Anger filled Ning Qinghuan's stomach as she made her way back home.
Ning Qinghuan was mad that the fifth prince was always biased toward Pei Xiuyun. She was also mad that the fifth prince did not trust her.
Friendship was often thinner than a sheet of paper.
In reality, Ning Qinghuan knew full well that there was a high chance that she would marry the fifth prince in the future. Hence, she had always done her best to form deeper bonds with him.
At this point in time, her father, General Ning, had yet to indicate which faction he would side with in the fight for the throne. In a situation where the crown prince was inept, her father didn't want to put too much thought into political agendas.
However, her father had also silently acknowledged her friendship with the fifth prince as he felt that the fifth prince was a suitable candidate for the throne. At the very least, the fifth prince was many times more qualified than the current crown prince.
Ning Qinghuan understood all of this. She also understood that the fifth prince had most likely befriended her because of her status.
However, Ning Qinghuan never thought that the fifth prince would disregard their relationship and instead choose to side with Pei Xiuyun. This development angered Ning Qinghuan greatly.
Ning Qinghuan still wasn't married to the fifth prince right now, yet the fifth prince was already assuming that she would marry him and nobody else in the future and had started favoring Pei Xiuyun. If she tied herself and the Ning family to the fifth prince's boat in the future, who knew what the fifth prince would end up doing? He might even get rid of them after they had ceased being useful.
Most importantly, should the Ning family follow a master who lacked foresight and could be so easily manipulated by a woman?
The conversation Ning Qinghuan had with General Ning last night mainly revolved around this topic.
Whilst General Ning felt that it was imperative for the Ning family to side with a faction, he valued his daughter's happiness above all else. So long as Ning Qinghuan was reluctant to marry the fifth prince, the Ning family would have to reconsider its options.
After returning to her room, Ning Qinghuan poured herself a cup of tea and drank it. When the cooled tea flowed down her throat and entered her stomach, she felt much of her anger dissipating.
"You're back, Big Sister? Where did you go?"
At this time, Jun Zishu appeared by the door, a look of curiosity on her face.
"I went to deal with some matters. I won't be having too much contact with the fifth prince in the future."
"What? Is it because of me…?"
Jun Zishu put on a panicked expression and walked into the room.
"It's not just because of you. He actually failed to see through Pei Xiuyun's true face. If he can't even do that, how can our family rely on him in the future?"
Disappointment filled Ning Qinghuan's face as she spoke. Then, she pulled Jun Zishu to the table and sat her down on a chair.
Meanwhile, hearing Ning Qinghuan's words, Jun Zishu couldn't help but lament the fifth prince's foolishness inwardly.
Despite being a smart person, the fifth prince had suffered defeat at the hands of "love." He was blinded by a beautiful fantasy and failed to see the crux of the matter. Though, the same could also be said of the original Ning Qinghuan.
Thinking about it like this, my cousin is quite pitiful. Even though she currently finds the fifth prince to be foolish for failing to see through Pei Xiuyun, she, too, failed to see through the fifth prince before. Now, she is also failing to see through me. So, isn't she foolish as well?
Although the relationship Jun Zishu shared with Ning Qinghuan was not love, Ning Qinghuan trusted her a bit too much.
[At least you're doing it to help her.]
I guess you're right. But what if she finds out that I've been tricking her all this time? I wonder if she will get angry?
But I won't ever let her find out, hehe.
There was no better lie than one that was taken for granted.
Jun Zishu placed her hand on the back of Ning Qinghuan's hand, looking as if she was comforting her cousin.
"By the way, what did the fourth prince say to you that day?"
"Hm? He didn't say anything. He just returned the pendant to me."
"Why did he choose to give it to you at that specific timing? Couldn't he just have someone send it back?"
"I don't know why, either. The fourth prince says he never found the right opportunity to return it to me."
Jun Zishu honestly didn't know what the fourth prince was trying to do, either. And even if she did have an inkling, she had to feign ignorance.
"Pei Xiuyun slandered you, saying that you were having an affair with the fourth prince. She even said that I have a personal relationship with the fourth prince. But whatever. It is indeed true that we owe the fourth prince a favor. I'll tell Father about it in the future."
