Chapter 105: A Confession of Love
Pang Xiao was also immensely surprised at the words that’d just come out of his mouth. He coughed lightly as he hurriedly tried to salvage the situation. “After all, you look like Salt.”
“Salt?” Qin Yining asked dumbly.
“My mother’s pet pug.” Pang Xiao smiled. “He has snow-white fur, very silly and loves food. My mother calls him Salt. We also have a guard wolfdog. He’s called Pepper. They’re a pair.”
“You!” Qin Yining’s momentary awkwardness and shyness disappeared like smoke in the wind as she glared fiercely at this mischievous man in front of her. She actually couldn’t tell what she was feeling right now. He loved teasing her and his origins were still unknown. His words were always a mix of truth and falsehoods, and Qin Yining could no longer tell which was which. All she knew was that her teeth itched with anger whenever she saw him.
She wanted to ignore him, but he wasn’t really that hateful. But if she did talk to him, he always took advantage of her. She really didn’t know what to do. However, when she thought about the upcoming peace talks and how she might not come back from them, she ignored the complicated tangle of emotions the man represented and didn’t care to sort them out anymore.
“If you didn’t save my life, I’d definitely beat you up.” Qin Yining huffed.
“Beat me up? Or give me a massage?” Pang Xiao smirked.
“Alright, Sir Yao, let’s really cut the banter. I would’ve come to visit even if you hadn’t sent the letter. My future after this trip is still in the dark. So, this may well be a final farewell. I feel quite guilty that I haven’t repaid you for saving my life yet.” Qin Yining rose to summon Bingtang. “My maid says that the poison afflicting you will be cured in another three or four days. That sets my heart at ease. I’ve already given orders to Grand Steward Zhong that even if I’m not here in the future, you can go to him for anything. Although the Institute of Luminous Charm isn’t a grand business, and may not seem much to you, we still have a bit of a network. This may not be much in terms of a repayment of my debt, but it’s all that I can arrange for for now.”
She walked over to the door, opening it slightly to let Bingtang in. “You can administer acupuncture for Sir Yao now.”
Pang Xiao looked at her back with furrowed brows. Her inky locks flowed down her back like spools of velvety soft ribbon. When paired with her pure white skirt, he felt like he was looking at a figure in a painting, one so ephemeral that it seemed she would float away at any moment. She was tall for a girl, but still only came up to his shoulder. Such a tender, fragile girl was being forced to shoulder so much resignation! Nothing in her life since childhood had been under her control. How was he any different from her?
“Qin Si.” The name slipped out before he could help himself.
Qin Yining looked back. “Yes?”
“Nothing. You don’t need to worry.”
Qin Yining blinked blankly at him. What was he about to say? Nevertheless, she smiled at him. “I’m going to have a word with Steward Zhong. I’ll leave Bingtang behind for your treatment. Farewell, Sir Yao.”
Pang Xiao arched a brow and smirked. “Alright, go about your business.” He waved carelessly and turned to undo his cloak. Qin Yining didn’t linger longer and went off in search of Steward Zhong.
News of Grand Preceptor Qin’s daughter accompanying him to the peace talks had already traveled throughout the city. Many people were cursing the trash emperor under their breaths. When Steward Zhong learned of it, he was so saddened that he couldn’t sleep all night.
He almost burst into tears when he saw Qin Yining. “Decrepitude, such utter incompetence! You’re such a good person, miss, why is this happening to you? Reputation is the most important thing for a girl. If you really do go to Xihua… ” He suddenly realized that his words might incite panic in his miss and quickly switched tacks as he wiped away his tears. “This evil!”
Qin Yining could sense the grand steward’s sincerity towards her and poured him a cup of tea with a smile.
“I’ve always felt that I was a lucky one. I was a mere child when I was thrown into the wilds. Wild wolves should’ve made off with me, but then foster mother came to my rescue. When she was dying from illness when I was seven, I’d just decided to sell myself as a slave for money to hire a doctor when I ran into a kind person who gave me some silver.
“Foster mother passed away when I was eight, so I headed into the mountains. I thought that I would just die someday, but somehow I lived through everything. When I thought that I would have to hunt in the mountains for the rest of my life, father’s people found me.” Qin Yining looked cheerfully at Grand Steward Zhong and comforted him. “If it’s one thing I’ve learned from my time out there, it’s that we never know whether something is good luck or bad if if we don’t walk to the end of the occurrences that life throws in our path.”
