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“Why did you turn me down, Nan Xun?” Shangguan Yue choked out.
Nan Xun frowned and put some distance between them. “I have no feelings for you.”
She lowered her eyes and clutched at her shirt, gritting her teeth. She blocked his way without a word. After a long stretch of silence, she looked up at him with adoring eyes. “I’ve expressed my love for you, and yet you cruelly turned me down. I won’t do this if I don’t love you. Nan Xun, I’m willing to turn a blind eye to the affair between you and another man…”
Annoyance flashed through Jun Huang’s expression. Nan Xun knew she was displeased. He had never wanted to be involved with Shangguan Yue. He only maintained a polite appearance because she was a woman. Now, though, he didn’t care anymore.
He took a deep breath and said slowly, “I hope Lady Shangguan won’t forget about your shame and virtue as a woman. I’ve been patient with you only because what happened to your family. Since the empress dowager is willing to take you under her wing, you should stop chasing after an empty dream and take care of her.”
He took Jun Huang’s wrist and pushed past Shangguan Yue. They walked away without a glance back.
Shangguan Yue stared after him, her eyes brimming with tears and her heart throbbing in pain. She never expected a man to be this harsh to her.
Nan Xun led Jun Huang onto a decorated boat. The sun had set. The view on the river was even more beautiful now than during daytime.
The boat moved forward, making ripples over the surface of the water. The river opened up as they moved away from the royal garden and turned into another fork, which led to the lake.
In the evening, there were many more decorated boats on the lake. A few smaller shantyboats roamed through the open space between the bigger decorated boats. Performance of songs and dances were held on a few of them. The bright moon hung low in the sky. Its reflection dyed the dark river white.
Jun Huang and Nan Xun stayed on the deck of the boat where two divans were placed as their seats. Between them was a low table. She lay on the divan and looked up at the moon, her lips curved into a small smile.
“Is it the fifteenth of the month?” she asked.
Nan Xun looked up at the full moon and shook his head. “It’s the sixteenth.”
“Ah, is that so?” She sat up and looked away, reaching out for the wine jug to pour herself a cup. Nan Xun wanted to stop her, but her unblinking gaze made him pause. His hand froze in mid air helplessly.
She smiled. “It’s a beautiful evening. The moon is silver like the frost, and the view is nice. Wouldn’t it be a waste of the scenery if we don’t have a few drinks?”
He thought for a moment and decided that she was right. It might also help lighten up her mood. He nodded and didn’t argue.
She filled two cups with wine and handed one to Nan Xun. She picked up the other one and had a sip. The wine was strong enough to make her tongue tingle, but it mellowed out once it went down her throat. It was a quality brand of wine.
Her sleeves fluttered in the wind as she finished another cup. It was a good day. She was starting to enjoy herself. She kept drinking until she drank almost half of the jug. Nan Xun had a few more drinks as well in a moment of weakness.
They were both a little drunk when the jug of wine was emptied, but Nan Xun was more sober than Jun Huang. He was used to having hard liquor when marching with the army. The wine they had tonight was more mellow, but the effect crept up on you. The moonlit night made them lose a little of their self-control.
She threw caution out of the window and walked up to the edge of the boat. Nan Xun shook the haziness in his head away and followed after her, worried that she might slip and fall off.
“Careful,” he said. “It’s not safe in the evening.”
She looked back at him, her cheeks tinted with red and her eyes as misty as the foggy lake. Nan Xun’s heart fluttered. He wanted to get close to her, but he didn’t want to scare her away. He stood as still as a statue, his eyes fixed on her.
Nan Xun had a high tolerance for alcohol. The strong wind over the lake was enough to clear his head. Jun Huang, though, was still inebriated. She was somewhat of a lightweight, and she rarely drank ever since she was hit with the poison. All the doctors told her that she shouldn’t drink in this state.
She stood there for a long time with Nan Xun providing silent company. The chilling wind made her skin sting. The boat had reached the port when she finally sobered up.