Ning Qinghuan wore a look of self-ridicule as she spoke. Then, she turned over her hand and intertwined fingers with Jun Zishu. After doing so, she began scrutinizing Jun Zishu's face.
"Tell me the truth, Little Wan'er. Do you and the fourth prince…"
"What are you saying, Big Sister!"
Jun Zishu sternly interrupted Ning Qinghuan before the latter could finish her words.
"Don't tell me you believe her words as well?"
"How can that be? I'm just…curious."
Ning Qinghuan had a difficult time avoiding the ugly and uncomfortable feeling in her heart. However, when she heard Jun Zishu's words, the discomfort she felt eased up a lot.
"I don't want to think about such matters right now. I only want to follow Big Sister forever."
Jun Zishu spoke with an earnest expression.
"Follow me forever? What nonsense are you saying?"
Ning Qinghuan smiled and squeezed Jun Zishu's fingers.
"I've already decided to do that since the very beginning."
Jun Zishu raised her lips and acted coquettishly.
"So, does that mean you plan to follow me even after I marry someone?" Ning Qinghuan jokingly asked.
"That will depend on whether Big Sister marries a kind person."
"Oh, you… Don't worry. I'll make sure to arrange a good future for you."
Complex feelings filled Ning Qinghuan's heart. She had originally wanted to say that she would find a good family for Jun Zishu to marry into. However, just as these words reached her mouth, she suddenly grew upset and decided to change her words.
"I'm not in a hurry. Remember that Wan'er is always thinking of you in her heart, Big Sister."
Jun Zishu stood up, the pearl hairpin she wore shaking slightly.
The girl's eyebrows were sharp and beautiful. One could see the girl's future grace through these eyebrows alone. Ning Qinghuan could also see herself reflected in the girl's stern eyes.
Looking at the sight before her, Ning Qinghuan felt that her little cousin would grow into a beautiful lady in the future and that she would be liked by many.
Yet, this lady was currently holding hands with her and whispering that she liked her.
"I'll remember it."
Ning Qinghuan nodded. Then, she extended her hands and embraced Jun Zishu.
Meanwhile, Little Fairy couldn't help but find the scene playing out before her to be strange. Yet, exactly which part of it was strange, she could not tell. She just had a feeling that something was wrong.
If Little Fairy were to score her host's acting, she would undoubtedly give it a full score. Her host's actions were also in line with the mission goal, so there shouldn't be any problems.
In the end, Little Fairy chalked her feelings up to misconception.
Time quickly passed, and the end of summer arrived in the blink of an eye.
Ning Qinghuan's birthday fell on the 27th of August.
When Ning Qinghuan turned 14, the madames of the capital's noble families sent in many gifts, and these gifts were all placed in Ning Qinghuan's bedroom.
Servants from the fourth and fifth princes had also brought gifts to the Ning manor. However, Ning Qinghuan disinterestedly left them aside.
Ning Qinghuan would always receive some new and intriguing presents whenever her birthday arrived. She had initially liked receiving these gifts. However, she later found it troublesome since she would have to return a similarly intriguing gift when the other party's birthday arrived.
Ning Qinghuan wasn't familiar with most of the people who sent her gifts. She also couldn't be bothered to learn about these people. So, previously, Madam Ning had been responsible for preparing the gifts for these people. However, Madam Ning felt that Ning Qinghuan was already old enough and that it was time for her to handle such matters herself. Hence, Ning Qinghuan had to look through the gifts she received and carefully evaluate their value. Then, she would have Shaoyao write down the details of the gifts and their senders' names. Fortunately, though, she didn't need to note down the details of everyone who had sent her a gift. She only needed to take note of certain important people.
"Is this the fifth prince's present, Big Sister?" Jun Zishu asked as she looked at a pair of emerald earrings sitting on the table. The earrings were shaped like drops of water. The craftsmanship was also exquisite, and they looked beautiful.
"Mhm. Tch, I'll have to send something equivalent when Pei Xiuyun's birthday arrives."
Ning Qinghuan nodded. The fifth prince sending her a gift was within her expectations.
