In the early spring, the night fell quickly. Just after the evening bell had rung, everything became calm and quiet in the Ming Manor as lights were extinguished and doors were locked.
Duo Fu was busy making the bed, carefully warming the blankets with a hot water bottle.
Ming Wei stood by the window, gazing at the garden beneath the night sky. From this vantage point, she could see a corner of the lake. The willow tree that concealed something sinister was shrouded in a faint, eerie glow, held in check by a delicate barrier, unable to escape. This was the formation set by Madame Liu, though weaker, it was effective.
Ming Wei pondered; her soul had not been in this world for long, and her body was weak. With this seal in place, she could likely delay for a few more months, by which time she should have regained her strength.
She turned her gaze to the large bed. The soul of Ming Qi, trapped within the boundary she had set, looked lost.
Ming Wei sighed silently. This child didn’t know whether her fate was fortunate or unfortunate. Born with a simple mind, she had a mother who cherished her as her life. How heartbroken would Madame Ming Three be if she knew her daughter was already dead? Furthermore, her two lost souls and four lost spirits, scattered who knows where for over a decade, might not be so easily recovered.
“Miss, the bed is warm now. Are you going to sleep?” Duo Fu called to her.
“Yes,” Ming Wei replied.
She removed her outer clothes and slid into the warm bed, watching as Duo Fu still had a red string tied around his hand.
“Don’t take it off.”
Duo Fu lowered his head, noticing where her gaze fell, and smiled. “Alright, Miss. This is a gift from you, and I won’t take it off in the future.”
Ming Wei closed her eyes.
Miss Ming Qi, like her, had a unique connection to the world of Yin and Yang, while the maids around her had pure Yang destinies. Perhaps her arrival here, in this place, was predestined by some higher power?
The night grew deeper, and Madame Ming San put on her cloak and hat, preparing to go out.
Nanny Tong approached her, “Madame, that deadly thing is still in the garden. Shouldn’t you stay in tonight?”
Madame Ming remained unfazed. “Nanny, rest assured, I won’t go near the lake, so nothing will happen.”
Madame Ming had already lifted her skirt and headed for the door, so Nanny Tong had to call the maidservant, “Su Jie, bring a handwarmer. It’s windy at night, and be careful with the lantern…”
“I understand, Nanny!” The maidservant replied cheerfully.
The mistress and servant hurried away and soon disappeared. Only when the faint light in the distance vanished did Nanny Tong withdraw her reluctant gaze and slowly return to her room. Her aged face was cast in shadows.
In the quiet night, a young maidservant guarding the tea room gazed out the window at the passing lantern light. She rubbed her hands and asked her companion, “It’s so late, where is Madame going? Didn’t they say there’s a ghost in the garden? What if she encounters it?”
The slightly older maidservant poured herself a cup of hot tea and spoke softly, “Don’t you know? Madame is going to copy scriptures. She made a vow many years ago to pray for the Young Miss, and she won’t stop, even in heavy snow. I guess today’s tasks kept her busy, so she’s coming this late.”
The younger maidservant propped up her chin, clearly envious. “Madame is so good. If my mother were half as good, I wouldn’t have been sold here.”
The older maidservant chuckled. “Being good is one thing, but it’s also tough. If it were my mother, she wouldn’t endure such hardship.”
Madame Ming entered the Liujing Hall.
Su Jie lit the lamps and candles.
The dim candlelight cast a faint warm hue in the small hall, which housed only three rooms. In the middle stood a long altar table, upon which rested a half-human-sized statue of a female deity.
Su Jie had heard from Nanny Tong that this was the Goddess Xuan Nu of the Nine Heavens.
The first time she heard it, she found it strange. Wasn’t Guanyin Bodhisattva usually worshipped? But Xuan Nu was also a powerful immortal who could surely bless the Young Miss, right?
Madame Ming Three removed her cloak, rolled up her sleeves, revealing fair arms, and then took out a dust brush to begin cleaning. Finally, she lit incense, made three respectful bows, and placed it in the censer.
In the gentle wafts of blue smoke, she moved to a corner, added water to the inkstone, and began copying scriptures with a brush.
Su Jie quietly retreated.
Time passed, drop by drop, as the brass kettle dripped. Unbeknownst to them, it was already the middle of the night.
The half-closed door to the prayer hall was pushed open without a sound, and a figure entered. Unlike the figure of a woman, this person’s stature cast a long shadow in the lamplight.
Madame Ming seemed oblivious, continuing her scripture copying diligently.
The candlelight illuminated her face, which seemed untouched by the passage of time, even more ethereal and lovely.
The intruder leaned against the door, silently admiring her for a while. Then, he strolled in leisurely.
His tall and masculine figure, different from a woman’s, made her appear delicate and vulnerable as he embraced her. He let his chin graze her dark hair and spoke lazily, “Sister-in-law, you’re fearless for coming here so late, especially with the rumor that there’s a malevolent spirit lurking in Yu Fang Garden. Everyone else is afraid to leave their houses at night, but here you are, still copying scriptures in the temple. Perhaps, it’s all for my sake?”
With this sudden embrace, Madame Ming Three’s wrist shook, and the pen, soaked with ink just moments ago, couldn’t hold its grip and left a blot on the paper.
Madame Ming Three’s expression remained calm as she set aside the stained paper and picked up a clean one.
“I have two more sections to copy. Let me finish them first.”
“Heh…” The man behind her paused for a moment, then let go, “Alright, alright, when have I ever refused your requests, Sister-in-law?”
Madame Ming continued to copy scriptures.
From start to finish, she didn’t turn to look at the man, nor did she stop her writing.
The intruder, who had appeared so suddenly, turned on his heels and retreated, leaning casually against the table. He took out a pouch from his sleeve and uncorked it, taking a sip.
The strong scent of alcohol filled the temple.
Taking a sip, he glanced at Madame Ming. After several rounds of this routine, he suddenly chuckled, “They say that beauty is even more alluring in the lamplight, and you’ve added another three degrees of charm to it. Sister-in-law, you look less like a mortal woman and more like a goddess.”
Madame Ming remained silent, her hand not faltering in its task of copying scriptures.
The man waited for her to finish all this, turned to face him, hugged her without hesitation, and put his hands eagerly into the skirt of her clothes.
Mrs. Ming clasped his hand: “The Goddess is here we can’t!”
Seeing her lack of response, the man sighed, “Alright, alright, I won’t let your Goddess Xuan Nu witness such impurity, lest she blame you and not bless Ming Qi.” Then, a look of excitement appeared in his eyes as he lowered himself to embrace her around the waist picking her up, taking large strides towards the side room. “Risking the dangers of encountering ghosts for a secret meeting in the dead of night, Sister-in-law, do you find it particularly thrilling? I can hardly contain myself!”
Their bodies tumbled onto the bed with a couple of muffled thuds, followed by the sounds of shoes falling and rustling clothing, and then the heavy gasps.
Inside the room, there was nothing but silence, and Xuan Nu, the goddess, continued to watch over everything in her silent vigil over the affairs of mortals.