Chapter 8: The Counter
Née Sun hadn’t thought that Qin Huaiyuan would suddenly return, and didn’t know how much of her words he had heard. A guilty conscience assailed her as she blurted out, “What brings you back? Weren’t you spending the night with Concubine Hua?”
Qin Huaiyuan’s knitted forehead grew even tighter. Idiotic woman who speaks of everything in front of our daughters! “The two of you are dismissed. I have something to discuss with your mother. Jin-mama, use the best ointment on Fourth Miss. It will look ridiculous if her face swells up tomorrow!”
Jin-mama answered affirmatively, but didn’t move as she looked worriedly at née Sun. She was née Sun’s wet nurse and naturally knew what kind of temper the woman had. She was quite afraid that the madame would say something she shouldn’t in front of Qin Huaiyuan again, and so wanted to stay and play mediator. But the lord had just given her direct orders to fetch ointment, so she couldn’t just ignore those either.
Qin Huaiyuan picked up on Jin-mama’s hesitation and snorted coldly. “What, does Jin-mama only listen to the orders of your madame, and considers this official’s words as empty air? Or do you fear that this official will bully your madame?”
Qin Huaiyuan had spent many years at court, so the aura and bearing he naturally exuded wasn’t something servants could stand up to. Jin-mama’s legs began trembling as she immediately apologized, “This servant doesn’t dare! This servant will apply ointment to Fourth Miss immediately.”
She followed the two ladies out of the door, downcast, and closed the door carefully. But as expected, the door did nothing to insulate née Sun’s shrill voice. Her words had no problem reverberating in everyone’s ears.
“Qin Meng, so you’ve come back to throw your weight around in my quarters! Throw your weight around outside if you’re man enough! What’s so strong about acting all high and mighty with a woman…”
Jin-mama was feeling quite pained by the madame’s carrying-on, and received a further shock when she lifted her head and saw the two young misses standing beneath the covered hallway. She hastily walked forward to grab both of their arms, murmuring lowly, “Don’t stand here, misses!”
Recalling Qin Huaiyuan’s orders and looking at Qin Huining’s worried expression, Jin-mama thought for a moment and brought the two to the side room adjoining the main room. It was usually reserved for tea breaks. She whispered, “Please sit here a moment, misses. This servant will go fetch ointment for Fourth Miss right away.”
Qin Yining nodded, but didn’t thank her this time. The stinging slap on her cheek from her birth mother had forced her to fully recognize the reality of her situation. She’d been home for less than twelve hours—and how much grandstanding and ostracism had she been subject to already? The old dowager dismissed her, her birth mother rejected her, and the rest turned in whatever direction the wind blew. Even her maids dared to brazenly steal her things, and went so far as to hold back some of her coal when she called them out for the theft. This usurper foster daughter was the pinnacle of it all, provoking fights and encouraging misunderstandings left and right. Each and every one of them thought of her as an easy target, trying to take advantage of the fact that she had no backer in the Qin manor !
She was the sort who would rather die on her feet than live on her knees. Qin Yining had faced down this cold world and lived through everything it’d thrown at herl, how would she accept defeat so easily here? She’d enough courage to face down wild wolves and patience to hunt her own game. True, she cherished the hopeful dreams of a family, but that didn’t mean that she would constantly give way to these people! Qin Yining touched her cheek gently with one hand, her fingertips pinching softly at the swollen part of her cheek while a chilling smile blossomed on her lips.
Jin-mama was completely distracted by the happenings in the main room and didn’t pay attention to any of this. On the other hand, Qin Huining was witness to Qin Yining’s bloodthirsty smile. She seems like some savage beast staring down her prey. Qin Huining grew uneasy at this new development. She was just about to speak up when Qin Huaiyuan and née Sun’s argument next door traveled faintly into their ears again.
Prime Minister Qin’s voice was low, his words short and to the point. Née Sun’s voice was shrill as she gave vent to complaint after complaint. They couldn’t hear much of the argument at first, but née Sun’s voice soon reached a furious screech at the end, so the two girls would’ve been hard pressed to not listen in.
