Chapter 3: To Stay or To Go
Née Sun wrapped her arms around Qin Huining when the latter flew into her arms. The daughter she had treasured for fourteen years was sobbing brokenheartedly, cutting née Sun’s heart to bits. Qin Huining was right, this had nothing to do with her! The one who’d swapped her child was the true villain! Née Sun couldn’t control herself anymore and hugged her daughter tightly, joining her in wracking sobs.
Qin Yining’s arms slowly came back to her side as tears unknowingly trickled down her cheeks. The collar of her downy yellow shirt began to show spots of discoloration as her tears fell. Her lips trembled, but she curved them up into a smile in a vain attempt to control herself. So this is my mother’s attitude towards me.
“Don’t be sad, mother, it’s so wonderful now that younger sister Little Creek has returned to you. I will never forget the debt of gratitude for all your care these past years. Nor Old Dowager’s love either. Even if I leave the manor in the future, I will still be your daughter! Please don’t cry, father and Old Dowager will be needlessly pained if you do!” Qin Huining put on a brave face and held back her tears, using her handkerchief to wipe at née Sun’s face as the woman soundlessly heaved and sobbed.
The fragile, gentle-looking girl’s eyes had already swollen from all the crying, but she was still comforting her agitated mother. The old dowager couldn’t help but feel the depths of Qin Huining’s maturity, to be so cognizant of the bigger picture even in such emotional times. How could she part with her darling granddaughter? The thought alone was almost unbearable, and immediately dried up any feeling of sympathy or pity for that wild chit.
“Just what wrongs have I committed to deserve this?! Why is this happening to us?!” Née Sun was of the same mind when faced with her darling daughter’s filial piety, and started bawling even harder. Second Madame and Third Wife all hastened to her side to comfort her as née Sun cried like an aggrieved child.
“Please don’t cry, mother! I can come back and see you whenever you miss me. Younger sister Little Creek is your flesh and blood, she’ll surely take my place in bringing you delight. Look at Little Creek, she looks just like father. She must be his flesh and blood, there’s no doubt about it. It’s heavenly fortune that has allowed our family to reunite. Mother, only good days lie ahead, so please don’t be sad.” Qin Huaiyuan quickly comforted née Sun, her words of filial piety thickly masking the needle of her implications.
No one had mentioned a word about sending her anywhere, but she had already brought it to the fore of the conversation several times. It was more than apparent that her primary worry was centered around this. Third Miss Qin Jianing and Sixth Miss Qin Shuangning looked at each other, then lowered their eyelids silently. On the side, Seventh Miss Qin Anning pursed her lips. On the other hand, Née Sun had fallen silent. She had caught Qin Huining’s words and lowered her lashes, falling into thought.
Qin Yining was standing in front of her mother, her hands clenched in fists. She gazed upon the picturesque scene of the mother-daughter duo in front of her with an indescribable expression. In the end, her eyes came to rest on that most wonderful of actresses, Qin Huining. Née Sun seemed to sense her gaze, looking up just as Qin Yining’s eyes flicked over to meet hers. My darling Hui is right. This chit does look like her father.
The girl’s beautiful brows and eyes… that exquisite face… it was very reminiscent of a young Qin Huaiyuan. But upon closer inspection, née Sun couldn’t find a shred of common ground between this girl and her!
In her youth, she had always been pretty and demure, but this chit looked nothing like that. She was simply stunningly attractive. Even women could feel this girl’s allure. How was this like her at all? How was everyone certain that this was indeed her daughter? Her eyes turned to Qin Huining…. now this girl was the one who showed traces of the young née Sun’s prim and proper personality.
Apparently Qin Huaiyuan’s trusted confidante had seen the girl in the city of Liang and grown suspicious after seeing her stunning resemblance to his master. He had investigated, and finally brought this girl back after a few twists and turns. But this is only Qin Huaiyuan’s story! Née Sun looked at her silent husband who was standing off the side with furrowed brows.
