Chapter 54: A Tantalizing Temptress
Qin Yining had no clue what kind of thoughts were running through the mind of this man beside her. After a brief moment of prayer, she rose to her feet. At that precise moment, a sickly sweet female voice traveled in from outside the temple.
“…of course I remember your noble stance of yesteryear. Coming back here brings up so many memories.”
Qin Yining froze . In the middle of her indecision, Pang Xiao grabbed her hand and swiftly yanked her around the altar table, hiding them both behind the goddess’ image. Panic and fear jolted her out of her daze, and she was about to scream for help when a hand clapped over her mouth as another arm clamped around her waist like a bar of steel. She was completely enveloped into a stranger’s embrace. Her face burned fiercely, and her struggles, while silent, grew even more urgent when she saw Tang Meng also hauled over in a similar fashion by the man’s follower.
The creak of the temple door’s opening stilled her muted attempts, and a female voice giggled breathily, “Your Majesty, look. All is as it was before.”
“Indeed,” a weathered male voice answered her. “When I traveled here and saw this divine image, I felt there was a certain seductive aura hidden within its dignified awe. I was delighted by this and couldn’t help but look at it a bit longer. Who could’ve known that I’d run into you on my way down the mountain?”
The rustling of clothes sounded, as well as a woman’s startled gasp.
“Yurou, I’d thought right then that the heavens had learned of my thoughts and sent a goddess to me, so that I would yearn no longer.”
“This consort only has a willowy figure to her name. How am I worthy of being called a goddess? But it’s true that the heavens favor your noble personage, Your Majesty. You’re fiercer and even stronger now after partaking Priestess Liu’s celestial pill.” The woman’s voice was cloying, yet still tantalizing. What followed was the man’s happy laughter and wet, sucking sounds.
Qin Yining’s face felt like it was on fire and she snuck a look through a crack between the divine image’s feet. She saw a young woman clasped tightly in the embrace of a tall, elderly man. White streaked his temples, and he didn’t look a day under sixty, but the two were tangling lips and tongues as passionately as those half their age.
How could Qin Yining bear to keep watching such debauchery? Her cheeks felt like they would spontaneously combust and she whirled around… only to crash into the chest of the man standing behind her. The husky fragrance of a male wafted into her nostrils, intermixed with the smell of the candles and the faint scent of herbs. It didn’t smell bad, even though it’d invaded her nose. She tilted her head upwards to see that the gentleman wasn’t actually looking at her. His expression was clearly nervous, but tightly controlled, as he too peeked through the altar to observe what was going on.
His stern anxiety greatly calmed Qin Yining down as well. She certainly recognized the two in front of her, especially after listening to them converse. To think that the emperor and the trampress had this sort of past! This emperor is trash enough, to think that he had lewd thoughts when looking at a holy image! And now they’re doing this in front of the goddess…
And yet, this was far from the depths they would go to. What the emperor and empress did next thoroughly trampled what was left of Qin Yining’s moral code. The two actually undressed enough on the rush cushions to consummate their union! The woman’s soft gasps and moans and the man’s rough breathing barreled into Qin Yining’s ears, along with the steady rhythm of impact. She wished the ground would open up and swallow her whole, but had to settle for covering her ears and screwing her eyes shut to try and escape the awkward situation. She silently cursed the wanton trampress and decrepit emperor a thousand, no, ten thousand times over in her heart.
Pang Xiao lowered his head to look at the person who’d buried her face in his chest. A tender smile played on his lips, but a certain thought flashed through his mind when he looked at the ludicrous pair outside. It would be a piece of cake to slaughter that dog of an emperor right now! His mind sped swiftly through calculations of gains and losses, but he extinguished his desire. A living useless emperor was much more useful to Great Zhou than a dead useless one.
The storm soon reached its climax and started winding down. Soon all that could be heard was the woman cutely sighing over the emperor’s ferocity and strength. The two continued their languid affections a bit longer before putting on their clothes and leaving together.
Qin Yining finally came back to herself after the temple doors shut and all grew still. She frantically backed out of the young man’s embrace as a hotly blushing Tang Meng ran over to her. Her big eyes were dewy and she looked ready to burst into tears. Qin Yining grabbed her hand and ran off in a panic, not daring to look at the foreign man standing stock still where he was.
Tang Meng led Qin Yining to a quiet corner behind a large tree. Both of their faces were still burning fiercely and neither of them could find words. After a moment, Tang Meng’s rage overcame her embarrassment as she spat out through gritted teeth, “How can that trash emperor and trampress be so ludicrous?! He’s going to end up becoming the downfall of the nation! How can the trampress have such a strong life-force and make my entire family pay the price instead?! Why doesn’t the heavens strike her down with a bolt of lightning?!” She started sobbing as she railed.
Qin Yining hastily wiped at the girl’s tears. Comforting words were nothing but feeble excuses in such moments. How would mere words attempt to soothe away the devastation of one’s entire family clan being slaughtered? Tang Meng may look jovial and forthright at first glance, but she hid an enormous amount of pain and anguish inside. Qin Yining murmured words of comfort for a long time until Tang Meng’s tears slowly stopped flowing. “I can only begin to imagine your pain, but we are always visited by hardships and obstacles in life. Regret, hate, even nostalgia, they only keep us entangled in the past. As cruel as it seems, looking forward is the only way to keep moving. You’ll always stay by my side from now on, as part of my family. I won’t leave you behind. We’ll have each other.”
