Chapter 30: Trump Card in Hand
Qin Yining couldn’t help but look askance at the duchess. She had no idea what this Institute of Luminous Grace was, but her grandmother had traded good fields and stores to her eldest cousin for it. No wonder her cousins’ expressions had shifted when grandmother had brought it up. Née Sun was truly caught by surprise. She’d never thought that a girl who’d just come home, someone unfamiliar to her own family, would elicit so much fondness. And to have mother be so generous!
“Mother, thank you for your kind intentions, but we shan’t accept it. A little girl who knows nothing isn’t suited to look after the Institute. Just like I said, there are so many officials and esteemed nobles within it, and it really would be no joking matter if she offended someone. Besides, she’s just come back and hasn’t even gotten a full handle on all her sums, much less the knowhow on operating a business. She doesn’t lack anything in the prime minister’s manor, and it’s not like her paternal grandmother gave her any money or stores after she came back. Why does our family have to go to such depths?”
The first half of her words actually made some sense, but the duchess was frowning fiercely by the time she’d finished, and left everyone feeling a bit awkward. Without a word, the duke left with the male cousins, leaving the warmed room to the female family members.
When she saw how her father had left just like that, née Sun realized that she might’ve said something that displeased her father. It was a habit of his that she had long recognized. The duke would always vacate the area whenever one of the children did something bad and leave the floor for the duchess to enact punishment.
The duchess spoke after the men had left. “Your words just now were completely inappropriate. Why have you learned to compare yourself to others in jealousy and envy since leaving our family? As a mother, don’t you know you have to serve as an example for your children? Aren’t you afraid that your daughters will also learn these base behaviors of bickering and fighting against others, leading to disharmony between sisters in the end?!”
Née Sun was unwilling to accept this kind of lecturing and lowered her head without another word. On the other hand, Qin Huining flushed hot and cold at those words. The duchess looked like she was lecturing née Sun, but she was really speaking to Qin Huining!
The senior and second madame tried to smooth things over when they saw how angry the duchess was. “Don’t be angry mother, sister Han just has a more innocent nature and speaks more straightforwardly.”
“Innocent nature? Straightforward? She’s almost forty, how can she still be like this!?” The duchess rubbed her forehead as she launched into another tirade. “Have you forgotten everything I said to you that day?!”
Née Sun felt quite aggrieved, but didn’t dare talk back since her mother seemed truly angry this time. She just kept her head down and silently admitted her wrongs. The duchess took two deep breaths to calm herself. “You might not be able to think things through clearly, but thankfully you’ve been blessed with someone who sees clearly: granddaughter Yi. You need to think more in the future. Don’t just blindly believe everything that’s told to you. You should discuss matters with darling Yi in the future when something crops up in the Qin manor. I believe that darling Yi will soon be accustomed to the Institute. Just because you don’t have the ability to run a business doesn’t mean your daughter doesn’t! Don’t forget whose daughter she is!”
Née Sun was being lectured like she was three again. She didn’t even dare breathe too loudly in case it sparked a resurgence in her mother’s rage. Although she was indignant at the words being piled on her head, she actually felt a bizarre sense of pride rise within her as well. Perhaps Qin Yining really did take after her father’s smarts?
Qin Yining could only be anxious off to the side. There was no place for her to interject at all. When she saw the tirade come to an end, she joined her aunts in pacifying her grandmother. The duchess didn’t mean to endlessly continue in this vein either, so she ended that topic to prevent general awkwardness. “Granddaughter Yi, you might not understand what the Institute is, having just come back. I’ll have Bao-mama explain to you what business it runs, and have the accounts and various documents sent home for you.”
“Thank you, grandmother,” Qin Yining responded.
Bao-mama smiled and bent her knee in a curtsey. “Miss, please come with me.”
“Many thanks to Bao-mama.” Qin Yining evaded the greeting and returned a half curtsey. The two left the room in friendly spirits, with the smiling eyes of the duchess, senior madame, and second madame following them. Yet when the duchess turned back to see née Sun murmur something to Qin Huining in a low voice, she felt her head hurt again. She couldn’t help but take up the mantle of the ‘Great Feat of Lecturing One’s Daughter’ again. “I can tell already that granddaughter Yi is one who knows when it’s appropriate to advance and when to retreat. This granddaughter is one I like the most, so you…”
And so née Sun was lectured all over again on every aspect of her life... and then some.
Meanwhile, Qin Yining and Bao-mama had walked to a quiet corner of the yard and was holding a conversation unheard by any. “Miss, you likely don’t know what the Institute of Luminous Grace is, right?”
“Indeed, please enlighten me mama, what kind of business is it?”
Bao-mama smiled. “The Institute is a bit like the Royal Academy of olden dynasties, but it’s a bit different. Do you know, miss, that sometimes when great officials are convicted of a crime, their families become embroiled as well?”
“Yes.” Qin Yining nodded.
