The mistress stared at Jun Huang, trying to discern the truth to her words. Her tone was earnest, though, and her expression genuine.
No one her age would be shrewd enough to lie so convincingly, the mistress thought. Besides, the maid had said Jun Huang hadn’t left her room. It was only natural she’d be in the dark about the intruder.
She relaxed and shared the desserts with Jun Huang. When her youngest daughter came up to them, she patted Jun Huang on the back of her hand. “You must be bored being stuck in the manor. Why don’t you go out with your sisters today and have some fun?”
Jun Huang lowered her eyes and nodded. “Mother is right. I’ll go find them later.”
“Remember to take your maid with you.”
Jun Huang nodded. She knew the mistress was testing her. Since she was getting sick of the interior of her room, it wouldn’t hurt for her to go outside.
When she reached the lotus pond not far from the manor with her maid, the girls were laughing and having fun, abandoning their usual composure and paying no attention to their dirtied dresses and discolored shoes.
“Older sister is here!” the youngest mistress of the Grand Chancellor said, giving the other girls around her a pointed look. They stopped what they were doing and gave Jun Huang an awkward smile, but didn’t take even a step toward her.
Jun Huang took in their reaction but kept her thoughts to herself. She approached them and greeted everyone. “What are you doing?”
One of the girls smiled stiltedly. “We’re flying kites, but I hear you’ve just recovered and wouldn’t be suited for such activities. That’s why...”
“You’re right,” said Jun Huang. “I’m just bored. Don’t mind me. I’ll take a stroll myself.”
She turned to look at the wilted lotuses, her gentle smile dropping when no one was looking and her eyes turning frosty.
The maid approached her. “My lady, have a seat if you’re tired. I hear your little sister brought some desserts and a book. You can have a look. We don’t want anything to happen to you when you stand here on your own.”
Jun Huang nodded agreeably and sat down in the pavilion. She flipped through the book casually and had some sweets. It was just a folktale. Nothing valuable to be gained. She put it down.
She yawned. Her head was throbbing with pain.
After some time, she fell asleep lying on the table. Drifting in and out of consciousness, she heard the girls talking about her.
“I don’t get it. She isn’t related to the Grand Chancellor. Why is she living in the manor?”
“That’s right. I hear the mistress treats her with more care than she does with you, her youngest daughter. I wonder why that is.”
“Ha, she’s nobody. I don’t know what’s so great about her other than her pretty face. She doesn’t deserve the mistress’s favor.”
Jun Huang opened her eyes, her gaze frigid. The women’s words were mocking and harsh, but she only found them laughable. They didn’t dare question her in person, so instead, they talked behind her back.
“Stop it,” the young mistress rushed out when her friends got carried away. “If she hears you and tells mother, I’ll be in trouble.”
She glanced at Jun Huang and sighed in relief when she saw that Jun Huang was still asleep.
“Why should the beloved daughter of the Grand Chancellor be afraid of her? Who is she to flaunt favors she doesn’t deserve?”
The girls who were close to the young mistress were displeased. They didn’t like Jun Huang.
The young mistress wasn’t a fan of Jun Huang, either, but she didn’t dare say anything. She pulled her friends to the side and shook her head at them. “I don’t know who she is, and my parents never say anything. However, I know she’s not someone we can offend. If I make her unhappy, I’ll be punished.”
Jun Huang didn’t care about the rest of their conversation. Her head was splitting and her face was pale. She rubbed at her temples. She was just as confused about her identity.
The conversation died down. Then the maid approached her and patted her shoulder. Jun Huang pretended to just wake up and ask quietly, “What is it?”
“It’s getting dark, my lady, and it may rain later,” said the maid. “The young mistress and the others have left already. We should go as well.”
Jun Huang looked around and huffed inwardly. There was indeed no one else around. She nodded and followed the maid to the coach awaiting them.
She shut herself in her room as soon as she returned to the manor. The maid assumed that she was tired, so she didn’t bother her. She reminded the other servants to be quiet as well.
In reality, Jun Huang was deep in thought sitting on the bed, supporting her chin. Her gait was lazy, but not tired.
She had a few bites for dinner and excused herself claiming to be feeling ill. Upon returning to her bedroom, she opened the window. The harsh cold wind prompted her to put on another robe. Then she curled into herself on her bed like she had in the morning, waiting for the man to arrive.
As she expected, Nan Xun came near midnight. He stepped on the cold wall and easily scaled to the second floor. He was first worried about the open window, but then he chuckled at his realization.
He walked to Jun Huang bed. She had been dozing off. The familiar smell in the air woke her up. She jerked awake, meeting Nan Xun’s crinkling eyes. She was momentarily lost before she cleared her throat and put some distance between them.
“It’s late. Why didn’t you close the window? And you should be sleeping.” Nan Xun teasingly said, “Or perhaps you’re waiting for me?”
He expected the easily embarrassed Jun Huang to blush, but instead, all emotions drained from her face, and she gave him a solemn nod.
“I am waiting for you. I can’t stand not having any answers. It’s torturous to be in the dark. So I’d like to ask if you have any idea how I can regain my memory.” Jun Huang looked him straight in the eyes, her gaze serious and intent. Nan Xun couldn’t possibly say no to her, and the thought never once crossed his mind.
He nodded. “We don’t know what went wrong. The most important thing now is to understand what’s been done to you and how you’ve been recovering. The rest we’ll discuss later.”
“So what’s next?” asked Jun Huang.
Nan Xun lowered his eyes in contemplation. He’d heard of a widely-respected doctor when he was in the imperial city. Many had sought him out for help. His clinic might be worth a try.
He told her what he thought. She was hesitant. She looked outside the window. The manor was filled with patrolling guards. Their number had grown substantially ever since what happened yesterday.
Nan Xun knew what she was worried about. “I don’t have any troubles dealing with them. I can easily take you away if I want. The only reason I haven’t is the situation we’re in. It’s safer for you to stay than to leave with me. No one in this manor intends to hurt you, at least for now. Outside the walls, things are unpredictable. I don’t want to risk your safety.”
Jun Huang was touched. Perhaps he was the only person who still put her safety first.
“Anything else?” Nan Xun asked with a slight frown.
Jun Huang broke out of her trance and nodded. “What’s going to happen next after we leave? We can’t get out of the manor during daytime, but at night, no clinics will be open. All your hard work will be for nothing.”
“That’s not something you should worry about. I’ve made the necessary arrangements. Even if you hadn’t asked me for help, I’d break you out.” Without giving her a chance to argue, Nan Xun added, “We can go tonight. I’ll get you out of here.”
“Alright.” Jun Huang pushed aside all her reservation. She got prepared and followed Nan Xun to the window. He surveyed the area carefully, getting a good grasp on the patrolling patterns. Now was the best time for them to leave.
Nan Xun turned to Jun Huang and was met with her unwavering gaze. Perhaps not even she realized how soft her eyes were. He quirked his lips into a secret smile. He wasn’t going to break the moment by mentioning it.
He gathered her into his arms. She glanced at him and quickly lowered her eyes. Nan Xun leaned into her and whispered, “Hold on tight. We’re sneaking out as soon as we land. We’ll be fine after evading the guards and leaving the manor.”
Jun Huang nodded, holding onto Nan Xun’s shirt. His expression turned serious as his sharp eyes took in the environment. He jumped with Jun Huang in his arms and broke his fall with a push of his feet, landing without making the slightest noise. He took Jun Huang’s hand and led her to hide behind a wall.
Jun Huang was shocked by his fluid movement. Before she could say anything, Nan Xun covered her mouth. She stared at his face in the dark, her eyes wide.