Chapter 5: The Prince
Qin Yining didn’t want to get into an argument with the old dowager, so she simply kept her head down and responded simply, “Yes.”
The old dowager was much appeased by her obedience and continued.
“Even though the situation is thus, you must learn as quickly as possible. Granddaughter Jia is coming of age in two days, and you and granddaughter Hui will follow next year. I’ll keep an eye out for suitable husbands, but if you’re a disappointment that can’t be helped, I won’t help you. Especially if others disdain you and we can’t find a good marriage for you.”
Qin Yining pursed her lips. A harmless smile had appeared on her face when she lifted her head again. “Old Dowager speaks truly. I will learn well to not let you down.”
Qin Yining’s face was an exquisite little thing to begin with, and although she possessed mesmerizing looks, her eyes were as clear as a pool of water. Her dimples when she smiled were even more adorable. The old dowager was almost disarmed by her pleasing smile and docile attitude. However, long practice had taught her to keep a stern look on her face as she waved her hand. “You may go.”
“Understood, this granddaughter takes her leave.” Qin Yining dipped in a curtsey and backed away.
“Go find Qin-mama if you have any needs.” The old dowager added on stiffly.
“Understood, thank you Old Dowager.” Qin Yining immediately displayed an appropriately startled and gratified smile.
The old dowager watched Qin Yining exit docilely through the door. Only after her figure had disappeared did the old dowager speak to the old servant by her side. “Lujuan,1 what do you think of this child?”
Lujuan was Qin-mama’s nickname. The old servant smiled and stepped forward to give the old dowager a brass hand warmer, etched with flowers, that was just the right temperature. She smiled.
“The old dowager has a wise, keen eye and is thinking of shaping this raw jade, no? She’s the senior master’s own flesh and blood after all, so that alone is a guarantee of her nature. The old servant also feels that she must be a tenacious and intelligent young lady to be able to survive until now after so much hardship.”
If she wasn’t tenacious, she wouldn’t have been able to live alone for six years at such a tender age. If she wasn’t intelligent, she wouldn’t have been able to survive the perils of the city streets and mountain wilderness to stand before them today.
The old dowager sighed. “I feel complicated about her as well. Maybe it’s because of our blood ties… Has my darling Hui been settled in? You must look after her well and not stint her on anything!”
Qin-mama could say nothing further after she saw that her mistress wasn’t really listening to her. So for now, she could only respond with a smile.
Qin Yining felt a vengeful look lock onto her as soon as she left the main residence and was making her way to the garden. She instantly whipped her head around, but only saw a half latched window. There didn’t seem to be anyone there. She wasn’t afraid of pests anyways, there were plenty of people in this manor who disliked her. She tossed it into the back of her head as she swiftly made her way out of the Garden of Loving Piety.
Inside, Qin Huining finally threw down a much abused handkerchief after Qin Yining left. Her head maid Bitong immediately proffered a cup of warm honey water. “Don’t be angry, miss. She’s just a wild child with no foundations to speak of.”
Qin Huining chugged the contents of the cup in one go. The sweetness of the drink soothed her, and she focused on her next task. “Wet nurse.”
Née Cai immediately responded with a smile. “What are your orders, miss?”
“I remember that you can speak a few words with my mother’s Jin-mama.”
Née Cai was Jin-mama’s niece. “Naturally, what are your wishes?”
“Come here.” Qin Huining beckoned née Cai closer and murmured a few sentences in her ear.
Qin Yining had just walked out of the residence and hadn’t even had time to orient herself properly, before the young girl who’d reminded her earlier came to curtsey before her. She smiled.
“Hello fourth sister. I’m Baoning, eighth in our generation. My father is the third elder master. Oh right, the fellow the old dowager yelled at is my brother.”
Qin Baoning had helped her just now, and Qin Han had stood up for her just before. He’d also taken good care of her on the way back to the manor and was someone who spoke openly and forthrightly. This made Qin Yining feel greatly predisposed towards her already. She imitated the younger girl’s greeting in response, “Hello younger sister Baoning.”
Qin Boaning smiled. “You’ve just come back, fourth sister, so there’s much you don’t know in the manor. You can come find me if you have any questions. I live in the lodge called Green Retreat with our third sister.” Speaking of, she pulled at Qin Jianing who was off on the side. “This is our third sister.”
Qin Jianing pulled out her hand of the girl’s grasp and muttered, “You rascal! Aren’t you worried about annoying our fourth sister with all your chattering?” Qin Baoning stuck out her tongue, but didn’t continue speaking. Instead, Qin Jianing continued with a smile. “This girl made me stay here to wait for you. I told her it’d be better to go visit you when you’re settled in, but she wouldn’t listen to me. Don’t we have to part for now after just a few words? Jin-mama is still waiting for you. Let’s get together when you’ve found your footing!”
“Third sister is right. I’ll be imposing you a lot when I’m settled in.” Qin Yining spoke a bit slowly because she had to think of what words to use first. The slower cadence of her words rang pleasantly in their ears.
“Don’t be so polite, fourth sister! It might be me bothering you first if I can’t wait!” Qin Baoning pulled on her hand with a giggle. Qin Yining couldn’t help but smile in return.
Jin-mama came over when she saw Qin Jianing and Qin Baoning take their leave. “Miss, shall we go?”
“My apologies for keeping you waiting.” Qin Yining hastily said with a smile.
“Serving you is this servant’s duty. The miss shouldn’t stand on ceremony.” Jin-mama took Qin Yining in the direction of Snowpear Courtyard.
