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Chapter 39: Counting down the Days
A woman dressed in pink walked out. Her red clothes were too bright, and her makeup too carefully put together. She sauntered onto the stage, her eyes fixed on Qi Chen. "This lady is Wei Lanying. I'd like to dance for Prince Chen today."
That got a reaction out of the crowd. Wei Lanying had been in love with Qi Chen for a long time, and every year at the banquet, she would perform a dance number for him to express her love.
Qi Chen knew Wei Lanying would do this. There was a faint smile at his lips, revealing nothing about his thoughts. Men were not as good as women in understanding other women. Jun Huang could tell that Wei Lanying was not as harmless as she seemed.
Wei Lanying threw Qi Chen a long look before walking up the stairs. When she appeared on the second floor, she had changed into an outfit from the western region1, giving her an exotic feel. The bells she wore rang as she walked, the sound drawing everyone's attention.
The draping silk obscured the view. Jun Huang looked up and saw only Wei Lanying, her back straight and her head held high. She looked like a being from outside this mortal world.
Qi Chen had not figured out what Wei Lanying was trying to do yet. He was fascinated by the alluring silk and couldn't move his gaze away from Wei Lanying. Jun Huang chanced a few glance at him and couldn't help but sigh. She was afraid that Qi Chen would not be able to handle this woman.
Wei Lanying, on the other hand, was delighted to draw such a reaction from him. She held onto a strip of silk and flew down from the air, perfectly in control of her body. She made it look as if she was as light as a feather. The crowd erupted into cheers.
Jun Huang picked up the wine cup and tilted it, chuckling. The wine was clear like a mirror, reflecting her face. She took a sip. It tasted good.
She chucked the whole cup, then continued to watch Wei Lanying's performance with a c.o.c.ked head. Next to her, Qi Chen had fallen head over heels. Jun Huang huffed inwardly.
On the second floor, the empress had her eyes on Jun Huang. The smile at her lips deepened as she watched Jun Huang swallowing down the poisoned wine. The maid at her side, however, was tortured by guilt, her palm damp with sweat.
Jun Huang started to feel lightheaded. She frowned. She never was such a light-weight. She took her own pulse under the table and realized that she had been poisoned.
She looked up at the second floor, her eyes as sharp as a fatal weapon. She knew what had happened. It was the empress's maid.
She took a deep breath to suppress the pain in her head, then she got to her feet unsteadily.
"Who are you? Get moving!" A woman exclaimed. Before Jun Huang could react, she was pushed away by Wei Lanying, collapsing onto a stool. The wine on the table spilled all over the floor. The cups too were shattered.
Wei Lanying looked at her with innocent eyes. Jun Huang pulled herself up and looked back without a word. Qi Chen worriedly came to help Jun Huang up. "Brother Feng, are you alright?"
Jun Huang shook her head and chuckled. "I'm fine. Just a little dizzy. I'll go get some fresh air. Please excuse me." She walked past the stool and went out.
Qi Chen was going to follow her, but was stopped by Wei Lanying, who looked at him with wide eyes, her adoring look so hard to deny. Qi Chen could only abandon his brother to stay with her.
He pulled Wei Lanying into his arms and took a deep breath. The elegant fragrance on her body was addicting. He didn't want to let her go.
Wei Lanying lay against him, boneless. "Do you love me, Your Highness?" she asked bashfully.
Qi Chen looked down at her as if he was thinking hard about her question, when in reality, he was thinking that her father, Sir Wei, was only a seventh grade scholar official and wouldn't be of much help in his fight to become the crown prince. There were, however, quite a few officials who had not taken a stand in the imperial court, and Sir Wei was one of them. If Sir Wei took his side, it could still benefit him.
He looked at the woman in his arms and smiled. Without any more hesitation, he took Wei Lanying's hand and led her to the second floor. Everyone was watching them, so no one noticed that Nan Xun had followed Jun Huang out.
Qi Chen knelt down before the emperor. "Royal Father, this son wants to marry Lanying," he said with much determination.
The emperor looked at Wei Lanying, then at Qi Chen, frowning. The empress scoffed inwardly. In her eyes, the Wei family was no threat to her. It would be smart to use this opportunity to make Qi Chen owe her a favor.
The empress got to her feet slowly and bowed at the emperor. "Your Highness, if Chen'er likes her, please let him marry her. Look, a handsome man wants to be with a beautiful woman. They were born a perfect couple."
The emperor nodded. She was right. And Qi Chen had reached the age for marriage. After some deliberation, he ordered someone to get Sir Wei. Then in front of everyone, he announced, "The gentle Wei Lanying and the handsome Qi Chen have fallen for each other. Today I'm granting them a marriage. A good day would be picked for their wedding."
