“Grandmother, this granddaughter greets you.” Qin Yining didn’t dare overstep herself and paused to kowtow in the grand ceremony of greeting. The rest in her group shifted to the sides to avoid blocking her greeting.
The duchess looked at her with even more tender eyes and helped Qin Yining up with both hands. She patted her granddaughter’s hand with pity. “Good girl, there’s no need to stand on ceremony. Let me take a good look at you.”
The duchess’ hand had the dry warmth unique to elderly folk. Tears welled up in Qin Yining’s eyes when she felt the heat travel to her. The duchess melted when she saw Qin Yining’s watery eyes. Some people had degrees of shared destiny and liked each other upon first sight. This was how the duchess felt about Qin Yining at their first meeting. She could feel the calluses and scars on the girl’s hand and felt pained by them. She gathered Qin Yining in her arms and patted her on the back, saying in a choked up voice, “Poor girl, you’ve had a rough life all these years.”
Those words touched Qin Yining so that her tears couldn’t help but plop soundlessly downwards. This warm hug and the faint smell of incense from the duchess were touching her in the deepest part of her heart. She strove mightily to keep her emotions in check, finally refraining from bursting into sobs at this joyous occasion in the end. “Don’t be sad grandmother. No matter how things were before, it’s all over now. We should look ahead to the future and not behind.”
These words were the perfect response. The duchess nodded several times. “Yes, indeed, it’s over, all over now.”
The senior and second madame had long been dabbing at their eyes from emotion. They nodded continuously, and even née Sun, having experienced extreme highs and lows since finding her daughter, burst out in tears. The scene of them holding each other and bawling in the cold wind was too tragic to bear. The senior madame sniffled and said, “Look at mother being so happy, you ran out of the house in your slippers in this kind of weather! The ground’s quite cold.”
Bao-mama was dabbing at her eyes with a sleeve and continued accordingly, “The elder madame was in such a hurry to see her granddaughter that she wouldn’t even let me help her into shoes.”
“Me? You’re talking about me? And who was it who could barely keep their seat?” The duchess poked fun at her two daughters-in-law. The heavy atmosphere was washed away, leaving behind only happiness as the group laughed and chatted with each other. They slowly filed into the house. Even the serving girl holding up the door curtains was wreathed with smiles, as if it was New Year’s.
Qin Yining kept smiling through her tears as she listened to her grandmother and aunts trade words of comfort for her. She wasn’t able to get a word in edgewise. She’d fantasized about this scene many times on the way back to the capital from Liang, to think that she’d find it at her grandmother’s instead of her own home! The potential situations that could arise and various responding strategies that had kept her up late last night all seemed to be extraneous effort. It would seem that she’d been a worrywart and thought too little of her family.
The duchess was helped into the main seat by her two daughters-in-law, who then took the side seats along with née Sun. Bao-mama brought over a rush cushion for Qin Yining to kneel down on it and properly kowtow in the grand ceremony of greeting. “This granddaughter greets grandmother and her two aunts, and hopes they are well.”
“Oh hurry and rise.” The duchess leaned forward to help Qin Yining up and pulled the girl to sit beside her. “Have you gotten used to things since coming back? Do you lack anything? Your mother has a quick temper and is forgetful. If she dares mistreat you, just come and tell grandmother. I’ll hit her!”
The duchess spoke very quickly and Qin Yining couldn’t quite get a word in. She could only shake her head to indicate that she hadn’t been maltreated.
“Mother, you’re playing favorites! Daughter Yi’s completely outshone me now that she’s here.” Née Sun blushed furiously at these words. She couldn’t help recall that she’d hit her own daughter and criticized her quite harshly. Despite all this, the child had still graciously thought of retaining her mother’s dignity. Née Sun began to feel a bit guilty at this.
“And how old are you? Look at you still vying with your daughter! I won’t talk about your quick temper, but you should really use your brain more in the future. Don’t go every which way that people point you in.” The duchess tapped née Sun’s forehead with a finger.
Color drained out of Qin Huining’s face when she heard this. Her complexion was as white as paper as she lowered her head to surreptitiously observe the duchess’ expression. Née Sun retracted her neck and stuck out her tongue with a playful air. All of the girls started chuckling, and the sounds of merrymaking traveled far into the distance.
Meanwhile, Qin Huining was quite apprehensive. She knew that her maternal grandmother was no easy character and wasn’t as easily manipulated as née Sun. There had been clear undertones to those words just now! That wild brat’s been the center of attention since we’ve arrived. Even grandmother sees only her, I’ve become nonexistent! Resentment had long since festered in Qin Huining the more this silent treatment continued, but all of it vanished in the wind after those words from the duchess, leaving behind only the panic of having lost favor. She hastily curtsied with a smile. “Grandmother is looking ever so well these days.”
The duchess was smiling as she patted Qin Yining’s hand lightly. “Indeed, the days have easy for me. Your two aunts and cousins all wait on me and leave nothing for me to do. Your aunts take all burdens onto their shoulders and won’t breathe a hint of any baseless rumors to me at all. I’m unfettered by anything and can only play with my grandchildren. It’s impossible not to be in good health then, wouldn’t you say?”
It was as if something had struck Qin Huining’s head as her face flushed red and purple. She forced a smile. “Grandmother is one with great fortune. Aunts and sister cousins are all filial, and uncles and brother cousins all have great accomplishments.”
