Née Sun’s expression remained tightly controlled, her lips pursed tight, as if something unkind would spew out if she relaxed them even the slightest bit.
Jin-mama, Caiju, and Cailan tiptoed carefully around their mistress, their trepidation growing with every angry stomp. Two maids flanked the madame, afraid that she might stumble and fall in her haste.
At one point, Jin-mama surreptitiously fell back a half step and looked meaningfully at Qin Yining. The girl nodded understandingly, allowing the mama to breathe a sigh of relief. At long last, it seemed she had a solid pillar of support to lean on in times like this.
The mama was now seeing things clearly, especially in light of recent events.
Qin Yining obviously occupied a different position in the old dowager and duchess’ eyes. Add her own mistress’ natural obtuseness in many matters… the old servant couldn’t afford to make an enemy of the fourth miss if she wanted to live peacefully from now on.
As for what her niece was telling her , well, they had different mistresses and had to think for themselves. Jin-mama wasn’t so naive as to think that a foster girl who could barely secure her own position could offer her a good future.
Qin Huining had been reluctantly bringing up the rear with Cai-mama, Bitong, and Bitao. As a result, she didn’t miss the interaction between Jin-mama and Qin Yining.
Unguarded for a moment, her expression twisted into an ugly mask. Nothing that’d happened lately had been good for her. The only tangible progress was the sight of Qin Yining continuing to slowly climb higher than her.
No matter how fervently Qin Huining tried to get into the old dowager and née Sun’s good graces, it seemed that blood would forever be a barrier between them. She sneered at herself self-deprecatingly. She was a random babe brought into this family. How would any of them truly treat her well?
When they returned to Garden of Tranquility, née Sun ignored the servants and stormed angrily through the door curtains. She marched straight across the room, dropped heavily onto the head seat and burst out with, “Daughter Hui, what was that about!?!”
Qin Huining bit her lip and raised her eyebrows in a faux innocent fashion. She slowly walked up and pulled her hem out to kneel in front of née Sun. “Please don’t be angry, mother. Don’t hurt yourself with anger. It’s all your daughter’s fault.”
That response neatly bottled up née Sun’s words, and the girl’s pitiful appearance made it seem like her mother was bullying her. That last thought spun around and around in née Sun’s mind, making her more indignant with every revolution. Finally, she could take it no longer, raising her hand and whipping it down and across.
Crack! Qin Huining’s head snapped to the side with the force of the slap.
“Who allowed you to talk to me like this!? What, haven’t you had enough of that act in front of Old Dowager? You still want to keep it up in front of me?!”
“Mother, how can you treat me this way?!” Broken sobs escaped Qin Huining as she held her cheek incredulously and tilted her head up to meet née Sun’s eyes, two trails of tears streaking down her face.
Née Sun’s rage burned even hotter when she saw the continued show.
“Still with the pity act? Do you take everyone for a fool?! You provoked me again and again, and went so far as to stir up drama behind my back. Do you think I don’t know that you’re using me?! I raised and treated you as my own, but you chose to act against me instead! Setting everything else aside, should you have said what you just said to the old dowager?!”
Qin Huining’s mental bout of self pity vanished instantly and was replaced by abject fear.
What was going on?! Née Sun had only gone home for a few days, but she felt like a completely different person now! How was she coming back to her senses so quickly? The duchess must’ve done something!
A sense of peril the like Qin Huining had never felt before descended on her. No matter how capable Qin Yining was, the foster girl had always been confident in her hold over née Sun and the old dowager. But look at how little time had passed for her control to already start slipping?!
Née Sun had always listened to her every word and gesture before. Her mother had always responded to her emotional pleas. And yet now?!
“Mother, don’t misunderstand, I…”
“Enough!” Née Sun couldn’t be bothered with Qin Huining’s feeble protests. “I saw it with my own eyes! You tried to start something in front of the old dowager so that she’d hate me! How would that benefit you?! Qin Huining, I’m so disappointed in you!”
She herself began crying from the injustice of it all. “You saw yourself what kind of life I’ve led here all these years. And now you treat me like this?! Why is this happening to me?!”
Life was so incredibly unfair for née Sun, and it was even more unfair for Qin Huining. While the mother cried fitfully on the head seat, the girl collapsed in a heap on the floor, sobbing inconsolably while cradling her swollen cheek. The madame’s servants hovered around them, trying to comfort the two one after the other.
On the other hand, Qin Yining had slipped out when née Sun dissolved into tears, returning quietly to Snowpear Courtyard. It wasn’t that she didn’t care about née Sun, but that she really felt that she could do nothing to help her mother mature.
Even someone as smart as the Duchess of Ding hadn’t been able to educate some smarts into née Sun, so what could a little girl like her do?
As for Qin Huining, it served her right for being slapped! She should’ve been taught more of a lesson. A slap for a slap was far too proportional for Qin Yining to accept as retribution.
She couldn’t be bothered with worrying about the two in Garden of Tranquility. Qin Yining went about her day with peace of mind and had a good night’s sleep.
Early the next morning, she went to greet the old dowager as usual. The old dowager’s words the day before, that née Sun needn’t bother coming anymore, had been spoken out of anger, but Qin Yining was a bit worried that née Sun really would stay away.
She relaxed minutely when she saw née Sun present herself at Garden of Tranquility. The senior madame wasn’t being particularly warm towards the old dowager, but there was nothing in her behavior that could be criticized.
