Chapter 257: Meeting
Mistress and servants packed their scant belongings and left the royal residence. The Elite Tigers that Pang Xiao had sent were already waiting outside with Mu Jinghu. After they bid farewell to the imperial guards, the group departed via a side door and took a shortcut to the Qin Manor.
After an absence of a fortnight, not much looked different with the manor — other than some craftsman working on the charred remains of parts of the inner residence.
When Qin Yining’s carriage arrived at the main door, a runner quick on his feet sped into the inner residence to pass on the word.
On the way back, Jiyun had quietly advised Qin Yining that the four additional guards were actually Elite Tigers that Pang Xiao had sent specifically to protect her. The knowledge delighted the fourth miss, but she quickly berated herself when she thought of how their nations were at war and the Prince of Ning had just died.
However, life went on, and she had to consider her own happiness as well.
She’d adjusted her mood when she alighted from the carriage and turned back to smile at the Elite Tigers. “If you don’t mind, why don’t you return home with me and I’ll see to living quarters for you all?”
The leader of the four offered a cupped fist salute and murmured, “In response to the miss, we probably shouldn’t enter the manor with you. We’ll have more freedom outside and find it easier to go about our business.”
“I understand. You can go to the Cloudsoar Inn. I’ll tell Grand Steward Zhong to look after your room and board, as well as all other expenses during this period.”
The beautiful future princess consort’s ways greatly appealed to the four and they grew even more respectful towards Qin Yining.
“We thank the princess consort.”
A blush exploded onto Qin Yining’s face when she heard this, but she pretended to keep her calm. “You are dismissed.”
“Understood.” The four bowed and left with their horses.
Mu Jinghu was confused when he saw Qin Yining’s reddened face and neck. “That’s weird, they didn’t use the wrong title, so what are you blushing about?”
The man’s straightforward and socially awkward nature had long since been known, but Qin Yining still felt shy when she heard this. She ignored him and entered the manor.
Blinking confusedly, Mu Jinghu headed inside as well, for his room in the outer residence.
Née Sun was already standing outside in welcome along with Jin-mama, the eighth miss, and Qin Huining.
“My daughter!” Née Sun beamed delightedly when she saw Qin Yining. She rushed up to envelope the girl in her arms. “You’re finally back! Are you able to stay at home for good this time?”
“Mother.” Qin Yining rested her cheek on née Sun’s shoulder and nuzzled the older woman’s neck. “The emperor’s allowed me to return to practice at home. The days must’ve been hard for you?”
There had been plenty of fights and arguments between née Sun and the old dowager during this period of time. Though it seemed that the Qins were much more unified after a great disaster, the old dowager had reverted to her usual self after time washed away grief and peace filled the days again. Née Sun was once again irritation itself.
Add to that her support of Qin Yining being the emperor’s mistress, née Sun had lost further hope in her mother-in-law’s character. The two bared teeth and exchanged verbal barbs whenever they met. The Qin matriarch was growing ever oppressive, punishing née Sun for this and that everyday.
With her daughter absent from home, née Sun’s forbearance grew by leaps and bounds. The thought of not wanting others to look down on her kept her going through the days. But now that her daughter had returned, née Sun teared up when hearing such sweet words.
“Not at all, not at all. It’s a great fortune that our entire family is together and well. What hardships can there be?”
It was easy enough for Qin Yining to imagine how her mother had suffered through the days. She snuggled cutely into the woman’s embrace.
Off to the side, the eighth miss looked at them with a slight smile. Though she dearly missed the departed official wife of her family branch and her own mother, and quite envied that Qin Yining still had a mother that she could hold, she wished both of them well from the bottom of her heart.
Qin Huining however, had a wooden expression on her face.
That embrace had once been hers, and that mother had been hers too. But now she had nothing, and Qin Yining had everything.
Qin Yining hadn’t even glanced at her after walking through the doors.
The fourth miss was now renowned through the lands. She was in a completely different world from Qin Huining. The foster girl didn’t even have the right to be Qin Yining’s opponent, because opponents had to at least be on equal footing.
Was it possible for her to ever be on the same level as Qin Yining again?
She was treading on thin ice in the family because of what’d happened with the sixth miss. Yes, she’d pushed the sixth miss to take the blade in that moment of life and death, but there was no way that Qin Huining believed she was the only person who’d ever do something like that.
