The senior madame sighed slightly.
“This isn’t any big secret. We didn’t tell mother before because we didn’t want you to worry. Someone from Great Zhou contacted Ming'er before and wanted him to defect. They spoke all sorts of criticisms about our emperor and emphasized how courageous and valiant their little Prince Pang was, and how his Valiant Tigers were going to trample over the rivers and mountains of our Great Yan one day…”
The women and girls present sucked in a quick breath, and the duchess’ brow furrowed fiercely. The second madame also covered her mouth as a gasp of shock escaped her. Née Sun was the most straightforward one and grabbed the senior madame’s hand.
“Sister-in-law, these Great Zhou people are so malicious! If this had traveled to His Majesty’s ears, wouldn’t it have given others something to latch onto and denounce us as traitors?”
“It did travel to the emperor’s ears. Ming'er renounced the visitor harshly on the spot and entered the palace to beg the emperor’s forgiveness, offering up his official’s robes. You all know too that our emperor… thinks a lot. But thankfully we got past this trial without further developments.”
Qin Yining was quite unfamiliar with the higher levels of court, but she’d heard various rumors about the emperor. Insults about a useless and self-indulgent emperor abounded amongst the general populace. Dim-sighted in his old age, decrepit and muddleheaded. He spoiled a succubus of an empress and allowed corrupt officials to take the reins of power.
The lousy emperor especially trusted Grand Preceptor of the Nation, Grand Preceptor Cao, someone who encouraged the princes to fight amongst themselves and now held fully half of the power at court. There was only one prince left, the crown prince; so there wasn’t anyone to choose from for the heir.
The senior madame sighed again and spoke dejectedly, “Ming'er’s now offended Great Zhou. Having been the vanguard for so many years, I am truly worried. He looks like a gentle person, but he’s one that even nine oxen can’t pull back if he digs his heels in.”
“Don’t worry about it, it’s all in the past now. It’s a good thing that the emperor trusts Ming'er.” The duchess patted her daughter-in-law’s hand with a kind look in her eyes, subtly indicating for her not to continue since children were present.
The senior madame finally recovered from her anxiety and smiled wanly. “The time’s about right. Mother, I’ll go take a look in the kitchens first since we’re having the banquet soon. Let’s set up the banquet in the heated passageway between the two main houses?”
“That’d be for the best.”
The senior madame took her leave while the second madame called over two men for introductions. “Niece Yi, this is your fifth cousin, and this is your eighth cousin. Your second and fourth cousin are away in the army and aren’t at home right now.”
Qin Yining quickly got up to curtsey to her fifth and eighth cousin.
The Sun men were all tall and bulky, defined by their thick brows and high noses. Her fifth and eighth cousin were twenty and eighteen years old respectively. Both returned her greeting with a very polite bow. Perhaps it was due to the difference in their ages, or possibly due to the difference in gender, but they didn’t talk very much.
When she took her seat again and conversation resumed, she learned that out of her five Sun cousins, eldest cousin Sun Yu was the only one yet unmarried. Her senior and second uncle were all not too far from the capital, guarding Xihua City. Her second and fourth cousin both lived in Xihua City with their families and visited infrequently.
Her fifth and eighth cousins-in-law were both pregnant. One was about to give birth and the other newly pregnant, but the fetus was showing signs of instability. They weren’t suited for movement, so both had stayed indoors today.
“Although my cousins-in-law are indisposed today, we’ll have plenty of chances to meet in the future.” Qin Yining smiled. “Please give them my regards.”
Her fifth and eighth cousin smiled and nodded. “Come visit us often, we’ll have plenty of chances to gather together.”
The duchess grinned widely when she saw the younger generation getting along well. She was deep in conversation when a maid came in to report, “Elder Madame, the banquet is ready. The duke and eldest master is already there. Please make your way there as well.”
“Come, let’s go to dinner.” The duchess rose, still smiling. The maids inside the house helped their respective mistresses up and tidied outfits. The large group embarked towards dinner with grand fanfare, laughter and chatter heralding their arrival.
The underground furnace was going strong, creating a wave of hot air that greeted anyone who entered. It was accompanied by the delicious fragrance of food, imparting the warmth of home.
A black-lacquer eight-fold room divider, embossed with bamboo, was set up in the middle of the room to section off two dining tables. The men were on one side and the womenfolk on the other.
The duchess had been holding Qin Yining’s hand since they’d started walking, so the girl naturally sat next to her grandmother when they took their seats, while née Sun took her place on the other side of the duchess.
Qin Huining pursed her red lips and took a seat next to née Sun, eyes downcast, followed by her cousins. The senior and second madame were standing by the duchess’ side, holding serving chopsticks and ready to lay out food for their mother-in-law.
The duchess laughed. “There’s no need for you to follow the rules today, go sit down! Let’s enjoy a family meal together.”
The senior madame placed a piece of deboned sweet and sour fish onto the plate in front of the duchess. The plate was quite exquisite and patterned with five bats surrounding a peach.  “Mother dotes on us all, so we mustn’t forget our duties!”
“Indeed, we’re used to serving mother at meals,” the second madame chimed in. “Don’t reject us any further!”
