Chapter 78: War takes no Prisoners
"What is the gentleman looking for?" The owner of the first shop on the street came up to Nan Xun and Jun Huang with a servile smile.
"Nothing in particular," said Nan Xun, his tone cool.
"Oh? The gentlemen should come in and take a look at my wares. I guarantee you that you'll find something you like. Everyone knows that among all the shops on this antique street, mine is the most well stocked. I sell items the other don't sell, and anything you can find in their shops, you can find here as well."
Nan Xun turned to Jun Huang in question. Jun Huang nodded. She didn't want to waste too much time trying to pick a shop. The owner was very confident. She might be able to get everything she needed for the house. They walked in side by side.
The shop was filled with a great variety of different items. The first thing that caught Jun Huang's eyes was a lamp. It was finely crafted and would make for a good bedside lamp.
The shopkeeper was observant. He could tell from her lingering gaze that she was interested. He walked up to her and smiled. "The gentleman has a pair of keen eyes. This lamp is said to be from the destroyed palace of Western Que. I can assure you that it's the real deal."
Nan Xun was looking at other items on the other side of the room. He turned around when he heard the words "Western Que". The shopkeeper was giving Jun Huang his best sales pitch and didn't notice the changes in her expression. He drone on and on about how much Princess Jun Huang of Western Que loved this lamp.
Nan Xun was about to step in when Jun Huang opened her mouth. "The shopkeeper hasn't been honest with me." She curved her lips and lowered her eyes. The dark look on her face was replaced by a gentle smile – or her best imitation of a gentle smile. "If someone does buy the lamp, they'll be paying much more than this is worth. Will you compensate them? Do you believe in compensating your customer tenfold?"
The shopkeeper gaped at her, stuttering. He couldn't form a complete sentence, and Jun Huang didn't give him the chance to try again. She walked out in big strides.
Nan Xun gave the lamp a final look before catching up to her. The sun was already setting, and the lamps on the street were lit one by one.
As they walked, Nan Xun looked at Jun Huang's stoic expression and debated over if he should say something. In the end, he asked, "Why didn't you buy the lamp if you like it?"
Jun Huang snorted like he had said something ridiculous. She paused and turned to Nan Xun, her eyes reflecting the lamplight behind him, giving her gaze a substantial weight.
"This gentleman has said that the lamp isn't from Western Que," said Jun Huang. "The shopkeeper must have heard someone say that there was a lamp precious to Jun Huang. He took a regular lamp and called it her treasure."
Jun Huang had uttered the words at a rushed pace. In addition, they were surrounded by people, and the vendors were crying out to catch people's attention. Despite his mastery in martial arts, Nan Xun didn't catch every word. He frowned, unwilling to admit that he hadn't heard what she just said.
Jun Huang turned around and looked up at the bright moon in the sky. "I promised to buy Your Highness dinner," she said with a smirk. "I heard that the street food here is delicious. If Your Highness is willing to try, please come with this gentleman." She made her way to another street without waiting for Nan Xun. This time, Nan Xun did hear her. He caught up to her, shaking his head in resignation.
The food stands street was packed with young people in the imperial city. Some were sons of officials. Others were daughters from rich families sneaking out to have some fun after a day in the boudoir learning needlework. They roamed the street tasting different food with their page boys and maids in tow.
The lamp had filled Jun Huang's head with thoughts about her home country. She didn't feel like eating anything despite the great variety of street food presented before her. If she ran into delicacies from Western Que, she wasn't sure if she could stop herself from breaking down right away.
Nan Xun followed her around without a word. Jun Huang's usually straight back seemed almost brittle right now. The violet silk robe accentuated her elegance, but it didn't cover her sorrow.
They walked in silence for a good while before Jun Huang suddenly remembered Nan Xun's existence. She turned to look at him and twisted her lips into a tired smile. "Has Your Highness wandered the city at night before? Have you had food like this? If there's anything you want to try, just go ahead and tell me."
Watching Jun Huang's distant eyes, Nan Xun knew he must not mention anything related to Western Que. The palace lamp they had just seen was also a taboo.
The lamps behind her were bright. Jun Huang seemed so slim and frail at this moment, it was as if a gale of wind would send her flying. Nan Xun felt the urge to break her out of the cage she'd built for herself to maintain her pride. He took a breath before approaching her with a smile. He took her wrist and pulled her into the crowd.
Jun Huang didn't expect that. She was a little startled, but she didn't break out of his hold. Instead, she followed him to a stand selling dishes made from wild animals.
"Are there still seats?" Nan Xun asked at the top of his lungs. The busy owner turned around from the stove and glanced at Nan Xun. He pointed at the seats at the edge of the stand. Nan Xun could see there was another man making his way to the empty seats. His eyes narrowed, he let go of Jun Huang's arm and rushed to the stools in a flash.
