Chapter 16: Standoff
The old dowager’s rebuke caused everyone’s eyes to turn to Qin Yining. Jin-mama had been the one to arrange the servants for Snowpear Courtyard, and she’d pulled most of the candidates from née Sun’s retinue. Qin Yining had been in the manor for all of a day, and her servants at her side only by the latter part of the afternoon. What time had she had to properly train her servants? If her servants were misbehaving, that only spoke to née Sun’s training and had nothing to do with Qin Yining.
With last night’s events fresh in their minds, no one felt that Qin Yining would suffer this rebuke quietly. Their gazes held a hint of anticipation. Qin Huining’s downcast eyes were sparkling with expectation. It’d be best if this barbarian explodes and goes head to head with Old Dowager!
Qin Yining stood up slowly.
Everyone held their breaths.
Hidden in her sleeves, Qin Huining clenched her fists eagerly.
Qin Yining… gave a proper curtsey and spoke gently, “Old Dowager speaks truly. I didn’t keep my servants in line, please don’t be angry.”
Her meek manner and gentle tone were extremely soothing and once again raised her in eyes of those present. No one missed the protection of née Sun implicit in those words. Even the old dowager looked at Qin Yining with a more tender gaze. She’s Qin Huaiyuan’s daughter alright. She is forgiving and virtuous by nature, even if she didn’t grow up by his side.
All of the old dowager’s pride and joy in her life was tied up in her eldest son, and when she looked at the girl who looked so similar to him admitting fault freely in defense of another, her anger began to fade as a smile tugged at the corners of her lips.
“Mm, just keep an eye out in the future. The teacher that your father has requested for you has almost arrived. Make sure you pay attention to your lessons.”
“Yes, thank you, grandmother.” Qin Yining curtseyed smilingly.
“Go and sit,” the old dowager fluttered a hand.
The tense and charged atmosphere of moments ago had been dispelled by few words from Qin Yining! Qin Huining almost dug bloody crescents into her palms when she saw the benevolent smile her grandmother bestowed onto Qin Yining.
In the middle of the room, Yuxiang still had her forehead on the ground. She was waiting for Qin Yining to argue loudly with the old dowager so she could pipe up at an opportune time about how vicious and cruel the fourth miss was to the servants. Who would’ve thought that “the barbarian” would do something so wholly unexpected?
A few hints of assessment were in the old dowager’s gaze as she turned to Yuxiang. “What do you want from me? Raise your head when you answer me.”
Yuxiang lifted her head, her dirty face coated with coal streaks. The two clean tracks that her tears had cleared were once again smeared into oblivion as she rubbed her face. The misses in the room all averted their gazes uneasily, feeling a bit queasy at the sight. Yuxiang sobbed, “Please give us justice, Old Dowager! Transfer us away from Snowpear Courtyard! I can’t stay there anymore, otherwise Fourth Miss will torture me to death!”
The old dowager frowned and flicked a glance at the second madame. The latter immediately understood her intentions and stepped forward to rebuke, “Ludicrous! Fourth Miss is a mistress of the household, how would she purposefully torture her servants? Besides, since when have servants been able to pick and choose where they’d like to serve? It’s your great fortune that you can serve at Snowpear Courtyard. Are you trying to start a mutiny by complaining of this great honor to Old Dowager and framing the miss?!”
“Please look thoroughly into this, Second Madame! I’m only here because I really have no options left! Fourth Miss is too violent! Ruilan and I are like this after serving her for only a day! Fourth Miss kicked Ruilan to the ground and beat her—just look at her face! It’s still swollen!”
Yuxiang rose to pull at Ruilan and point at the bruised corner of her mouth, then pointed at herself. “And me! Fourth Miss made me boil water for no reason at all and kept me there for half the night, not letting me go to sleep…”
Yuxiang burst into loud incoherent tears as tears once more streaked down to create two pale tracks on her spotted, dusty face. On the other hand, Ruilan was praying for the ground to swallow her up. If only I knew how to make myself invisible! Yuxiang’s usually smart, but why did she lose her brains at such a crucial moment?! And it’s one thing for her to be an idiot, why did she have to go and drag me into it!?
Ruilan fell to her knees with a thump, scouring her thoughts for ways to save herself. Yuxiang took the “hint” and dropped into a kowtow again. “Please help us, Old Dowager! I’m risking death today! If I go back, Fourth Miss will probably beat me to death!”
As Yuxiang laid it on thick about her imminent demise, the looks of those assembled traveled over Qin Huining’s swollen cheeks several times. If they had to point to someone who really could beat someone up amongst them, Qin Yining did seem like the most likely candidate.
The emperor advocated a policy of virtue, and servants hadn’t been beaten to death in the prime minister’s manor for many years. In truth, no one had yet given birth to a noble miss even capable of beating others up.
The old dowager had just glossed over Qin Huining being thrashed, but now a maid had come in with another complaint! They all wanted to see how Qin Yining would react. She could keep it together in front of the old dowager, but no one thought that she’d be able to tolerate a maid barking at her.
Contrary to everyone’s expectations, Qin Yining remained serene, her eyes never leaving the rug at the foot of the old dowager’s bed. It seemed like she was perfectly satisfied waiting for lint to gather on the rug, not voicing a single word in her defense. She didn’t even look at Yuxiang. It was as if the maid didn’t exist at all.
Even the old dowager was perplexed by this behavior. The label of “cruel to servants” would seriously damage a girl’s reputation if it wasn’t properly taken care of. Didn’t she care at all? Or did she not understand the severity of this charge? The atmosphere grew heavy again.
