Surprise flashed through the tavern owner’s face. He quickly put on a friendly smile and led Jun Huang to a wine barrel big enough for two people to fit in. He climbed into the half filled barrel and whispered, “Get in. I’ll tell you the rest on our way out.”
Jun Huang was hesitant, but she knew she couldn’t stay behind. She nodded and climbed into the barrel as well. The owner pulled at her to stay down. They were submerged in wine chest down.
“The wine is being delivered to a wealthy man outside the city,” the owner said in a low voice. “As soon as we get out, we’ll be able to escape.”
Before Jun Huang could say anything, the barrel shook, and some wine got into her mouth. She frowned, trying her best to push aside her discomfort.
The ground beneath them shook and trembled. Jun Huang had no choice but to follow their lead, waiting to see what they were planning to do.
In the dark, the owner noted Jun Huang’s furrowed brows. She was still doubting him. After some consideration, he cleared his throat. “Don’t worry. We were caught off guard and didn’t have the time to come up with a better plan. My sincere apologies for causing you any discomfort.”
Jun Huang waved a dismissive hand. “It’s fine. What exactly happened?”
“Ah, our operation base was occupied by some strangers a while ago. I don’t know who they are, and I have no leads to follow. It’s taken a lot of work and days of waiting for our kidnappers to relax their guard enough for my people to knock them out with poison. We worry that they might have accomplices within the city, so we came up with a plan to get us out of the gate.”
The owner’s explanation made a lot of sense. Jun Huang nodded in understanding. She was starting to get light-headed. It must be the wine. Soon, she lost consciousness leaning against the barrel.
Jun Huang opened her eyes. Her head felt like it was splitting. She propped herself up and stared dumbly at her surroundings. She was in an elegant and luxurious room. All the flowing silk made it seem as if she’d stumbled into a celestial realm.
She rubbed at her forehead and got off the bed, having no clue what was going on. She went up to the window and looked outside. She was on the second floor of a building. The flowers in the garden bloomed prettily, which made her feel a little less nervous.
She looked down at her clothes, her hair running down her chest as she bent, and frowned at the white silk dress she was wearing.
Where was she, and… who was she?
The door creaked. She whirled around and looked cautiously at the two maids dressed in pink. It was evident they were working for an important family. One of them was holding a bowl of water, the other, some clothes.
“Why didn’t you summon these servants to serve you, my lady?” The one with the sharper features put down the bowl and asked quietly.
Jun Huang was even more confused by the way the maid addressed her. The maid didn’t give her much time to think before approaching. She took a step back but quickly stopped herself.
She knew she mustn’t do anything reckless. She didn’t know what was going on, and she didn’t know what the maids wanted. She might put herself at risk by resisting. Since the maids didn’t seem intending to hurt her, she allowed herself to relax. For some reason, everything around her felt wrong, but she didn’t remember why.
She silently let the maids help her get changed. The turquoise dress accentuated her eyes and made her look more graceful. Even without doing anything to her long hair, she was stunning enough.
The two maids paused and led her to a bronze mirror. They made quick work of her hair and soon, her hair was tied and a dangling ornament was put on her head. They also put on a thin layer of rouge on her face, making her complexion healthier.
She quirked her lips. The maids crowed and complimented her for her good looks. Jun Huang maintained a calm expression, but in her mind there was a whirlwind of questions. If she was the daughter of the family, why did the two maids seem like they were seeing her for the first time?
The maids didn’t know what she was thinking. They schooled their expressions into polite indifference and helped her up. One of them retrieved a cloak and put it around her shoulders. “It’s time to greet the mistress. She’s been waiting for you.”
Jun Huang lowered her eyes and nodded, her lips curved into an aloof smile. “Then lead the way, please.”
“It’s our duty, my lady.” The maid chuckled. The other maid, who’d been quiet the whole time, nudged her with her elbow in warning, which didn’t escape Jun Huang’s attention. Doubt grew further in her mind, but she couldn’t figure out what was happening. She averted her gaze and let the two maids take her away.
They made their way through the winding hallway and past the leisure garden into the beautiful backyard. Finally they entered a building bigger than the one she’d been in. The walls were red and the roof curving upward. It was a work of art in architecture.
One of the maids knocked on the door, and out came an old caretaker. She muttered a few words to the maid and turned to Jun Huang. Jun Huang nodded at her with a smile, watching the old woman walk back into the building.
The old caretaker returned not long after and made a gesture to invite Jun Huang in, telling the maid to wait outside. Jun Huang entered the building. All around her were furniture and items decorated with gold. The family was obviously wealthy.
“We’re here,” the old housekeeper said respectfully.
Jun Huang looked up at her and nodded. She then pushed the wooden door open and click! The door opened. Inside, there was an expensively dressed woman. Her eyes were soft when they settled on Jun Huang.
She rose and approached Jun Huang, taking her hands in hers.
Jun Huang frowned and backed away reflexively, but the woman’s misty eyes made her pause. She didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
“Greetings, madam.” Jun Huang knew this woman must be the mistress of the manor - her “mother”. However, she couldn’t make herself call her that.
The mistress paused and burst into tears. Jun Huang widened her eyes and struggled to comfort her. The mistress caught her hands again.
“My child, what happened to you? I’m your mother!” She cried like she was in physical pain. Jun Huang pursed her lips, her eyes stung.
“Mother,” finally, she uttered.
The mistress cried tears of joy and wiped her face with a silk handkerchief. She took a deep breath to steady herself, gently wrapping her arms around Jun Huang and patting her on the back. “Alright, I’m fine now.”
The door opened. The old caretaker entered. The woman’s tears had dried. She cleared her throat and looked at the caretaker. “What is it?”
“Madam, it’s time for lunch. The young masters and mistresses have been waiting.” The old caretaker spoke with her head lowered. It was the way servants in important families acted.
The woman nodded and turned to Jun Huang, her expression warm. “You must be hungry. Let’s go to the dining hall.”
Jun Huang hadn’t felt her hunger, but it awoke once food was mentioned. She nodded with a smile and helped the mistress into the dining hall. She sat down next to her “mother.” Everyone at the table greeted the mistress , but no one even spared a glance for Jun Huang.
Jun Huang grew even more confused. If she was one of the daughters in the family, why would these people be so cold to her and didn’t seem to even recognize her?
No one could give her an answer. She kept her head down and focused on eating, but she could barely taste anything. The mistress put food in her plate every now and then. Jun Huang accepted the gesture with a stilted smile. The mistress looked at her with a caring expression like a mother would a daughter.
The mistress was doing everything right in showing her love, but something bothered Jun Huang. She just didn’t know what it was.
Afterwards, Jun Huang followed the mistress to the garden for a walk. She didn’t say anything. Once the mistress was tired, she halted and beckoned a maid over. “This is the maid who’s grown up with you. If you have any questions, you can ask her. She’ll tell you everything she knows.”
There was something deliberate about the mistress’s words. Jun Huang frowned. Before she could form a clear thought, the mistress left with her servants, leaving Jun Huang with the maid.
“It’s windy, my lady,” said the maid. “You aren’t feeling well now. Let’s return to your room.”
Jun Huang gave her a brief glance and a slight smile. With the maid’s help, she made her way to her building.
Nan Xun hadn’t received any message from Jun Huang since they parted. His instinct told him something had gone wrong. It unsettled him.
Ji Bo sat on the chair watching Nan Xun pacing around the room with a deep frown. He sighed. “What is making you nervous, Your Highness?”