Chapter 56: Palace Banquet
Nan Jihan appeared not long after. He dressed himself like a scholarly young man. The plain foldable fan in his hands complimented his whole look well. He looked at Jun Huang cooly. There was an air of superiority around him. This was a show of power and a warning to her.
Jun Huang looked back at him with calm eyes. She struggled to stand up and cupped her hands in greeting. There was a faint smile on her lips. "This gentleman has been waiting for Your Highness."
Nan Jihan gave her an appraising look and whipped his fan closed. "The gentleman sent a message for me. Does it mean you are ready to serve me?"
Nan Jihan's gaze became frosty. He glared at her and said through clenched teeth, "You really don't know what's good for you, do you?"
"Why doesn't Your Highness let me finish first?" Jun Huang said with a smile and sat down at the table. Nan Jihan took the seat across from her, looking at her relaxed expression.
"Your Highness wants me on your side. Then I'll be upfront with you. My loyalty lies not with Qi Chen, but with Qi Yun. I owe him a debt and I will never betray him. I'm sure Your Highness wouldn't value me so much if I bite the hand that feeds and were filled with avarice."
"Qi Chen is now the crown prince. Your Highness must know why he married the princess – for power. If Your Highness trusts me, I promise to keep the princess safe. Under the table, we can make plans for our side to gain power." Jun Huang's tone was so casual, she might as well have been talking about the weather instead of obtaining the throne.
Nan Jihan examined her face and slowly said, "Aren't you worried that I will tell Qi Chen about this?"
Jun Huang chuckled. "I've only told you because I'm sure you'll keep this a secret," she said casually.
"Don't be so sure. Qi Chen has married the princess of Southern Mu. He's part of the family. You're not."
"Then Your Highness is welcome to tell Qi Chen." There was no fear in Jun Huang's eyes. Nan Jihan was filled with frustration. How could this man be so bold?
He took a deep breath and listened to Jun Huang analyzing the situation in both countries. After days of interaction, he knew Qi Chen wouldn't make a good emperor. He also knew that Nan Guyue was but a stepping stone for Qi Chen. If Qi Chen truly gained the throne one day, Nan Guyue would be cast aside.
It was better to make Nan Guyue the only thing Qi Chen could depend on. Then he would be respectful to her for his whole life.
Nan Jihan had to admit the Jun Huang had a point. He cupped his hands and lowered his eyes. "This prince knew too little and didn't fully grasp the situation in the court. The gentleman's words are more beneficial to me than ten years worth of studying. I will not forget what you have said."
"Your Highness is too humble." Jun Huang returned the gesture and relaxed a little.
"I'll have someone take you back." Nan Jihan stood up and called out for the men outside, telling them to prepare a coach for Jun Huang.
After the coach was prepared, Jun Huang walked towards the door. She stopped in her tracks when Nan Jihan called out to her, but she didn't turn around.
"Will the gentleman remember our deal today?"
Jun Huang quirked up her lips. "Your Highness doesn't need to test me like this. I never break my promises. I hope Your Highness won't forget about what you've promised me either. When the time comes, I hope you won't just sacrifice me for the princess."
Good. Jun Huang left the room and got into the coach with a servant's help. Once inside, she broke into cold sweats. Her hands kept shaking, and her breathing was unsteady.
Nan Jihan watched as the coach left. The general he had scolded before came up to him and asked, "Why did you just let him go like that, Your Highness?"
Nan Jihan narrowed his eyes, his expression indiscernible. "If we can help Qi Yun become the emperor, he promised to strengthen the trade between Northern Qi and Southern Mu. Southern Mu is the underdog among the three countries. Eastern Wu is ambitious. We have to be wary of them. With Northern Qi's support, Eastern Wu is no threat to us. This is a mutually beneficial deal."
"But our emperor's son-in-law is now the crown prince of Northern Qi. Why did Your Highness choose someone you had no prior relationship with over him?"
Nan Jihan scoffed. "Ha! Qi Chen is the crown prince. So what? He is a man who was willing to kill his own brother. Do you really think he'll help when Eastern Wu invades Southern Mu? We'll be lucky if he doesn't try to make things worse for us."
The man fell silent. It was said that cruelty was essential to great success. Was it really true? No one could answer the question.
To express gratitude to guests who attended the emperor's birthday celebration, a palace banquet was held. It was also a chance for Northern Qi to show its prosperity. Therefore, the banquet was made to be one of the most extravagant events in the country.
To show that he valued Jun Huang, Qi Chen brought her with him to the banquet. They entered the palace together.
In Jun Huang's eyes, banquets like these were a form of exploitation of the people. But what could anyone do? No one could deny the emperor what he wanted.
The performer played a relaxed tune with her lute on the stage. The attendants closed their eyes and enjoyed the melody and immersed themselves in the emotions that were expressed. No one said a word.
