Qi Yun looked around. Jun Huang could tell what he was concerned about. She gave Nan Xun a pointed look.
Nan Xun didn't immediately respond. He ordered the servants to leave after a moment of silence and said, "Everyone in this manor is trustworthy."
Jun Huang threw him a glance. "The fourth prince is right to be cautious. Has Your Highness forgotten that the third prince's spy had infiltrated Prince Chen Manor? Even someone as mistrustful as Qi Chen can't keep his manor free of unwanted eyes. Is Your Highness sure that you have not let any mole in with all the tasks at your hands?"
Nan Xun opened his mouth, but he didn't have a good comeback. Jun Huang was right. It was high time that he cleaned house and rooted out any potential liabilities.
Jun Huang coughed and directed the conversation back to its original course. "What has Your Highness found?"
"Some time ago I realized that Consort Zhen has been keeping secrets. I often see messenger pigeons near her palace. Even though consorts are allowed to exchange letters with their families, it's still unusual for one of them to maintain such frequent communication with the outside world. Therefore I had my people keep watch outside the palace, and they saw Consort Zhen leaving the palace late at night."
It wasn't unusual for concubines to spy on one another. They often did so to gain blackmail materials. The emperor usually kept a blind eye on the feud between his concubines.
Qi Yun had always been watching those in Qi Chen's circle, among whom Qi Chen's mother was most worthy of his time and attention. After all Consort Zhen was involved in his mother's death.
From his observation, he realized that Consort Zhen had been sending and receiving many letters every day. He therefore put more people to surveillance duty at her place. To his surprise, one of his men came to him not long after.
"Your Highness, this servant saw with my own eyes that Consort Zhen has left the palace tonight on her own," said the servant. He kept his head low as a show of respect.
With his brows furrowed, Qi Yun nodded and asked, "How long has she been gone?"
"No more than the time to brew a pot of tea," said the servant.
Members of the harem are forbidden from leaving the palace late at night, Qi Yun thought. Why would Consort Zhen break the rule? He couldn't figure out an answer himself.
Ignoring the servant kneeling on the floor, Qi Yun got to his feet and walked out.
At night, the palace was even more heavily guarded. Normally Qi Yun wouldn't be allowed to leave either, but since he was now working for the Court of Judicial Review, the guards assumed that he must have urgent business to attend to. They didn't stop him.
It didn't take long for Qi Yun to catch up with Consort Zhen. She had worn a cape to help her blend into the night.
This is worth investigating, Qi Yun thought. He snuck closer to Consort Zhen.
Suddenly, there were footsteps approaching. Consort Zhen whirled around in an instant. Qi Yun hurriedly step into the shadow to stay out of sight.
A woman dressed in fine clothes showed up and walked up to Consort Zhen. She bowed at her and said, "My master has been waiting. Please come with me."
Consort Zhen looked around before nodding. She pulled down her hood and followed the woman into an alley.
Qi Yun trailed after them. He didn't dare to even breathe a little heavily.
The alleyway led to the brothel Phoenix House. In order to not arouse any suspicion, he stayed outside, waiting for Consort Zhen to come out.
After about the time for an incense stick to burn, Consort Zhen walked out of the door. At her side was Prince Duan.
Qi Yun gaped at them. He knew this meant something big, but he couldn't sort through the threads on his own. He immediately went to Jun Huang's place to seek her out, only to be told that Jun Huang had been staying in Nan Xun's manor for the time being. That was why he visited so early this morning.
Jun Huang fell silent in bemusement. Nan Xun, on the other hand, was reminded of something. He cleared his throat and said, "It seems that Qi Chen was meeting Prince Duan in Phoenix House when we last went there."
"How so?" Jun Huang turned to him, waiting for him to explain.
"Last time we followed Qi Chen to Phoenix House, I saw someone leaving the booth Qi Chen had been staying in before we went upstairs," said Nan Xun. "Because of the circumstances, I wasn't able to get a clear look. From the information we have now, that person is likely to have been Prince Duan."
