Chapter 668 The Empress Becomes His Spy
The only other uneasy person in the crowd was Commandery Princess Muling. She couldn’t help glancing at Wu Yao before looking away again, no longer trying to get close to the latter. She had been carefully and discreetly making her way toward Wu Yao earlier, but that would be a bad idea now.
Even though Wu Yao didn’t seem directly involved in the incident, it wouldn’t stop others from wondering if the woman who had always kept a low profile was truly innocent. One could tell that the scholars on the stage were suspecting something by how they didn’t even look at Wu Yao.
Wu Yao ordered her servants to rearrange the tables and chairs and invited everyone back to their seats.
Ning Xueyan walked down the stage with Lanning and Qingyu and returned to her seat. The first batch of imperial guards exchanged looks when they realized that the commotion was over, ready to leave.
However, the trouble was far from over. Something happened just as the guests took their seats again.
Xinmei came in, dragging a maid and a man with a hand each, and tossed them on the space between the men and women’s areas. “I found these two hiding and attempting to harm the Crown Princess,” she told Ao Chenyi’s guards. “Please kill them now.”
When the decent-looking man heard that Xinmei was going to kill them without asking anything, he yelled, “Wait! Don’t kill me! I’m the owner of this courtyard. Is it wrong for me to be here?”
“I… I’m Madam Wu Yao’s maid. I went to borrow something from the courtyard’s owner on Madam Wu Yao’s behalf. Is that… not allowed?” The maid began to kick a fuss as well.
Ning Xueyan leaned back as if she didn’t hear their frantic explanations.
“How do you explain this? Why do you have a painting of the Crown Princess? Why did you write curse-like words under it?” Xinmei asked coldly, throwing a letter at them.
In the crowd, Wu Yao’s face turned pale. She subconsciously gripped her handkerchief harder, knowing that this was bad news. There had been one accident after another messing up her plans today. Ning Xueyan’s maid had already exposed her final trump card before she could even use it.
This caught her completely off-guard.
She was about to move her feet and step forward when she heard the courtyard’s owner shout, “This… has nothing to do with me! The maid gave me this letter. I didn’t know that the person in the painting is the Crown Princess!”
The courtyard’s owner was a rich playboy who was tricked into checking out a beautiful woman by the letter. Unfortunately, he didn’t see anyone even after walking around. He had no choice but to leave in disappointment. Then, Wu Yao’s maid came and said she saw the beautiful woman at the banquet. She told him that she would take him to the woman.
Before they could leave, however, a maid appeared out of nowhere and beat him until he couldn’t get up from the ground. The maid found the letter and scribbled some nonsense under the portrait right before their eyes. Then, she dragged the two of them over roughly.
No matter how audacious the rich playboy was, he wouldn’t have dreamed that the portrait that he saw was that of the Crown Princess. His courage deflated even more after noticing the bloody sword of the imperial guard in front of him. He immediately pointed to the maid beside him and pushed all the blame onto her.
He became clear-headed once he saw the bloody sword. The maid said that the beauty fell in love with him and wanted to meet him privately, but how could the great Crown Princess be interested in him and even invite him for a meeting? He knew that he had fallen for someone’s trap, a trap designed to kill him!
Wu Yao immediately stepped forward and asked the pale-faced and trembling maid in a sharp voice, “What is going on?”
“I… I…” The maid was so terrified that her face paled considerably. Unable to speak, she looked pitifully at Wu Yao. The pleading in her eyes was apparent.
“You… You’ve gone too far! There’s no enmity between you and the Crown Princess, be it yesterday or today. I have already explained what happened last time. It was the family member of one of the Crown Princess’ subordinates who injured your younger brother. It has nothing to do with Her Highness. I didn’t think you would be so narrow-minded as to harm Her Highness. I… I can’t save you this time.”
Wu Yao sighed. Her words suggested that this incident was the result of the maid’s grudge against Ning Xueyan and had nothing to do with her. Her face was filled with disappointment.
“Yes… Yes, Madam. It’s me… I shouldn’t have…” The maid’s pale face took on a despairing expression but she seemed to have accepted her fault in the matter. She was one of Wu Yao’s trusted aides, so she naturally understood what the latter meant. If she didn’t take the fall for this, her younger brother would be killed.
The only thing that she could do now was try her best to protect her younger brother’s life.
