Just as the carriages reached the foot of the Minghuang mountain, Pei Ziao walked up quickly.
“Grandmother, aunt.” Pei Ziao bowed in front of the Yun matriarch and Madam An. “Unfortunately, the emperor seems to be hunting on the Minghuang mountain, and we likely won’t be able to ascend to the peak. However, the phoenix orchids that bloom all the way up the ascent are almost as good. I’ve already arranged for tea and snacks, as well as transportation up the mountain, so if that’s alright…”
“Of course it’s fine,” the Yun matriarch smiled. “At any rate, I hadn’t intended on going all the way up, and stopping near the halfway point will be a good idea.”
Pei Ziao motioned for the palanquins to approach. Unlike regular carriages, these palanquins were simple constructions: two thick bamboo poles supported a platform with a small reclining chair on it. They would sit on the reclining chairs and be carried up the mountain by strong porters, two for each palanquin, hoisting up the poles on their shoulders from the front and the back.
Experienced palanquin porters would be able to ensure a stable ride no matter how rugged the terrain underneath, as if those enjoying the view were up in the clouds as they floated up the mountain.
There was no one amongst the Li nobility who didn’t enjoy such a pleasurable activity. Some of the aristocracy would even specially train a retinue of palanquin porters for such mountain excursions.
Naturally, Yun Ruoyan liked this sort of thing as well.
Everyone got on the palanquins, and Yi Qianying called for Yun Ruoyan to get on the one directly in front of her.
Yun Ruoyan’s gaze swept over the two men assigned to her palanquin and found them strong and sturdy. She nodded her head in satisfaction and climbed onto the seat.
Yi Qianying grinned.
She’d hired these particular porters with a large sum of gold; as soon as the palanquins reached the halfway point, one of the porters was meant to trip, pitching Yun Ruoyan down the mountainside.
The Minghuang mountain wasn’t particularly tall, but the terrain was rugged and craggy. If someone were to fall off the side of the mountain and lucky enough not to die, she would at least suffer serious injuries.
The Yun matriarch’s palanquin was at the very front, followed by Madam An, Yun Ruoyao and Yun Ruoyu, then Yun Ruoyan and Yi Qianying, and finally, at the very end, Pei Ziao.
Pei Ziao’s gaze jumped over Yi Qianying and landed on Yun Ruoyan. She sat straight up, her fine, dark hair braided and barely revealing the nape of her neck. Her graceful bearing was accentuated by her rose-colored dress, which fluttered in the wind and shrouded her in an aura of divinity.
When she glanced to the side, he could see her pert nose and sensuous, cherry-like lips. In terms of appearance alone, with her birthmark hidden, she was far beyond the likes of Yi Qianying.
Pei Ziao had heard his father call Yun Ruoyan’s mother, Lin Yuemei, a famed beauty of the Li kingdom.
By right, her daughter wouldn’t be ugly, but no one expected a scarlet birthmark on her face, one so eye-catching that it destroyed any semblance of beauty she might have had.
Some time ago, the birthmark had even been scarred by a glancing blow. Pei Ziao could still remember how it was leaking pus during the expedition, and that sight still repulsed him to this day.
But scars could heal. Yesterday, Yun Ruoyan’s face had looked much better. If there were some medicine that could get rid of the birthmark entirely…
While Pei Ziao was lost in his thoughts, the procession of palanquins had reached the most precipitous part of the mountains, where the trail was less than two feet wide at its narrowest.
Pei Ziao’s gaze was fixated on Yun Ruoyan.
He knew of Yi Qianying’s plan, of course. Although he was a little conflicted, he knew that it was ultimately the most advantageous decision for him, so he gritted his teeth and agreed.
But now, when he looked at Yun Ruoyan’s beautiful back, a sudden sense of reluctance filled his mind. This made him lose his composure, and, almost without realizing it, he called out, “Ruoyan!”
