Chapter 150: Finding Clues
When the fourth miss arrived, she found head maid Caiju carrying a white porcelain bowl on a redwood tray, hot from a brazier, walking down the covered hallway of the west wing. The medicinal soup was dark brown and smelled very bitter.
The maid quickly dipped her knee when she saw Qin Yining. “You’ve arrived, Fourth Miss. We’ve just brewed medicine for the madame.”
“How is the madame? Have you summoned a doctor? Which doctor? What did he say?”
Seeing that the fourth miss was firing off questions one after another with hardly a breath in between, Caiju inwardly smiled to see that her madame possessed such fortune.
“The lord sent servants to deliver his calling card to Imperial Physician Zhang, and the physician has diagnosed madame with a cold brought on by a mix of worries and rain,” the maid responded empathetically. “Although it looks severe, it looks like things will be fine as soon as the fever dissipates. The lord is inside, please, go on in, miss!”
Their voices echoed down the walkway. Perhaps hearing the conversation, Cailan poked her head out the pale-blue brocade and bamboo curtains. The maid quietly invited the fourth miss in when she saw the participants.
It was much warmer inside. Qin Yining quickly stepped around the divider and passed through the side hall where daily routines took place. As she slipped into the inner room, she was greeted by Qin Huaiyuan dressed in a sapphire house robe. Her father had moved a low stool next to the bed and was reading a book by his wife’s side. Jin-mama was stooped on the low step of the bed, keeping guard over her mistress.
A wet handkerchief had been gently laid on née Sun’s forehead, and she lay peacefully between the pale-green satin sheets, despite the unnatural red of her cheeks. The senior madame was wearing a snow-white undergarment.
It pained Qin Yining to see her mother thus. She quietly greeted her father and pressed Jin-mama for specifics. The girl was finally put at ease after she’d heard the old servant’s reassurance that the madame wasn’t in any danger, then having Bingtang diagnose her mother, and finally confirming everything multiple times. Keeping her voice low, she told Qin Huaiyuan that she would stand vigil throughout the night, and that he should spend in the night in the outer study.
Née Sun’s fever ran hot as the night progressed during the night, so an exhausted Qin Yining didn’t dare close her eyes until the fever broke just before dawn. When the madame awoke from her fevered sleep, the sun was shining brightly in the sky. A twinkling ray of sunlight caught her eye, and she followed it to find Qin Yining sprawled on the edge of the bed from her position on the low step.
The girl’s hair had cascaded messily down her lower back and half her face was buried in an arm. Her eyelashes looked quite long from this angle, casting delicate shadows onto her cheeks. She seemed more like a child when asleep, like a cute and delicate porcelain doll.
Née Sun was taken aback at first, but quickly felt a rush of gratitude. It felt as if every vein in her body had been enveloped with warmth, like soaking in a hot spring. This girl, no matter what, was true to her.
The truest of hearts were seen with the passage of time, and what the duo had weathered together was enough to prove Qin Yining’s filial piety. The madame’s hand rose shakily to stroke the girl’s head. Qin Yining woke up at the first hint of her mother’s touch. She smiled to see née Sun awake and moved to sit on the edge of the bed, busily taking her mother’s temperature.
“You’re not feverish anymore. How are you feeling now, mother? Jin-mama’s prepared plain congee and some small plates for you. Let’s eat some before you take your medicine, alright?”
Née Sun nodded and pushed herself upright, settling against the large cushion that Qin Yining placed behind her mother’s back.
“I’m alright. I just got caught in the sudden downpour on my way back from the Garden of Loving Piety yesterday. Look at how deep the circles beneath your eyes are! I’m fine here, go back and rest!”
“I’ll leave when I see that mother’s taken your medicine. I’ve already sent word to the old dowager just now and she’s exempted you from morning and evening greetings. She tells you to rest well.”
Née Sun’s genial mood was slightly despoiled by the mention of the old dowager, and so merely nodded in response.