The Prime Minister Manor was a traditional rectangular compound, with houses on four sides around courtyards. 2 The old dowager’s Garden of Loving Piety was situated in the southwest and occupied one of the largest gardens in the inner compound. If one took a left out of the old dowager’s residence and followed the square limestone path, one would come up to a flower-hung gate on the right hand side. 3
Jin-mama pointed at the gate. “The misses are not allowed past this gate. If you have any errands to run, give your orders to your maids. It’s locked at the hour of the dog4 and unlocked at the beginning of hour rabbit5. Please make note of the times if you would like to buy something or look for someone.”
“Thank you for your guidance, Jin-mama.”
Jin-mama smiled, taking Qin Yining further down the long limestone path. She pointed out Erudite Terrace, belonging to the third branch of the family, and Garden of Peace, belonging to the second branch. They passed by the rear garden that held an enormous pond in its center. A white pebble-stone bridge soared over the remnants of lotuses in the water, bringing to mind thoughts of summer and the beautiful sight of the willows dipping into the turquoise waters below.
A closer look at the pond would elicit the realization that this pond had an eddy reminiscent of a water current. This pond was actually formed by diverting water from outside the manor! Red fences offset the white stone in the distance, as flora interwove with each other to break up the sunlight into rays that carpeted the soft grass. The luxuriousness and exquisite nature of this garden was something that Qin Yining had never seen before.
Jin-mama tilted her head when she noted the obvious delight on Qin Yining’s face. When they passed the garden, the old servant pointed artlessly, “That’s Green Retreat, and Garden of Tranquility is around the corner. The senior master and senior madame lives there.”
However, she then took Qin Yining in the opposite direction, moving further away from the center of the compound. They followed an alleyway to its end, where it buttressed the rear walls of the complex. This was when Jin-mama finally pushed open a red lacquered door, “This is Snowpear Courtyard.”
Beyond the door was first a small yard, a path of small stones meandering through it to reach a covered hallway. The yard contained several patches of bamboo, a few pear trees, and an immense pagoda tree. The principal residence had three houses, with the east and west wing residences formed of two houses each. Three servant houses in the back, facing away from the other structures, completed the ensemble. In one word, this residence was quaint. In another, desolate.
“This courtyard is charming and elegant, the most perfect for you, miss. It’s just that the old dowager’s arrangements were a bit sudden, so we haven’t had time to clean up yet. This servant will have someone do so now, and bring the maids that the senior madame arranged for you. Please rest here for a moment.” Jin-mama was exceedingly polite.
Qin Yining nodded in thanks, but she was well aware that if they truly valued her, they would never allow a girl not yet of age to live in a courtyard that was right next to the manor walls. They wouldn’t bring her here before cleaning up either.
If she saw right, the house doors were still locked. This was merely an intimidation tactic. But even so, it was still much better to live here than in the caves and grassy shelters that she’d occupied on the mountain.
Qin Yining took a seat on a stone stool next to a bamboo patch. But who knew that this quick wait would lengthen into two hours? She wanted to summon someone when noon came by, but Qin Yining had no idea who she could ask for in this expansive manor. Thankfully years of hunting had taught her the value of patience and silence, so she sat quietly on the stool.
Gusts of cold wind sent stray bamboo leaves dancing elegantly through the air. The downy yellow of the young girl’s outfit accented the crisp green of the bamboo around her, creating a veritable painting beneath the radiance of the midday sun. The girl sat with her head lowered, her jet black locks curled on her neck further highlighting the fair skin of her long neck. Her side profile was exceedingly charming. It was a scene that the two people crouched on the courtyard roof drank in.
The leader of the two was dressed in black, his features exquisite and flawless. Two long eyebrows flew energetically into his sideburns. A pair of phoenix-shaped eyes housed a cold and sharp, yet profound, look. His eyes seemed to glitter with the radiance of the cold night sky. Other than a slight pursing of his lips, he was currently expressionless. His bearing was noble and poised, like a sharp blade that had been unsheathed. One look was enough to make any onlooker lower their head, afraid to directly meet his eyes.
He was looking silently down at Qin Yining in the yard, then quietly left with his bodyguard. At this side was a young man, who was roughly around eighteen years old. This bodyguard was vigorous and energetic, clad in deep blue fighting clothes and his long hair wrapped up in a ponytail.
After they left, the young man asked curiously, “Master, was the girl just now who you were looking for?”
“It’s amazing that she lived! Sir Zheng said that she was only seven when you last saw her.”
“The Qin family are seriously animals! How could they make her wait outside on a cold day like this? They didn’t even give her something warm to wear. Then again, her patience is really something!”
“But it serves her right for being Qin Meng’s daughter! Sir Zheng said you even gave her silver that year so her foster mother could see a doctor? Master, I’ve really got to say, you’re really too kindhearted. Who cares if the child of your enemy lives or dies! If she dies, she’d just be repaying the debt of her despicable father! What’s the point in caring so much about her?”
The man’s footsteps halted as he looked expressionlessly at the young man. It didn’t take long for the stare to utterly unnerve the latter. The bodyguard’s hairs was almost vertical from the stare, so he didn’t dare open his mouth again.
His master was great in everything, but just too cold hearted. In all the years he’d served his master, he’d never seen his master truly smile. His master hadn’t even been that happy when the emperor had washed away General Pang’s crimes last year, and awarded the general the posthumous title of “Faithful Prince of the First Rank”. Perhaps he’ll only be happy when he’s had his revenge?
“Eh, master, wait for me! Where are we going!?”
- The characters for this are a very pretty “green” and “graceful” ↩
- http://oldchinabooks.com/YangShen_eBook_Blog/2013/01/10/chinese-courtyard-houses-四合院/ ↩
- This was a special gate in traditional Chinese compounds that separated external and internal parts of the house. Both sides of the door are hung with a suspended frame, and the tops of the columns are in the shape of petals that looked like hung flowers. ↩
- Between 7pm and 9pm ↩
- Between 5am and 7am ↩