Chapter 102: Androgynous
Jun Huang snuck away while the others were distracted and took a seat across from Qi Yun. “Something isn’t right.”
Qi Yun nodded. He had a theory. “Many rich families keep impoverished scholars as slaves. They are talented men who were deprived of the opportunity to prove themselves. Their circumstances have forced them to become the property of the rich and powerful.”
Jun Huang arched an eyebrow. She had heard the rumors, but she had never met any slaves like that before. She thought their existence was merely an urban legend, but Qi Yun clearly thought otherwise.
They shared a look. Jun Huang smiled and took a sip of the hot tea on the table. After about the time for an incense stick to burn, the arrogant man bid his friends farewell and walked outside.
Jun Huang nodded at Qi Yun. They got to their feet and followed the man.
They ended up in an inhabited compound. Examinees from rich families often rented a house in the city as their temporary residence instead of living in an inn like the others did.
The arrogant man went straight to one of the side rooms instead of returning to the main bedroom. He kicked the door open, startling the man inside the room - it was a scholarly man dressed in shabby clothes. He jumped up and asked what had happened as he moved towards the door.
The arrogant man had already been in a dark mood. Seeing the crude clothes the scholar wore made him even angrier. He kicked the scholar in the stomach, knocking him off balance. “Aren’t you a top scholar?” said the arrogant man. “Why haven’t you told me about the criteria for loyal men and petty thieves? Do you want me to make a fool of myself?”
The scholar curled his body together, wincing. The arrogant man huffed and left with a flourish of his sleeves. Once he had disappeared, the scholar struggled to stand up. His delicate face was bruised, but he took the abuse without any complaints.
Jun Huang and Qi Yun decided to visit the man later. They returned home and came back once the arrogant man and his servants had left. Jun Huang knocked on the door.
The poor scholar heard the sound and walked out. He saw two men dressed in expensive clothes waiting outside the fence. They both had a unique presence.
The scholar didn’t know what these men could possibly want from him, but he treated them with respect as he always did.
That was how educated people were. Even if they were suspicious of someone, they would still follow the rules of proprietary.
The scholar cupped his hands and said, “The gentlemen must have come for my master. He left some time ago. If you have anything - ”
“We’re here for you,” Jun Huang interrupted him casually.
Surprised, the scholar looked up at Jun Huang. He didn’t know what he could do other than inviting them in for tea. He brewed a pot and poured Jun Huang a cup. “This peasant’s room is too poorly maintained for important guests such as the gentlemen. I hope the gentlemen could forgive me. The tea is also so terrible it is difficult to swallow. However, this peasant does not have anything better in my possession.”
“The gentleman doesn’t have to be so formal with us,” Jun Huang said with a smile. She raised her cup of tea and drank some. In her hands, the worn teacup seemed to have been elevated into a priceless treasure.
It took some time for him to recover. “This scholar doesn’t know what the gentlemen are here for. And… how did you know about me?”
Jun Huang put down her cup. “The gentleman is a knowledgeable man. Why would you settle for serving these people? With your knowledge, you could have achieved great things.”
The man blinked. Then he waved a hand in the air with a smile. “I don’t know who told you about me. But don’t you know that I’m but a powerless slave? My job is to serve my master. The thought that I can one day achieve something great never crossed my mind. The gentleman can’t be serious.”
“I want to know how you became a slave,” said Jun Huang.
The scholar didn’t expect Jun Huang to be so blunt. He let out a bitter laugh. “My family has always been poor. When I was little, I did read some books written by the ancient saints. However, my family became so poor that we were close to starving. They had no choice but to sell me into servitude. With my status as a slave, freedom is an impossible dream. My only choice is to sell my knowledge and talents to my master. The world can be cruel.”
Qi Yun was considering recruiting the man. Jun Huang could tell what he was thinking from the way he looked at the scholar. She quirked her lips. “If there’s a better master for you to serve, are you willing to do so?”
“What does the gentleman mean?”
“Your slave status can be abolished. Then you will be able to attend the imperial exam yourself. You don’t have to let others bask in the glory meant for you. What do you say?”
The scholar felt his heart race. He never thought that one day he would meet his own Bo Le. He turned to Qi Yun. He had noticed the silent interaction between Jun Huang and Qi Yun. He knew Jun Huang must have been talking about Qi Yun.
His gratitude was clear on his face. He was so overwhelmed he choked a few times, but in the end he shook his head. “This peasant is fortunate to have earned the gentlemen’s appreciation. However, I have an old mother to take care of. I cannot - ”
Qi Yun chuckled. “That’s nothing. Rest assured, I will take care of everything for you. Once you’re settled in the city, you can have your mother move here with you.” Qi Yun’s words were serious. He truly intended to take the man under his wing and have him be part of his circle. As a royal prince, he valued talented men just as much as Qi Chen.
