Chapter 116: A Situation
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Grand Steward Zhong continued, “I may not know about the truth of small rumors, but this is an important matter. Some tavern customers were also talking about it as well. The empress sent for your mother a few days ago.”
The color drained from Qin Yining’s face, turning her already pale face into the color of bleached sheets. She knew née Sun’s temper well. Her mother could create trouble out of literal thin air. Setting aside the Cao’s relationship with the late Duke of Ding, née Sun would likely offend the empress with her acidic tongue even if the empress didn’t do anything. And now the empress had summoned her for no reason at all? There was no way that it was for anything good.
“How is my mother now?” Qin Yining asked anxiously.
“This we really don’t know. But with the status of the grand preceptor’s wife, nothing too harsh should happen as a result of the empress’ summons.”
Qin Yining nodded and took a few deep breaths to calm herself, fighting the panicked urge to rush home immediately.
“There’s people waiting for me outside. I’m going to return to the manor first. It won’t do to have family elders wait too long for me. We can chat about business another day, alright?”
Steward Zhong nodded understandingly and sent Qin Yining back to the carriage. She urgently wanted to return home and rushed the groom several times. She’d actually been worried about née Sun before setting off for Xihua, but her own safety had been a murky question mark then. No one knew if she’d be able to come back alive, so she didn’t pay that much attention to other affairs and naturally didn’t have that much excess energy to pay née Sun.
Qin Yining felt a bit guilty. She’d really been too proud of herself, not rushing home immediately. How could she have gone to check on her businesses first?!
When Bingtang and Songlan noted their mistress’ solemn expression, they knew that something had gone wrong in the manor and started worrying as well. The carriage sped back to Qin Manor. When they arrived, they startled the guards on duty. It seems they hadn’t expected their fourth miss to arrive. The maids were quick on their toes and had servants lead their escort for some wine and refreshments, then sent runners inside to notify the old dowager. The guards finally recovered their wits and confirmed these orders.
With their escort given to the care of the butler, Qin Yining gave orders for a good reward to be distributed before quickly making for the Garden of Loving Piety with her maids. The old dowager had heard the news of Qin Yining’s return and could no longer sit still. She draped a long cloak around her, folding it around her body, and hastened out with Qin-mama’s support.
Qin Yining had just made it through the archway of the Garden of Loving Piety when she was met with the sight of the old dowager in a dusty gold cloak, embroidered with patterns of good fortune and longevity.
“Aiyo! My granddaughter Yi!” The old dowager sped up her footsteps, but her bound feet couldn’t move all that fast. She lurched forward in her haste and her body swayed from side to side, making the jade embedded gold hairpin swing crazily from the sideways angle it was shoved in at. It only heightened the air of opulence about her.
“Grandmother, your granddaughter has returned.” Qin Yining lifted the hem of her skirt and knelt, primly performing the grand gesture of greeting to the old dowager.
The matriarch reached out with both hands to lift Qin Yining up. “Good, good! It’s good that you’re back. Where’s your father?”
“Father is still outside of the city. He told me to come back first.”
The old dowager beamed merrily when she heard that Qin Huaiyuan had returned safely as well. “The runners just delivered the message, but I thought it was a bunch of imps trying to cheer up an old woman! To think that you really have come back!”
Head maid Jixiang and Ruyi, as well as all of the maids and granny servants in the yard, clustered together in concerted interest. They all curtsied to Qin Yining, the scene quite bustling. The old dowager held Qin Yining’s hands and looked closely over her granddaughter. But, she didn’t find anything in her scrutiny.
“Come in for a chat.” The matriarch turned to Qin-mama. “Lujuan, have servants tell the second and third branches, as well as the other girls. Tell them granddaughter Yi’s come back. Have them all come as soon as possible. They can have dinner here.”
“Understood.” Qin-mama answered merrily.
The old dowager took Qin Yining’s hand up the stairs, bringing her indoors. Maids came forward to help the two out of their cloaks. They circled past the intricately carved divider of magpies on plum blossoms. Qin Yining sat down on the luohan bed next to the window that was cushioned with bright red blankets. The old dowager, sitting down next to her, had Jixiang fetch a bronze hand warmer for Qin Yining and had more maids serve tea and snacks.
