Chapter 81: Jealousy
Nan Xun shook his head. "You go ahead. We may have more visitors later. Someone has to keep watch. It'll be bad if we all leave and no one is here to greet our new guests."
Jun Huang nodded. Nan Xun had seen the house before, and it wasn't as if he would never be able to visit her again. Besides, no manor was that special at the end of the day. There wasn't much to look at. She let Nan Xun stay where he was and led Qi Yun towards the back of the manor.
Walking along the winding hallway, Qi Yun's attention was drawn by the palace lamps hanging from the ceiling. His eyes were filled with surprise and delight like he was seeing something he had never seen before. Jun Huang couldn't help but tease him, "I didn't expect the fourth prince to be so curious about the items in this gentleman's place. Has the emperor been treating you that badly?"
Qi Yun was caught off guard by her joke, his ears reddening in response. He coughed and suppressed his urge to look around like an overly curious kid. He thought back to the day he met Jun Huang for the first time.
Jun Huang wasn't stubborn or snobbish like the other princesses. She was more educated and disciplined. She often had a gentle smile on her face, showing her dimples. Her eyes were bright like the moonlight and they drew you in. She had not been so coldly proper like she was now.
It was as if there was an insurmountable wall separating the two of them, widening the distance between them, making him feel like a stranger at times.
Jun Huang lowered her eyes to look at the carefree koi fish in the lake, her expression aloof. Her broad sleeves fluttered in the winds. Her dark hair wasn't held up by a cap today, but instead covered her shoulders and fell to her chest. She brushed her hair back. Every move she made showed a commanding presence and an indescribable elegance.
Qi Yun watched her dumbly. The first time they met, she was a girl with her hair in a bun, wearing tassels on her hair and a silk dress. How could a different set of clothes transformed her so completely? She still had a smile on her face, but there was something mysterious about the smile, something she kept as a secret.
He kept his eyes on her long enough for Jun Huang to notice. She turned to him and raised an eyebrow. "What? Is there something on my face?"
"Huh? No." Qi Yun was yanked back to reality from his memories. He didn't dare to look at Jun Huang anymore for fear of letting slip what he had been thinking about. Jun Huang however was observant. She was good at reading people. Qi Yun's sudden avoidance did not slip past her.
Her innocence had been killed that night when her home country fell victim to rampant slaughter. Jun Huang had only been hiding the fact she had changed. She was afraid that she might become someone heartless if she didn't try to hold on to her past self. She was afraid she would turn into a different person.
As Nan Xun had said, someone other than Qi Yun and himself did come to visit. It was the Senior Grandmaster. He could be considered someone Jun Huang had handpicked herself. He used to be part of Qi Chen's circle. He had abandoned the dark side and thrown himself under Qi Yun's banner.
Jun Huang was surprised when the servant told her of his visit. She had only invited Nan Xun and Qi Yun. She didn't tell anyone else. The uninvited guest made alarm bells go off in her head.
When Jun Huang and Qi Yun returned to the front room, the Senior Grandmaster was talking to Nan Xun. Nan Xun was the first to spot her when she approached. He stopped talking and turned to Jun Huang fully. The Senior Grandmaster followed suit and bowed when he saw that Qi Yun was with her. He said to Jun Huang, "This gentleman happened to hear about the gentleman's housewarming celebration. I came to offer my wishes. This is a little something I've prepared for you. It's nothing to write home about. I hope the gentleman won't consider it beneath you."
"You are too humble, sir," Jun Huang said with a fake smile, spouting pleasantries bureaucrats tended to exchange with one another. "It's a great honor for this gentleman that you came. This humble abode has brightened up because of your presence."
A maid took the gift from the Senior Grandmaster and opened the box. It was a luminous pearl from the South Sea. Jun Huang widened her eyes. It was something rarely seen in Northern Qi. It was difficult to find in general. The Senior Grandmaster was an official with integrity. Jun Huang wondered how he got hold of it, and why he would give it to her.
As if reading Jun Huang's mind, the Senior Grandmaster cupped his hands and explained, "This is a gift from the emperor. This gentleman has no use for one at home. If I keep it to myself, it will only gather dust in a hidden corner. Gentleman Feng is a man with good taste. I decided to bring it to you. If not for the gentleman's guidance, pointing me to the right direction, I would still be helping a villainous man abusing the people. I will never forget about my debt to the gentleman. I hope you will accept my humble gift."
Jun Huang was rendered speechless. She turned to Qi Yun. What does the Senior Grandmaster mean by this? He shouldn't be praising someone else in the presence of his master!
Jun Huang's mouth twitched. "You are too generous. The fourth prince has a great destiny ahead of him. He is bound to be a leader well loved by the people. As long as the Senior Grandmaster stays loyal to him, you will go down in history as a respected official with a kind heart."
They exchanged some small talk before the maid told them that the food was ready. It was past noon. Jun Huang was going to invite the Senior Grandmaster to stay for the meal, but he had important matters to attend to and had to leave early.
She let out a relieved sigh once she saw him off. She couldn't deal with such passionate compliments. When she was about to go inside, someone from Prince Chen Manor arrived at the gate.
