Chapter 68: A Real Delight
Caiju answered in the affirmative, but made her way slowly to the door.
“Madame.” Jin-mama tightened the collar and spoke gently. “Just as the fourth miss said, the duchess must not be in a good mood these days. She probably doesn’t have the desire to chat and laugh with others. Why don’t you just take the fourth miss with you? The duchess has always liked the fourth miss, and the miss knows how to advise others. She’ll surely be able to help the duchess with a thing or two.”
Jin-mama was quite subtle with her words. If Qin Huining went along, she’d probably only cause more heartache for the duchess. How would her presence be a comfort at all?
But née Sun shook her head mulishly. “It’s no matter if she tags along. Daughter Hui will be sad if we went out and didn’t bring her.” She waved her hand at Caiju. “Go on now.”
The discussion now at an end, the maid finally trotted off with her message. Bingtang and Songlan helped Qin Yining into a pale-green cape as she picked up the newly made fox fur neck warmer as well as a pair of hand warmers that had a ruby embedded into them. The rest of her outfit was plain, so the snow-white fur made her fair, taut skin look even more flawless. As she glanced over the girl, née Sun was reminded of Qin Huaiyuan’s brilliant looks in his youth. He was much older now, of course, and had a beard which added an ethereal air to his bearing, but he’d lost that breathtaking, handsome charm. Looking at Qin Yining seemed to take her back to the most perfect days of yesteryear. She adjusted her daughter’s hand warmers with a smile. “When I look closely at you, you do look like your father, but your face shape and nose are definitely mine.”
Qin Yining smiled faintly in response. Jin-mama joined in as well. “Of course. The fourth miss is your daughter with the lord, so it’s only natural that she takes after the two of you. I feel that Fourth Miss has a bearing very similar to you in your youth, mistress, and especially those dimples when she smiles.”
Née Sun nodded and even lovingly tapped the tip of Qin Yining’s nose. Qin Huining happened to enter right then, just in time to glimpse this heartwarming scene with Fugui and Caiju. She saw mother and daughter wearing the same style fur accessories and intimately holding hands. She felt like an outsider, someone who would never truly be accepted into this family.
“Miss Huining is here!” Jin-mama smiled and curtsied, but she paused when she saw that Qin Huining was wearing only a pale pink, brocade cape. “I remember that the fox fur neck and hand warmers have been delivered already. Why aren’t you wearing them, miss?”
Qin Huining coughed lightly. “I was thinking of saving those items for the new year since they looked so precious. I hadn’t thought that mother and Miss Yining would be using them already.”
“There’s no need to save them,” née Sun chuckled in response. “Wear them if you have them, we’ll have more new clothing for the new year.”
Qin Yining walked up with a smile and looked Qin Huining over with twinkling eyes. She reached to grab Qin Huining’s hand, putting the brass hand warmer into it. She smiled down at the foster girl, saying gently, “Now this is Fugui’s fault. Why didn’t you bring a brass hand warmer for your miss in this cold weather? And this cape, I remember there being a hat that completes this set. Why is your miss not wearing it either? Mother will be sad if Miss Huining catches a cold.”
“It’s cold, why aren’t you keeping an eye out for what you’re wearing?” Née Sun frowned. “Didn’t Caiju tell you that we’re going to the Ding Manor? Your maternal grandmother will think I’m mistreating you when she sees you like this.” She turned towards Jin-mama, “Go fetch my hat, the one with the similar color, for daughter Hui.”
“Understood.” Jin-mama left, but turned to look at Qin Huining meaningfully before she left the room.
Although the warmth from the brass hand warmer was filling her hand, ice gripped Qin Huining’s body. She felt a ball of fire start to burn in her heart. Qin Yining definitely did that on purpose! Why hadn’t she discovered before just how scheming Qin Yining was? Those words filled with seeming care also made others think that she was purposefully playing the victim! And no one would think Qin Yining had any other ulterior motives in mind! Qin Huining squeezed out a stiff smile. “Thank you, mother.”
She’d learned her lesson thoroughly. She well knew that Qin Yining was the sort to do anything. But Qin Huining didn’t dare have a falling out with the newly minted fourth miss. Meanwhile, Jin-mama had come back with the hat and helped Qin Huining put it in, and the serving girl also reported that the carriage was ready. The group paid a visit to the old dowager and set off together.
A gloomy and fretful atmosphere pervaded the Ding Manor, just as Qin Yining had thought. Although her senior and second aunts were smiling at their arrival, they couldn’t conceal the anxiety deep in their eyes. As for the duchess, her expression gave nothing away. The only indication of her uneasiness were the slightly deepened furrows between her brows.
“I’m touched that you’ve come to look in on me at this time.” The duchess smiled very happily.
“It only occurred to me when daughter Yi worried that you were keeping all your worries in.” Née Sun was a straight shooter, especially in her own home, and said the first thing that popped into her head.
The duchess smiled and beckoned Qin Yining over. The fourth miss was handing her cape to Bingtang and curtsied at the gesture. “Grandmother.”
The Duchess of Ding looked at the girl up and down with a smile. “Not bad, this white fox fur is perfect for young girls. I feel that your color has gotten better than before, and that your skin has become more tender?”
