It was as warm as spring in the side wing as Ruilan sat on a bed frame, huddled in a padded cotton jacket. Her swollen face had already turned black and blue, a testament to how much force had been behind her fall earlier. A delicious fragrance wafted from a plate of stir-fried melon seeds placed on a small table that also doubled as a nightstand. Yuxiang dragged over a stool, diving into the food while cursing in the direction of the main residence. Her chin gestured wildly at the main residence as she spat, “...and why doesn’t she think hard about her origins, ah?! She’s throwing her weight around when she’s just come back! Just wait and see, Old Dowager dotes on Fourth Miss so much. Now her precious girl has been slapped, Old Dowager will skin that barbarian alive!”
Ruilan anxiously cut her off when she saw that Yuxiang’s voice growing louder and louder without care. “Please, my respected sister, lower your voice! There won’t be a place for us in Snowpear Courtyard if the miss hears!”
“You’re scared of her? Well, I’m not!” Yuxiang made a noise of contempt and roughly wiped off the seed shells on her lip. “Didn’t you see Old Dowager and Senior Madame’s attitude towards her? She’s an idiot, pissing off the two most important people in the manor the second she walked in here. Senior Madame’s her birth mother, but even she won’t see that barbarian. What kind of good days could possibly be in store for her now?”
Yuxiang randomly threw the shells onto the lit brazier, undaunted by the charred smell that started to spread. She kept throwing more shells in and sniffed disdainfully, “And aren’t we unlucky! We were just fine in Garden of Tranquility. You and I might have even become a madame ourselves with our looks and how often we served the lord. And now what? We’ve been abandoned to this piss poor place and we have to deal with that country hick. What kind of good future will we have now? How bloody unlucky!”
These sharp words left Ruilan mute. She might just be a second-rank maid without many opportunities to serve the lord closely, but the lord of the house was so handsome and arresting! Even a faint glance from him was enough to make one’s heart pound. The senior madame had failed continuously to have another child and Ruilan had never considered herself to be bad-looking, so she’d long since had some thoughts of her own. But who knew that she’d be sent to Snowpear Courtyard and then be beaten on the very first day? When she recalled how scary Qin Yining had been, Ruilan felt cold chills run down her back again. She frowned and spoke a cautionary word, “You didn’t see how strong the miss was. Just put those thoughts aside. Regardless of everything, she’s the lord’s official daughter.”
“So what?! She still has to toe the line in front of us! Jin-mama is such a busybody. She wanted to give that barbarian the good charcoal no matter what! The barbarian’s used to burning leaves and branches in the mountain. She probably doesn’t even know of silverfrost charcoal, the kind that doesn’t give off smoke.” Yuxiang giggled. “Well, we’re putting it to good use!”
“Oh you.” When Ruilan remembered how Qin Yining hadn’t been angry even when she’d discovered that her items had been stolen and could still smile and talk with them, and how the main residence was as cold as an icy cavern, the maid also felt a bizarre thread of happiness run through her.
Yuxiang snacked on a few more seeds and suddenly smiled. “She beat Miss Huining so badly today, I wonder if she’ll even be coming back!”
“I know right?” Ruilan finally relaxed enough to laugh as well. Just as they were chortling happily, the door to the room opened with a creak. Both of them jumped, but assumed it was the little servant girl. They were about to yell but froze when they caught a clear glimpse of the visitor s. This skinny, beautiful girl wearing a beige damask cloak... wasn’t this the Qin Yining that the two were smearing? Their gazes met, and Ruilan could detect a murderous intent from Qin Yining’s cold eyes. The faint smile on her mistress’ lips made Ruilan’s neck prickle, and she scrambled to put her shoes on, ignoring how much pain the action caused her.
“You’ve returned, Fourth Miss.” Ruilan curtseyed.
“Fourth Miss.” Yuxiang’s expression was quite ugly as she also dipped in a greeting.
“I wouldn’t dare accept this greeting of yours. After all, I’m just a crude country hick. With Miss Yuxiang’s temperament, you may very well have been promoted to a concubine had you stayed in Garden of Tranquility.” Qin Yining walked to the bed with her hands clasped behind her back, looking down at the fine silverfrost charcoal and the charred melon seed remnants in the brazier with a smile. “Well? Did Jin-mama give the two of you enough charcoal? Shall I send for some more?”
Ruilan’s heart skipped a beat and she immediately sank to her knees. She heard everything we said! This was a mistress who wouldn’t even blink if she had to kill someone. And if she killed two maids, nothing would come of it either! All she had to do was pin some random crime on them and hand over ten taels of silver when she made her report to local law enforcement. As much as the old dowager disliked her real granddaughter, the matriarch wouldn’t begrudge that little bit of silver to make a problem disappear. Ruilan trembled in fear, trying to recall if she’d said anything too offensive. Thankfully, it’d been Yuxiang who’d run her mouth. She herself hadn’t said much. Thus reassured, Ruilan kowtowed. “Please don’t be angry, miss.”
“Don’t be angry? I’m not angry, so what makes you say that?” Qin Yining ignored Ruilan and looked at Yuxiang. She smiled slightly, leaving no clue to her mood.
When Yuxiang saw how meek this mistress of hers seemed, she lifted her chin arrogantly. The maid was showing more spine than one usually expected. She lifted her chin arrogantly,. “You’re joking, miss. Who made me a concubine?”
