Chapter 35: Truth
In that split second Jun Huang could only watched as the stick came closer and closer. She squeezed her eyes shut and braced for the pain, but it never came. Instead, she was pulled into a warm embrace. There was a quiet gasp of pain.
When she opened her eyes, what she saw was Nan Xun's handsome face, his eyes closed and his lips pursed. The vein on his forehead throbbed. He had shielded Jun Huang with his own body, getting hit right in the back. Before the attacker could react, Qi Yun hit his neck with the fan, and the man collapsed onto the ground.
Qi Yun rushed to their side. "Are you hurt?"
Jun Huang shook her head, her face pale. Her heart ached as she helped Nan Xun up. "I'm fine, but Nan Xun got hit. I don't know if he is alright."
In her anxiety she even forgot that she knew medicine. When she remembered, Qi Yun had already taken care of everyone, and Nan Xun seemed a lot better.
He coughed and spit out a mouthful of blood, and Jun Huang was barely keeping herself together. With trembling hand, she took his pulse. Only after making sure that all was well did her heart settle.
She helped Nan Xun back to their booth on the second floor. Qi Yun followed behind them. He looked at Nan Xun and asked, "You alright?"
Nan Xun nodded. "I'm fine."
Qi Yun took his word for it. Jun Huang, on the other hand, was still worried. Qi Yun couldn't help give her an eyeroll and sighed. "Baiyu, people trained in martial arts know their own bodies. Besides, that man didn't hit him that hard. No need to worry so much."
Jun Huang scratched her head awkwardly and let go of Nan Xun's arm, looking away with a blush. For a moment, none of them talked.
They stayed at the tavern to give Nan Xun time to rest. When they left, Nan Xun felt his back had just about recovered. Jun Huang, however, babbled endlessly about what he had to be aware of with his injury. Nan Xun nodded at the right moment, trying to relax her.
A woman jogged up to them – it was the sonstress Jun Huang saved. She looked at Jun Huang shyly and couldn't say a word. She ended up scurrying away after shoving a handkerchief into Jun Huang's arms.
"Baiyu is indeed popular," Qi Yun teased. Jun Huang pursed her lips and put away the handkerchief. It was a sincere gift from a young woman after all.
"Be at ease. The fourth prince and I have reached an agreement. We will cooperate when needed. You don't have to worry. Just be careful when you're with Qi Chen." Nan Xun sighed, watching Jun Huang. He was worried for her safety.
Jun Huang humored him with a smile. "I know. Nothing will happen to me. Qi Chen still needs me to make plans for him." She gave Nan Xun and Qi Yun a worried look and said seriously, "You two, on the other hand, are in a volatile imperial court. A wrong move may get you killed. You have to be careful."
Qi Yun told her to not be too concerned before taking his leave back to his manor. Nan Xun couldn't walk Jun Huang back to Prince Chen Manor, so he told the shadow guard to follow her discreetly before leaving.
When Qi Yun returned to his manor, the man he sent out happened to be back as well. He asked everyone except for the man to leave.
"Did you find anything?" Qi Yun asked with a frown.
The man hesitated. It was difficult for him to tell Qi Yun what he found. Under Qi Yun's insistence, he finally answered, "Halfway through my investigation, I got to a dead end. So I diverted some of my people to look into Consort Yu's living days. I heard…"
"That her death was not a natural one."
Qi Yun lowered his eyes and looked away. His mother's death was suspicious. Of course he knew someone was behind it. He, however, had no real clue. After years of investigation, he still couldn't find anything useful.
The more he thought about it, the more agitated he became. In his rage, he swept the teacups off the table and they shattered on the floor.
His fingers couldn't help but tremble, and his chest felt tight. Silently, he promised to himself that one day, he would find the truth and made whoever got his mother killed pay.
He was more and more determined to get to the bottom of her death. On the other hand, Jun Huang was meeting different officials for Qi Yun, trying to gain more allies in the court for him.
When she saw Qi Yun again, he had lost weight, and his face was an unhealthy color. In order to investigate his mother's death, he hadn't been sleeping very much. Now he even took the risk to visit her late at night.
"What happened? Did you encounter a problem?" Jun Huang frowned worriedly at Qi Yun.
He looked at Jun Huang and reluctantly said, "I didn't want to trouble you with this, but I'm at a dead end. So – I hope you'll be willing to help me."
"Just tell me what happened, Qi Yun. If there's something I can do, I will do it."
Qi Yun explained everything to her. He had always thought that his mother's death was suspicious, but he had no evidence. Jun Huang had heard rumors as well. It was said that Qi Yun's mother passed away suddenly one night in the palace. Even though a maid had come out and said that the empress and Consort Zhen was behind it, the emperor did nothing. Jun Huang didn't understand why. Everyone knew the emperor favored Qi Yun's mother, but her burial was done without care. It didn't add up.