Qin Yining kept her mother company until her mother had eaten both her breakfast and her medicine before returning to Venerable Study Hall for a nap. The next time her eyes opened, she’d slept clean through lunch. She was hesitating over whether to rise and eat something when a visitor came calling.
“Miss, runners have come from the inner door to report that Grand Steward Zhong has some urgent matters to discuss with you. He’s waiting for you outside the manor right now.”
This chased away all sleepiness from Qin Yining’s eyes, and she hastily rose to have her servants help her wash up. Steward Zhong was a great business partner and wouldn’t come find her for some little thing. Only the most serious of matters would summon him to her door.
Normal noble daughters didn’t even set foot out of the inner door, but for Qin Yining, her business on the outside made it a common occurrence. She notified née Sun that she was making a trip out and ignored the old dowager entirely before leaving with Bingtang and Jiyun.
She’d wanted to bring Songlan as well, but the maid had declined her with a smile. “It’ll become inconvenient if you bring too many people with you. Jiyun knows martial arts and Bingtang knows medicine. They’re perfect to go with you, miss.”
That seemed to make sense to Qin Yining, so she left Songlan and Qiulu with standing orders to look after things at home, and to take care of Riceball. The group of three saw Steward Zhong’s carriage as soon as they set foot outside the manor. She had the two maids remain outside while she climbed into the carriage.
“Steward Zhong, what brings you here in such a hurry?”
“Miss, we found some clues about the group of assassins that attacked the Celestial Nunnery,” the steward responded lowly.
“Really?” Qin Yining was immensely surprised. Although she’d asked the steward to discreetly investigate the matter, it’d been a while since that affair. Combined with her ignorance of the Institute’s information network, it was no wonder that she was very surprised when something had actually been found.
The steward explained, smiling at her. “Our people are good with the city coroner and learned a few things from him. The group that attacked the nunnery has the same origin as one of the groups that attacked the emperor when he welcomed back the Marquis of Anping. The coroner said that the same poison was present in both groups, and that both groups had the smell of water tobacco in their mouths.”
“Indeed. It’s different from the loose leaf tobacco that’s more common hereabouts. Water tobacco comes from the north and has a stronger taste and kick to it. The northerners smoke it more, and it’s not as popular around here. Add the long distance and higher prices, there’s even fewer who regularly use it in the south. There’s only one store in the entire capital that sells water tobacco. When the coroner said that the assassins smoked water tobacco, I had some men stake out that shop. But to think that we really did find some clues!” The steward unconsciously hushed his voice even more at this point.
“Those who came to purchase water tobacco are all tall and brawny men. They don’t talk much, but when we heard them speak, they spoke the language of the Tatars. They seem to have a leader, and he looks very different from us of Great Yan. Naturally, he’s tall and muscular, but his eyes have flecks of light grey in them. You wouldn’t notice without taking a close look, however.”
Qin Yining nodded. “What else?”
“Our men kept watch at all hours and saw them purchasing tobacco again yesterday, so they followed the foreigners and found their base. I didn’t know what to do from there and so came to you for advice. Do we continue surveilling them, or do you have other plans, miss?”
When the steward saw Qin Yining’s lack of surprise at the word ‘Tatars’, he knew that the owner had long since had her suspicions. And to be frank, it was a very logical conclusion after a superficial analysis of current politics.
Great Zhou was to the north of Great Yan, and the Tatars to the north of Great Zhou. The Tatars had been at war with Great Zhou for many years, and the latter finally could free up some time and energy to deal with the Tatars after the successful peace negotiations with Great Yan. This was undoubtedly a very bad outcome, which was why the Tatars had tried their best to ruin the peace talks.
Now that her speculations had been verified, Qin Yining frowned in deep thought. “Where is this base? Let’s go take a look.”
Steward Zhong nodded after a brief moment and called out to the groom. “Head for Good Health Alley next to the Northern Gathering of Sages.”
The groom made an affirmative noise and had the maids climb onto the carriage seat. He cracked the whip and quickly steered the carriage to the northern part of the city.
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