Chapter 18: The Truth
The prime minister’s residence, within Ren Fengyao’s study:
Ren Fengyao sat behind the desk, placid as water. Three days had passed. Men had searched no less than a hundred Li of the Raging River, but no trace of Zi Yinye had been found, as if Zi Yinye had been swallowed by the river, not even leaving bones behind. He truly would not be able to see her dead or alive.
Seeing the ugly expression on his young master’s face, Mo Bai felt somewhat apprehensive. On the day of the Spring Hunt, he had been left behind at the residence. Who would have expected this kind of situation to happen? Although she merely held the title of Madam and the young master did not truly have feelings for her, the young master was surely feeling grieved. If only he had gone that day. If he had gone too, perhaps he would have accompanied the seventh lady, preventing the headstrong princess from prompting the seventh lady to ride and this wouldn’t have happened! It was all that willful princess’s fault! Even though the emperor had ordered the princess to be locked up and reflect on her mistakes, the seventh lady could not be brought back to life if she were dead.
Seeing Mo Bai lingering around the doorway, Ren Fengyao beckoned, “Come in. Any news?”
Mo Bai lowered his head, his voice low.
Ren Fengyao did not speak any more. Mo Bai secretly glanced at the young master. Noticing the young master’s complexion did not have any large changes, he spoke.
“Young master, the imperial captain just asked if the search is to be continued.”
Mo Bai said these words with incredible caution, fearing Ren Fengyao’s reaction. After all, Ren Fengyao had declared an absolute order* to find her, “dead or alive”. However, Ren Fengyao’s expression suddenly relaxed. After a while, he spoke.
“Withdraw. There is no need to search any more. Even if they continued to search, they wouldn’t find anything.”
*The word for “absolute order” is like if they didn’t carry it out, they would be killed
Mo Bai froze. There was a faint trace of a smile on the young master’s lips. Was the young master about to go insane?
“Senior brother, I have returned!” With a flash, another person appeared. Leng Canxing had been gone for the past three days.
Ren Fengyao signaled Mo Bai to pour Leng Canxing a tea and seated him.
“Did you find anything?” Ren Fengyao asked leisurely.
Leng Canxing frowned. He took a sip of the tea, silent, not knowing what to say. “I did discover something, but at the same time, I did not find anything. Just as Mo Bai said before, nobody has seen the seventh lady’s true appearance, including her own parents. As for the rumor of her ugly appearance, it started after the seventh lady was severely sick for a period of time at the age of seven, and the more the rumor spread, the more exaggerated it become, but as for where the rumor came from, I could not ascertain who.”
“Mo Bai said that she is unfavored, but that is somewhat false. She is indeed not liked in the Zi family, but this seems to be on purpose. It seems she has a special status in the family. She lived alone in a small courtyard. Besides her parents, no one is allowed to enter without her permission, including her elder brothers or sisters as well as the two mistresses. She has no other servants besides her four personal maidservants, so nearly none of the other servants have ever met her before, not to mention know her lifestyle or other details.”
Ren Fengyao muttered, “Although she is the daughter of the official wife, this does not justify the fact that the other two madams require her permission to enter. No matter what, she is part of the younger generation.”
“But the truth is the truth. I heard that both mistresses previously attempted to enter her courtyard, but weren’t able to. This is supposedly the past Zi lord’s order. Furthermore, the seventh lady has another liberty. She is excused from all clan events unless she wishes to attend. Otherwise, no one is able to force her. It seems after the age of seven, every lunar year since, she has never appeared at the main chamber, which is why nobody paid attention to her. The only time she has appeared in the main chamber over the last few years was when she was bestowed her marriage to you by the emperor.”
Ren Fengyao smiled faintly. “In other words, her courtyard is considered a restricted area in the Zi clan!”
Leng Canxing nodded. “Yes! Even after the seventh lady was married off, no one has dared to enter the courtyard. Every day, apart from the servant come comes to clean, her belongings have been not been touched by anyone, so…” Leng Canxing handed over a scroll to Ren Fengyao. “So I was able to obtain this. This was hanging in her study.”
Ren Fengyao unraveled the scroll. So it was a painting? With only a slight glance, Ren Fengyao was impressed.
“What a good painting! Such an exquisite piece, elegant rain scenery, stunning style. The painter must have been a master.”
His gaze settled on the words as he read softly,
“‘Outside the curtain,
Rain trickles down.
The spring that had begun,
Comes to an end.
The silk quilt is no match
For the midnight chill.
In my dreams,
I forget I am far from home
For short moment.’
“Excellent verses! Look at this artist signature. The handwriting is so graceful, it must be written by a woman. This must have been painted by the seventh lady.”
***A looooot of artistic license with this… Trust me, sounds much more elegant in Chinese though.
Leng Canxing nodded. “I compared it to her manuscripts, it is indeed her handwriting.”
Ren Fengyao smiled faintly. “It seems my nominal wife was completely different from the rumors. Apart from her chess skill, who knows how skilled she is in the four arts!”
Seeing Ren Fengyao’s slight smile, Mo Bai felt his hair stand on end. The young master was angry! Ren Fengyao sat back down, his gaze still fixed on the painting. “Canxing, did you discover anything else?”
“In the Zi clan, the small courtyard the seventh lady lived in is a… ” Leng Canxing muttered, not knowing how to describe it. “If it were to be compared to the main Zi household, her courtyard would be graceful while the main household would be… vulgar! Furthermore, the entire layout of her courtyard is arranged refreshingly. All of her furniture is manufactured from the highest quality red pine wood, each room filled with the faint smell of rosin. As for her ornamentation, everything she owns is simple, but of the highest quality. Each item could sustain a small family for years, none of them would lose against the main household’s. Also…”
Seeing Leng Canxing hesitant, Ren Fengyao prompted, “And?”
