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Chapter 36: Pulling the Strings
Nan Xun frowned at Jun Huang's pale face. It was clear that Jun Huang could not accept this answer. He sighed and held her cold fingers in his hand. "I know you want to help Qi Yun find the truth, but truth is often cruel. At the moment Qi Yun may not be able to bear it. Maybe it's better to keep him in the dark. If he knows that the emperor was involved in his mother's death, what do you think he'll do? He'll resent the emperor, which will prevent him from gaining the throne."
Jun Huang closed her eyes and took a deep breath. For the longest time she had thought that the emperor was a kind leader, but no emperor could really be kind, could they?
She sat there, trying to calm down. The tea had long gone cold. When her heart had finally stop racing, she picked up the cold cup of tea and swallowed it down. She tried a smile, shaking her head at Nan Xun.
She stood up and looked at woman who was old before her time.
"Thank you for your help. We will take our leave now." She walked outside.
Nan Xun sighed and said to the woman, "Ma'am, I'd like to ask you to please keep our visit today a secret. Thank you."
The woman nodded. She was no stranger to conflicts within the royal family. Those were exactly what she escaped the palace to avoid. She had chosen to live under a different name so that she could stay away.
When Nan Xun bid her farewell and left, Jun Huang had already walked quite a long distance. She walked along the dimly-lit street, the expression on her face cold and distant. Nan Xun jogged up to her.
Jun Huang didn't stop. Instead, she continued forward. Nan Xun frowned. He knew that what he told her had hurt her genuine heart, but there were too many things one could not avoid in life. No one could remain unchanged.
He grabbed Jun Huang by the wrist and stopped her. She frowned at him. "What are you doing?"
"What are you doing? Why are you here for?" Nan Xun's tone was harsh. He stared at Jun Huang like he wanted to see through her.
Meeting Nan Xun's eyes, Jun Huang suddenly came to her senses. Her overreaction came out of nowhere. It was laughable, really. She quickly regained her composure and broke out of Nan Xun's hold. A small smile appeared on her face. "I have embarra.s.sed myself in front of Your Highness. It's late. I will take my leave now." She turned around and left.
Jun Huang gradually disappeared into the light in the distance. Nan Xun sighed. This woman wore her heart on her sleeves, but who could keep her bleeding heart from hardening for a lifetime?
That night, Jun Huang twisted and turned on her bed. Her head kept spinning. After a whole night of consideration, she agreed with what Nan Xun said. The world was unstable enough as it was, and Qi Chen was ambitious. This really wasn't the time to tell Qi Yun the truth. In order to help Qi Yun obtain the throne, she had to keep it from Qi Yun.
It wasn't until dawn that she finally fell asleep. And when she woke up, it was past noon. After resting, she ceased dwelling on what happened yesterday. She was even unconsciously suppressing the memory.
Now the imperial court was split into a few factions, all of which were at conflict with one another under the table, and they would stop at nothing. Qi Chen even tried to instigate Qi Yin's remaining people to eliminate royal uncle's supporters once and for all.
Ever since Jun Huang made the poison that killed Qi Yin, Qi Chen had become closer to her. Every once in a while he would invite Jun Huang for tea. Jun Huang always accepted with a smile and went back to her building with light footsteps.
Qi Chen now held considerable influence in the court. If left unchecked, he would become a serious threat. Jun Huang knew that very well, so she had someone keeping tab on the empress. When she heard that the empress was going to send Qi Yin off in the Buddhist temple in the city tomorrow, she started making preparations.
In the early morning, Jun Huang left Prince Chen Manor for the temple. Because of the empress's visit, there were suddenly a lot more guards on the street. The empress did not prohibit other people from going into the temple, though. The general public could still enter, but they needed to be checked beforehand.
Jun Huang was sharp, and she was instantly likable in conversations. When she was stopped at the door by a guard, she lowered her voice and said with a smile, "Big brother, I am an upstanding citizen. I'm here just to gain some blessings. You know how it is in the imperial city. Women only have the princes in their eyes. A commoner like me can only pray to be luckier."
The man had had similar experience. He patted her on the shoulder. "I get it, brother. Don't rush. No one knows when love may knock on your door. Besides, you are a handsome man. You will find a good wife in the near future. Go on." He let her in. Jun Huang smiled at him and entered.
Her smile disappeared once she got into the temple. Looking around, she set her gaze on the rear building, which was limited to the royal family. No one else was allowed to enter.
Jun Huang ran to the entrance of the building and pretended to be panting. She even wiped at her forehead like she was wiping away sweat. "Big brother, this little brother is lost and doesn't know where he should go. May I ask for the direction?"