The man didn't quite realize what had just happened. Jun Huang walked up to Nan Xun and gave the man an apologetic smile before taking a seat. Nan Xun smirked a little.
Soon, a server came to their table and exchanged some words with Nan Xun. Nan Xun made the order without much hesitation. Jun Huang was preoccupied. Her appetite wasn't good and she had to stop eating after a few bites. Nan Xun understood Jun Huang's pain. He put down his chopsticks as well.
"Hm? Don't you like the food?" Jun Huang asked curiously when she noticed that Nan Xun had stopped as well. The dishes she had tasted were pretty good.
Nan Xun shook his head and looked up at the bright moon. A sense of melancholy suddenly filled his heart. He let out a wistful laugh and thought back to his past. "Do you want to hear about my time at the border station?"
Jun Huang nodded.
"The first time I went there with my soldiers, I couldn't believe how barren the town was. There was nothing but yellow sand filling the air and buildings that might collapse at any second. Not even weeds could survive there. The residents wore tattered clothes and their faces were always covered in dust. Children too suffered the same fate. It was polar opposite to the imperial city, where people wear sachet and women put on makeup. At the border station, people wore nothing but dust on their faces."
"What they lack the most is water. They dare not waste even a drop of it, let alone using it to clean themselves. It's funny, when I first got there, I fumed in anger because of the living conditions. I am somewhat of a prince living a luxurious life in the imperial city, but at the border? No one cares if you are a prince. The water is vital to their survival. It's not for anyone to waste."
His heart seemed to have traveled to the border station. He looked so lost sitting at this bustling food stand. Jun Huang had long forgotten about her own concerns. She looked at Nan Xun with a heavy heart.
"You are a prince," Jun Huang said after a moment of silence. "Why would the local officials be so harsh to you? Besides, it's said that the local officials are the ones who are most corrupt. They should be welcoming you to their personal fortunes in order to get on your good side."
Nan Xun chuckled and shook his head. "No, you're wrong. Over the past few years, I have come to realize that the officials at the border stations are the least corrupt ones. They don't exploit the people, not at all. Quite the contrary, they spend all their earnings on the people. Think about it, how do the local residents get water in a barren land covered in sand? Where does the water come from? Those officials pay out of their pockets to have water transported to the town from oases more than twenty miles away."
Jun Huang fell silent. She didn't know what to say. Instead, she waited for Nan Xun to continue.
"Life there is difficult. Sometimes we didn't even have proper food. I was there during wartime. Those officials were assisting generals sent by the imperial court in defending the border from outside enemies. They didn't have time to take care of me. I was already a general at the time, but I was young. The more experienced generals were unwilling to take me to the battlefield…" Nan Xun was lost in his memories. His expression seemed softer than usual, but his words painted a macabre picture.
Jun Huang had witnessed deaths and destruction. She knew what was left unsaid. She knew how those barbarians were. Soldiers of Northern Qi couldn't have a proper meal; the barbarians couldn't, either. They ate human flesh raw in order to appease their hunger.
They sat there for a long time without a word. When they paid for the food and left, the crowd had dispersed from the street.
In the river next to them, there were festive lanterns floating on the surface. The wind was a little strong; hence the candles in the lanterns had been put out, leaving only the lotus bases floating on the water. Another strong wind would have toppled the bases and sunk them to the bottom of the river.
Watching the lanterns, Jun Huang put aside her faint sense of loss. "It's late. We should part ways here."
Nan Xun nodded. The stars in the sky had become hidden behind the clouds. Only the moon still shone in the sky. Silver light covered the green stone path with a glow. Nan Xun turned around first, and Jun Huang followed suit. They went in opposite directions.
Suddenly, Nan Xun caught a glimpse of the reflection of moonlight coming from a sword. He also heard a succession of sounds of weapons being unsheathed. He stopped in his track, his heart suddenly seized by worries.
Not long after Jun Huang parted ways with Nan Xun, she heard people coming up from behind her. The men tried to be sneaky, but Jun Huang could hear the sound of feet stepping on fallen leaves.
Two men dressed in black appeared before her, blocking her way. She paused and turned her head sideway. There were more men behind her. They had their broadswords raised.
The men were all dressed in black, and they were masked, showing only their eyes. They were like ghosts hidden in the dark – or snakes and scorpions that struck when you least expected it.
Jun Huang looked at them with cold eyes and no trace of fear on her face, but her palms were sweating hidden under her broad sleeves. She was but a regular woman. How could she not be scared in face of danger like this? She couldn't, however, let anyone see her fear.
Some people appeared more calm and collected the more scared they were.
She gave the men a good look. They readied their weapons. The next second, a man slashed at Jun Huang with his sword. Jun Huang barely dodged the attack. The sword hit the wall next to her, sending sparks into the air, illuminating the night.