The young mistress wasn’t good at masking her feelings. Her surprise was evident on her face.
Noting that Nan Xun had stopped sweeping, Jun Huang frowned and asked, “Why did you stop?”
“This is one of the young mistresses, isn’t she?” Nan Xun asked with an innocent smile, which made Jun Huang feel a pang of unreasonable jealousy. She turned to the young mistress and shifted her gaze to the maid. “What is it?”
“Sister, I - mother has sent for a tailor to make clothes for us. I thought you’d want some new dresses as well, so I came to find you.” As the Grand Chancellor's daughter, she may be inexperienced, but not naive. She quickly recovered from her surprise.
Jun Huang huffed and turned away. “I appreciate the thought, but I don’t need any.” She reeled in her cold presence and softened her expression. It was as if her earlier attitude had been an illusion. “If there’s nothing else, I won’t be keeping you, sister.”
The young mistress left without arguing. She wasn’t afraid of Jun Huang, but she could tell she wouldn’t be able to change Jun Huang’s mind. Besides, why would she waste her time on an outsider?
The maid frowned at Nan Xun but didn’t say anything. She put on a smile as she approached Jun Huang. “It’s getting dark, my lady. It may rain later. Let’s get inside.”
Jun Huang glanced at the cloudy sky and nodded after a bemused pause. Without giving Nan Xun another glance, she entered her residence.
It didn’t seem like a big deal, but the young mistress couldn’t get Jun Huang’s carefree smile out of her head. Why would someone as aloof as Jun Huang act so differently because of a servant? The other girls teased her for being preoccupied with some man. With a blush, she told them about what she saw today.
The oldest of them rested her chin on her palm and smiled. “What’s so surprising about that? Remember, we may not know her true identity, but from the way she holds herself it’s clear she’s from an important family. She may not have interacted with servants before. She’s just curious.”
Her theory was good enough for the other girls. They went off and got on with their lives, leaving only the first young mistress and the second young mistress in the room. They were the smartest among the girls. They stayed behind out of unspoken agreement.
“Do you really believe in what you said?” the second young mistress asked sharply.
The first young mistress gave her a brief glance and took a sip of tea. “Watch your tongue, or mother will punish you if she hears.”
The second young mistress pouted. She knew she shouldn’t say anything. “But...”
“She has nothing to do with us. Why should you care so much about her? If you suspect anything, we’ll pay her a visit and see for ourselves.”
A crack of thunder pierced through the sky. Scared and surprised shrieks could be heard outside the building. The first young mistress stayed by the window, unfazed.
On a sunny day, the first young mistress and the other girls made their way to Jun Huang’s residence. The first young mistress had put a few people to keep watch on Jun Huang. Indeed, she was friendly with the new servant and often teased him, which made the young mistress and her sisters curious. What was it about the servant that melted Jun Huang’s cold facade?
When they arrived, Jun Huang was slumped on the empress chair with a peach shortbread in her hand. She smiled and sometimes pretended to be angry as she ordered Nan Xun to sweep the fallen leaves. She seemed to be having fun.
“What have the young mistresses come for?” The maid hurriedly went up to them. Jun Huang, who had her back to them, pulled a long face and put away the shortbread. She put on a stilted smile and turned to the unwanted guests.
“We hear that there’s an interesting servant at sister’s place, so we came to have a look,” said the second young mistress. They all stared at Nan Xun and gave him a once-over.
Nan Xun was dressed in a short robe and his long hair was tied behind his head. He had a broom in his hand and he’d put on an unassuming expression, but it didn’t stop him from being remarkably handsome.
“Is he your type, sister?” asked the second young mistress. “He’s good looking, but unfortunately that’s his only strength. Looks aren’t everything, sister.”
“That’s right,” agreed the youngest mistress. “I heard you scolding him the other day. There’s no reason for you to keep a sweeper who doesn’t know how to sweep properly. You should just kick him out.”
Jun Huang told herself to stay calm and ignore their words, but the girls grew harsher and even ordered Nan Xun around, picking on him. Her smile dropped and she knocked the teapot off the table.