It was the first time Jun Huang had entered the palace here. She wasn't used to occasions like this and was a little fidgety.
Nan Guyue never failed to speak her mind. She said with a smile as vibrant as the peony, "Look, gentleman Feng! You haven't seen something like this, have you?"
Jun Huang opened her mouth, but didn't know what to say. In the end she only gave her an awkward smile in response.
Nan Guyue pouted. "I hope the gentleman isn't cursing me secretly. I was just joking."
"Of course." Jun Huang smiled and averted her eyes. It wasn't true that she had never seen anything like this. There was once a palace banquet like this one in Western Que as well. She was a princess then, however, so she couldn't show up at the banquet. She stayed in the palace learning about rites and etiquette every day.
She was always a wild one, though. She had snuck into the banquet to take a peek. It was as grand as this banquet, if not more. She felt a little nostalgic.
When she was deep in her thoughts, Nan Xun appeared behind her back and patted her on the shoulder. She jumped.
Jun Huang looked back at Nan Xun. Then she looked around to check if someone was paying attention to them. She only relaxed after she was sure that no one was watching. "What can I help you with, Your Highness?"
Nan Xun pointed at the other side of the room. Nan Jihan was clearly looking for her, and he waved at her with a smile when he spotted her. He was a royal prince, however, and was quickly swarmed by a group of people. He couldn't escape from the crowd and felt a little helpless.
"You know each other?" Nan Xun asked.
Jun Huang threw a glance at Nan Jihan before looking away and meeting Nan Xun's questioning eyes. She nodded without a word.
The emperor walked out with Consort Zhen and took a seat. He was dressed in a bright yellow dragon robe, and the consort wore a colorful phoenix robe. Jun Huang frowned.
Nan Xun could tell what she was thinking. "The empress was blinded by hatred and attempted to murder Nan Guyue. She was then banished to the cold palace1. The emperor was going to make Consort Zhen the empress, but the empress's family is influential. The plan was thus put on hold. Consort Zhen probably wore that robe as a show of power to the royal uncle's people."
Jun Huang nodded. Qi Chen was waving at her. She bid Nan Xun farewell before going to Qi Chen's side.
She sat down next to him. The lute player had left. In her stead, a group of dancers took the stage. Their dresses fluttered in the wind and the silk ribbons they wore danced in the air. They were like goddesses banished from heaven and fairies from another world. It was almost impossible to look away.
They danced like they weighed nothing. Their colorful dresses covered the stage like a veil, creating a patchwork of colors. The silk ribbons tangled and twirled as if they had a life of their own. It was beautiful and seductive. One could get drunk from watching it.
"Do you know what Nan Jihan gave to the emperor for his birthday?" Two low-grade officials spoke to one another in a low voice. Jun Huang could hear them clearly. She listened in on their conversation with great interest.
"I heard it's a snow lotus. It's native to Mount Heaven. Some even said that it could only grow in the Jade Lake2 in the heavens. Catching a glimpse will bring fortune to you for three lifetimes." The one who was talking looked envious. The one who was listening appeared to be in awe. It was as if the snow lotus was right in front of them, within their reach.
Jun Huang snorted. Snow lotus was rare, but not that rare. Southern Mu was in the north. It was right at the foot of Mount Heaven. It wasn't that difficult for Nan Jihan to acquire a snow lotus. The flower, however, was delicate. It may not be able to survive in Northern Qi.
As Jun Huang was thinking, a eunuch showed up with a green jade pendant in hand. Jun Huang had seen this pendant when she was kidnapped by Nan Jihan. It was his personal belonging.
"Prince Nan Jihan asked the gentleman to meet him in the royal garden," the eunuch said quietly.
It didn't take long for Jun Huang to figure out what had happened. Nan Jihan must have bribed the eunuch with the pendant and asked him to play messenger for him. She nodded and turned to Qi Chen after the eunuch left.
"Excuse me for a moment, Your Royal Highness."
Qi Chen was enthralled by the dancers; he only nodded and waved his hand at Jun Huang as a response. Jun Huang stood up and threw him a glance. If Nan Guyue was here to see Qi Chen, she would have made a scene.
She looked over through the delicate screen not far from her. Nan Guyue was busy talking to Consort Zhen. She sighed and took her leave.
Nan Jihan paced anxiously in the garden. It was clear he had been waiting for a long time, worrying that Jun Huang wouldn't come. He almost broke his fan in his anguish.
Jun Huang looked around. There was no one in sight. She greeted him and asked, 'Why is Your Highness so eager to see me?"
Nan Jihan disregarded all rules of proprietary and took Jun Huang's wrist without a word, his movement so sudden that her cap almost fell. Jun Huang frowned at him, her face free of any expressions.
Where consorts who have lost the favor of the emperor are sent. ↩ Legend has it that there resides Queen Mother of the West, the supreme goddess of the heaven. She's the wife of Yuhuang Dadi, the Jade Emperor. ↩