Nan Xun and Qi Yun were both here. She couldn't let Qi Chen's people see them. Therefore, she had a servant tell the messenger that she couldn't see anyone for the time being and send him away.
The servant came back with a delicate box. "This is from the prince, gentleman Feng. It's to celebrate your move."
Jun Huang took the box and opened it. Inside was a jade color tea set. She was a tea fanatic. Qi Chen was obviously catering to her interests.
She picked up one of the teacups and felt it with a hand. Her face was devoid of any obvious emotions. For some reason, Qi Yun was suddenly unhappy at the sight. He took out a box and handed it to Jun Huang, clearing his throat. "Take a look."
Jun Huang looked at the box, then at Qi Yun's hopeful look. She put down the teacup and opened the box. Inside was a dark blue jade scepter. She was pleasantly surprised. Normally jade scepters came in the color of emerald. Dark blue ones were very rare.
Qi Yun was passionate in literature and art, but also in collecting antiques. Jun Huang didn't expect him to be so generous. She held onto the jade scepter, wondering what she should say to show her gratitude.
Seeing her reaction, Nan Xun grew a little upset. With a clap of his hand, a servant brought something inside the room. It was a lamp that looked awfully familiar to Jun Huang. She felt the urge to laugh when she got a good look.
"What do you think?" Nan Xun asked.
Jun Huang walked towards the lamp and sighed. "I didn't expect Your Highness to buy it. I may not have been clear enough that day. The lamp was a counterfeit. It isn't worth much. You've been ripped off."
Nan Xun was a little embarrassed. Jun Huang tried to comfort him. "This gentleman does however need a lamp in the room though. It'll be of use."
The food was ready. Qi Yun didn't say much at the beginning. After a few drinks, he said in a jealous tone, "Last night brother Nan told me that you were moving in today. He told me that this is a house he found for you. Why didn't you come to me when you had trouble finding a good place to live?"
Jun Huang blinked. She didn't think this was a big deal. She turned to Nan Xun, who echoed her confused look.
Qi Yun wasn't finished with his rant. "Brother Nan spent most of his time at the border station. He only returned to the imperial city to rest his body and soul because there are no battles to fight for now. There are many things he doesn't know about in the city. I stay in the palace most of the time, but I know the city. If you just need to find a good place to live, I can help you as much as brother Nan."
In his drunken state, Qi Yun spoke like a little child. Jun Huang didn't know what to say. She could tell Qi Yun was jealous.
"When I came here I could see that these servants are his people as well. I suddenly realized that in your mind, brother Nan must be more competent than I am."
His words were incoherent. She had no clue what she should say in response. She was never good at dealing with interpersonal matters like this. Her usual silver tongue was useless at this moment. She looked at Qi Yun quietly. A thousand words were stuck in her throat in a lump.
Qi Yun was a friend she had known since childhood, and he was someone who was willing to help her when she was in trouble. How could she possibly hurt his feelings?
Nan Xun stepped in to save her from this dilemma she found herself in. He patted Qi Yun on the shoulder. "She was going to ask for your help, but as you've said, you normally stay in the palace. It's not easy for her to meet up with you. Besides, Qi Chen is always watching her, which makes asking you for help even harder. That's why she doesn't go to you for trivial matters like this."
Qi Yun cocked his head. Nan Xun was right. He would stay in the palace until he reached twenty. It was easy for him to leave the palace, but difficult for Jun Huang, who held no official title, to enter the palace. How did he forget about this?
He was a little embarrassed. He had used alcohol as an excuse to say what he normally couldn’t say. Nan Xun's words had been a wakeup call. He was completely sober now. He couldn't do anything but stare at the rippling wine in his cup.
Jun Huang didn't expect Nan Xun, who normally solved problems through physical prowess, to offer such good arguments. She glanced at Nan Xun. Nan Xun smiled at her in response before taking a sip of his wine. Nu'er hong1 produced in Northern Qi was divine. It was harsh to the tongue, but had a wonderful aftertaste. Just like a woman's love that had persisted for more than a decade.
He usually drank strong liquor at the border station. It gave you the courage you lacked, but it also was so harsh that your throat felt burned. Nu'er hong was different. After the initial harsh taste came lingering tenderness. It was like a woman's soft eyes and flushed cheeks with no makeup on.
"What are you thinking about?" Qi Yun asked when he noticed that Jun Huang had been staring into the distance without a word.
Jun Huang woke up from her trance, cursing herself for being absent-minded lately. She smiled and shook her head at Qi Yun.
"I'm fine," she said, her lips curved. "I just remembered that you're about to turn twenty and move into your own manor. I will be sure to attend the celebration." Her eyes were determined, and her voice reassuring. A smile found its way to Qi Yun's lips.
He knew that Jun Huang never liked crowds. He was the emperor's son. Many people would be invited to celebrate his independence. His friends with whom he talked with about poetry and songs would be present as well. There would be a lot of guests. That was why he had never mustered the courage to invite Jun Huang. It was a surprise that Jun Huang brought it up herself.
"Do you mean it?" he asked carefully.
A variety of yellow wine that parents usually buried when their daughter was born and dug up for her wedding banquet. ↩