It was late. There weren’t a lot of people around the area. Nan Xun’s shadow guards were the only group waiting at the port.
They got off the boat and went straight back to the inn. Nan Xun watched Jun Huang enter her room before returning to his. She was tired. She plopped down on her bed immediately and fell asleep.
The next day, she woke up early in the morning. The sun shone through the window, casting the entire room in gold. It was a beautiful sight.
She propped herself up. Her head hurt so badly that she gasped in pain. Hangover wasn’t a good feeling. She hugged her knees to herself and stayed unmoving on the bed.
Someone knocked on the door. She looked up and saw Nan Xun walking in with a ceramic bowl. He placed it on the table and touched her forehead. “Headache?”
“I brought some hangover tea for you. You’ll feel better after drinking it. I didn’t know you’d drink more than you could handle. I’ll remember to stop you next time.”
Nan Xun blamed himself for her discomfort. Her heart soften as she looked at his dejected expression.
“Drinking can’t solve anything,” she said with a smile. “I’m not going to drink again.”
Nan Xun relaxed visibly. After he helped her have some tea, a member of the House of Heavenly Fiends came knocking. He handed her a letter.
She frowned when she read the news about Yin Yun and Jun Hao. Ever since she knew that they were staying in Eastern Wu, she had put people on stake out duty to keep them safe. If they encountered a danger or made a move, she would be notified immediately.
She did it just to be on the safe side, but it turned out her worries were not unfounded.
Nan Xun took the letter from her. His brows drew closer as he read it.
The House of Heavenly Fiends found out that Yin Yun had been trying to gather information on Eastern Wu. He met up with some locals several times.
Jun Huang knew what Yin Yun was trying to do. She was both moved and scared. She wanted only for him and Jun Hao to be safe and happy. She would take care of the rest.
Revenge was too heavy a burden. Not everyone should have to shoulder it. She thought back to how happy Jun Hao was when she last saw him. She couldn’t bear seeing him weighed down by revenge. She might not be strong enough to protect everyone, but she wanted at least to protect those she cared about.
Nan Xun could sympathized with her. He sighed and tried to find the right words to reassure her, but he couldn’t. He shook his head and fell silent.
Jun Huang closed her eyes and said quietly, “I’m tired, Nan Xun. I want to be alone for a while.”
He knew she had a lot on her mind. He put the letter on the table and patted her shoulder. “There’s a cause to every effect. When you’re worried about them, they’re worried about you as well. You should be happy that they are doing all they can to help you. Don’t think yourself into a corner. Treat yourself better.”
She looked up at him and managed a weak smile. With a nod, she saw him off. The moment the door closed, all her strength and courage seemed to drain out of her body. She stumbled backward and fell onto the divan, staring up at the ceiling.
Her head was a mess. She couldn’t find a clear throughline out of her tangled thoughts. The only concrete thing was her memory of the time when she and her brother had been happy.
She had just woken up, and yet she felt exhausted. She lay on the divan bonelessly, unwilling to get up. At that moment, she wanted nothing more than to be a mindless doll. Then none of the tragedies would have happened to her, and she wouldn’t be weighed down by her worries all the time.
She was tired, but she couldn’t fall asleep. She lay there for a long time with her eyes open. Finally, she got off the divan and walked up to the window. She could hear the cacophony of vendors’ cries and crowd’s chatter.
She stood alone above the bustling activities. The cool air chilled her to the bone. She felt lost all of a sudden. What was she going to do next?
Nan Xun was waiting at the door, listening to any unusual sounds coming from the room. He worried that she would do something dangerous on impulse. The only thing he cared about was her safety.
The door opened, breaking him out of his trance. Jun Huang’s eyes widened slightly when she saw him. She smiled a little. “I want to go back.”
“Back to the imperial city,” she said calmly, her expression free of any hesitation and confusion. “I have business to take care of. The mountains and rivers won’t disappear. We can always come back in the future. I want to go back and do what I must do.”
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