“Ruoyan, what are you saying?!” Faced with Yun Ruoyan’s accusation, Yi Qianying immediately stood up for her seat, her face as innocent as could be. “What happened, Ruoyan? Surely there must be a misunderstanding?”
“A misunderstanding?” Yun Ruoyan laughed coldly. “You claim that you haven’t schemed against me?”
“No, I haven’t!”
Yi Qianying stepped up to the Yun matriarch before kneeling down herself, her tears streaming down her face even more quickly than Yun Ruoyan’s. “I’ve been by Grandmother’s side all this time, and Madam An can confirm this too!”
She turned toward Yun Ruoyan, her face in distress. “Ruoyan, I’ve always treated you with respect and love, so why must you slander me so?”
“As for whether my words are slander or not, well, we’ll find out, won’t we?” Yun Ruoyan’s eyes were fixated on her petite form. “I was enjoying myself in the forest when He Xiang suddenly came to me saying that Xi Lan had accidentally entered the imperial hunting grounds. Can you honestly say you weren’t the one who told He Xiang to do this?”
“You entered the restricted hunting rounds?!” At this point, the Yun matriarch exclaimed in shock.
“No, I didn’t.” Yun Ruoyan hurriedly shook her head. “I was only searching for Xi Lan by the perimeter of the area. I was so worried for her that I really wanted to enter the hunting grounds, but I suddenly heard the guards shout that there was an assassin, scaring me so much that I hurried back.”
“Thank goodness you didn’t!” The Yun matriarch took a deep breath and sighed. “Without the emperor’s permission, anyone who dares to enter will be beheaded for attempted assassination.”
Last year, one of the daughters from the Wang family was so curious that she’d been lurking around the boundary of the hunting grounds, and she was killed on the spot.
Although the Wangs doted on their daughter, they were far too frightened to raise any fuss about it; in fact, they even had to thank the emperor for not extending his punishment to the entire Wang family. They buried their daughter’s corpse in a hurry, not even daring to have a funeral on her behalf.
The ins and outs of this affair had spread all throughout the capital, so the Yun matriarch and Madam An both thought that none of the girls would be foolish enough to enter the hunting grounds.
The Yun matriarch’s gaze swept over Yun Ruoyao and Yun Ruoyu. “As for anyone who secretly ventures into the hunting grounds, once they’re found out, they’ll also be punished harshly!”
“Grandmother, Sister Ruoyao and I have just been walking around the surrounding area, and we came right back after half an hour or so,” Yun Ruoyu quickly replied.
The Yun matriarch’s severe tone had so scared Xi Lan that she immediately knelt by her mistress’s side. “Old Madam, I’ve simply been plucking the phoenix orchids nearby, and I’ve never stepped foot near the hunting grounds at all! Xiao Lan can confirm this!”
“That’s right, Madam, I’ve been collecting flower petals with Xi Lan in preparation for making pillows for the summer,” Xiao Lan added.
“Grandmother!” Yun Ruoyan called out again. “Qianying must have intentionally lured me to the hunting grounds! She’s trying to kill me!”
The Yun matriarch’s face had gone cold. The squabbles between Yun Ruoyan and Yun Ruoyao, Yun Ruoyu, and Yi Qianying were minor enough for her to overlook for the most part, but if they’d really tried to kill Yun Ruoyan, then…!
The first and foremost of the Yun family precepts was to help each other in times of need, but it seemed that she had been far too lax in maintaining the household’s discipline! If she didn’t do something now, a disaster was bound to happen sooner or later.
“He Xiang!” The Yun matriarch’s eyes opened wide as she looked toward the shaking maid, her face as pale as paper.
How could this have happened? Didn’t Mistress say that, as soon as Yun Ruoyan ended up within the hunting grounds, she would be killed without a doubt?!
And once that had happened, in order to avoid being implicated, the Yun family surely wouldn’t investigate her death further, and that would be the end of it all.
And then, when her mistress married into the Pei family, she too would get a bump in status, and it wouldn’t be impossible for her to also become Pei Ziao’s concubine!
But now, it seemed as if her dream would be nipped in the bud.
“He Xiang!” Seeing that He Xiang was lost in her thoughts, as if she hadn’t heard the summon at all, Yi Qianying harshly pinched her leg with sharp fingernails.
“Ah!” Jolted out of her reverie by the pain, He Xiang couldn’t help but cry out. She glanced around to see everyone’s eyes fixated on her, scaring her so much that her legs trembled and she knelt down involuntarily.
The Yun matriarch looked at He Xiang’s trembling form in fury. “Tell me, tell us all, why you did this foolish thing.”
“Old madam…” He Xiang’s voice trembled. “It was Miss, Miss…”
“He Xiang, don’t you dare say nonsense!” Yi Qianying immediately broke He Xiang off. “I’ve always been generous toward you. When your mother fell ill, it was I who summoned a physician for her, and when your brother wanted to study at an academy, it was I who helped pave the way! Don’t you malign me!”
He Xiang’s words were left stuck in her throat. Her father had died early, her mother often unwell, and her brother weak and frail. Her entire family relied on the income she got as a maid in the Yun family. Her life would almost certainly end here, but what about her family’s?
He Xiang turned her head slightly, looking at Yi Qianying with teary eyes. She frowned almost imperceptibly as she pursed her lips.
It was then that the mistress and maid came to an agreement.
