Chapter 57: A Lesson
Although the old dowager was slightly biased, she definitely wasn’t a fool. It was easy enough for her to realize what was going on Did Qin Yining do all this? She looked questioningly at the girl.
Qin Yining responded with a docile smile, tacitly admitting her role. The old dowager didn’t know what to think. She’d thought she welcomed a puppy back home, but these past few days had revealed a wolf cub, not a puppy. But now that she’d watched Qin Yining for a bit, she had faith in the strength of the girl’s character. It was rather Qin Huining’s various actions that really did make her seem like someone who’d do something like this. The old dowager also trusted Qin Huaiyuan’s judgment. She may overlook things sometimes, but her son would never be hoodwinked. But what had Qin Yining done to make things progress in this fashion?
Had those maids really been coincidentally speaking behind the artificial mountain? Yet no matter what Qin Yining had done to orchestrate this, she’d given a firm slap in the face to those who’d once mocked her. How was she the one setting a crooked tone? Who was the one framing the official daughter’s maid, hmm? Who was it that said Qin Yining couldn’t even protect her own maids and was an easy target for others to bully? So, if not Ruilan, who was openly standing here in front of everyone?
Not only had Ruilan—now Songlan, come back safe and unharmed, but she was now even on the Duke of Ding’s payroll. Her status was now higher than all the Qin maids. What was this if not protecting her servants? All of the girls present were carefully turning over the matter in their minds. If this had happened to them, they may not have been able to bring the framed maid back, let alone like this. In fact, their maids might’ve died just from the initial beating of planks when the crime was first discovered. Shock rippled through the room as their eyes held a bit more respect when glancing at Qin Yining.
After Songlan curtsied, a petite thirteen year old girl stepped forward to make her curtsey. She was a cute little thing, wearing a collarless pale-pink long sleeve wrap dress, perfectly offsetting her apple cheeks. She spoke crisply, “This servant is Bingtang and wishes good health to the old dowager and various misses.”
“Bingtang.” The old dowager had recovered her poise by now, but her voice was still a tad dry. She had her own suspicions about the identity of this particular maid. “Your name is rather sweet. What did you used to be called?”
“In response to the old dowager, this servant used to be surnamed Tang.” Bingtang smiled in response.
The old dowager and misses instantly understood the situation. This was why Qin Yining had been grounded in the ancestral hall. Miss Tang’s identity was far more prestigious than Songlan’s!
“Please rise, Miss Tang. There’s no need to stand on ceremony.” The old dowager was well aware of the Clearists’ actions. This was the person they’d tried so hard to protect not so long ago. Those mad dogs would tear her apart if the matriarch so much as put one toe over of line!
“Please don’t be this way, Old Dowager.” Bingtang smiled. “The fourth miss saved my life and it only right that I repay her with lifelong loyalty. You’re the fourth miss’ grandmother, so naturally my mistress as well.”
The old dowager’s mouth twitched. She’d been the matriarch of a household for half her life, but now this little girl was curtseying to her only out of consideration for Qin Yining? She massaged her temples and waved her hand, dismissing the two new maids. Taking the gesture for what it was, the two retreated and took their positions behind Qin Yining.
The group chatted a while longer before it was time for the banquet to start. The old dowager led her granddaughters to Flower Hall, located in the outer residence. The warmth of spring beckoned them inside. They took their time circling past the great room divider right inside the door. It was decorated with paintings of five blessings descending on the house. 1 The group was then greeted by the sight of two rows of high backed, official chairs, all accompanied by crimson cushions. The rows faced each other and were used for official discussions. Behind the chairs, the walls opened up to the east and west wing of the house, both separated by black lacquered, decoratively carved dividers of the four gentlemen of the flowers 2 separating the men and women.
Crown Prince Weichi Yan was wearing a brocade robe of electrifying purple, replete with a small crown of purple gold nestled in his hair. His belt had the imprint of bamboo segments and was finished with a jade buckle. His scholarly aura was intermixed in the noble presence that he projected.
The old dowager and girls didn’t dare look at him directly. They knelt as one to pay their respects, but the crown prince quickly held out his hands and refused to let the old dowager kneel. “Please rise, Honored Dowager. Please don’t stand on ceremony. You’re Grand Preceptor Qin’s mother and I but his student. Therefore, you are my elder as well.”
The old dowager responded with multiple ‘oh no’s. “There is much difference in our stature. This old woman wouldn’t dare overstep herself.”
After another round of pleasantries, Weichi Yan glanced towards Qin Yining. She was currently kneeling properly with her sisters, so she didn’t sense his gaze. But Qin Huaiyuan, the second and third elder masters, as well as the old dowager saw this motion clearly. The old dowager’s heart sped up as the hint of a mysterious anticipation began to grow.
Qin Yining was now a suitable match for the crown prince. If she could become his consort, the mistress of the Eastern Palace, then…
The old dowager’s hands grew clammy as her mind traveled down the roads of her imagination. But she soon shook herself loose and led the girls past the divider to the side hall on the western side. On the other hand, the men all took their leave, heading for the eastern side. With the divider and main hall separating the two groups after they were seated, not only could they not see each other, but their conversations were hard to hear as well. Née Sun, the second and third madame were all standing on the side, waiting to serve the old dowager. Née Sun’s complexion was pallid, and a noticeable dark ring shadowed her eyes. She obviously hadn’t slept well the night before. She already knew about the matter of Qin Huining’s maids by now and saw that her daughter wasn’t with them. She asked the old dowager lowly, “Have you already locked daughter Hui into the woodshed?”
