Chapter 45: Plots Within Plots
The small mountain of gifts was a fierce slap to Qin Huining’s face. This should’ve all been hers! Whether it was the identity of the grand preceptor’s official daughter, or the table full of gifts, or admiration from the crowd, it should’ve been hers! But now she had to watch someone flaunt the happiness she once had! This isn’t fair! It wasn’t just the old dowager, maternal grandmother, and née Sun being biased now, her father was also leaning towards Qin Yining.
How grave a mistake was going to see an outside male!? Yet father had only set Qin Yining up in style in the ancestral hall for seven days, and then even given her Yaoqin and Yuqi afterwards. Father may not maltreated her before, but he’d always been cold and aloof, barely exchanging a few words with her. Yet here he was, doting on Qin Yining like this!
When she looked at Qin Yining’s tranquil and leisurely appearance, Qin Huining really wanted to pounce and tear off that hateful face! Fires of envy burned uncontrollably, almost fully consuming her reason. “Younger sister Little Creek possesses great fortune alright. You made it back just in time for father to become grand preceptor and start a little treasure vault of your own.”
“Indeed.” Qin Yining smiled coldly at Qin Huining’s behavior. “Second aunt even praised me for being a lucky star today.”
“Being able to survive for so many years in the mountains and not be eaten by wild beasts… you’re lucky alright.” The sixth miss gritted her teeth.
“Sixth sister is too naive.” Qin Yining couldn’t help but laugh. “Do you think luck is the only reason I survived? Do you want to know why I wasn’t eaten by wild beasts?”
She stalked towards the sixth miss, the almost predatory cold glint in her eyes making the sixth miss take two steps backwards. “W-why?”
“Because. I ate. all of them.” Qin Yining filled the sixth miss’ vision, and a callused, cool hand reached up to pat the latter’s cheek. “Qin Shuangning, are you more ferocious than a wild beast?”
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The sixth miss was so frightened that she almost ran into the wall in her hasty retreat. She looked like a small animal running into its natural predator. She wanted nothing more than to get out of this ferocious hunter’s eye. When Qin Huining saw the embarrassment the sixth miss was causing, she glared ferociously in censure.
“Be my guest if the two of you like sitting here.” Qin Yining’s lips curved in a slight smile. Her opponents were too weak, so it almost felt like she was bullying them instead. “I’m going out to go over the accounts with Steward Zhong and won’t be able to play host anymore. Qiulu, put everything away.” The maid nodded in understanding.
As thick-skinned as Qin Huining and the sixth miss were, it really wasn’t appropriate for them to stay any longer. A series of stinging slaps had been delivered as well, completely declawing them. Qin Huining yanked on the sixth miss’ hand and left in a huff. When she reached the door, she whispered a few words by Bitong’s ears. The maid nodded and quickly dogged Qiulu’s footsteps.
Back in the main house, following the departure of the guests and servants, Qin Yining smiled at Yaoqin and Yuqi. “Apologies for ignoring the two sisters just now when guests were present.”
“This servant wouldn’t dare.” They’d just witnessed firsthand how Qin Yining had cowed the sixth miss. This gave them a new layer of understanding about their mistress, in addition to all the rumors they’d heard.
Yaoqin smiled as she curtsied. “The lord has already given us instructions to be your people from now on, miss. Please set us to any tasks you wish.”
“That’s quite right.” Yuqi curtsied as well.
“I understand father’s intentions. I know you two are well versed in the art of zither and chess. I’ll need much tutelage from you in the future.” Her tone was plainly treating them as masters that Qin Huaiyuan had sent to her. Yaoqin and Yuqi quickly murmured that they were unworthy of such attention, but Qin Yining forged on. “I’ve already had Liuya prepare your rooms. Snowpear Courtyard is too small, so I’m afraid you’ll have to make do in the east wing for now.”
“Understood, thank you, miss.” Yaoqin and Yuqi knew that they wouldn’t become her confidantes the second they entered the fourth miss’ employ, so it was already satisfactory that she was treating them with courtesy. They followed Liuya to the house that had been Yuxiang and Ruilan’s.
Qin Yining put on a cloak and had a serving girl notify the outer residence to prepare a carriage. She didn’t take anyone with her, disappearing into the dark. When Liuya returned from helping Yaoqin and Yuqi settle in, she discovered that Qin Yining was no longer in the courtyard. She recalled that Qin Yining had said she was going to look over the accounts today, so Liuya darted into the yard to see who was missing. But, she found that the mistress hadn’t taken anyone! The miss would rather not bring anyone than take me! Yuxiang and Ruilan were both gone, Qiulu was obviously becoming an important servant since she was putting the gifts into storage. Yaoqin and Yuqi were newcomers so it wouldn’t do to order them around immediately. So therefore, Liuya should’ve been the one taken into the miss’ confidence! Why does the miss still not trust me with more things! Her face turned beet red with indignation as she stomped back to her own room.
The storeroom was a rear side room, and Bitong crept soundlessly along until she reached the unlatched door. It wasn’t a large storeroom, but it was already piled high with brocade, jewelry, ornaments, and boxes of treasure. The two camphor wood chests on the floor were especially eye-catching. There were even open jewelry boxes sitting on top of them, the shine and shimmer of the jewels within almost blinding to the eye.
