Beneath the cloud-like cherry blossoms, the streams of people parted like a receding tide.
In the middle of the lurid blossoms and vibrant willows, a line of people wearing flying fish clothes and swords hanging in embroidered scabbards on their waists filed down the path.
Even if the sunlight was bright and beautiful, the flowers brilliant, whenever these people appeared, it seemed like dark clouds covered the sun, casting the road into shade.
In this troop, there was a vermillion figure everyone's gaze was attracted to.
The man on the horse was like a pine tree.
He was about twenty-three or twenty-four. His shirt was bright as fire, his face like porcelain, eyes like ink. He was tall, but there was a fragility about him.
Perhaps it was because of his slightly pale face, like he was often sequestered away from sunlight.
His face was waxy, no hint of a smile. Those two eyes shone, but with dark undertones. It was like there was nothing in front of him, his eyes unseeing.
He looked just as everyone imagined, but though he was handsome, there was something strange about him, like a snake. It was shudder inducing, so one wouldn’t dare look directly at him.
His work was also snooping and sneaking around, and his people rarely appeared in public.
He was very secretive, so suddenly coming into the light turned out like this.
For many passersby, this was their first time seeing him. Even for Ning Yunzhao, this was the first time seeing him so clearly. He had just seen his figure from faraway once when he was accompanying his uncle into the palace. At that time, he had been standing all alone in front of the temple hall, fading into shadow. He resembled a lone wolf.
"The meat waist knife  has come out of his house. Who knows who the unlucky sap is this time," muttered one of the noble sons.
He normally spoke very loudly and laughed loudly, but now he didn’t dare raise his voice in fear of angering Heaven.
No one answered him. Everyone was fixated on the procession of horse and man on the road.
They did not pass through, and instead stopped by a tea stall.
The customers originally seated there had already escaped; the owner of the stall trembled with fear as he came to greet them.
"Does he want to view the cherry blossoms?" mused Ning Yunling. "It really is rare. And he is still very refined."
Ning Yunzhao watched Lu Yunqi get off his horse and approach the tea stall.
The guards there scattered around the tea stall, surrounding the teal stall from the outside.
The people on the road started to move again. Compared to the casual, frivolous movements of before, everyone treaded much more carefully. Even the children, who didn’t know anything, stopped crying where they rode on their parents’ backs.
Ning Yunzhao and the rest also turned away.
"Really, such sweeping elegance," one person said. "Let’s get out of here."
Ning Yunzhao had no objections, and they filed out of the building. Ning Yunling tapped him from behind.
"Tenth Brother, what’s with you?" he asked.
Ning Yunzhao didn’t understand.
"What’s with me?" he parroted.
Ning Yunling examined him closely.
"You haven’t had any energy since you returned; you’ve been quite…" He searched for a fitting description. "Everyday you’ve been lost in thought, daydreaming…"
He didn’t finish because Ning Yunzhao cut him off.
"Boy," he shot him a glance. "What sort of books have you been reading recently."
Ning Yunling chuckled.
Of course he didn’t believe that Ning Yunzhao could really be pining for a girl.
"But are you really homesick this time? Thinking about how Little Sister Yanyan is to be married? Time really flows like water; in just a blink of an eye, these brats grow up and go their separate ways…"
He pulled up abreast of Ning Yunzhao and went down with him as he sighed.
"...That lantern on your desk must be from Yanyan; you never brought any trinkets from home before…
"This year, we won’t be going back for the New Year. Yanyan will marry next year, and our exams will have ended. You will go back as the top scorer to send her off, that would be a really nice touch.
"But I reckon that no one will be looking at the new bride and groom but at the top scorer."
Ning Yunzhao paused slightly.
Then, she would also come see?
What was she doing now?
Miss Jun paused where she was on the steps. She inclined her head to look at a flowering tree in Lady’s courtyard.
It was already April. The trees had all bloomed.
"Young Lady, please come in."
The two servant girls in front of the door held back the curtain and respectfully greeted her.
Lingzhi looked out through the window to see a gentle and beautiful girl walk through Lady’s door.
But she knew that Young Lady would not stay inside long; at most one hour before leaving.
The sound of footsteps came from outside. Lingzhi hurriedly looked away and sat down on the brick-bed.
The door was pushed open, and in came a maidservant carrying a tray of snacks.
"Miss Lingzhi, your food," she said with a smile.
Although she had been shut away for a month, Lady still has not done as Young Lady said and sold her. What’s more, she had been given good treatment in clothes and food.
Obviously, Lady would not make things hard for her.
After all, she was the person Young Master liked. When Young Master liked a dog, she had treated it as an idol.
It could not be said to be sumptuous, but refined and tasty food was arranged on the table.
"How is Young Master?" Lingzhi did not take any utensils, rather asking her daily question with great worry.
"Young Master is still well; he stayed awake for a long time today," said the maidservant. "He seems to have more energy."
"It’s all my fault," she sobbed. "If not for me, Young Master would not be like that."
The servant was already used to seeing her like this. She ladled out some soup for her.
"How can we blame you? It’s all Young Lady’s fault. If a normal person were to do it twice in such a short period of time, they’d be tired half to death. To say nothing of our Young Master."
She was a once married old woman. She could speak bluntly and freely about such things.
"It’s pretty good that he didn’t die on the spot," she added, passing the soup to Lingzhi.
In the end, Lingzhi was a young girl. She turned red and lowered her head as she took the bowl. As she was about to express her unease and sadness again, the scent of the soup hit her face.
It was fish maw and pork knuckles, dense and flavorful. It was best for nourishment and for skin; all the servant girls loved to eat it; it was also her favorite dish, but it was not something she could eat as she wanted.
She had eaten it here quite often, but today, for some reason, the fragrance from the bowl only made her feel nauseous.
Perhaps it was because she had been shut in the room for so long.
But she couldn’t feel sick; how could she waste Lady’s good intentions?
She lifted her head, intending to give her thanks in a smile, but just as she opened her lips, she felt an internal churning and fluid bubble up to her mouth and spew out.
There was no time for the maidservant to respond, and she was splashed and issued a streak.
This was her best clothing.
This little bitch…
Lingzhi did not apologize to her; just gripped the table and gurgled.
"AIyo, Miss, are you alright?" asked the maidservant as she pinched her nose. "What’s wrong?"
After throwing up everything, Lingzhi felt a bit faint. But her insides had settled.
"I’m fine," she said from where she lay against the brick-bed.
After she said that, she doubled over again and went for another round of vomiting.
The maidservant could not take the stench anymore. She wanted to treat Lingzhi well as Lady had instructed her, so she hurried to leave.
"Miss Lingzhi, don’t be scared. I will just go to Lady and ask for a doctor to see you." She all but flew out of the room.
 Flying fish clothes: Typical jinyiwei uniform embroidered with flying fish. Jinyiwei literally means embroidered uniform guards
 Meat waist knife: it refers to someone that frames others