Although present, Qin Huining was once again the picture of an ugly pig with half her face swollen out of control. Even the corners of her lips looked bruised. This sight greatly entertained Qin Yining.
Looks like she was slapped again after I left yesterday. This person had a crooked personality and had tried to harm others many times over. In Qin Yining’s mind, it was only right and proper that she be taught a lesson.
Qin Huining seemed to teeter on the verge of tears the entire time, as if she’d suffered a grave injustice in Garden of Tranquility. Her appearance caused her stalwart ally, the sixth miss, to frequently cast venomous glares in Qin Yining’s direction, but the latter couldn’t be bothered.
Qin Huining was just digging her own grave now. People had trusted her character before, so they naturally couldn’t bear to see the foster girl suffer.
But now that the old dowager and née Sun both suspected her nature, how would they possibly feel any sympathy? Qin Huining’s highly confident plot was doomed to fail, and it was only a matter of time before she followed her plan’s demise as well. Qin Yining was happy to bide her time and watch the debacle unfold.
“Old Dowager.” Jixiang entered the house with a smile. “Bao-mama from the Duchess of Ding has arrived.”
Those inside were all surprised. The old dowager pulled herself upright and smiled back. “Hurry and show her in.” She cast a sideways glance at née Sun as she spoke. The target of her quick glance gritted her teeth and looked down, reining in her temper with great effort.
Bao-mama curtsied accordingly when she entered the room and saw the various mistresses and misses present. The girls didn’t dare accept the gesture and asked after the old servant’s health instead.
“What brings Bao-mama here today?” The old dowager smiled politely. Is she here with gifts and apologies again?
“In response to Old Dowager Qin, our madame would like to commission some rituals at the Celestial Nunnery today. She’s sent me to ask you if we can take our miss with us for a walk.”
“Oh, such a simple matter.” The old dowager was only mildly startled by the request. "I’ll have her get ready and go with you. Is your madame in good health?”
“All is well, thanks to your great fortune.” Bao-mama responded to the pleasantry with a smile and a respectful, but not overly fawning manner. She didn’t mention née Sun’s return or seem to be here with apologies and gifts. There was nothing in her demeanor that lost face for the Ding Manor.
Qin Yining put on her cape with help from Qin-mama, and reached out for an exquisite brass hand warmer paired with a pale-green satin cover. When Bao-mama and the old dowager finished their exchange of pleasantries, she took her leave with a smile. “Old Dowager, I will be heading out now.”
“Go on, serve your maternal grandmother well.” The old dowager waved her hand affably.
Bao-mama curtsied again and departed with the fourth miss. Qin Yining rounded the room divider to reach the door and caught sight of Qin Huining following them, having put on a light-blue cape.
The fourth miss surreptitiously tugged on Bao-mama’s sleeve. The old servant turned around questioningly, only to see that Qin Huining was joining them. She blinked once, then a supercilious smile appeared on her face.
“It seems that this servant has a clumsy mouth and wasn’t clear. The Duchess of Ding would like to take our miss to Celestial Nunnery, but she didn’t say that she wanted to take Miss Huining.”
Although they had reached the door, they were only separated from the others by a divider, so the old servant’s words clearly traveled inside. Qin Yining stifled laughter at the mama’s deft hand, feeling embarrassed for the foster girl. Qin Huining’s already swollen face turned purple and her eyes filled with tears as she looked at the mama.
Regardless of her attitude the day before, née Sun couldn’t bear to see this happen and came running. “I’m not going with mother today, so why not let daughter Hui go? The two sisters can take care of each other as well.”
“Lady, it’s not that I dare to disobey you, but that the duchess clearly gave orders that we bring only our miss with us. The Ding Manor has only one Qin miss, of which you’re aware as well, no? If you’d like me to take Miss Huining with us, will you explain the situation to my mistress? Right now, it only puts me in a difficult position.”
Née Sun could only keep quiet out of embarrassment. After all, her mother had clearly said in front of her yesterday that she was only taking Yining.
Meanwhile, Huining was so enraged that she wanted to kill someone. What the hell does she mean by this?! Is Bao-mama here to publicly humiliate me?!
Saying that the Ding Manor had only one Qin miss in front of everyone was completely trampling on her dignity!
However, Bao-mama wasn’t finished. She turned to beam merrily at Qin Huining. “There’s one thing more that this old servant will overstep herself to tell the miss.”
Qin Huining’s lips were trembling with rage as she controlled herself with sheer force of will. “Speak.”
Bao-mama’s smile vanished like a raindrop in the desert.
“The Ding Manor has never cared for those who scheme against each other. The elder madame and duke has always made clear that those with true ability should seek to use it outside the home. Using one’s own skills on family to plot and blackmail isn’t a display of competence, but disgusting filthiness instead.
“The Ding Manor produces no one like this and wants no one like this. You’re a smart girl, miss, you should think about what you’ve done wrong. Especially now that you’ve reached this point. Don’t think that you’re the smartest in the world, nor that everyone else is blind, deaf, and dumb.” Bao-mama gave Qin Huining an immaculate curtsey once she was done speaking.
Although a gesture of respect, and one could find nothing to criticize about it, it only made Qin Huining feel like she’d been slapped once again.
Unable to bear the situation, she darted out the door, tears dancing in her wake. The old servant turned back to Qin Yining, her tone once again the very model of respect, “Let’s go, miss.”
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