In the wavering candlelight, Jun Huang looked at Qi Yun's face. He was not a carefree child anymore. Losing his mother, struggling in this large palace that left no one intact – who knew what he had been through?
Qi Yun looked at Jun Huang with such hopeful eyes; she couldn't possibly deny him. She nodded and let out a sigh. "Rest assured, I will do all I can to find out the truth."
After that, Jun Huang started the investigation. All day long she was away from Prince Chen Manor, but Qi Chen had been too busy winning people over, so he didn't pose much restriction on her. Before, when she left the manor, Wei Qian would always ask where she was going. Now she said nothing.
Jun Huang knew that in this large imperial city, she alone could not really achieve anything. In the end she had to turn to Nan Xun for help.
When Nan Xun head what Jun Huang was here for, he frowned like this was something particularly difficult. For a long while he didn't respond. When he turned to look at her, however, he couldn't say no to her. "You shouldn't have gotten involved in matters of the royal family…"
"The truth of Consort Yu's death can't just be left undiscovered like this. Besides, I have made Qi Yun a promise. I will help him no matter what." Jun Huang looked at him, her voice determined.
"You must know that her death happened years ago. Neither of us can foresee what we will find. Will you not regret it if we get into trouble?" Nan Xun looked deep into Jun Huang's eyes, his eyebrows tightly knitted. He really was worried for Jun Huang's safety.
Jun Huang didn't expect Nan Xun to be so hesitant and indecisive. She was just about to leave when Nan Xun stopped her. He sighed. "I will help you."
Jun Huang broke into a smile. "Thank you for doing this. Qi Yun will appreciate your help as well."
Nan Xun waved his hand, a touch of resignation in his smile. He didn't know when it started, but he could no longer deny Jun Huang anything.
Jun Huang bid him farewell afterwards. Nan Xun stood at the spot watching her leave, shaking his head. After a while he summoned the shadow guard and sent him to find out where the maid serving Qi Yun's mother was now.
Nan Xun's influence in the imperial city could not be underestimated. Soon he got some information. He sent a message through a pigeon to Jun Huang, who almost jumped up in joy when she received it, very much unlike her usual composed self.
Deep into the night, Jun Huang changed into an all-black outfit and sneaked out, going straight to the meeting point mentioned in the letter – a refugee shelter in the southern part of the city.
Jun Huang had never been here before. At night saw the cold wind increased in frequency. It was a little terrifying. Jun Huang could feel her heart in her throat. She dared not to even breathe heavily.
Nan Xun stood under a roof, watching Jun Huang tip-toeing around. He couldn't help but smile. He waited a few moments before walking towards her, his footsteps loud on the fallen leaves. Hearing this, Jun Huang turned around and let out a sigh of relief when she saw it was Nan Xun.
"I thought you'd never come," she said.
Without a word, Nan Xun took Jun Huang's hand and led her to the front yard. There was a woman who looked close to forty at the door, watching them approach. It was apparent that Nan Xun had been here earlier.
The woman smiled at Jun Huang and made a bow like someone from the palace would. Surprised, Jun Huang turned to Nan Xun for answer.
"She was the personal maid of Consort Yu. She had been serving her since she was little. After the consort died, she escaped from the palace and settled down here."
Jun Huang nodded. There were still questions left unanswered. She followed the woman into the house. Nan Xun entered as well after checking the parameter. He sat down next to Jun Huang.
The woman poured a cup of tea each for Jun Huang and Nan Xun. She then took a sip to clear her throat. Looking up at Jun Huang, she began to tell them about the memory had been buried deep in her heart for decades.
"The emperor favored the consort. In a place like the palace, it was all infighting and scheming. No one could stand on the sideline. The consort was kind-hearted. She never hurt anyone, but in the end she was hurt by others… That day, the emperor visited. He had a few drinks with the consort. Afterwards the consort said that she felt unwell… in the afternoon the empress and the Consort Zhen came as well. They asked the consort to watch a play with them. It was very unusual. They just happened to visit the consort on the last day of her life…? At night, the consort started throwing up. Before the royal doctor could come, she – passed away." The woman choked and started to cry, her old eyes became framed by a few more wrinkles.
"Do you mean that – not only were the empress and Consort Zhen involved, but the emperor as well?"
The woman looked down without a word. Silence filled the room. In the bellowing wind tree branches shook like the shadow of ghosts. Jun Huang's palms were damp, and cold sweat began to streak down from her forehead.