Tang Meng was so touched by Qin Yining’s sincere words that she wanted to cry again. She sniffled loudly before forcing a smile on her lips. “Miss, I know you have the kindest heart.”
Qin Yining tucked stray strands of hair behind Tang Meng’s ears. “I’m afraid you’ll have to change your name though, and Ruilan too. Why don’t you two talk about it over the next two days? I haven’t read much, so I can’t think of any pretty sounding names. Pick one you two like.”
“I’ll go back and discuss this with big sister Ruilan. But mine is easy.” Tang Meng’s eyes rolled rapidly. “Call me Bingtang.”
“Bingtang, as in crystal sugar?” Qin Yining smiled. “Alright, this name suits you. You’re definitely a sweet one to begin with. If you're Bingtang, your days ahead will be sweet and full of happiness.”
“Right, sweet and full of happiness. Crystal sugar is delicious and pretty to look at. Isn’t it wonderful?”
The two smiled at each other, their spirits greatly lifted. “Let’s go down from the mountain,” Qin Yining reminded. “We don’t want the elder madame to worry. Don’t tell her anything when we see her, just pretend nothing happened today.”
“Alright, I understand the importance of this.” The two adjusted each other’s clothing and didn’t leave until everything looked exactly as it was before.
They say Bao-mama peering up the mountain as they reached its foot. The old servant seemed to be relieved of an enormous burden when she saw the two girls happily coming back hand-in-hand. “You’re back, miss. Come into the carriage to warm up.”
“Thank you, Bao-mama. Grandmother must have waited for a while? I was looking around with Miss Tang and took some more time than I thought I would.” The two came to the carriage and stepped on the red lacquer footstool to hop in. The duchess was smiling merrily in the center seat. Qin Yining picked some lighthearted topics of no importance and started a conversation about their sightseeing.
When the topic had been exhausted, the duchess asked gently, “Did you meet anyone just now?”
“No.” Qin Yining’s heart skipped a beat, but she maintained the same expression on her face. “Just a young, married woman in the distance. We didn’t come face to face though.”
The duchess nodded and thought for a bit, but said nothing after she glanced at Tang Meng. Qin Yining understood that the duchess might’ve recognized the empress and wanted to tell her that this august personage had been at the nunnery. But her grandmother didn’t want to make Tang Meng sad, so she just swallowed her words. How would the duchess even dream that they’d seen that awkward thing in the temple just now? She’d even heard the imperial couple’s conversation and learned that the emperor was taking pills that Priestess Liu had refined.
All emperors and kings of old searched for the way to immortality, and Emperor Qinglong , the current Great Yan sovereign, was no exception. What surprised Qin Yining was that such a seemingly materialistic person as the priestess would be skilled in the pill refining arts as well. She is truly unfathomable! She still wasn’t sure whether the priestess was truly a disreputable merchant or if it was all just an act, much less how wide the priestess’ net of connections were. Which of her arts are real, and which are just a sham?
The carriage took Tang Meng back to the Cloudsoar Inn first before sending Qin Yining back to the Qin Manor. After Qin Yining bid farewell to her grandmother, she opted to visit Steward Zhong before returning home. She had him prepare 1,600 taels of silver and deliver them to Celestial Nunnery to Priestess Liu.
The steward was taken aback by the large sum. “This is extortion!” He felt a flash of guilt. After all, his miss had been dragged into this matter only because he’d gone and asked her for help. There had been risk enough in going to the Ning Manor, but now she had to pay such a large sum for Tang Meng to resume secular life.
Qin Yining smiled. “Money is earned to be spent. We just need to make sure that we spend all of our money in proper pursuits. Miss Tang is a living person. There’s no reason that she’s not worthy of this expenditure. And to use something the Duchess of Ding said, this is just accumulating good karma for myself.”
“You are gracious, miss, and kind and benevolent too. Life will do you a good turn in the future.” Steward Zhong personally oversaw the orders for this matter and escorted Qin Yining back to the Qin manor.
Dusk had fallen by the time she returned, almost curfew. Qin Yining took a wax-papered carriage to the inner doors and made directly for Garden of Loving Piety. Qin-mama and Jixiang were chatting in hushed voices in a covered hallway on the wings of the compound. They walked up with happy greetings when they saw Qin Yining.
“You’re back, Fourth Miss. The old dowager was just worrying about you, especially since the roads aren’t safe at night. She was afraid that something had kept you.”
“It’s my fault to have caused the old dowager to worry over me. Has she rested for the night?”
“Not yet, please do go in, miss.” Qin-mama led the girl inside, sending a runner inside while helping Qin Yining out of her cape.
When they received the old dowager’s permission, Qin Yining entered the inner room and curtsied. “Old Dowager, your granddaughter has returned. We were delayed because the roads aren’t very good. It’s my fault for causing you worry.”
The old dowager was wearing a dark green, lightweight jacket and sitting cross-legged on the bed. She took two breaths of the pipe before responding. “What could possibly happen to you when you were with your maternal grandmother? It was just me worrying needlessly. Did everything go well today?”
“Everything went well.” Qin Yining purposefully ignored the tones of jealousy in the old dowager’s words. “Have you eaten dinner? Did you eat well?”
The old dowager flicked at the small tobacco pouch hanging off the pipe and sighed. “No, how could I have eaten anything?”
Qin Yining looked curiously at Qin-mama, a silent question in her eyes.
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