“He Xiang, scheming to kill the scions of the Yun family is a serious crime, and you’d better think carefully about your answer,” Yun Ruoyan warned.
He Xiang’s face was almost plastered against the floor as she cried in silence, her tears dripping into the stone. She shut her eyes tightly before finally speaking up once more. “Miss Yi doesn’t know anything. I was the one who orchestrated the entire affair.”
The Yun matriarch’s face was still shockingly severe, and even Madam An by her side didn’t dare say anything.
“Tell us why you wanted to harm Ruoyan.”
“Because my mistress likes Young Master Pei, but Young Master Pei was close to the second miss,” He Xiang answered. “My mistress is far too kindhearted, unable to even contemplate the notion of stealing the young master’s affection for herself, only able to cry in silence. Unable to help myself, I came up with this ploy to harm the second miss.”
“Is this the truth?” The Yun matriarch looked at He Xiang but glanced askance at Yi Qianying. Tears fell from her face without stopping, and she couldn’t help but be reminded of her daughter who had died young.
“I swear my words are true. I planned all this, and my mistress doesn’t know anything about it!”
“Outrageous!” The Yun matriarch slammed a fist against the stone table so loudly that Yi Qianying and He Xiang trembled even harder. “Scheming against one of the misses so maliciously… if I don’t punish you harshly…” The Yun matriarch slowly stood up from her seat, and Madam An and Xiao Lan hurriedly ran to her sides to help her up.
“When we return, go straight to the guards and receive thirty lashes. Then, I’ll decide whether to sell you off or to cripple your hands!”
On the Chenyuan continent, servants could be put to death for their offenses, but the Yun family was publicly known to treat their servants well. This was why the Yun matriarch hadn’t simply given He Xiang the death sentence.
But this sort of punishment wasn’t too far off from being beaten to death; thirty lashes were enough to make someone half an invalid, even if they didn’t die.
And then He Xiang would either be sold off as the most lowly prostitute, or have her tendons cut before being thrown onto the street, struggling at death’s door until her eventual death.
After handing out this punishment, she turned to help Yun Ruoyan up. “You silly girl, even if you’re worried for your servants, you have to think of yourself first. Everyone knows about what happened to the Wang family!” She clicked her tongue. “If you ever encounter something that you can’t solve on your own next time, come find me. Don’t you dare do something so dangerous again!”
“Yes, Grandmother!” Yun Ruoyan replied obediently.
“Grandmother…” Yi Qianying suddenly kowtowed, banging her head hard against the stone slabs. “As He Xiang’s mistress, I’m partially responsible for her crime. Grandmother, please punish me!”
“Mother,” Madam An finally spoke up. “Qianying’s still young, and her heart’s kind. It’s natural that she’s unable to discipline her servants severely, so please take it easy on her.”
“That’s right, Grandmother,” Yun Ruoyao and Yun Ruoyu also pleaded. “I’m sure Qianying didn’t intend for something like this to happen, so won’t you spare her this once, Grandmother?”
Yun Ruoyan smiled coldly in her heart. What a close family they all were!
But Yun Ruoyan understood her grandmother’s feelings. Yi Qianying’s mother was the Yun matriarch’s own daughter, and she had died young. Ever since then, Yi Qianying had been forced to stay with the Yuns. The Yun matriarch had watched her grow up, so how could she bear to punish her harshly?
“Grandmother, since Qianying was also kept in the dark, I don’t blame her. Would you be willing to spare her this punishment for me?” Yun Ruoyan asked, half-pouting.
Yi Qianying clearly didn’t expect that even Yun Ruoyan would ask to spare her, and she looked at Yun Ruoyan in shock.
The Yun matriarch looked at Yun Ruoyan, finding that she liked this granddaughter of hers more and more with every passing day.
She reached out and caressed her face. Although her face was marred, that imperfection seemed to make her even more worth her care.
In the end, she looked toward Yi Qianying once more, her gaze tinged with disappointment. “Go kneel in the ancestral hall for the night, and make sure you’re more disciplined with your servants in the future.”
After this sudden turn of events, the Yun matriarch had lost her interest in the flowers. Madam An sent out a few servants in search of Pei Ziao, waiting for him to return so that they could all leave.
He Xiang remained sprawled on the ground, her legs quivering like jelly, so much so that she couldn’t even stand up straight. Instead, she crawled like a pitiful dog.
Yun Ruoyan looked toward her, reminded of her own experience in the past.
She’d been locked up in a storeroom by Pei Ziao, and whenever He Xiang came by to bring her food, she would always mix in a handful of grit and sand with her food right in front of her eyes.
She would look down and scoff at Yun Ruoyan’s pitiful appearance, and her insults from back then seemed to reverberate within Yun Ruoyan’s mind. “First miss, you’re dimwitted, ugly, and all too easy to manipulate. Your station in life was so far above mine, and now you’re someone even I look down on. What do you make of that?”
She let out a deep breath as she began to shell almonds for her grandmother. A faint smile on her face, she called out, “Grandmother, would you like some almonds? Let me brew you another cup of tea.”
She stood up to do so and suddenly felt a few gazes darting toward her. Yun Ruoyan boldly glanced back at them, at Madam An and Yun Ruoyao, and when their gazes met hers, they couldn’t help but flinch.
This is just the beginning, Yun Ruoyan thought.Previous Chapter Next Chapter