In front of the opened door, Ning Zu'an redirected his gaze from Madam Ling to glare at Marquis of Ping'an. Blue veins were protruding on his forehead.
The Marquis of Ping'an turned pale upon seeing his murderous rage. He was so frightened that his legs were shaking and his soul was close to flying out of him. He nearly joined Madam Ling in collapsing to the floor. Forcing a fawning smile on his face, he said, "Lord… Lord Protector… I swear it's all a misunderstanding. I had too much to drink. I don't know how… I end up running here and… There's nothing between me… and Madam!"
He had always been a useless fool. This time, he suffered such a bad fright that he couldn't even form full sentences!
A miserable silence shrouded the interior and exterior of the building.
Ning Zu'an's eyes were bloodshot. He was exuding such an icy air that there was nearly no warmth at all. "You… dare do something like this?"
"No… You misunderstood us. There's nothing between us, I swear!" Thinking that Ning Zu'an didn't believe him, the Marquis of Ping'an was so panicked that his hands went flailing. The fleshy fat in his arms shook with his every movement.
He was the only one at the scene who had mistaken what Ning Zu'an meant.
Frowning, Ning Xueyan quietly stood in Madam Dowager's shadow. No one noticed the cold glint reflected in her dark pupils. It seemed that the jade pendant was of great significance, so much so that it became Ning Zu'an and Madam Dowager's priority in this incident.
But all the better for her.
To be frank, the "affair" between Madam Ling and the Marquis of Ping'an couldn't stand up to scrutiny. Madam Ling couldn't have fallen for the old and hideous Marquis, who was no match for the middle-aged but manly Ning Zu'an. Anyone with a working pair of eyes wouldn't betray Ning Zu'an for the Marquis of Ping'an.
Moreover, the Marquis of Ping'an made it clear that Madam Ling had chosen him to be Ning Xueyan's husband. Coupled with what Ning Yuling said earlier, it couldn't be more obvious that Madam Ling was sabotaging Ning Xueyan. Since the Marquis of Ping'an was clearly no favorable match, why would she get herself involved with him?
Thus, there must be a conspiracy behind all these.
Even though no one knew why Marquis of Ping'an was at the Buddha Hall or why Madam Ling was sleeping in his embrace, it was evident that they had fallen for someone's trick. Madam Ling was sure it was Ning Xueyan, but Madam Dowager and Ning Zu'an were entertaining other thoughts.
Regardless, it was an indisputable fact that Madam Ling privately handed the jade pendant to the Marquis of Ping'an. It was likely that the two of them had agreed to meet at the side room of the Buddha Hall to discuss the pendant, only to fall into someone's trap. Following this line of thought, one would wonder if other people have found out about this pendant as well.
How could Ning Zu'an not be angry after considering this?
Madam Ling's face had turned a frightening shade of white. She raised her head to see her husband, who had typically been kind to her, glaring daggers at her. Immediately, she crawled over and kneeled in front of him. She tugged at his sleeve and raised her face, revealing a pair of eyes welled up with tears. She began crying tragically. "Marquis, I married you in my teen years and have devoted myself to you since. It was an accident that the jade pendant was sent away with other objects. I didn't expect… something like this would happen. Surely, someone is trying to sabotage me and pin the blame on me. Marquis, you… you must uphold justice for me!"
She rubbed her tears as she spoke. A crystal-like tear cascaded down her delicate face.
Ever so subtly, Ning Zu'an's face turned rigid. Madam Dowager was shaking all over. Unable to control herself, she pointed to Madam Ling and said, "How dare you make up lies! Now that things have come to this, you still dare to say that someone is sabotaging you! If you have refrained yourself, you wouldn't have fallen for this! In this manor, who would have the ability to sabotage you?"
Looking like the world had wronged her, Madam Ling looked at Madam Dowager and sobbed, "Mother, please have mercy. Take the Lord into consideration and refrain from such piercing words. No matter what, I'm still his wife. If the household isn't doing well, I won't be doing well either. Do I look like I lack so much judgment that I'd put the entire Lord Protector's Manor at stake? If something happens to the Marquis, won't I be in trouble as well?"
