Chapter 86: Male Phoenix seeking Female Phoenix
The moment Jun Huang walked out, everyone in the room shifted their focus to her. Her face was barely visible under the veil, but her uncovered eyes were lively and brilliant. The dangling ornament on her head chimed as she moved, and her silk dress added a touch of otherworldly beauty to her.
Jun Huang was nervous, but she knew she had to remain calm. She took a deep breath and slowly made her way to the stage on the first floor. On the stage was a chair and a table for the zither. She gingerly placed the phoenix tail zither on the table before looking over at the crowds surrounding the stage.
Her eyes alone were enough to enchant the audience. They found themselves unable to look away from her. Jun Huang's expression remained aloof, as if all she beheld were but fleeting clouds. Silk curtains fluttered in the winds as red petals fell from above her. The room was filled with the fragrance of flowers.
Jun Huang lowered her eyes and tested the strings before she started playing a song. The room was silent save for the performance, and Jun Huang was the sole focus of everyone present.
The clear sound made by the zither was bright like a spring, refreshing to the ears. No one could resist the charm. The song Feng seeking Huang1 was an extraordinary piece of music. Some audience started tearing up and their makeup was smeared.
Jun Huang's head was low, her hair covering the side of her face. When wind blew, her hair was brought into the air and the face veil wavered, but no one was able to get a good look at her face. Her performance was intoxicating. The audience was entranced.
The music stopped. Someone started clapping first. Then, as if woken up from a dream, the other members of the audience followed suit. The clapping was so loud it reached the sky. Jun Huang stood up to bow at the crowd before she got off stage with the zither. Before she could get far, however, a young man who looked to be from a rich family blocked her way.
Jun Huang met his gaze with steely eyes. The man paused before taking out a piece of fine white jade. He handed it to Jun Huang. "Are you willing to leave with this gentleman? Are you willing to leave this chaotic place packed with greedy men? Would you play the zither for me alone?"
He was but a naive man who believed he could keep someone by his side with money.
Jun Huang bowed at him with grace and said, "The song this woman played is Feng seeking Huang, not Feng holding Huang Captive2. If there's nothing else you want with me, this woman will take her leave." She walked away and went upstairs.
Qi Chen and Qi Yun had witnessed everything from the hallway on the second floor. Qi Chen sighed inwardly. If there was one unparalleled beauty in the world, it would be this woman. Her eyes alone were enough to leave an impression on him.
Jun Huang's eyes darted up briefly and she saw that Qi Chen was staring at her. She smiled. Her eyes were even more brilliant in the candlelight.
Her smile lights up the whole room, Qi Chen thought. There are tens of thousands of beautiful women in the imperial city, but no one is as alluring as this pair of eyes. Jun Huang's purple dress danced in the wind. She was like a fairy who accidentally fell to the mortal world. It was time for her to return to the heavens. She felt no love for the mortals, but no mortals could escape her pull.
Qi Chen felt compelled to stop her from leaving. Only when he was about to utter the first word did he wake up from the dream he had weaved for himself. He broke out into cold sweat. He had almost acted out of character! As a royal prince, he had been taught to control his body and mind, to not covet anything that didn't belong to him.
The title of the crown prince hadn't been his, though, and he had made it his.
Qi Chen quirked up his lips and shook his head. He was a man with great ambitions. How could he let himself be influenced by women? No woman was worth giving up his pursuit for.
Qi Yun had seen Jun Huang as well. He was able to recognize her immediately since he had seen her in women's clothes before. He too, however, was transfixed by her beautiful eyes.
His gaze was fixed on Jun Huang. She had given Qi Chen a smile while she gave him nothing. Qi Yun couldn't help feeling jealous.
Jun Huang was stopped by the procuress of the brothel Autumn House on the stairs. The procuress didn't want to offend Jun Huang since the leading courtesans were chosen by the public. She gave her a servile smile. "Didn't you say that you were going to perform two songs?"
Jun Huang looked up at her and coughed. "This woman has not been feeling well. I hope mama3 and the gentlemen here can forgive me."
People came to the brothel to care for the women. They weren't going to push Jun Huang. They told her to rest and not overtax herself. The procuress was even more worried. The leading courtesan was Autumn House's golden goose that laid golden eggs. Nothing could happen to her. The procuress rushed to get a doctor, but Jun Huang stopped her.
"This woman is simply tired because of a lack of sleep last night," said Jun Huang. "I'll be fine after some rest."
The procuress let out a sigh and patted herself on the chest. "Good. Go rest then."
Jun Huang bowed at her before continuing going upstairs. She breathed out slowly. She was lucky that no one suspected her identity.
While Jun Huang was performing onstage, Nan Xun took the time to tidy up the room. He threw the woman on the bed a glance. It was a shame that she ended up in a place like this. He had heard that the leading courtesan of Autumn House worked hard to protect her dignity, though. She was a woman of the night who had not given up her pride. There were as many people who hated her as those who loved her.
Jun Huang returned when Nan Xun was picking up the candle holder that they had toppled earlier. She smiled at Nan Xun and ripped off the face veil before taking a deep breath. "Finally. Crisis averted."
