Chapter 77: Lovelier than a Flower
"What – what are you doing here?" Jun Huang stuttered, her face flushed. "Don't you know what boundaries are?"
Nan Xun raised an eyebrow at her. "Oh? What boundaries?"
Nan Xun's infuriating smile only stoked the frustration in her heart. "You know I'm a woman, and yet you've snuck into my room again and again…"
Nan Xun was even more amused, but he didn't want to go overboard with his teasing. Jun Huang realized that she had been acting like a little girl and had lost her composure. Gradually, the blush on her face faded. She was again her usual aloof self.
She wondered if this was how women were when they were in love.
She is still young, Nan Xun thought. Why does she appear to be so mature? She smiles even less when she is dressed in men's clothes, and her demeanor loses all its femininity.
They were both lost in thought. After the time to finish a cup of tea, Nan Xun cleared his throat and reverted back to his usual cold attitude. "I heard that you've been trying to find a place to live. With your unique taste, it must be difficult for you to find a house you're satisfied with in this imperial city. I'm worried that you might have a bad impression of the city because nothing has caught your fancy. I happen to know a house that you might like. That's why I came. I'll take you there."
Jun Huang nodded. "Then I'll be in your care."
"Good. I'll wait for you outside. You should leave through the front gate. Or Qi Chen may get suspicious." With that, he turned to leave without hesitation.
Jun Huang watched him go. The light-hearted teasing and easy smile seemed unreal all of a sudden. She tried to smile, but she couldn't quite do it. She suddenly felt an emptiness in her heart. It was not a pleasant feeling.
She picked up the cup of tea on the table and took a sip. It was so bitter it made her frown. The tea had been cooling there for a while. There was no sweetness in its aftertaste. She felt the great sense of disappointment one felt when reality fell short of one's expectations.
She soon sorted through her messy thoughts. She snorted. What had happened to her? She was a woman driven solely by revenge. She could never walk the same path with Nan Xun. Why would she have such unnecessary thoughts? If Nan Xun had known, he would have teased her for it.
She had a change of clothes before leaving the room. A maid stationed at the side building bowed at her and asked where she was going. Jun Huang knew she was an informant of Qi Chen's. She gave the maid a polite smile and said she was going to check out a house. The maid didn't say anything in response. She waited until Jun Huang had left before reporting back to Qi Chen.
Outside Prince Chen Manor, Jun Huang pretended to wander around aimlessly before she went up to Nan Xun, who had been waiting for some time. They exchanged a smile.
"What took you so long?" he asked, moving to her side.
"I had a change of clothes," Jun Huang said openly. "I have kept Your Highness waiting." Her expression was distant. She didn't look sorry in the slightest.
Nan Xun shook his head in resignation and walked shoulder to shoulder with Jun Huang towards the house he had mentioned. They watched the never-ending stream of people as they walked.
Jun Huang never liked crowds. Even with Nan Xun at her side, she couldn't help but frown when she bumped shoulders with pedestrians. She could never get used to the feeling.
She used to live in the palace surrounded by servants, Nan Xun mused. It's only natural that she would dislike crowds. In order to make her feel better, Nan Xun – the well-respected prince extraordinaire of Northern Qi – acted like her personal bodyguard and shielded her from the traffic.
When they finally made their way off the main street, both their caps were knocked awry. Jun Huang smoothed the wrinkles on her robe and looked up at Nan Xun. He looked even more like a mess than she did. She covered up a smile and coughed before looking away.
After making themselves presentable, Nan Xun led Jun Huang into a narrow street and arrived at an area that was relatively tranquil, but not completely devoid of human activities.
Appreciation flashed through Jun Huang's eyes. The compound was surrounded by pristine white walls decorated with green tiles. The dark red gate was shut, but she could see branches sneaking out from behind the wall. Her eyes were drawn.
A hunchbacked old man came up to them with a title deed in his hand. He gave them a friendly smile. "Your Highness has finally arrived. This peasant has been waiting for you."
Nan Xun gestured at the old man. "He's the broker in charge of selling the house. A good and honest man."
Jun Huang greeted him with a small smile. The old man waved a hand in the air and grinned. "Your Highness is too kind. Come, let's not stand idly here. I'll give you a tour inside." He entered the house. Jun Huang and Nan Xun followed him in.
The view inside surprised her. There was a front room for welcoming guest, and a back building for residence. The back building was split into the south wing, east wing, and west wing, connected by winding hallways. At the center was a peaceful garden surrounded by fake mountains.
The south wing was on the opposite side of the front room. There was a little garden next to it, where flowers could be planted. There was even a pond where she could keep koi fish. At the center was a pavilion. It was perfect for relaxing at a summer night.
The east wing and the west wing were closer in distance. The bigger garden sat between them. She could cross the garden to get to the other wing in addition to going through the hallway. The three wings were all composed of one main bedroom and two smaller rooms for servants.
