Chapter 181: Lasting Fear
Jun Huang slowly opened her eyes. Whether she was alive or dead, she had to see for herself. What came into her view was the silky drape of the canopy bed. She propped her tired body up. The room looked similar to one of the inn. She blinked in confusion.
After what she had been through, her entire body was aching. Her chest hurt even when she breathed a little heavier. She bent down to press against her stomach. Her face went pale in pain. Her already slim form seemed even more fragile. It was heartbreaking to see her in this state.
When the pain had faded, she slowly got off the bed. She lost her balance as soon as her foot touched the ground.
Ji Bo happened to be bringing her her medicine. He quickly placed the bowl on the table and rushed toward her. He almost didn’t catch her before she fell.
Jun Huang gasped and choked on the tainted air she had inhaled. She broke into a coughing fit. Her body curled together as she coughed until her eyes were brimming with tears. She looked up at Ji Bo and clutched the tail of his robe. She couldn’t stop herself from trembling.
Ji Bo patted her on the back to help her control her breathing. Once she started breathing normally again, he helped Jun Huang back to the bed with a sigh. He then picked up the ceramic bowl he had placed on the wooden table and returned to the bedside. The medicine was still steaming hot.
“Drink this,” Ji Bo said before Jun Huang could say anything. “You can’t collapse now. I know you have a lot of questions. Finish this bowl of medicine, and I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
Jun Huang nodded reluctantly and took the bowl from Ji Bo. She quickly finished the bitter medicine. Her eyebrows remained closely knitted even after she put the bowl down.
Ji Bo grabbed a chair and sat by the bed. “I know what you want to ask,” he said slowly. “You want to know what’s the meaning of the last test, and if you and Nan Xun have passed. You also want to know where Nan Xun is now. Don’t fret. I will tell you everything.”
“The last stage of the trial is a test on the mind. Sacrificing yourself isn’t the right way to go. Neither is killing your companion. We want to know if the two participants are of the same mind. You’ve seen yourself that many before you have killed their companions in order to survive. In the end they also died in the room.”
“Then how should one pass the test?” Jun Huang asked with a frown. “Is there no correct answer?”
Ji Bo let out a bright laugh. “Of course there is. If there were no answer, you wouldn’t be here.”
Jun Huang looked at Ji Bo without a word. Ji Bo put on a serious expression and said, “This is a test on the human heart. Naturally there is an answer. The key is for the two participants to be united fearless against dangers. You either live together, or you die together. Failing the test means death.”
Jun Huang’s pupils contracted. Her heart was seized by her fear as she thought back to what had happened. If she had given up on Nan Xun, the consequence would be unbearable. Cold sweat streamed down her face. She was truly shaken this time. Persistence alone would not have been enough for them to pass the trial.
They started with solving a puzzle. Then they were in a fight for their survival. Finally it was their hearts that were tested. One wrong step could mean the difference between life and death. If Nan Xun hadn’t been the one going through the trial with her, she didn’t know what would happen.
Nan Xun had been protecting her without a word of complaint. He told her to get behind him if she got scared. Her heart skipped a beat when she remembered his words. She knew Nan Xun had now occupied a significant part in her heart.
“You two were able to pass the trial because your hearts are aligned and your will is strong,” Ji Bo said after a moment of silence, breaking Jun Huang’s trance. “I’m curious, however, whether you truly had no doubt even in that situation.”
Jun Huang looked up at him and smiled. “As you’ve said, our hearts would point us to the door of life. It is human nature to be greedy, to fear death. I’ll be lying if I say I wasn’t scared at all. But… I know if I survive at the cost of his life, it’d be a fate worse than death. Death isn’t always the most painful. Sometimes, it’s worse to be the one who survives.”
Ji Bo frowned at Jun Huang and sighed. They fell silent.
“Nan Xun and I have been to hell and back together,” Jun Huang said carefully. “We both know what the other feels, but circumstances prevent us from being together. Now, though, I can’t lie to myself and say I’ve never had any feelings for him. I even fear that death will come to either of us before I can confess to him.”
