Chapter 69: A Beauty in Bath
"Feng Baiyu, do you really think that you can continue to fake ignorance?" Qi Chen said through clenched teeth with a scowl. "It's not the first time that you and Nan Xun are seen together. What are you planning? Are you a spy sent by Nan Xun?"
Jun Huang's head snapped up. "Your Royal Highness has misunderstood me. This gentleman thought that after everything I've done for Your Royal Highness, I would have earned your trust. But now Your Royal Highness is doubting my loyalty." She laughed bitterly.
Qi Chen paused. He realized that he might have overreacted. He felt a little guilty. "That's not what I meant – "
"I met with Nan Xun today to seek his support for Your Royal Highness," said Jun Huang. She didn't even bat an eye as she lied to Qi Chen. "He has control over the army. If Your Royal Highness can attain his support, his power will be of great help to you. I didn't tell Your Royal Highness only because this was not a done deal yet. I didn't want to give Your Royal Highness any false hope."
"Unfortunately, Nan Xun isn't willing to get involved with conflicts in the court. He only promised to stay neutral."
Qi Chen's expression changed. He let out a sigh. "It's only natural. Nan Xun is a talented general and also a prince. He never cares to mingle with other people. He also holds control over the army of Northern Qi. Of course he's unwilling to take anyone's side. You are not to blame."
Jun Huang's face remained impassive as she looked down at the ground. There was a green sprout at her feet. It looked so very fragile – anyone might step on it without noticing, and it would be buried under the soil.
Is he still upset about my suspicion of him? Qi Chen wondered. He walked to Jun Huang's side and patted her on the shoulder. "I was wrong to mistrust you, brother Feng. I hope you won't blame me."
"It is nothing," Jun Huang said politely, but her smile didn't reach her eyes. Anyone who cared to look would be able to see it. Qi Chen, however, didn't notice. "It's a good thing that Your Royal Highness is careful."
A pageboy came to announce that dinner is ready. Normally, Jun Huang would leave and eat in the side building, but Qi Chen wanted to make amends to her. Maybe he's cursing me in his head, Qi Chen thought. I should invite him to stay for dinner. That'll show him that I know I've made a mistake.
Thus, as soon as Jun Huang said that she was going to take her leave, Qi Chen smiled and said, "It's time for dinner. Brother Feng should stay and dine with us."
"This gentleman can't possibly do that. I am only an honored guest. I cannot share a meal with the crown prince and the princess. Besides, the servants at the side building must have prepared dinner for me already. If I don't return, the food will go to waste." Jun Huang's tone was persuasive, and her reasons were sound. There should be no argument to be made.
Qi Chen was the crown prince of Northern Qi, however. He wouldn't stand for anyone denying him his request. It was clear that he was disgruntled.
Seeing his reaction, Jun Huang knew she couldn't argue against him further. She nodded. "This gentleman will accept Your Royal Highness's offer rather than blindly holding onto rules of propriety."
Satisfied, Qi Chen's anger melted away and his frown disappeared. He put an arm around Jun Huang's shoulder and led her to the main hall. He also sent a pageboy to the side building to notify the servants that gentleman Feng would not return for dinner. They should, therefore, finish the food themselves.
Nan Guyue didn't expect Qi Chen to invite Jun Huang to stay for dinner. She was caught off guard. Jun Huang gave her a proper greeting. "Excuse me for intruding."
Nan Guyue quickly recovered. She cleared her throat and brushed back the strand of hair falling in front of her forehead. "The gentleman is being too formal," she said with a smile. "You're here as our guest. Come, take a seat."
Nan Guyue was a princess after all. She knew where the line should be drawn better than Wei Lanying. Her generous attitude pleased Qi Chen. He took Nan Guyue's hand and told her to not strain herself.
Jun Huang noticed that Nan Guyue seemed a little unwell. She took a seat and said worriedly, "The princess looks tired. How are you feeling? The princess has just become a mother. This is a brand new experience for you. If you feel uncomfortable in any way, you must not keep it to yourself. We don't want anything to happen to you."
Nan Guyue tilted her head to throw a glance at Qi Chen before lowering her eyes. "I'm grateful to the gentleman for your concerns," she said, smiling. "I'm alright. Maybe it's because I didn't sleep well last night that I look unwell today."
Qi Chen huffed. "It's all Wei Lanying's fault. She almost caused me to lose this child. She has gone more and more out of control." Qi Chen shook his head. Wei Lanying was starting to disgust him.
Jun Huang looked at Nan Guyue, trying to determine what she was thinking. Nan Guyue met her gaze and didn't look away. Those eyes were as clear as ever. There was no malice within them. How could someone with eyes like hers be anything other than innocent?
