“You’ve finally come,” Nan Jihan said without preamble. She gave him a polite smile in response.
Delighted, Nan Jihan led Jun Huang to a divan and had the servants serve the food prepared beforehand. He then poured a cup of tea for her. “I know you like tea. You must have gotten tired of Northern Qi’s varieties. You should have some of ours.”
Jun Huang looked down at the cup, then at the hopeful Nan Jihan. She stopped after taking a sip. Nan Jihan frowned at her and asked, “Do you not like it?”
“As Your Majesty said, this gentleman has gotten used to Northern Qi’s tea. Northern Qi’s tea is bitter, which is how most tea in the world is. Southern Mu’s, on the other hand, is sweet. It’s not how tea is supposed to be.”
Nan Jihan stilled but quickly recovered. With an awkward smile, he told the servants to get some bitter tea. This time, Jun Huang quietly drank the tea and only looked up at Nan Jihan after she finished her cup.
“How is the princess?” She hadn’t seen Nan Guyue since she got here.
“Don’t worry, she’s found a good husband who treats her well,” said Nan Jihan. “I’ve heard about what Qi Chen did. I didn’t tell her. I want her to forget about the trauma she’s suffered there.”
Jun Huang was surprised by how quickly Nan Guyue forgot about Qi Chen, but other than that she didn’t judge the princess’s decision. Qi Chen had hurt her too deeply. There was no reason for her to stay loyal to him.
Nan Jihan considered her. He’d found out from his informants that Jun Huang was actually a woman. At first he had been in disbelief. She seemed so much like a proper gentleman, and she held herself with such steely grace. How could she be a woman?
Now that he got another look at her, he did see the feminine side of her. No men could have smiles as captivating as hers. She was exactly his type.
A maid walked up to them and bowed slightly. “Your Majesty, we’ve prepared what you asked for.”
Nan Jihan was reminded that he’d ordered the servants to prepare some bouquets. He smiled at Jun Huang. “Come with me to have a look.”
Jun Huang quietly followed Nan Jihan outside and was faced with a dozen bouquets. She twisted her lips into a smile, but it didn’t reach her eyes.
“I don’t know what kind of flowers you prefer, so I have them prepare a few more varieties. Which do you like?” Nan Jihan took her hand and led her to the table, pointing at the flowers.
“This gentleman doesn’t like impractical things like flowers.” Jun Huang pulled her hand away, her face cold and her eyes frigid. “I’m here for something important. Please don’t burden me with your attention, Your Majesty.”
Nan Jihan opened his mouth but no words came out. He chuckled and waved a hand to dismiss the servants. Once they were alone, he said, “I’m willing to lead you to the blood lotus on one condition.”
He stopped to look at her. Jun Huang waited for him to continue without so much as a reaction. He took a deep breath and said what he’d thought about saying for some time, “I’d like you to stay and assist me. Originally I wanted you to be part of my harem, but it’ll be a waste of your talent if you’re forced to compete with other women. If you’re willing to stay as my advisor, I’ll - ”
“If that’s the only way to gain your cooperation, I’ll rather not get the blood lotus,” Jun Huang cut in, her eyes sharp and steely. She wanted the lotus to save her life, but if she had to stay by Nan Jihan’s side away from Nan Xun, she’d rather die.
“Why?” Nan Jihan demanded with his brows furrowed, seizing Jun Huang’s wrist. “Is Northern Qi really that important to you? I can give you unrivaled glory. You’ll stand above everyone but me.”
Jun Huang huffed out a laugh, staring at her gripped wrist. She looked even more stunning when she smiled. Nan Jihan stared dumbly at her.
“I’m not looking for power,” she said softly. “What I want is someone who understands me. Do you get it?”
Nan Jihan’s face went dark and his grip tightened. Jun Huang frowned and tried to pull away, but he didn’t let her and instead loomed over her.
“Enough, Nan Jihan. If you’re unwilling to help me, just say so. Why must you try to humiliate me?”
Jun Huang slapped his hand away angrily, jerking him out of his possessed trance. His throat tightened when he saw the handprint he left on her arm. He sighed and laughed ruefully.
“I didn’t mean to do that. If you’re unwilling, I’m not going to force you. I simply wonder what Northern Qi has offered you. If you aren’t going to tell, I’m not going to ask.”
He turned away, breathing deep to suppress the bitter feelings in his chest.
Was this the end of it? Was she just going to wait for her death? Just when Jun Huang was wondering about her fate, a eunuch announced that a letter had been delivered requiring Nan Jihan’s attention.
Nan Jihan frowned and walked out without a word, treating Jun Huang like she didn’t exist. She touched her nose and debated over if she should leave.
Nan Jihan snuck a few glances at her as he read the letter. She had no clue what that was about.
After about the time for a pot of tea to brew, Nan Jihan approached her with a chuckle and handed her the letter.
“I thought it was a coincidence for Oleg Cragfiend to be here, but it turns out he is your master,” he said faintly, his tone tinted with a hint of smile.
Jun Huang read the letter through and belatedly remembered she’d never asked her master how he contacted Nan Jihan. He mentioned saving the life of a prince. It must be Nan Jihan.
“You are the disciple of the man who once saved my life. I can’t not help you. How about you take a rest, and I’ll take you to the blood lotus?”
Jun Huang widened her eyes slightly. She didn’t expect him to agree so easily. He seemed genuinely willing to help despite the heavy workload on him as the emperor. She nodded with a smile.
Nan Jihan swallowed his words when he saw the faint smile on her face. He ordered a maid to take her to a guest room.
Once she had left, a eunuch went up to Nan Jihan and sighed with a glance at the flowers. “Has Your Majesty given up?”
Nan Jihan shook his head without a word, his eyes growing dark.
Jun Huang rested in the palace for the night. The next day, Nan Jihan was ready for their short trip. She was surprised by the elaborate arrangement when she sought him out.
“We’re just going to find the lotus,” Jun Huang said, staring at the wool-covered coach. “There’s no need for such trouble.”
“While Southern Mu is warm like the spring all year long, the blood lotus grows in freezing environment. Without the proper protection, you’d freeze to death before we even get there.”
He handed a winter coat to Jun Huang.
She didn’t argue. Nan Jihan was the one who’d been there. He knew best what to expect. She would follow his lead.
Once everything was prepared, Jun Huang got into the coach, followed by Nan Jihan. Neither of them talked during the trip. Due to their argument yesterday, Nan Jihan worried that Jun Huang would misunderstand him, so he brought a maid to stay inside with them.
It wasn’t a short trip. Night had fallen when they reached the foot of a tall mountain. Being hasty could do more harm than good. They found an inn to stay in. Tomorrow, they’d climb the mountain.
Jun Huang was having troubles sleeping. She walked out of her room to the hallway and looked over at the snowy mountain. Moonlight cast a silver glow over the white. It was a captivating sight.
At the foot of the mountain, trees and vegetation prospered, and birds fluttered around chirping. On top of the mountain was barren land covered in snow and ice. This close, she could occasionally hear ice melting and falling. She could almost feel how cold it was up on the mountain.
She had the coat on during the day and had taken it off once she entered the inn. It started getting windy at night.
She hunched her shoulders up reflexively. Then a robe was draped over her shoulders.Previous Chapter Next Chapter