Jun Hao scuttled around like a bird that had escaped from its cage. Jun Huang left him to it. She was glad to see him having fun. It wasn’t until noon that he quieted down.
Jun Huang hadn’t left the manor for some time. She didn’t want to return just yet, either. After talking to Jun Hao, they made their way to the nearest tavern for lunch. Jun Hao fanned himself with his broad sleeve, sweat streaming down from his forehead. Jun Huang felt a pang of sympathy for him. She tried to cool him down with her foldable fan.
Jun Hao was too full to eat anything because of all the snacks he’d had. After a while, he got bored and whined that he’d like to go out.
“Why don’t you leave our purchase here and go out with him, Yin Yun?” said Jun Huang. “He’s going to make a fuss if we force him to stay. I’ll be here waiting for you two.”
“I can’t do that. What if something happens to you...”
“Nothing will happen to me when I’m in this tavern,” Jun Huang cut in. “Don’t worry. The shadowguards will keep me safe.”
Yin Yun was hesitant, but then Jun Hao grabbed his arm and swung it around. “You’re the best, Yin Yun. Come with me. Please?”
In the end, Yin Yun acquiesced and emphasized that Jun Huang must stay in the tavern. He reminded the shadowguards to keep a close eye on her before leaving with Jun Hao.
Once they were away, Jun Huang put down her chopsticks and looked outside the window, supporting her chin with a hand. She remembered how Nan Xun had accompanied her on a shopping trip. They’d attracted a lot of attention as they walked around dressed in fine clothes. The memory put a smile on her face.
She didn’t have much of an appetite, so she stopped eating after a few bites. She ordered a pot of hot tea and had a few cups.
After some time, Yin Yun and Jun Hao still hadn’t returned. Jun Huang decided to leave early. She would have the shadowguards carry their purchase back.
She got to her feet and made her way to the door, but it opened before she reached for it. She took a reflexive step backward.
It was Yin Yun.
Her heart sank when she saw his dark expression and realized that Jun Hao wasn’t with him. Her eyes turned cold. “Where is Jun Hao? Why did you return on your own?”
Yin Yun’s face grew darker. He dropped down to his knees. “This subordinate deserves the worst punishment.”
“What happened?” Jun Huang took a deep breath to calm herself.
“There was a circus performing near the tavern,” said Yin Yun. “The prince was drawn. Unfortunately, there was too big a crowd. We ended up separated. I stayed outside the premise waiting for the performance to end, but the prince never showed up. Once the crowd was dispersed, I entered the building to find him gone. Then I came back to you.”
Jun Huang understood the full story. She knew how Jun Hao was like. Yin Yun wasn’t to blame. “It’s not your fault. Don’t beat yourself up. However, we must find him as soon as possible.”
“Understood.” Yin Yun shot to his feet and called out for the shadowguards. He explained what had happened and told one of the guards to notify Nan Xun. The others would join Jun Huang in her search for Jun Hao.
Meanwhile, Jun Hao was having trouble telling right from left. He remembered watching the circus perform and marveling at what the crew were capable of. When he turned around, Yin Yun was nowhere to be seen. He panicked and tried squeezing his way outside. Unfortunately, there were too many people blocking his way.
He started sweating. Tamping down his urge to cry, he tried leaving again. Before he could get far, someone seized his wrist and covered his nose and mouth before he could react. An aggressive smell assaulted his senses. He blacked out.
The road was bumpy. He heard voices talking in the beginning, but then everything quieted down. His head was splitting and spinning. It took some time for him to regain his focus and realize that he was on someone’s shoulders. They were in the middle of nowhere.
“Who are you?” Jun Hao asked with a trembling voice. “Why did you kidnap me?”
The man carrying him didn’t say anything. No matter how mature Jun Hao was given his age, he couldn’t help but burst into tears when he realized he’d been kidnapped, and Yin Yun wasn’t around to save him.
The man didn’t care about Jun Hao’s wailing. No one was close enough to hear it. He quickened his pace.
Jun Hao had thought he’d been carried outside the city, but then they arrived at a manor. He realized then that he had probably been taken to the fringe of the city. That was his speculation, anyway.