While speaking, she knocked her forehead on the floor loudly as she kowtowed to Madam Dowager. By the end of it, a bruise had already formed on her forehead.
Ning Zu'an's expression inadvertently relaxed.
In the corner, Ning Xueyan rolled her eyes. She couldn't help sneering on the inside. It was no wonder that Madam Ming was no match for Madam Ling. Even though Madam Dowager didn't like her, she still had to give her permission to make Madam Ling the Marchioness and was even subdued into the housekeeper position. Sure enough, Madam Ling had her set of wits and tricks with her.
With just words, she was able to overturn what was a blatantly obvious situation and claim that she was framed instead.
Ning Xueyan gently tugged on Madam Dowager's sleeve and tried to speak up for Madam Ling. She whispered, "Grandmother, I believe Mother is innocent. Someone must have framed her. Think about it. Even though Fourth Sister and I aren't her biological daughters, she has treated us all the same."
Even though she seemed to have said nothing of importance, that wasn't the case for Madam Dowager and Ning Zu'an. Both their expressions changed.
Madam Ling would never be sincere to Ning Xueyan. First, she killed Madam Ming. Then, ill at ease even after Ning Xueyan left the Bright Frost Garden, she poisoned the former's medicine and even arranged such an awful match for her. Worried that the family wouldn't agree with the marriage, she even gave away such an important jade pendant as a betrothal gift.
Just because no one talked about it, didn't mean no one knew about it.
What made Madam Dowager even angrier was that all it took was a few words from Madam Ling to soften her son's heart. That woman was bad news, indeed! Moreover, she kept insisting that she was framed. In the entire manor, Madam Dowager was the only one who could do this. Evidently, Madam Ling was trying to pin the blame on her.
Had she known this would happen, she would near allow this woman to marry into her family back then and cause so much trouble. Right now, she was stewing in so much rage and resentment that her face was taking on a purple sheen. She nearly fainted out of anger.
Seeing this, Mother Qin massaged Madam Dowager's hand. Ning Xueyan swiftly poured a cup of water and handed it to Mother Qin. Mother Qin accepted the cup and helped Madam Dowager drink it. Only then did Madam Dowager regain some calm.
"Mother Qin, let me take care of Grandmother," Ning Xueyan said, accepting the empty cup from Mother Qin.
Mother Qin nodded. She was an old mammy in the manor, as well as one of the maids who came here as Madam Dowager's wedding entourage. Having gotten through some tribulations together in the past, her relationship with Madam Dowager was naturally different. She was, of course, livid to see Madam Ling angering Madam Dowager half to death. Holding back the urge to step forward, she told Ning Zu'an, "Marquis, may I ask First Madam a few questions?"
Ning Zu'an nodded.
"First Madam, I'm but an ignorant servant. Yet I know one has to speak with proof. First Madam, you say someone is trying to frame you. Before this, you claimed that it was Fifth Young Lady's subordinate but we later found out it was Second Young Lady's servant. They insisted that it was someone else and yet couldn't explain themselves. If someone didn't bring the Marquis of Ping'an here, how would he know where this secluded Buddha Hall is?"
The moment these words left her mouth, Madam Ling wasn't the only one who went pale. Even Ning Zu'an's expression changed.
Mother Qin had been serving Madam Dowager in the inner courtyard for many years and was well aware of the strife within. She knew how Madam Ling insisted that Ning Xueyan was the culprit, only to let it up when it was revealed to be Ning Yuling's servant and even claim that Ning Yuling was framed. Then came the jade pendant incident and the Marquis of Ping'an's quiet appearance in the Buddha Hall.
The Marquis claimed it was a maid who took him here, but couldn't point out who it was.
In the entire inner courtyard of the manor, there were only two people who could most likely bring someone in without notice. Since it wasn't Madam Dowager, then it could only be Madam Ling.