The sharp shattering sound rendered the girls silent. They turned to Jun Huang in surprise, unsure what she meant by that. Jun Huang ignored them and pointed at Nan Xun. “Clean it up.”
Once Nan Xun was on his knee before the shattered pieces, she continued at a deliberate pace, “Look at where you are and know who you should listen to. If you fail to see your mistake, I won’t keep you here. You should just leave with them.”
It was obvious her words weren’t directed at Nan Xun, but at the girls. As the Grand Chancellor’s daughters, they couldn’t stand such humiliation. They opened their mouths to protest.
The first young mistress, being the most experienced in dealing with people, stopped them from talking and took a deep breath, glancing at Jun Huang with deliberate casualness. “What did you mean, little sister?”
Jun Huang stared coldly at the first young mistress. She was tired of pretending, but she managed to keep her anger under control. “Big sister should be smart enough to figure out what I meant,” she said with a scoff. “I’m telling you that my servants are my business. I don’t need you pointing fingers.”
“This is a simple matter. You should just stay out of it, and everyone will be happy. It’s not so difficult to understand, is it?”
“You should leave if you don’t have anything important to say. Nothing’s stopping you.”
She curtsied gracefully, her eyes icy and her voice commanding.
Silence stretched. The girls wanted to talk back, but they knew they’d end up losing the arguments to Jun Huang’s silver tongue. The first young mistress put on a smile that didn’t reach her eyes and led her sisters away.
Afterwards, the maid approached Jun Huang with a frown. “My lady, you shouldn’t have done that. We - ”
“What?” asked Jun Huang, her lips stretched into a mocking smile. “Should I have taken the humiliation meekly?”
The maid pouted and stopped talking, displeased with being subjected to anger she didn’t deserve. Jun Huang rubbed at her forehead tiredly and went back to her room after dismissing the maid and Nan Xun.
She had an undisturbed rest in the afternoon. When she woke up, the sun had set. The maid entered the room and sighed in relief when she saw that Jun Huang was up. “It’s time for dinner, my lady. The mistress told us to join her.”
Jun Huang nodded and followed the maid to the dining hall. She could feel the tension in the air when she entered, but she played ignorant and sat down next to the mistress.
“Apologies for making mother and sisters wait,” she said, looking at her fake family.
“It’s quite alright,” the mistress said, asking earnestly, “Are you feeling better after resting?”
Jun Huang nodded without a word and stayed silent throughout the meal.
The other girls left the dining hall after finishing eating. When Jun Huang put down her chopsticks, she was left alone with the mistress. She knew what this was about, but she wasn’t going to initiate the conversation.
The mistress couldn’t stand the silence. She took Jun Huang’s hand and asked, “Is it true that you’ve become close to a servant at your residence?”
“Not close, but he’s a likable one.” Jun Huang lowered her eyes, her tone serious, but out of the mistress’s view, her lips were curved into a secret smile.
The mistress knew about everything that had happened. Even if the girls hadn’t told their mother, Jun Huang’s maid would. Jun Huang, however, was curious what had been said about her relationship with Nan Xun.
“It’s natural for someone level-headed like you to find a straightforward man endearing, but that mustn’t go further. You know your place. You can’t get together with a servant. It’s the way of the world for people of similar status to pair up...” The mistress had made her point clear enough.
Jun Huang didn’t expect that to be the mistress’s speculation. She masked her surprise and nodded once the mistress finished with her spiel. “I understand, mother,” she said with a smile. “I won’t do anything inappropriate, and I’ll keep my distance. I’m not going to make any more trouble for you.”
The mistress sighed and caressed Jun Huang’s hair. Jun Huang noticed the pitying look flashing through her eyes, but she didn’t comment on it.
They stayed in the dining hall exchanging small talk like real mother and daughter. The mistress continued to test Jun Huang’s attitude toward Nan Xun, and Jun Huang deftly resolve her doubt. The mistress assumed Jun Huang had recognized that she and the servant belonged to different worlds. She didn’t keep Jun Huang any longer and told her to have a good night.