Chapter 23 Panic; Chaos in the Cloud Reflection Courtyard
Madam Ming was buried the next day. Few came to witness the ceremony. In fact, the number of witnesses was fewer than those who came to pay their respects at the mourning hall that day. Some manors merely sent their housekeeper as a representative but Ning Xueyan expected this. To put it nicely, a co-wife was also considered a wife, whose position was equivalent to a wife. However, to put it frankly, a co-wife was a concubine. She had no right to demand anything for a concubine's funeral.
In fact, she was curious why such esteemed guests came to pay their respects to her mom. The co-wife of the Lord Protector's Manor wasn't so reputable as to attract the likes of them. It made no sense even if this was Madam Ling's funeral! Some guests were particularly noble. Take that Prince for example. She knew at one glance that he possessed a high standing and great authority. Why would he come and pay his respects to her mom?
Even if he was merely stopping by, it was still suspicious. Ning Zu'an's treatment of that eunuch was enough to tell her that the Prince was a formidable character!
She decided to forget all of this for the moment. She was now packing up in preparation to leave for the Cold Mountain Temple tomorrow.
"Young Lady, Lanning sent a little maid to ask when you're leaving." Qingyu lifted the curtain and entered with a small package. That was the few things that she was bringing with her.
Her former residence, the Cloud Reflection Courtyard, was deserted after a young lady drowned herself into the lotus pond along with a maid. The suicide stirred up numerous rumors, with many accusing Ning Ziying of lewd behavior with a man to the point of falling pregnant. The rumor went that she drowned herself out of desperation after the man abandoned her. Her maid, Xiang'er, also jumped into the pond, fearing the responsibility of her master killing herself.
Ning Xueyan said nothing after hearing this rumor. She merely expressed her wish to visit the lotus pond before leaving for the temple and pay her respects to a fellow young lady. Thus, Qingyu told Lanning to make preparations at the pond. After the prayers, Lanning would officially join Ning Xueyan's courtyard.
"A little maid?" Ning Xueyan's gaze swiftly turned cold. "Tell her I'm not done packing. I'll be there in another two hours."
The Cloud Reflection Courtyard had been deserted for a long time! Where would one find a little maid who Lanning could order around?
"Yes, I will relay your message now." Qingyu put down the package in her hand and walked out of the room. She came back minutes later and appeared ill at ease. "Young Lady, please excuse my frankness. Nearly everyone in this manor belongs to First Madam. It's better if you don't reveal when you're leaving for a place lest you incite gossip."
Ning Xueyan smiled faintly while sliding a finger across the surface of a basin decorated with crabapples on the table. "If First Madam wishes to know, so be it."
Madam Ling wouldn't sit still after suffering such a massive disadvantage. Yesterday evening, Ning Xueyan heard of the havoc in the Bright Clouds Garden and Ning Zu'an slapping Madam Ling after an argument. He had left swiftly after and spent the night at his study. Considering Madam Ling's temper, she wouldn't let matters rest.
"Young Lady, have you anticipated this?" Qingyu's eyes brightened after seeing that Ning Xueyan didn't seem like she was being taken advantage of.
"What have I anticipated?" Ning Xueyan stood up with a faint smile. She placed the spice bag in her hand into the pocket sewn into her sleeve and dusted her hands. She craftily said, "The timing that First Madam knows isn't the real timing anyway. Bring me some water. I will leave after cleaning my hands."
Qingyu's mood settled after seeing that her master had a plan. She hastily went to retrieve some water and helped Ning Xueyan wash her hands. Then, they headed for the Cloud Reflection Courtyard.
The courtyard was far from the Bright Frost Garden as both residences were located northeast and southeast respectively. They were separated by an entire courtyard, which made the Cloud Reflection Courtyard appear even more isolated. Perhaps it was because its master and servant had died in the lotus pond. Ning Xueyan didn't even spot a shadow on her way there.
To her surprise, a wall was being built on the other side of the Cloud Reflection Courtyard. Someone seemed to be trying to separate the courtyard from the Lord Protector's Manor.
The semi-slanting door of the courtyard was ajar. No sign of life could be found inside. Even though this place used to be isolated in the past, there was at least the sound of an old female servant keeping watch by the door drinking tea. To keep up appearances, Madam Ling designated quite a few maids and old female servants to work in this courtyard. When Ning Xueyan first arrived in the Lord Protector's Manor, she truly believed that Madam Ling was a magnanimous woman. Otherwise, she would have listened to her wet nurse's advice to wait and see instead of directly moving her dowries into the manor.
Ning Xueyan couldn't bring herself to feel anything while looking at the familiar courtyard's door. When she got close to the courtyard, she saw a little maid looking around at the door. The maid must have missed her earlier due to the wall. When the maid finally saw her, she looked frightened. Thinking that she was running out of time, she opened her mouth in preparation to scream.
Ning Xueyan stepped forward, raised her hand high, and landed a tight slap on the maid's face. She used so much force that the maid took two steps backward and fell to the ground. The startled cry in her throat turned into a quiet, pained groan. She clutched her mouth. For a moment, she was knocked dizzy.
Qingyu reacted just as quickly and stepped forward to block the little maid's mouth. She pressed so hard that the maid's eyes were rolling to the back of her head.
Ignoring the maid, Ning Xueyan hastily walked to the second room to the right of the wing of the building on the slopping side of the courtyard. That was Lanning's bedroom.
The doors were closed but not locked. They gave away with a slight push. The table and chairs inside the room were overturned. She instantly knew that something had happened. An older female servant was forcing Lanning to kneel by the bed and tried to pour a dark medicinal concoction into her mouth. Lanning desperately struggled but failed to get out of the servant's clutches.