Hearing Pei Ziao’s voice, Yun Ruoyan slowly turned around. At exactly this moment, the palanquin hoisting her suddenly tilted toward one side!
By her side, Xi Lan screamed. She was walking on the interior of the mountain path, and the palanquin was high enough as to be beyond her reach, even if she stretched. All she could do was watch in shock as Yun Ruoyan’s body became airborne.
Yi Qianying smiled, as if she could see a god of death waving at Yun Ruoyan.
Behind her, Pei Ziao jumped up. Amidst Yi Qianying’s startled gaze, he extended his hand out to Yun Ruoyan.
What Pei Ziao didn’t expect was that, even when encountering such sudden danger, Yun Ruoyan still appeared calm and unperturbed. Although her body was already in the air, light as a swallow, she grabbed the topknot of the palanquin porter to her front, revolved her body around that focal point, and then kicked at the face of the palanquin porter to her back. With this complex maneuver, she gained enough momentum to land safely on the mountain path once more.
“Ruoyan, are you alright?!” Pei Ziao immediately jumped down from his own palanquin and looked sincerely at Yun Ruoyan.
Yun Ruoyan put her hands behind her back, her gaze mocking. She turned to look at the open-mouthed Yi Qianying before walking to Pei Ziao’s front, tiptoeing and whispering into his ears, “Your tricks are too naive for me!”
After all, as a woman of two lives, Yun Ruoyan had already lived over thirty years in a noble household. She’d clearly noticed Yi Qianying’s smile as she climbed onto her palanquin.
In addition, she’d heard of something similar happening in the past, so when Yi Qianying motioned her to a palanquin, she was already on the lookout for any such tricks.
“Our agreement has changed.” Yun Ruoyan put up two fingers in front of Pei Ziao’s face. “Two high-grade pills.” Pei Ziao’s face warped, and he was about to say something when Yun Ruoyan interrupted him coolly. “This is the cost of trying something like this!”
“Mistress…” Xi Lan looked at her mistress, her eyes red.
“I’m alright!” Yun Ruoyan smiled at her.
No one at the front of the precession seemed to have noticed the commotion at the back, and their palanquins had already rounded the bend.
“You two, get up and keep going!” Yun Ruoyan pointed at the two groaning palanquin porters on the ground.
One of them had his hair in disarray, while the other spat out a bloody tooth. Having seen a demonstration of Yun Ruoyan’s martial ability, they knew better than to try the same trick again.
The Yun matriarch, Madam An, and the two younger Yun sisters had already been in the pavilion for quite some time before they saw Yun Ruoyan and the others’ palanquins draw near.
“What took you all so long?”
“Oh, my stomach was hurting just now, so I needed to relieve myself,” Yi Qianying hurriedly replied.
Yun Ruoyan didn’t intend on exposing her. Based on her previous experience, the Yun matriarch and her father’s attitude would be to simply keep the peace instead. Any accusations she leveled at Yi Qianying would be useless, so she might as well save her saliva.
Everyone sat in the pavilion as they chatted and ate the snacks that Pei Ziao had prepared. Suddenly, a gust of wind blew through the pavilion, and the phoenix orchids’ fragrance began to spread.
Their scent was captivating. Madam An suggested that they gather back in about an hour or so, while she took care of the Yun matriarch and enjoyed the flowers and pleasant view.
The maids were also allowed to explore, and Xi Lan happily followed a crowd of other maids into a forested area where the orchids were growing. She had told Yun Ruoyan that she wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to try and collect some orchid petals with which to make snacks when she returned.
Yun Ruoyan, on the other hand, found a quiet, secluded location where she began trying to sense the primal element of fire once more.
Vexed by his display just now and the flurry of complicated emotions that threatened to overwhelm him, Pei Ziao took out his anger on Yi Qianying, making a face at her as he marched into the forest with his attendant.
Yi Qianying felt wronged and angry. She stood still, tears flowing down her face without any hint of stopping.
