Qin-mama was a careful and dependable person. She wasn’t the sort to purposefully start drama. Hence, everyone knew that she had said this to divert attention in a natural way, so that the old dowager wouldn’t feel awkward about what née Sun had just said. When née Sun saw the old servant lead Jixiang and Ruyi in counting the copies, she smiled proudly like she’d won a battle. She sat down elegantly with the sweet thrill of victory.
However, Qin Huining was feeling different. Although the old dowager favored her the most, that old woman Qin-mamahad only ever shown her perfunctory respect. They’d never been close. There was nothing that could be criticized in the servant’s performance, just that she’d never been particularly warm towards Qin Huining. The former fourth miss was someone who’d been well educated since young, how could she possibly cheat? It was impossible that she surreptitiously make one less copy out of laziness. Such childish actions were beneath her! It was one thing for the old servant to suspect Qin Yining, but how dare she drag Qin Huining into this?? The height of insolence!
“In response to Old Dowager, we’ve finished our count.” Jixiang rearranged the papers and subtly flicked an unreadable glance at Qin Yining. “All three of us made our count. Miss Huining made ten copies, Fourth Miss made... thirty copies.”
Everyone looked at the two piles of papers of obviously differing heights when they heard this. It was noticeable to all, but the old dowager hadn’t paid attention to that earlier. No one else could glimpse the size of Qin Yining’s characters, so they only assumed that they varied from large to small with her poor penmanship and had wasted some paper. Who would’ve thought that she’d actually write the classic thirty times over, exceeding the requirement of ten?!
Surprised, the old dowager flipped through the various copies that Qin Yining handed in. Although the writing really was very ugly, one could tell that there wasn’t even a trace of ink splotches on the paper. The girl’s attitude had been quite serious. The matriarch asked with a smile, “Granddaughter Yi, I only set you girls to ten copies, how come you’ve made thirty?”
“Right, I have the same question,” Qin Huining butt in. “I know that you spend the mornings with Zhan-mama and our sisters, and the afternoons with the teacher. Our schedules are equally tight, so how come you have twenty more copies than me?”
She covered her mouth as she laughed. The old dowager had asked an innocent question, but Qin Huining was insinuating that Qin Yining had cheated. Everyone was able to identify the connotations. The sixth miss laughed appropriately, whereas the seventh and eighth miss glared at Qin Huining ferociously. Even née Sun looked at Qin Huining slightly differently. She was displeased.
Having calmed down after a few days, it was easy enough for née Sun to see how Qin Huining was targeting Qin Yining. But they were currently in the old dowager’s house and the second and third branches were also present. The main branch only had Qin Yining and Qin Huining for offspring, so Qin Huining acting thus was losing face for the main branch!
Qin Yining had flushed quite red from embarrassment as she twisted her fingers with a lowered head. She’d swept her hair up into several interwoven buns today 1, exposing her neck when she lowered her head. Combined with her fragile, standing figure, she looked as graceful and elegant as a swan. It evoked pity in the hearts of whoever saw her. Even her voice trembled slightly from obvious bashfulness. “In response to Old Dowager, I didn’t know I’d written it so many times at first. I was indeed wrong for making you so angry that day, so I reflected with each word I wrote. I lost myself in the task and didn’t pay attention to how many copies I made in the end. It was only when my maid organized the papers last night that I realized there were forty copies. I discarded the ones that were really too ugly before I came here, leaving only these.”
She snuck a quick glance at the old dowager, her blush deepening. “Old Dowager, I didn’t grow up reading and writing. I can chop wood, hunt, and pluck herbs. But it’s really difficult for me to use a brush. Even tempting a dog with a piece of cornbread would result in better penmanship than me. I wasted a lot of ink these two days and feel horribly guilty for all the paper I used.”
“Pfawhahaha—!” Laughter erupted when Qin Yining finished. Those assembled looked over to see the old dowager slapping her thigh in hearty laughter. Although the matriarch had her biases and liked to test and assess others, she’d been born of a noble family and raised with good manners. She hadn’t laughed like this in many years, and they too started chuckling when they thought about what Qin Yining had said. For a moment, the atmosphere in the house was so harmonious that it seemed to be New Year’s.
“Oh, you child! Come here, come to grandmother.” The old dowager wiped at her tears and pulled at Qin Yining’s hand, patting it. “How is it as bad as you say! You didn’t have the chance to study, otherwise you wouldn’t be any worse than your sisters! You wrote down the classic forty times because you were reflecting? No wonder I saw you with dark circles under your eyes over the past two days.”
“Lujuan.” The old dowager turned to Qin-mama.
“Yes, Old Dowager?” The beaming old servant made a curtsy.
“Go tell the kitchen to send bird’s nest to the fourth miss every day. She’s much too skinny, it’s like she’ll topple over in the breeze! She’s had a hard life these years and needs some nutrition.”
