Chapter 227: Mixed Feelings
Jun Huang’s eyes fluttered open. The sun had only just risen from the horizon. She stared at the distance for a good moment before sitting up. She put on a robe and walked to the window.
It was still early. The vendors hadn’t come out to attract customers yet. Only a few people walked the bluestone-paved street. It looked serene outside. Feeling a little chilled, she wrapped her robe around her body and cleaned up. When she opened the door, Nan Xun was nowhere to be seen.
Over the past few days, Nan Xun had been the first thing she saw when she opened the door. It made her feel a little off-balance not seeing him outside. She walked out of the room with a frown, looking for Nan Xun, but it was one of the shadow guards that she ran into first.
“Morning, Gentleman Feng,” greeted the guard. “Are you going to have breakfast?”
Jun Huang nodded. The guard took her to the first floor and ordered the clerk to bring breakfast to her. “Our master ordered the cook to prepare some lotus seed soup for you early in the morning. He said that it was one of Gentleman Feng’s favorites.”
Jun Huang lowered her eyes and chuckled softly. A warm feeling filled her chest to the brim. She looked up at the guard and asked, “Where is he?”
“He wanted to take you to the lake today,” answered the guard. “There are a lot of people here this time of year, though. We may not be able to get shantyboat even though we have the money. Therefore Gentleman Nan went to get a boat early. He told me to take you to the port after you finish breakfast.”
Jun Huang nodded. The lotus seed soup was brought to the table. She finished it quickly and followed the guard to the port.
There were indeed a sizeable crowd at the lake. From their extravagant clothes it was clear that most of them were of high status or great wealth. Jun Huang followed the guard through the crowd with an eyebrow raised. The strong smell of cosmetics made her feel lightheaded.
When she finally made it out of the crowd, she stumbled and lost her balance.
A pair of hands caught her. Without lifting her head to look, she cupped her hands and said, “Thank you.” She was surprised and a little embarrassed when she saw who it was.
“Princess Wan’er, young official Zhang Yuan, what a coincidence.” She quickly recovered and gave them a gentle smile.
Wan’er’s delicate brows rose slightly and her bright eyes darted to Jun Huang. For a moment, she simply stared at Jun Huang. Zhang Yuan didn’t notice didn’t seem to notice her unusual reaction.
Nan Xun was informed of Jun Huang’s arrival and was coming their way. He smiled and greeted Wan’er and Zhang Yuan.
“It’s my day off,” Zhang Yuan said with a smile. “I heard that the view is beautiful, so I took Wan’er here. What a coincidence to run into the gentlemen here.”
“How have you been, princess Wan’er?” Wan’er hadn’t said anything, so Jun Huang took the initiative to ask.
Breaking out of her trance, Wan’er lowered her head and chuckled. She could feel Zhang Yuan’s attention on her. She shifted her gaze to him with a hint of shyness in her expression. “I’m good. Gentleman Feng doesn’t have to worry about me.”
Jun Huang could tell that their marriage was a happy one. Wan’er had become even more stunning. They exchanged a few polite words. It was still a little awkward for them to talk.
Zhang Yuan’s boat had been led to the port. He turned to Nan Xun and said, “Our boat’s here. Please excuse us.”
Nan Xun nodded, watching them get on board and leave. He turned to Jun Huang. “What are you thinking?”
She smiled. “They look happy.”
Without a word, he took her hand and led her to the port, shielding her from the bustling crowd. She followed him quietly.
It was close to noon when they finally got on the boat. Summer had only just announced its arrival, and it was windy in the area. The temperature was comfortably warm. They ordered some food as soon as they got onboard. Nan Xun broke the silence, saying, “This is a river rather than a lake. In two hours, we’ll reach a royal garden. Would you like to come with me?”
“Why are you going?” asked Jun Huang.
“That’s where the empress dowager resides. She treated me kindly when I was little. It’s been a while since I last saw her. Since we have the time, I’ll like to pay her a visit.”
Jun Huang nodded without a word, a trace of nervousness crept into her heart, unbidden. She took a deep breath and looked out at the rippling water. The blooming lotuses caught her fancy.
There were fish swimming in the water, including some uncommon koi fish. Nan Xun told her that they were raised by different people before being put in the river. She listened quietly and glanced at him every once in a while, the smile at her lips growing wider and wider.
Nan Xun finally noticed the amused look she was trying to cover. He paused and asked curiously, “What is it? Have I said something wrong?”
She shook her head and sighed. “I know about all that.”
