Chapter 72: A Heartless Man
Jun Huang let Wan'er hold her, but she didn't lay a hand on Wan'er herself. She knew she must not give Wan'er false hope. She was a woman. She could never marry Wan'er. Wan'er's obsession must not go on.
Time went by. The ground was covered with fallen leaves. The blue stone stairs emitted a sense of calmness. The behemoth tree by the stairs shook in the winds. In the horizon was a mountain range, sitting at the bottom of the vast blue sky.
"You should go, princess," Jun Huang said quietly. Wan'er nodded and let go reluctantly. She looked up at Jun Huang's aloof face. She found herself unable to say anything sentimental now. She turned around, daintily lifted her dress, and entered the temple.
Jun Huang watched her go. A woman like Wan'er shouldn't waste time on her, but she didn't know what else she could do. Jun Huang was terrible with words when it came to love. She could only come up with excuses for so long.
She didn't follow Wan'er in, lest they disturb the peace of the temple. She walked along the discreet path outside the gate, seeking hidden beauty in the world like people in the past used to do.
Her robe was elegant, and her fan dignified, while the bamboo forest and undiscovered trail were fascinating in their own ways. Did her robe contrast with the bamboo and make it more vibrant, or was it the other way around?
Not far away, Nan Xun was watching her. Every move of hers was made with a grace unique to her alone.
No one else was around to see Jun Huang. Nan Xun wanted nothing more than to keep this ethereal being to himself and prevent others from catching a glimpse. A one of a kind woman like her, however, would never be willing to be caged away by anyone. She was the chosen one. She was sure to achieve great things in her life.
The gaze on her was so heated it was impossible for Jun Huang to not notice. Under her broad sleeve, she took out a poisoned needle. Is it a friend, or a foe? She didn't want to show her hand until she knew what was going on.
The owner of the footsteps came closer and stopped right behind her. She whirled around with the needle in her hand and barely stopped herself from attacking once she saw who it was. She let out a relieved sigh and put away the needle.
"What are you doing here?" Jun Huang wondered out loud. She brushed her dark hair back and smiled faintly at Nan Xun.
Nan Xun watched her without a word. Behind her, bamboo shook lightly. Jun Huang's face was a little pale. Wind blew through the forest and brought her hair and the tail of her robe up in the air. She was like a piece of white jade standing tall and alone in this dark and gritty world. Funnily enough, if Nan Xun hadn't known that Jun Huang was a woman, he would have questioned whether or not he was attracted to men.
Seeing that Nan Xun was staring at her silently again, Jun Huang frowned and waved her hand before his eyes. Nan Xun took her wrist suddenly.
For a moment, everything but the two of them faded away.
There was a rustle in the forest. Leaves fell from above their heads, none of which landed on them. Jun Huang looked up at Nan Xun and her mask of impassiveness fractured, showing a trace of her surprise.
The moment Nan Xun took Jun Huang's wrist, he felt his heart skip. Her arm was alluringly delicate, but too thin to be healthy. Nonetheless, his heart was beating so fast it could burst out of his chest any moment.
Jun Huang suddenly felt like her skin was burned by something that wasn't meant to be touched. She broke out of Nan Xun's grip and hid her hand under her sleeves.
Nan Xun was charmed by her reaction. It was in stark contrast with her usual mature demeanor. He preferred this Jun Huang much more. She felt more real and less untouchable.
"If Your Highness is here for Princess Wan'er, she's in the temple," Jun Huang said cooly, breaking Nan Xun out of his trance.
Nan Xun chuckled and took a step closer, his eyes as dark as a bottomless lake. "What if I told you that I'm here for you?"
It may be that Nan Xun's voice was deeper and hoarser than usual, it may be that he was standing too close to her – the moment their breaths tangled, Jun Huang's face went deep red. She pushed him away, but she couldn't stop her heartbeat from quickening.
"Alright, no more teasing," Nan Xun said with a laugh. "I'm here to ask you about the situation with Wan'er. Qi Chen wanted you to talk to Wan'er in person and turn her down. How did that go?"
Jun Huang quickly regained control over herself, schooling her expression into one of impassiveness. She took a deep breath and shook her head. "I've tried all I can to convince the princess, but she isn't willing to give up. I don't know what else to do."
Nan Xun sighed. He hadn't expected Wan'er to be so determined to marry Jun Huang. If she wouldn't let go, there wasn't anything he could do, either.
They stood face to face silently, watching the beautiful scenery in the bamboo forest, but their minds were occupied with different thoughts.
Wan'er strolled into the temple palace. The gold-plated statue of Buddha stood tall and above everyone. A monk was playing a wooden fish1 as he chanted sutras. All her frustration seemed to drain away as she entered. She knelt down on a mat and put her hands together in prayer, her expression devoted.
"Wan'er is here today to pay back for my wish…" She spoke with her eyes closed and her head low.
Afterwards, she didn't get to her feet immediately. Instead, she let Feng Baiyu occupy her thoughts. That man was like a god. Heartless, but philanthropic. Sometimes she was content with seeing him leading a happy life. Sometimes there was nothing she wanted more than to share a life with him.
