Chapter 27: Maternal Grandmother
“Sister-in-law, your hands are freezing. Why didn’t you take a hand warmer with you?” Née Sun’s tone was lighthearted, her eyes creasing into smiles. She gave her own brass hand warmer etched with flowers to Senior Madame née Yan and then took Second Madame née Kong’s hands into her own, rubbing them to impart warmth.
Both sisters-in-law were older than née Sun. The Duke of Ding practiced a strict household culture, and her two elder brothers doted on née Sun greatly. She hadn’t had a single argument with her sisters-in-law before coming of age and leaving the manor. The elder women were extremely close, closer than even the daughters of the official wife and concubines.
The girls all started laughing when they saw this. A fifteen-year-old girl wearing a turquoise cloak topped with gray rabbit fur smiled.
“Don’t listen to senior aunt’s words, auntie! She talks like she wasn’t in a hurry. She checked the hour four times after only just arriving at grandmother’s. My mother said that we all might as well head outside since senior aunt was so anxious. ‘Perhaps a watched kettle will boil!’ That’s why we all came out.” The girl’s voice was clear and crisp, giving rise to more laughter from the crowd.
Qin Yining was watching silently off to the side, sensing the sheer welcome bubbling from this household. Another young girl, wearing the same crimson cloak as her, had been curiously watching Qin Yining with large eyes for quite some time now. The girl finally couldn’t contain her curiosity and shuffled over to Qin Yining’s side like a little animal, asking softly after a curtsey,
“Hello big sister, I’m Sun Ling. Are you big sister Yining?”
“Hello big sister Ling, I’m Yining.” Qin Yining quickly returned the curtsey.
“Look at me, I’m caught up in chatting with my sisters-in-law and forgot introductions.” Née Sun turned back when she heard the exchange. “Daughter Yi, come greet your senior aunt, second aunt, and cousins.”
Qin Yining smiled at Sun Ling and made her curtsey to the senior and second madame like Zhan-mama had taught her. “Greetings to senior and second aunt.”
“Aiyaya!” Second Madame née Kong grabbed both of Qin Yining’s hands and looked at the girl closely, clucking her tongue. “She’s a beautiful little doll alright! They all say that your seventh cousin in our Ding Manor is the most beautiful, but I think you win out over her!”
“Second aunt is praising me far too highly. It’s just that mother dotes on me and puts me in pretty outfits.” Qin Yining smiled with her eyes lowered, her voice soft and gentle. She presented a docile and pleasing image.
Née Sun was quite pleased by these words and patted Qin Yining’s hand, the very image of a benevolent mother. There was none of the cold distance she’d exhibited beforehand. Abandoned off to the side for a long while, it felt like a ladle of hot oil had been poured over Qin Huining’s heart. It took her a moment to adjust her resentful and angry feelings.
“Greetings to senior and second aunt.” She also curtsied.
The senior madame seemed to notice her only now. The madame took in Qin Huining’s reserved outfit and striking makeup. She nodded with a supercilious smile and said nothing.
The second madame openly assessed the girl’s outfit and smiled. “Niece Hui is becoming prettier by the day.”
Qin Huining was delighted and responded primly, “Don’t laugh at me second aunt. With such pearls like seventh cousin and younger sister Little Creek present, aren’t the rest of us just pigs rolling around in the mud?” She covered her mouth to laugh delicately at this.
Although these words were humble, wouldn’t they also happen to tap into any latent jealousy in the other girls? The senior and second madame looked at each other, not speaking after that. The girls in this household weren’t so easily provoked. They all looked down and pretended they hadn’t heard.
Qin Yining found this development laughable. She knows how things are like here and still puts on this act. Qin Huining really is something alright!
Qin Huining wanted to project the feeling that she got along great with her sister, and so wrapped her hand around Qin Yining’s arm with a giggle.
“Little Creek, let me introduce the others to you.” She pointed at a girl wearing a pink cloak collared with white rabbit fur standing next to the second madame. “This is our seventh cousin. She’s three years older than us. She’s already engaged to the son of Great Scholar Lu and will be marrying soon.”
“Hello, seventh cousin.” Qin Yining ignored what Qin Huining was calling her and curtsied smilingly to the Sun seventh miss.
Her greeting was returned. “Hello, younger sister Yining.”
Qin Huining then pointed at the girl wearing the turquoise cloak, one in a pale-blue cloak, and the one in crimson who’d spoken to Yining. “This is our ninth, tenth, and eleventh cousin. Tenth and eleventh cousin are also fourteen this year.”
Qin Yining made her greetings respectively and had them returned by the three girls as well. The eleventh miss tugged on Qin Yining’s cloak and then looked at hers again.
“Cousin’s cloak is made of the same fabric as mine. We have some shared destiny!” She turned to look at Qin Huining with innocent eyes, cocking her head with curiosity, “Does cousin Huining not know cousin Yining’s name? Why do you keep saying ‘Little Creek’?”
Qin Huining’s smile froze on her face. You’re just a concubine-born daughter of the main branch! How dare you embarrass me like this!