Only Yuxiang’s sniffles could be heard in the quiet room. The old dowager frowned, her patience was at an end. She opened her mouth to speak when Ruilan suddenly crawled forward on her knees and kowtowed loudly three times. The old dowager’s eyes flickered, and Ruilan proclaimed loudly, “Old Dowager, don’t listen to Yuxiang! Fourth Miss is innocent!”
“What, what are you talking about?! Didn’t we…” Yuxiang started at these unexpected words and whipped her head around to glare at Ruilan.
Ruilan didn’t wait for her to finish as she hastily cut in, “Things aren’t as Yuxiang said at all! The fourth miss did make her boil water, but that’s because Yuxiang did something wrong. Yesterday, she stole a lot of the jewelry that Senior Madame gave Fourth Miss. She thought the fourth miss couldn’t read the records and didn’t understand which materials were what. But the fourth miss is intelligent beyond compare and knew what was missing with just a glance.”
She looked at Qin Yining with a look of admiration at this point. “The fourth miss didn’t accuse her back then and only hinted that Yuxiang should return the items. Yuxiang felt that she had lost a lot of face and returned the jewelry, but secretly hated the fourth miss for that. Then, when Fourth Miss and the maids were out last night, she withheld the miss’ charcoal and didn’t fill the braziers in the main residence. The main house was as cold as a cellar when the miss returned.
“Last night, I was accidentally injured when the two misses fought. Yuxiang made up a story to slander Fourth Miss when I returned. I tried to talk her out of it, but to no avail. The fourth miss happened to return at that time and heard what Yuxiang was saying. That was when the miss punished her by sending her to boil water.
“How can a maid steal from her mistress and hate her even when the mistress doesn’t punish the theft? Or even say anything!? She withheld charcoal in winter! This servant feels that Fourth Miss has been kind enough to Yuxiang already. Yuxiang’s actions today violates her conscience!” Ruilan kowtowed again at that point, “Please look at this thoroughly, Old Dowager. Don’t listen to Yuxiang’s lies and misunderstand Fourth Miss!”
Standing behind the divider, Qiulu also kowtowed audibly. “Old Dowager, this servant also heard Yuxiang slander the miss. She said very ugly things. Ruilan’s words are true, all of the servants in Snowpear Courtyard can bear witness.”
“You—you—all of you—all of you are making this up!!” Yuxiang’s head was splitting apart and she pounced forward to scratch Ruilan’s face. Ruilan crashed to the ground with a “very sincere” cry of shock. Thankfully Qiulu, Jixiang, and the other maids weren’t too far away. They sprang forward and barely kept Yuxiang away from Ruilan. Yuxiang shrieked, “This is slander! I just said last night that I’d get justice for you, but now you bite me instead! You two-faced thing!”
“Yuxiang, shut up.” Three words rang through the air like a frosted bell, silencing everything before it. Qin Yining had finally risen to her feet. No matter how raucous Yuxiang had been moments ago, fear choked the words back down her throat.
Qin Yining walked over to the kneeling Yuxiang, spearing her to the ground with her gaze. The maid felt like she was being flayed alive by an icy scalpel. She didn’t dare look her in the eye, instead keeping her eyes on Qin Yining’s embroidered shoes. She silently braced for a kick to the chest at any moment.
Yet, the shoes miraculously turned in the old dowager’s direction. Qin Yining curtseyed, and spoke. “Old Dowager, it’s my fault that this matter made its way to you. I haven’t kept Snowpear Courtyard in good order. I apologize for having such a matter enter your sight.”
The old dowager had allowed the second madame to respond thus far since she wanted to keep her attention focused on everyone’s reactions. She was quite satisfied that Qin Yining hadn’t demeaned her status by arguing with her maid. It was also an impressive demonstration of her newly returned granddaughter’s ability to win people’s hearts, to see both Ruilan and Qiulu step forward to speak for her with just one day with their miss.
Her docile and mature image from yesterday began to solidify in the matriarch’s mind. Qin Yining had shown the courage to speak out when Qin Huining had driven a wedge between their parents, but she had also shown foresight and propriety when she preserved her birth mother’s dignity under questioning.
All of this made Qin Yining much more pleasing to the old dowager’s eyes. This is a girl with courage and intelligence, capable of bending with the wind. She was definitely Qin Huaiyuan’s daughter alright, her actions today even had some hints of a young Prime Minister Qin’s bearing.
The old dowager raised her hand, allowing Qin Yining to rise. “This has nothing to do with you. This girl is crooked by nature.” It was like the one who’d just rebuked Qin Yining for not keeping her servants in line was someone else entirely. The old dowager turned to Qin-mama. “Go ask the others in Snowpear Courtyard for verification. Sell Yuxiang immediately when this matter is confirmed.”
Yuxiang’s eyes widened in horror. “Old Dowager, you can’t do this! I was born of this house! My father is…”
“I don’t care who your father or mother are. Raising such an unruly daughter is clearly a mark of their incompetence.” The old dowager frowned impatiently. “Lujuan, I’m handing this matter over to you. Since this servant was born in the manor, then go by the book. Take her away. The sight of her irritates me.”
“Understood.” With a word, Qin-mama called for strong grannies who gagged Yuxiang with a handkerchief, dragging the maid away. Ruilan was also a bit frightened as she watched the other girl being hauled away. Only one sentence from Qin Yining was needed, just the one that shed light on the truth of her attacking her mistress last night, for the same fate to befall Ruilan.