Jun Huang got bored listening to their conversation. She excused herself and made her way through the hallway instead of returning to her room.
“What did Oleg Cragfiend say about her health?” Ji Bo asked after Jun Huang had left. “Is she recovered now?”
Nan Xun frowned and gave Ji Bo a onceover. Realizing that he’d sounded too eager, Ji Bo cleared his throat and explained. “I saw Prince Qi Yun yesterday. Hearing that I’d be visiting you, he told me to ask after Jun Huang.”
“Please tell him that Jun Huang is fine and he doesn’t have to worry,” Nan Xun said bluntly. “He should be focusing on Northern Qi.”
Ji Bo nodded awkwardly. Something unreadable flashed through his eyes, but Nan Xun didn’t notice.
Meanwhile, another trouble storm was on the horizon.
Since the empress dowager took Shangguan Yue under her wing after the fall of her family, the two of them had been staying in the imperial manor, separated from the mortal world by a river. Now, though, the empress dowager was returning to the palace. Shangguan Yue naturally would accompany her.
“Remember that the palace is different from the imperial manor,” advised the empress dowager. “You have to watch your every move.”
“Don’t worry, Your Royal Highness. I understand.” Shangguan Yue put on a smile. The empress dowager knew her well. She dismissed the girl and told her to follow a palace maid to get to know the place.
Shangguan Yue dropped her smile and followed the maid into the royal garden. This was her only opportunity. If she missed it, she’d have to stay by the empress dowager’s side forever.
“How is Prince Nan Xun?” Once she’d built a rapport with the maid, Shangguan changed the subject.
The maid didn’t suspect a thing. She knew Shangguan Yue used to be on friendly terms with Nan Xun and assumed that she was merely asking after a friend.. “Prince Nan Xun has just returned with his troops and received a great many rewards. He’s garnered more and more respect in Northern Qi.”
The maid blushed. Anyone would be lucky to be with the general.
“Has he married?” Shangguan Yue asked carefully. “He isn’t still with Feng Baiyu, is he?”
The maid shook her head. “His Highness hasn’t gotten married, and Feng Baiyu is nowhere to be seen. However, it’s said that there is a beautiful woman staying with the prince. None of us know what she’s like. I hear that many young mistresses from esteemed families have sought the woman out, but they were all driven away. The prince even forbids anyone from bothering her.”
Shangguan Yue had never given up on Nan Xun. The fact that Nan Xun had gained a lot more influence further cemented her resolve. When she heard that Nan Xun had cast Feng Baiyu aside and instead favored a woman, she perked up and got curious about her.
She’d forgotten about the maid in her musings. The maid noted her thoughtful look and her frown. “What is it, Miss Shangguan?”
The maid’s pat on her shoulder interrupted her musings. She flinched, her face darkening in remembrance. The maid asked worriedly, “Are you feeling alright, Miss Shangguan?”
Shangguan Yue knew she wasn’t in a good mental state. To avoid slipping up again, she pretended to be ill and nodded, “Apologies, I’m feeling sick all of a sudden. Please excuse me. We’ll do this next time.”
“Will you be alright? Do you need a doctor?”
“It’s fine. I’ll be okay after some rest.” With that, Shangguan Yue turned around and hurried away. The maids didn’t suspect anything.
Once she was back in her room, Shangguan Yue sat down on her bed, her mind filled with thoughts about Nan Xun. She had decided then. She wasn’t going to give up now. She needed Nan Xun not only for her happiness, but also for her plan to recover her family’s reputation.
The empress dowager noticed her unusual mood when they were having dinner. The girl had finished eating, but she hadn’t put down her bowl. Her brows were furrowed in deep thought.
“Has a maid offended you by mistake?” asked the empress dowager. She couldn’t help but worry.
Shangguan Yue was jerked out of her trance. Her bowl dropped to the floor and made a loud clink. With a pale face, she rushed to kneel down before the empress dowager, asking for forgiveness.
The empress dowager reached out to help her up, but Shangguan Yue shook her head with gritted teeth. Puzzled, the empress dowager asked, “What is it?”
Shangguan Yue took a deep breath. She knew she needed the empress dowager’s help in order to attract Nan Xun’s attention. She didn’t have any other options. “I have something to discuss with you, Your Royal Highness. It’s a sensitive matter which is best discussed in private.”
