Chapter 38: A Prideful Peony
Before Nan Xun could respond, Qi Chen found his way over here. He frowned at Nan Xun before turning to Jun Huang. “I’ve been looking for you. Didn’t expect you to be here.”
“I saw Prince Nan and came to greet him,” answered Jun Huang.
Qi Chen nodded, giving Nan Xun a bemused glance. “I didn’t expect you of all people to attend today, Nan Xun. You never have.”
Nan Xun took a sip of his tea. “I have never attended before. It’s said that this year’s banquet is especially impressive, which made me curious. You, on the other hand, seem to come every year.”
Qi Chen pursed his lips and didn’t respond. He didn’t want to continue this conversation, so he went elsewhere with Jun Huang in tow, waiting for the young women from rich families to perform.
The first one on stage was Shangguan Yue, the daughter of the grand chancellor1. She had bright eyes as if they were painted by artists. Her slim body was cladded in thin silk. It was difficult to look away from her.
The light-colored silk bellowed in the wind, dancing with her black hair. Her makeup accentuated her eyes and every minute change of her expression was alluring. Her steps were light and graceful, like a pond full of lotuses blooming one after another.
How could you not fall for a woman like her? She got everyone’s attention, but if that affected her in any way, it didn’t show on her face. She only had eyes for Nan Xun.
The incense smoke wavered in the air like a veil. Shangguan Yue leaned in a little, looking up at Nan Xun, then she lowered her eyes. She was adoring. She was shy. But her faint smile was proper. She was shy for the one she was in love with; proper for the others present here.
“This lady is Shangguan Yue, the daughter of the grand chancellor. I’m here to perform a dance number for you today. Hopefully I won’t embarrass myself too much.” With her red lips opened, she uttered every word like a sigh. Her gaze at Nan Xun was filled with passion.
Nan Xun looked on with steely eyes, his face as impassive and cold as ever.
Not far from him, Jun Huang looked at Nan Xun with curiosity, supporting her chin with a hand. She looked not unlike a roguish womanizer. Qi Chen drank to her every once in a while, while a woman glared at Jun Huang as if she had robbed her of a husband.
The lute player performed a relaxed melody. Shangguan Yue lightly put her thumb and middle finger together, making the shape of an orchid. Her eyes were cool like the winter. She danced to the music on the stage, as lively as a prideful peony.
Jun Huang watched the performance with calm eyes, but for some, she looked adoring. Qi Chen chuckled close to her ear. Jun Huang turned to look at him with a frown. “What is Your Highness laughing about?”
Qi Chen cocked his head at her, resting his chin on his palm. He laughed a little harder. “I didn’t expect brother Feng to have such good taste. You settled on the famous Shangguan Yue, first beauty of Northern Qi, at the first glance. What a shame.”
Qi Chen jutted his chin at Nan Xun’s direction. “Everyone knows that Shangguan Yue is in love with Nan Xun. She hopes every year that Nan Xun will come to the banquet, but Nan Xun is not someone who knows how to be gentle with women. Every year Shangguan Yue was left heartbroken.” He lowered his voice. “Shangguan Yue originally wanted her father to ask the emperor to arrange their marriage. The grand chancellor, of course, was more than happy to do that. Before Royal Father could bring it up, however, Nan Xun already said no.”
Jun Huang scoffed inwardly. She knew the emperor of Northern Qi was wary of Nan Xun. If Shangguan Yue really got married to Nan Xun, he would attain formidable force at his hands. Someone as untrusting as the emperor would never let that happen.
As for Nan Xun’s denial, if it had nothing to do with the emperor, then well, sometimes the river did not reciprocate the flower’s love.2
Nan Xun’s teasing words came to her mind, which upset her a little. She took another sip of her wine, trying to suppress her agitation.
Shangguan Yue’s performance was almost over. Her face was red like cherry blossom. She walked up to Nan Xun. They were separated only by a stool. She looked down at him and smiled. “Would I have the honor to share the last dance with Your Highness?”
Everyone around them was hollering, waiting for the icy prince to get up for the lady’s smile. Nan Xun, however, was a general after all. He was unfamiliar with matters of the heart and showed no gentleness to women.
He had always been cold. For one person alone would he melt, would he smile, would he be tender.
“Sorry. The lady would have to ask someone else.” Nan Xun said politely, paying no mind to the onlookers and Shangguan Yue’s feelings.
Shangguan Yue stood there helplessly. She was the cherished daughter of loving parents. Never had she been denied so directly before.
People were watching Shangguan Yue and Nan Xun curiously. Nan Xun, however, resumed his drinking and did not spare Shangguan Yue even a glance. The grand chancellor, who was with the emperor, was already seething with anger, but didn’t dare to make a scene. Otherwise he would have come down to the first floor and confronted Nan Xun.
