Chapter 128: Revenge
Qin Yining had already given orders to have some exquisite and delicious small plates prepared. She enjoyed a simple dinner with née Sun, and after they washed up, they shared the same bed.
Mother and daughter fell into an easy rhythm of chitchat. They stayed away from matters of the house; Qin Yining brought up some interesting things she’d noticed around the city. She and née Sun were rarely this close to each other, and the girl was delighted that they could talk so easily as they did. This was everything she’d hoped for when she’d first returned to the manor.
Qin Yining’s quiet happiness was infectious, lightening née Sun’s mood as well. However, the madame still privately wondered just what the old dowager had done to make her daughter so unwilling to return home.
The lanterns were brightly lit in the Garden of Loving Piety, with brand new court lanterns hanging beneath the edges of the covered hallway. Both the blazing lanterns and the blurry outlines of the houses were reflected in the wet bluestones on the ground. A fine, misty rain had added a touch of gleam to the scene, making the spacious yard seem as if a heavenly palace.
Qin-mama held a lantern aloft as she guided Qin Huaiyuan in, a cloak flung around his shoulders. Two more maids behind him were holding wax umbrellas to shield him from the light drizzle. The entire group set a fast pace as they wound their way to the main house.
“It’s wonderful that the lord has returned safely.” The granny servant smiled. “The old dowager will be so very delighted.”
Qin Huaiyuan smiled peacefully back, not responding. Taking note of this expression and the fact that he’d come back alone, Qin-mama smartly changed the topic.
“The days are getting warmer. There was only a touch of rainfall in the capital two days ago, and already some greenery is beginning to appear in the rear garden.”
“Indeed. Spring has arrived in the blink of an eye.”
They crossed the front yard and went up the stairs to the main house. Ruyi bent her knee in a curtsey and diligently lifted the ink-green door curtains, overlaid on bamboo slats, aside. Magpies alighting on plum blossoms, symbolizing the arrival of good news, were embroidered on the curtains. The warmth of the interior and laughter wafted outwards as Ruyi stood to the side, curtain in hand, but neither brought a smile to Qin Huaiyuan’s face.
Ruyi was about to enter the house to serve the mistresses inside, but Qin-mama pulled her back. “Go tell the small kitchen in the back to prepare what the lord likes to eat.”
Ruyi nodded and flashed a smile of gratitude at the granny servant before slipping off. Qin-mama remained beneath the covered hallway. There was no need to go inside; anyone unrelated to the situation about to develop would be soon dismissed anyways. She didn’t need to stick her nose in this.
Qin Huaiyuan made a beeline for the center of the house and was greeting with the sight of Cao Yuqing, Qin Huining, and the sixth miss either sitting or standing around the old dowager. The three rose to make their greetings when they saw the master of the house return. The old dowager cheerfully got off the luohan bed and grabbed her son’s hand.
“Meng’er’s back! It’s good that you’re back, absolutely wonderful!”
Qin Huaiyuan bowed to his mother and briefly examined her. He saw that her cheeks were flush with good health and her complexion seemed to be just as hearty as usual.
“Have you been well, mother?”
“Good, good. I’ve just been worried about you. Look at you, you’ve gotten so much skinnier after this trip. We need to get some good health back in you.” The old dowager smiled at Cao Yuqing. “I was just telling Yuqing what you like to eat. She said that the days are getting warmer and that it’s time to prepare summer clothes for you.”
Due to how time intensive handmade clothes were, the manor would usually start working on clothes a season in advance.
Qin Huaiyuan looked blandly at Cao Yuqing. “There’s no need for you to spend effort on this, the senior madame will naturally oversee it all.”
You’re just a concubine, don’t overstep your station.
Cao Yuqing’s smile dimmed as the color began draining out of her face. However, she maintained her slight smile. “It’s not a trouble at all. These are all part of this concubine’s duties.”
“Your duties?” Qin Huaiyuan helped the old dowager sit down on the redwood luohan bed that had been made up with brand new baby-blue cushions. He laughed softly. “And here I thought your duties were in the palace and not the manor.”
Cao Yuqing’s face turned a mottled red from indignation as she glared at Qin Huaiyuan. She couldn’t understand why he was suddenly displaying this attitude towards her. But self control returned in a breath as she looked down and made a docile curtsey. “Don’t be angry, my lord.”
Meanwhile, it was the old dowager’s turn to blanch when she saw how her son was treating née Cao. This was née Cao! The empress’ sister, Elder Statesman Cao’s oldest daughter! She kept throwing significant looks to her son, but Qin Huaiyuan seemed to not see any of them and in fact, leisurely sat down with a cup of tea.
Anxious irritation rose in the matriarch and she went to support Cao Yuqing herself, helping her to a nearby garden stool. “Good child, don’t mind him. He’s just confused at the moment, I’ll lecture him properly.”
However, Qin Huaiyuan spoke up right after the old dowager. “You may all leave first. I have words to speak with my mother.”
