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"Thank you for your concern, Old Madam. My journey was peaceful," replied Yun Qungqiao calmly, addressing her grandmother.

Aunt Zou, still relentless, interjected, "Old Madam, you don't know how Miss Yun Qingqiao treated me upon her return. In front of so many people, she..."

"Enough from you!" Old Madam Yun cut her off sharply.

She knew the incident at the manor's entrance; such news traveled fast. She was starting to see her granddaughter in a new light, although Aunt Zou's actions had overstepped. 

But when her gaze shifted to her beloved granddaughters, Yun Qifei and Yun Qirong, her expression cooled again at the sight of Yun Qingqiao.

Aunt Lin, always perceptive, read the Old Madam's mood and chimed in, "Indeed, Miss Yun Qingqiao is quite the busy one, only finding time to visit you in the evening on her first day back."

The Old Madam frowned deeply at this veiled criticism, replying with displeasure, "It seems I, an old woman, have become a nuisance!"

Yun Qifei and Yun Qirong quickly moved to Old Madam's side, offering tea and massaging her shoulders, creating an atmosphere of harmonious family affection.

Yun Qingqiao's mind was suddenly flooded with a familiar voice from her past, a memory from a dream when she first crossed over to this world. She remembered eavesdropping outside this very room, hearing conversations that hinted at Old Madam Yun's deliberate actions leading to her mother's miscarriage. Even if she wasn't the direct cause, she was undoubtedly an accomplice.

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Watching the scene unfold before her, Yun Qingqiao's eyes were cold as she observed their performance of affection and filial piety.

Yun Qifei, the third miss, added fuel to the fire, "Please don't be upset, Grandmother. My sister must prioritize our mother's severe illness over you. After all, you are hale and hearty."

Yun Qirong, the fourth miss, laughed softly and handed a bowl of soup to the Old Madam, "Please don't be angry, Old Madam. This calming soup will help."

Yun Qingqiao, detesting such verbal sparring among women, was thankful for her veil, which concealed her expression. 

She smiled and said, "Old Madam, please forgive me. I have to rise early tomorrow for an audience with the Emperor. I had a lengthy discussion with my father this afternoon, and he repeatedly reminded me not to oversleep. Therefore, I must excuse myself now."

Internally, she longed to confront them, to say, "Continue your charade of familial love; I, Yun Qingqiao, will not partake!" 

But she held back, realizing this was just the beginning of a long battle. There was no point in engaging in a fleeting moment of verbal triumph with these women. It was time to retreat and rest.

Having fulfilled her duty as a granddaughter by visiting Old Madam Yun upon her initial return to the family estate, Yun Qingqiao felt it was time to retreat to her quarters, especially given the evident lack of warmth towards her.

Her words were skillfully chosen, simultaneously explaining her afternoon delay due to discussions with her father, Yun Xiwen, about her upcoming audience at the palace and subtly reminding the others of her close relationship with him. 

Her ultimate goal was to inform them that she, Yun Qingqiao, was to appear before the Emperor the next day, a privilege far beyond the reach of her aunts and their daughters.

Though she was not thrilled about the reason for her palace visit – a marriage decree – nor the prospect of being betrothed to the fifth prince, a man she had never met and who had a less-than-stellar reputation, these details did not hinder her from using the situation to her advantage tonight. After all, she never had any affection for the sharp-tongued Old Madam.

There would be plenty of time in the future for more confrontations. Exhausted from the day's travels and with no desire to engage in a verbal sparring match, Yun Qingqiao decided it was best to retire for the evening.

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Yun Qingqiao's memories of Old Madam Yun were not fond. She remembered the old woman's tendency to play favorites, often flaunting her affection for her other granddaughters while leaving young Yun Qingqiao out in the cold. This cold and differential treatment had left a deep impression on her, even now, as she revisited these memories.

In Yun Qingqiao's eyes, Old Madam Yun was nothing like her kind and loving grandmother in Chu State or her gentle, doting grandmother from her time in modern society. 

The way Old Madam Yun openly showed her dislike for Yun Qingqiao was a stark contrast to the warmth and affection she had known elsewhere. Yun Qingqiao had long understood affection was reciprocal, shaping her perception of Old Madam Yun.

As Yun Qingqiao left with her maids, her sharp ears picked up Aunt Zhou's critical words, "Look at her. She lacks the grace of a legitimate daughter!"

Jingyu, usually the calmest of the group, couldn't hide her anger, "It's too much! Even after we left, they continue to speak ill of us."

"And I was so tempted to confront them directly!" added Youzhu, equally incensed.

Yun Qingqiao adjusted her veil, slightly ruffled by the breeze, and suggested, "Let's visit my mother first. We can leave the matter of Old Madam for another time. There will be opportunities for you to act in the future." 

Her voice was calm, but her eyes shone with a persistent light.

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In Old Madam Yun's quiet chamber, after the departure of the chattering women, a sense of tranquility settled in. The old woman, visibly tired from the day's events, waved off her attendants, leaving only herself and the trusted Madam Huang in the room.

Sipping her freshly brewed calming tea, Old Madam Yun asked, "What's your take on this Fifth Miss?"

Madam Huang, picking up a pair of small wooden hammers to massage Old Madam Yun's legs, responded respectfully, "The Fifth Miss is intelligent but perhaps too forthright. She does carry herself with an air of distinction."

Old Madam Yun nodded, her eyes narrowing slightly as she thought. 

"Yes, I see it too, and those other women certainly do as well. They pretend to be devoted, but it's all about currying favor for a better position and a larger dowry from me. This Fifth Miss has some of her mother's traits, the pride, but in many ways, she's quite different."

Her thoughts drifted to the complex interplay of relationships within the household. The dynamic between her granddaughters, the influence of their mothers, and now the return of Yun Qingqiao stirred a mix of caution and intrigue in her experienced mind.

When Ye Heying married Yun Xiwen, her family was staunchly against the match. Old Madam Yun, who had never favored the idea of a daughter-in-law who seemed to force her way into their family, found Ye Heying's inherent pride especially grating. To Old Madam Yun, Ye Heying's demeanor made the Yun family seem inferior, lacking the grandeur of more prominent households. This lack of traditional subservience in a daughter-in-law deprived Old Madam Yun of the satisfaction typically derived from a matriarch's position.

For the initial years of the marriage, Old Madam Yun sought every opportunity to trouble Ye Heying. However, Ye Heying deftly handled these challenges with ease, further irking the older woman. Eventually, Old Madam Yun seized upon a vulnerability – Ye Heying had not yet borne a child. Seizing this chance, she pressured Yun Xiwen into taking several concubines, finally feeling a sense of triumph over Ye Heying. Although these new additions to the household displayed superficial respect, Old Madam Yun was content with the outward show of obedience.

With the return of Yun Qingqiao, however, the dynamics within the household stood at the cusp of change. Would Yun Qingqiao's presence upset the carefully maintained balance that Old Madam Yun had orchestrated? Only time will tell.

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