Qin Yining snuck a quick glance at her aunts and noted their obvious sincerity and happiness. They didn’t seem to be bearing any hidden grudges.
The group followed the rule of not speaking when eating, as was normally the custom in noble families, so only the clinking of chopsticks against dishes could be heard. However, she could sense the happiness and lightheartedness in the air.
When everyone had finished eating, the maids brought in spittoons, teacups, brass basins and hand towels for their masters and mistresses to rinse their mouths and wash hands. After they were done, the servants came back out with tea.
Qin Yining had just returned after all, so she naturally became the center of attention. Her cousins quietly took their measure of her, and the duchess surreptitiously observed her new granddaughter throughout the entire meal.
She discovered that Qin Yining maintained a prim and proper sitting posture with her spine ramrod straight. Her composed bearing also had hints of noble self assurance and tenderness. There wasn’t anything wrong with her manners at all. If no one brought up her past, it would be impossible to tell that she was someone who’d just entered their society. The duchess nodded privately to herself.
The girl was obviously quite willing to learn. It was one thing to be smart, and it was another to be able to assess a situation and then execute a plan with competently. With such an able person at née Sun’s side, she would at least be able to speak a few words of reason when things cropped up. Née Sun wouldn’t continue to be Qin Huining’s spear anymore.
The duchess felt slightly at ease when she thought of the future. “Put the divider aside, there are no outsiders here. Granddaughter Yi, you should meet your grandfather as well.”
“Understood.” The maids carefully lifted the divider out of the way. Bao-mama walked up to the door and swept a cursory glance over the servants inside. Her meaning was immediately clear. The servants all filed out, closing the door closely and retreating to the yard to await further orders. Only family was left inside.
The duke and duchess rose to retake the head seats, and the remaining girls stood accordingly. Qin Yining knelt on the red carpet that bloomed with flowers in the grand gesture of greeting towards Duke of Ding. “Granddaughter Yi greets her grandfather.”
“You may rise.” The duke’s voice was low and resonant like a brass bell. His good health reverberated in his voice. Qin Yining quickly took in her grandfather when she lifted her eyes.
The duke was elderly and tall, but clearly hale and hearty. His cheeks were ruddy and his eyes twinkled as he gazed at his granddaughter. The duke turned to his wife mischievously, “Didn’t you have a gift for granddaughter Yi?”
“I was just about to bring it up.” The duchess handed a cup of warm tea to her husband and pouted in mock anger. “You’re always the good person. Now you’ve spoiled my surprise!”
The duke almost spat out his mouthful of tea as he chortled. “Look at you, still turning my words around in your age.”
The young misses and masters started laughing when they saw their grandparents’ banter, drawing a smile from Qin Yining as well. They have such a loving relationship. This family is all so kind as well. In comparison, the prime minister’s manor is so much colder and the people much harder to get along with.
The duchess waved at Qin Yining, summoning the girl to stand obediently by her side. “Good girl, life is finally taking a turn for the better after all these years of hardship.”
The duchess patted Qin Yining’s hand sympathetically. “Grandmother is gifting you the ‘Institute of Luminous Charm’. All matters of its operation will fall under you, and all its profits yours. You don’t need to hand it over to your mother or anyone else. Giving you this business is first to help you learn and practice the trade. In the future, you won’t be overwhelmed when you marry and have to run the household yourself. Secondly, this is a bit of personal money that grandmother is gifting you. There are plenty of places where you’ll need silver!”
Qin Yining had been quietly listening to her grandmother’s words while taking in everyone else’s expressions out of the corner of her eye. She saw various emotions flicker in those assembled, and when Qin Huining bit her bottom lip hard, Qin Yining knew that the Institute of Luminous Charm was a good thing.
However, she had no idea what kind of business it was. She only knew that its revenue and profits must be high for it to evoke so many reactions. She felt a little incredulous that such a windfall was just being handed to her, and questions rose in her heart. She looked uneasily at the duchess.
“Grandmother, how would I know how to handle all this?”
“Silly girl, you’ll naturally have staff to rely on. I’ll also hand over Grand Steward Zhong’s letter of succor. He’s a competent person. You can use him with peace of mind.”
Did that mean that Qin Yining was just the owner in name, and she didn’t need to lift a finger to rake in the profits? She became even more uneasy at that thought. She’d never considered anything to be free in this world, but she also knew that her maternal grandmother wouldn’t harm her.
Née Sun finally couldn’t sit still anymore. “Mother, what does a little girl know of business operations? The Institute is such a large business, and she may not be able to get a handle on it all. It’s a minor thing to lose money, but won’t she bring trouble down on our heads if she offends someone there? Not to mention, doesn’t the Institute belong to Ming’er? How can you give it to daughter Yi?”
Qin Yining’s startled eyes met Sun Yu’s gentle gaze as he spoke. “Don’t worry, auntie. I’m far too busy at court, and need to study and socialize with others. I really don't have any time or effort to spare to run a business. Grandmother’s already traded good fields and stores for it with me. I just need to sit back and count the silver they bring in.” Sun Yu smiled. “Younger cousin will have to spend much time and effort running the Institute in the future.”
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