Chapter 89: Mind Game
Jun Huang surveyed her surroundings. There wasn't anyone around. "I'll meet up with you tomorrow. You should go. Don't let anyone see you." She put on her hood and left.
Rou'er returned to Prince Chen Manor shortly. It was fortunate that Qi Chen did not really care for her. Sometimes he did show sympathy to her, but it was always fleeting. He had given her enough freedom that she was able to oversee the men Qi Yun had planted in the manor.
She thought back to her meeting with Qi Yun earlier in the evening. She cared about Qi Yun, while he looked at her like she meant nothing to him. She knew it was for the best, but she couldn't help feeling dejected.
The next day, Jun Huang woke up at the crack of dawn. She spent the time to put on makeup that made her look more ordinary. She was going to enter the palace with Rou'er today. She had to make sure no one would notice her. Besides, she wasn't sure if Rou'er would be followed by only Qi Yun's people, or if there would be Qi Chen's spies as well. She could never be too careful.
Rou'er recognized Jun Huang at the first glance. It wasn't that Jun Huang's disguise was ineffective, but the air of aloofness around her was simply too distinctive. It was easy to spot as long as you knew what to look for.
Of course, Jun Huang's attitude did soften sometimes, but it wasn't a common occurrence.
Rou'er arranged for Jun Huang to stay at her side before getting into a sedan chair and leaving for the palace. It had rained the entire night. The bluestone road was covered in puddles. The chair lifters therefore slowed down by a good measure. Rou'er was worried that Jun Huang might have been in a rush, but Jun Huang's expression never changed. The rain didn't seem to have affected her.
Rou'er wondered what would it take for someone both brave and clever like Jun Huang to lose her calm. Would the fate of the world be able to cause a ripple in her eyes? Or would it be something else? Or someone?
Once they reached the palace, they were stopped by the general guarding the gate for a routine checkup. Rou'er had been to the palace many times. He knew who she was. What was more, Rou'er possessed the token awarded by the emperor. The general didn't dare to delay her for too long. He gave her an apologetic smile.
"Is the lady visiting on your own today?" the general asked.
Rou'er threw a discreet glance at Jun Huang and returned the smile. "I'm moving some things from Consort Zhen's palace to Prince Chen Manor. I'll bring only this page boy in. Don't worry. He's a servant in Prince Chen Manor. He's trustworthy."
The general took a good look at Jun Huang. Seems like a good-natured young man, he thought. Not the troublesome sorts. He put her name down on the list of guests. "I've logged your visit. Just let me know when you leave the palace."
"Thank you, sir." Rou'er gave him a bow. Men like the general could not resist tender women like Rou'er. Their smiles were like an addicting drug. It made these men willingly drowned themselves in the women's warm embrace.
Originally a check-up was required, but Rou'er had said that Jun Huang was Qi Chen's servant. The general himself was a supporter of Qi Chen. He would sooner suck up to Qi Chen than to lay a finger on Qi Chen's people. He let them in with a smile.
Once inside, Jun Huang didn't immediately part ways with Rou'er. Instead, she followed Rou'er to Consort Zhen's palace. On her way, she kept her eyes on the floor and kept to her character as a servant.
At the door, Jun Huang waited until no onlookers could be seen before exchanging a glance with Rou'er. Jun Huang stepped aside. Rou'er entered the palace as if she had come here alone. Jun Huang made her way to the Cold Palace.
The layout in the palace was complicated. Without preparation, one could easily get lost here. Jun Huang, however, came ready. She had ordered someone to acquire a map of the palace and memorized it. She quickly arrived at the gate to the Cold Palace.
The place was quiet. The maids weren't willing to stay for long. Therefore they only came to deliver meals three times a day. Jun Huang looked inside the palace. It was still early. Most concubines here had not woken up yet. There was only one door that was left open.
After some deliberation, Jun Huang went straight for the open door. As soon as she entered, the banished emperor said, "Who are you? This is a restricted area for the harem. It's not a place for a man like you."
Jun Huang looked up at her with a faint smile and cupped her hands in greeting. "This gentleman is Feng Baiyu. It's an honor to meet you, Consort Ping."
Consort Ping's expression faltered. She pointed a finger at Jun Huang, unable to make a sound. Jun Huang could see the fear in her eyes clearly. The consort must have misunderstood her intentions. "This gentleman isn't here to hurt the consort. You don't have to worry. I want to make a deal with you."
Consort Ping was once the empress after all. She quickly calmed herself. She believed that Jun Huang was telling the truth. After all, she was now trapped in the Cold Palace. She posed no threat to Qi Chen. Moreover, she had already lost her son in this struggle for power.
