"What?!" Li Xueyue hissed, turning to face Ning Huabing in utter disbelief. They hadn't even reached the drawing room!
Ning Huabing nervously gulped. "I spent so many weeks attempting to gather more information and evidence that can oust Bai Tianai, but then, all of a sudden, the henchmen I sent out came back yesterday night with urgent news. They rushed to my manor, reporting the Bai Family literally up and left!"
"How is that possible?" Li Xueyue asked. "Their entire life revolves around Hechen. Doesn't the Bai Family have a large trading port there? How can they just abandon it?"
"The thing is, the Bai Trading Ports weren't abandoned! All work resumed as per normal, except for the harsh hit they took before the Bai Family's disappearance. Something about pirates looting the exports."
Li Xueyue was beyond bewildered by the turn of events. What exactly was going on? Did the Bai Family really flee from Hechen? But why? It wasn't like there was a visible threat coming their way.
Li Xueyue bit her bottom lip, rattling her brain for answers. She didn't think she would have to revise her plan so early. The effort she and Li Chenyang placed into snatching the Bai Trading Ports were all wasted.
"Does anyone else know about their disappearance?" Li Xueyue asked.
Ning Huabing shook her head. "So far, from what I know, not many people know this. None of the servants remained who could confirm this anyway!"
"They packed up their entire family alongside the servants? This just doesn't make sense," Li Xueyue pointed out. "There must've been servants who didn't want to part with them."
"Their manor still looks occupied."
"What do you mean?"
"There were unfamiliar guards stationed outside of the entrance, but they wouldn't let anyone in or out. My henchmen were able to snoop around, though one of them was heavily injured after getting caught. The people outside are guarding an empty house."
Li Xueyue's brows creased together at the bewildering details. "What about the Zheng Family?"
Ning Huabing's eyes widened in recognition. "Now that you mention it, I haven't looked into Zheng Leiyu. Perhaps he knows of the Bai Family whereabouts?"
"The Zheng Family was in the Capital with Bai Tianai a few weeks ago. I ran into them."
"I heard." Ning Huabing nodded. "Bai Tianai was utterly humiliated. Her reputation and self-esteem haven't recovered ever since then."
Li Xueyue wondered if reputation even mattered at this point. Bai Tianai was nowhere to be found. Perhaps the Bai Family fled because they couldn't handle everyone ridiculing them? From the embarrassing incidents to angry traders whose goods were stolen by pirates, things were beginning to take a horrific turn for the once noble family.
"I'm sorry I couldn't find sufficient evidence to prove my loyalty." Ning Huabing sighed, her shoulders sagged. "I should���ve contacted you a lot sooner to inform you of my whereabouts, Princess Li."
Li Xueyue hadn't heard that title in a while. No one called her that in this household, and she wanted to keep it that way. But outside these doors, she knew it would be an inevitable address for her.
"I still don't trust you," Li Xueyue truthfully said.
"That's understandable. I wouldn't trust myself either." Ning Huabing let out a sigh. "Perhaps I can find something else to prove my loyalty?"
Li Xueyue wordlessly nodded.
"It's strange," Ning Huabing spoke up. "Not even the mutual friends I share with Bai Tianai know of her whereabouts. The usual group of gossipers are getting antsy that their leader is gone. They don't know what to do amongst themselves."
"I expected someone to fight for Bai Tianai's leadership position, but I guessed not." Li Xueyue shrugged. "Well, they have nothing to do with me, and I prefer to keep it that way."
"They're useful if you want to utilize them to spread gossip. Their family titles combined can make them a reliable ally."
"Have you noticed a correlation?" Li Xueyue suddenly asked, wondering if her initial predictions were correct."
"I don't understand, Princess Li…?" Ning Huabing trailed off.
"Are there any suitors approaching Marquis Ning who are requesting to see you?"
Ning Huabing's features brightened. "Yes, so many came! How did you know, Princess?"
"I figured that was the case." Li Xueyue let out a sigh. "You're a beautiful woman, Ning Huabing. That's why I found it so surprising when you approached me in hopes I would find you a suitor."
"What do you mean, Princess Li?"
"Now that Bai Tianai has disappeared and the gossip group doesn't know what to do with themselves, you're the least of everyone's worries."
Ning Huabing's eyes grew large with realization. "You mean… all along, the people preventing me from getting suitors were my friends?"
"Yes, I'm afraid so."
Ning Huabing was instantly hurt by the betrayal. She didn't want to believe it, despite the evidence in front of her. The coincidence was simply too hard to ignore.
In the past, Ning Huabing had overheard something unpleasant. It was Bai Tianai whispering something to one of Ning Huabing's potential suitors. No less than a day later, he abruptly left the Capital without a word. One by one, every rich aristocrat who approached her stopped reaching out to her.
"It seems this was too much of a shocking news to you," Li Xueyue began. "Perhaps it's best for you to head home and rest up."
"Y-yes, I'd like that. Thank you, Princess." Ning Huabing murmured, her voice trembling. She looked pale as if a bucket of cold water had drenched her.
Li Xueyue pressed her lips together. How miserable it was to make friends with a person from the High Society… Everyone was either a backstabber or an opportunist. She let out a sigh. It was why she preferred to not have any friends at all. If she wanted friends, she would only choose a small handful to place her trust in. Quality over quantity.
"I'll walk you to the entrance," Li Xueyue responded.
The two strode in silence.
Ning Huabing was lost in her thoughts, her brows creasing to form lines on her forehead. She behaved as if she was having an internal battle with herself. Keeping her composure was no longer a thing.
The mask that every aristocrat wore was beginning to crack. She couldn't hide her emotions anymore. How could she?
The people she had grown up with had betrayed her. They saw the struggle she faced with her increasing age and decreasing suitors. Her friends comforted her, reassuring everything would be okay. But who would've thought they were the root of all of her problems?
Why did they do it?
Ning Huabing couldn't wrap her head around such atrocity. It wasn't like she had wronged any of them. She was always neutral and welcoming to them. If they needed something, anything at all, she was the first to provide help. How could they do this to her…?
"Please remember to rest," Li Xueyue said whilst she stood by the foot of the carriage.
Ning Huabing absentmindedly nodded, but couldn't bring it in herself to say a single word. She was dazed and on the verge of tears.
Li Xueyue wondered if she should've sugarcoated the truth. She shook her head. It was better to hurt someone with the truth than comfort them with a lie.
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