“I’ve been hiding in Eastern Wu with the prince, looking for an opportunity to help you,” said Yin Yun. “In a moment of carelessness, I lost him. I later found out that he’d been kidnapped. I started looking for him while maintaining a low profile, and I found you instead at the temple. I wanted to approach you, but there were too many people guarding you. Therefore I followed you to this manor and waited until you were alone to show myself.”
“I didn’t have any other choices,” Yin Yun admitted, his eyes earnest. “I need your advice, princess.”
Jun Huang was quiet for a moment before she looked up at him. “Do you expect me to just believe you?”
Yin Yun widened his eyes in shock. How could Jun Huang not recognize him? He opened his mouth but couldn’t utter a word.
Jun Huang silently thought over what had happened the past couple of days, then she looked up at Yin Yun. She could tell he wasn’t going to hurt her. Taking into consideration her “mother’s” attitude and the way other people in the manor looked at her, she could tell something was wrong. She wasn’t dense. She simply didn’t want to jump to conclusions knowing only Yin Yun’s side of the story.
“You should leave first. I have other business to attend to. When the time comes, I’ll send you a message.” Jun Huang quickly calmed herself, maintaining an aloof facade.
Yin Yun didn’t know what was going on, but he knew he had to be cautious. He nodded and handed Jun Huang a signal flare. “Light this if you need me, princess. I’ll come as soon as I can.”
Jun Huang nodded and watched him leave. She lay on the bed wide awake, feeling chilled to the bones.
She hunched her back and curled into herself. Her head was filled with a mess of tangled thoughts. Finally, she fell asleep.
At dawn, she opened her eyes to stream of sunlight coming through the window. She stared at it for some time before getting up and changed. When she opened the door, she saw a group of maids rushing downstairs. She didn’t recognize any of them.
What happened last night made her question everything. She kept an eye on her surroundings at all times.
After breakfast, the maid who’d been quietly following her noted her unusual behavior and asked, “Is something the matter, my lady?”
Jun Huang turned to the maid and put down the scroll in her hand with a sigh. “I’m getting bored and claustrophobic. I’ll like to get some fresh air.”
The maid looked hesitant, which didn’t escape Jun Huang’s attention. She lowered her eyes and tightened her lips. “What? I can’t even go for a walk?”
“My lady misunderstood. It’s just that you’ve just recovered. This servant worries that you’ll catch another cold. Your mother will be most displeased then.” The maid sounded sincere. If Jun Huang hadn’t already doubted her, she wouldn’t have suspected a thing. As it was, her doubt festered.
She huffed and swept the book to the floor, gazing coldly at the maid. The maid dropped down to her knees in fear, too afraid to say anything.
“I hear you’ve been with me since I was little,” Jun Huang said, slowly but fiercely. “Do you make it a habit to challenge me?”
The maid tensed and bowed down to Jun Huang with tears streaming down her face. “This servant isn’t the disloyal sort. I’ve never and would never challenge your authority!”
“If so, I’m going out.” Jun Huang stared at the maid, her eyes sharp and icy, which made her seem like a completely different person from her usual graceful self. The maid shuddered in fear.
Jun Huang had been polite the past few days rather than snobbish like the other young ladies. The maid had thought she didn’t have a temper. Today, though, the maid had stepped on a landmine. If she didn’t do anything now to save herself, she’d be considered a disobedient servant, the consequences of which she couldn’t bear.
“You may do as you wish, my lady,” the maid said carefully, looking up at Jun Huang. “It’s cold, though, and I’m worried for your health. Please let me retrieve a thick cloak for you first.”
Jun Huang didn’t intend to push the maid too hard. She nodded quietly and watched the maid go. A moment later, the maid returned with a cloak. Her gentle expression and relaxed gait made Jun Huang suspicious.
She observed the maid without hiding her intention, which unsettled the maid. Jun Huang then took the cloak without a word and walked outside.
The manor was beautiful. Jun Huang ran into many servants on her way. She didn’t recognize any of them. If she’d lived here for more than a dozen years, should all of them feel like complete strangers to her?
Upbeat chatter came from the garden. The maid looked ahead and said, “It’s your sisters, my lady. Should we go greet them?”
Jun Huang paused and nodded with a smile. “Since they’re my siblings, of course I should go have a chat with them. I can’t ignore everyone I used to know, can I?”
The maid smiled awkwardly. “As you wish, my lady.”
The girls didn’t seem at all surprised when they saw Jun Huang. The mistress had notified them in advance.
“You haven’t recovered yet, sister.” The youngest girl of the group went up to Jun Huang with an aloof but polite smile. “Why are you outside?”
Other people might not be able to spot the flaws of her performance, but it was in Jun Huang’s nature to read people. She didn’t let it show that she’d noticed anything and put on a faint smile. “Staying in my room all day isn’t going to help me get better. I might as well come out for a walk. I wonder what you’re doing. Why did you never visit me?”
Everyone smiled awkwardly in response. Two older girls approached Jun Huang. “You’ve misunderstood, little sister. We wanted to visit you, but mother told us to let you rest.”
“Is that so?” Jun Huang raised an eyebrow and stared at the young women. Her expression was calm, but her inherent presence made them feel exposed.
It was thanks to their years of practice in controlling their emotions as daughters of an important family that they were able to keep up the friendly facade. “If not, we’d have visited you already.”
“That’s very kind of you.” Jun Huang chuckled, the steel in her eyes fading. She hummed and sat down on the unclaimed empress chair. “I’ll have a short rest here if you don’t mind.”
“Of course. Our teacher must have arrived, though. We’re going to our class. Have a good rest. We’ll be on our way.” The oldest girl ordered the servants to replenish the hot tea and desserts before leading the group away.
Jun Huang’s smile dropped once they left. She stared at the koi fish in the pond in contemplation. The maid didn’t know what she was thinking, but didn’t dare say anything.
Exhaustion set in. Jun Huang lay down on the chair and closed her eyes. The maid sighed in relief and jogged away.
When Jun Huang woke up, the sun had sunk under the horizon. The sky was dark. The garden looked colorless, desolate. She rose to her feet and gazed into the distance.
“It’s time for dinner, my lady,” the maid went up to her and said quietly. “Your mother asked for you to join them.”
Jun Huang looked at her. “Where did you go?”
The maid stilled for a split second, which Jun Huang took note of but didn’t bring up. She played with the teacup in her hand and said, “I was going to ask you for fresh tea, but you weren’t here. Something else required your attention?”
“Yes, the housekeeper asked for this servant. Apologies for failing to be here for you, my lady. I hope you’ll forgive me.” The maid sighed in relief, her cheeks regaining their color. She helped Jun Huang up and followed her to the dining hall.
Once Jun Huang was seated, her “sisters” approached her and exchanged some smalltalk with her. The mistress ordered the servants to prepare some hot tea and personally handed a cup to Jun Huang.
Jun Huang glanced at her and quietly accepted the cup, taking a sip. “I like the tea, mother. I’m glad you know my preferences.”
The mistress beamed, oblivious to what Jun Huang was implying. “Of course I do! Tea is one of the few things you actually prefer. All our finest tea is yours.”
Jun Huang smiled without a word. The room was silent as the servants served the dishes. The mistress invited Jun Huang to sit next to her, occasionally asking Jun Huang if there were things she particularly liked. Jun Huang didn’t answer and instead stared at the mistress. The deference the mistress showed her was curious.
Her train of thought was interrupted when the mistress put some cilantro into her bowl. Jun Huang jerked her head up. “Don’t you know I’m allergic to cilantro, mother?”