Chapter 33: A Hot Mountain Yam 
Qin Yining sat at the head seat, flanked by Ruilan and Qiulu. She was silent and didn’t immediately respond. She took the time to carefully observe the steward instead. Zhong Yucheng was nearing sixty years old and was of average height. He was a bit flabby and had on a long shirt of a vivid blue satin that was embroidered with patterns of good fortune. A dark brown cape graced his shoulders, a warm, fur hat on his head. There was a ruby embedded in the middle of the hat, about the size of a fingernail. He was someone who presented an extremely well put together sight judging from looks alone.
However, he currently had a desolate expression on his face and anxiety was written in all of his wrinkles. His neatly cropped, white beard trembled and shook. When he bowed to Qin Yining, he bowed quite low. It seemed that he would crumple under a single blow.
Qin Yining was thinking furiously. A shopkeeper like the one in front of her was many times more impressive than any she’d met when she traded herbs. It’d always been her bowing and scraping before others. She was at a momentary loss of what to do now that one was on his knees in front of her. And yet, she was the new owner of the Institute of Luminous Grace. Although she could depend on her steward for running operations, she had to be the one to make strategic decisions. Whether or not her staff followed her orders would all depend on today. When her thoughts traveled here, Qin Yining stiffened her spine even further and gathered more of an imposing air. Silence was always the most meaningful response.
When the steward saw that the new owner was able to maintain her composure despite being a young girl, his mind drifted to the shockingly able Duchess of Ding. He fixed an even more solemn attitude in his mind and lowered his head further.
Ruilan and Qiulu couldn’t help but start to admire their mistress at the sight of this. The other girls didn’t have this kind of bearing at all. The silence stretched on for five minutes before finally being broken by Qin Yining. She spoke very slowly because she needed to think about her words, but incidentally this made her tone seem very measured and deliberate. “Does Steward Zhong have something to report in making this trip today? Please rise to respond. Ruilan, bring a seat. Qiulu, offer good tea.”
The maids hastened to carry out their instructions. Steward Zhong rose and backed up a few steps, perching on the edge of the stool that Ruilan brought over and accepting from Qiulu the white porcelain teacup decorated with a motif of red plum blossoms. He placed it on the tea table next to him.
Qin Yining played with the teacup lid in her hand. “There are no outsiders here. Steward Zhong can speak frankly. But next time, you can just come and deliver your message. Don’t kneel for long periods of time like today. What if you harmed yourself in this weather? Business operations still need you in the future.”
The steward was quick on the uptake and immediately identified the undertones behind these words. Qin Yining was faulting him for almost negatively affecting her reputation. He hastily got up to bow and spoke at the ground, “Owner speaks truly. I was too brash this time and won’t do so again in the future. It’s just that today’s matter was urgent, which is why I came here like this.”
He swiftly snuck a glance at Qin Yining as he spoke, taking in the sight of a young girl sitting primly, wearing a crimson cloak. Her features were hard to make out in the lantern light, just that a pair of long, slender brows imparted a striking effect to the girl. Her eyes had a bright light in them, making her seem like an unfathomable character. The steward’s heart shook at this and he quickly added, “Owner, something’s happened at the Institute. This humble one is unable to handle it, and so has come for guidance.”
Qin Yining’s heart skipped a beat. Although she had an inkling of suspicion earlier that things wouldn’t be as simple as just sitting back and reaping the profits, it still prompted a brief moment of panic when trouble came calling. However, she maintained her calm composure and lifted her chin, indicating for the steward to continue.
“We hired a girl from the Royal Academy a few days ago. She’s fourteen, pretty, and delicate like a flower. But who knew that Prince of Ning would carry her off the first day she worked in the tavern?! The Institute has guards and martial arts masters, but I didn’t dare offend Prince of Ning. The girl’s spent three days in the Prince of Ning Manor by now, and I also can’t explain to the Royal Academy how I lost a girl, which is why I’ve come here.”
It was dead silent, so quiet that a pin drop could be heard. Ruilan and Qiulu were sweating profusely off to the side. Every Great Yan citizen knew who Prince of Ning was! Prince of Ning, named Weichi Jinming, was a fan of martial might and a skilled hand at leading men into battle. He was the emperor’s younger brother from the same mother and recipient of great royal favor. The emperor didn’t have many sons and had once even adopted the prince’s heir as an imperial son, but had returned the prince’s heir after an imperial concubine gave birth to a son. Prince of Ning had uncommon status indeed…
But as great as his qualities were, he was also a tyrannical, lecherous sort. He would carry off whichever girl caught his eye, even if they were someone else’s wife or concubine. How would a little girl like Qin Yining handle something like this?
Just as Ruilan and Qiulu were indignant and worried for their mistress, they heard a crisp peal of laughter. Qin Yining laughed sardonically, “Steward Zhong is certainly an interesting person! It’s the first time I’ve seen someone ask for help like this. Please be on your way if you don’t intend on speaking the truth.” She lifted her teacup in an unmistakable gesture as she spoke.
An indication to see the guest out? Both maids were taken aback. Ruilan was the first to react and moved to ask the steward to leave.