"This son thanks Royal Father for granting me my wish," said Qi Chen.
After leaving the tavern, Jun Huang felt even more dizzy. She leaned against the wall and couldn't even walk. Soon, she lost consciousness. Fortunately, Nan Xun saw her just in time to catch her, preventing her from falling face first to the ground.
Nan Xun frowned at the frail Jun Huang in his arms. Her lips were going black – a clear sign that she was poisoned. He looked around. Because of the banquet, the entrance was blocked. No one irrelevant could enter, and no one should leave without a good reason.
Nan Xun knew that they couldn't afford to wait any longer. He put a cape over Jun Huang and pulled her onto his back, planning to take her back to his manor. The royal guards noticed that there was a person on Nan Xun's back, but they all recognized Nan Xun and didn't dare to offend him. They muttered among themselves and finally someone approached him. "Where are you going, Your Highness? Is something wrong with this young man?"
Nan Xun threw him a cold glance, which almost made him faint. Then Nan Xun said in steely tone, "He is an honored guest of mine. Drank a little too much. I'm taking him back to my manor."
The man wiped away his sweat. "Of course, of course. Does Your Highness need a hand?"
"No need. Watch the tavern carefully. If anything is to happen, your heads will fall."
"Understood. Your Highness is right to warn us." They let Nan Xun pa.s.s and watched him leave.
Anxiousness filled Nan Xun's heart. Jun Huang's breathing had become weaker and weaker, as if it was going to stop any moment. He picked up his pace.
Once he reached his manor, he sent for his personal doctor and took Jun Huang to his bedroom. The alternatives didn't even occur to him.
His servants shared a look. They didn't know who it was that Nan Xun brought back, but they didn't dare to talk behind Nan Xun's back. The smart thing to do was to pretend they saw nothing.
Not long after, the doctor arrived. Jun Huang lay unconscious on the bed, her breathing shallow. The doctor could see how nervous Nan Xun was. He took Jun Huang's pulse with furrowed brows and sighed, shaking his head at Nan Xun without a word. Nan Xun couldn't bear the silence and grabbed the doctor by his collar. "How is she?"
"Your Highness, this girl slowed her blood circulation the moment she knew she was poisoned. She, however, had been poisoned before. A new poison on top of the old one – and this new one is potent – I'm afraid… that this girl doesn't have a lot of time left. I will give her some medicine, and hopefully, she will wake up soon." The doctor shook his head again and left, smoothing a hand over his beard, leaving Nan Xun standing motionless on the spot.
He looked at the almost lifeless Jun Huang. A sharp pain hit his chest. He felt like there was a heavy stone on his torso and he could barely breathe.
Jun Huang couldn't see Nan Xun now. She was trapped in a limbo, back to the day her country was destroyed. Land was ravaged. Blinding fire engulfed the city. Deaths spread like a never-ending epidemic.
"No… Don't kill my brother… No!" Jun Huang started muttering in her nightmare, her eyebrows tightly knitted.
That tipped Nan Xun over the edge. "Your land was lost, yes, but why do you have to live in the past?" he clenched his teeth and growled. "The past can’t be changed. Will you just keep pus.h.i.+ng yourself until you die in Northern Qi?"
"A gentleman is willing to wait ten years for his revenge. You are dressed like one, but you don't act like one. If you hadn't been so impatient trying to get what you wanted, you wouldn't have ended up like this."
He didn't realize how emotional he was being. Unwilling to see Jun Huang in this state, he left with a flair of his sleeves and ordered a maid to take care of Jun Huang.
It was late at night when Jun Huang slowly came to. She rubbed her throbbing temples and opened her eyes. What she saw made her frown. The room was foreign to her.
The maid, who was taking a nap, woke up and saw that Jun Huang had regained consciousness. She hurriedly got to her feet. "Miss, you have finally woke up."
"What did you call me?"
The maid blinked at Jun Huang. "Miss…?"
Jun Huang looked down at herself and saw that she had been changed into women's clothes, and her hair was down over her shoulders. She blushed and pointed at herself. "Who helped me change?"
"The prince asked me to do so. Don't worry, miss. You are at the prince manor. No one can hurt you here."
"The prince manor? Nan Xun?" For reason unknown to Jun Huang herself, the first person she thought of was Nan Xun, not Qi Chen or Qi Yun.
The maid nodded and silently let out a sigh of relief. Her prince and the girl knew each other, so she wasn't someone the prince took here by force.
Today's Xinjiang and part of Central Asia. ↩