"Get changed and we'll leave. It's not a place we should stay for long."
Jun Huang nodded. She took off the dress behind the screen and put on her silk robe. She then tied her hair up with a hairband and put her waistband straight.
She had changed into men's clothes while she still had makeup on. Nan Xun felt an indescribable feeling growing in his heart. He didn't know what it was exactly.
Without sparing a glance at Nan Xun, Jun Huang took a handkerchief and wetted it to wipe away the makeup on her face. She was unsuccessful though, which made sense. Of course Autumn House wouldn't use cheap rouge that came off easily. She sighed and dropped the handkerchief into the barrel of water.
"It seems that I can't wipe it off for the time being," said Jun Huang. "I told the procuress that I wasn't feeling well. She would come to check soon. We must leave now."
Nan Xun took a good look at Jun Huang. It was fortunate it wasn't that unusual for men to have makeup on in Northern Qi. Every once in a while, one could see such men in public. In addition, Jun Huang's makeup wasn't that heavy. With her hair tied up and her dressing up as a man, she wouldn't stand out that much.
They looked around. There were a lot of people, but most were focusing on elsewhere. They immediately spotted Qi Chen and Qi Yun when they left the room. Qi Yun noticed them as well. To prevent them from being seen by Qi Chen, Qi Yun started a conversation with Qi Chen. However, he wasn't that good at socializing. He could talk a mile an hour about poetry, but when he was nervous, he became incoherent. Qi Chen couldn't grasp the point he was trying to make.
Qi Chen was just about to turn around when Qi Yun grabbed him. "Second brother, can you tell me what love is?" he said after taking a deep breath.
Qi Chen's eyes darted to Qi Yun. He laughed lightly. "I almost forgot you're turning twenty in half a year. Why do you ask? Is there someone special in your heart? Tell second brother. I'll keep an eye out for you. Once you turn twenty, I can arrange a marriage for you."
Qi Yun was only trying to keep Qi Chen occupied. He didn't really mean what he said. Embarrassed, he waved a hand and said that he was only curious. "I'm not being serious. I'm just wondering because second brother has two beautiful women accompanying you."
Qi Chen wasn't willing to talk about his love life. Neither Wei Lanying nor Nan Guyue was someone he was truly in love with. He married them because it was the option that made sense at the time. Qi Yun wasn't someone who had to get to the bottom of everything. He didn't push Qi Chen into giving him an answer. They drank their wine in bemusement.
Jun Huang and Nan Xun made their way to the entrance. There were too many people here. She winced when someone bumped into her. Nan Xun hurriedly shielded her with an arm. Qi Chen and Qi Yun's attention was drawn by the comotion. They both noticed Nan Xun's stoic form immediately.
Nan Xun was not an ordinary man. He stood out in the crowd like a crane among a herd of chickens. It was difficult not to see him.
Qi Chen didn't have a good look on the person in Nan Xun's arms. He chuckled with a cup in his hand. "I didn't expect Nan Xun to be someone who would come to a brothel for drinks. I wonder who he has taken with him tonight."
"Must be a beautiful woman," Qi Yun said with an awkward smile. He had no choice but to gossip behind Nan Xun's back in order to protect Jun Huang. "Brother Nan has been at the border for years. He's finally returned to the imperial city. It's natural for him to indulge himself."
Qi Chen chuckled without a word. They shared a few more drinks until it was getting late. Qi Chen got to his feet. "It's too late for you to return to the palace. Why don't you come back to my manor with me? You can go back to the palace tomorrow morning. I'm sure Royal Father won't blame you for that."
"Much obliged," Qi Yun said with cupped hands. He followed Qi Chen out of the brothel.
He let out a sigh of relief. Jun Huang and Nan Xun were nowhere to be seen. He didn't find out the reasons for Qi Chen's unusual behavior today. Perhaps he would find some clues back at Prince Chen Manor.
Jun Huang and Nan Xun were both sweating when they finally escaped the brothel. It was a lot less crowded outside.
The moon was still bright and the stars had almost all disappeared from the sky. Many people still walked the street. There was an old man selling candied hawthorn sticks not far from them. He was surrounded by a group of children. They laughed and played with one another without a care in the world.
Jun Huang watched them silently. She was reminded of her own little brother. When they were little, Jun Hao loved following her around. Even when he tripped and fell, he would pick himself up and continue to follow her. Sometimes Jun Huang would get annoyed, and Jun Hao would sit on the ground hugging his knee with a pout. Every time Jun Huang waved at him, he would give her a brilliant smile.
How is he? What has he been doing?
Feng means the male phoenix while Huang is the female ones. The song was allegedly written in the Han dynasty. It was said that the impoverished artist played this song to seduce a wealthy man's daughter, and they eloped afterwards. ↩ The two titles sounded identical in Chinese. The second characters of the two titles were different characters with the same pronunciation. ↩ At that time, sex workers in brothels often called their procuress mama, which means mom. Sometimes they did have a somewhat mother and daughter relationship. Some sex workers were basically raised by the procuress. ↩