Before he could look around, he was dropped to the floor. He hit his forehead on a table and burst into tears. In his fuzzy view, he saw a man dressed in green robe walking toward him. He looked familiar.
“Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you,” the man said coolly. It sounded more like a threat than a reassurance. Jun Hao stared at him, his vision going dark.
I’ve seen him before, he thought before losing consciousness again.
Jun Huang and Yin Yun returned to the circus. The crew were preparing to leave. Jun Huang leveled them with a cold stare. The crew spared Jun Huang and the others a brief glance before going back to packing.
Jun Huang was worried about Jun Hao, but she hadn’t yet figured out what was wrong. There was something fishy about the circus. She just had to know what it was.
“Anything I can help you with?” An old man walked up to her. He seemed to be the ringmaster.
Jun Huang considered the plainly dressed old man. “It’s nothing. I hear there was a performance and got curious. Unfortunately it ended before I arrived.”
“My apologies. We’re in a rush to our next performance.”
“There’s no need for that. I’m the one who was late to the party. I’ll get out of your hair.” Jun Huang walked away. The others followed her lead.
Outside, Jun Huang stopped and glanced back. There was someone watching them from the shadows. Her suspicion grew stronger. She was even more convinced that something was wrong with the circus. She put some more distance between her and the circus.
Noting her frown, Yin Yun jogged up to her and asked, “Did you notice something wrong?‘
“They’re responsible somehow,” Jun Huang said, glancing up at him.
Yin Yun looked at her questioningly, waiting for her to explain.
“They don’t look like they’re from the imperial city. Why would they be in such a rush to the next performance?”
“What do you mean?” Yin Yun couldn’t connect the dots.
“Why would a performance troupe from outside the city left after one performance? The imperial city is prosperous. If you were the leading the circus, wouldn’t you stay and hold more shows here?”
“That’s right. It is unusual.” Yin Yun slapped his forehead in realization. It was impressive that Jun Huang had noticed that. Before he could say anything, Jun Huang took all the guards back to the circus. He hurriedly caught up with them.
The old man’s expression darkened when he saw her. Jun Huang ignored him and ordered the shadowguards to open their boxes.
“What are you doing?” The old man rushed to stop the shadowguards. The others paled and put themselves between the guards and the boxes.
Jun Huang scoffed, her cold gaze sweeping over the crew. The more easily scared ones went weak in the knees and fell to the ground.
“Why would you be so worried if you haven’t done anything wrong? What atrocities have you committed?”
Jun Huang’s tone grew even colder, her eyes sharper. The old man was rendered speechless. His face went white.
Jun Huang didn’t have the time to waste on them. She gave Yin Yun a pointed look.
Without missing a beat, Yin Yun pushed past the crew and opened the boxes they had been trying to hide.
Inside every box was an unconscious child.
Everyone widened their eyes in shock. Jun Huang didn’t expect that, either. In a fit of rage, she took a sword from one of the shadowguards and held it to the old man’s neck.
The old man lost his strength. The others tried to flee, but the shadowguards caught them. Jun Huang took a deep breath to calm her fury and huffed. “Oh, you’re not leaving after what you’ve done. Not under my watch. None of you can escape.”
Jun Huang’s tone was steely. The blade broke the old man’s skin. A drop of blood streamed down his neck. He felt weak in the knees, but he didn’t dare move a muscle.
Nan Xun arrived not long after. He frowned at the scene and had his men tie up the ringmaster. He then took the sword from Jun Huang and dropped it to the ground, putting his arm around her shoulders comfortingly.
“What happened?” Nan Xun asked Yin Yun.
Yin Yun respectfully explained everything. Nan Xun’s face clouded. He had everyone at the circus apprehended and sent a man to notify the city’s yamen.
Jun Huang gradually recovered from her fury. She pulled away from Nan Xun and approached the boxes.
With others’ help, she lifted every child from the boxes. She was so gentle it was as if she was afraid of breaking them. She checked every one of the victims, but Jun Hao wasn’t among them.