Chapter 47: A Step
Tang Meng looked at the jewelry and shook her head with a complicated expression. “You are an honest person, miss. The two of us have no previous relationship, yet you came to save me. Not only can I not repay you, I keep bringing trouble to you. I’m already quite grateful that you don’t blame me for what’s happening. Take this jewelry as a token of my thanks. You must accept it.”
“That won’t do! This is all the Clearists’ sentiments to you, a result of the relationships your father built before. I could never take them. Let’s not quibble over past matters. After you enter the manor with me, there will be plenty of times when I’ll drag you down instead. I just hope that the two of us can aid and support each other. As for your things, I won’t touch them no matter what.” Qin Yining shoved the jewelry at Tang Meng. “Listen to me and keep more wealth about you. It’ll always be a good thing for you.”
Despite Tang Meng’s vociferous protests, she still couldn’t win out over the fourth miss in the end. She wasn’t someone who’d get hung up on details, and she was very touched by how genuinely Qin Yining was treating her. She put the items away and curtsied gratefully. “I’m all by myself in this world. I can only use loyalty to repay the miss’ great favor.”
Qin Yining helped her up with a smile. “To meet is to have a shared destiny. We’ll just support each other well throughout the days to come. The road ahead is still long for both of us.”
The two looked at each other and smiled. Although they were mistress and servant, there were a lot of other emotions mixed in. Gratitude, for one, friendship, for another. When she saw that everything had been arranged for properly, Qin Yining told Ruilan to focus on recuperating, and called for the pageboy to prepare the carriage. “I’m going to the Duke of Ding Manor.”
The pageboy left to carry out her orders. When Tang Meng saw that Qin Yining had no one serving by her side, she wanted to tag along. However, Qin Yining smiled at her. “I’ll arrange for you to resume secular life over the next two days so that you can properly be by my side. Ruilan’s injuries still need you, so stay here for now.”
Although Tang Meng was wearing a nun’s outfit, she was already treating Qin Yining as her mistress. She nodded docilely. “Don’t worry, miss. I learned medicine from my father, so these superficial wounds don’t stump me.” She then grabbed Qin Yining’s hands for a close look. “There are many scars on your hand. You must have had a tough life before. I’ll create an ointment in these next two days for removing scars. I guarantee that your hands will return to what they were before after using one box’s worth. I even have ways to improve your skin.”
What girl didn’t like to be pretty? Qin Yining had had brief moments of doubt whenever she saw the glistening skin of the young ladies of the manor. Hers were coarse and weathered by the sun and wind. Even her face was rougher than the other girls’, much less the scars and calluses on her hands. It was only thanks to her youth that they didn’t seem so apparent. She was delighted to hear that Tang Meng had ways to improve her. “Then I’ll be depending on you!”
“Don’t worry, I’m the best at mixing them up.” Tang Meng patted her chest reassuringly. Qin Yining left another set of instructions to Tang Meng and Ruilan before leaving the inn, taking the carriage to the Ding Manor.
It was after lunch, a time when the Duchess of Ding received reports from the overseer mamas and returned calling cards. She was deep in discussion when Bao-mama quietly approached the duchess and murmured, “Mistress, the lady is here.”
“Have her go back and rest after eating.” The duchess frowned. “Has she not had enough of throwing a tantrum in her room? I’m busy here. I don’t have time to deal with her.”
“How can you say that, mother?” Née Sun had already lifted the door curtains aside herself, not bothering to wait for Bao-mama to return with a response. She ignored all the overseer mamas reporting to the duchess and strode in. “Mother, tell me, why hasn’t Qin Meng come for me yet!?”
A vein throbbed in the duchess’ forehead and she waved a hand resignedly. Bao-mama understood the gesture for what it was and took the rest of the mamas out, leaving the room for the mother and daughter. After everyone had left, the duchess responded irritably. “So now you know to worry? And who told you to come home? In my view, you’re entirely in the wrong this time. It’s your mistake, and you expect him to lower his head and bow to your wishes? If you’ve any brains at all, you’d go back and enjoy being the grand preceptor’s wife. Don’t whittle away at the relationship between you two. Then you’d really have something to cry about.”
“Mother, are you my real mother or not!? Why do you only lecture me every time you see me?! Why don’t you take a look at what Qin Meng’s been doing?!”
The duchess felt weary down to her very soul as she fruitlessly supported her throbbing head with a hand. “Daughter Han, you’re no longer a child. Do I have to explain everything to you? Your mother-in-law and husband weren’t criticizing you at all. You became worked up as they were criticizing granddaughter Yi. You even brought out your status as a young miss of the Ding Manor to lord it over others! Don’t forget that you’re a Qin daughter-in-law in the end!”
“And was I wrong? Daughter Yi slipped out on her own to meet an outside male! Not only did Qin Meng fling my hand away when I was disciplining my daughter, he almost pushed me over, and he said my own manners aren’t much if I could be so harsh to my daughter. He said I’m the one who should learn some manners!” Née Sun wiped her teary eyes. “Just how did I wrong him so that he humiliates me so in front of others? Even if my manners aren’t good, are they worse than a child who’s just returned from the mountains? He himself said that daughter Yi did wrong, so how could he lecture me when I disciplined her for him?!”
