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    Chapter 55: The Second Encounter with Lady Dong

    An Zhi accepted the documents Mu He had brought, thanked her, and was about to invite her in for a cup of tea. However, she declined politely and left promptly after fulfilling Jian Fengzi's request, heading back to the Jian family.

    Looking at the thick stack of papers, An Zhi realized he had misjudged Little Feng.

    When they returned to the couple's house, Wen Yan was still asleep. They decided not to disturb her and instead opened the envelope to examine its contents.

    After a while, An Zhi put away the documents and suggested to Chi Zi'e, "Starting from the nearest, let's first inquire about Miss Jian's condition from Madam Jian."

    Chi Zi'e nodded in agreement.

    Jian Jiaojiao was a young lady in her early twenties.

    Entering her room, they were greeted by the familiar scent of peach blossoms.

    By her chamber door, they saw a well-pressed, bright red wedding dress hanging, along with several large trunks filled with dowry.

    An Zhi lingered before the wedding attire, puzzled. "Madam mentioned that preparations for Jian Jiaojiao's marriage were already underway before she became Lady Dong?"

    A servant attending to Jian Jiaojiao interjected, "Indeed. It's because our Miss was unwilling to marry that she ended up becoming a Daoist nun."

    "Cough!" Suddenly, a cough from Madam Jian echoed from outside the door, interrupting the servant.

    Hearing this, the servant hastily put down their task, looking alarmed as they swiftly exited the room.

    Before An Zhi could turn to greet Madam Jian, she strode into the chamber, standing before him, and took the initiative to explain, "Jiaojiao and Young Master Qi from the family in the west of the city have been childhood sweethearts, mutually fond of each other. That's why their marriage was arranged early on."

    As she spoke, her expression turned forlorn. "Unfortunately, our Jiaojiao has become a Daoist nun, with her days numbered..."

    Seeing this, An Zhi could only offer mechanical reassurance, "We will do our utmost to help you."

    Child of Misfortune didn't beat around the bush and directly asked, "When and where did this happen to Jian Jiaojiao?"

    Madam Jian replied, "She's been like this since she returned from the Double Flower Temple about half a month ago."

    The answer was too vague, so An Zhi probed further, "Were there any companions with her at that time?"

    "Yes," Madam Jian answered without hesitation. "On that day, Jiaojiao was accompanied by a servant named Liang Zhen." Eagerly, she added, "I'll call him over for you right away so you can question him thoroughly." With that, she hurried off to find the servant.

    Both An Zhi and Chizi were greatly relieved by his cooperation.

    Sure enough, Madam Jian soon arrived with Liang Zhen.

    Liang Zhen had an innocent look, exuding the scholarly air of a bookworm. There were a few dark bruises on his face, as if he had been beaten up.

    "Your face…" Just as An Zhi was about to inquire about the injuries, Liang Zhen interrupted, "Half a month ago, we did indeed visit the Double Flower Temple. Other than the temple itself, the only other place we lingered was in a cave on the way back from the temple to Ang Liu's bustling marketplace."

    An Zhi asked, "Can you lead us there?"

    Liang Zhen shook his head. "Not long ago, my leg was broken, so it's inconvenient for me to guide you. The cave is easy to find; it's along the road to the Double Flower Temple. Just keep your eyes open, and I apologize for not being able to assist further."

    An Zhi was genuinely curious about who had broken Liang Zhen's leg, but before he could ask, the young man hurriedly limped away.

    As they watched Liang Zhen's retreating figure, Madam Jian said, "Liang Zhen comes from a humble background. He excels academically and has an excellent character, but he lacks the skills to navigate the political landscape. Upon completing his studies, he was assigned to a small position, where his straightforward nature and lack of tact led him to offend others. As a result, his leg was broken, and he was removed from his post. I believe he has potential, so I've arranged for him to work here, helping with tasks and keeping records. It's at least a means of sustenance for him."

    "Madam appreciates talent," An Zhi acknowledged, shaking his head, feeling sorry for Liang Zhen's plight.

    Chi Zi'e let out a long sigh.

    The two left Jian Jiaojiao's room and headed for Ang Liu to question the families of the other two victims.

    The first family they visited was the Bais. The young lady was called Bai Yan, only sixteen years old.

    According to the information provided by Jian Fengzi, Bai Yan and Jian Jiaojiao were both attacked on the same route, while returning from the Double Flower Temple to the bustling streets of Ang Liu, passing through a small cave.

    When An Zhi and Chi Zi'e arrived at Bai Yan's residence, they encountered another sixteen-year-old girl.

    Upon seeing An Zhi, the girl exclaimed in surprise, "Goddess of the Double Flower Temple! —"

    Her cry drew all the young maidens within a ten-mile radius, who gathered around An Zhi, each voicing their requests in a flurry of words, though they all echoed the same sentiment:

    My heart is taken by a lad from another household, I pray Goddess of the Double Flower Temple to bless our union.

    Suddenly, amidst the cacophony, a different plea emerged: "I went to the Double Flower Temple with Miss Bai Yan of the Bai family. White Yan has become a Lost Blossom Cave Maiden. I beg Goddess, protect me from the same fate."

    Hearing this, An Zhi promptly seized the girl and asked, "On that day, who else accompanied Bai Yan to the Double Flower Temple?"

    Upon these words, roughly seven or eight young maidens turned and fled in panic.

    "Those are the ones!" An Zhi promptly shouted to Chi Zi'e.

    No sooner had his voice faded than a gust of wind stirred. A figure cloaked in red vaulted over An Zhi's group, landing directly in front of the fleeing maidens, blocking their path.

    At this sight, they plopped onto the ground with a thud, wails and sobs echoing in unison.

    Chi Zi'e, annoyed by the commotion, bellowed, "Stop crying!"