“…even a young girl like our daughter Hui can tell, so how could you, my husband, still try to lie to me?! Why was I so blind in marrying you? Would your career have been this smooth if it hadn’t been for my father helping you? You don’t even know to thank my family or treat me better now that you’re the prime minister! And now you even bring a bastard back to fool me with!”
“Will you give it a rest!?” Qin Huaiyuan’s voice was thick with anger. “Idiot woman, I can’t be bothered with you any longer!”
Bam! The door next to the main room slammed open, and in the same breath, the two girls heard née Sun’s broken wail. Qin Yining and Qin Huining hastily made their way out of the side room and were just in time to catch Qin Huaiyuan’s back stalking off into the distance in a huff. Under the night sky, that back looked all the more burdened. Née Sun’s heartbroken wail pierced through their ears, “Why is my life so hard?!”
The two turned back to see née Sun sitting on the doorstep, hugging the door frame and sobbing so hard that she looked ready to faint.
“Please get up, the floor is cold.” Qin Yining frowned and was about to help her mother up, but Qin Huining shoved her hand out of the way and shouldered the other girl aside.
“Younger sister Little Creek, is it not enough that there’s no peace in our family since you’ve come back, must you make mother sad as well?!” Qin Huining helped née Sun up after shoving the other girl aside and spoke tearfully, her voice catching in her throat. This was enough to make née Sun glare at Qin Yining again. And wasn’t that right? Why would so much have cropped up if it wasn’t for Qin Yining’s return? Qin Huaiyuan knew very well how weak her constitution was, but he’d just left her here, all sad by her lonesome. He’d just left with a flourish of his sleeves and hadn’t even comforted her at all! She’d only lectured Qin Yining with a few words and slapped her once, but look at how Qin Meng was acting! That mistress of his was definitely a fox alright!
Née Sun’s eyes were bloodshot as she pushed Qin Yining roughly with both hands. She roared, “You blight on this family! I haven’t had a day of peace since the day we’ve heard of you. Get out of my way!” She turned and screeched at Jin-mama, “Wet nurse, prepare the carriage for me! I’m going back to my family’s manor!”
Jin-mama was so alarmed that all color drained from her face. “Madame, it’s almost curfew. It won’t be good for you to just go back now. Why not rest for now and go back first thing next morning? We’d able to explain things to the old dowager as well…”
“No! I have to go back now! I can’t spend another moment in this manor! Qin Meng will be the death of me!” Née Sun sobbed, completely beyond reason, “If you won’t allow it, then I’ll walk back myself!”
In her anger, née Sun didn’t even pay attention to Qin Huining. She shook off her daughter’s hand and stalked outside. However, the madame had used so much force that Qin Huining stumbled backwards from the momentum, her bound feet unable to find steady footing. If it wasn’t for Bitong reaching out a timely hand and Cai-mama giving a pull as well, she would’ve tumbled down the steps. The foster girl frowned with displeasure.
Née Sun was in the full throes of her temper tantrum. When Jin-mama saw that she couldn’t placate her mistress, she could only order the maids to quickly prepare the carriage, have Cailan fetch née Sun’s cloak with a fur collar and an exquisite brass hand warmer, and fling a meaningful look at head maid Caiju. She spoke to her in a low, urgent voice.
By now, it was impossible for word of fighting in the main branch due to née Sun’s temper tantrum not to spread. The servants might as well tell Old Dowager themselves lest a misunderstanding develop from someone else passing the message along. It’d be a free show for the second and third branch of the family if that came to pass. Caiju went to Garden of Loving Piety with a resigned and rueful expression on her face.
Jin-mama and Cailan supported the sniffling née Sun out of Garden of Tranquility. Peace was finally restored to the previously raucous yard. The final smear of color from the setting sun vanished silently behind the mountains, leaving behind a bright crescent in the night sky. Heavy clouds partially obscured the radiance of the moon, drenching the silent residence in cold, blue light.