“Some officials are beheaded for their crimes, others exiled. And regardless of their womenfolk’s age, whether it’s their eighty-year-old mother or three-year-old daughter, all become court courtesans. Please note that this kind of courtesan doesn’t mean a prostitute.”
“Back then, the imperial family ran the Royal Academy themselves. The courtesans would be sent there for jobs according to their skills. Ones too elderly would be sent to the kitchen, to gather kindling, clean, run errands, and the like. Those too young would be raised until they were able to be sent to the front of the house to entertain guests.  Although our court extols the virtues of rules and manners, officials often visited the Royal Academy to purposefully select the family members of their disgraced peers and engage in shameful acts. Many of them didn’t pay after the fact either. Deeping accounts on credit became the norm. Thus, the Royal Academy constantly lost money.”
“People like that exist?!” Qin Yining was openmouthed in shock.
Bao-mama smiled at her reaction. “People of all sorts exist in the world. The Royal Academy was the property of the late emperor, but how could he allow it to stay in the red like that? In a fit of anger, he closed it and was left unable to collect on the debts. But, there was also now no place for the womenfolk of disgraced officials to go, and the imperial household couldn’t keep sheltering them. In the end, someone came up with the idea for the Institute of Luminous Grace.
“The late emperor reopened the Royal Academy, but it no longer does business. Its primary duty is to serve as a shelter for the women, while the Institute is in charge of running the businesses. However, it must be run like a proper business, and aside from a few shopkeepers, all staff must be hired from the Royal Academy.”
Qin Yining immediately understood the crux of the issue at this point and nodded. “This is a wondrous idea. The late emperor’s Royal Academy will cease losing money because it’s hiring out the womenfolk, while the Institute has to hire staff anyway. The women of these disgraced officials are a large source of labor, and it gives the Institute a differentiating edge.”
“The mistress was quite correct in your quickness, miss. You only needed a small hint to understand. The duke’s father was the one who came up with the idea, and the late emperor was so delighted that he awarded the Institute to the late master. This was how it’d been passed down to the eldest master’s hands, but you know his personality.” Bao-mama sighed at this point. “There were originally two taverns, two inns, and two brothels under the Institute’s banner. However, eldest master Sun Yu is a stubborn one and didn’t want to see any untoward conduct under his roof, so he closed down the two brothels. Currently, the Institute operates three taverns and two inns. The eldest master remodeled one of the old brothels into a tavern and business has been booming. But because of the war these past few years, he hasn’t had the spare time to run operations. The other closed brothel currently sits unused.”
Qin Yining thoroughly understood the origins of the Institute of Luminous Grace by now. No wonder née Sun had objected so strenuously just now! The Institute had three taverns, two inns, and one piece of unused real estate. This was an enormous sum! Setting aside the real estate, how much silver did the taverns and inns bring in a year? They all operated well into the black! And now they were all hers? And, it was a major selling point that the Institute only hired from the Royal Academy. All of the staff were the womenfolk of disgraced officials. They could be the old dowager of one of the former large aristocratic houses, or a noble daughter whose beauty made others swoon. Perhaps the one serving tea in the tavern may have been the head of some inner residence!
Although the staff had been dragged into the crimes of their family, they still seemed very prestigious to Qin Yining.
“Miss, is there anything that you still don’t understand?” Bao-mama couldn’t help but ask when she saw Qin Yining deep in thought.
Qin Yining shook her head with a smile. “Grandmother has given me a rich gift indeed. Although I feel a bit guilty for accepting it, I won’t let down grandfather and grandmother’s trust in me. I will run the business well and make good use of the connections within.”
Bao-mama was immensely shocked by this insightful response and a light flashed through her eyes. “Good, very good! Miss indeed lives up to the mistress’ expectations. I can be at ease then.”
The two chatted a bit longer. Née Sun left with Qin Yining and Qin Huining when the hour grew late, and Bao-mama relayed Qin Yining's words thoroughly to the duchess.
“Did she really say that?” the duchess asked.
“Indeed. The miss has a clever mind and perceptive heart, she easily understood the crux of the matter. I only needed to speak of the origins of the Institute of Luminous Grace and hadn’t even gone into details before she understood its importance. She truly is the daughter of Wise Pan An!” Bao-mama praised continuously. The duchess started laughing at her fervor.
“Elder Madame, the eldest master is here.” The maid outside lifted the door curtains to allow Sun Yu to quickly stride in and bow in greeting.
“Ming’er, come here and warm yourself.”
Sun Yu shifted a stool over to sit next to his grandmother and cut straight to the point. “Grandmother, I’ve only just heard that something’s happened at the Institute these last two days. Did you know long beforehand?”
The duchess nodded with a smile. “Indeed I knew.”
“Younger cousin’s just come back and doesn’t understand the intricacies within. Is it really wise to hand over the Institute without handling that matter first?”