Chapter 25 Nemesis; Meeting Ning Ziyan Again
"Yes, Young Master Xia has been occupying his usual residence. He used to come here every now and then to offer incense. Every month, he would spend three nights here," the young novice monk immediately answered. Evidently, he was very familiar with Xia Yuhang.
As expected, Xia Yuhang's habits remained unchanging. On the same few days every month, he would spend a few days in the Cold Mountain Temple. Others might not understand why, yet Ning Xueyan was well aware of the reason.
"I see. Is he not returning to his manor today as well?" Ning Xueyan looked away and continued walking behind the young novice monk. If Xia Yuhang doesn't show up when his wife returns to her bridal home three days after their wedding, Ning Ziyan wouldn't be the only one would be humiliated.
"You guessed correctly, Fifth Young Lady. I heard servants from the Minister's Manor came early this morning to persuade Young Master Xia to go home. Our Master Uncle, the one who greeted you earlier, even told us to keep the courtyard as it is because Young Master Xia will be returning. He only left today to deal with some business," the young novice monk said.
The three of them had a casual chat until they reached their destination, a courtyard that the Cold Mountain Temple prepared for the ladies.
This courtyard wasn't the same courtyard that Ning Ziying occupied in her previous life, which was closer to the male quarters. After all, Ning Ziying was a guest at the Lord Protector's Manor back then. Even though she was engaged, she was nonetheless not allowed to meet her groom. Thus, Xia Yuhang would secretly meet her under the guise of visiting the Cold Mountain Temple.
Thus, Ning Xueyan wasn't a stranger to this temple.
The young novice monk stood at the entrance of the courtyard and pointed to a spot at the rear mountain. Smiling at Ning Xueyan, he said, "Fifth Young Lady, the chrysanthemums at our temple are blooming beautifully at the moment. Please take a look at them if you're keen. They're just right there!"
"The chrysanthemums are blooming?" Ning Xueyan asked, stunned. Something flickered in her mind but it vanished so quickly that she didn't quite grasp what it was.
"Yes. The chrysanthemums at our temple are famed worldwide. Some cherished varities of the flower can be found here. I heard there are a few types that have gone extinct out there. Many famed individuals and elegant scholars would come here for flower-viewing. Even an imperial consort was full of praises when she came last year."
"Oh, are you referring to Noble Consort Ya? Is she coming again this year?" A thought flickered across her mind.
Noble Consort Ya was the Third Imperial Prince's biological mother and the Emperor's favored consort. She originated from the Qingliu Clan and rumor had it that she liked tending to her flowers and plants in the palace. She was known to be a lover of flowers. Ning Xueyan finally recalled that the chrysanthemums at the Cold Mountain Temple were indeed famous. Two years ago, Noble Consort Ya sung praises about the flowers when she deliberately visited this place.
"I don't know if the imperial consort will be coming but our Uncle Master has ordered us to prepare for her arrival. He said that even though there's no news yet, she might come here when she feels like it." The young novice monk placed his palms together with an earnest expression. He looked rather amiable.
"Please inform me if the imperial consort comes. I have never met any imperial consort and would like to gain a new experience," Ning Xueyan said softly.
"Very well. I will surely keep that in mind." The young novice monk then excused himself.
The courtyard was small but clean, with only one main house and two side rooms. After all, its intended purpose was to accommodate a master bringing two or three servants. Ning Xueyan took a seat inside the house while Qingyu ran off to fetch tea. She only began to fully recover her senses after sipping the tea that emanated a faint but refreshing fragrance.
The carriage was simply too small and the journey was so bumpy that it gave her a headache. Holding her dizzy head, Ning Xueyan felt some of her memories returning to her. That year, she was only seven or eight years old when she spotted a lavishly-dressed older female servant entering the courtyard. She remembered how the servant had dressed even more extravagantly than those serving Madam Ling.
Madam Ming had sent everyone away but the mischievous Ning Xueyan hid under the bed and watched the servant salute Madam Ming deferentially. It was obvious from the servant's eyes that she greatly respected Madam Ming. Ning Xueyan didn't dare to get any closer, so she only faintly heard them mentioning Noble Consort Ya's name. It seemed that Noble Consort Ya had sent over some presents. During the conversation, they also mentioned someone else.
That person was Noble Consort Ya's servant intended to be a gift for Madam Ming. However, the latter rejected the offer. That person kowtowed to Madam Ming before leaving with Noble Consort Ya.
Ning Xueyan had never paid that person any mind but her interest was now piqued. Since that person was Noble Consort Ya's confidante, then she would surely tag along when the consort leaves the palace. That person must share a deep relationship with Madam Ming. If Ning Xueyan could persuade that person to be her chess piece, it would be akin to having heaven give her a helping hand...
The chrysanthemums at the Cold Mountain Temple were indeed a sight to behold. The temple was known for its complete collection of chrysanthemums. Now was just the right time to enjoy the flowers. The guests who came to the temple had all gone flower-viewing in the rear mountain. Ning Xueyan spent her morning listening to the head abbot reciting scriptures and took Qingyu and Lanning to the rear mountain after they had lunch.
The Cold Mountain Temple was built halfway up the mountain, with a path built in front and a forest for a backdrop. There was a winding path that led to the mountaintop. Surprisingly, there wasn't as much of a crowd at noon compared to the morning and everything was much more peaceful. Shortly after they began hiking up the mountain, Ning Xueyan felt too weak to continue and took a rest at a pavilion nearby.
