Chapter 152 : Inner Workings of the Heart
Working below the bamboo building, subordinates hid Princess He Yi’s body and cleaned up the bloodstains. Inside, Xuan Li and Xuan Lang sat at a table with expressions not nearly as relaxed as before.
“I really want to know how she knew about this place.” Xuan Li stared at Xuan Lang.
Although this place was in the rear palace, the path was convoluted and secluded, and not many people knew of it. If someone approached from any other path, they would surely meet guards at the gate. Since Princess He Yi could walk in unimpeded, it meant that she hadn’t encountered those guards. This showed that the path she took was one of their own. Obviously Princess He Yi wasn’t one of their people and that could only mean that they must have a spy in their ranks.
This place was kept very secret. Xuan Li and Xuan Lang would usually meet here if they had anything to discuss, so when they saw Princess He Yi here today, they both thought of silencing her at the same time. Although this place looked like a remote, abandoned concubine’s courtyard, if others in the palace knew that the two of them appeared together here, it would undoubtedly arouse suspicion.
Xuan Lang was shocked. “Eighth Brother, are you doubting me?” He wasn’t sure how to explain it. “I swear I haven’t revealed anything, moreover, why would I tell her about such a thing?”
“I didn’t say it was you,” Xuan Li said as he waved his hand. “However, is there anyone around you who knows about this place?”
Xuan Lang shook his head. “Apart from the guards Eighth Brother brought, no one knows about this place. I also find it very strange that He Yi was able to find this place by accident, and even if it was unintentional, it is still too much of a coincidence.” After a pause, a trace of annoyance flashed across his face. “We should have asked how she got here.”
It was a pity that his emotions got the better of him just now and he killed Princess He Yi in a moment of impulse, leading to his current regret. But since the arrow was shot and the person already dead, it was already too late to say anything.
“I feel that there’s something strange about this matter.” Xuan Li narrowed his eyes. “He Yi’s sudden disappearance will inevitably cause suspicion in the palace. There is only one way to prevent them from doubting us.”
“How?” Xuan Lang was surprised.
“Let’s shift the blame and turn the situation around to our advantage.” Xuan Li smiled slightly. “Princess He Yi was indeed killed, but she could not have been killed by us. Someone in this palace who had a grudge against her did it. If this can also remove a thorn from our side, then hers was a good death.”
Xuan Lang’s eyes lit up at once. It was true, they couldn’t hide Princess He Yi in the palace, but neither was it easy to smuggle her corpse out. With things as they were, they could only find a suitable scapegoat, but this scapegoat couldn’t be just a random person. It would be best to kill two birds with one stone, not only throwing away this hot potato, but also getting rid of a significant pest. Xuan Lang thought about it, and a cold figure suddenly appeared in his heart.
“I’ve got it,” he said excitedly. “Eighth Brother, I have a good candidate.”
“Oh?” A light flashed in Xuan Li’s eyes. “Let’s hear it.”
“I promise, this method will satisfy you much more than just finding a scapegoat. We can use He Yi to fulfil Eighth Brother’s wish.”
Xuan Lang smiled slyly, grabbed a piece of paper, and began to write.
* * *
Tian Zhu returned to the princess palace and put down the flower basket full of petals, then poured all of them into a wooden basin, before starting to clean each one.
“How can you still be in the mood to do this?” Lu Zhu rudely pulled the basin away, grabbed her sleeve, and walked into the inner room. “Miss is still waiting for your answer.”
Tian Zhu shrugged. As a subordinate, she only had to follow her master’s orders. In addition to leading the way, Jiang Ruan’s instructions also included gathering the petals, meaning that she could not attend to one matter her master ordered and lose sight of the other matters she had been instructed to follow. Regardless of whether or not the job was big or small, they were all tasks handed over to her by her master.
Inside, Jiang Ruan was sorting through the petals she picked earlier. Empress Dowager Yi De was in a good mood recently, and indicated that she should learn to make perfume. When she lived in the palace in her previous life, she relied on Xuan Li’s support to learn a bit. It wasn’t hard then, and it became even easier now.
