It was deathly silent within the side hall. The very air seemed to have frozen in the face of the old dowager’s displeasure. The servants were dead silent as Qin-mama, Jixiang, and the other head maids all took cover in the outer hall. They hardly dared to even breathe loudly.
Qin Yining raised her head from her kneeling position on the carpet of brocade flowers to look at the old dowager. She enunciated carefully, “My foster mother told me to hide with her dying words. She said my life would be ruined if I was sold. It’d be better if wild beasts ate me.”
Those words hid much resignation and hardship. She’d been the treasured flower of the prime minister’s manor, but had been stolen away by villains when she was born and abandoned in a random plot of land.
She’d had the extreme luck to run into a kind foster mother, but her foster mother had been taken away from her early, leaving her orphaned at the tender age of eight.
In the chaos of war, she had no other choice but to hide in the mountains and eke out a chance at survival alone. She’d managed to hang on tenaciously and fully experience the coldness and bitterness of the world and life until her birth father found her at the age of fourteen.
How would such a girl not evoke pity? Would any one of them be able to survive six years in the desolate wilderness from the tender age of eight?
No one present possessed such confidence. They likely wouldn’t have made it through six days.
Setting aside needing to find food and shelter, just living alone wasn’t something that just anyone could withstand. There would be no one to take care of them when they fell sick, nor anyone to look after them in the depths of summer or winter. In fact, there wouldn’t even be someone to talk to!
The human heart was made of flesh and blood after all, and the gazes of many in the room turned tender and warmed with pity.
“You… life has been difficult for you.” The old dowager also sighed inwardly and softened her brittle tone.
Qin Huining clenched her fists tightly when she saw the old dowager moved with compassion. Her nails dug in and formed four ghastly white crescents on her palm, almost to the point of bleeding. However, the pitiful expression on her fair face grew even more obvious as tears leaked out of her swollen, almond-shaped eyes.
She took three quick steps forward and raised Qin Yining up with both hands. She caressed Qin Yining’s coarse and callused hands with her slender, white jade ones. Qin Huining spoke compassionately, “Younger sister Little Creek, you’ve suffered greatly.”
That simple name of Little Creek was a subtle affirmation of the old dowager’s non acceptance of Qin Yining. Everyone in the crowd was shrewd and calculating; this flew over no heads. Some of the girls subtly looked down to avert their gazes, while others whispered to each other.
Qin Huining’s hands were clammy and cold, somehow reminding Qin Yining of the cool skin of a snake. She blinked and swiftly withdrew her hand. This person’s enmity towards her had been the most overt ever since she’d set foot through the door. It looked like this person was the unknown foster daughter that had been switched with her. Qin Yining’s return was an usurpation of her position.
Having survived in the wild for so long, Qin Yining had an almost innate perception of hostility. Otherwise, she would’ve long become scraps for wild animals. Although she lived deep in the mountains, it wasn’t as if she’d never ventured forth from them.
She’d plucked herbs and hunted in order to barter for some necessities at the foot of the mountain, so she’d often interact with merchants and hunters. She’d also scrabbled out a living in the city with her foster mother before then, so she understood more of the dark sides of human nature than these highly coiffed, noble personages in front of her.
Those had been troubled times, and she’d seen the dirtiest and darkest things that people would resort to in order to survive. Thus, she was genuinely repulsed by Qin Huining’s hypocritical tenderness, pursing her lips.
Second master Qin Han frowned disapprovingly and walked up to make a bow. “Old Dowager, it’s fine if Yining’s nickname stays Little Creek. This is a show of our gratitude for her foster mother raising her for eight years. But the current generation of Qin daughters all have the character ‘Ning’ in their names, whether it be Jianing, Huining, Shuangning, Anning, and Baoning. There are no exceptions. Not to mention that senior uncle has already bestowed upon Little Creek the name of Yining. If Old Dowager…”
“When was it time for juniors to debate my words? Am I so old that I have no authority over this family anymore?! Or are you in charge to issue the orders in the Qin family?!”
Although Qin Han was the son of the official wife from the third branch of the family, his father  was concubine-born. The old dowager disliked children from concubines and naturally didn’t like Qin Han much either. She would show him some face in ordinary circumstances, but with her temper provoked, all that was flung out the window.
Second wife née Meng  walked up to pluck Qin Han’s sleeve, reminding her husband to not openly defy the old dowager. However, Qin Han had a heroic heart and his stubborn temper flared to match the old dowager’s unreasonable exhortations.
“Although Yining grew up in the wild countryside, she’s senior uncle’s daughter after all! Anyone who isn’t blind can tell that with just one glance. No one’s doubting her identity, so why does Old Dowager speak in such a manner?”
The old dowager pursed her lips and fired back wrathfully, “There are many in this world who look similar to each other! Is everyone who looks like your senior uncle a child of the Qin family?!”
“Old Dowager, you know full well in your heart of hearts that Yining is the child who was stolen away by senior uncle’s political enemies! None of us are saying that anything should happen to Huining now that Yining is back, so what are you nervous about? You can lovingly raise a girl with an unknown background, why can’t you love your own granddaughter?!”
Qin Huining flushed beet red at the words “unknown background”. Two streaks of tears immediately started to flow down her fair, delicate cheeks. She flung herself into the old dowager’s embrace with a sob, “Grandmother, it’s all granddaughter’s fault, it’s all granddaughter’s fault!”
The old dowager felt her nose twinge and cried as well, patting Qin Huining’s back, “Don’t cry my darling Hui, no one will dare do anything to you with grandmother around!”
It was as if the others wanted to chase Qin Huining away. However, everyone knew that this was just how the old dowager was, so they were resigned to this spectacle.
Eldest wife née Yao walked up to speak some pacifying words, “Younger brother-in-law, think of the old dowager and speak a few words less.”