Jun Huang gave the desolate garden a look before shutting the door. "The consort was once the empress. Are you really willing to stay in this poor excuse of a palace?" She walked to the table, on which were leftover dishes from yesterday evening. They looked crude and plain. "If this gentleman remembers right, you used to be served by an army of maids. You ate only the finest cuisine and wore the finest clothes."
Jun Huang's words had struck a nerve. Consort Ping was the emperor's wife. And yet she had fallen from grace and ended up in this unpleasant place. Her life had been a joke.
Now the only consort holding any substantial power in the court was Consort Zhen. Consort Ping had no place in the palace.
"This gentleman's power is limited," said Jun Huang. "I cannot get the consort out of this situation, but I can help you get revenge."
Consort Ping narrowed her almond-shaped eyes, watching Jun Huang with great interest. Jun Huang seemed to be genuine. She let out a quiet laugh. "Go on."
"Who you hate the most now are Qi Chen and Consort Zhen, aren't they?" Jun Huang said calmly, keeping her eyes on Consort Ping to take in every nuance change. "If not for Qi Chen, the former crown prince would not have passed away. Then there's Consort Zhen, who took everything from you. Don't they deserve your hatred?"
Before giving Jun Huang's words a consideration, Consort Ping asked, "Whose side are you on exactly?" She couldn't figure out what Jun Huang's agenda was. Why would Jun Huang act this way?
Jun Huang chuckled. Her eyes betrayed none of her thoughts. "You don't have to know what this gentleman is trying to achieve. Just know that I can help you avenge your son and yourself."
"Why would I believe you?" she demanded. She wasn't willing to trust Jun Huang just yet.
"Does the consort truly believe that what you did here is enough to harm Qi Chen? This gentleman knows that the consort must have cultivated your own people after staying in the palace for decades. You are, however, trapped in the Cold Palace. How would you contact them? This gentleman has a plan to pull Qi Chen off the seat of the crown prince. You can't afford to turn me away."
Consort Ping fell silent. The mere thought that she would be able to take what Qi Chen valued the most away from him sent a rush through her body. She could imagine how Consort Zhen would react if she lost her son. She would be even more in pain than Consort Ping had been.
However, she couldn't help feeling a little unsettled. Jun Huang was not someone who could enter the palace freely. How did she know about what the consort had done by bribing the maids who delivered meals to her? It sent a shiver down her spine. This man was not to be underestimated.
Jun Huang waited patiently for Consort Ping's answer. Consort Ping had been staying in the palace. No matter how much infighting she had been engaged in, she was never part of any serious conspiracies. Jun Huang's offer was too tempting. She could think of no reason for her to turn the offer down.
After a moment of hesitation, Consort Ping took out a delicate box from the makeup table. Inside was a bronze token with some patterns etched into it.
"This is the token for my brother's manor – he's still the royal uncle of Northern Qi. You will be able to contact him with this token. This is all I can offer you, though. I'm sure you will be fine with that silver tongue of yours. Even I cannot win in a verbal duel with you, let alone my brother." Consort Ping's words were mocking, but Jun Huang didn't take offense.
The royal uncle must have been her trump card. After all, she had made her son the crown prince and garnered many supporters for him. This woman was no ordinary woman. Actually, all of the women who had engaged in mind games in the palace for years had to be taken seriously. This was a lesson Jun Huang had learned through experience.
When Jun Huang was about to leave, Consort Ping said, "I will talk to the emperor. You can focus on your own plan."
That surprised Jun Huang. She had thought that the best case scenario would be having the support of Consort Ping's people. She didn't expect Consort Ping herself to be so devoted to helping her as well.
Noticing Jun Huang's surprise, Consort Ping huffed and said, "Don't pull that face. I'm offering my help for my own reasons. You must avenge my son, or I – "
"Of course," Jun Huang said with a laugh. Without wasting a moment, she walked out of the desolate Cold Palace.
The Cold Palace was surrounded by grey walls. Concubines inside either lived their life aimlessly, or they remained trapped in a dream that would never become a reality. How many beautiful women had had their youth waste away here?
Preoccupied in her thoughts, Jun Huang ran into a maid who looked awfully familiar. Once she got close, Jun Huang realized that the woman was the maid that used to serve Consort Ping. She must have been assigned to some unimportant noble lady now.
The maid didn't recognize Jun Huang. She frowned and said harshly, "Where are you from? Don't you know officials aren't allowed to wander around the back of the palace?"