The old dowager lost all appetite when she heard this particular line of questioning. She put down the ivory chopsticks and flicked a glance at née Sun, warning brimming in her eyes. “Granddaughter Hui made a mistake of her own accord and so should be punished. Meng’er has already intervened in this matter. Don’t get involved.”
Née Sun’s hands shook, almost dropping the serving chopsticks and white, porcelain platter she held. What do you mean don’t get involved? What do you want to do with my darling Hui?! Although the two had fought yesterday, Qin Huining had still been her daughter for fourteen years and the ties between mother and daughter were not that easily broken. Née Sun knew that the old dowager was currently right in the throes of her anger and could only smile apologetically. “Don’t be angry, Old Dowager. How can we lock a girl in the woodshed on a cold winter’s day like this? She might get sick!”
Qin Yining had already put down her chopsticks by now and rinsed her mouth. She had turned her attention to née Sun, but stayed silent. None of the girls were really eating lunch either. They were just all putting on a masterful act of conveying food to mouth as they concentrated on their ears to try and make out the conversation between née Sun and the old dowager.
The matriarch waved her hand. “Let’s not talk about this now.”
Née Sun wanted to speak further, but the second and third madame flanked her right then, quietly reminding her, “We know that you’re concerned about your daughter, sister-in-law, but you should wait until everything has calmed down somewhat. The crown prince is still here.”
Née Sun weighed her situation, but reluctantly pursed her lips, staying silent.
The entire family went to send off the crown prince after the banquet had concluded, tea had been served, and the disciple ceremony had been completed. The Qin family crowd presented quite a sight as they saw the crown prince out the door. Weichi Yan was still wearing his cloak of snow-white fur. The combination of brilliant white and dazzling purple made him appear regal and opulent. He stood next to the carriage and made the bow of a student to a teacher when he bid Qin Huaiyuan farewell. The grand preceptor returned a bow of a subject to his liege.
Under the care of his attendants, Weichi Yan climbed into the carriage adorned with tassels made of eight treasures. He lifted the window curtain to nod respectfully at the Qin men and then cast his glance on the single spot of red in the crowd of ladies. Apart from the third madame’s rose-red cape, the only other red was Qin Yining’s crimson brocade cape lined with white rabbit fur. This dash of color was particularly eye-catching amidst the gathering of greens and floral prints. Although he couldn’t see the girl’s features clearly, Weichi Yan had already mentally traced out her smile and dimples. He felt his ears and cheeks begin to burn again and quickly pull forward down the curtains, giving orders for the carriage to be on its way.
The crown prince’s last glance had not gone unnoticed by any of the ladies present. But because of the distance between them and the carriage, they hadn’t been able to tell exactly who he was looking at. Qin Yining didn’t feel that she was close enough to the crown prince to be bidding each other farewell with their eyes, so she didn’t think much of it. However, the seventh miss next to Qin Yining was blushing furiously. She slowly relaxed her unconsciously tensed back and neck from a moment ago.
Was the crown prince looking at me? The seventh miss had snuck a glance at him when she’d knelt in greeting before lunch. He’d happened to be looking her way when she lifted her head, and she’d looked back down in hurried panic. But she had felt his gaze linger for a long time on her. The crown prince must have been looking at her just now! None of her other sisters had crossed paths with the crown prince, only she had almost met his gaze when making her greeting. The crown prince was so genteel and refined, and so very noble and regal. The emperor had only one son, so the crown prince was the undisputed choice to inherit the nation. The seventh miss’ heart began pounding when her thoughts carried her off in flights of imagination.
When everyone headed inside, the eighth miss saw the seventh miss remaining where she was, off in a daze with a red face. She couldn’t help but ask anxiously, “Are you alright, seventh sister? Have you caught a cold? Why are your cheeks so red?”
“Ah. Eh, it’s nothing.” The seventh miss patted her cheeks once or twice before following the others back to the inner residence.
Such a grave matter happening during the crown prince’s tour of the rear gardens had to be dealt with, and more importantly, it involved the main branch’s foster and official daughter! The second and third madame didn’t linger after seeing the old dowager back to Garden of Loving Piety. They all took their leave rapidly, departed with their own family members.
Née Sun didn’t wait for people to walk off into the distance or for the remaining to settle down inside before she tugged on the old dowager’s sleeve again. “Mother, why don’t we let daughter Hui out first? It’d be bad if she suffered in the cold.”
The old dowager disliked née Sun’s little princess act of being wholly ignorant of worldly affairs the most. One could make the case that it was an endearing trace of the innocence of youth when she was in her teens. But one could only barely make the argument that née Sun was one who matured later in life in her twenties and thirties. At this moment, in her forties, she still looked like she didn’t understand a thing? How was this a woman worthy of the old dowager’s most accomplished firstborn? It was a joke to even list this person as one of their Qin daughters-in-law!
She batted away née Sun’s hand disdainfully and spoke irritably. “You’re asking me for a favor? I haven’t even asked you how you brought up your daughter! Granddaughter Yi returned to us late, and so there wasn’t an opportunity to raise her properly. Thankfully, she’s a mature one. But granddaughter Hui? She was by your side for fourteen years, and this is the kind of granddaughter you’ve given me?! She doesn’t know her place as the foster daughter and is actually envious of the official daughter, so she sent her maids to frame the official daughter’s servants, causing the latter to lose a tremendous amount of face! Tell me, is this the kind of rules you’ve taught her?!”