The man couldn’t be more grateful. These people could change his life for good. He never expected the goddess of fortune to smile upon him.
He had studied for more than a decade. And yet the fruits of his efforts was going to be reaped by another. Of course he felt resentful. With Qi Yun and Jun Huang’s help, he would have a place in the city. He knelt down before Qi Yun. “This peasant will forever remember the gentleman’s kindness. I will do everything I can to assist the gentleman.”
Qi Yun hurriedly helped him up and broke into a wide grin.
The arrogant man returned, interrupting their heartwarming moment. Seeing that there were two strangers in his manor, he cried out, “Who are you? What are you doing here? I’m going to report you - ”
“I am the fourth prince Qi Yun. Did you say you want to report me?” Qi Yun took the token proving his identity off his waistband as he approached the man. The man felt weak in the knees and dropped down to the floor. Terrified, he kept his head low.
“I didn’t know Your Highness was coming. I have failed to give you a proper welcome, and I have wrongfully offended you. I beg for Your Highness’s forgiveness.”
Qi Yun huffed. He threw a glance at the dumbfounded scholar before saying, “I can spare your life, but this man is mine.”
“Yes, of course! Your Highness is free to take him. This peasant has no complaints.”
This man isn’t completely hopeless, thought Qi Yun. He didn’t want to waste any more of his precious time. He took the scholar away with Jun Huang in tow. He made sure to acquire the scholar’s deed with a silver ingot before he left.
The scholar followed Qi Yun with his head down. He didn’t expect his savior to be a royal prince! He was but a regular peasant. He didn’t deserve the prince’s appreciation.
Qi Yun still lived in the palace. He couldn't take the scholar in for the time being. Thus the scholar was to stay at Jun Huang’s place.
When Qi Yun was about to leave, he realized that he didn’t know the man’s name yet. “What’s your name?”
“This peasant is Zhang Yuan… I didn’t know it was Your Highness who came to save me from my misery. If there’s anything I have done that - ”
“Don’t worry about it,” Qi Yun said, waving a hand dismissively. “In private, you may call me gentleman Qi.”
Not long after, the Court of Judicial Review came to retrieve Qi Yun. It seemed that they had made a breakthrough. It might be something important. Qi Yun left after sharing a few words with Jun Huang.
Jun Huang ordered Little Girl to take Zhang Yuan to the east wing to rest. Zhang Yuan cupped his hands and left in slow and careful steps.
Watching him go, Jun Huang felt exhaustion sneaking up on her. Lately, her body had not been in a good condition. If she didn’t pay more attention to her health, it might have dire consequences.
She gave the servants a few final orders before returning to the south wing. She slept until the moon had risen to the top of the sky. Frogs and insects croaked outside her room. Little Girl had been waiting at the door, worried that something might happen to Jun Huang.
Jun Huang propped herself up and looked around the pitch-black room. After a pause, she put on a robe and brushed her dark hair. She walked out of the room without putting on a hair band.
Little Girl blinked dumbly at Jun Huang. She blushed when she realized that she had been staring. “The gentleman possesses an androgynous beauty. If the gentlemen were a woman, you would have tens of thousands of admirers.”
Jun Huang let out a quiet laugh. She brushed her hair back and drank some tea to clear her throat. The boundless night sky aroused a faint sense of loss in her heart.
She had not slept well. The headache was almost unbearable. Her eyebrows remained furrowed because of the intrusive thoughts she couldn’t silence.
“The prince is here, gentleman Feng,” Little Girl said after some hesitation. “He knew that you were resting, so he has been waiting in the garden.”
“The prince? Nan Xun?”
Little Girl nodded.
Jun Huang cocked her head and walked out of her room. Little Girl followed her closely until they reached the garden. From afar, they could see Nan Xun standing in the pavilion. His clothes were covered in a warm glow, fluttering under the dim candlelight. His expression was steely and his thin lips were tight.
It was said that men with thin lips were cold. Sometimes Jun Huang wondered if Nan Xun’s heart had hardened too after witnessing countless deaths on the battlefields.
Hearing her approaching, Nan Xun turned around to face her. Jun Huang was standing on the other end of the hallway. Her hair was long enough to reach her waist. It flew in the air whenever there was a breeze. The white robe with dark patterns she wore accentuated her air of nobility.
Sometimes, he thought that no clothes would be able to match her beauty. Every move of hers was graceful. If it had been during better times, she would have been…
Nonetheless, she carried a burden no one could carry for her. Hatred turned her eyes into frost. The thought never failed to leave a bitter taste in his mouth.
Jun Huang frowned as she walked up to Nan Xun. “What are you thinking about?”
Nan Xun shook his head and sat down next to Jun Huang. For a moment, neither of them spoke. They silently watched the scenery in the garden.
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