Realization dawned on him. He snorted at his own expense. He’d forgotten for a moment that she had been a princess herself. Of course she’d know about the customs of the royal family. It was said that Western Que was once a country partial to luxurious habits. Things like this used to be part of her everyday life.
As if reading his mind, Jun Huang smiled and said, “My mother loved the nature. She was as tender as the scenery in Jiangnan. Royal Father loved her deeply and gifted her with a replica of Jiangnan he built himself. Many people criticized him for being wasteful, but who knew that he did it out of love?”
She chuckled, her expression soft and relaxed.
Nan Xun looked at her quietly. He wanted to tell her that he would give her a peaceful world, that he would build her a new Western Que.
But he didn’t. It wasn’t that he couldn’t do it, but he shouldn’t. He knew her. Even though she was envious of her mother, she would never let the walls of a city trap her for a lifetime.
They moved slowly along the river. Jun Huang felt a little bored staying inside, so she walked out to the deck. The air she breathed in was cool and refreshing. A strong gale swished past her ears. She closed her eyes. She could hear the koi fish leaping out of and falling back into the water.
“Do you like Jiangnan?” Nan Xun asked.
She slowly opened her eyes and tilted her head towards him. “I heard Jiangnan was known for their dew-treated turquoise fabric. Li Yu of Southern Tang was obsessed with the color. It must have been something special.”
“Jiangnan’s humid and rainy,” he murmured. “It’s not a good place to live in. The climate is conducive to dampness-induced illnesses. However, it’s a good place for a short travel. If you like it, we’ll go there after the world finally becomes a peaceful one.”
She was silent for a moment. In the end, she shook her head and looked over at the distance. “We both know that there’s no telling when the war between Northern Qi and Eastern Wu will come to an end. I only hope that Northern Qi will remain strong and the people will be safe and sound.”
Nan Xun’s chest tightened. He wanted to pat her on the shoulder and offer her words of comfort, but she was too clear-headed. Platitudes didn’t work on her. They both knew the situation Northern Qi was in.
They silently watched the scenery from the head of the boat. Jun Huang looked around with calm eyes while Nan Xun watched her quietly. His heart beat steadily, slowly. He was content to just look at her.
They reached the royal garden. It was built on water. The construction took a lot of time and resources. It was one of the few places in Northern Qi where a fortune had been invested. Jun Huang often heard people mention the garden. She was curious about it as well.
Seeing Nan Xun’s boat approaching, a eunuch ordered some servants to come help. They let Nan Xun in without hesitation. The boat went straight to the port of the garden.
Jun Huang only realized then that the boat they boarded wasn’t a regular one. She shook her head, a little embarrassed.
She must have been distracted because of the chance meeting with Princess Wan’er.
The eunuch led them through a winding hallway. Jun Huang looked around. This looked like a utopia. What a rare sight in all of Northern Qi.
“Follow me and don’t think too much,” Nan Xun said when they came to a red brown door.
Jun Huang glanced at him without a word. He wanted to take her hands, but this wasn’t the right place. They walked into the room one after the other when the eunuch opened the door.
The empress dowager wasn’t the only one inside. Both Wan’er and Zhang Yuan were here. And the woman Jun Huang had run into a few times - Shangguan Yue.
She was surprised to see Nan Xun and Jun Huang. A flash of hate flicked through her eyes. Jun Huang ignored her and followed after Nan Xun.
Time left its marks on the empress dowager. Her wrinkled face transformed into a smile when she saw Nan Xun. She patted the seat next to her, inviting him to sit down. Nan Xun threw a glance at Jun Huang before obliging.
“Yue’er has been talking about you,” the emperor dowager said with a smile. She narrowed her eyes, oblivious to the fact that Jun Huang was here.
Nan Xun turned to Jun Huang without thinking. She didn’t show any reactions. Noticing his gaze, she turned away with a frown.
They talked for a while. Nan Xun could sense Jun Huang’s boredom. He made an excuse to leave and got to his feet.
Shangguan Yue was upset enough when she saw Nan Xun and Jun Huang being together. She couldn’t accept defeat. If she hadn’t come to visit the empress dowager, with whom she shared a familial bond, she wouldn’t be able to even see Nan Xun. Jun Huang, on the other hand, was allowed to follow him around every day. It made her heart burn.
She shot to her feet, attracting everyone’s attention. She put on a forced smile and said, “I’ll walk you out.‘
She stormed out. Nan Xun and Jun Huang bid the others farewell before following after her. She was waiting in the hallway. She ran up to Nan Xun as soon as they emerged, ignoring Jun Huang completely.
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