Chapter 94: Auntie Cao
Qin-mama laughed dryly. “It’s nothing, miss. Shall we go inside?”
“Let’s.” Qin Yining walked in, side-by-side with the old servant. “Qin-mama, where is my father now?”
“The lord has just gone to the outer study.”
“He must be very happy with a new concubine.”
The old servant could tell that the fourth miss was fishing for information regarding Qin Huaiyuan’s attitude towards all of this. It wasn’t exactly a secret, and the fourth miss would just ask someone else if she didn’t speak up. There was no point making a mountain out of a molehill, so the mama decided she might as well play the good person. She responded softly, “The lord left after a short while. The old dowager found fault with the madame after.”
This meant that Qin Huaiyuan didn’t know née Sun was being punished. Qin Yining smiled gratefully. “Thank you.”
“You’re too polite, miss.” The two halted just inside the covered hallway as Qin Yining thought for a moment and summoned Bingtang. She whispered a few words into the maid’s ear.
“Understood, I’ll go do so immediately.” Bingtang nodded immediately. Qin-mama didn’t know what Qin Yining had sent her maid for, and frankly it was none of her business. The miss could do what she wanted with her own people. She walked forward and lifted the door curtain to welcome Qin Yining into the house.
The fourth miss smiled comfortingly at née Sun as she gave further orders to Songlan and Qiulu. “Go fetch three plush cushions as well as two charcoal braziers. The old dowager is benevolent, and even though she’s currently angry at mother and ordered her to kneel, the old dowager would never want her to kneel on the ice-cold stone floor in the middle of a winter’s night. The old dowager would be quite heartbroken if mother fell sick.”
“Understood.” The maids immediately went off to fetch the items as well as cloaks and hand warmers.
Qin Yining’s harsh gaze swept across the open-mouthed servants standing beneath the covered hallway in the Garden of Loving Piety. “You all serve by the old dowager’s side, so how could you misunderstand her orders like this? If people talk about this in private, they’ll gossip that you’re a group of servants who lack brains. If word of this gets out, won’t the old dowager’s reputation be ruined because of all of you?”
Qin-mama inwardly marveled at Qin Yining’s wit and charisma. Impressed, she too curtsied with the other maids. “This servant knows her wrongs.”
Having finally been satisfied, Qin Yining turned to give her mother a comforting smile before heading inside the house. Née Sun was looking at her daughter with eyes shining with hope. She now had thick cushions and a charcoal brazier on each side, as well as a thick cloak wrapped securely around her as she cuddled a hand warmer. Her heart felt much more settled after this infusion of warmth into her chilled body. Jin-mama and Caiju almost burst into tears as they too warmed up. Their reverence for and trust in Qin Yining rose another level.
Qin Yining hadn’t kept her voice down just now, so her voice had traversed the entire house, letting everyone hear her. That included the old dowager, who had flushed beet red with indignation. The girl had clearly been criticizing her!
After entering the house, Qin Yining circled merrily past the exquisitely carved divider to see the crowd who had gathered. The old dowager was wearing a vest ensemble of dusky purple, replete with a forehead band of similar color which had a ruby embedded in the center. It was clearly an outfit meant for celebration. Sitting close to her was a young madame wearing a light pink, flowery two-piece with a phoenix hairpin perched in her hair. She looked stunningly beautiful with pink rouge adorning her cheeks and a graceful nose sitting above her cherry lips. She seemed to be smiling even when she wasn’t, and her almond shaped eyes were so very expressive. She looked to be no older than early twenties, belying her actual age of over thirty, and she had a delighted expression on her face.
So this is the empress’ sister, an official Cao daughter. Cao Yuqing. The two didn’t look all that similar, but that innate talent of mesmerizing seduction was the same. Even as a female, Qin Yining couldn’t help but want to take a few more glances at her. But just as she was discreetly sizing up Cao Yuqing, so was the new concubine openly assessing Qin Yining.
“This must be the fourth miss? So very pretty! The fourth miss looks so incredibly similar to a young Lord Qin!” Delighted shock appeared in her eyes. She seemed to be entranced as she gently shook off Qin Huining’s hand, which was clutching her arm. She rose and seemed to want to caress Qin Yining’s face, but recollected herself halfway through the motion. She took off a pair of ivory-white jade bracelets on her arms and offered them to Qin Yining with both hands. “If you don’t mind, Fourth Miss, this is a small token from me.”
It really was tough to decline a smiling beauty flashing her pearly whites. Qin Huining’s eyes widened in absolute shock when she saw how proactive Cao Yuqing was being, a surprise shared by the old dowager. She had been moments away from lecturing Qin Yining for not knowing manners and rules, but forcefully swallowed those words.
Qin Yining looked at née Cao with a smile in her eyes and bent her knees in a half curtsey. “Greetings to Auntie Cao. I shouldn’t refuse your goodwill, but it should’ve been me preparing a present for your arrival today. I really shouldn’t accept your present.”