If the others had been in her position and surroundings, surely they too would’ve tried to do something for themselves!
Who knew how much they celebrated or gloated over living through that catastrophe? And here they were, faulting her!
As these thoughts swirled through the foster girl’s mind, the others were already headed for the Garden of Loving Piety. Qin Yining was holding née Sun’s arm and chatting with the eighth miss on her other side.
Having been ignored and left behind, Qin Huining could only bite her lower lip and catch up to the group.
“This granddaughter greets Old Dowager.” Qin Yining knelt docilely when she saw the matriarch.
The old dowager looked back merrily at her. “Hurry and rise. It’s good that you’re back.”
“The days have been harder at home given my absence. Thank you to Old Dowager and second aunt.” Qin Yining rose and greeted the second madame.
The second madame had always liked Qin Yining’s steadiness and understanding of the greater picture. The girl was the most promising of the Qin daughters, thus the older woman took the girl’s hand and inquired carefully about her recent days.
The family relaxed a bit at the Garden of Loving Piety before the old dowager gave orders for lunch to be prepared.
When the third elder master, Qin Han, and Qin Yu returned for the noon meal, they were thrilled to see Qin Yining. They were highly curious why the emperor had suddenly allowed her to come home, but she didn’t mention the clash between her and the empress, out of concern that she’d made the womenfolk worry. She only mentioned that it was the emperor’s orders.
The Prince of Ning’s funeral was a portentous event that swept the capital. Qin Yining went to express her condolences with the rest of the Qin womenfolk and spent some time comforting the princess consort.
The death of person was akin to the extinguishment of a lamp. Even the fiercest leave the world one day. The departure of a hero was one that filled everyone with deep sadness.
Once the Prince of Ning was buried, the matters of auctioning off various positions for grain started up in earnest.
As cartloads of grain shipped to the capital, prices in the stores showed signs of weakness until they finally decreased into a somewhat expensive range that the people could accept. The shroud of grief that’d surrounded the capital after the prince’s death slowly began to lighten again.
After all, whether or not they would go to bed hungry was the primary concern of the people. What else could ordinary people affect and care about?
With a month’s rest, Qin Yining’s shoulder wound finally healed. Bingtang wrote prescriptions that further bolstered her robustness and created a healthier tinge in the fourth miss’ face. She was no longer white as a sheet and prone to dizzy spells.
On this evening, Bingtang was on night duty. The two were slowly waving fans and chatting in the bedroom when the window in the washroom creaked open.
“The wind is strong tonight and it’s probably blown the toilet window open again,” remarked Bingtang. “I’ll go secure it.”
“No worries, I was about to go myself.” Qin Yining put on her shoes with a smile. “Why don’t you make the beds? It’s getting late — we should be heading to bed.”
“Alright.” Bingtang put her blankets on the luohan bed in the outer room while her mistress headed for the washroom, a thinly padded jacket around her shoulders and lace lantern in hand.
But when she lifted the curtains to the washroom, a black shadow rushed out at her.
Shock jolted her heart and she almost screamed, but the shadow enveloped her in its arms and covered her mouth with a large hand. A strange yet familiar scent dominated her senses. There was the smell of grass, of gunpowder, and of blood.
Qin Yining trembled despite herself. It’s him!
A burning kiss landed on the nape of her neck as Pang Xiao’s low voice sounded by her ear. “My dearest Yi, I’ve come to see you.”
Qin Yining’s heart pounded, the lantern almost slipping out of her hands. With his quick reflexes, Pang Xiao caught the lantern and blew the candle out.
If it was brightly lit, it would be easy to see multiple silhouettes through the window.
“Are you crazy?! How dare you come when things are so tense right now? Aren’t you afraid of being captured?!” Qin Yining breathed in anxious alarm.
Pang Xiao laughed softly and answered in the same inaudible tones next to her ears, “I would’ve gone crazy from missing you if I didn’t come. Let me see if your wound is any better.”
He made to inspect her shoulder, making a bright blush suffuse her cheeks. She closed her hands around her collar. “It’s fine, it’s healed. Don’t be like this.”
Bingtang’s curiosity was aroused when she heard the disturbance. “Miss, are you alright?”
She lifted her lantern high and headed inside.
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