Ruilan had never felt so strongly before that her life was grasped in her mistress’ hands. Sick with regret, she recalled her dismissal of Qin Yining the day before. But things had already come this far, and her life and death hinged on a word from Qin Yining.
Hands clammy from nervous sweat, Ruilan lifted her head to meet Qin Yining’s calm eyes. She hastily looked down again, attempting to show maximum subservience.
Qin Yining blinked, dimpled, and moved to the side. An unspoken indication that she wouldn’t pursue things further.
Ruilan’s heart could finally dislodge from her throat to be quickly suffused with gratitude for Qin Yining’s generosity instead. She kowtowed to the old dowager, curtseyed to all the mistresses present, and departed with Qiulu. The second and third madame had missed none of the silent conversation, and a hint of a smile flickered across their faces.
Further approval of how Qin Yining handled matters colored their thoughts of her. If she’d turned on Ruilan right then, it’d only incite wariness in those who sought to flock to her banner. After all, immediately selling off someone who’d just helped her wasn’t an action that induced a sense a comfort.
When they took a step back to review the matters of the day as a whole, though not everything had gone smoothly, the old dowager was plainly in very good spirits. The second and third madame were quite aware that this calm was due solely because of Qin Yining’s words just now.
The girl had subtly soothed the old dowager’s hackles in all the right places. Whether it was because she was a secretively calculating type, uncommonly intelligent, or just had that innate sense, Qin Yining was no ordinary character.
They’d thought her to be a simple “barbarian”, but they had been the ignorant ones instead. The girl looked weak and tender, but she had courage, brains, and knew how to react appropriately to the situation. Such a smart, brave, and perceptive girl was much better than one full of book knowledge but woefully ignorant of real world knowledge.
The greatest use for women born of distinguished families lay in strategic marriages. If they were full of learned wisdom, but didn’t know how to handle conflict or conduct themselves, it would be extremely difficult for them to establish themselves in their husband’s home.
Besides, the commonly accepted notion of a virtuous woman had its roots in humility and quiet capability. Most families of the current dynasty didn’t require their daughters to be quite so learned. It was enough if they understood the household accounts.
Qin Yining already showed signs of reaching these requirements. She wasn’t any weaker than the other girls, and had a good head on her shoulders. She also had an illustrious background and a formidable family clan, as well as stunning features that most girls didn’t possess. Just this last point alone would be enough to completely entrance her future husband. If such a girl secured the old dowager’s favor, wasn’t her future bright without parallel?
The second and third madame looked at Qin Yining with new eyes as their attitudes took a subtle shift.
Seemingly out of concern for the girl’s health, Second Madame asked whether her clothing was warm enough.
On the other hand, Third Madame spoke with a smile, “I just received a new set of jade ornaments.  Niece Yi has just returned and I don’t have a good gift ready at hand. I’ll have someone send it over later.”
“Thank you, Third Aunt.” Qin Yining rose with a smile to curtsey.
“Aiya, darling child, we’re all family, don’t be so polite! You’ve just come home, so we should visit each other more often. Come visit your third aunt when you’re free. You can come to us for anything.” Third Madame tugged on Second Madame’s hand. “Isn’t that so, sister-in-law?”
“Your third aunt is quite right.” Second Madame nodded affably. The seventh miss smiled also amiably at Qin Yining, indicating that she would fall in behind the official wife of her family branch in greatly welcoming Qin Yining. It seemed the discord of moments ago had fallen way to the gentle harmony of a family within the room.
Qin Yining was the perfect daughter as she kept her elders company. She was very quiet, but her maturity and keen likeness to her father made others attach a greater degree of importance to her.
Qin Huining watched coldly from off to the side as jealousy surged and threatened to smash through her heart like a raging river behind a dam. She was watching with her own eyes the attention and adoration that’d once been hers become someone else’s.
The villain that’d harmed her face hadn’t been punished at all, but was being viewed in a new light instead! When had she turned into a stepping stone for others to climb to new heights?!
And yet, she couldn’t resist the new order at all. She was powerless to struggle against it. She could only accept it quietly, with a smile on her face… Qin Huining felt like the world had done her an injustice!
She was enraged; she was jealous; she hated that no one was taking her seriously. But despite it all, she could only stuff it all at the bottom of her heart without a hint leaking out, lest she lose everything else she had left to her name. She lowered her head, clenching her teeth against the tide of emotions swirling in her.
Head maid Jixiang entered at this time and dropped a curtsey. “Old Dowager, Senior Madame has returned. Bao-mama has also arrived on behalf of the Duchess of Ding. They request an audience.”
The old dowager’s good spirits took a turn for the worse when she heard the words “senior madame”. Her eldest daughter-in-law was exceedingly haughty and demanded her way, but she’d never been able to bear a son. It’d been enough to earn the old dowager’s disfavor and ire.
But it so happened that Qin Huaiyuan needed the support of the Duchess of Ding when it came to matters of court. The old dowager knew that help from this marriage was of utmost importance to her son, and she could also tell that although née Sun was used to getting her own way, she wasn’t a bad egg. Therefore, the family matriarch had let a lot of things slide.
