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Chapter 37: Rivaling Beauty
The emperor sighed. "My dear, why do you do this to yourself? Yin'er got himself killed eating what he shouldn't have… I am disappointed in him."
The empress snapped her head up and handed the slip of paper to the emperor. "Qi Chen was behind Yin'er's death. He disregarded their bond as siblings and got Yin'er killed."
The emperor took a look at what was written on the paper, his eyebrows furrowed. He knew Qi Chen had something to do with Qi Yin's death, but what else should he do? He had lost the crown prince; he couldn't possibly kill his other son as well.
The emperor stood up without a word. His silence was enough to wound the empress. She struggled to her feet. "How can you let Qi Chen get away with this? Wasn't Yin'er your son as well? Do you know – do you know that Yin'er was my everything? Now I don't have a son anymore. What do you want me to do?"
"Stop with this nonsense. Don't think I don't know what you and your brother have been doing recently. I didn't say anything, but that doesn't mean I don't know anything. I don't blame you because you have just lost your son. But now you dare to criticize me?" The emperor's tone was steely. Tears streaked down the empress's face, but she didn't say another word. Instead, she huffed and quietly left the palace.
The emperor looked at the slip of paper again, his chest tightened. Then a eunuch entered and reported that Qi Chen was here. He could feel his temples throbbing.
"Your Majesty, should I let the second prince in?" the eunuch looked at him and asked carefully.
"Forget it. Tell him to leave. I am tired and don't want to see anyone."
The eunuch left to tell Qi Chen the emperor's order. Qi Chen frowned and stopped the eunuch from leaving. "Do you know what Royal Father is concerned about?"
The eunuch shook his head and said that he didn't know why the emperor turned Qi Chen away. Qi Chen had no choice but to leave.
Since that day, the emperor grew more and more distant to Qi Chen. It wasn't obvious. But he no longer asked Qi Chen for opinions in private. Qi Chen was caught off guard. The officials started to think that Qi Chen was losing his influence over the court.
Qi Chen clenched his teeth. An emperor could not be predicted. But it was still difficult to lose the emperor's favor so suddenly. On top of that, the royal uncle's people had been riling him up. It was only natural that Qi Chen would be angry.
"Please control your anger, Your Highness. It's bad for your health. Tomorrow is the banquet of a hundred families. Your Highness must remember to attend. You can relax there." The director of the ministry of rites approached Qi Chen, trying to get on his good side.
Qi Chen nodded. "Don't you worry. I will be there."
The banquet of a hundred families was held yearly. Most attendees were young men from esteemed families. On that day, they would all gather in one place. Some young women from rich families would come to meet with the young men as well, trying to find a good husband.
Unmarried women would do anything they could to be noticed by the ones their hearts belong to, trying to be chosen by them.
And men could not only find a woman they liked, but also find friends who shared their values. It was therefore a very lively event. Accompanied by beautiful people and good wine – it was a guaranteed good time.
After returning to his manor, it came to Qi Chen's mind that Jun Huang had done a lot for him, and should be allowed to attend the banquet with him. For as long as he knew Jun Huang, Jun Huang wanted neither money nor status. If he could find Jun Huang a good woman, it would be ideal.
Without notifying Jun Huang beforehand, he sent for a tailor to come to the manor and make two outfits for Jun Huang. Jun Huang was born good-looking and shouldn't be overlooked because of clothes.
Soon, the tailor was here. After understanding the requirements, the tailor promised to deliver the outfits tomorrow morning. He left Prince Chen Manor with some silver.
Around the same time, Jun Huang was resting in her place. Her beautiful eyes were half-closed, concealing the brightness underneath. Her clothes fluttered in the wind as she lay on the empress chair. On the teapoy next to her were a pot of tea and some pastries. She couldn't look more relaxed.
Wei Qian was watching Jun Huang in a hallway far away from her. She didn't get closer. Neither did she say anything. Her eyes, however, never left Jun Huang.
The next morning, Jun Huang was still asleep when there was a knocking sound. She was a light sleeper. She immediately jumped off the bed and got changed. After getting herself presentable, she opened the door. There were a couple beautiful women right outside. One of them had a bowl of water in her hand. Another was holding some clothes. They each took a side, while Wei Qian standing at the front, blocking them.
"What's the matter?" Jun Huang blinked. This was inappropriate.
One of the women rolled her eyes at Wei Qian before turning to Jun Huang with a sweet smile. "Your Highness asked us to help the gentleman get changed."
Jun Huang was even more confused. She had told Qi Chen she didn't like being served, and still he did this? She wondered what he was up to.
"Put the things down and leave me. I can get ready myself."
The women shared a look. They didn't dare to push it, so they nodded and left. Jun Huang threw a glance at Wei Qian. "Thank you for stopping them from coming in." Then she went back to her room, leaving the surprised Wei Qian outside.