The empress dowager had always been indulgent to her. She couldn’t say no when Shangguan Yue looked at her with such pitiful eyes. She ordered the servants to leave them alone before helping Shangguan Yue to a divan, patting her hand reassuringly. “Speak your mind. You don’t have to be so formal with me.”
“You know I’ve always loved Prince Nan Xun, Your Royal Highness. Unfortunately, the prince was blinded by a mere strategist and cast my love away. I hear that the strategist has disappeared. Therefore...”
She lowered her head and trailed off.
“Do you still want him?” The empress dowager was smart enough to figure out what she was asking for.
Shangguan Yue nodded and said bluntly, “It’s not just for me. Prince Qi Yun is now in power. How are you going to protect yourself? He may let you return to the palace this time, but what about in the future? Since his return, Prince Nan’s reputation has even exceeded that of Prince Qi Yun. If I get married to the general, Prince Qi Yun will think twice before making a move against you. Isn’t that a win-win situation?”
She looked up at the empress dowager and held her breath, worried that she’d gone out of line.
She’d been staying with the empress dowager for a long time. What she said was exactly what the empress dowager was worried about.
The empress dowager had lost her influence. It’d be easy for Qi Yun to target her. If she could get Nan Xun on her side, it’d solve her problems.
Noting that the empress dowager had been swayed, Shangguan Yue seized the opportunity and continued, “I hear that there’s a woman who’s been staying in the manor without an official title. We should see for ourselves who she is and what she’s capable of.”
“You’re right,” said the empress dowager. “Alright, deliver my order and summon her. Let us see what kind of a woman she is.”
Shuangguan Yue nodded earnestly and smiled. After having dinner with the empress dowager, she had a man deliver the message to Prince Nan Manor the next day, telling Nan Xun that the empress dowager wanted to see the woman who had been staying in his manor.
Nan Xun was having breakfast with Jun Huang when he got the message. As someone without a title, Jun Huang was in no place to turn down the empress dowager’s invitation.
Nan Xun was conflicted since the empress dowager had been kind to him. He assured Jun Huang, “Don’t worry. She’s always treated me kindly. She must have heard what others are saying and decided to see who you are. If she really does make a move against you, leave and come to me. Don’t worry about offending her.”
Jun Huang listened to him nag and thought he was overreacting. She was but a nameless woman. Why would the empress dowager risked offending Nan Xun just to take her out?
Nonetheless, Nan Xun’s words did assure her. It was her luck that she could always turn to Nan Xun when danger struck. His promise made her fearless.
The two of them went to the palace together. On their way there, Nan Xun continued to remind Jun Huang that she should seek him out in Qi Yun’s place if the empress dowager did anything untowards. Jun Huang nodded in understanding.
Not long after, the empress dowager sent a maid to retrieve Jun Huang. She bid Nan Xun farewell and followed the maid to the Palace of Compassion and Tranquility, where the empress dowager resided. She turned a blind eye to the maid’s scrutiny. If she was bothered at all, she didn’t let it show.
“They’ve arrived, Empress Dowager,” an old caretaker turned to say to the empress dowager on the bed. She’d spotted Jun Huang from afar.
The empress dowager nodded and told her to bring Jun Huang to the back garden. The caretaker hurried outside and greeted Jun Huang with a simple bow before leading her through the hallway.
Jun Huang frowned. She’d heard the empress dowager’s voice, and yet the caretaker was going to take her to the back garden. She was smart enough to know what the empress dowager was trying to do. She scoffed but kept her thoughts to herself.
She knew that those who came for her must harbor ill-intentions. The empress dowager was trying to put her in her place. She wasn’t going to let things go her way.
Without a word, Jun Huang followed the caretaker to the back garden. Food had been prepared in the pavilion. She sat down and enjoyed the tea and snacks without hesitation. There was an inherent air of superiority to her as she looked into the distance.
The old caretaker was impressed with her composure. She’d never met anyone so calm and collected before.
“The empress dowager must have woken up already,” the old caretaker said, moving the desserts toward Jun Huang. “She’ll be here in a minute.”
Jun Huang shot the caretaker a glance and nodded without a word, shifting her focus back to the scenery. The caretaker fell silent after failing to disrupt her calm.