Chapter 52: Mingling among the Courtiers
Nan Guyue winked at Jun Huang and gave her a mischievous smile. "I'm pretty good-looking," she whispered into Jun Huang's ear. "Why do I need to cover up my face? I have nothing to hide."
"The princess is right. However, it's a tradition in Northern Qi that a bride's veil should only be taken off by her husband. The princess is bolder than most women here, but it's better to follow the tradition on occasions like this."
Nan Guyue cocked her head and gave it some thought. Jun Huang had a point. She stuck her tongue out and put the veil back on. Then she extended her hands to let the maids help her walk.
Jun Huang whipped open her fan and smiled, but her smile didn't reach her eyes. She looked over at Qi Chen, who was greeting the guests, then she looked back at Nan Guyue. What will their future entail, she wondered. Whatever was going to happen, their future was theirs to worry about. It had nothing to do with her.
Not far away from Jun Huang, a man was staring at her with great interest. His pale fingers wrapped around a white jade cup. There was a faint smile at his lips.
Nan Xun was also watching Jun Huang. He looked at her with such concentration he didn't even notice that Shangguan Yue had been staring at him with adoring eyes.
Shangguan Yue brought a jug of wine to Nan Xun. She bent down to refill his cup, but she was too focused on his face that she didn't realize the cup was full.
Jun Huang approached them with an eyebrow arched. "Is Lady Shangguan trying to flood Prince Chen Manor with wine?"
Nan Xun shifted his focus to what was in front of him. Shangguan Yue suddenly realized what she was doing and she dropped the jug. It fell onto the table, making a loud clunk and spilling wine everywhere. Nan Xun frowned at the mess.
"I – I didn't mean to – " Shangguan Yue said nervously. She took out her handkerchief and was about to wipe the table clean, but Jun Huang stopped her.
Shangguan Yue glowered at her. Jun Huang smiled a little. "You don't have to do this Lady Shangguan. This is a servant's task. No need for you to dirty your hands." Jun Huang gestured at a maid next to them. The maid obediently started cleaning the mess with a rag.
There was a hint of smile in Jun Huang's tone. Shangguan Yue had always been cherished and protected like a precious flower. No one ever dared to mock her like that. She clenched her teeth and gave Jun Huang a scornful look, silently accusing Jun Huang of embarrassing her in front of Nan Xun.
Jun Huang didn't care if Shangguan Yue liked her or not. She only threw Nan Xun a fleeting glance before leaving. Afterwards, Shangguan Yue didn't think there was anything she could say to make the situation better, so she went back to her seat, biting her bottom lip in worry.
"Here comes His Majesty! Here comes Consort Zhen!" A eunuch cried out with a high-pitched voice. The guests inside the manor fell quiet. Neither Emperor Qi nor Consort Zhen had shown their faces often to the public. One was the supreme Son of Heaven, while the other rarely left the palace. Many would like to catch a glimpse of them. There were also lustful men who just wanted to see for themselves just how beautiful Consort Zhen was.
Time took no prisoners. Even the most beautiful women aged. Consort Zhen didn't seem all that old despite being at her forty, however. Her grace gave her a unique charm.
Consort Zhen smiled, enjoying the admiring looks she was getting. Her adorned attire made her even more eye-catching. She walked up to Nan Guyue. Qi Chen cupped his hands in greeting, while Nan Guyue bent her knees. Everyone present paid their respect for her.
"Be at ease," the consort said. "It's my son's wedding today. You don't need to be so formal. Enjoy the celebration." That got a round of cheers from the crowd. Even Jun Huang had to admit that the consort's almond-shaped eyes were bright and beautiful. The emperor remained silent. He remained seated on the main seat without showing any of his emotions.
After Qi Chen told everyone to take a seat, there were a great deal of rituals to go through. Jun Huang was lulled into drowsiness and kept yawning. Nan Xun had to try really hard not to laugh. Feeling his eyes on her, Jun Huang raised an eyebrow at him. She raised her cup to him from meters away and finished the wine.
Qi Chen and Nan Guyue were face to face, but he couldn't see her expression, and she couldn't see his smile. Nan Guyue could only look at Qi Chen's black boots adorned with gold silk. An unfamiliar feeling filled her heart. So this is how it feels to be in love, she thought. This is how it feels to get married to the man you love.
After the ceremony, the emperor and the consort left together. The rest of the guests became much more at ease and their interactions far more lively. People were having a good time chatting and drinking.
Qi Chen had a servant help Nan Guyue to their new bedroom. Then he walked up to Jun Huang. As his honored guest, Jun Huang naturally had to get up to greet him. She smoothed out her wrinkled robe and raised her cup at him. "Congratulation, Your Royal Highness. You have married a lovely woman."
Qi Chen gave her a wide smile and led her to outside the building. "You and I call each other brother. I'd like to introduce you to some people. It'll be good for your career."