“Why didn’t your father come back with you? How did the peace talks go?”
After seeing Qin Yining, the old dowager had first asked twice about Qin Huaiyuan and then about the peace talks. It was more than apparent where the matriarch’s priorities were. Qin Yining smiled instead of growing angry.
“In response to grandmother, father and Minister Cui from the Ministry of Rites have made camp outside of the city walls. The emperor’s decree indicates he wishes to hold a lavish welcoming ceremony tomorrow and personally lead a hundred officials to welcome the party back into the city and celebrate the successful conclusion of the negotiations.”
The old dowager clapped her hands happily, joy tracing her eyebrows and the corners of her eyes. “Good, good! Did everything go smoothly on your trip?”
“In response to grandmother, everything went smoothly. Father’s talents are without parallel and I could only watch from the sidelines. Father handled everything in the peace talks, it was truly an admirable feat!” Qin Yining was indirectly telling the old dowager that there hadn’t been a use for her during the peace talks. She was still whole. She also showered compliments on Qin Huaiyuan, indirectly complimenting the old dowager as well. Qin Yining had more than seen through the old dowager by now. Selfish and self-serving, she was heartless to everyone. It was almost like she’d poured all of her love in this life into Qin Huaiyuan. Complimenting Qin Huaiyuan was even better than paying respects to the matriarch.
Indeed, the old dowager nodded repeatedly, her face wreathed in smiles. “Your lord was always different from everyone else, even when he was young. He was just so exceedingly smart. Now that he’s accomplished such a great feat and restored peace between two countries, freeing the people from suffering, it’s absolutely a great accomplishment! The historians will record this well. Ah, my good son!” She addressed her words to Qin-mama, Jixiang, and Ruyi.
“It’s all because the old dowager raised the lord well.” Qin-mama took advantage of the situation to clap a grandiose compliment onto her mistress, making the old dowager break out in proud laughter.
Scattered footsteps traveled in from outside as they merrily spoke. The door curtains were lifted to show in the second and third madame, as well as the various girls. Qin Yining stood up and swept her gaze over the crowd, but didn’t see née Sun.
Her heart rose uneasily, but she remained smiling. She curtsied to the second and third madame. “Second and third aunt.”
“Niece Yi is back!” The second and third madame smiled back in greeting. In their eyes, Qin Yining’s reputation had been ruined the day she left the capital. They still hadn’t figured out what attitude to face her with now that she had returned. The two surreptitiously assessed Qin Yining, trying to see if anything had changed about her.
Qin Yining also noticed the awkwardness her sisters were feeling, as well as the old dowager’s thirst to know but not daring to ask directly. An angry fire began to burn in her heart. Instead, she asked with a smile, “How come I don’t see my mother? Is she not feeling well again today?”
Silence fell across the room. Qin Yining instantly knew that things weren’t good when she saw people’s expressions and looked inquiringly at the old dowager.
Her grandmother met her with a slightly awkward expression and smiled placatingly. “Granddaughter Yi, come sit with grandmother.”
Qin Yining’s heart skipped a beat as she took a seat by the old dowager without a change in expression. Her clear, limpid eyes looked at her grandmother, clearly showing her puzzlement. The target of her attentions felt guilt well up in her heart as she patted Qin Yining’s slender, pale hands with her own papery ones.
The dry coolness unique to elders enveloped Qin Yining’s hands. She wanted to yank her hands away, but forced herself to remain still.
The old dowager spoke gently with a tender expression at seeing how docile Qin Yining was being. “Granddaughter Yi, don’t fret. Your mother entered the palace a few days ago.”
“So mother’s still there?”
“Yes, but don’t worry, your Auntie Cao also went with your mother. It’s nice to stay in the palace for a change of scenery. Your mother would be so listless otherwise. It’s also a good thing for your mother and Auntie Cao to grow closer to each other.”