She hadn't realized how deeply in love she was. They were strangers who happened to cross paths. She had quickly fallen into a lonesome love, while Feng Baiyu remained distant and untouchable. Her heartache was hers alone.
When she opened her eyes, the palace was filled with veil-like smoke and the black silk curtains fluttered in the wind. The monk, who had been silent previously, opened his mouth and said, "The almsgiver has lost yourself to obsession. Why don't you give up?"
"How can someone who's possessed give up?" Wan'er smiled bitterly and bowed at the monk with her hands put together. She took her leave.
She walked into the front yard. The sun was blindingly bright. She blinked. It seemed as if a lifetime had passed, but in reality, she had only been inside for the time for an incense stick to burn.
Her maid had been waiting outside. She hurriedly support Wan'er with an arm and asked with a low voice, "Is the princess alright?"
Wan'er shook her head and looked around. Jun Huang was nowhere to be seen. She frowned. "Where's gentleman Feng?"
"The gentleman said that he didn't have anything better to do, so he went for a walk."
Wan'er nodded. "I'm going to find him. You don't have to follow me. Go prepare for the trip back to the palace." She left in a rush. The maid knew her well. She went off to make preparations without any arguments.
Wan'er walked out of the temple. There was a discreet path leading to an unknown destination. She took to the path the way she took to loving Jun Huang – headfirst and without hesitation.
Sun shone through the bamboo leaves, casting complicated patterns of shadow on the ground. Wan'er made her way into the bamboo forest in her yellow dress with her hair in a bun. The decorations on her hair shook as she walked, making a bright sound.
Jun Huang lowered her eyes and said to Nan Xun, "Princess Wan'er must have come to find me. You should go. It'll be bad if she sees you."
Nan Xun gave Jun Huang a meaningful look. There were words threatening to fall out of his mouth, but in the end he decided to not say anything. He walked deeper into the forest.
Just when Nan Xun was going to disappear from her sight, Jun Huang said, "They all call me heartless, Nan Xun, but you know why I act this way, don't you?"
Nan Xun turned to her with a wide smile. "There's no point dwelling on what other people say about you." With that, he vanished.
"What is the gentleman looking at?" Wan'er walked up to Jun Huang and followed her line of sight, but she saw nothing. She had thought that something or someone must have caught Jun Huang's attention. It seemed that she had been illuded by her imagination.
Jun Huang gave her a polite smile. "Nothing. I simply enjoy watching the peaceful bamboo forest too much, so I had some troubles tearing my eyes away."
Wan'er nodded and beamed, her eyes bright. "Let us return." She pointed at outside the forest.
"Of course," said Jun Huang.
When they went back to the coach, the servants had already been waiting for them. Wan'er invited Jun Huang to sit in the coach with her. Jun Huang didn't argue. She hadn't realized it when she was talking to Nan Xun, but her chest was hurting so badly it was almost unbearable.
Jun Huang leaned against the window, trying to suppress the pain. Wan'er kept her eyes on Jun Huang like she was appreciating a piece of rare art, but she didn't notice Jun Huang's discomfort.
When they arrived at the palace, it was already late at night. Jun Huang was about to walk away when Wan'er parted the curtains and called out for her.
Jun Huang looked back at her. "What else can I help you with, princess?"
Wan'er bit into her lip and watched Jun Huang in silence. Jun Huang waited patiently for her to speak.
Wan'er inhaled deeply. It took all her courage for her to get off the coach and stand in front of Jun Huang. She ignored the guards and looked up at her. "Wan'er has told gentleman Feng that I will wait for you to return after achieving your goal. I meant every word I said. I hope you won't forget about my promise."
Jun Huang hadn't expected that to be the reason why Wan'er stopped her. "It's late," she said with a resigned tone. "The princess should let Consort Zhen know you've returned safely. Otherwise your family is going to be worried. This gentleman will take my leave." Jun Huang turned around and leave without a glance back. She didn't want to get involved with Wan'er again unless it was necessary.
When she returned to the manor, a servant was waiting for her at the door. He said that Qi Chen wanted to see her at once. Jun Huang knew what Qi Chen wanted to talk to her about. She followed the servant in without a word.
Qi Chen had just returned from the palace as well. He was still in his court attire. His eyebrows were drawn close together in worry. She wondered what he was concerned about.
"Your Royal Highness?"
Qi Chen was broken out of his thoughts and he looked up. He cleared his throat and invited her to take a seat before pouring her a cup of tea. Jun Huang sat down across from him without hesitation.
Qi Chen put a cup of tea in front of Jun Huang before taking a sip from his own cup. "Brother Feng has spent the day with Wan'er," he said lightly. "What do you think of her? Is she not good enough for you?"
Jun Huang rushed to her feet and bowed at him. "This gentleman has neither fame nor success. I am not a good match for the princess, and I don't deserve Your Highness's favor. The princess should choose someone more suited to her. Among all the handsome young men in the imperial city, many will be a better husband than I ever can."
Also known as a Chinese temple block. It's a percussion instrument that monks used as they recite sutras. ↩