“Yes, this servant will do so.”
Qin Yining’s face wasn’t quite so red now, and she jerked her eyes to the old dowager when she heard the comment about bird’s nest. She was both startled and flattered by the attention. A layer of mist was present in her eyes, and her look was as clear as a gem. It somehow made one think of a newborn kitten, a warm and soft bundle that one wanted to envelop in their arms. That was what the old dowager did as well.
She held Qin Yining in her embrace and patted her back. “Good girl, don’t be in a rush. Your handwriting will start improving if you learn well from your teacher. You don’t need to think that you lack anything compared to others, and don’t compare yourself to a dog in the future.” The old dowager still couldn’t help but laugh when she recalled the words “tempting a dog with a piece of cornbread”.
Qin Yining lay in the old dowager’s arms, her nose filled with the unique smell of an elderly person, powder, and tobacco. It warmed her heart and her eyes curved into crescents with her smile. She nodded and inwardly heaved a sigh of relief. Thankfully her strategy of quantity over quality had worked. Her hand cramps weren’t for nothing. Only the heavens knew how much effort she’d put in just now to summon her “embarrassment”...
As those assembled looked at the scene of grandmother holding granddaughter, the eyes of the third and eighth miss reddened. They’d all recalled Qin Yining’s childhood just now. Even née Sun, the second and third madame dabbed at their eyes with their handkerchiefs. It was enough that a mere child had survived so much hardship. Who would take her to task for her penmanship, especially when she was such an honest one? Née Sun’s dissatisfaction at Qin Huining losing face for her earlier had been completely replaced by sympathy.
Qin Huining ground her teeth heavily as she took in everyone’s reactions. Who would’ve thought that a simple word from Qin-mama would result in such consequences?! That the old dowager would laugh so freely at this person? That the old dowager would hug Qin Yining and say that she should eat bird’s nest everyday because of her weak body?! This barbarian’s fists were as hard as rocks and she was as strong as an ox, why on earth did they think she was fragile?! Even she, Qin Huining, hadn’t eaten bird’s nest everyday! I feel like I suffered those slaps for nothing, everyone’s forgotten about them already!
Qin Huining maintained a frozen smile on her face as her eyes stabbed continuously towards Qin Yining. What a sly, crafty person! She puts on that piteous act and pretends to be a fool. She does everything to get the old dowager’s favor! How completely shameless! Qin Huining cursed loudly in her mind, trying valiantly to keep her smile on her face.
Née Sun happened to look backwards and saw Qin Huining’s stiff expression. She inwardly sighed with resignation. She knew that Qin Huining couldn’t accept Qin Yining, and could also see the former’s insecurity. What’s more, the madame understood the reason for it as well. As a mother, she didn’t know what else she could do other than comfort her daughter. She had to acknowledge Qin Yining in the end after all. She’d digested the duchess’ words over the past two days and was just treating it like she’d given birth to another daughter. What, would Qin Huining still act like this if she’d actually given birth to another? The more née Sun thought about this, the darker her expression became.
Qin Huining was deep in the throes of her anger and didn’t notice the expressions of née Sun and the others. She thought she was smiling as perfectly as usual. However, who in the house wasn’t well skilled in the art of manners and subtleties? They fully took in the mother-daughter duo’s expressions and formed their own thoughts about the situation.
But at the end of the day, they all acknowledged Qin Yining’s skills. They had all seen how the old dowager had rejected her when she entered the manor, but now? It’d only been a few days, and here the old dowager was laughing heartily, hugging her, and wanting her to eat bird’s nest everyday. Had the old dowager forgotten how Qin Yining had beaten up darling Huining, and that several maids and grannies combined couldn’t subdue the new fourth miss?
But, the old dowager was in great spirits and no one wanted to rouse her ire again. Qin-mama’s smile deepened when she saw how fairly the old dowager was handling matters and how close she was with Qin Yining at the moment.
“Old Dowager.” Just as chatter and laughter rang throughout the room, a fetching maid entered and made her greetings. “Old Dowager, the Duke of Ding’s grandson has come. He’s speaking outside with the lord and says he wishes to come and greet you. Might you have the time to see him?”
“Absolutely, quite. Have him come in!” The old dowager was delighted.
“Understood.” The maid exited to relay the message.
Wreathed in smiles, the old dowager turned to née Sun. “What brings your nephew by today? Is it Meng’er’s day off today?” 2
“In response to Old Dowager, my lord is indeed off today. It looks like Yuanming 3 has come visiting because he knows his uncle-in-law is off today. I mentioned it to mother before. Yuanming admires his uncle’s talents the most, and he’ll certainly have a great deal of questions from court he’d like to ask the lord.”
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