Chapter 32: Steward Zhong
The duchess was giving both Qin Yining and née Sun quite some face by gifting the girl such a large business. Née Sun basked in the shared glory in front of her in-laws as she spoke with barely concealed pride. “I didn’t want it at first, but her maternal grandmother insisted, saying she liked her granddaughter very much so. I couldn’t stop her at all, I’m afraid. It was originally her elder cousin Sun Yu’s business, but her grandmother traded rich fields and stores for it. I even told my mother that a little girl like her wouldn’t know the ins and outs of business, but was lectured for my trouble instead. Apparently I overprotect my children and don’t give them chances to develop and grow! Fancy that.” She shook her head out of helpless amusement at this point, looking quite resigned.
These words had been heavily exaggerated to smack the old dowager’s face with sheer wealth. You’re her grandmother too and gave the child nothing when she came back. You even assigned her one of the most remote residences in the manor. But my family was the one who offered tangible gifts in the end! Things in our Duke of Ding Manor are gilded with gold, and things in your prime minister’s manor are just hammered out of steel!
Obviously, née Sun had completely forgotten how she’d completely agreed with the old dowager a few days ago in not wanting Qin Yining to live in the manor at all, or almost sending the girl to the countryside.
The old dowager, second madame, and third madame didn’t miss née Sun’s implied meaning. But they had to deal with reality, and the reality was that the duke’s household was indeed blinding them with this display of wealth. If they wanted to compete, they’d have to gift a business similar to the Institute of Luminous Grace. Setting aside the fact that they only had some rich fields, forests, shopfronts, and farms at their disposal, the businesses they ran only dealt with tools of the study, fabric, and cloth. Although they turned a profit, they weren’t nearly as lucrative as the Institute. Even if they had any businesses on a similar level, the old dowager would certainly be wary of having it end up being her granddaughter’s dowry! Their household simply didn’t have the depth of foundations that the generations of Dukes of Ding had created. The Duchess of Ding could slap face with wealth, but they just didn’t have the resources to reply in kind.
And so the old dowager very smartly decided to play dumb. Naturally, the second and third madame were reluctant to see their mother-in-law give any business to a daughter of the main branch. The Qin family hadn’t split up yet, and all the branches were still one family. The main branch didn’t have a son, but the second and third had plenty! Without a word in cooperation, the two seamlessly complimented the duchess’ generosity and lauded Qin Yining for being a mature and likable girl to draw the duchess’ favor. They kept the stream of compliments, going as far as to exclaim how Qin Yining had inherited her father’s smarts, until née Sun was flushing with pleasure and beaming widely.
Qin Yining could only sigh inwardly as she watched née Sun’s childish glee. She suddenly understood why the duchess hadn’t been able to contain herself enough today to lecture née Sun in front of others. If she had a forty year old daughter who acted like she was fourteen… doing things as she would without thought of others… well, she would be at her wit’s end too.
On the other side, Qin Huining was feeling like a complete outsider. Everyone seemed to be hovering around Qin Yining, the girl who had stolen everything away from her. Fourteen years she’d lived in the Qin Manor, and though she knew she’d had the old dowager and mother’s love, she’d never received such over-the-top compliments like these. Even when they’d still thought of her as the real daughter, she’d never heard praise such as “an immense likeness to her father” or “the very bearing of her father”!
She felt completely disgusted at the sight of her second and third aunt’s faces! This was all because Qin Yining had the Institute of Luminous Grace and she didn’t! Her maternal grandmother had never liked her, but as much as the old woman disliked her, she’d spent fourteen years in that family! Was it all washed away so easily with one visit from Qin Yining?
Qin Huining silently ground her teeth. She would’ve long since erupted in maddened shrieks if it wasn’t for her shred of remaining reason. But she knew full well that her good days depended solely on these people. She couldn’t let their impression of her decline, or life would really take a turn for the worse.
“Old Dowager.” Qin-mama lifted the door curtains with a smile. “The senior elder master has returned.”
At those words, Qin Huaiyuan walked in. He lifted his gray, fur collared cape off his shoulders, handing it to Qin-mama, and walked forward to bow. “Mother.”
“You’re back! Come sit.” The old dowager smiled.
Qin Huaiyuan elegantly swooped down on a thickly padded round seat while née Sun, second madame and third madame shifted to the side. A smile lifted the corners of his mouth as he felt the happy atmosphere inside, “What good thing’s happened that I seem to be unaware of? Tell me, mother.”
“It’s granddaughter Yi,” the old dowager responded in good spirits. “Her maternal grandmother gifted her the Institute of Luminous Grace during her visit to the Duke of Ding Manor today. We were just talking about that.”
Qin Huaiyuan started, his mind fitting the pieces together in the span of a breath. He couldn’t help but sigh lightly as he glanced at Qin Yining. As a father, he was no exception to taking joy in the fact that his child resembled him. It was just a pity that after all these years and trying all sorts of methods, he’d still been unable to have his wife give birth to a son. A daughter was well, whatever. What use was it if she resembled him? She was only good for marriage. Qin Huaiyuan felt even more pained when he looked at Qin Yining’s fragile, gentle, and pretty self. Why wasn’t she a son?! But he couldn’t bring himself to say that.