“Miss, I led the way,” Tian Zhu said. “I personally saw Princess He Yi enter the courtyard. After she didn’t come out for two hours, I went to Jing Zhu Yuan to pick some petals before coming back, as Miss instructed.”
Jiang Ruan had previously ordered Lu Zhu to inquire about Princess He Yi’s recent movements in Shu Fang Palace. As soon as she heard that Princess He Yi left Shu Fang Palace early in the morning, she instructed Tian Zhu to dress as a palace maid carrying a flower basket, and ‘coincidentally’ meet Princess He Yi. Then Tian Zhu would allow herself to be followed, thus pointing out the path for Princess He Yi.
She hadn’t explained why they did this. Lu Zhu and the others didn’t know the reason, just vaguely feeling that this was important. Only Tian Zhu, who knew martial arts and was called into the room by Jiang Ruan and was handed a map, saw the ingeniousness of it all.
The courtyard Jiang Ruan asked her to lure Princess He Yi to was evidently a very secretive place, and the path Jiang Ruan asked her to use was one that avoided every single guard. Although the courtyard appeared to have an open layout, it was actually very hard to enter. The path branched again and again, none of them ending at the destination, and any wrong path would lead to guards who would then alert the master inside. And if an important individual did get lucky enough to somehow go in, there was only a courtyard inside, nothing suspicious.
This was a very daring secret room, daring because it was plainly exposed in front of everyone like this. The room was in this large courtyard, yet basically no one could enter except for its owner.
Yet Jiang Ruan not only knew of its existence, but also the smoothest path leading to it. Since she lured Princess He Yi there, she must know of its dangers. If it were under her control, Jiang Ruan wouldn’t need to use such a convoluted method — meaning she’d cleverly used someone else’s knife to eliminate an enemy.
Tian Zhu didn’t know how Jiang Ruan knew about this secret room and pa.s.sage, but understood that her new master held many secrets. She thought, perhaps no one here, not even the Jinyi Guard who were secretly planted within the palace, were privy to this secret pathway.
Lu Zhu couldn’t resist asking, “Miss, why wait for two hours? But Tian Zhu Jiejie came back before two hours had pa.s.sed.”
“Two hours are enough.” Jiang Ruan kept her eyes on the petals in front of her, which had already been washed clean and now looked more refreshing. “It only takes a stick of incense to murder someone, the rest of the time is used to clean up.”
“Murder?” Lu Zhu froze, then covered her mouth, secretly admonishing herself for losing her composure. She quietly asked, “Princess He Yi… was killed?”
Jiang Ruan glanced at her. “With someone like her, since she still hasn’t come out today, then there’s no way she’s still in the world of the living.” She’d known this long before. Those who entered that place could never escape with a whole body, unless they were their own people.
Lu Zhu looked at Jiang Ruan, then at Tian Zhu, before suddenly realising, “Miss did it on purpose. Miss, you knew that Princess He Yi would die if she went in, so you asked Tian Zhu Jiejie to lead her there?”
“Yes.” Jiang Ruan put the petals away in a small wooden box, then turned to look at her in askance. “I planned it long ago.”
Lu Zhu couldn’t articulate what she felt. For a moment, she felt that her Miss was too terrifying. Yet, when Jiang Ruan saw her vaguely fearful look and only returned an indifferent smile, Lu Zhu felt a sense of guilt. She remembered how Princess He Yi would come to trouble Jiang Ruan every three to five days, and at times, it seemed as though she was itching to kill her (JR). Being the first to take action was definitely a better option so as to prevent future unforeseen incidents from happening. Lu Zhu’s mentality was very good, and she quickly turned her thoughts and discomfort around. She asked Jiang Ruan, “But Miss, how did you know that Princess He Yi would die if she went there? What is that place?”
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That place? Jiang Ruan was stunned for a moment as her thoughts flew far away.
Tian Zhu looked away, pondering her own thoughts. The most important thing as a subordinate, apart from protecting your master, was to have enough trust in the person you followed. Xiao Shao couldn’t possibly take care of everything by himself. And with the expedition imminent, sooner or later Jiang Ruan would have to face many dangers and much peril on her own. Jinying w.a.n.gfu had no need for a weak mistress. She needed to be strong enough if she wanted to stand at Xiao Shao’s side.