The hallway was even more delicately designed. The pillars were etched with complicated patterns of lifelike flowers. It must have been the work of a master. The hallway itself was dark red, which contrasted well with the green leaves in the garden. There were also some octagonal lamps hanging from the ceiling. The screens of the lamps were decorated with paintings featuring beautiful women. It would be a wonderful sight when the lamps were lit.
They walked to the west wing and pushed open the decorative door. What caught Jun Huang's eyes first was a sandalwood table with a tea set on top of it. The old man said the tea set was a gift for the buyer of the house. Near the window were two soft divans, where people could sit and talk about poetry or play chess. Further inside was a beaded curtain that dropped down to the floor. It swung gently in the wind without getting tangled. Behind the curtain was an impressive screen, on which lifelike animals and plants were painted. She could vaguely see what beauty awaited her behind the screen.
Further inside was a quaint bed, covered by silk curtains hanging from the top of the bed frame. Next to the bed was a desk for makeup with a copper mirror on top of it. Near the window lay a shelf for books and the like.
"Is the gentleman satisfied with the place?" the old man asked.
Jun Huang broke out of her trance and nodded with a smile. "This is good. The last owner must have been a man with great taste."
The old man nodded. "Indeed he is."
"If you like it, you should take it," said Nan Xun. "It's not far from Prince Chen Manor. Qi Chen will be less worried if you live here. This is also an area with a decent amount of traffic. It'll be safer for you. You're going to live on your own after all."
Jun Huang nodded after a short pause. "It's decided then," she said to the old man, smiling.
"Alright! Let's sign the deed outside." The old man walked out in unhurried steps. Jun Huang and Nan Xun shared a look before following him. The old man put the deed on the table.
Jun Huang trusted Nan Xun to introduce her only credible people, but one could never be too careful. She picked up the document and read it through. She frowned when she saw the price.
"What's wrong?" Nan Xun asked.
Jun Huang shook her head and cleared her throat. Her eyes were glued to the number: two thousand five hundred and thirty-six silver. Noticing the focus of her gaze, Nan Xun chuckled and whispered into her ear, "If you don't have enough silver, consider this house my gift to you."
Jun Huang's head snapped up. "No, that won't do! This gentleman does like this place quite a lot, even though I don't have sufficient fund for the time being. If Your Highness is willing, may I ask you to lend me some money? I'll be sure to pay you back."
"Of course." Nan Xun knew what kind of a person Jun Huang was. If he insisted on giving the house to her, she would find somewhere else to live. It was better to let her buy this place first. Whether he would accept her money back was another issue. They would have that argument at a later time.
Jun Huang relaxed a little. She put her handprint on the paper and took out the two thousand silver notes Qi Chen had given her. Nan Xun chipped in for the rest.
Satisfied, the old man handed the deed to Jun Huang and took his leave.
Afterwards, Jun Huang strolled into the garden with a light heart. The vibrant color relaxed her. There was nothing she wanted more than to move out of Prince Chen Manor right this moment and moved into her new house.
Nan Xun leaned against the door frame, watching Jun Huang walk among flowers and greenery. His eyes softened along with his heart. His usual stoic look gave way to a smile as tender as water.
The instance Jun Huang turned back to him, he schooled his expression into one of frosty indifference. It was a chilling look.
"What else do you need?" Nan Xun asked as he walked up to her. "It's early still. We can go make the purchase."
Jun Huang nodded. "There are many items I have to buy. Earlier, on our way here, I've spotted stores selling what I need. If Your Highness has nothing else to attend to, this gentleman would like to ask you to come with me. I'll buy you dinner afterwards."
Nan Xun nodded and went for the front gate. Jun Huang caught up to him after taking a deep breath.
The moment they stepped out onto the street, young women nearby were immediately drawn to them. Some even covered their mouth with a blush.
Jun Huang was dressed in a violet silk robe with an embroidered satchel on her waist. Her hair was held up neatly by a jade cap. She looked like the famous Pan An with her red lips and bright smile1.
Nan Xun, on the other hand, wore a white robe with dark patterns. There was a green jade pendant on his waist decorated with a red tassel. They both looked like young men from rich families who were used to the adoration of people around them.
Both of them, however, couldn't care less about the attention they were getting. They went straight to their destination without sparing a glance for the onlookers.
The street they went to was known as the antique street. As its name suggested, the street was lined with stores selling antiques, both authentic ones and counterfeit ones. Vendors yelled at the top of their lungs trying to attract customers. The ground was paved with broken ceramic pieces, which were rumored to be of great value.
According to the rumor, the last emperor of the previous dynasty was a wasteful man who splurged gold like it were soil. He paved the road with the finest chinas that once enjoyed great fame. Right after he did so, however, his country was destroyed.
No one knew if the story was true. It could be nothing but a publicity stunt.
The vendors' eyes lit up when they saw Jun Huang and Nan Xun. Some talked amongst themselves quietly. From the clothes the two of them wore, the vendors were convinced that they were from rich families. If the vendors were able to sell Jun Huang and Nan Xun a few chinas or jades, they wouldn't have to worry about earning a living for at least half a year.
A poet in the Western Jin dynasty famous for his good looks. ↩