Qin Yining carefully looked Yuxiang up and down, the look in her eyes like a sharp knife tempered in ice. It was enough to instantly deflate the maid’s confidence as she too started to tremble. She might actually be in for it now. What is this Qin Yining going to do to me? She’s only just returned to the manor and doesn’t understand the rules of a noble family yet. She probably won’t do anything to me, maybe just hit me once or twice. Yuxiang felt much reassured when she was done reassuring herself.
Just as Yuxiang was thinking of how to get word out to her mother for help, Qin Yining smiled mysteriously. “I need to copy ‘The Classic of Filial Piety’. Ruilan, grind ink for me.”
She’s not going to punish me? Yuxiang smiled gleefully. Ruilan also breathed a sigh of relief and rose with a murmured word of assent. She gasped in pain when the movement tugged at her wound. Yuxiang reached out to help her fellow maid and lectured her mistress with dissatisfaction, “You’re too heartless, miss. How can Ruilan help in the study like this? Let me go grind the ink for you, let Ruilan rest.” Her tone had completely flipped, as if she was the mistress instead.
Ruilan began shaking all over as she hastily denied, “This servant is fine. I will go help in the study immediately.”
Yuxiang glared at Ruilan, fully bent on sticking up for the latter today.
“Ruilan will help in the study and Yuxiang will go boil water. I want to take a shower.” Qin Yining found Yuxiang to be quite amusing.
Yuxiang’s eyes widened, taken aback at the command. She was the child of a servant, 1 and her mother was an overseer in the outer residence. She was an elite among servants, and was frequently on call to serve at the side of the masters and mistresses. When had she done any grunt work like boiling water? “Miss, you’ve just returned and probably don’t understand how things are done. Us servants have our own area of responsibility. Everyone has their own job. The serving girls are in charge of grunt work such as boiling water. No one’s ever made a maid at their side boil water. Out of consideration for your reputation, I’ll go help you in the study.” Not only was the maid expressing her displeasure, she was even blatantly mocking Qin Yining for not understanding the rules.
Cold sweat began pouring down Ruilan’s forehead. She quickly spoke up, “This servant is fine. I can help you in the study, miss.”
These words set Yuxiang off in a tizzy as she gave Ruilan a vicious pinch. What’s wrong with her?! I’m speaking up for her and she’s ruining all my good intentions! Ruilan frowned fiercely from the pinch, almost shedding a tear.
“I wonder who the mistress in this yard is? Does Miss Yuxiang want to be the one in charge?” Qin Yining was done playing and turned to leave. Her tone brooked no opposition, “Yuxiang will go boil water, the rest will follow.”
“Understood.” The maids in the covered hallway chorused. It was only then that Ruilan and Yuxiang discovered Zhu-mama, Qiulu, Liuya and the others all standing in a neat row outside the small room. No one knew how long they’d been there. Ruilan quickly took her place while Yuxiang, with pursed lips, sullenly went off to the kitchen in the rear facing rooms to boil water.
Liuya and Qiulu busied themselves with lighting the lamps in the main residence, while the serving girls distributed charcoal to braziers according to Zhu-mama’s instructions. Qin Yining took a seat in the rose chair2. Adorned with pale-green seat cushions, it was right next to a black lacquered table that had delicate wisps carved into it. Ruilan immediately placed within hand’s reach a porcelain tea cup set, decorated with carps playing amongst the lotuses, and offered up an exquisite hand warmer. “Miss, why not start writing after your hand is warmed?”
Qin Yining found this new behavior quite entertaining. She’s become quite proactive after being beaten! So it would seem that those who were kind would only be bullied!
The room warmed slowly and Ruilan fetched the four treasures of the study. She laid out the paper properly and carefully ground the inkstick into the inkstone. Qin Yining randomly selected a brush made of weasel fur and tested the tip with a pale finger. As the servants busied themselves around her, she spoke softly, “It is indeed quite the hardship for you all to come serve me. This sets your future back greatly.”
“These servants wouldn’t dare think so.” Zhu-mama led the pack as all the servants in the room stopped their activities and knelt.
Qin Yining laughed lightly, flashing her pearly whites. The illumination from the lamp light made her beautiful features all the more stunning. “Since we reside within the manor, it is only right to observe its rules.” She put the brush down as her gaze fell on the group on their knees in front of her. Her eyes sparkled radiantly as she spoke thoughtfully. “Since Jin-mama sent you to Snowpear Courtyard, you could be considered my people now. I’ve just arrived in the manor and there is much I don’t know. I don’t know many of the rules that noble ladies are supposed to know either. But, the mama to teach me rules and my teacher will arrive tomorrow. Do you think I’ll always remain in the dark?”
“The miss speaks too severely, these servants wouldn’t dare think so.” The group kowtowed as enlightenment sparked in their collective minds. There had to be a limit to their bullying! Their miss was the lord’s only child after all, it was only a matter of time before she found her footing and soared to new heights! Qin Yining’s words created a shift in their attitude to her, one that edged towards respect and perhaps care. But more importantly, it instilled a new sense of belonging. They didn’t feel that the future was dark anymore, not if they followed this miss!
Qin Yining had spent a great deal of time in the city, and understood well that both kings and peasants moved for profit. If she wanted this group to follow her faithfully, she had to reassure them that they wouldn’t lose their backing at the drop of a hat. She’d actually turned that little speech over many times in her mind before delivering it. She didn’t have experience in ordering people around or lecturing them, but that wasn’t her main worry. She was simply trying to avoid saying the wrong things.
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