Steward Zhong was utterly flabbergasted, staring at the girl with incredulity. Qin Yining remained as she was, displaying perfect composure and a gentle smile. It seemed that no wind or rain would shake her frame. He immediately changed his dismissive mentality and didn’t dare underestimate her anymore. He dropped to his knees with a thunk. “Owner, don’t be mad!”
“Since Steward Zhong has come asking for help, don’t try to pull the wool over my eyes,” Qin Yining responded. “You hire from the Royal Academy normally, so I’m sure you have a way to handle it when you can’t return their people. It must be different this time since you’re unable to handle things. You best tell the truth. I may yet have a solution after listening to you.”
Steward Zhong remained on the ground and kowtowed. “You perceive the slightest detail in everything. The girl that the prince has taken is surnamed Tang, given name Meng. She’s the only child of the former administrative assistant of the Imperial Academy of Medicine, Master Tang.  Master Tang’s entire family was executed for his attempt to poison the empress. The Tang women refused to be humiliated and all committed suicide. Miss Tang escaped this all because she entered a nunnery half a year ago. She was captured and sent to the Royal Academy after this happened, and then we hired her.”
Qin Yining had a clear picture of what was going on without the steward going into further detail. Living amongst the general populace, she’d heard more rumors than even the nobles in the capital.
The emperor was decrepit and incompetent. He was also at the end of his days, but solely favored a twenty or so year old empress, née Cao. Née Cao was born of an illustrious family as her father was then Grand Preceptor of the Heir Cao. Now Grand Preceptor Cao, his power in court was domineering as his daughter was the empress and his student the crown prince. The way he did things became even more arrogant as a result. Empress née Cao was said to possess a face that could launch a thousand ships and was so tantalizing and alluring that she had the emperor in the palm of her hand. Not only was she the sole recipient of his favor, she often interfered in matters of court as well. She was very similar to Daji, Baosi, and Feiyan—all famous imperial concubines in history who’d contributed to the downfall of their dynasty. This was why the people didn’t call née Cao the empress, but rather the trampress. They all said that the emperor was so muddleheaded because of née Cao’s influence.
Qin Yining had also heard of what’d happened with the Tangs on her way back to the capital. One of the imperial physicians was friendly with the Clearists and hoped to clear the riffraff by the emperor’s side, eliminate the trampress and return a noble emperor to Great Yan. He’d made use of his profession to poison the trampress, but who would’ve thought that she would be unexpectedly tough? She’d only been half poisoned, but the physician and his entire family lost their lives.
She now understood Miss Tang’s origins after listening to the steward. She’d been puzzled by the steward’s extreme haste and humble declaration of service today, but all was clear now. Tang Meng’s father was the hero who’d poisoned the trampress, and Tang Meng was the sole surviving child of their hero. The Institute hadn’t protected her properly since taking her and allowed that lecherous villain Prince of Ning to carry her off, and for three days at that!
Everyone could guess what had happened over these three days, and those old Clearist antiques must’ve given the steward no end of grief. These officials couldn’t do anything to Grand Preceptor Cao or the prince, but they could easily make life difficult for a mere steward.
Steward Zhong also had family. If he didn’t handle things well, his family would likely lose all of their standing in the capital, and maybe even their lives as well! No wonder the steward was so anxious.
Qin Yining frowned. “I understand what you speak of. You may leave now.”
She didn’t indicate anything! The steward grew even more frantic. “Owner, please give this humble one a way out. My family and I will be filled with everlasting gratitude and loyal to you for the rest of our lives!”
“Steward Zhong.” Qin Yining’s tone was cool. “What do you think I can do?”
These words were a ladle of cold water down his head. Right, the previous owner had been the great scholar Sun Yu, and even he hadn’t wanted to handle this hot mountain yam. The new owner was just a girl who hadn’t yet come of age. What could she do? He was barking up every tree possible in his panic! Steward Zhong trailed his head down with utter dejection. He could see what the future looked like already. Perhaps his family would all be hanged in a few days.
Qin Yining lifted her teacup again. He bowed properly this time and followed Ruilan out. The girl remaining inside slowly put her cup down, that self-possessed expression from earlier long since disappeared. Her forehead was furrowed tightly and her red lips pursed as well. It felt like a large boulder was weighing her heart down. She paced inside at first, then felt too stifled inside and stepped out into the yard.
As the sky darkened into night, the bamboo forest in the charming yard sashayed in the wind, casting long shadows onto the ground. It felt that this patch of ground was the only land left in the world. Meanwhile, a gout of anger was being fanned into existence by a sense of righteousness!
“Animal!” Qin Yining cursed and kicked viciously at a stone stool. She actually knocked it to the ground with a dull thud. Ruilan and Qiulu were startled, Zhu-mama hid inside and didn’t dare come out. Zhan-mama however, remained under the covered hallway from the side wing and looked at Qin Yining quietly.
“Don’t be angry, miss. Be careful of hurting yourself.” Ruilan walked over to support her mistress.
“Miss, what do you plan to do about Miss Tang?” Qiulu was an honest girl with immense loyalty. She was currently caught up in anxiety and distress. “The Tangs are all good people, it’s too sad that this is their end!”
Advance chapters on Patreon everyone! Was able to pull it up to three today~