Others might not know how ruthless Madam Wu Yao was, but she did. If she took the blame for this, only she would be dead. But if she didn’t, her younger brother and even her entire family would die on Grand Tutor Ya’s orders. Nothing would change even if Madam Wu Yao got into trouble. Grand Tutor Ya wouldn’t be so easily affected by this.
It was because she understood this that she felt so hopeless.
No one expected the famous Madam Wu Yao’s banquet would end this way. Not only did it boost Ning Xueyan’s reputation as an intelligent and talented woman, but it also ruined Madam Wu Yao’s reputation. Even though it had no direct relationship with Madam Wu Yao, the string of incidents that nearly killed the Crown Princess made people wonder…
People wondered if Madam Wu Yao was truly as innocent as she seemed. Could she have an unspeakable relationship with Grand Tutor Ya’s Manor?
Could she be helping Grand Tutor Ya’s Manor to harm the Crown Princess and aid Prince Xiang?
After Ning Xueyan left the banquet without another word, these suspicions began to fester among the guests. It went without saying that the banquet ended on a bad note.
One could say that the reputable Madam Wu Yao had been brought to the limelight to be scrutinized by everyone. Her maid was also taken away by the imperial guards in the name of investigation.
The incident happened so suddenly that Wu Yao could only watch blankly as her maid was taken away. It wasn’t until everyone left that she rushed back to her manor and secretly made her way to Grand Tutor Ya’s Manor with a gloomy expression.
The news had reached Ao Mingyu as well. He discussed the matter with Xia Yuhang for most of the night. Xia Yuhang only left after midnight.
This incident had caused the political situation to become even tenser. Many sensitive-minded people had already realized the oddity of the situation. They closed their doors early and waited to see the developments of the situation.
A storm was approaching. Even the atmosphere felt heavy with nervousness.
No one noticed that a lightweight carriage had secretly left the capital. Inside the carriage, Wen Xueran’s eyes were filled with an indescribable serenity and loneliness.
In the dark of the night, a group of men in black attacked Prince Yi’s Manor, where Ning Xueyan was staying by herself…
They didn’t realize that Ning Xueyan had secretly moved into the Crown Prince’s Palace into two small carriages. The first carried Ning Xueyan, and the other carried Commandery Princess Xianyun. For as long as Commandery Princess Xianyun was Ao Chenyi’s consort, Ning Xueyan wouldn’t leave the latter behind. Since Ao Chenyi wanted them over, she would take Commandery Princess Xianyun with her.
Fortunately, Commandery Princess Xianyun had been especially quiet ever since she was threatened with the safety of the Lord Guardian’s Manor. She entered the carriage as told without even objecting.
Only Xinmei stayed behind in Prince Yi’s Manor to keep an eye on the Pear Flower Garden. Liu Feng would also be guarding the manor. Ning Xueyan didn’t have to worry about her safety since she would be with Ao Chenyi, so it was the best option to have her two skilled subordinates monitor the manor.
Ning Xueyan could also guess why Ao Chenyi wanted her to sneak into the Eastern Palace all of a sudden. Someone must be trying to use her against him!
When they arrived at the Eastern Palace, Ao Chenyi’s subordinates arranged a random accommodation for Commandery Princess Xianyun on his orders. Ning Xueyan, along with her people and things, moved into Ao Chenyi’s main courtyard in the Eastern Palace.
Ao Chenyi wasn’t around when they arrived. His eunuch said that he was busy and asked that Ning Xueyan have dinner by herself. Ning Xueyan wasn’t surprised. She knew that he must be so preoccupied that he had little time for everything else, so she ordered for dinner to be served. To her surprise, all of the dishes were her favorites. Even dessert was her usual choice. She felt so warm on the inside that she ate more than usual.
Ning Xueyan waited a long time for Ao Chenyi to return that night but supposed that he was still busy. So, she went to bed and somehow fell asleep by herself. When she woke up the next day, he was still nowhere to be seen. Instead, Xinmei reported that Prince Yi’s Manor was burglarized last night.
A group of men in black had broken into the Pear Flower Garden and gone straight to the main room. However, their plan was foiled when they were ambushed by Ao Chenyi’s men. A few of them were even captured alive.
“Where are they?” Ning Xueyan wiped her mouth with a handkerchief and instructed Qingyu to take the things away.
“I think they’re still with His Highness. They were captured and sent away the very same night. Liu Feng and I stayed behind but no one else came. But, I don’t think any of the men in black escaped,” Xinmei replied.
