“Eh?” Jun Linghuan was surprised. 

She didn’t know why Xue Yan would suddenly ask this question.
Did she want it? She hadn’t even thought about it.
Jun Linghuan only thought of it as a star in the sky, something to look at but not something she could consider plucking. 

Then she heard Xue Yan say, “If you want it, I’ll get it for you.”

It’s so high up! And it’s in the middle of a lake, how can he get it down? Jun Linghuan asked blankly, “How can you get it…?”

Xue Yan looked at her.
Although this was Jun Huailang’s younger sister, he didn’t have the patience to explain things to a child.
He saw that the little girl’s eyes were full of longing and this was a very simple matter.
There was no need to waste words.

The path leading to the lake was overgrown.
A child could be pricked by the branches in a moment of carelessness.
In addition, it was dangerous by the lake; he would have to keep an eye on her to prevent her from falling in.

“Wait where you are,” he said.

“Ok,” Jun Linghuan nodded obediently.

There was no one around but the surroundings were brightly lit.
Xue Yan responded and proceeded to the edge of the lake.

As soon as Xue Yan left, the second prince Xue Yunsu happened to pass by.
Accompanied by a few chattering young nobles, they were going to enjoy the scenery in the imperial garden.
Xue Yunsu saw Jun Linghuan standing alone in the distance, looking into the plum grove.
He gestured for the nobles around him to keep their voices down. 

Then he walked up to Jun Linghuan and said, “Hey, isn’t this Linghuan-meimei?”[1]

Jun Enze was at Xue Yunsu’s side.
He put on an act and asked, “Where’s your brother? Why are you standing here alone?”

“Fifth Prince-gege[2] asked me to wait for him here,” Jun Linghuan said guilessly.

The look in the nobles’ eyes changed when they heard this.
They exchanged strange glances.
Xue Yunsu suddenly thought of the other day, when Jun Linghuan visited Wenhua Hall and delivered a lot of lychee to Xue Yan.

“You even call him gege?” Xue Yunsu asked.
His teeth ached and he laughed strangely.

“Huh?” Jun Linghuan said.

“Don’t you know? He’s a monster who eats people,” Xue Yunsu said.
He crouched and smiled creepily, trying to frighten her.
“You don’t know, huh? Your older brother also doesn’t know.
He’s a wolf demon in the guise of a human, just looking for the chance to eat you all and increase his cultivation.”

The noble sons saw that Jun Linghuan was hesitant and scared and were filled with glee.
One of them laughed and said, “He wants you to wait for him here because he’s waiting for midnight.
All wolf demons eat children at midnight.”

Jun Linghuan stammered, “B-but… Fifth Prince-gege is a good person……”

Xue Yunsu clicked his tongue and stood back up.
He grabbed her wrist and, while pushing and pulling her, said, “Don’t believe me? You can’t stay here for long.
Come with us and I’ll explain it to you later.”

Jun Linghuan looked at them helplessly.
In the group of people there was one person she knew, Jun Enze.

This gege lived in her house.
He was always very friendly and welcoming to her.
Now she saw Jun Enze smile and say, “Come with us, Linghuan.
What are you afraid of? It can’t be worse than that evil star from who knows where.”

Jun Linghuan was skeptical but her six year old brain was unable to handle so much complicated information. 

The entrance to the Cold Palace was closed but not locked.

Come to think of it, during the current rule, only Lady Zhang had entered the Cold Palace and she was released within two years.
It had been more than ten years since someone lived there, so no one looked after it or maintained it.
The Cold Palace was very expansive.
It had been built by the former emperor, who had a very restless harem.
At the time of his passing, there were nearly ten concubines living in the Cold Palace.

The well-trained Imperial Guards pushed open the door and spread out to search.

“Where should we look?” As soon as he entered, a cold wind blasted Xue Yunhuan in the face and made him shiver.
The Cold Palace was shaded and the dilong[3] was not burning.
Weeds grew unchecked in the courtyard and the snow on the ground had not been cleared.

Jun Huailang lowered his head and searched the ground. Few people came here, so there shouldn’t be any footprints on the ground.
The snow had melted and refrozen so it was very hard.
However, if anyone passed by, they would still leave traces.

Jun Xiaowu knew what he was doing when he saw Jun Huailang look down.
This team of Imperial Guards didn’t have a leader.
They were ordered to search, but just searching like this without any clues would waste a lot of time.

He took a lantern and carefully shone it towards the ground. Jun Xiaowu had spent two years at Yumen Pass in the northwest so he was much better at this sort of stuff than the capital-raised Jun Huailang.
In moments, he found a hidden footprint and immediately pointed it out to Jun Huailang.
“Ge, look here!”

Jun Huailang looked but he couldn’t distinguish anything.
Jun Xiaowu explained, “This is a new footprint going towards the northeast watchtower.”

Jun Huailang hurried towards the watchtower.

Xue Yunhuan looked in that direction and murmured, “No way……”

He had grown up deep in the palace and understood its secrets.
It was said that in the previous reign, a concubine couldn’t bear the misery of the Cold Palace and hung herself in the northeast watchtower.
Afterwards, servants only collected the corpse and hurriedly buried it.
The white silk was not removed and still hung there.

The three nobles hurried to the watchtower.

This watchtower was ancient, and a layer of dust covered the door.
But with the light from the lantern, they could clearly see handprints in the dust. 

Jun Huailang quickly pushed the door open and stepped inside.

“Linghuan?” He called out.