Jun Huang changed into the clothes Qi Chen had people make. She wore an elegant violet robe made of silk, her dark hair held up by a white jade cap. In her hand she was holding a foldable fan. She looked like a handsome young man. Her eyes were as bright as the stars. Her smile could captivate an entire city.
Qi Chen stood dumbfounded for quite a while when he saw Jun Huang. Then he clapped. "Like the finest jade, the gentleman's beauty is unrivaled. Brother Feng is indeed handsome. I cannot help but envy you."
"Your Highness is too kind." Jun Huang smiled with her eyes downcast, waving the fan in her hand. Wei Qian had already fallen hard for her, her heart pounding and her eyes unable to meet Jun Huang's. Qi Chen, on the other hand, looked appreciative.
After breakfast, Jun Huang asked, "Today Your Highness sent in this new outfit and asked me to put it on. I wonder what the occasion is?"
"It is the yearly banquet of a hundred families in Northern Qi. I myself have not found a good spouse yet and wanted to find one today. Brother Feng is also of the age when you should think about marriage. Besides, brother Feng is talented. You need someone who will appreciate you. If you don't mind, I will find you a beauty that understands you at the banquet."
Jun Huang knew what Qi Chen actually meant. The emperor had started to be wary of him. Qi Chen wanted to find someone who could make him more powerful. Finding Jun Huang a match was only the cherry on top.
"This gentleman is but a lowly peasant. I have nothing. No woman will consider me a good match. I only hope they won't waste their time."
"Nonsense. If brother Feng does find someone, it would be a worthy story to tell."
Jun Huang only smiled, disregarding what he said.
After some preparations, Qi Chen and Jun Huang got into a coach and headed for the banquet. It was held in a famous tavern in the imperial city. When they arrived, there were already quite a few people there. These sons from high cla.s.s families greeted one another with cupped hands and engaged one another in lively conversations.
Qi Chen got off the coach first, then Jun Huang, too. When she did, Qi Chen was talking to a group of people close to his age, a wide smile on his face. He waved her over and introduced Jun Huang to the others. "This is the Feng Baiyu I've told you about. He is an honored guest at my manor."
Jun Huang nodded at them in greeting. Qi Chen treated them as equals. It was obvious that these men's families held formidable influence in the court.
A fair-skinned scholar greeted Jun Huang. "I have heard of gentleman Feng's name, but I didn't know the gentleman is so handsome. Meeting you is a great fortune in all three lives of mine."
"The gentleman is too kind." Jun Huang said in response. She treated people the way they treated her.
There was a ruckus. Then Jun Huang saw Nan Xun through the crowds. He stood there like a G.o.d descending from heaven. The silk robe he wore made him look a touch more mortal. His loosely tied hair flew in the wind.
His appearance provoked screams of excitement from the women on the balconies. The handkerchiefs they threw fell slowly from the sky.
The elegant fragrance from the handkerchiefs made the men dizzy with want, but Nan Xun showed no reaction. His expression remained calm and collected.
Jun Huang and Nan Xun shared a look across the sea of people. Jun Huang arched an eyebrow, teasing him. In response, Nan Xun curled up his lips into a faint smile, which made even more women fell for his charm.
Not long after, the emperor arrived as well with the empress. The maid next to her recognized Jun Huang at the first glance and told the empress about it. The empress saw that Jun Huang and Qi Chen appeared to be close, and was unsure of Jun Huang's intentions. If Qi Yin really was murdered by Qi Chen, however, Jun Huang must have been involved as well. She felt the urge to get Jun Huang killed.
The purpose of this banquet was for the young men to find their spouse. The emperor and the empress sat on the second floor drinking tea, watching these young people blushed for the subjects of their desires. Many were also competing for their target's attention.
When Qi Chen was deep in conversation with other people, Jun Huang sneaked to Nan Xun's side. "Your Highness is indeed an impressive man," she teased. "So many women fell at the sight of you. I wonder who will be able to hold your attention. Does Your Highness have your eyes on anyone? If so, you should announce it, lest the army of women here have their heart broken."
Nan Xun met her gaze. A smile suddenly appeared on his face. "I do not care if other people have fallen for me. I only want to know if a certain someone has."
"Oh? Has Your Highness fallen for a woman already? Would you mind telling me who it is?" Jun Huang's curiosity was piqued. She didn't expect an iceberg like Nan Xun to be in love with anyone.
Nan Xun didn't give her a direct answer. Instead, he asked, "I wonder if you have fallen for me?" He kept his eyes on Jun Huang like he was determined to get an answer.
Jun Huang was rendered speechless for a moment. Her heart skipped a few beats and didn't recover immediately. What did Nan Xun mean? Also, what was he thinking? Someone may overhear and get suspicious! "Your Highness must be joking. I am a man and fall only for women." She gave him a measured smile. "You can't possibly believe that both men and women will fall for you, can you?"