The man she stopped was a little annoyed. He pointed at the side. "Go. That's the exit. This is no place for a commoner like you. Go now."
"Of course, of course. I'll leave now." Jun Huang bowed as she spoke, at the same time taking a look at the inside. The room was filled with incense smoke. The empress, dressed in a robe, knelt before the statue of Buddha to pray for her son. There were tears streaking down her face. It was a pitiful sight.
This place was heavily guarded. Jun Huang could not meet with the empress in person. When she was trying to come up with an alternative, she happened to spot the personal maid of the empress. The maid was probably on a short break. There was a pendant from the palace on her waist.
Jun Huang took a deep breath, preparing herself mentally. She curled up the corner of her mouth and approached the maid. The maid, who was in a light yellow dress, felt her heart skipping a beat at the sight of this handsome gentleman. She had never met a man with such fine features and such elegance.
Jun Huang's smile widened when she reached the maid. "This gentleman saw from a distance that the lady is here alone. You seem lonely. That's why I approached you. I hope you don't find me too intrusive."
"No, the gentleman is – the gentleman is too hard on himself." The woman blushed and dared not look at Jun Huang's eyes. She wrung her hands and bit into her bottom lip. It was clear that she was feeling shy.
Jun Huang had a little talk with her, who was completely unsuspecting. Also, Jun Huang was careful with her words and never crossed the line. Very soon she had gained the maid's affection.
After about the time to finish a cup of tea, Jun Huang looked up at the sky and said disappointedly, "It's late. I have to leave now. It is my pleasure meeting you today. But the G.o.ds do not change their plans for us mortals. I can only pray to Bodhisattva. I hope we will have the chance to meet again."
"This is the sachet that I always have on me. I'll give it to you today. Let us hope fate will bring us together again." Jun Huang took off the sachet she had prepared for this moment and handed it to the woman. Without another word, she turned around and left.
The maid watched her with the sachet in her hand. She suddenly realized that she had not asked for the gentleman's name. She looked down at the sachet, unsure of how to feel. It wasn't until the housekeeper called out from behind her that she came to her senses. The sachet dropped down to the ground and the herbs inside scattered, revealing a slip of paper.
The maid picked it up and immediately, her face paled. The housekeeper frowned at her. "What is this?"
"Granny, look – " She fearfully handed the slip of paper to the housekeeper, whose face gone white as well. They rushed to find the empress.
The empress saw how frantic they were and asked with a frown, "What's gotten to you?"
"Ma'am, you need to see this." The housekeeper handed the paper to the empress. She flattened it and took a look.
"Fava beans are only available in other countries. In Northern Qi, only the emperor has the privilege to enjoy any. The emperor awarded some to the second prince, who didn't like the fava beans. Now it was found in the crown prince's body. It is because the second prince wanted him dead. Other people say that the crown prince bought the fava beans himself. However, it is way past the season for fava beans. Our neighboring countries aren't willing to just sell the beans. This is a scheme of a malicious man. The empress must not be cheated. The murderers have to be caught." The empress wavered as if she was going to fall. The housekeeper went up to support her immediately, her face concerned.
After a while, the empress spoke up, "Where did this come from?"
The maid lowered her head, her cheeks red. "This servant was waiting outside and met a – a man. He gave this to me."
The empress frowned. "A man? Where is he?"
The maid shook her head. "He left already."
The empress tightened her grip on the paper. Her resentment towards Qi Chen and Consort Zhen grew stronger and stronger. She wanted nothing more than to tear Qi Chen into pieces in order to quell this anger in her heart.
It took a long time for the empress to calm down. Her eyes were cold. She turned to the housekeeper. "Tell everyone to return to the palace at once."
"Understood." The housekeeper left. The maid supported the empress as the two of them walked out of the temple. They got into a sedan chair to go back to the palace.
Jun Huang was watching from behind a stand. She smiled. Everything went according to her plan. Now it was up to the empress to change the emperor's mind.
As expected, once the empress returned to the palace, she went straight to the emperor's bedroom. She barged in sobbing, giving the emperor, who was approving reports, quite a scare. He never expected the empress to cry like she was drowning in sorrow. For a moment he didn't know how to comfort her.
After a while, the emperor asked, "My beloved empress, what is the matter?"
"Your Majesty, you have to find justice for this wife of yours. You have to find justice for our dead son." The empress lay on the floor and sobbed. Her voice had gone hoa.r.s.e. It sounded like she was coughing blood.
The emperor still had no clue what she was talking about. He went to help the empress up, but she wasn't willing to get up. Instead, she pulled at his sleeve and continued sobbing. "If Your Majesty does not find justice for Yin'er, this wife will kneel here until she dies."