Nan Xun had heard what she said outside the room. Every word she uttered imprinted itself into his heart.
He actually regained consciousness before Jun Huang did. He was at a loss of how he should treat Jun Huang, so he let Ji Bo take care of her and stayed outside.
His heart fluttered at her admission of her feelings for him. Exhaustion lifted from his face completely. He held his breath and wrung his hands together.
Ji Bo threw a glance at the door reflexively, then turned to Jun Huang. “This gentleman is no expert in matters of the heart, but you have to be cautious. It’s difficult for you two to be together. Even if you are willing to overcome that challenge, there are still many issues to consider.”
“What does the gentleman mean?”
“You’re now living as a man. If you are willing to assume your old identity for Nan Xun, what will happen next? The world will know about your existence. What you’ve done before will be in vain. I know you’re not someone who will give up your goals for love.”
“What if you get together with him as a man? Don’t forget that Nan Xun is a prince despite his different surname. He’s someone even the emperor dreads. If he gets together with a man, how do you think the emperor and the people will react? Mockery will be the least of his problems.”
“You may say that it’s not a big deal for two men to become a couple in Northern Qi, but he is a prince, while you are a strategist. You are both blessed by the gods. Neither of you have the privilege to indulge in desires. Other men may be able to fall in love without attracting backlash. They may even receive blessings. You, though, are different.”
Ji Bo had spoken his mind. Jun Huang didn’t have a comeback for him.
She sat on the bed quietly. In the end she let out a tired laugh. Her eyes were lowered and her expression was filled with sorrow. It was the first time Ji Bo saw her like this. He didn’t know how he should reassure her.
Silence filled the room. Outside the door Nan Xun tightened his hands into fists. He could feel his heart in his throat. He was worried that what Jun Huang said next would be the last thing he wanted to hear.
“You’re right,” Jun Huang said quietly, breaking the silence. “I’ve failed to see the forest because I’m standing among the trees. How can I fail to consider such simple things? Ha, what a joke I am. I thought I would be able to stay calm and live with a level head, but in the end, I’m the one who is trapped in my illusion. If the gentleman had not pointed out my mistakes, I would still be harboring impractical dreams.”
“That - That’s not what I wanted to tell you - ” Ji Bo tried to explain.
Jun Huang waved a hand to stop him and closed her eyes. “Love is the very worst human sin. I fancy myself a level-headed person, and yet I started to daydream after staring death in the eyes. How foolish I’ve been. I hope the gentleman won’t laugh at me.”
Ji Bo stared at Jun Huang. The light in her eyes had vanished completely, leaving only her usual calmness. It saddened him to see her like this. “It’s human nature,” Ji Bo said quietly. “I simply wanted you to think twice before you make a decision. I wasn’t trying to change your mind.”
Jun Huang looked up and gave him a polite smile. “This gentleman does not blame you. I should be thankful, in fact. You’ve woken me up from my delusions. That I’m grateful for.”
“Why are you standing here, boy?” The old man’s voice suddenly came from outside the room. “Why don’t you go in? I have things to tell you two. Is she awake yet?”
Nan Xun turned to the old man and touched his nose awkwardly. “I just got here,” he said with a cough. “I heard noises from the room. She’s probably awake.”
The old man nodded and pushed the door open. Nan Xun took a deep breath. It’s okay, he told himself. There’s still time. I still have a chance. It’s no small feat for her to admit her feelings. Be patient.
The heavy weight on his heart melted away. Nan Xun took another deep breath and entered the room. He parted the silk and saw Jun Huang lying on the bed.
Jun Huang turned to him when she heard his footsteps. His hand was wrapped in bandages, and he had changed into some clean clothes. He stood there looking at her. His presence had never felt more real to her than it did now.
“Here you are,” Jun Huang said. Her tone was as calm as ever. It was as if nothing had changed at all.
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