Ning Xueyan flared up in anger. She stepped forward, grabbed the servant's coiled hair, and tugged it backward. Pain stabbed the servant and she dropped the bowl of medicine, spilling it all over her and Lanning. Lanning forcefully shoved the servant aside and took advantage of the moment to break out of the latter's hold.
The servant wiped the medicinal concoction off her face and started yelling before taking a good look at who it was. "Who's so foolish as to hinder Madam's business?"
Ning Xueyan instantly understood what was going on. Madam Ling truly despised her. Had she came a little later, Lanning would surely die by their hands and her death would be blamed on her when she arrives afterward. She was sure that Madam Ling had made preparations to seal her fate.
"Fifth Young Lady, please let go of me. It's First Madam who sent me here. This girl is the one who harmed Lady Ning Ziying. First Madam sent me here to execute this maid who harmed her master. You must not ruin her plans." This servant was pretty slick. When she saw that it was Ning Xueyan, an idea immediately struck her and she started spinning lies.
She truly believed that Ning Xueyan couldn't do anything to her. Thus, she spoke brazenly and self-righteously. She shoved Ning Xueyan's hand aside and stood up. She even straightened her neck smugly. Then, looking as if she recalled something, she pointed to Ning Xueyan and sneered.
"Fifth Young Lady, didn't you say you will be coming two hours later? "I'm going to report this to First Madam and the Marquis. I can't believe you're so cunning! Everything you do is premeditated. Let's see if First Madam will let you off!"
She then haughtily made her way out.
Even though Madam Ling had her suspicions about everything that had happened, she ultimately believed it was all an accident. If she found out that it was all part of Ning Xueyan's plans and the latter was feigning ignorance, she would surely kill her.
The sound of a dying yelp followed the sound of a crash. The servant fell to the ground with her head and face drenched with blood. Ning Xueyan stood nearby with a cool expression. The only thing left of the flower vase in her hand was a base dyed with blood. The fragments were scattered across the floor amid a pool of vibrantly red blood.
Lanning recovered her senses and calmed down. She lowered her body and checked the servant's breathing. In a trembling voice, she said, "She... She's dead!"
Ning Xueyan stared indifferently at the servant on the floor. If she allowed the servant to return, it would be her death instead!
"Young Lady, I... I accidentally suffocated the little maid to death..." Qingyu frantically ran inside the room. When she saw the bloodstain on the floor, her face became frozen with fright and she couldn't even finish her sentence.
"So the other one is dead too. Well, might as well!"
Ning Xueyan put down the vase in her hand calmly and said to Lanning, "Go to the storeroom on the left and fetch two burlap bags. Stuff the two bodies into the bags and tie them up with stones. Sink them into the pond near the back door."
When she first moved here, she took her parents' relics with her. The burlap bags used to move those things were still kept inside the storeroom.
Lanning looked at her in surprise. There was a flicker of shock in her eyes but she refrained from saying anything. She turned around and left to get the bags.
The back door of the Cloud Reflection Courtyard was located in a secluded corner. It was evening when Ning Xueyan arrived and the sky was even darker now. Seeing as the courtyard was desolate and considered inauspicious after the recent deaths that took place, no one would be heading in this direction. The three of them stuffed the bodies into the burlap bags, tied stones to the bags, and threw them into the pond in the courtyard. Then, they returned to the room to clean it. Lanning, bringing only a piece of small baggage, followed Ning Xueyan out of the courtyard.
Cloud Reflection Courtyard was completely barren. The objects that filled the rooms were either stealthily taken away by Madam Ling and Ning Ziyan or moved into the Xia Manor before the wedding. The servants had all escaped to get better jobs after hearing that their master was dead. Lanning was the only one who stayed to watch over the desolate courtyard.
Watching Lanning close the courtyard's doors firmly, Ning Xueyan's gaze turned sharp. She must ensure that the damned couple receives their retribution. They coveted her riches, harmed her life, and drowned her in the pond the day before the wedding. Heaven would never tolerate such evil...
When they returned to the Bright Frost Garden, they found Mother Han at the door. Having been waiting for a long time, she sighed in relief to see them.
The group entered the garden. Qingyu went off to settle Lanning into her new room while Mother Han followed Ning Xueyan into the house.
"Young Lady, the Eldest Young Lady sent this for you, saying it's her small but kind intention. She also said that she will accompany you in the Cold Mountain Temple once she returns for her bridal home visit." The table was filled with presents and several sheets of ornate satin. She instantly knew that these were expensive gifts. However, the vibrant colors of the fabric didn't look like something one would gift a person who had recently lost her mother.
Obviously, these sheets of satin were Ning Ziyan's wedding presents that she conveniently regifted. Even so, she wanted to put on a show of gratitude in front of others. Like mother, like daughter. Both deceived the world while hiding their wicked hearts.
"Mother Han, send the satin to Madam Dowager. Tell her that Eldest Sister sent them to me but I have no use for them now. Since I can't waste my sister's kind intentions, I will gift them to Madam Dowager instead," Ning Xueyan said placidly. Everything Ning Ziyan did was to manufacture a facade in front of others.
Outsiders might see this as a deep affection between sisters but if Madam Dowager learns that Ning Ziyan had regifted her wedding present to someone who had just lost her mother, Ning Xueyan wondered if the old lady would believe in Ning Ziyan's innocence!
Mother Han, also upset after seeing the sheets of satin, nodded after hearing Ning Xueyan's order. She pointed to the boxes of vibrant rogue and powders. To think that Eldest Young Lady had the gall to send over things of such auspicious colors. She asked in disgust, "Young Lady, what about the cosmetics? Should I send them to Madam Dowager as well?"