“This is all thanks to Bingtang. I’ve been living and eating well these days, so my waist has gotten thicker!” Qin Yining moved her face right up to the duchess. “Look grandmother, my face is getting round!”
The Duchess of Ding burst out laughing at her granddaughter’s antics. Qin Yining’s senior aunt chuckled, “You exaggerate too much! There’s only a little bit more meat on your face. I still think you’re too skinny for a child.”
Her second aunt nodded as well. “Indeed, niece Yi needs to eat and sleep more, and adjust her body. You should look to niece Hui as your benchmark.”
Everyone turned to look at the quiet Qin Huining. She was wearing a turquoise cotton jacket paired with a bright red, eight panel skirt. She wasn’t fat, but in obviously rosy health. Qin Yining appeared much skinnier when the two stood beside each other. Qin Huining smiled stiffly, playing along with the joke. But in reality, she’d cursed her second aunt a thousand times over. What’s that old biddy dragging me into this for?! She’s making me out to be a fat pig! Isn’t this obliquely reminding everyone that I’ve stolen Qin Yining’s fortune for more than ten years!?
Qin Yining laughed. “Second aunt speaks truly, I’ll do my best to eat a lot!”
Everyone laughed along with her while Qin Huining almost ground her teeth down to the gums. And what does she mean by that?! Is she saying that I eat too much?
Bao-mama happened to enter right then with a couple of snacks and caught the tail end of the conversation. “Since our miss has spoken so, you need to eat more of the green bean paste cake and candied osmanthus cakes.”
“Right, your mother said that you like the candied osmanthus cakes, so have some!” The duchess picked up a faintly yellow, translucent piece of cake and fed it to Qin Yining. The girl didn’t put on airs and bit off a large mouthful, amusing everyone again. Even née Sun felt relieved of her many days of worry. Jin-mama was right, daughter Yi knows how to comfort people well.
Just as all had gotten cheery within the house, urgent footsteps sounded from outside.
“Elder Madame.” It was the duchess’ serving girl, Xiaoyao. “The duke and lord have returned and notified the kitchens to prepare lunch since they’ve heard about our guests. The family is to take lunch together later. For now, they’ve all gone to the study.
The duchess nodded and thought for a moment. “How did they look?”
Xiaoyao’s head lowered even further as she responded in a trembling voice, “In response to Elder Madame, I took a peek from within the inner doors. They… they didn’t seem too happy.” She snuck a quick glance up at her mistress when she was finished.
The duchess understood that there were some things Xiaoyao didn’t dare speak of. She didn’t want to give the little girl a hard time. “Go tell Ming’er’s 1 follower to come here. I have some things I’d like to ask him.”
“Understood.” Xiaoyao heaved a private sigh of relief and ran out.
Not long thereafter, a young man wearing a navy blue cotton jacket and a small cap came by. He knelt in the outside room, being careful to stay behind the divider, and bowed. “This humble one greets the elder madame.”
“Liu’an, you can rise to answer my questions.”
“Thank you, Elder Madame.” Liu’an rose but remained bowing.
“Did Ming’er say anything today? Why are the lords of the manor unhappy?”
“This humble one doesn’t know the particulars either,” Liu’an responded. “I just heard the duke say to the senior master that the dowager empress of Great Zhou is suffering from severe headaches. They plague her everyday and she finds it difficult to sleep. They say that she’ll only be cured only after eating human brains. I also heard the senior master say that our emperor is searching for renowned doctors to send to Great Zhou to help their dowager empress.”
The duchess nodded. “You may go.”
“Understood.” Liu’an left after a bow, leaving behind a silent room.
After a while, Qin Yining’s senior aunt finally managed to squeeze out, “Great Zhou is a barbarous place alright. Eating human brains to cure migraines? Then wouldn’t cripples be healed after eating a leg?”
Her second aunt had started to worry. “I wonder how the battle is going against those savages at Xihua. If I’d known that this would become such a cause of worry, we shouldn’t have let our sons and nephews join the army as well…”
Qin Yining’s senior and second uncle were defending Xihua, and even her second and fourth elder cousin were stationed there with their family. Her second cousin was second aunt’s own son, while fourth cousin was a concubine-born son to the second aunt. Both of them had a son each as well, also at Xihua. There were many more from the second branch of the family on the front lines. Her senior aunt only needed to worry about her husband, but second aunt needed to worry about her husband, son, and grandson. Needless to say, the passage of days had not been easy.
The duchess naturally knew of her second daughter-in-law’s concerns. The matriarch reached out to pat her hand. “Don’t worry, our family’s never gone against our conscience. Our ancestors have accumulated much fortune so our children and grandchildren will surely be blessed as well. They’ll be able to turn disaster into a good outcome.”
The second aunt nodded with a smile. “Mother’s right. I may be worried about them, but you are even more so. It’s my fault for making you unhappy.”
“You have a mother’s kind heart, so what fault is there in that?” The duchess gave instructions with a smile. “Have the kitchen begin their preparations. When the duke and the others return, summon all the girls so that we can all enjoy lunch together.”
Bao-mama assented merrily and had serving girls deliver the plans to each branch, requesting all the misses and young masters to Bright Spring Hall.
- The duke’s secondary name. ↩