Née Sun had been chatting idly with the senior and second madame and was unhappy with the disturbance. The atmosphere at her mother’s home was different from that of the in-laws’. Although marrying Prime Minister Qin was a glorious thing, the culture at her in-laws’ had always been a thorn in her side. Even though she sometimes felt that there wasn’t anything wrong with how things were done there, she knew that her mother’s side disdained that kind of habit. And here was Qin Huining, trotting out that behavior!
She’d never thought it inappropriate when Qin Huining used Little Creek back at the prime minister’s manor, but now that she was in the Ding Manor, she felt enraged. And yet, she couldn’t lecture Qin Huining on the spot.
At this moment, Qin Yining took Qin Huining’s arm with a smile and explained in a soft voice, “Eleventh cousin doesn’t know this bit. I spent my childhood wandering around outside and received help from a foster mother. My foster mother picked me up by a creek and gave me the nickname Little Creek. Miss Huining is one who knows to repay debts of gratitude, and I quite agree with her. We made a private promise that she should call me Little Creek so that she can always remind me not to forget the eight years that my foster mother raised me.”
The eleventh miss was quite moved by this, and she nodded with tears in her eyes. “Sister Yining’s suffered much outside.”
The other girls also crowded around Qin Yining. Although they were curious about her childhood outside, they were all touched by her words at the moment. No one remembered Qin Huining’s provocation from just a moment ago.
Née Sun sighed in relief when she saw this and was even more soothed by Qin Yining’s gracious actions of generous bearing. The senior madame arched her eyebrow and once again assessed Qin Yining, this time with sharp eyes. She smiled gently afterwards.
Second madame pulled on née Sun’s hand. “We can chat when we get to Bright Spring Hall. Mother must be afire with impatience by now.”
“Absolutely,” née Sun nodded. “If our elder sister gets a cold from the chilly air, my big brother will be mad at me!”
“You imp! You always make fun of me. The children are all right here.” The senior madame fired back in laughing retort.
The girls and servants all started laughing as well. The atmosphere was infectious, Qin Yining’s lips also curled up and the group made their happy way through the flower-hung gate.
The Duke of Ding’s manor was stunning size at five houses wide and seven layers deep.  It was said that this complex had been a royal residence in the previous dynasty. The emperor awarded it to the Sun family ancestors due to impressive battle achievements.
Although all life rested n the winter time, the sophisticated design of the gardens within the complex drew Qin Yining’s unblinking attention. She kept imagining how beautiful the place must be in the spring and summer time as she walked through it. When the other girls saw that their new cousin liked the garden, they came up to her and traded off introducing the premises. They seemed to be welcoming an honored guest with their enthusiasm and held no loftiness at all.
That reduced Qin Huining to a pretty vase by their side. Her smile was frozen stiff, but she still had to maintain her elegant demeanor. Thankfully, she had Cai-mama and Bitong to help her along and chat softly with her, lifting her glum mood somewhat.
Maids and granny servants came out to welcome them as they approached Bright Spring Hall, with more maids heading inside to pass on the word. Qin Yining had just crossed the threshold when she was greeted with the sight of the main house’s marine-blue satin and bamboo door curtains lifting, followed by a woman over sixty years old with a full figure. She was wearing a dark purple vest and skirt ensemble that had large sleeves and simple makeup. Her head was topped with a hat of purple fox fur, and a steady stream of maids and granny servants filed out down the stairs behind her.
The woman was tall and wrinkles had just started forming on her face. There were faint grooves in between her brows, making her appear slightly stern. However, Qin Yining knew that this kind of person often frowned because they had much to worry over normally. Warmth suffused her kind eyes, sitting beneath long brows, and she walked with a proper and demure posture. Her back was ramrod straight, making her out to be an extremely sharp madame.
With just one glance, Qin Yining was certain that this was the duchess, her maternal grandmother. Her guess was confirmed when she glimpsed Bao-mama by the woman’s side.
Just as she was sizing up the duchess, so too was the Duchess of Ding looking at her. Although Qin Yining was standing in the group of girls and wearing the same crimson red cape as another, even though she was bare-faced and didn’t have the eye-catching red of Qin Huining’s lips, despite being not as tall as the ninth miss, the duchess still picked her out with a single look.
It wasn’t because Qin Yining was the only unfamiliar face, and not because of her stunning looks either. It was because there seemed to be a hint of steel to this girl, but she possessed a gentle and reserved demeanor at the same time. The look in her clear eyes indicated Qin Yining’s obvious intelligence, and her posture announced her knowledge of manners and customs.
She was a precious sheathed sword, able to show her edge when needed, but able to be cultured and refined as well. The duchess was a smart madame who’d seen countless of people, what kind of beauty hadn’t she seen before? She’d long since discounted the importance of looks at first impressions.
She was quite pleased by what she saw in Qin Yining and didn’t doubt the girl’s identity like née Sun had. She was certain that née Sun was the girl’s mother. Why wouldn’t she be happy with such a wonderful granddaughter?
“This must be granddaughter Yi? Quick, come to grandmother!” The duchess held out both arms and quickly walked forward.