Qi Yun scoffed. “Isn’t Brother Nan your favorite, Empress Dowager? What changed?”
Her face clouded for a brief moment. “So? He’s not part of the Qi family. How can someone like him be considered one of us? How can you trust him? Don’t you know that a subordinate may end up garnering more respect than his master? Haven’t you heard how the others had been flattering him? If one day he comes to his full power and replaces you, you only have yourself to blame.”
Qi Yun sighed, resigned, his anger fading away. The extravagantly dressed woman was nothing but an ungraceful loser.
His question had been rhetorical. Of course he knew why the empress dowager had paid that much attention to Nan Xun in the beginning. She simply wanted insurance. She started treating Nan Xun with kindness when his talent started to show. However, no one realized that Nan Xun’s heart would come to be occupied by one woman. If anyone dared hurt her, even someone who’d given him the world could be nothing but his enemy.
“Take good care of the empress dowager. At her age, she shouldn’t go out without a good reason.” With that, Qi Yun walked away with a flourish of his sleeves. The farce might as well have never happened.
The empress dowager slumped dejectedly. It looked as if she’d aged a decade in an instant. She watched Qi Yun go. There was a lump in her throat preventing her from saying anything.
Shangguan Yue crawled to the empress dowager despite the burning pain and grabbed her foot. “Help me, Your Royal Highness. I was telling the truth. Don’t give me up. If you let them take me, they’ll torture me to death. I’m begging you, Your Royal Highness.”
The burn had damaged her vocal cords. Her grating voice sounded almost hellish. The empress dowager had been overwhelmed with her fury for Nan Xun and Qi Yun. Shangguan Yue’s plea didn’t help.
Scowling, the empress dowager kicked Shangguan Yue away and looked down at her. “Do you know what you’ve done? You’re more trouble than you’re worth. What use do I have for you?”
Since they left the Palace of Compassion and Tranquility, Nan Xun hadn’t let go of Jun Huang’s hand. It was as if he feared that she’d be in danger again if he did. He couldn’t help but be afraid at the thought of what would have happened if Jun Huang had been hit by the boiling tea.
Jun Huang turned to him and noted his pursed lips. He was still beating himself up for what had happened. She chuckled. The sound was a ray of sunlight breaking through the heavy clouds. Nan Xun came to a stop.
“What are you laughing about? Do you know what the boiling tea would have done to you? Do you know what the empress dowager would have done if Qi Yun and I hadn’t arrived in time? How am I to keep you safe?” Nan Xun was still scowling.
Jun Huang knew he was right. She stayed silent lest she misspeak. Nan Xun sighed. “Are you hurt?”
“No,” Jun Huang said faintly, hiding her slightly burned hand under her sleeves. Nan Xun didn’t notice.
What happened today made Nan Xun realize that many dangers lay hidden in the shadows still. Jun Huang might get hurt anytime. He silently swore to take her away from the imperial city once everything settled.
He pulled Jun Huang close, still reeling from what could have happened. He was afraid that he’d one day fail to protect her and leave her defenseless. He feared that she’d get hurt despite his caution.
“I know you’re not afraid of them,” Nan Xun said seriously, his eyes determined. “I know you’ve restrained yourself because I told you the empress dowager was kind to me when I was young. However, I never want you to be hurt. Don’t worry about the empress dowager. I’ll take care of everything. She’s never going to lay a finger on you again.”
Jun Huang knew Nan Xun meant it. He would never appease her with lies. His oath touched Jun Huang. She rested her head on his chest and nodded.
They held each other tightly in the royal garden, fitting together perfectly like they were always meant to be together. Even the maids passing by couldn’t help looking at them with envy. It didn’t seem possible for mortals to have a love like theirs.
Qi Yun looked at them from afar. He still felt a pang of hurt when he saw them, but the pain didn’t last. Lingering in his heart was a faint, dull sense of loss.
There were countless couples in the world, but Jun Huang and Nan Xun were the only one that could hurt him. And yet he seemed to catch them in an intimate moment all the time.