The second wife tugged on Qin Han’s sleeve again, hinting at him to speak less for fear he would cause the others to dislike him. However, Qin Han summarily dismissed it all.
He spoke up again, this time in a carrying voice, “It’s simply too unfair to not call Cousin Yi by her name, Yining! Cousin Hui, you reside in the prime minister’s manor without worry for food and clothing thanks to Cousin Yi! You should be speaking up on her behalf right now, not attacking her with spears and clubs.”
Qin Huining lifted her teary eyes to look at Qin Han with an ashen face.
“The fires of war now burn everywhere as the nation sits in peril,” he continued. “Nine houses out of ten are empty in the city of Liang—the sight makes me heart stricken! If you all had seen the sights for yourself, all of you would understand Cousin Yi’s difficulties and struggles!
“I feel that half of my heart has frozen over after this trip, and I quite admire Cousin Yi’s bravery in being able to survive. To speak of nothing else, if it’d been any of you who’d lived her life, the grass on your graves would be three feet tall by now! We should just happily acknowledge that one of our own has been found. The very nation might burn in two days, but at least we’ll die together as a family!”
Qin Huining choked out with a reddened face, “It’s I who stole younger sister Little Creek’s life. It’s all my fault!”
Qin Han rolled his eyes and curled his lip when he heard this.
“Enough, younger brother, you always speak too much.” Qin Yu waited until Qin Han was done before noncommittally speaking.
Old Dowager had wrapped her arm around Qin Huining and was now so enraged that she was pointing at Qin Han with the finger adorned with the emerald ring. “You vile spawn! I only said one word, but you unleashed this flood to cause me such distress!”
“I know Old Dowager is distressed whenever you see me, so I’ll take my leave from your line of sight then!”
“You better stay as far away as possible!”
Qin Han snorted and turned to pull his wife away with him as he stalked off.
The old dowager was so incensed that she slammed her hand on the low tea-table next to her, yelling towards the outside with a hotly flushed face. “Vile spawn! Vile spawn! Leave and don’t come see me again!”
“Please calm yourself, grandmother,” Qin Huining counseled with a choked up voice. “Second cousin’s always been a direct and straightforward person. He didn’t say anything wrong either, it’s me who’s unworthy.”
The old dowager couldn’t keep her emotions controlled after Qin Huining’s words. The two grasped each other tightly and sobbed loudly, as the other girls started to cry as well. The room descended into a chaotic mess for a long moment.
Qin Yining watched from off to the side, the light in her eyes slowly fading away. These people wearing rich clothes of new red and pale green, adorned with gold and jade, seemed to be living in another world compared to her.
They were right in front of her, but made her feel like they were so very far away. If it’d been an age of peace and prosperity outside, she really would’ve just left. She would rather spend her life in spartan conditions—she’d at least be free then.
But Qin Yining didn’t want to accept that! This was her home! She finally had a family, so did she now have to give up with her own hands what belonged to her? Her second elder cousin had said that her mother was alive.
Mothers always loved their children. Her foster mother had loved her with all her strength, even though her foster mother hadn’t given birth to Yining. If a foster mother could have been so loving, then her real mother must be even more so. Qin Yining grew a bit anxious and looked back to the heavily frowning Qin Huaiyuan. She asked apprehensively, “Father, where is my mother? Why haven’t I seen her?”
Qin Huining whipped her head around to look at Qin Yining at those words. Qin Huaiyuan made a faint sound of assent and waved his hand to summon Jixiang, “Go ask Senior Madame to come.”
Jixiang backed away after acknowledging the order. Qin Yining no longer watched the reactions of Old Dowager and the others; she peered hopefully at the door instead. She’d known since young that she’d been picked up off the streets. She daydreamed and wondered everyday what her mother looked like.
Now that they were about to meet, her hands turned clammy with sweat, even with her steady personality that had been tempered by many years of hardship.
Scattered footsteps sounded outside at that very moment. A young maid immediately reported from outside, “Old Dowager. Senior Madame, Second Madame, and Third Wife have arrived.”
The heavy curtains were lifted to reveal a beautiful middle-aged woman wearing a light purple, cinched waist brocade dress and a plain cloak. A golden phoenix hairpin with a multi-hued dangle of precious gems swayed as she charged into the room. She stood by the round curio shelf as her eyes, swollen from crying, immediately snapped towards Qin Yining.
Qin Yining’s hands were clenched tightly as she instinctively took two steps forward, her eyes also fixed on this woman.
Their eyes met. No one had to tell her anything, she knew this woman was her mother.
“You…” Née Sun walked slowly towards Qin Yining, her body seeming to weigh a thousand tons. She lifted a trembling hand and reached for Qin Yining’s face.
Tears finally welled up in Qin Yining’s almond-shaped eyes as she murmured, “Mother.” She raised both arms and unconsciously took another two steps forward.
As if slapped awake, née Sun immediately covered her mouth and began crying, backing up while shaking her head, “Impossible, impossible! The child I’ve raised all these years isn’t my child, how can this be?!”
Qin Huining immediately flung herself into née Sun’s embrace with reddened eyes. She began to bawl loudly, “Mother, your daughter has let you down! Your daughter is unworthy of your love! Your daughter has taken younger sister Little Creek’s position, but I didn’t mean to! I really didn’t mean to!”
2. The hierarchy might get a little confusing here. Old Dowager is the matriarch of the family and the oldest generation. Then comes Qin Huaiyuan and Qin Xinyuan, the old dowager’s sons. They in turn had another generation, Qin Han, Qin Huining, Qin Yining. The wives of the youngest generation will be referred to as “(seniority) wife”, the wives of the older generation, ie. Qin Huaiyuan, will be referred to as the more stately “(seniority) madame”.