“Miss, please don’t be sad,” her maid He Xiang consoled her from the side. She didn’t understand at all why, despite her mistress’s good looks and personality, Young Master Pei could bear to look at her in such a hurtful manner.
Yi Qianying glanced at He Xiang with teary eyes. Suddenly, inspiration struck her, and she asked, “He Xiang, do I treat you well?”
“As if I were family, Mistress,” He Xiang replied, her eyes filled with loyalty.
Yi Qianying was particularly pleased. Having been sent from place to place as a child, she’d had to learn rapidly how to detect others’ feelings and to gain their loyalty. He Xiang was a pawn that she’d painstakingly cultivated. “Would you be willing to do something for me, He Xiang?”
“As long as it’s within my abilities, Mistress, I’ll try my best.”
“Good. When I marry into the Peis, I’ll be sure to find you a good partner as well.”
While Yun Ruoyan was immersed in cultivation, she suddenly heard someone call out to her anxiously. She stopped her training and walked out of the forest to see He Xiang looking at her fretfully.
“Miss, something’s wrong.” He Xiang quickly ran up to Yun Ruoyan when she saw her.
Yun Ruoyan frowned. “What’s the matter?”
“Xi Lan, she…” He Xiang gulped down her saliva.
“What happened to Xi Lan?”
“She accidentally entered the emperor’s hunting grounds, and she hasn’t come out even after so long! I’m worried she’s been caught and treated as an assassin. Miss, will you come with me? If she’s deemed an assassin, she’ll be shot to death on the spot!”
The urgency on He Xiang’s face looked so believable that Yun Ruoyan hurried into the woods with her.
After about fifteen minutes’ walk, He Xiang brought Yun Ruoyan to a deep gully in the woods, which was spanned by a log bridge.
He Xiang pointed to the other side of the gully as she continued, “Right there! Xi Lan said that she smelled the scent of camellias, and she said she wanted to pick some camellia flowers to make a pillowcase for you, Miss, but then she never returned!”
“You know that we’re forbidden from going over there, so why didn’t you stop her?!”
“I said it, I did! But she said that no one was around, so she’d go over and return rapidly, and also make me a pillowcase as well…”
But before He Xiang could finish, Yun Ruoyan had already leaped over the gully!
Yun Ruoyan was particularly concerned about the well-being of people who treated her kindly, no matter whether these people were the cousins she’d really gotten to know well during the imperial expedition, or the two maids by her side.
Knowing this, Yi Qianying was finally able to spring a trap on her.
Yun Ruoyan quickly ran around the outskirts of the forbidden territory looking for Xi Lan, but even after fifteen minutes or so, when she’d gone over the entire boundary, there was still no trace of her.
Only then did Yun Ruoyan begin to suspect that this was a trap.
She was about to head back over the gully when she suddenly heard loud shouts from afar, and hurriedly ran underneath a thick, stout tree to hide.
Yun Ruoyan held her breath, reined in her spiritual energy, and turtled up with her back against the tree bark. A group of men and horses rushed right by her side, but they didn’t notice her.
Only when they drew further and further away and vanished into the distance did Yun Ruoyan dare to peek her head out to have a look.
Suddenly, Yun Ruoyan felt a coolness on her forehead, a faint smell of blood, along with a drop of cool liquid, sliding down Yun Ruoyan’s forehead to the bridge of her nose.
She reached out and touched it, then put her finger in front of her eyes: blood!
Just as she raised her head to have a look above her, an inky darkness floated down and smothered her.
It was pitch black within the inky darkness. She struggled to make her way out, but her wrists were suddenly caught by someone else’s hands.
She subconsciously tried to call out, but before she could do so, cool lips met her own, blocking off her voice, her breath. This cold feeling immediately reminded Yun Ruoyan of that mysterious man with sharp, distinct features, and eyes as black as jet.
It’s him! Yun Ruoyan widened her eyes amidst the darkness.Previous Chapter Next Chapter