She was the daughter of the wife, the true mistress of this household! Cao Yuqing was just a lowly concubine. Regardless of the imperial decree, her status of a concubine was set in stone! Concubines could be bought and sold, their standing only a hair higher than bedwarmers 1 They had to call themselves ‘this humble concubine’ in front of the madame, much like how maids had to refer to themselves as ‘this maid’ or ‘this lowly one’. What right did an underling have to meet with her as a senior? Who had given her so much face as to allow her to present a gift to an official daughter of the house?!
Qin Yining’s words are too harsh! The second and third madame grew nervous and the third, seventh, and eighth miss wrung their handkerchiefs anxiously. On the other hand, Qin Huining quietly snorted in derision. Idiot. You just dug your own grave.
“Granddaughter Yi, how dare you!? Kneel in apology to your Auntie Cao!” The old dowager became immensely nervous and immediately rebuked her in a low voice.
“Kneel? Apologize?” Qin Yining looked askance at the old dowager, an innocent expression on her face. “Grandmother, I don’t know what wrong I’ve committed. Why should I apologize? Are the rules that you’ve taught me before all false?”
This stopped the old dowager dead in her tracks. She didn’t have time to formulate her response before Qin Yining continued. “Grandmother’s told me that concubines are sometimes only brought out when hosting guests, and can be easily traded around. They’re just a higher level servant. I’m my father’s daughter, born of his wife. Is grandmother telling an official Qin daughter to kowtow in apology to a servant? Is that really right?”
“When, when did I say all that?!” The old dowager’s face reddened rapidly as she smiled apologetically at Cao Yuqing. “Yuqing ah, don’t listen to the child. Mother has no intention of looking down on you.”
Cao Yuqing had frozen in her steps, her beautiful eyes trained on Qin Yining. There were many emotions within them that the girl didn’t understand, but the new concubine unexpectedly curtsied to the fourth miss.
“This humble concubine has overstepped herself. This concubine was just too excited at seeing the fourth miss and forget herself. Please don’t fault this concubine for this transgression.”
“Auntie Cao doesn’t need to stand on ceremony like this. We’re all one family from now on.” Qin Yining smiled magnanimously.
Pin drop silence fell over the room at those last words. Ever since Cao Yuqing had come through the doors, the old dowager had put the new concubine on a pedestal and danced attendance on her like she was a family ancestor. The matriarch had even found a random excuse to throw née Sun out and make her kneel in order to amuse née Cao. But who would’ve thought that this Miss ‘Barbarian’ would ignore all propriety and just shut Cao Yuqing down like this?!
And then, Cao Yuqing had just docilely taken the slight?!
The second and third madame privately disagreed heavily with the old dowager’s methods. Née Sun’s current tragic circumstances had tugged at their hearts, to feel sympathy for one of their own. Thus, they felt a private, sweet thrill when they saw how Qin Yining was standing up for her mother. The third, seventh, and eighth miss looked at their fourth sister with eyes of worship, but almost immediately morphed into worry. This is née Cao!
Née Cao, the eldest daughter of Statesman Cao and the empress’ sister from the same mother! Isn’t Yining afraid of her running back to her family after this kind of treatment?
The same thoughts naturally occurred to the Old Dowager as well. However, the matriarch wasn’t particularly afraid of Cao Yuqing tattling on Qin Yining, but more fearful that Elder Statesman Cao and the empress would be enraged by this! She gave vent to her worry in a fit of fury, angrily hurling her brass tobacco pipe and pouch at the girl.
“You wench! Down on your knees!”
Being made of brass, the pipe and accompanying pouch had quite a heft to it. The old dowager had used her full strength in her anger, and the pipe was dead on target for Qin Yining’s head. If she was hit, it would open bleeding wounds in her head and ruin her looks at the very least.
The crowd gasped in collective shock, but Qin Yining’s hand quickly intercepted the pipe and pouch, knocking it completely off course. It tumbled haphazardly into the display rack beside her. A lazurite decoration became the unfortunate casualty of the missile, jolted clear of the rack. All three crashed loudly onto the ground. The lazurite shattered on impact while the pipe and pouch separated into two and skittered across the floor. The clatter rang clearly in the quiet yard, shaking everyone’s heart with the violence. What shook them the most was the ruthless look in Qin Yining’s eyes as she’d so casually swept the projectile away. There was nothing else to call it, those were the eyes of a wolf!
“Grandmother, are you trying to kill your granddaughter? Or ruin my looks?” Qin Yining’s smile was as serene as ever, but her dark eyes burned like fiery coals as they transfixed the old dowager. “The emperor has always extolled ruling with benevolence, and so his subjects should follow suit as well. Families should be governed with virtue. If grandmother feels that I’ve spoken incorrectly, you can correct me with logic and reasoning. Why use such a heavy object to smash my head? If you kill me, father will have no descendants. Then, I’m sure gossip about him will start at court as well.”
“Shut up! Get down on your knees!” The old dowager lost her temper in the face of these brazen accusations, bringing her hand down hard on the end table next to her.
- Maids who served the master in bed. ↩