The little serving girls were so frightened that they didn’t even dare breathe loudly. They crept lightly across the courtyard and hung up the evening lanterns in silence. Warm, orange light began to spread slowly, casting circles of light onto the covered hallway.
Qin Yining smiled coldly at Qin Huining. The latter grew nervous under the unsettling gaze and took out a handkerchief to dab at her tears. Her voice caught in a choke, “Don’t blame me for saying too much, Little Creek. How could I have not spoken a few words to mother just now when she was like that? Your words were jabbing right into her. You haven’t spent these years by mother’s side, so you don’t know her pain. It’s natural that you might say something out of turn.” When she saw Qin Yining slowly walk towards her, Qin Huining smiled amiably through her tears. “Little Creek, your face is swollen quite badly. I have a very good ointment for swelling. I’ll have Bitong bring it over to you in a while.”
“Is that so? Then it looks like I have to thank you.” Qin Yining planted her feet in front of the other girl, a cold light flashing deeply in her beautiful, almond shaped eyes. Qin Huining felt like a rabbit on the receiving end of a hungry wolf’s stare.
“No, no need.” She couldn’t help but swallow nervously. “You and I are sisters after all, we…”
A crisp slap reverberated through the air! Qin Huining’s ears rang as stars swam before her eyes. She collapsed in a heap, her senses deserting her at the sheer force of the blow. Off to the side, Cai-mama, Bitong, Ruilan, and Qiulu were all flabbergasted. They couldn’t even form the presence of mind to help the young miss up.
“I don’t need your ointment, save it for yourself!”
“You!” The dazed Qin Huining came to at the sound of Qin Yining’s voice and shrieked. Her mouth began to bleed freely, garbling her words. “You dare slap me?!”
“Yes, and here’s another!” Qin Yining bent at the waist, drawing her elbow back with gusto and whipping it across and down in a fierce blow. She had chopped her own wood and skinned her own game on the mountain; the strength in her hand was not to be underestimated. Both slaps landed in the exact same spot, and Qin Huining’s cheek swiftly began to swell.
The foster girl screamed loudly as she pointed at Qin Yining, “You wild barbarian! How dare you hit me! Servants, grab her!”
Cai-mama and Bitong finally snapped out of their daze and rolled up their sleeves, preparing to restrain Qin Yining. Even Ruilan was eager to join the fray. The three of them rushed Qin Yining, two aiming for the girl’s arms and one for her hair. But they didn’t even manage to touch the hem of her clothes.
Qin Yining sidestepped Ruilan, sending her sprawling with a neat hook of the heel. Her left foot came back down hard on Ruilan’s back. An arm whipped out, backhanding Cai-mama’s upper arm with a slice. As for Bitong, by the time the dust had settled, Qin Yining’s other hand was firmly clutching her throat.
The three were ashen-faced with pain. Bitong was even holding her breath in fright, not daring to do anything. Qin Yining ground her foot down onto Ruilan’s back, wrenching an agonized cry from her lips. The fourth miss smiled coldly. “It’s one thing for outsiders to try to grab me, but my maid? You went and joined them instead of protecting your mistress? Do you want to die?!”
“Mercy, miss, mercy!” Ruilan’s voice broke as she pleaded. The other servants of Garden of Tranquility who’d wanted to charge Qin Yining down all looked at each other. The desire to rush forward had been doused as thoroughly as a pail of water on a candle. All of them shuddered. Who would dare to look at Qin Yining as dismissively as they had before?
Qin Huining finally managed to scramble to her feet and stumbled behind a column to take shelter. “You, you, you barbarian! Lowborn harlot with no manners!”
“Yes, I am a barbarian!” Qin Yining discarded Cai-mama and Bitong like strays, leaving Ruilan moaning on the ground, and headed straight for the foster daughter. “I’ve had enough. I’ve done my best to please you, and yet all of you still treat me as a barbarian. If that’s the case, then why don’t I show you what a barbarian does?!”