Jun Huang could tell what he was thinking. She nodded and followed Qi Chen with a bottle of wine. She greeted every one of the guests Qi Chen led her to meet.
The first she met was Prince Duan. Qi Chen pointed at him and said, "This is Prince Duan. A man with few desires. When I first met brother Feng, he was who you reminded me of."
"It's an honor, Prince Duan." Jun Huang raised her cup and took a sip, smiling at him.
Prince Duan picked up a cup from the table and let a maid fill it with wine. He finished it in one go. Seeing that Jun Huang still had some left in her cup, he smirked at her. "I've finished mine, but the gentleman has not. What do you mean by that?"
Jun Huang didn't expect him to make a big deal out of this. She looked at the candlelight reflected in the wine and chuckled. "I didn't mean to offend the prince," she said, raising her cup again. "This gentleman just isn't very good with alcohol. It's the crown prince's wedding and I'm afraid I might ruin your fun if I get drunk. I couldn't possibly deny Prince Duan's request, however. I'll finish this one." She chucked the remaining wine down her throat.
Prince Duan put down the wine cup and clapped. Jun Huang took a deep breath to clear her head, but another guest came to toast Qi Chen. Qi Chen frowned. Jun Huang remembered he had not been feeling well these couple of days. The royal doctor had also said it wasn't a good idea for him to consume alcohol. She cut in with a smile. "The crown prince isn't feeling well. This gentleman will have this drink on his behalf."
The guest knew Jun Huang was Qi Chen's confidante, so he didn't complain. Besides, Qi Chen was never going to have this drink with him. He smiled a little awkwardly. It was fortunate for him that Jun Huang offered him this olive branch.
Qi Chen then led Jun Huang to Nan Xun. "This is the war god of Northern Qi. You know him."
Jun Huang nodded. She took the cup of wine a maid gave her and was just about to drink it, but Nan Xun stopped her. She gave him a questioning look. He leveled his cool eyes on her. "Drinking too much is harmful. Better to drink some tea instead." He picked up a teapot from the table and grabbed the cup Jun Huang was holding. He emptied the cup and filled it with tea, ignoring the odd looks people were giving him.
Jun Huang knew Nan Xun was worried about the poison in her body. She lifted her eyes and thanked him. After finishing the cup of tea, she followed Qi Chen to greet other people. When she looked back, Nan Xun was still watching her with thoughtful eyes.
In the end they ran into the Senior Grandmaster. Jun Huang knew he had joined Qi Yun's circle and must have offended Qi Chen in the imperial court several times. She didn't expect him to come today.
Qi Chen was curious as well. "I didn't expect the Senior Grandmaster to attend my wedding," he said with a scoff. "This is such a surprise."
The Senior Grandmaster winced and looked up at Jun Huang. She knew what he was thinking. The last time she only told him to open his eyes and make the smart decision. She never told him she was Qi Chen's honored guest.
The Senior Grandmaster had years of experience in the court, though. He knew what he should and should not say. He looked over at Qi Chen and cupped his hands. "Your Royal Highness has misunderstood this official."
"Ha! How would I know what you're thinking? You weren't here when I married Wei Lanying. Why did you come today then? What are you planning?"
Qi Chen's words were dripping with sarcasm. The other guests couldn't help but look over, trying to determine what the Senior Grandmaster had done this time to offend Qi Chen. In their heads, they could already picture the Senior Grandmaster's funeral.
Jun Huang cut in. "All visitors are guests, Your Royal Highness. Since the Senior Grandmaster is here, we should treat him like we would with any guest."
The Senior Grandmaster didn't know Qi Chen would hold a grudge for such a long time. He broke into cold sweats. It was a pitiful sight. That made Qi Chen feel a little better. He waved his hand and left.
Jun Huang met many officials and royalties, and she ended up drinking a few cups of wine for Qi Chen. Dizziness started to overtake her. And her temples were throbbing as well.
Her head was heavy and her face was as pale as a sheet. Qi Chen frowned at her. "What's wrong, brother Feng?"
Jun Huang shook her head and forced herself to smile. "I may have drunk a little too much. Please excuse me. I have to take my leave."
Qi Chen nodded in understanding. He was going to walk Jun Huang back to her building himself, but someone called out for him. He then asked Wei Qian to escort her. Jun Huang, however, waved a hand and said she wanted to get some fresh air and enjoy the view of the imperial city.
The person calling out for Qi Chen was getting insistent. Qi Chen had no choice but to let Jun Huang go on her own. He walked Jun Huang to the gate. "Be careful on your way back. Don't wander outside for too long. Come back before it's too late."
Jun Huang nodded. The wind was strong outside the manor, but it wasn't chilling. Walking along the street, she wrapped her thin robe around herself and looked up at the moon and the stars. A sense of loss crept up into her and lodged in her heart.