She was just a girl, so what possible damage could she do in the Tang matter? She’s probably just going to sit back and rake in the profits from the Institute. The Tang issue had already dragged in the Prince of Ning and the Clearists. Only the steward would be in for it if all went south. The Institute had just changed hands anyway, so it was quite natural that there would be a change in senior management as well.
But even Qin Huaiyuan’s mind flew through all of that, he didn’t let a flicker inflect his words, “The in-laws have put a great deal of thought in this gift. I will have to visit and thank them one day.”
Née Sun felt quite touched by those words and graced Qin Huaiyuan with a tender look. Meanwhile, when the old dowager saw that Qin Yining and Qin Huining were still wearing their public outfits, she had the two of them go back and rest. There was no need to visit her again until tomorrow.
The three made their curtsies, with Qin Huining forcing a bright farewell to née Sun before returning to her quarters.
On the other hand, Qin Yining accompanied née Sun’s sedan back to Garden of Tranquility, along with Ruilan, Jin-mama, and Caiju. She only returned to Snowpear Courtyard after tendering a farewell curtsey to née Sun. The news that Qin Yining was now the owner of the Institute had spread on wings. All of the servants they ran into on their way back came up to greet Qin Yining and offer their congratulations.
Ruilan was holding the lantern by Qin Yining’s side and thinking carefully about the events that had taken place since her mistress had returned. Five days ago, the old dowager and her birth mother had refused to accept her. Qin Huining had bullied her, and she’d even had to tread carefully around the servants for her daily necessities. But now?!
The old dowager didn’t hate her, the senior madame even seemed to like her a little bit, and it went without saying how much her maternal grandparents and family liked her. Her mistress no longer needed to worry about getting through a day at a time and had thoroughly cowed not only the servants, but even Qin Huining herself after a show of force. Ruilan had also clearly heard the lecture that her mistress had delivered in the carriage. The most important thing was that all the girls in the manor had to subside on two taels of silver a month as their stipend, but her mistress now had a mountain of gold at her disposal!
Ruilan felt her blood boil with excitement as she started to count her mistress’ achievements, further strengthening her resolve to follow Qin Yining. She’d been a frog at the bottom of a well before, the limits of her worldview stretching only to Garden of Tranquility and thinking the senior elder master was the best future. Although who knew what the miss’ future held, it would definitely be a lot better than with the senior madame!
Qin Yining naturally didn’t know what Ruilan was thinking about, just that everyone was suddenly more polite to her and Ruilan more attentive. For some reason, the humor of the situation struck her. Stepping on others when they’re down and fawning over rising stars, is this simply human nature?
When they turned into the alleyway leading to their door, they saw a figure craning its neck outside the entrance of Snowpear Courtyard, clearly looking for them. The silhouette hurried up to the duo when it glimpsed them, resolving itself as Qiulu when she drew near.
“Miss.” Qiulu purposefully kept her voice low and spoke with a touch of nervousness. “A Steward Zhong just came by with two large camphor wood trunks. He says he’s come to personally deliver the books from the Institute of Luminous Grace. But after coming, he’s refused tea and won’t leave. He’s actually on his knees in the courtyard and refuses to leave!”
Qin Yining blinked with great surprise, and asked worriedly, “How long has he been here? How many know he’s here? Does anyone else know he’s kneeling in the courtyard?”
“He came in through the back door in the rear corner, so not many know he’s here. They only saw him come with some trunks, so they just think he was here to deliver something and didn’t pay attention as to when he left. As for kneeling…” Qiulu thought about it. “He’s been here for at least two hours. I was afraid that it wouldn’t be a good thing to spread and barred the doors to Snowpear Courtyard after discussing it with Zhu-mama and Zhan–mama. No one has been allowed to leave, and Zhu-mama and I went ourselves to deliver back the meal boxes today.
Qin Yining heaved a sigh of relief and nodded. “You did well.” She’d known before that Qiulu was a thorough, if quiet person. But she hadn’t expected her to be so dependable, even in a minor emergency like this. If this kept up, it looked like Qiulu could become a trusted confidante in the future.
The three made their way into Snowpear Courtyard to see a man kneeling at the end of the pebble path in the yard. Since it was almost winter solstice and dusk, gusts of frosty wind were already making the lanterns sway and flicker. Yellowed and withered bamboo leaves carpeted the ground, making the kneeling profile of the man seem even more bleak.
Qiulu saw her mistress halt without a word and looked questioningly at her. Qin Yining thought for a moment and spoke. “This must be Steward Zhong with the accounts? Please, let’s speak inside.”
She didn’t spare the steward another glance as she headed directly into the receiving room. Qiulu and Ruilan quickly asked the steward to rise. “Steward, our miss has returned. Please rise. You’ll make things difficult for her if you stay here like this.”
Perhaps it was because he’d heard them, or perhaps he’d simply seen the light. Whatever it was, Steward Zhong blindly scrambled to his feet, almost toppling over as his legs complained about how long he’d been kneeling. He took a moment to steady himself, and limped into the main house. Upon entering, he immediately sank to his knees again. He didn’t dare meet Qin Yining’s eyes and spoke with his head down. “Greetings to the new owner. This humble one is Zhong Yucheng, here to pay his respects.”