Qi Yun gritted his teeth at Nan Xun’s confident declaration and took a calming breath. “Are you boasting? How do you know she wouldn’t like me? If I tell her how I feel, do you think she’ll cruelly turn me down?”
“You won’t do it. You haven’t confessed to her exactly because you know she doesn’t like you. Do you think she doesn’t have an inkling about how you feel? She simply doesn’t return your feelings.”
“You grew up together. She considers you a brother and a friend. It’s not going to change. Do you know why she has been playing ignorant? If you haven’t been childhood friends, she wouldn’t have cared enough to do that.”
“If you confess to her, you can’t even be friends. You know that. She does as well. She doesn’t want to lose you as a friend, Qi Yun. If you care about her, don’t cast aside her consideration.”
What Nan Xun hit Qi Yun hard. Nan Xun had known all about his concerns. He simply kept it to himself to maintain the long running friendship between Jun Huang and Qi Yun.
Qi Yun realized that he’d made a reckless move. He sighed and smiled wryly. “You’re right. So be it then. You may go now.”
He slumped over the divan, his face clouded.
Nan Xun gave him a meaningful look and swallowed down his unspoken words. He simply wanted Qi Yun to recognize that Jun Huang wouldn’t return his feelings. He wasn’t trying to ruin the young prince.
“Consider what she wants if you care about her.” That was the last thing Nan Xun said before leaving the palace. He looked up at the sky and shielded his eyes from the blinding sunlight. A weight lifted from his chest.
Qi Yun covered his eyes, his eyes stinging. He could still hear Jun Huang’s cool voice. He couldn’t recall the last time Jun Huang had been so cold to him.
Please restrain yourself. The simple phrase had chilled him to the bone. He slowly breathed out and thought back to the way Jun Huang looked at him. Her eyes had been so calm and composed.
He’d seen how Jun Huang looked at Nan Xun. She’d never been one to show her emotions openly, not even when she was with her family. However, around Nan Xun, her eyes were loving and gentle.
Qi Yun knew Jun Huang well, which made her unusual reaction even more pronounced. She never looked at him like that.
His chest tightened. When he first met Jun Huang, she was a little girl with bright eyes. Others assumed she was nothing but a princess with a strong personality. No one realized that she hoped for a peaceful world. No one saw how stunning her smile was. No one knew how graceful she could be.
People like her would leave their prints in history. However, during the time they were apart, the girl had grown into a woman with the weight of revenge on her shoulders. She plotted and schemed, and finally she found her sanctuary… but it wasn’t him.
Nan Xun didn’t stay in the palace. He and Jun Huang had arrived at Northern Qi a while ago, but he hadn’t had the time to stay with Jun Huang. Since he had a free day, he should keep her company.
He hurried back to his manor, his expression eager like a man rushing back to his wife, which was exactly what he was. The women working in brothels called out for him teasingly while waving their handkerchiefs.
Once he arrived, he made his way to the side building where Jun Huang had been staying in, but she wasn’t there. A maid noted his frown and hurried to him. “Are you looking for the lady, Your Highness? She’s in the backyard.”
Nan Xun relaxed and nodded, fixing his sleeves before making his way to the backyard. Jun Huang was playing a zither in the pavilion. A gentle melody weaved through the air.
She tilted her head, her hair running gracefully down her face. Her red lips were curved into a faint smile, and her eyes were as bright as the moon. The setting sun cast an orange glow on her green dress. She looked like a painting as she plucked the strings with delicate fingers, eyelashes fluttering.
Not far from her, a few maids came to a stop, transfixed. Nan Xun lightened his steps in order not to disturb the serene moment. He stopped before he reached the pavilion.
He would never let anyone take her away from him. He’d never give up on her.
He thought back to his conversation with Qi Yun. He didn’t know if the young prince had been convinced, but he wasn’t going to risk it. He listed out what he knew about Jun Huang and Qi Yun’s shared past and decided not to tell her anything about it.
“When did you return?” The music stopped. Jun Huang looked up at Nan Xun with a smile. She was stunning with sunlight illuminating her from behind.
Nan Xun broke out of his trance. Jun Huang’s eyes were clear and focused. Overwhelmed by emotions, he approached her, his face softening.