In reality, a few days after their argument, the fifth prince had invited her out to "apologize." However, Ning Qinghuan had flatly refused his invitation.
The fifth prince was probably apologizing only because he was afraid that the Ning family wouldn't stand on his side. Ning Qinghuan didn't wish to entertain such an insincere apology, so she rarely ever left the manor nowadays to avoid meeting the fifth prince.
Afterward, Ning Qinghuan heard that Pei Xiuyun had seemingly done something wrong and that Concubine Xian had punished her, sentencing the girl to kneel for an entire night. In the process of carrying out her sentence, Pei Xiuyun had collapsed and fell ill.
If it were in the past, Ning Qinghuan might have celebrated this situation. Now, though, she couldn't even bring herself to be interested in the matter. After all, she knew that Concubine Xian was doing this to please her.
The fourth prince had also given her an accessory. This could be considered a standard gift since most girls liked receiving accessories.
Apart from the princes, Ning Qinghuan had also received a present from her elder brother, who was stationed at the empire's border as a soldier. The gift included rouge and spices bought from foreign merchants, and Ning Qinghuan liked these gifts very much.
Ning Qinghuan wasn't a girl who liked feminine stuff. Rather than holding embroidery needles, she preferred wielding spears and halberds instead.
Out of the gifts she received thus far, the one she liked the most was the sword her father had given her. This proved that her father intended to teach her swordsmanship.
"What present did you prepare for me, Little Wan'er?"
Ning Qinghuan had been waiting for Jun Zishu's present throughout the entire day. Yet, even after waiting from morning to evening, Jun Zishu still hadn't given her anything. Hence, she couldn't help but take the initiative to ask.
"I'll tell you later at night," Jun Zishu said in a mysterious tone.
"Okay, I'll wait."
Jun Zishu had spent a lot of time thinking about what gift she should prepare for her cousin's birthday. The main problem was that she was poor. She didn't carry any money with her when she arrived at the Ning manor, and as she didn't have to worry about food and accommodation, Madam Ning only gave her a monthly allowance of five silver taels. That was only enough money to buy a few small trinkets.
Although Jun Zishu had been saving all of her monthly allowances, the total sum she saved still wasn't enough to buy anything special. Not to mention, anything she could buy with her money wouldn't be something Ning Qinghuan lacked. She also had to consider the fact that many other people would be giving Ning Qinghuan gifts. It would only make her look insincere if she gave Ning Qinghuan something common like an accessory.
Jun Zishu felt that if she was going to give her cousin a present, it needed to be something unique.
Originally, Jun Zishu had planned to embroider something for Ning Qinghuan. However, the task was too time-consuming, and she spent most of her time together with her cousin. If she embroidered something, Ning Qinghuan would definitely find out about it. Then, the element of surprise would no longer exist.
Moreover, the question of what to embroider was a big problem. Jun Zishu had nearly cracked her head trying to think of an answer. At one point, she had even thought of embroidering on a dudou and giving it to Ning Qinghuan. Fortunately, Little Fairy had stopped her dangerous thoughts in time.
It wasn't until recently that Jun Zishu finally came up with a cheap yet romantic present.
When the sun had thoroughly vanished into the horizon, Jun Zishu held Ning Qinghuan's hand and pulled her cousin to her room next door.
Jun Zishu's room was a lot more spacious. This was because she stayed and slept in Ning Qinghuan's room most of the time, so she left her belongings there as well.
"What kind of present did you prepare for me, Little Wan'er?"
"Close your eyes, Big Sister."
After seeing Ning Qinghuan close her eyes, Jun Zishu took out the item she prepared and opened it.
"Okay, you can open your eyes now, Big Sister."
Ning Qinghuan opened her eyes as told, and she immediately gasped when she saw the sight before her.
Flickering green lights floated all about them, the lights transforming the dark room into a magical place.
dudou: a traditional Chinese form of the bodice. (aka, ancient bra)
Pantsu Hero Alice (PHA)
Reincarnation of the Strongest Sword God (Side Stories)
After Being Bent By Reader (ABBR)(GL)