Chapter 12

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"Your Highness! Your Highness..." Qin Meng seemed anxious as she rushed into Qingxin Hall. Seeing the princess asleep in her bed, she stamped her feet. Then she bit her lip, and pulled the quilt off from Yun Shang. "Your Highness, something has happened!"

Yun Shang moaned, and slowly opened her eyes. Just as quickly, she closed her eyes again. After a short while she spoke in a languid voice, "What is the matter? Why do you wake me up at this hour? What has happened?"

Qin Meng saw Yun Shang was about to fall asleep again and hurriedly spoke, "Your Highness, you should get up! Someone died!"

"What did you say?" Yun Shang's body suddenly went rigid and her eyes snapped open. "Who is dead? And what is the cause of death? Have you sent for the Supervisory Office?"

Qin Meng rushed to answer, "The dead person's name is Xiang Lan*. She was a maid who used to sweep the floors in your Hall. Her body was found by a passing maid in the lake in front of your Hall. They say she drowned." (*TN: the fragrant orchids) Qin Meng paused and bit her lips as if she had more to say, but dared not say it.

Yun Shang ordered, "What else? Speak up."

Qin Meng sighed and continued, "When I passed by, I overheard the maids say that Your Highness's bracelet was found in Xiang Lan's hand. They also said that Your Highness was likely to be the murderer."

"My bracelet?" Yun Shang sat up. She looked at her maid, "Are you sure that they were talking about a bracelet, not anything else?"

Qin Meng nodded. "I'm sure that they were talking about a bracelet."

"Yes, Your Highness, a bracelet. One from the pair that you favored most. It has been lost for a while now." Qin Yi added as she entered the room.

Yun Shang smiled, "Is that true? Then I will have to go there and bring it back. After all, it is my favorite bracelet."

Qin Meng didn't understand why the princess was taking this situation so lightly. "Your Highness! But they are saying that you are the killer!"

Yun Shang turned to her, "Then how do you know that I didn't do it? My reputation has never been good."

Qin Meng shot her a contemptuous look, "If I had heard about such an act before I worked here, I might have believed it. But now I dare say such words are merely vicious rumor. Besides, Your Highness is just eight years old. No matter how malicious you may be, you are not capable of killing someone."

Yun Shang nodded, and stood up. She waited for Qin Meng to dress her. But Qin Meng was still immersed in her own thoughts. Qin Yi shook her head and came forward to help Yun Shang change.

"That is true. I am merely eight years old. How can I kill an adult? But you, Qin Meng, you and Qin Yi are old enough. I think you two could have outnumbered the girl in a fight. So you two must have been Princess Yun Shang's accomplice in the murder." Yun Shang quipped.

Qin Meng shivered and looked at Yun Shang with a frightened face, "I dare not to do that, Your Highness. In fact, I've never had the guts to kill a chicken, let alone a person. Your Highness... I'm serious! How Xiang Lan died is not of consequence. But there were so many people saying that you were her murderer. If these rumors reach His or Her Majesty, it would become a big deal."

Yun Shang was about to speak, but stopped when she heard a male voice from outside the chamber, "Your Highness. I come at Her Majesty's orders. The Empress has sent me to relay a message. Her Majesty wants to ask you a few questions at the Yanque* lake." (*TN: bramble finch)

Yun Shang frowned. Qin Yi looked at the princess before rushing to the chamber doors and closing the curtain. "Thank you for coming. Her Highness is getting dressing. She will be there right away."

Qin Meng hurriedly dressed her princess. Yun Shang saw Lin waiting for her as she stepped outside. Lin rushed up to her and said, "Someone reported Xiang Lan's accident to the Empress. And since yesterday was the fifteenth day of the month, His Majesty was sleeping in Empress Yuan Zhen's Qiwu Palace. His Majesty has also heard the report. He is waiting for you at the pavilion at the edge of the Yanque Lake."

Yun Shang nodded, "I see." Then she pouted at Qin Meng, "See? Inauspicious topics bring bad luck. You were just wondering what would happen if my parents learned of the incident. And now they have heard the news."

Qin Meng was scared, and answered her in a weeping tone, "Your Highness, it wasn't intentional......"

"Don't panic. I was merely kidding. Besides, I took no part in this murder. A clean hand warrants no washing."

When Yun Shang arrived at the Yanque Lake with her servants, she looked around. She noted that the Emperor and the Empress were standing inside the pavilion. Next to them stood Princess Hua Jing. She had a gentle and obedient look on her face. Outside the pavilion, Xiang Lan's corpse lay covered in a white cloth. Beside the body stood a man dressed in black. From his robes, she could tell that he was a coroner in the Palace.

Yun Shang stepped forward, and curtsied to the Emperor and the Empress. "Your Majesties."

Emperor Ning nodded, and pointed at the corpse wrapped in white cloth, "Stand, Shang'er. Have a look at that corpse. Do you know this person?"

The coroner lifted a corner of the white cloth as Yun Shang walked up to the corpse. She flinched when she saw the soaked and swollen body. She then studied the woman's bluish-white face. After a quick look, Yun Shang turned and said in a trembling voice, "No, I don't, father. Who is he? He looks so scary..."

This time it was Princess Hua Jing who spoke up. "That is a she. Have a closer look, sister. She worked in your palace. Why can't you recognize her?"

"My maid?" Yun Shang turned to Qin Yi with a puzzled look.

Qin Yi hurriedly answered, "Your Highness, she is a maid-in-waiting who cleans the courtyard in our palace. Your Highness might have never noticed, which is why you can't recognize her."

Yun Shang nodded, and explained to the Emperor and the Empress, "Except for a few close court ladies and chamberlains, I have little contact with the other servants. I'm too lazy to remember who they are, and so I'm not very familiar with them. But since Qin Yi has said she worked in my palace, then she must have. But why does my maids lie here, shrouded in a cloth?"

The Emperor picked up an object from the stone table and handed it to Yun Shang, "The coroner has examined the corpse. The maid drowned. However, she was clutching some grass in her fist, and there were signs of struggle on the bank. I'm afraid someone did it on purpose. Shang'er, have a look at this bracelet. Do you know whose it is?"

Yun Shang hurriedly stepped forward, and took the bracelet from the Emperor. She scrutinized the bracelet and said, "It looks like one from the pair of bracelets you had given me, father."

"Looks like? It is yours. I used to see you wearing these bracelets all the time. Why aren't you wearing them today?" Princess Hua Jing asked aggressively.

Yun Shang smiled, "I would love to, but I can't. One of my maids lost them a few days ago."

"That is true. They have been lost for some time. I searched the whole Qinxin Hall when they were reported lost, but I couldn't find them." Qin Meng quickly added, lest her princess would be wrongly accused by others.

"How dare you interrupt the royal conversation!" Princess Hua Jing reprimanded Qin Meng with displeasure, and continued, "My sister's bracelets are missing? Is that your explanation?" Hua Jing took the bracelet and held it up. She spoke with a frown, "But this one was found in the corpse's fist. Do you know how tightly her fingers were clenched around it? Sister, why is that you didn't tell us about your missing bracelets before? And how come one of them is now being found in the hand of a corpse? Sister, you always lose temper at your maids. Mother and I think you are young and bereft. And we have often indulged your whims and tantrums. But we never thought you'd go so far as to kill one of your maids."

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