This matter might well be a test to see what Jiang Ruan would do.
* * *
In a rural village, thousands of miles away from the capital, there was a farmyard with three buildings. The one furthest from the entrance was very dirty, as if no one had visited in a long time.
A rather thin middle-aged woman hurried in with a basket in her hands and kicked open the door to the last building of the courtyard.
The room was filled with a damp, rotting smell. When the woman lit a lamp, a curled up figure was revealed. When the person saw the light, a sense of fear arose and she hastily covered her face and lowered her head, as if afraid that the light would pierce her eyes.
“What are you hiding for?” the woman asked angrily. “Wretch, your food’s here.”
After saying this, she emptied the contents of the basket onto the table and began yelling without thinking, “I’m so busy every day but I still have to take care of a useless handicapped person. What is the point of caring for such an invalid like you? Though the silver isn’t bad- I got three taels for the Jiang family’s di daughter before and I can get five taels for you now- but you, your hands don’t work and you can’t carry anything. You can’t even embroider or gather flowers for me. I’m sure that I’ve suffered a loss with this deal!”
When the person on the ground heard the words ‘Jiang family’s di daughter’, they suddenly shuddered and lifted their dirty face. Their stick-thin body seemed to only have a thin layer of flesh left and had an awful stench clinging to them- who knew how long they hadn’t had a bath for. Only a pair of eyes vaguely revealed a hint of their former glory — it was Xia Yan.
If anyone pa.s.sed by and said that this was Xia Yan, no one would believe it. When this filthy old woman who resembled a beggar was compared to the person who was famed as the most talented lady in the capital, the wife of a highly-regarded minister, it was like night and day.
Unexpectedly, Xia Yan still struggled in front of the woman, and said something under her breath.
“Hmph.” A trace of envy flashed across the woman’s face, then she glanced at Xia Yan as if watching a joke and said sarcastically, “She sure is living good now, she even became a Junzhu. Back when she was worse than a dog under my roof, who would have thought her future would be like this?”
This middle-aged woman was none other than Zhang Lan’s youngest daughter, Chen Fang. Since Imperial Censor w.a.n.g had come to the rural residence and helped Jiang Ruan rectify the injustice done to her, Chen Zhao had been sent to prison and had yet to be released. In order to keep Chen Zhao alive in prison, Zhang Lan sold all her family property and farmland. Her gambler of a husband was beaten to death because he owed money, and not long after, Zhang Lan suffered a stroke and became paralyzed. In desperation, a still young Chen Fang married a widower who lived east of the village. The widower beat and scolded her at every turn, so in such an environment, she gradually turned into a powerful shrew.
Time pa.s.sed in a blink and the world seemed to have reversed. Xia Yan may never have considered the possibility that the servant who once made trouble for Jiang Ruan would now make things difficult for her, and neither could she have expected that her current life was even worse than what Jiang Ruan experienced back then.
The wheel of fortune was ever-turning. Xia Yan slumped to the ground in a daze. She was sent to this rural residence in the name of recuperating from illness, and thought that she was escaping disaster, but didn’t know that this would be the start of her h.e.l.l. At first, she tried to threaten Chen Fang into treating her better, but the rural residence was so remote — how could she beat Chen Fang alone? Her usual schemes and tricks were all wasted on such a vulgar shrew. Xia Yan, who was good at fighting for survival in the rear house, was no match for the simpleton in front of her. Chen Fang stole her jewellery, forced her to work, gave her the worst food, and placed her in the most deplorable house. Everything that had been done to Jiang Ruan, now even worse things, fell on her.
 三十年河东，三十年河西 (sānshíniánhédōng, sānshíniánhéxī) – the river flows thirty years to the East, thirty years to the West (proverb) / change is the only constant.
Xia Yan was still stunned, but Chen Fang gave her an annoyed glance, thinking that this woman was too annoying, yet that official didn’t allow her to die. However, considering how the official acted, this woman was definitely bound for death — it was only a question of when.
Without waiting for Xia Yan’s reply, Chen Fang turned around and walked out of the room, slamming the door closed. The room once again plunged into darkness. From Xia Yan’s dazed eyes, a single tear dropped from the corner of her eyes.
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