This time however, née Sun had unceremoniously returned home after a fight with Qin Huaiyuan. This kind of daughter-in-law really invited rebuke. As a mother-in-law, if she kept retreating, her own family members would peg her for a pushover and inward dismissal a given. How would the old dowager brandish any authority in the future? And wouldn’t everyone start to imitate née Sun? Her face sank as she waved her hand, “You may all go.”
The old dowager looked like she was readying for a fight with née Sun. Not wanting to get involved, the second and third madame left with their children. Qin Yining was about to leave as well, but was stopped by the old dowager’s voice after she took a few steps towards the door, “Lujuan, take granddaughter Yi and Hui to the inner room and bring them medicine.”
“Understood.” Qin-mama nodded meaningfully. It looks like Old Dowager is planning on letting the miss meet Bao-mama.
Bao-mama had been part of the duchess’ dowry and was highly trusted by the duchess. The duchess likely wanted to offer an explanation or apology. In the same vein, saying certain matters to the old servant was the same as saying them to the duchess as well. Yesterday’s matters involved both girls. It was a good idea to clarify things thoroughly to Bao-mama, lest things become more complicated with random speculation.
Qin-mama took both Qin Yining and Qin Huining to the inner room. An openwork screen  divided the inner room from the side hall. Within, all sorts of exquisite items could be seen on a curio shelf, offset by a green chrysanthemum flower pot in a corner. The cushions on the seats were a similar shade of pale-green. The entire color palette brightened up the room quite a bit.
Qin Yining and Qin Huining sat down on the pale-green satin cushions on the luohan bed, separated by a small tea table. Qin-mama brought over some ointment and helped the two apply it. Back in the side hall, Jixiang and the servants stood quietly behind née Sun. Jin-mama, Caiju, and Cailan helped née Sun through the doorway.
The old dowager hadn’t moved from the head seat as née Sun entered. Everything appeared to be completely normal. Née Sun sheepishly walked forward to curtsey. “Old Dowager, your daughter-in-law has returned.”
The old dowager’s expression remained noncommittal. Although she didn’t break out into loud curses, her anger and disapproval was clear. Née Sun felt quite awkward. How can this old woman give me no face in front of those from my family!
But as much as she didn’t like the situation, she didn’t dare go against her mother-in-law. Her own mother’s words were still ringing in her ears, and née Sun couldn’t ignore them. She continued doggedly, “Don’t be angry, Old Dowager. I learned last night that my mother wasn’t feeling too well and was so anxious that I failed to tell you before I returned to the Duke of Ding Manor. Please forgive me for this rashness born of filial piety.”
Née Sun felt her face burn after her words. She had always been a lofty character; when had she ever spoken so humbly to anyone?
Although the old dowager knew that née Sun was lying through her teeth, such a deferential attitude from her daughter-in-law had already inoculated née Sun from any punishment. Then there was her son emphasizing the necessity of resolving the previous night’s matters as soon as possible. This had to be swept under the rug.
If the matriarch continued to make a fuss, the old dowager worried that it would negatively affect her dear son. Besides, it was rare to see née Sun like this. The two of them still had to live together in the future, and the presence of Bao-mama meant that the old dowager had to give her a certain amount of face. “Never mind then, rise. How is your mother now?”
“Much better.” Née Sun heaved a silent sigh of relief and poured more tea into the old dowager’s teacup with a smile. Bao-mama made the grand gesture of greeting  to the old dowager.
The old dowager’s smile became exceedingly warm. She remained sitting on the luohan bed, but reached out a hand and went through the motions of helping the old servant up. “Please rise. It’s been a long time since I’ve last seen Bao-mama. Please, sit. Jixiang, serve tea.”
Bao-mama made polite protestations as she sat sideways on the edge of a stool cushioned with brocade. Jixiang handed the old servant a white porcelain teacup as Bao-mama inquired after the old dowager’s health. The two exchanged amiable pleasantries for a while before circling back to the topic of the newly returned fourth miss.
“Old Dowager, our mistress is beyond delighted that the lord has found his long lost pearl. She had me accompany our lady back partially to request leniency in her matter, but also because I’ve brought some of the best medicines and several bolts of satin that His Majesty has just bestowed on us. Most importantly, my mistress would like me to take a look at the miss and decide on a date to invite her to our manor.”
Bao-mama’s words were a salve on the old dowager’s heart. Not only had she received an apology, but gifts as well. There was no reason that the old servant couldn’t meet the child.
“Duchess Ding is surely too polite. We’re all family here, there’s no need to stand on such ceremony. Please thank her when you return, Bao-mama. It so happens that the girl is inside at the moment.” The old dowager sent Jixiang to bring the girls out while the old servant quickly got to her feet, looking towards the inner room with a smile. Curiosity and reservation warred in her eyes as she awaited Qin Yining.
1. This is much more important than it appears. Often found in the hands of noble ladies, sets of hair ornaments usually numbered about forty pieces. The types of precious stones used in them was an indicator of rank, and gemstones were reserved for royalty.