The shivering Qin Huining and sixth miss felt like they’d received an imperial pardon. They quickly made their curtsies and departed. Cao Yuqing however, hesitated and cast a look at Qin Huaiyuan before leaving.
There was soon no one else in the house. The old dowager rebuked her son worriedly when she saw how pitiful née Cao looked. “Meng’er, what are you doing? How can you treat née Cao like this right after your return?”
“Treat her like this? As a concubine, she schemed to trick her superior, the official wife, into the palace. I haven’t even taken her to task for that act. Can I not even obliquely admonish her?”
“Don’t forget, her surname is Cao!”
“Her surname is now Qin.”
The old dowager pointed at Qin Huaiyuan. “You wicked child! Don’t you forget what kind of people her sister and father are! Who knows what will happen if you don’t keep those two happy!”
“I know that mother worries constantly about me out of love.” Qin Huaiyuan helped his mother sit down again and poured some more tea for her. “But please understand that I am a husband and a father as well.” This was as blatant as he would be.
Changes flickered rapidly through the old dowager’s face as a scowl crossed her face. She started to curse, “I knew that that bitch née Sun and brat Qin Yining would cause trouble behind my back! What have they made up or accused me of this time?”
The more she thought about it, the more like a victim she felt. Her voice choked up. “Née Sun challenged imperial authority and your precious girl wanted to go save her! It would’ve been better for that idiotic woman with no brains to die a clean death. At least she wouldn’t have dragged you down with her! I’m your mother, the matriarch of this family. Was I to allow the stinking fish that’s née Sun to mess up the entire pot of soup?!”
“Be calm, mother,” Qin Huaiyuan responded with a lowered head. “Your loving desire to protect me is the same as mine for daughter Yi. You might’ve forgotten how grandmother made life difficult for you back in the day. Father doted on his concubine at your expense, his wife. Have you forgotten how you spent everyday in tears when father raised née Jiang to extreme heights? Or what your son did then?”
Even as she burned with anger, these words reminded the old dowager of the pain of her youth and how Qin Huaiyuan had protected her as a child.
“What mother hated most then was grandmother’s lack of kindness and benevolence, all in the hurried pursuit of fame and accomplishment. But now look, how are you different from grandmother back then?”
“You unfilial son! I’m doing all this for you!”
“Then for me, mother, please consider your son’s reputation. I cannot bear the name of an ungrateful cad who dotes on a concubine at the expense of my wife. I hold one of the highest positions possible in the nation and now have the additional one of marquis. In terms of Great Yan’s fortunes, your son has reached the peak, and has nothing further to strive for. I’ve always conducted myself so that my behavior would be beyond reproach and allow others nothing to criticize. I pray that mother will no longer act of your own accordance like this.”
“Well, well now! You think I’m just in the way now?!”
“Mother, you know what I speak of, so why turn the subject to something else?” Qin Huaiyuan looked straight at the old dowager. “Daughter Yi and née Sun will be staying outside for a short while. I won’t be involved in this, so do as you see fit, mother. As for née Cao, those are matters that stay between us, so please don’t interfere in the future.”
Qin Huaiyuan bowed and left. The old dowager’s tears finally spilled over when she saw him walk off. “This unfilial son, unfilial son! Just what have I done to deserve this?!”
Qin-mama, Jixiang, and Ruyi curtsied to Qin Huaiyuan from beneath the covered hallways. They also had a servant accompany him out with an umbrella. Qin-mama took in a deep breath of the moist air and patted her cheeks, putting her expression in order before going in to comfort the old dowager.
Although the conversation between mother and son had been a private one, no wall in the world was airtight. The second and third branches of the house soon learned of what had happened, and both madame of those branches felt some schadenfreude when they heard the details. They’d long since had enough of the old dowager’s habit of fawning on those in power.
Setting the Qin Manor aside for now, the Court of State Ceremonial was currently welcoming a noble guest. The Court of State Ceremonial was a central government agency under the Ministry of Rites that was, amongst its other duties, also in charge of court receptions of foreign dignitaries. Its minister was currently showing the Great Zhou envoy into the main hall.
Lian Shenjie was dressed casually and walked in with a ramrod straight posture. The minister was fearfully reporting to him, “The Faithful Prince of the First Rank from your noble nation arrived a step early. He’s already waiting in the Flower Hall for you to partake in the banquet together. I’ve prepared an exquisite banquet and the specialty song and dances of my nation. I hope the lord envoy will feel so inclined as to join us.”
When he heard that Pang Xiao was also present, a trace of fear appeared on Lian Shengjie’s face. But when he thought of his orders, he comforted himself once more. And the minister’s mention of song and dance had been enough to send his heart lurching lewdly. With singers and dancers, the people of this nation wouldn’t be barbarians now, would they? He wouldn’t have to fear long and lonely nights here.
They entered the Flower Hall as they chatted, drawing a sideways glance from Pang Xiao as he sat in the head seat. “So it’s Sir Lian.”