Could he have had a mistress and fathered this girl?
After all, the girl was similar in age to daughter Hui, and Qin Huaiyuan was known as someone who protected his own. Could it be that he’d fathered some bastard whelp years ago and sought to bring her back into the fold now? And made up this piteous story for some sympathy?
Indeed, although Qin Yining looked quite thin from malnourishment, her bearing was very calm and steady. Even though she exhibited the normal shyness of one who was faced with strangers, she didn’t seem afraid. How did this demeanor belong to a wild “heathen” who’d grown up in the mountains? Perhaps Qin Huaiyuan had made all of this up to prey on the family’s sympathies!
Qin Huaiyuan possessed great power and status, but few children. He only had one daughter, and who knew how many women outside wanted to bear his children? Née Sun had never felt quite secure in her position as the prime minister’s wife. She also refused, from the bottom of her heart, to accept that the daughter she’d raised for fourteen years wasn’t her own flesh and blood. She suddenly felt that she’d grasped the crux of the problem as her thoughts came to a close. Clear suspicion glinted in her eyes as she looked at Qin Yining.
Qin Huining had been secretly and nervously observing her mother all this time, and was slightly reassured to see née Sun obviously suspect Qin Yining. Meanwhile, the newfound Qin daughter’s heart had cooled. When she’d been young, before the flames of war had crept up on Liang, her foster mother had taken her to a fortune teller.
There, the fortune teller had said, “You will have no support from your sisters. In the same vein, your relatives will be as cold as extinguished coal.” It looked like the second part of his words had indeed come true.
The judgmental look in her birth mother’s eyes was even more unbearable than when wild foxes had set their sights on her. A bone-biting cold dug into her bones as her blood turned to ice. So I was just being greedy. I shouldn’t have wanted more. Qin Yining closed her eyes.
When she opened them again, a stubborn light shone out of them. If there was one thing that had tempered in every single moment of her struggle to survive, it’d been her tenacity. For years, the more dire the circumstances had been, the more indomitable she had become.
She had met countless dangers on the path that lay behind her, and had she relaxed her guard even slightly, she may not have had a chance to stand before these people today. That iron core she’d depended on, forged through hardship and trial, allowed her to keep her head high even in the face of the worst of blows.
Although this home was cold and unfeeling, it was still easier than living in the mountains. Besides, it wasn’t as if she couldn’t slowly change these people’s minds. And, there was no reason to expect them to like her as soon as they met, right? Her clenched fists slowly relaxed as she drew on her resolve.
Qin Huining had been surreptitiously observing Qin Yining and was dazzled by the force of will that rose in the latter’s eyes. She’d considered this newcomer to be a wild brat who would retreat with just a show of intimidation. But it seems she’d underestimated this brat.
“You lived in the city of Liang?” Née Sun walked towards Qin Yining.
Am I to be questioned again?
“Yes, my first memories are of Liang. My foster mother, née Liu, was a widow. She told me of my background when I was old enough to remember, and passed away from ailment when I was eight.”
“Judging from your speech, you seem to know how to read and write too?” Née Sun found this suspicious.
“My foster mother used to be a maid in an established family, and her husband was a scholar. She could read and write a little, and taught me when I was young. However, life was difficult afterwards and we were attacked by robbers a few times. We lost most of our books in the chaos, and my foster mother didn’t have much time to teach me then because she was focused on providing for us.”
There were no holes in her explanation. Née Sun twisted the handkerchief in her hands as she circled the girl once, looking her up and down. The entire room was now aware of the senior madame’s suspicion of Qin Yining. Some were confused, more perceptive ones scornful. All sorts of looks were levied at Qin Yining and née Sun.
If it’d been any other girl, one who hadn’t seen much of the world, she would’ve long been petrified by fright by this kind of scrutiny. However, Qin Yining was quite composed and allowed them to size her up as they would. After a long moment of silence, Née Sun spoke, “When’s your birthday?”