The fourth miss has just returned, but she’s already so rich! The owner of the Institute of Luminous Grace is on another level, alright! Bitong’s eyes widened as she took a look around the room. Qiulu was half kneeling with her back to Bitong and shoving a strand of pearls into her clothes. After taking the pearls, she grabbed another handful from a jewelry box. Bitong couldn’t see exactly what the maid had grabbed from her angle, just a hint of a blood jade bracelet and a pair of earrings flashing with the glitter of emeralds.
Bitong’s heart pounded hard. The heavens are helping me! If she could get rid of Qiulu as well, that meant three of Qin Yining’s maids would evaporate. Miss Huining would definitely reward her then! As soon as that realization dawned on her, Bitong shoved open the door. “How dare you! I saw everything you did!”
Qiulu’s hand shook from fright, nearly dropping her illicit goods as her face drained of all color. She sprang across the room to hastily cover Bitong’s mouth. “Please be quiet, sister!”
“You tell me to be quiet?” Bitong dodged her hand and laughed coldly. “Come! We’re going straight to the old dowager’s! I’d like to see what kind of story you spin! You of Snowpear Courtyard all have sticky hands. First Ruilan was a thief, now you! We’re going!” She started to drag Qiulu out by the wrist.
Qiulu was hauling back on Bitong’s wrist with both hands and dropped to the ground, refusing to budge. She spoke lowly and hurriedly, “Don’t be so loud, sister! Listen to me! The fourth miss hasn’t counted any of this yet. She won’t even know if we take anything. Us maids earn only a little monthly stipend for all our work, and not much is left after we send our share back home and pay for our expenses. We’re young now, but what about in the future?”
Qiulu scrambled to her knees when she felt Bitong’s force slacken slightly and tilted her head up to the other maid. “Sister, think carefully about what I’m saying. The only way out for people like us is to save up some silver to make sure we have good days ahead. The fourth miss has so much and hasn’t even counted them… sister, as long as you don’t make a fuss, I’ll give you half of what I took!”
Bitong was deeply tempted by those words. She was a bought servant and hadn’t been born into the household. She was already sixteen this year, and could likely request the old dowager to release her papers in a few years. She had a sick mother at home, her brother was married, and there were two nephews running around as well. The entire family was trying to make do with a vegetable stand. They were all looking to her to earn money for them. She didn’t want to be awarded to someone random, nor did she want to be a concubine. She just wanted to earn enough money to buy out her contract and become the official wife in some small family somewhere.
But all that required money. It was the reason she tried so hard in front of Qin Huining. Any random amount that the misses awarded her was more than a year of her wages. But as much as Qin Huining would reward her with, it wouldn’t measure up to half of what Qiulu was offering her! Such a perfect opportunity was in front of her!
Bitong lowered her head and evaluated Qiulu skeptically. The kneeling maid’s face was flushed red and her tears and snot were running together. She was looking back up at Bitong with a very sincere expression.
“Sister Bitong, we’re all servants, why must we make life difficult for each other?
Why don’t we make use of this to save some money so that life is better in the future? Please leave me a way out, sister! How about I give you more than half and I’ll just keep a little? I promise I won’t tell anyone about this, sister Bitong!”
Bitong knew that Qiulu had originally served in Garden of Tranquility and was an honest, taciturn person. When she saw Qiulu act like this, Bitong completely believed her and said decisively, “Alright, you give me more than half, or I’ll tell others about this!”
Qiulu was delighted and scrambled to her feet. She pawed at her clothes and shoved the strand of pearls at Bitong, then handed over an agate ring, a blood jade bracelet, a pair of rose shaped ear studs of the purest gold, a dangling pair of jade earrings, and a small crabapple flower hairpin made of jade.
Bitong was completely taken by the many treasures, particularly with the pure and translucent agate and jade. She hastily shoved everything into her own clothes and stabbed a finger at Qiulu. “You keep your wits about you and your mouth shut!”
“How would I dare say anything? This has to do with my life as well!” Qiulu put away her things carefully. “We should hurry and leave. Someone might bump into us if we stay any longer.”
The two quickly left the warehouse and separated, Qiulu hastily running off. Bitong bit her lip in deep thought. There’s so much. Someone will definitely discover them if I put them in my room. How could a servant possibly explain where all this came from? All thoughts of reporting back to Qin Huining had flown out of her mind. She quickly left the manor via a corner door by the small kitchen and sprinted her way back home.
Her home wasn’t too far away from the Qin Manor, just a fifteen minutes walk away. A residence with a single layer of buildings stood next to a market. Three families called it home, and hers was in the west wing. It was best to bring these things home so that her mother could store them for her.
Because the three families shared the yard, the door was never locked during the day. Bitong pushed open a door that had black paint peeling off it and panted as she turned to the west wing.
The gridded door creaked as it opened. “Mother, I’m home! You…” Bitong’s eyes suddenly widened. Her lips trembled so much that she couldn’t even form a word.
There in the head seat, sitting as serenely as ever, was Qin Yining. An elderly man around fifty years old, garbed in expensive clothes, was standing behind her, along with two pageboys and another two who looked like guards.
Bitong’s mother was off to the side, speaking carefully with Qin Yining. The fourth miss smiled when she saw Bitong barge in. “Miss Bitong’s also come home today? What a coincidence.”