The duchess felt like she’d aged another ten years just listening to née Sun’s complaints. Now that she’d started another bout of self pity, the duchess really wanted to throw this person out and have them fend for themselves on the streets. But alas, née Sun was her daughter. “Daughter Han, you need to be aware that not only is granddaughter Yi Qin Meng’s daughter, but yours as well! Shouldn’t you be happy that your husband loves your child? What kind of mother are you to start comparing yourself with your daughter? I say, are you crying tears, or brains!? Has your head long since emptied out?”
“Mother! How can you say something like that!?”
“And am I wrong? I’ve been observing you the past couple of days. You don’t think clearly, and you don’t listen when others try to talk sense into you. All you know how to do is cry and fuss all day, waiting for Qin Meng to welcome you back with a great sedan chair. Let me tell you something, Qin Meng is the grand preceptor now! Watch my words, if you don’t go back, a concubine will be greater than you before long!”
“You’re foolish and witless, and haven’t the slightest clue in how to read people. You’re forty years old, yet you fall for Qin Huining’s goading every time. And now you have the temerity to cry and whine about it? You should be crying for your brains instead. You’re so stupid that you don’t seem to be my daughter!”
Née Sun started crying again, apparently reduced to a watery heap from the lecture. The duchess’ temples throbbed even harder and she stood up to go out for some air. Thankfully, footsteps sounded down from the covered walkway, followed by the strangely merry voice of Bao-mama. “Mistress, see who’s come!”
The curtains were lifted aside to allow Qin Yining to glide in happily. Her crimson, brocade cape perfectly offset her rosy complexion. She looked like a plum blossom newly flowered in the garden.
“Grandmother.” She dropped into a deep curtsey.
The duchess helped her up in delighted surprise. “My darling Yi, what brings you here on such a cold day?”
Qin Yining took a look at née Sun off to the side and winked secretly at the duchess. She handed the cape over to Bao-mama and went to curtsey to her mother. “Daughter Yi greets the madame.”
Née Sun was still quite angered and was even more displeased to see Qin Yining, since the girl had been the cause of all her troubles this time. She roughly wiped away her tears and averted her face with a sniff. The duchess frowned at this display of pettiness, but held her tongue. She wanted to see what Qin Yining would do.
When Qin Yining saw née Sun’s reddened eyes and the complete dismissal of her greeting, she knew that née Sun still hadn’t come to her senses after the past seven days. Thus, she had only one recourse left, and knelt properly on the ground. “Don’t be angry, madame. It’s all my fault.”
“That’s right! It’s your fault too!” Née Sun snorted. “How did you work up the brazen courage to see an outside male in the first place, and then to go to the Prince of Ning by yourself to rescue someone else!? How dare you!”
“I was just in a hurry to save someone and wanted to do what was right. I hadn’t thought that the prince would give up Miss Tang just like that. But it’s because of this that father was able to become grand preceptor, so it seems that fortune resulted because of disaster.” Qin Yining responded, keeping her head low.
Née Sun heard the words, but didn’t quite understand what she meant. The duchess however, nodded. I wasn’t wrong about her. She helped Qin Yining up. “It’s cold on the floor; come, sit while you chat. Your mother is still angry and can’t think clearly. She’ll understand if you explain to her.”
“I see.” Qin Yining smiled gratefully at the duchess and described the prince’s plot to née Sun, and then went on to describe how the political scene had shifted due to Tang Meng, Grand Preceptor Cao’s demotion, and why Qin Huaiyuan had been able to rise instead.
Née Sun had stopped crying, and was in fact looking at Qin Yining, rather stunned. “Did your father teach you all this?”
“I thought of it myself.” Qin Yining smiled shyly. “It’s all random thoughts, so I don’t know if they’re right. And, if I were the one to become grand preceptor like this, I’d immediately criticize the Prince of Ning.”
The duchess’ eyes gleamed at this, and laughed. “And what makes you say this?”
Qin Yining smiled. “The emperor must not like seeing his officials form cliques. The Prince of Ning is a martial prince to begin with, so he has a certain authority within the army. How will the emperor be easy if he’s close to the new grand preceptor? I think even if my father doesn’t do so, the prince will criticize my father instead. Only when the two are separated will the balance in court be maintained.”
“Good girl.” The duchess pulled Qin Yining over, enveloping her in a hug as she patted her back fondly. “You’re right. Your grandfather was just telling me today how your father openly criticized the Prince of Ning. I really wasn’t wrong about you, you really are a smart girl.”
Née Sun was completely shocked and could only stare dumbly at Qin Yining. The duchess sighed at her thunderstruck expression, while Qin Yining gently disengaged herself and knelt down again. “No matter what, it was wrong of me to head out myself that day. Your teachings are right in every way, madame. Father was also angry that day, that’s why he also said what he normally wouldn’t have in his anger. Now that father is Grand Preceptor of the Heir Apparent, the crown prince has deigned to visit in three days to hold a teacher banquet. You’re the grand preceptor’s wife now, mother. Father will have no face if you aren’t present as well. You and father share a great love, and there are no long term grudges between the two of you. I’m here to beg your forgiveness and ask you to return to the manor.”