Steward Zhong was infected with Qin Yining’s optimistic attitude; a heroic air flourished within him. “You truly have a great heart, miss. Although I’m many years older than you, I am much shorter than you in many areas.”
“You’re joking, Steward Zhong. To tell you the truth, I’m scared to death. But this matter is staring at me straight in the face, so what use is there in being afraid? Although we all know that death is the most inevitable of ends the moment we’re born, do we stop living as a result? As afraid as we might be, we need to keep on living. Everything will sort itself out when the time comes. We just have to leave things up to fate.”
“Precisely so!” Steward Zhong burst out laughing.
Qin Yining gave the steward some further instructions and finally whispered at the end, “My odds of making it back aren’t great. If I don’t come back, the emperor might take back the Institute. He was already thinking about the business when he raided the Ding Manor. If something happens to me, it would only be right and proper if the emperor takes back the business. You’re an old employee of the Institute, so the emperor will treat you well, but I’m worried about my maternal grandmother and family.”
As long as Qin Yining was alive, she could use her identity to hire out the Sun females and put them up nicely. But once she was no longer the owner of the Institute of Luminous Charm, the emperor would never hire out people with no expectation of being paid back.
“Miss, my words are unimportant because of my lowly status, so I don’t dare promise much.” Steward Zhong sighed. “But I promise that I’ll help the old owners as much as I can. They treated me well when they were alive, and you saved my entire family. I haven’t paid back this debt yet. Don’t worry, if something really does happen to you, miss, I’ll take care of them the best I can. If there’s really nothing to be done, I’ll give them enough money to run away.”
Qin Yining nodded and expressed thanks from the bottom of her heart. “Many thanks.”
Monkeys scatter when the tree falls, and rarely does someone give up the opportunity to hit someone when they’re down. Now that she was about to fall out of favor, even her own cousins and grandmother were getting their kicks in. She was quite touched already that Steward Zhong wasn’t adding fuel to the flame and had promised to help the Sun widows and orphans.
As they finished up their conversation, Bingtang joined them, having finished today’s treatment. Qin Yining took her maids back to the Qin Manor and didn’t set foot outside over the next couple of days. She stayed in the Garden of Tranquility to serve née Sun.
The senior madame had suffered repeated blows recently. First learning that her daughter of fourteen years was a fake, then the death of Sun Yuanming and the execution of all the Sun males. Qin Huaiyuan had immediately taken née Cao as a concubine shortly after, and the difference in everyone’s attitudes had become the straw that broke the camel’s back. And now Qin Yining was going to be offered to an old lecher and might not even come back alive? She had just started improving relations with this long lost daughter and now had to watch the girl throw herself into a fire pit. How could née Sun possibly take all this?
She finally fell ill from all the worrying. Qin Yining spent her days taking care of her mother, paying little to no attention to anything else. In the blink of an eye, eight days had passed. On the fifteenth day of the new month of the year, Zhan-mama took her leave and returned to the palace. Before the palace servant left, Qin Yining thanked her with sincere gratitude.
She had learned much from the mama during the latter’s short stay and had benefited greatly. As the palace servant looked at Qin Yining’s pretty face, the words ‘beautiful faces make for unlucky lives’ sprang to mind. But she was just a servant, a floating stick really. There was nothing she could help with, so she could only take her leave with resignation.
A house banquet was held during the Lantern Festival 1, but the atmosphere in the Qin Manor was subdued. The old dowager raised the wine jug and sighed. “The retinue for peace negotiations will set off tomorrow. Has everything been readied for granddaughter Yi?”
“Yes, everything’s been prepared.” Qin Yining nodded.
“Mm. That’s good.”
The old dowager had just finished speaking when Qin-mama entered with an exceedingly ugly expression on her face. “Old Dowager, mistresses.”
On the other side of the great redwood divider carved with images of the four gentlemen of flowers, Qin Huaiyuan and the other men also put down their silver chopsticks and turned questioningly to the old servant.
Qin-mama lowered her head, her tone exactingly even. “The empress has sent a mama of joy to offer guidance to the fourth miss. She’s waiting outside.”
- The fifteenth day of the new month in Chinese culture. ↩