Ning Zu'an looked at Madam Ling with a cold gaze filled with disappointment. Panicked, Madam Ling tried to explain herself but Mother Qin raced ahead of her to ask, "First Madam, you insist that someone is trying to frame you. In the inner courtyard of the manor, the only other person who can order people around without your knowledge is Madam Dowager. The one Madam Dowager cares for the most is her son; she chooses to accept it even when you do things that disgrace the family name. And yet you accuse her of framing you. Don't you think you're wronging Madam Dowager and the Marquis?"
The eloquent Mother Qin intentionally mentioned Ning Zu'an, making it so that Madam Ling couldn't say a word in retort.
Mother Qin's words were so reasonable that Madam Ling panicked. Putting on a pained look, she said, "Mother, the Marquis of Ping'an and I are truly innocent. You may investigate if you please. I know nothing, I swear. If you really discover an affair between us, I'd rather slam my head on the wall and die inside the Buddha Hall to prove my innocence."
Madam Ling wailed loudly. She climbed up from the floor, about to hit her head on a nearby pillar.
Subconsciously, Ning Zu'an pulled onto her hand. She went with the flow and leaned into his embrace. She sobbed even louder, looking wronged.
Madam Dowager was so furious that she grabbed the cup in Ning Xueyan's hand and threw it to the floor. The crisp sound of shattering glass gave everyone a fright. The Marquis of Ping'an kept his head even lower still as he hid in a corner, not daring to even open his mouth.
Ning Xueyan stepped forward and rubbed Madam Dowager's back. In a placating tone, she said, "Cease your anger, Grandmother. You must pay attention to your health." She then turned to Ning Zu'an and said, "Father, words won't be able to settle this matter. Since things have come to this, let's all make a little compromise. It's our family business, after all. It wouldn't be pleasant if this turns into gossip."
Her words sounded like a piece of advice from a daughter to a father, and yet when it reached Madam Dowager's ears, it was like adding fuel to her fire. How could Madam Ling demand an elder like her to compromise after committing such a shameful act? Moreover, there was some other conspiracy in play here!
She scoffed and said angrily, "Xueyan, there's no need to advise your father. We must investigate this or there'll be no end to this calamity!"
Seeing such a determined Madam Dowager glaring at Madam Ling, Ning Zu'an pushed away his wife with a darkened expression.
"Father, then let us follow Grandmother's suggestion. We must not let others find out about Mother's emotional blackmail. Something like this… is unfilial!" Ning Xueyan said.
Ning Zu'an's heart sank after hearing this. It was a government servant's great taboo to commit an unfilial act. Even if the Emperor was unwilling to name Prince Yi his heir, he must still acknowledge the latter's status as his royal brother. It was all because filial piety was the supreme law of this world. Considering this, a deep coldness filled his gloomy expression.
He looked so standoffish that Madam Ling, who tried to lean onto him once again, dared not to step forward anymore.
"There's an outsider here too…" Ning Xueyan didn't have to finish her sentence to prompt Madam Dowager and Ning Zu'an to direct their gaze to the Marquis of Ping'an, the only outsider in this place.
"Mother Qin, First Madam will stay in this temple and reflect on her mistakes. She's not to leave without Madam Dowager's permission. As for the Marquis of Ping'an," Ning Zu'an said, promptly making his decision. "Marquis, this isn't the place to talk. Let's have our conversation outside."
Regardless of whether there was truly an affair between Madam Ling and the Marquis, it was still a fact that the two of them were laying in the same bed. Any man would feel a stab of pain. His heart had softened because of Madam Ling's tears earlier, but Ning Xueyan's words instantly sobered him.
Watching the Marquis of Ping'an trembling as he followed Ning Zu'an, the corner of Ning Xueyan's mouth lifted to form a subtle smirk. This incident was much more severe than Madam Ling's past deeds, to the point that it was Madam Dowager and Ning Zu'an's taboo. Madam Ling wouldn't be in charge of the household until the end of the year, at least. This was exactly what she needed.
Madam Ling wanted to be in-laws with the Marquis of Ping'an, didn't she? Now, like it or not, she had no other choice...