At the time, they had been surrounded by an army of women. Jun Huang wasn't able to get a good look at the second floor either. When she saw Qi Chen, though, there was an empty cup on the other side of Qi Chen's table. Prince Duan must have been there.
Jun Huang frowned. "Why would they have a secret meeting in a brothel?"
"That's what I've been wondering," said Qi Yun.
"Things aren't as simple as they seem," said Nan Xun. "The shared history of Prince Zhen and Prince Duan alone posed many possibilities."
Jun Huang nodded. "Exactly what I've been thinking." She turned to Qi Yun and asked, "What do you think the relationship between Consort Zhen and Prince Duan is?"
Qi Yun thought carefully about every little thing he had seen last night. He shook his head. "There were a lot of people there. I was worried that I might be spotted, so I didn't stay for long once I saw that it was Prince Duan. I didn't enter the brothel either, so I didn't know what they were talking about. When they left the building, however, I saw Prince Duan fixing Consort Zhen's robe. They looked close."
"That's it," Jun Huang muttered without thinking. Nan Xun and Qi Yun shared a puzzled look before turning to her with a frown. What had she meant by that?
Seeing them staring at her with questioning eyes, Jun Huang awkwardly cleared her throat and said, "If that's the case, I'm afraid that Qi Chen, Prince Duan, and Consort Zhen are in cahoots. They probably use Phoenix House as their meeting spot. As for what they have been planning, I don't know enough to take a good guess."
Nan Xun and Qi Yun continued to try connecting the dots, oblivious to Jun Huang's inner musings. She had a theory.
She suspected that Qi Chen was actually Prince Duan and Consort Zhen's son. Before, the idea had only been a suspicion. Now she was more and more convinced that it was true.
Nan Xun turned to her and noticed the preoccupied look on her face. "Is something wrong?" he asked curiously.
"Hm? Ah, nothing, no." Jun Huang shook her head, but it wasn't as determined as she would like it to be. She didn't have concrete evidence proving that Qi Chen was Prince Duan's son instead of the emperor's. The implications were too many for her to voice her doubt now.
Nan Xun and Qi Yun couldn't read her thoughts. They assumed that Jun Huang was simply distracted because she was tired from the training. Besides, there were many things stopping them from reaching the same conclusion as Jun Huang's.
If Consort Zhen had been pregnant with Prince Duan's child, why would the emperor disregarded everything to put her in his harem? Prince Duan wasn't someone who couldn't protect his own wife and son. And even though Prince Duan and Consort Zhen had met up in private, they did have a troubled history. Prince Duan was still holding a grudge against Consort Zhen.
It also didn't make sense for Prince Duan to go against the emperor for one woman. In Northern Qi, even getting involved with a palace maid or eunuch was a capital offense, let alone for a prince and a consort to have an affair.
"I don't think Prince Duan will throw everything away for a woman who has betrayed him and married someone else," said Nan Xun. "We shouldn't jump to conclusions. That won't help."
Qi Yun nodded in agreement.
"With that said, Prince Duan did meet with Consort Zhen in secret," said Jun Huang. "I can't think of any other explanation for once lovers like them to meet each other in a brothel. Qi Chen must have been the missing link."
Nan Xun turned to Jun Huang with an eyebrow raised. Now he knew what Jun Huang's speculation was.
"We don't have any evidence backing ourselves up; no one would believe us," said Nan Xun. He thought that Jun Huang had made things too complicated. "Besides, Prince Duan and Consort Zhen are both cunning and experienced. We are lucky to have caught them this time. We don't know if we will be able to catch them meeting up again."
Jun Huang didn't respond. Nan Xun could tell he had been too forceful. He opened his mouth to apologize, but Jun Huang didn't give him the chance. She turned to Qi Yun and said, "We won't be able to get an answer simply by talking. What about your mother, Your Highness? Have you found anything?"
Her tone was casual, but Qi Yun's hand trembled around his teacup, spilling tea all over his fingers.
Jun Huang could tell something was wrong, but she didn't point it out. She pretended to not notice Qi Yun's reaction and waited for him to answer.