Instead of approaching them immediately, Qi Yun had the servants prepare some tea. He sat down at a stone table and didn’t leave until he finished the pot.
He got to his feet. The couple had finally let go of each other and were looking at the koi fish in the pond.
Hearing footsteps approaching, Nan Xun turned to find Qi Yun coming their way. He frowned. Qi Yun ignored his expression in favor of considering Jun Huang.
Jun Huang felt the gaze and turned to him. She recognized Qi Yun as the young man who had visited the manor.
“Last time, I didn’t know who you were and ended up saying something inappropriate,” said Jun Huang. “I hope Your Highness may find it in yourself to forgive me.”
Her formal apology was hurtful, but Qi Yun soon recovered and gave her a smile. “There’s no need for you to apologize.”
Jun Huang turned to Nan Xun questioningly. Her last encounter with Qi Yun hadn’t been pleasant. If she were Qi Yun, she’d be unhappy. And yet he treated her as friendly as he’d been before. She wondered why that was.
Nan Xun smiled and said quietly, “You’re friends.”
That explained it. Nan Xun had told her she was Feng Baiyu. A strategist needed a master to serve.
What Qi Yun had said and her familiarity with Nan Xun gave her some clues. Feng Baiyu must have been an advisor for Qi Yun in his pursuit to gain the world.
Qi Yun had heard about Jun Huang’s loss of memory. He’d made up his mind to give up on her after his conversation with Nan Xun. He could now calmly watch the two of them together. He realized that he’d been too obsessive. He almost ruined something wonderful.
“You don’t deserve what happened today,” Qi Yun said seriously. “It’s my mistake. Apologies for making you feel threatened.”
Jun Huang waved a hand dismissively. “It’s not your fault, Your Highness. Besides, whatever happens, happens. If the empress dowager wanted to hurt me, even exercising the highest caution wouldn’t have stopped her. Fortunately, I’ve narrowly escaped getting hurt.”
Qi Yun pursed his lips. He wanted to tell her they’d grown up together, that she was his best friend, but he didn’t. It wouldn’t change anything.
Jun Huang would apologize, which wasn’t what he wanted.
“You’re still prone to illness,” said Qi Yun. “You shouldn’t exhaust yourself. What happened today must have scared you. Since the issue has been resolved, you should return to Prince Nan Manor and rest. Don’t worry about anything else. The empress dowager and Shangguan Yue will never be able to hurt you again.”
Nan Xun shot Qi Yun an unhappy glare and pulled Jun Huang close, stepping between her and Qi Yun. “You must be tired,” he said to Jun Huang. “Qi Yun will take care of the rest. Let’s go. He’s readied a sedan chair for you. We’ll go home, and you can get some sleep.”
Jun Huang wasn’t going to say no to that. She nodded with a smile. Nan Xun told her to wait for him outside. She obliged without a question asked.
Qi Yun raised an eyebrow. “How do you know I’ve prepared a sedan chair?”
Nan Xun wasn’t going to admit he’d been paying attention to what Qi Yun was doing when he was holding Jun Huang. “I thought we’ve reached an understanding after our conversation, Qi Yun.”
Qi Yun looked questioningly at him and belatedly realized that Nan Xun was jealous. He let out an amused laugh.
Nan Xun glared at him with an impassive expression. Qi Yun didn’t stop laughing immediately. A tear hung at the corner of his eye. He cleared his throat and teased, “Does our almighty general Nan Xun have so little confidence in yourself? You’re jealous?”
Nan Xun balled his hands into fists and said coolly, “You may be in charge, Qi Yun, but if you dare chase after Jun Huang, I - ”
“Enough with that. I’m not that kind of person. Go. Jun Huang is still waiting for you.” Qi Yun cut in. He was going to be the emperor. He wouldn’t have his general talk back at him. Even though they were close, there was a line that shouldn’t be crossed.
Nan Xun realized that he’d overreacted. The mere thought that Qi Yun might try to take Jun Huang away from him put him in an unreasonable fit of jealousy. As a result, he lost his calm.