“I only know that I was born in the ninth year of our current calendar cycle. [1. Apologies, this is the world’s biggest simplification to avoid going into a three page explanation of the lunar calendar. Every 60 years is a stem-branch/sexagenary cycle, and the sixteenth year is the jimao year. A year starts from the official start of spring until the official end of winter. The raws say jimao year, but it seems out of character for Qin Yining to speak of this time keeping convention in complex detail.] My foster mother found me in the early morning of the sixth day of the six month. She said she found me by a little creek to the rear of the Four Jade Mountains, south of the capital.”
“So this means you once lived in the capital for a while when you were young?”
“Possibly, but my memories only start from Liang. Mom, you…”
“Don’t call me mom!” Née Sun’s violent reaction startled everyone present. Perhaps realizing that her attitude was a bit too extreme, the senior madame stiffly transitioned to, “Families with status like ours don’t use ‘mom’. Those with titles are hailed as ‘madame’, and those without are ‘lady’. Only peasant families use ‘mom’ and ‘dad’.”
Qin Yining fluttered her long eyelashes, refraining from pointing out that Qin Huining had used “mother” earlier. She docilely switched to, “Madame.”
The old dowager coughed. “Since we’re certain that she’s Meng’er’s daughter, then she can stay. But I’m saying this first, my darling Hui isn’t leaving me!”
Qin Huaiyuan’s secondary personal name was “Meng”, and the old dowager often used the nickname “Meng’er”. Upon further thought, she added, “The girl’s grown up in the countryside after all. She won’t know the rules if she’s just dropped in the manor like this. Granddaughter Jia is having her coming-of-age ceremony in two days, and we will be hosting a manor full of guests and friends. It would be bad to lose face. Why not send the girl to the country estate first and have a mama teach her the rules? We can bring her back some other day.”
Everyone looked askance at the old dowager. They hadn’t thought that she would be this biased towards Qin Huining. If they really did send Qin Yining to the country estate, it would be difficult to say when she would be brought back. If the old dowager wasn’t pleased, she could very well ask a fortune teller for the most auspicious day and come up with all manner of delaying excuses.
It was née Sun’s turn to hesitate. Although she didn’t like this wild child and had her own suspicions about the mother being a mistress, she was Qin Huaiyuan’s flesh and blood after all. And… there was a chance the girl was her own daughter… So, she spoke after thinking for a while.
“My lord has few children and only one daughter after all these years. Even if we keep both girls, the main branch of the family will still only have two daughters. Old Dowager, this daughter-in-law asks for a favor. Although we’ve found daughter Yi, daughter Hui shares great destiny with our family. She is still my firstborn, and daughter Yi can be my younger daughter. May we record her in the family books as the second born of the official wife?”
Née Sun’s proposal lined up with the old dowager’s wishes perfectly. “It is most ideal that you think this way.”
“As for the rules that you’ve spoken of, we can request a mama from the palace to be her teacher. She can also go to the country estate. This will give both me and darling Hui, as well as all the sisters in the household, some time to adjust.” It seems that Née Sun was going to follow the old dowager’s wishes and send her daughter away. Qin Huining heaved an invisible sigh of relief as her heart finally settled down.
Qin Yining bit her lip and looked imploringly at Qin Huaiyuan. She hadn’t done anything wrong, so why was she being sent away? Wasn’t she a Qin daughter?
The look in her eyes was so helpless and tender that it moved Qin Huaiyuan. “Daughter Yi will remain in the manor. The mama and her other teachers can all come to the manor.” The master of the house had finally spoken. “The firstborn is the firstborn, and a foster daughter is a foster daughter. Is daughter Yi not the firstborn of my official wife just because she wasn’t by our sides?”
Qin Huining’s freshly relaxed nerves began to draw taut again.
The old dowager hastily asked, “Meng’er, what do you mean?”
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