Chapter 132: You Can Do The Honors (II)
When devastation had struck the Ding Manor, the old dowager’s first thought was to have her son divorce née Sun instead of comfort her daughter-in-law. The matriarch had never once stopped suppressing née Sun since, and in fact, the torment had only gotten worse after née Cao had darkened their doorstep. Née Sun’s wavering heart grew firm again.
“Madame, miss, the old dowager has arrived.” Songlan called out merrily from her position beneath the hallways of the side wings. Née Sun and Qin Yining looked at each other, rising in concert to welcome her.
Irritation and frustration started building in the old dowager’s heart as she gazed upon the elegant and tranquil rear residence of Roamer’s Return. The outer painted walls were topped with black earthenware tiles, and the bluestones on the ground were swept clean. A towering laurel tree stood elegantly to the side. It was easy to imagine how charming the tree would look in the fall when it was in full bloom.
Going up the steps allowed one to see baby-blue brocade curtains overlaid on bamboo slats for the door curtains. They were embroidered with a hundred butterflies frolicking amongst the flowers, and were held in place by two exquisite jade gourds. Just the curtains themselves gave off the feeling that it must be the residence of a young woman, and one that led a fulfillingly happy life.
When the old dowager thought of the irritation she’d nursed over the past few days and contrasted it with the idea of a merry née Sun and Qin Yining welcoming her, she felt as sour as if she’d eaten a bushel of lemons.
“Old Dowager, your personal presence brings glory to my small establishment. Please forgive me for not welcoming you properly.” Qin Yining and née Sun curtsied to the old dowager and nodded to acknowledge Qin-mama. They immediately flanked the matriarch and helped her up the steps, so courteous that it seemed nothing untoward had ever happened between any of them.
One didn’t slap a smiling face, so the old dowager couldn’t very well erupt in anger when Qin Yining was being so polite. She merely snorted and responded in a half joking tone, “And were you not planning on coming back if I didn’t make this visit? You were just waiting for this old woman to come and request your return!”
The old dowager assessed the decorations inside as she spoke. Auspicious carvings of magpies alighting on plum blossoms wreathed the luohan bed, craftsmanship that was even more intricate than the same scene that graced her room divider in the Garden of Loving Piety! The display case framed by the openwork screen housed fine, valuable treasures. It was sectioned off by a pale-green veil that trailed from the ceiling, embedded with rice-sized pearls that gleamed softly in the light.
Jealousy reared its ugly head in the old dowager’s heart. No wonder these two didn’t want to come home! These surroundings weren’t any worse than theirs in the manor! She let one hand trail across the pearl studded veil. Who would’ve thought the Duchess of Ding, that old hag, would’ve casually given her granddaughter an organization that was worth so much! Who knew how deep the Institute’s foundations were! What a pity that it had fallen under Qin Yining’s name, and she had no way of taking it over!
Her hand subconsciously clenched into a fist, crumpling the pearl curtain. Her expression grew dark and her eyes almost gave away the look of greed and resentment that lurked deep inside. Qin-mama frowned slightly and pretended to give her mistress a helping hand. She was worried how degrading it might be if someone realized the old dowager’s true emotions.
“Please take a seat, Old Dowager.” Qin Yining chuckled. “That pearl curtain is an imperial gift. What do you think of the pearls, Old Dowager?”
The old dowager was frightened into immediately releasing the curtain. An imperial gift! She wouldn’t be able to bear the consequences if it was damaged! She complimented the item as she took a seat.
“It’s a gift from the son of heaven alright. The entire house is illuminated by its beauty when it’s hung. The emperor enjoys the fortune of heaven, so his gifts are naturally all great treasures.”
Off to the side, Jin-mama, Caiju, and Bingtang didn’t dare lift their heads as they tried to hold in their laughter. Née Sun also coughed to cover up her mirth and offered a cup of tea to her mother-in-law, taking a seat below the old dowager.
“Have you been well, Old Dowager? Daughter-in-law feels that your complexion has gotten better than before. The lord has been made a marquis, bringing untold honor upon the Qin ancestors. You must be in good spirits with all of this glory. It’s a pity that my health has gotten so fragile, particularly after the fright I’ve suffered, so I don’t have the fortune to enjoy it all with you.”
The old dowager looked critically at née Sun. Her daughter-in-law was outfitted in an outer jacket and inner dress combination that was cinched at the waist. The outfit was made of purplish-blue satin decorated with auspicious symbols all over. Her hair was neatly pulled up into a neat coif, with only a singular, pure silver flower hairpin embedded with a sapphire in her hair. Similarly generic flowers embedded with sapphires served as her buttons.
Although she was wearing ornaments appropriate for mourning, they exuded a sense of opulence. Taking in a deeper breath brought the pleasant scent of jasmine flowers mixed with herbs. The old dowager knew that scent, it was the jasmine hair oil from the latest fashion boutique in the capital, Beauty Works!