    Startled by his roar, their shoulders trembled, and they instantly ceased their tears.

    Pushing through the crowd, An Zhi reached the girls and scolded Chi Zi'e, "They're already terrified from encountering Dong Niang. Your shouting could further frighten them. What if something happens to these ladies?"

    Chi Zi'e replied, "If you haven't done anything wrong, you won't fear ghosts at your door."

    An Zhi didn't bother arguing with him and instead addressed the maidens softly, "You went to the Double Flower Temple with Bai Yan. Why did only she encounter trouble while you didn't?"

    Indeed, at An Zhi's question, a few of them fainted on the spot, while the remaining ones wept even more fiercely than before. Their sobs were now wracking, as if they were on the verge of hyperventilating.

    Childhood Misfortune declared, "Just as I said."

    "I see..." Seeing their reactions, An Zhi couldn't elicit any answers. "Let's go..."

    An Zhi and Childhood Misfortune promptly set off for the second household.

    The second family had the surname Long, and their daughter was named Long Shuyan. She was slightly older than Jian Jiaojiao, in her mid-twenties, yet still in the prime of her youth.

    Though the Longs weren't as prominent as the Jians, they were an educated and cultivated family.

    Upon learning that the visitors were investigating the Lotus Flower Cave Maiden incident, the head of the Long family promptly assembled the other young women who had accompanied Long Shuyan to the Double Flower Temple that day.

    Long Shuyan, being older at seventeen, had friends around the same age. It was clear that they were still shaken by the events of that day but had managed to maintain composure instead of breaking down into tears.

    An Zhi asked, "Did something happen to you all in a cave on your way to the Double Flower Temple as well?"

    The women nodded in unison.

    An Zhi continued, "Then why did only Long Shuyan become the Lotus Flower Cave Maiden?"

    They all shook their heads in unison, indicating their ignorance.

    An Zhi asked again, "Can any of you recount what happened that day?"

    From among them, a graceful young woman stepped forward and reminisced, "Shuyan was usually quiet and seldom ventured beyond her threshold. She rarely joined us for outings, but she had a particular fondness for watching plays. Whenever there was a troupe performing in Ang Liu, she would come with us. On that fateful day, a group of actors arrived at the Double Flower Temple to perform 'Butterfly Lovers.'

    "Shuyan's enthusiasm for the play was high; she hardly ever left during the performance. Yet, that day, she kept getting up, and when she returned, her eyes were swollen and red, as if she had been crying. As evening approached, and the story of 'Butterfly Lovers' reached its tragic end, we felt sorrow for them, but it was time for us to head home.

    "Not far from the cave where the incident occurred, there is a high mountain spring. We passed by it and walked a bit further. Then, Shuyan said she was thirsty and wanted to fetch water from there. You must know, Shuyan had severe cleanliness issues; not only would she boil mountain spring water, but even the snow from Lady Jiaomiao's Jade Mountain, she would heat before drinking."

    Upon hearing "Lady Jiaomiao," both An Zhi and Chizi E felt a momentary discomfort, furrowing their brows.

    The woman continued her recollection, "We found it odd and tried to dissuade her, but she was resolute about getting the water. She said 'Butterfly Lovers' had drained her tears, and now she was dying of thirst. Seeing we couldn't change her mind, we let her go. But after a long while, she didn't return. Worried something might have happened, we went back to look for her.

    "It was already dark, but fortunately, it was a full moon, so we could see somewhat by moonlight. When we reached the spring, we saw Shuyan sitting alone on a large rock in front of the cave, holding a mirror, gazing into it with a faint smile.

    "We called out to her, but she didn't respond. We approached and tapped her on the shoulder, still no reaction. When we got right in front of her, we noticed her eyes were unfocused, and she was giggling at her reflection in the mirror, asking us, 'Do you think I'm pretty?'

    "As soon as she finished speaking, a roar came from inside the cave. Terrified, we immediately helped Shuyan away from the cave... The next day, she became Dong Niang of the Fallen Blossom Cave... And a few days later, she married the Cave God and left with him..."

    Upon hearing this, An Zhi found two points suspicious. He asked, "After the performance started, Long Shuyan rarely left her spot. So why did she keep getting up to leave during the 'Butterfly Lovers' at the Twin Flowers Temple? And when she returned, her eyes were red and swollen, as if she had been crying?"

    "She has severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. Why would she insist on drinking that contaminated spring water that night? Was she really that thirsty?"

    The woman who revealed the story looked around, ensuring that no one else was present except for them, An Zhi, and Chi Zi'e. She then tiptoed over to An Zhi's side like a thief and whispered, "Your Highness, there are some things I'm not sure if I should say."

    An Zhi nodded. "Speak your mind freely."

    As if afraid of being overheard by a third party, the woman lowered her voice even further. "Well... Shuyan has had a childhood sweetheart, but... but he came from a humble background, and Shuyan's parents looked down on him. They hired people to beat him to death..."

    "Beat him to death alive?!" An Zhi growled in anger, barely suppressing his rage.

    "Yes, yes," the woman nodded repeatedly, still whispering. "After Shuyan found out, she cried all the time and seemed to have lost all energy, as if she was suffering from a serious illness. She often talked about how the man's spirit came to visit her, saying they couldn't be together in life, but could become butterflies together after death."

    As she finished speaking, two butterflies flew in through the window.

    They danced in front of An Zhi for a while before flying out the main door.

    "Butterfly Lovers... becoming butterflies..." An Zhi seemed to have connected the dots. He lifted his robes and rushed outside.

    With a word of gratitude to the maiden, Chi Zi E also hurried after them. Once he caught up with An Zhi, he inquired, "Have you found something?"

    An Zhi nodded. "Madame Jian lied to us."

    --------------------

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