Suddenly, Lanning ran in. Before she could say anything, everyone heard the sound of the gong from a distance. The gong rang one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine times…
Ning Xueyan stood up in a jolt. The Jingyang Gong had resounded nine times to represent the fall of the ruler. Had the Emperor died?
“Master, His Highness asks that you change into white clothes and meet him at once. He also said to cover the courtyard in white because the Emperor had died last night!”
Ning Xueyan asked Xinmei to order the palace maids and eunuchs to bring out every piece of white clothing and hang them around the Eastern Palace, as well as to make and wear a white garment each. Then, she asked worriedly, “He died last night? What is going on?”
“I’m not sure either. I met Chief Guard Yu earlier. All he said was that the Emperor’s death seemed to be related to Prince Xiang. Prince Xiang had sent assassins to murder the Emperor or something like that. I didn’t really understand what he meant,” Lanning replied. The Emperor’s sudden death had caught her off-guard too.
Even though everyone knew that the Emperor was very ill, they didn’t think he would die so quickly. It was said that he was still doing quite well last night. Rumors in the palace had it that the Emperor stayed conscious longer than usual and that he looked like he would get better soon.
Ning Xueyan nodded and stopped pursuing it. “Tell them to first make mourning garments for His Highness and me, but they have to create garments for the rest quickly too,” she said. She knew this wasn’t the time to pursue the matter. Ao Chenyi must have his contingency plans, too. She assumed as much ever since he secretly brought her out of Prince Yi’s Manor and into the Eastern Palace.
All she had to do now was put backyard matters in order.
The Eastern Palace had its tailoring department. They worked quickly to prepare white cotton garments for both Ao Chenyi and Ning Xueyan. After dispatching someone to send the garment to Ao Chenyi, Ning Xueyan put on her own and went out with Qingyu and Lanning.
Ao Chenyi, already dressed in his white garment, was waiting for her. The first thing he did upon seeing her was straightening her collar. Then, he took her to the back palace.
The Eastern Palace was technically a part of the back palace, but the two places were separated by a door. By the time the large entourage arrived at the Emperor’s palace, the sound of weeping was already in the air.
What surprised Ning Xueyan the most was that the one who took the central mourning position wasn’t the Empress, but Honored Consort Shu.
The Empress wasn’t here!
Ao Chenyi stopped in his tracks and grabbed Ning Xueyan’s hand. “Ao Mingyu sent assassins to kill the Emperor yesterday,” he said, briefly explaining the situation to her. “The Empress was his spy. She’s currently detained in the prison. From now on, you’ll manage all harem matters.”
Now that the Empress was in trouble, Honored Consort Shu’s status was effectively under Ning Xueyan. Moreover, Ao Chenyi was the Crown Prince at this very moment. Her authority as the Crown Princess had risen with it. It was normal for her to manage harem matters.
She turned her hand around and squeezed Ao Chenyi’s hand. She nodded at him, expressing her agreement and understanding without saying anything.
Afterward, when Ao Chenyi was off to arrange the Emperor’s funeral, Ning Xueyan brought all the imperial consorts, as well as all the concubines and female officials who were notified, to kowtow and weep before the Emperor’s coffin. She had everything arranged well.
Some of the older ranked madams took the opportunity during the downtimes of the mourning session to nod in approval of Ning Xueyan’s arrangement. It seemed that the next Empress would be a very capable one. Though Ning Xueyan was young, she was able to handle emergencies well. They couldn’t tell that she wasn’t even fully fifteen years old yet.
Some of them heard that Prince Xiang sent assassins to Prince Yi’s Manor last night to kidnap Ning Xueyan. The assassins might have failed, but she still seemed so composed as if she hadn’t just received a fright last night. It seemed that Princess Yi had the bearing of the Mother of the Nation.
Ning Xueyan even prepared a dedicated place for frail, elderly, or pregnant madams to rest. She told them to rest; all they had to do was weep a little at appropriate times. She gained much of their approval because of this.
Both the frail and elderly madams as well as the young pregnant madams should have been weeping and mourning the Emperor’s death with everyone. They didn’t expect Princess Yi to be so kind and show so much concern for them. Those who saw her actions couldn’t help but praise her for being magnanimous and kind.
Ning Xueyan didn’t expect her actions to garner the madams’ approval. At the moment, she was sitting inside and listening to the news that Lanning had gathered for her.