Sitting before a bronze mirror, Jun Huang let the girls put makeup on her face and draw a red dot between her eyebrows. She lowered her eyes with a faint smile tugging her lips. The girls gasped and crowed once she put on the wedding gown and the phoenix cap.
“You’re the most beautiful bride I’ve seen,” marveled the older woman. “The groom is fortunate to marry a beauty like you.”
Jun Huang bashfully lowered her head without a word.
Nan Xun emerged in a red robe followed by a group of men joking about stealing the bride. The girls laughed and bypassed the usual procedure to urge Jun Huang out of the room.
Nan Xun’s heart skipped a beat when he saw Jun Huang. He stared at her shy smile dumbly, overwhelmed by joy.
Complicated rituals for formality’s sake didn’t suit them. Jun Huang and Nan Xun went straight to bowing to the heaven and earth then at each other with Qi Yun as their witness. She was then brought to the newlywed bedroom, while Nan Xun was surrounded by men trying to get him drunk.
Nan Xun didn’t want to make Jun Huang wait. Night had fallen. He was eager to leave. The guests teased him for letting his libido do the thinking for him.
Qi Yun sat at the table farthest from the crowd and gulped down cups after cups of wine on his own, detached from the celebration. His subordinates worried that he’d drink too much and get sick, but they didn’t dare say anything facing his dark expression.
The men only let Nan Xun go after he’d downed a few cups of wine. With a bright and content smile, he ordered the servants to look after the guests and made his way to the bedroom.
He didn’t immediately entered. Instead, he took a deep breath and drank a cup of tea to sober himself up. He only opened the door once the smell of alcohol had faded. Under the wavering candlelight, Jun Huang’s eyes were as bright as stars. Her lips were curved into an intoxicating smile.
She’d taken off her cap. Her silky dark hair ran down her back and waved in the breeze. She was still dressed in the fiery red wedding gown. Her eyes were adoring when they settled on Nan Xun.
Nan Xun tried his best to control himself. He retrieved the cups of wine prepared for the newlyweds and handed Jun Huang a cup. She took it with a smile, her eyes bright. With their arms crossed, they drank the wine. The clear liquid went down easily, leaving a sweetness in their mouths.
When they put down the cups, a burst of laughter came from outside the room. Jun Huang blushed awkwardly. Nan Xun did what he should, clearing his throat and going outside to tell the guests Jun Huang wasn’t feeling well, asking them to skip the part where they played tricks on the couple. The villagers considerately went back to the main hall to drink and have fun.
Jun Huang had never thought that she’d one day be married to someone. It all felt like a fever dream.
Nan Xun could tell what she was thinking. He smiled and put out the candles before going back to Jun Huang.
Red dress and robe scattered on the floor. Their hair tangled on the bed. They passed the night in the heat of the other’s body.
At dawn, Nan Xun woke up to his wife at his side. Overwhelmed by his love for Jun Huang, he left a feather-light kiss on her forehead.
Jun Huang opened her eyes slowly and smiled when she saw him.
They intertwined their fingers without a word. Volumes were spoken in their shared silence.
Nan Xun helped Jun Huang get changed and took her to the backyard to get some sunlight. She sat on a divan and didn’t feel like moving with the warm sun shining on her sore body.
Nan Xun’s shadow guard approached them and bowed to him respectfully. “Your Highness, Prince Qi Yun has left with his people earlier.”
Nan Xun frowned. “Did he leave me a message?”
The shadow guard shook his head. Nan Xun looked at the frowning Jun Huang and dismissed the guard after a brief bemused pause. He knelt before Jun Huang with a smile, caught her fingers, and dropped a kiss on her fingertip.
Jun Huang met his gaze, her eyes softened.
“It’s better for him to leave,” Nan Xun offered. He didn’t want to see her frown. “If he stays, we’ll just feel uncomfortable. Him leaving means he’s sorted through his feelings. Don’t worry yourself sick.”
Jun Huang chuckled and sighed, looking up at the sky. She didn’t know Qi Yun’s true feelings for her and instead interpreted his jealousy as him being upset about losing a childhood friend to someone else.