Beauty Works had seemingly roared into popularity overnight. The rouges and powders it sold had medicinal herbs integrated into them, and their products had exceedingly exact proportions of ingredients, making them more effective than the competition. The line of jasmine hair oil that née Sun was using made hair softer and slowed down the growth of white hair. Its popularity had sent prices soaring to fifty silvers a can.
Using Beauty Works products was now a sign of status for noble women. The old dowager had obtained a small can a few days ago and had wanted to save it for a banquet for additional face. But here, née Sun was seemingly using it everyday like it was regular powder or rouge!? Just where had née Sun gotten so much silver? It was either from Qin Yining or Qin Huaiyuan!
The sourness and biting jealousy within the old dowager was so thick that she could almost taste it. It was inevitable for it to leak into her tone. “Oh let’s not go there. You look to be enjoying life greatly here. You’re using Beauty Works products, wearing silk and satin, and dining upon fine food. It doesn’t seem like you’re recovering from anything, but on vacation. Someone not in the know would actually wonder if you have a new backer!” 
Née Sun’s expression immediately darkened at that. She’d been a fool to feel soft-hearted; someone like the old dowager wasn’t worth being nice to at all!
Qin Yining stole a march on née Sun’s instinctive retort and placed a platter of snacks next to the old dowager with a smile. “Have some sweets, grandmother. You can balance out the sourness in your mouth.”
“You!” The old dowager widened her eyes with outrage.
“I just wish I wasn’t a girl,” Qin Yining smiled sweetly back. “Otherwise I’d work so hard to have mother wear the phoenix crown and cape of the rosy dawn. This is just putting her up with fine food and clothes, what kind of vacation is this at all? Using, wearing, and eating good things isn’t living the ultimate good life. Being honored beyond parallel and receiving the adoration of thousands, now that’s the ultimate good life.”
Qin Yining’s words first brought the old dowager down, and then lifted her with praise. The matriarch wasn’t sure if she should be angry or smile. She looked at Qin Yining and sniffed. “Your mother’s a lucky one to have such a competent daughter as you.”
“Doesn’t the same go for you, Old Dowager? You have such a competent firstborn.” Qin Yining smiled faintly.
The old dowager choked on the retort, anger finally winning when she remembered that Qin Huaiyuan wasn’t on her side in this.
“I’ve come myself today, so stop putting on airs. Pack your things and come back with me! Née Sun, you’re a Qin daughter-in-law at the end of the day. Now that you have a paramount rank, are you really going to make your husband handle all the affairs having to do with guests? What good are you then?”
This was blatantly mocking née Sun’s lack of virtue.
Née Sun’s expression darkened further. “You’re just throwing a tantrum with those words now, Old Dowager. Although I may not be at home with my paramount rank title, the manor still has you, a first rank old dowager. Mother-in-law is an old hat at handling the affairs of the inner residence, skills that have been honed over the years. You naturally know better than I how to assess the situation, who to form relationships with, and who to keep at a distance.”
This in turn was subtly jabbing at the old dowager’s tendency to be a fence-sitter until the winds blew in a favorable direction, and then only being a fair-weather elder.
The old dowager’s expression was now so dark that it almost made one wonder if they needed to find a lantern. Née Sun glowered right back at her, unwilling to back down. Qin Yining stood off to the side, playing with the snuff bottle and not making a sound. The atmosphere within the house was now as frosty as a fresh layer of winter’s chill.
The tense moment stretched on a little longer before the old dowager clenched her teeth and softened her tone. “Née Sun, it looks good for everyone if you return to the manor now. Besides, there’s a née Cao at home. Are you really alright with leaving your husband to a concubine?”
Née Sun’s heart was dripping blood at that, but she pretended not to mind.
“I’m not a jealous woman. If the lord likes, then taking another eight or even ten beautiful concubines is perfectly alright. I just don’t know how the old dowager would explain yourself to née Cao then.”
“You! You fool of a woman!” The old dowager could finally hold it in no longer and shot to her feet, her hand drawn back high to slap née Sun.
The senior madame shrieked a little from fright, and Qin Yining quickly moved forward to stop the impending violence. In the flurry that ensued, the old dowager smacked the girl’s hand, sending the small snuff bottle flying.
The colored glass bottle shattered sharply on the ground, sending a thick scent of mint tobacco wafting throughout the room. The old dowager was about to continue her rage, but Qin Yining’s face had gone as white as a sheet.
“Oh no, oh no! Grandmother, you’ve done something terrible! That snuff bottle was the dowager empress’ most beloved item, something that she’s had for thirty years! Even the empress has to kneel when she sees it! The emperor had just given it to me, but now grandmother’s broken it. How do we explain ourselves if the emperor finds out?!”
An explosion went off inside the old dowager’s mind. She looked dumbly at the snuff bottle shards on the ground, then at née Sun and Qin Yining and finally cursed loudly. “How dare you just take out imperial gifts and use them so carelessly! Don’t you know to store them well?!”