Her other purpose in coming to the Cold Mountain Temple was strengthening her body, lest her health failed her before she even started fighting Madam Ling and Ning Ziyan. Her current body was simply too frail. It was no wonder she cried herself to death in front of Madam Ming's coffin.
"Young Lady, are you going to continue? Why don't you just rest here? How can your body take it if you keep climbing?" Qingyu tried to persuade Ning Xueyan. She was worried about her master's health which had always been prone to sickness. Ning Xueyan's jade-white face was tinted red and she was panting after the climb.
"I'm fine. I will stop if I really can't go on anymore. The higher we climb, the more beautiful the scenery will be." Ning Xueyan looked up. The rear mountain of the Cold Mountain Temple was truly tall. From afar, the mountain seemed high enough to pierce the clouds. It was said that the temple atop the mountain was the actual Cold Mountain Temple while the one below was simply a subsidiary.
Lanning poured a cup of hot tea and handed it to her. She said softly, "Young Lady, there's nothing much to see up there, except a farther view. In the past, we…"
The rim of her eyes suddenly reddened as she thought of Ning Ziying who died a tragic death. She bit her lower lip, unable to continue her sentence.
"Lanning, why don't you tell me about your previous master, Lady Ziying? I heard Sister Ziying was accomplished in the four arts of zither, Go, calligraphy, and painting and that she was a rare talent. Why would she be so upset as to drown herself in the lotus pond?" Ning Xueyan asked in apparent interest. She adjusted her hair and seemed to be smiling from her eyes.
"My master didn't drown herself in the lotus pond. How could she when her dowry had just arrived at the manor…" Lanning became agitated the moment Ning Ziying was mentioned. The corner of her mouth trembled and her voice subconsciously became high-pitched.
A soft voice came from behind them. "Are you discussing Sister Ziying? What's wrong? Didn't they say she drowned herself in the lotus pond? Is there a secret behind it?"
The voice alone was enough tip off Ning Xueyan that its owner was a gentle and beautiful lady. Ning Xueyan slowly turned around while suppressing the resentment in her pupils. She felt herself go cold all over. She would never forget this voice. Madam Ling's daughter, the eldest daughter of the Lord Protector's Manor, and the one whose face woke her from her nightmares at night!
Ning Ziyan, dressed in a pink embroidered coat and dress, had her coiled hair decorated with two dangling ornaments. There was a faint smile on her face, which gave the impression of a gentle, fragile lady. One couldn't help but want to protect her. Upon closer inspection of her memories, Ning Xueyan realized that she couldn't remember when Ning Ziyan and Xia Yuhang's affair began. She only knew that due to their good relationship, Xia Yuhang wouldn't avoid Ning Ziyan out of courtesy whenever he visited.
Whenever Xia Yuhang came to the Lord Protector's Manor, the three of them would surely have a chat. Most of the time, they would meet in Ning Ziyan's courtyard. That was because Ning Ziyan said that Xia Yuhang would be cozier in her spacious and better-maintained residence.
Now that Ning Xueyan thought about it, the two of them must be in affair by then. Otherwise, why would Xia Yuhang never find Ning Ziyan's courtyard inconvenient? Once, Ning Ziying told him that they should meet in her courtyard because she felt bad about constantly troubling her sister. He immediately rejected the idea, saying that both of them were guests at the manor and that the host must accommodate her guests. Seeing as the Eldest Young Lady of the Lord Protector's Manor was showing them such courtesy, it was only right for them to repay in kind.
What a fool she had been. Had Xia Yuhang not visited Ning Ziyan's courtyard each time he came to the manor, outsiders would have objected to the marriage alliance between the Xia family and the Lord Protector's Manor. People believed that it was Ning Ziyan whose hand was promised to Xia Yuhang at a young age, not someone else. Why else would Young Master Xia visit the Eldest Young Lady's courtyard each time without even avoiding her out of courtesy?
She believed that she and Xia Yuhang loved each other but it turned out that the mutual love was actually shared by them both. She was nothing but a supporting character, one that doubled as their stepping stone. They used her life to gain blessing for their "fated" union. And now, she had returned from Asura's sea of blood...
Ning Xueyan stood up and smiled. "Elder Sister, when did you arrive?" The last time she met Ning Ziyan was four or five years ago, so they weren't very close.
Ning Ziyan walked over and grabbed her hand. She asked softly, "I just arrived. I came here after hearing that you're heading to the rear mountain. I didn't think I'd really come across you. Fifth Sister, are you well these days?" Just by looking at her, one would have a hard time believing that she wasn't someone with a good relationship with her younger sister. She truly emanated the air of the eldest sister!
Resisting the urge to rip her hand away from Ning Ziyan's, Ning Xueyan pulled the latter down the path with a flat smile. "Since you're here, let's see the scenery together, Eldest Sister. Lanning was just talking about Lady Ning Ziying who used to live in our manor. I heard she was incredibly beautiful but drowned herself in the lotus pond for no apparent reason. It's strange, indeed."
Ning Ziyan behaved as if she was hearing about this for the first time. She put down Ning Xueyan's hand and turned to smile at Lanning. Her questions came one another another. "Drowned herself in the lotus pond? When did that happen? I was so caught up in my affairs that I didn't realize. Afterward, I heard Second Mother talk about it but nothing about Sister Ziying," she asked, her questions coming one after another. "Lanning? Oh, I remember that your older sister works in the kitchen, yes? Well, why don't you tell me? Tell me why Sister Ziying drowned herself in the lotus pond."
Her words were aggressive and threatening. She was so focused on Lanning's reaction that she didn't notice others.