“Inside her home were a few things I had never seen before. They looked like furniture, but I did not know how to use them. I tried one of them, it was very comfortable to sit on, but I don’t know what’s it’s used for. Overall, it could be said the seventh lady is living it up. Oh, also, she had a pavilion library with a rather extensive collection of books. When I skimmed them all, I realized they were all arranged neatly into categories. I flipped through them and discovered every book had traces of being read before.”
“An extensive collection of read books? Not only is my wife a beautiful woman, she is a learned woman too!” Ren Fengyao’s smile widened as he cast a glance at the flabbergasted, mouth-agape Mo Bai. “Do not believe what you hear with your own ears or see with your own eyes. If one is not careful, they will be deceived by an elaborately manufactured facade.”
Oh no, the young master was angry! And angry at him! Mo Bai paled, an unsightly expression on his face. “I’m sorry, master!” He had fallen for the seventh lady’s deliberate facade and also mislead the young master, no wonder the young master was angry!
Ren Fengyao then turned to Leng Canxing. “What about her family? How did her family respond to the accident?”
“The moment Madam Zi heard the seventh lady had fallen off the cliff and that it was unclear whether she was dead or alive, she started to weep and fainted. Currently, she is still in bed while Lord Zi has stayed by her side and also seems to be grieved. As for the others, they don’t seem to have any responses, but the seventh lady’s sixth brother, son of the third madam, was very worried. When he heard of the situation, he ordered men to search for her and still hasn’t returned. The servants say she has a good relationship with the sixth brother. He is the only one besides her parents who has entered her courtyard before. However, this sixth master is often not at home, normally in the south taking care of the family business.”
“Oh?” Ren Fengyao tapped the tabletop lightly, then smiled lightly. “This sixth master seems useful!”
“Senior brother, do you think the seventh lady is…” Leng Caning did not continue. Ren Fengyao replied, “How can a woman who has patiently endured to manufacture a facade misleading the entire world, such a talented woman die so easily?”
“Yount master, perhaps the seventh lady, she, she’s not dead?” Mo Bai asked hesitantly.
“Dead?” Ren Fengyao chuckled, gazing out the window. “I’m afraid it’s another story!”
“Did she fake her death? The Raging River flows so rapidly, how could she…” Mo Bai did not continue. Ren Fengyao said calmly, “I sent men to inspect the cliff. One meter above water, something had been hanging.”
“What was it?”
“A net, a net that could prevent a person falling from the top of the cliff from falling into the river.” Ren Fengyao turned to Leng Canving. “When I went to search, the net had already been removed, but traces of it remains. It seems they left in a hurry, not having enough time to erase all marks left by the net. This is her sole mistake*!”
*Word here literally means “faulty stroke in calligraphy or painting”
“She must have faked her death! It must have been planned long beforehand. Were the assassins also…?”
Ren Fengyao shook his head. “The assassins were not sent by her. The imprisoned assassin has already confessed it was someone else. What she had prepared were the two wild boars that had suddenly charged. I inspected the boar that charged into her afterward and discovered traces of drugs in its system. The arrow shot must have also been an accomplice, intended for her to fall off the cliff to fake her death, drawing the scene to a close.”
“Why did she do that? Why fake her death?”
Ren Fengyao shook his head, smiling yet not smiling, his voice low. “I don’t know. We understand her too little. Everything we know about her is her facade. Her true self has been deeply hidden. In truth, she must have been planning on faking her death much earlier. Mo Bai, have you seen Chun Ri these past few days?”
“Chun Ri? The seventh lady’s maidservant?” Mo Bai frowned, thinking. “No, I have not. I never saw her ever since she moved to the other courtyard.”
“She was at the hunting grounds that day. Wait a minute, where is she?”
Ren Fengyao smiled again at Leng Canxing’s confusion. “She is missing. She has been missing for three days. That day, with the situation so chaotic, no one would notice a missing maidservant. If I did not suspect her master, I would not have noticed her disappearance either. Also… The seventh lady originally had four maidservants. Did any of you notice when only Chun Ri was left by her side?”
Leng Canxing and Mo Bai froze, then shook their heads.
“No,” said Mo Bai, “I did not notice.”
“I later questioned the housekeeper and learned that the three had been dismissed long before the seventh ldy moved out of the minister residence with the excuse that they were either being married off or their relatives had come for them and so on, but I heard from the secret ministry that those four are all orphans. They have followed her since childhood.”
“Senior brother used the secret ministry?” Leng Canxing was shocked.
Ren Fengyao nodded. “I already instructed the secret ministry to investigate thoroughly. I wonder, what exactly is the seventh lady is trying to pull?”
Leng Canxing sighed. It seemed the seventh lady had severely provoked senior brother’s wrath. She had completely fooled his incomparably intelligent senior brother, no wonder senior brother was mad! But…
“Young master, how did you suspect the seventh lady feigned her death?” Mo Bai didn’t understand.
Ren Fengyao’s gaze went distant as stared at the painting. “Because I saw her real face. Perhaps the heavens willed it so. I saw that as she fell, her expression was one of delight instead of fear. I have never seen anyone smile at the face of death, especially during such sudden states of events. Not being afraid is strange! This was her biggest mistake*!”
*Same word for calligraphy here. Makes sense because he is staring at the painting currently
Mo Bai immediately understood. Ren Fengyao stood up, rolling up the scroll painting. “Let us visit the Zi clan and console my parents in law, then see the small courtyard while we’re there and return the painting.”