“Not long ago.” Nan Xun sat down next to Jun Huang, his voice so quiet it was as if he didn’t want to scare her.
She pulled her hands back from the zither and hid them under her broad sleeves, tilting her head to face Nan Xun. “Is it about yesterday?”
Nan Xun didn’t want to talk to her about Qi Yun. He shook his head without a word, silently expressing his reluctance. Jun Huang read him loud and clear. She covered a laugh and stopped pushing.
She shifted her attention to the lotus pond. Nan Xun kept his eyes on her. He could spend a lifetime looking at her and still he wouldn’t be satisfied.
“I’m a little tired of staying in the manor.” Jun Huang glanced at him, falling into his deep, meaningful gaze. A little awkwardly, she continued in a quiet voice, “If you have time, would you like to go out with me?”
Nan Xun paused. He didn’t want her to feel trapped. He nodded and led her out of the manor. They walked along the bluestone path they’d treaded on many times. Vendors cried out from both sides. The city was peaceful and prosperous.
Northern Qi was different from Eastern Wu. In Eastern Wu, vendors didn’t dare sell expensive items on the streets. Here, though, people felt secure enough to sell jade pieces and luxury items despite the heavy traffic. Nothing bad had ever happened to them.
When asked, Nan Xun said that there were watchtowers everywhere in the imperial city, and soldiers regularly patrolled the area. If anyone dared make any trouble, they’d be swiftly dealt with.
Jun Huang nodded without a word. Her gaze was glued to the jade pieces. Her loss of memory didn’t douse her passion for jade.
They wandered around the city without a destination in mind. Nan Xun was reminded of the night strolls they took under moonlight. He turned to Jun Huang and tentatively took her hand.
“What is it?” asked Jun Huang, turning to face him.
Nan Xun raised an eyebrow. “We can walk around the city anytime. Why don’t I take you out of the city today?”
Her interest piqued, Jun Huang nodded earnestly. They returned to Nan Xun’s manor and had a horse prepared. Jun Huang also packed some snacks in case they got hungry.
“Should we follow you in secret, Your Highness?” the leading shadowguard asked worriedly.
Nan Xun shook his head. “It’s fine. We’re in Northern Qi. I can deal with anything. However, I need you to keep an eye on the manor. If something goes wrong, notify me immediately.”
The shadowguard nodded and left since Nan Xun had made up his mind. When Nan Xun found Jun Huang, she had a lunchbox in her hand, her eyes shining with anticipation.
He chuckled. “We’re just riding out. If we get hungry, we’ll hunt. There’s no need for you to pack that. It’s only going to get in the way.”
Jun Huang thought for a moment and glanced at Nan Xun. “You know how to hunt?”
Nan Xun raised his eyebrows in lieu of a response. Jun Huang considered his face. Nan Xun wouldn’t have lied to her about that. Besides, he was the general of Northern Qi. He was known as a ruthless and confident fighter in battles. It wouldn’t be that surprising for him to be a competent hunter as well.
Jun Huang realized that she’d worried too much. She handed the lunch box to a servant next to her and followed Nan Xun outside without bringing anything.
They walked on foot with the horse in tow within the city. Once outside, Nan Xun helped Jun Huang mount and rode the horse away.
The view opened up. Jun Huang felt a great sense of liberation. All she could see was green. The rustling grass and the dark blue sky calmed her heart.
The grassland seemed endless. She didn’t know how long it’d been when they reached a patch of woods. Nan Xun pulled at the reign to halt the horse.
Jun Huang had enjoyed their time riding. She turned to Nan Xun once he’d stopped. He ruffled her hair and jumped off the horse, opening his arms wide. “Jump, I’ll catch you.”
Without hesitation, Jun Huang leapt into his arms. Nan Xun took a couple steps back toppled down. Before they hit the ground, Nan Xun pulled her into his arms to keep her shielded.
They tumbled. Nan Xun had an arm around Jun Huang’s waist and the other hand protecting her head. The grass served as good padding and the fall didn’t hurt. When they stopped rolling, Nan Xun was on top of Jun Huang, his body looming over hers.
Jun Huang opened her eyes to Nan Xun’s deep and focused gaze. Her heart skipped a beat. She didn’t know what to do.