He called a few times, then heard a rustling sound like a kitten moving.
Stricken, Jun Huailang immediately led the others up two floors on the narrow, dark, and damp stairs.
At the top floor, broken whimpering could be heard.

It was Jun Linghuan.

Jun Huailang’s heart clenched.
He leaped up the last few stairs. 

Moonlight shone through the broken window shutters.
Jun Linghuan cowered in the beam of moonlight, completely covered in dust, sobbing.

Jun Huailang crossed the watchtower in two steps and hugged her.

“Huan’er? It’s alright, gege is here.” She was ice-cold in his arms.
She must have been freezing in here, her hands and cheeks were red.

Now that he was here, Jun Linghuan came back to her senses.
She buried her face into his chest and finally dared cry out loud.
But she still couldn’t speak.
She only whimpered, crying until Jun Huailang’s heart shook.
At the same time, his temples throbbed, causing a strange pain.

He could only pat Jun Linghuan’s back and quietly comfort her.
“Alright, it’s alright.”

Jun Xiaowu stepped forward, took off his heavy cloak, and bundled Jun Linghuan up.
“Ge, let’s go back first.
It’s too cold here,” he said.
He took the snugly wrapped girl from Jun Huailang’s arms and said reassuringly, “It’s ok.
I’m strong, I can hold Huan-er.”

Jun Huailang stayed kneeling on the ground and watched his little sister in Jun Xiaowu’s embrace.
His eyes were a bit blank, and the sharp pain in his head grew stronger and stronger.
For a moment, his vision blurred and he couldn’t think straight.
It was as if something rooted in his head was struggling to break out.

Next to him, Xue Yunhuan saw him struggling and thought it was because he was too distressed.
He hurriedly stepped forward to help him up.
Upon leaving, Xue Yunhuan looked up at the beams with trepidation.
He didn’t expect to actually see rotten silk hanging from a beam, blotchy with stains and pulled threads.

Xue Yunhuan shuddered in fright.

With Jun Xiaowu walking in front and Jun Huailang and Xue Yunhuan following, they left the cold and damp watchtower.

Finally the little mistress of the Jun family was found.
The Imperial Guards in the Cold Palace quickly brought news to the Emperor, and the panic-stricken harem finally calmed down.

And now the time came to determine the punishment.

The three of them brought Jun Linghuan back to Yongle Hall under the escort of the Imperial Guards.
People going missing in the palace was a really shameful thing so the Emperor had Ling Fu spread the news that Jun Linghuan had been found to all the officials.
The officials were able to continue the banquet with peace of mind while the Emperor summoned them to the rear hall.

In the rear hall sat the Emperor and his concubines.
The Duke of Yongning and his wife waited anxiously beside them.
Xue Yan knelt on the steps alone, and no one spoke.

Her parents breathed a sigh of relief when they saw Jun Linghuan was found.
But seeing Jun Linghuan cowering in a ball, Madame Shen burst into tears.

“Get an imperial physician, quickly.
The Cold Palace is gloomy and cold, the child must not catch a chill,” the Empress ordered.

The Emperor looked at Jun Huailang and the others and inquired, “Have you discovered the cause? How could such a young child go to the Cold Palace by herself?”

Jun Xiaowu glanced at Jun Huailang, and saw that his face was pale and brows tightly furrowed.
He looked like he was still rattled.
Jun Xiaowu quickly stepped in and answered, “Reporting to Your Majesty, we still have not asked the cause.”

Emperor Qingping frowned and looked at Jun Linghuan.

He was thinking of how to question her gently, but then he saw Jun Linghuan raise her head at being called.  She was still sobbing when she suddenly saw Xue Yan kneeling three paces away.

Jun Linghuan’s pupils shrank and she trembled all over, not even daring to whimper.
She looked at him in terror.

The expressions of everyone in the rear hall changed.

“Xue Yan, it was you?” Emperor Qingping said angrily and slapped his armrest.

Jun Huailang’s temples were already throbbing.
At the Emperor’s reprimand the pain suddenly got worse.
He wanted to raise his hand and comfort Jun Linghuan, but his hand shook so much he couldn’t lift it up.

On the other hand, Xue Yunhuan and Jun Xiaowu both looked at Xue Yan furiously.
Xue Yan stayed kneeling expressionlessly, eyes lowered, without a word of explanation.

Emperor Qingping was so angry his back was shaking. This unfilial son! He had been an evil star since birth and, in the last dozen years, had only brought endless trouble.
Even now, his conduct was vile and his nature loathsome.

What a disgrace.

“Guards, drag Xue Yan out.
Flog him thirty times and shut him in the Buddhist hall to reflect on his mistakes.
Never let him in my sight again!”

Imperial Guards immediately stepped forward to carry out his order.
And Xue Yan still didn’t say a word.
He only glanced at Jun Huailang as he got up.

Dizzy and in pain, Jun Huailang met a pair of eyes. They were an unfathomable amber color.
Suddenly the unbearable pain in Jun Huailang’s head disappeared, and he became remarkably clear-headed.
A strange yet familiar memory flashed through his mind like shadow puppets and slotted into his mind seamlessly.

He finally recalled the contents of the nightmares that had tormented him in the past few days with incomparable clarity.

He also realized where the endless cold and loneliness in his nightmares had come from.


[1] 妹妹 younger sister, can also be used to address younger girls who are not related by blood. [2] 哥哥 older brother, can also be used to address older men of the same generation not related by blood. [3] 地龙 underground heating system in the imperial city

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