While everyone was looking at Nan Xun, Jun Huang – for reasons unknown to even herself – stood up and approached Shangguan Yue, waving her foldable fan. She greeted her like a gentleman before putting the fan away and extending a hand in invitation. “May this gentleman have the honor to dance with the lady?”
Shangguan Yue threw Jun Huang a glance, her eyes filled with disgust. “The gentleman is making a fool of himself. Who do you think I am? You sons of rich parents are beneath me. Take a look at yourself. You are nothing compared to Nan Xun. If you’re smart, you’ll disappear from my sight. Otherwise I won’t go easy on you.”
Jun Huang smiled, her eyes growing cold. “The lady is making things difficult for me.”
A woman in light yellow silk robe budged in and threw a glare at Shangguan Yue before holding onto Jun Huang’s arm. “Who do you think you are? Brother Nan Xun still doesn’t like you.”
From what she said Jun Huang could deduce that this girl was the little daughter of the emperor. A princess notorious for her difficult personality. Jun Huang was momentarily paralyzed. She couldn’t just pull her arm away from the princess. She turned to Nan Xun for help, but he wasn’t even looking at her.
Finally, Qi Chen came. He pulled Jun Huang behind him. “It’s not a good thing for lady Shangguan to be so arrogant. You consider my dear friend beneath you? I’d say even if you consider him a good match, he is still too good for you.”
Qi Chen never liked Shangguan Yue. He believed that women should be gentle. They should have soft smile and soft voice, neither of which Shangguan Yue had. Moreover, she was haughty and arrogant just because she came from a good family and because she was beautiful. As dazzling as a peony she was, but a prideful one at that. Unlikable to say the least.
Shangguan Yue couldn’t say anything in response. She bit hard into her lip and turned to Nan Xun, but he was still drinking calmly like he was an outsider. As if this whole drama didn’t start because of him.
Qi Chen didn’t let Shangguan Yue off the hook. He turned to Jun Huang. “Brother Feng, see what I was saying? Do you believe me now? There are many people here today. And yet no one is willing to offer lady Shangguan an olive branch. You just have to get yourself involved. I don’t know what I should say to you.”
“Your Highness is right to scold me. This gentleman was charmed by lady Shangguan’s beauty. Didn’t expect her to be so arrogant. Thank you for your help.” Jun Huang echoed what Qi Chen said with a chuckle. Nan Xun covered his mouth to hide his amusement.
Shangguan Yue left with a huff. Even her maid couldn’t catch up to her. This must have been a heavy blow to her ego.
Noticing that the princess was still here, Qi Chen introduced her to Jun Huang. “Brother Feng, this is my sister Wan’er.” Jun Huang nodded and greeted her, considering the introduction done. The princess, however, thought otherwise..
Jun Huang was again grabbed by the princess before she could go back to her seat with Qi Chen. “Does the gentleman intend to find a good match at this banquet?”
Being asked by a young girl a question like this so suddenly was embarrassing. Jun Huang blushed hard, unable to form an answer. Good thing that Qi Chen was an observant man. He stepped in and said, “A lady like you shouldn’t ask a question like that. Why don’t you go back to the second floor? What are you doing here?”
The princess was afraid of Qi Chen. She was mischievous, but she knew when to back away. She pursed her lips and went over to the bottom of the stairs, looking back at them constantly on her way up. Jun Huang let out a sigh of relief.
“Thank you, Your Highness, for helping me out.”
“You don’t have to thank me. We’re a team. I know you’re not interested in my sister. And I know she’s not exactly a quiet person. Brother Feng of course won’t be fond of her.”
Jun Huang responded with a smile, but she knew in her heart that Qi Chen just didn’t want to get his sister into this whole mess. Seemed like he still retained some of his humanity.
Going back to her seat, she saw a familiar face walking past the stools they sat on before. It seemed like the woman was trying to hide something. Jun Huang couldn’t recall just where she had known that face.
Qi Chen followed her gaze and saw the woman. He laughed. “I didn’t take brother Feng to be such a fickle man. You just embarrassed yourself for lady Shangguan. And now you’re staring at the empress’s maid. Do you know she is the empress’s confidante? She’s not someone you should get involved with.”
Jun Huang suddenly remembered their meeting at the temple. She scratched her head bashfully. “I made a fool of myself again. I just thought she looked familiar to me. That’s why I had my eyes on her.”
“Brother Feng must have made a mistake. The maid has been staying in the palace for years. How could you possibly meet her?”
Jun Huang nodded and went back to her seat with him, paying no mind to what just happened. They continued to enjoy the performance.