“Indeed.” The duchess looked merrily at Qin Yining. “Our darling Yi had a rough childhood. Since you’ve come home, all disaster is water under the bridge. Only good days lay ahead, so darling Yi is one with great fortune as well.”
Everyone agreed with smiles and laughter, breaking out into a hubbub of conversation again.
Qin Huining sulkily backed off to the side, her hands balled in fists hidden in her sleeves. Her nails were digging so hard into her palms that they were almost drawing blood. She’d never thought that the duchess would deny her so much face and repeatedly verbally knock her down! Qin Huining didn’t know if the others had understand what’d happened, but née Sun likely had. She looked anxiously at née Sun, but saw that her mother was looking in the duchess and Qin Yining’s direction with a slight smile. Something had amused her, and she was chuckling happily.
Perhaps feeling Qin Huining’s gaze on her, née Sun turned around with a question in her eyes. Their gazes met, but Qin Huining wasn’t able to purge the vengeful resentment in her eyes in time. Née Sun started and thought back to what her mother had said moments ago. She then thought of how Qin Huining had still been up to her old tricks in front of née Sun’s sisters earlier today. She really disliked how Qin Huining was acting, so didn’t call the girl to her side to comfort like she usually would’ve. Née Sun turned back to continue chatting with her sisters-in-law.
She ignored me! Qin Huining almost broke a tooth from gnashing. Now it’s really apparent who’s the real daughter and who’s not, huh! These people were too twisted! She’d been swapped alright, and had indeed taken Qin Yining’s place for fourteen years. But how was this her fault?! She was a victim too! But here they were, all showing her unfriendly faces! They can’t blame me for fighting for what I want then!
“Elder Madame.” A head maid came in to curtsey with a smile. “His Grace and the senior master are back from morning court. Grand Supervisor Wang from the palace is also with them and says he brings an imperial decree as well! He tells us all to go accept the decree!”
“Grand Supervisor Wang by the emperor’s side?” The room was silent and the duchess’ voice pitched a bit higher than usual.
“Yes, this servant has already asked the pageboy.” The head maid nodded. “His Grace and the senior master all look very happy, and the Supervisor is being quite polite. His Grace has told all the young masters not to come to Bright Spring Hall, but to head for the main door to meet the Supervisor and accept the decree.”
“I thought those kids were being a bit slow, so there’s some good news!” The second madame clapped once. “Mother, it’s most likely to do with the gentlemen of our family!”
The duchess and senior madame were also guessing the same as joy had appeared on their faces. The entire household were mainstays in the fight against Great Zhou’s aggression, whether it was grandson Sun Haichen on the frontlines, second elder master Sun Haijing, or the mighty pen at court Sun Yu. They were all sharp weapons for the emperor’s use in the battlefield. Now that Grand Supervisor Wang was here personally, he must have accolades to shower down on one of the men.
There was no time for chitchat as those with titles, such as the duchess, senior and second madame, and née Sun, all hastily put on formal makeup. The girls all tidied themselves up and swiftly went to the front yard, burning incense to accept the decree. It was Qin Yining’s first exposure to such a situation so she couldn’t help but be a bit nervous. She was kneeling at the back of all the women along with her cousins, listening to Grand Supervisor Wang proclaim in a slightly shrill voice, “The Emperor, who governs with the mandate of Heaven, decrees that Sun Yu, a regular member of the Hanlin Academy, 1, grandson of Duke of the State, Duke of Ding, is an open and upright individual, possessing both of talent and ethics, wholehearted devotion to public duty, free of corruption, and does not debase himself with crooked individuals. We are gratified with his loyalty and fidelity, and hereby promote him to an eminent member of the Hanlin Academy and award him with a hundred taels of gold. So it is decreed!”
“We thank His Imperial Majesty!” Everyone kowtowed in unison.
Grand Supervisor Wang offered the imperial decree with both hands and a smile. “Congratulations, Sir Sun!”
“Many thanks to Grand Supervisor Wang.” Sun Yu accepted with both hands as well. “Please step into the parlor for some tea.”
The duke rose with a smile. “Many thanks to the grand supervisor for making this trip. You must have a sip of my best tea before you return.”
The grand supervisor smiled merrily and bowed. “Many thanks to Duke of Ding, this servant shall comply with no further pleasantries then.”
“This way please.” The duke and Sun Yu headed off to play host to the imperial servant, while the females and young masters returned to Bright Spring Hall.
The atmosphere finally became lively again after everyone had changed into more comfortable clothing and washed off the heavy makeup.
“Oh my my, what wonderful news! This is such great fortune!” Née Sun grabbed the senior madame’s hands. “You have such a fine son! He’s part of the cabinet at such an young age and has now climbed to an esteemed member of Hanlin Academy by himself! He’s been complimented by the emperor himself! He’s the first in our family to receive such a unique honor!”
The senior madame waved her hand with a smile. “Look at you piling the praise on, Ming’er was just lucky, and this time he did indeed do precisely what the emperor likes.”
Everyone grew curious at these words. The duchess took the lead. “I was just wondering as well. Why did the emperor send Grand Supervisor Wang all of a sudden? Setting aside the promotion, why the reward of a hundred taels of gold?”
Qin Yining blinked with curiosity as well. Everyone said that the son of Heaven was hard to fathom, so it was quite rare that her eldest cousin would be so valued by the emperor.
1. The scholarly institute in ancient China
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