that it wasn't her wisdom or intellect he was in love with. He was in love with her. It was as simple as that.