Nan Xun relaxed once Jun Huang stopped worrying. He understood why Qi Yun would leave so suddenly. He was impressed and pleased with the young prince’s decisiveness.
“Alright, get some more sun and go back to rest if it gets cold. You have to take care of yourself. The rest can wait after your recovery.” Nan Xun put a robe around her shoulders before leaving to attend to his business.
Jun Huang didn’t want to be left alone. The next few days, she insisted on going to work with Nan Xun, leaving home early and returning late at night. Nan Xun sighed in resignation and gave in.
They fit into the village well. Sometimes, they’d go out for a walk after dinner. When they ran into their neighbors, they always greeted and exchanged pleasantries with them. They were the perfect couple worthy of envy in the locals’ eyes.
The war showed signs of settling down. With the old general out of the picture and Qi Yun boosting Northern Qi’s morale, the army defeated Eastern Wu again and again. Finally, Eastern Wu’s emperor realized something was wrong.
“His Majesty, we’ve suffered another loss, this time with great casualties. If this continues, we’ll - ” The acting general cupped his hands and knelt on the floor. He was panicking inside, but he had to brief the emperor about what was happening on the battlefields.
The emperor narrowed his eyes. With a scoff, he grabbed the teacup and threw it at the general’s head. Blood streamed down and covered half of his face. The maids and eunuchs cowered and dropped to their knees without a word.
The general covered his wound with one hand, gritting his teeth. The emperor rose to his feet with an unreadable expression.
The third prince got wind of the news and hurried to the palace. He hesitated over if he should tell his father about his findings.
The emperor’s scowl relaxed somewhat. He took a deep breath and sat back down. “Have you found the old general?”
The third prince dropped to his knees. “This son hasn’t located the old general. I’ve looked everywhere, but found nothing. This son suspects that someone else is helping him...”
“Useless! Don’t try to excuse your failure!” The emperor kicked the third prince in the abdomen. The prince winced and covered his stomach with a pale face, groaning in pain. The emperor didn’t show any sign of sympathy and instead continued to scold him for being incompetent.
The third prince ground his teeth together and balled his hands into fists, his nails burrowing into his palms. The pain didn’t register. His resentment for his father, on the other hand, festered and grew. He kept his head low, but scoffed inwardly. I’ve endured this treatment for a long time. I can do it a little longer.
“In this subordinate’s opinion, it’s likely the old general has been taken away,” the general said carefully with a hand covering his forehead. “I hear he left the camp a few times when he was there, which gave him the opportunity to talk to someone from Northern Qi. He must have planned the extraction of his family. It’ll be difficult to locate him now.”
The emperor threw him a cold glare and huffed. “Did he think he can run away? Did he think we don’t have anyone else to replace him with?”
“His Majesty, what we have to do now is to solve the problems we’re facing. Northern Qi has been unstoppable recently. We’re running out of supplies. There’s no telling how much longer we can last.”
The emperor’s mood took a further downturn. He smashed various items in his rage. None of the people present dared speak up lest they get themselves in trouble.
Crisp clapping came from outside the door. The emperor frowned. Every guard got prepared to fight.
The door opened and out came a man wearing a mask. His eyes were sharp, and veins popped out on the hand he gripped his sword with.
The emperor and everyone else were caught off guard. Someone called out for the guards to protect the emperor. The masked man was soon surrounded.
The third prince narrowed his eyes as he considered the man, wondering who he was and what he was here for.
The masked man glanced at the guards and scoffed. “Is this how you welcome your guests, Your Majesty?”
“Who are you?” The emperor had gradually regained his calm. He hadn’t become the emperor without a decently strong will. He put aside his shock and quietly observed the man, trying to discern his identity.
The man didn’t seem eager to talk. The emperor looked at the guards and waved a hand to dismiss them.
“You mustn’t, Your Majesty. We don’t know yet if he’s friend or foe. If he does something to harm Your Majesty - ”
“I think he’s on our side,” the emperor said, his tone deadpan but forceful. The guards had no choice but to hold their tongues. They were then asked to leave the room.
The emperor looked at the masked man. “What is the purpose of your unannounced visit?”