Jun Huang sighed inwardly for her ridiculous thoughts. For a brief moment, she suspected Nan Guyue of provoking Qi Chen into hating Wei Lanying more on purpose. She's not someone like that, Jun Huang told herself. Must have been a careless act.
The servants laid down the utensils. Jun Huang only move her chopsticks after Qi Chen had started eating. To show how much he valued her, Jun Huang had been given the same food as Qi Chen and Nan Guyue.
"Your Royal Highness has been working hard everyday. You should have some more soup." Nan Guyue filled a bowl with lotus root soup. Every smile and every frown of hers was because of Qi Chen.
Qi Chen nodded. He blew the soup cool before taking a spoonful. He praised the cooks for having improved their craft.
Jun Huang ate quietly. The atmosphere was light at the dinner table. It was the perfect time for everyday conversations. Nan Guyue had lost her air of superiority and began to respect other people more. And she knew that Jun Huang was Qi Chen's strategist and the reason why Nan Guyue and Qi Chen got together. Thus, she started talking to Qi Chen about personal matters without trying to hide from Jun Huang.
Jun Huang remained calm and aloof, but she was actually listening closely to Qi Chen and Nan Guyue's conversation, trying to get information that may be useful to her.
After dinner, Jun Huang bid them farewell. She didn't want to overstay her welcome, and it was getting late. She knew when to excuse herself. Qi Chen didn't ask her to stay. He nodded and let her leave.
Jun Huang strolled towards the side building. The night winds were cold and it made her shudder. She didn't have a lot of clothes on her. She quickened her pace and started thinking about what Nan Guyue had said.
Earlier, Nan Guyue told Qi Chen that the gifts delivered had been received with appreciation. Jun Huang hadn't heard about any important figures having a celebration recently. Qi Chen must have been trying to gain someone's support. Who it could be was beyond her, however.
Hearing a twig snapping behind her, she whirled around. By the narrow pathway the only light source was the flickering light emitted from the stone lamp. Nevertheless, she noticed there was someone hiding behind the fake mountain.
From the man's clothes she could tell it was the housekeeper, but she didn't plan to expose him. She quirked up her lips and continued walking. The housekeeper continued to follow her.
Most people in the manor were still loyal to Qi Chen. She didnt' want to arouse any suspicions. She had to replace those people for her future plan. It wouldn't be an easy task.
She knew Qi Chen must hold lingering doubts for her. He was worried that Jun Huang may meet with that certain someone he didn't like, so he ordered the housekeeper to tail her and make sure she went back to the side building straightaway.
She had done what she had to. She returned to the side building, appreciating the flowers along the way. Once she retired to her room, the housekeeper let out a relieved sigh and reported back to Qi Chen.
Jun Huang was exhausted. She ordered a maid to prepare a bath before having some tea in the garden. After a short period of time, the maid came to pat her on the shoulder.
"I have prepared a bath, gentleman Feng," the maid said gently. "Do you still not require assistance?"
Jun Huang shook her head and rubbed at her forehead as she went back into her room. She locked the door and walked to the screen, behind which was a barrel of hot water. The heat sent vapor into the air.
She disrobed and walked into the barrel, immersing her whole body into the water. Her long dark hair was soaked and stuck to her pale back. Her delicate collarbones were mesmerizing to look at.
Her cheeks reddened and her eyes went misty. Her expression softened into a relaxed smile. Her thin lips were as red as blood. The whole room was filled with a faint and refreshing fragrance.
It was a beautiful night. The view around the side building was alluring as well. Nan Xun stood outside Prince Chen Manor, looking up at the outer wall. The bright moon and the stream of stars seemed to be within his reach. The person he was thinking about was only a wall away from him. He couldn't stop his heart from soaring at the thought.
He wanted to see Jun Huang, but… he didn't have a good reason. He had just seen her earlier today. And yet he still missed her.
He took a deep breath before leaping into the air with a push of his foot. He landed on the roof silently and rushed to the side building. Jun Huang's residence seemed lonely compared to where Qi Chen lived.
There was less lighting here. Jun Huang herself preferred the quiet, and the place was silent at night. All the servants had left. Only a team of patrols were walking the parameter.
Her room was still lit. He landed on the ground without making a sound and came to the door. He used the dagger he kept tucked under his waistband and picked the door open. He entered the building.
He walked through the parlor to the room at the back. Before he could walk in, the sound of water sloshing about caught his attention. He frowned, but he didn't think too much of it. He pushed the silk curtains apart and saw what was happening behind the screen. He dropped his dagger in shock.
"Who – who is it?" Jun Huang asked nervously, sinking herself back into the barrel with her arms crossed before her chest. She couldn't stop her voice from getting louder.
Nan Xun took a deep breath and covered up his shock. He turned his head aside. His whole ears had turned red. "It's me."