Chapter 61: Imperial Summons
Venerable Study Hall was situated in the north of the manor, looking towards the south. An expanse of flowers decorated the back, while it faced a bamboo forest. A path through the bamboo forest led to a verdant green roofed entrance, giving one a comfortable feeling of tranquility before one even set foot in the residence.
The same bamboo forest greeted the group when they stepped through the door, and a path of bluestone led to the main structures of Venerable Study Hall. Five rooms wide and two stories tall, the entire complex of buildings was enclosed by a covered hallway that eventually led to the rear facing servant quarters.
“This is most certainly a place where Grand Preceptor Qin resided in his youth, alright. The serenity of this view already is unparalleled.” Zhan-mama couldn’t help but voice her genuine compliments. “Such a place exists in the palace as well, but not as a residence. It merely provides leisurely entertainment for the imperial concubines.”
“The palace is certainly magnificent and awe-inspiring. To think that the imperial consorts would visit a place like this merely for idle entertainment.” Qin Yining didn’t dare compare her own quarters to the imperial palace. Zhan-mama nodded approvingly at her.
Night had fallen and the servants had lit the lanterns in the hallway. Because orders had personally come from Qin Huaiyuan, the residence had been cleaned up long before Qin Yining stepped foot inside. After the fourth miss looked over the various levels of the residence, she started assigning rooms. The serving girls were assigned to the rear facing servant quarters. Qin Yining would occupy the middle of the second floor. The first room on the left was for Zhan-mama, the second for Yaoqin and Yuqi. The first on the right was assigned to Bingtang, Songlan, and Qiulu. Lastly, the second from the right was set aside for Zhu-mama and Liuya.
The first level of all the rooms was much brighter than Snowpear Courtyard. Bottle-shaped openwork screens subtly enclosed the wings of the main hall, sectioning off the five rooms.
New, pale-green netting was left to bunch decoratively around the openwork screen. It seemed that someone had made sure that every amenity was accounted for. There was even a pot of red coral placed in the decorative shelves meant to showcase antiques and treasures. It looked quite dignified and luxurious in its place of honor.
Qin Yining had a servant bring over the inventory records and handed them to Qiulu with a smile. She headed for the study, located in the easternmost area of the house. “I leave the storeroom in your hands, as before.”
“Don’t worry, miss. I’ll keep the key on me at all times.” Qiulu nodded.
Qin Yining walked into the study, and took a moment to marvel at it. An incredibly spacious room, one’s eye was almost immediately drawn to the enormous redwood table placed in its center. Various brushes peeped out of a blue and white porcelain brush pot, some even missing their thistles. A minimalist ink slab lay in one corner of the table, with half of the ink stick on top of it already used up. The clear water within the white porcelain rinsing pot was likely freshly poured. Some scrolls was already furled up in the ceramic vat on the floor. Those were likely Qin Huaiyuan’s old works.
Qin Yining sat on the thick cushion of the chair in front of the table and leaned back to rest on the full shelves that stretched high to the roof. She inhaled deeply and smiled. “No wonder Old Dowager wanted me to take in the atmosphere here. There really is a scholarly feeling to this place.”
Bingtang nodded and pointed at the half used ink stick. “That’s fragrant ink, and it seems there’s mint leaves placed in the brazier.”
Qin Yining started. “You’ve got a sharp nose!”
Bingtang sniffed, “I’ve trained it since I was a child! I can tell what herbs make up a medicine with just a sniff.”
The fourth miss nodded with a sigh. “One really must have a skill about them to live in a manor like this. I really should study hard.” She turned to Yaoqin. “I saw a zither hanging on the wall of the second room in the west wing. I’ve heard that Sister Yaoqin is a skilled player. I’d like to ask you to be my teacher.”
“This servant knows only a few tricks. But if you’re inclined to do so, miss, I can help spark your interest in the instrument.” Yaoqin smiled.
“Your skills are renowned and masterful, don’t sell yourself so short.” Qin Yining then turned to Yuqi. “And chess, I am completely ignorant of it. I will be looking to sister Yuqi in educating me.”
“You do me great honor, miss. This servant will do her best.” Yuqi agreed happily.
Having taken care of all that needed to be done, Qin Yining bid everyone to go rest. She returned to her room and sat in front of her vanity, tugging her hair out of its hairstyle. Songlan helped her take care of her nightly ministrations, helping her into sleepwear and then into bed. “What a long day. Today was more tiring than even hunting.”
It was Songlan’s shift tonight, and she’d set out her blankets on the luohan bed next to the window in the outer room. Only one lantern was left lit. She was wearing a lightly padded cotton jacket with her hair down, helping her mistress bring the pale-purple netting down around the bed.
“You were victorious on all fronts today, miss. Today was your day of battle, so of course you’d be tired!” Songlan’s heart was full of only gratitude and respect towards Qin Yining now, and her tone was much more docile than before.
Qin Yining covered a yawn and curled up into a warm little ball on her side. She murmured in the blankets, “Go sleep, Songlan. Your wounds haven’t healed yet.”
“Understood.” Songlan smiled through the netting. “This servant will watch over you, miss. Good night.”
Life became busy for Qin Yining after moving to Venerable Study Hall. Apart from the morning and evening greetings to the old dowager and née Sun everyday, she also attended lessons on manners and rules in the morning with her sisters, had class with the teacher in the afternoon, and spent her rare free time practicing writing capital characters. 1
Although she was incredibly busy, Qin Yining was very happy. Every moment before she’d arrived at the manor had been spent trying to survive, so when would she have found the time for all this? Now that clothing and food were no longer of pressing concern, she couldn’t bear to waste time and spun herself round and round with her schedule. She could remember everything she took a look at, so learning came easy to her when she focused. As a month and a half flew by, she made great strides forward in every area she spent time in.
Zhan-mama was moved by Qin Yining’s earnest attitude and often volunteered extra information in private. Qin Yining benefited a great deal from the mama’s tutelage and felt deeply grateful to the old palace servant. Before anyone could take a spare moment to breathe, the Laba Festival arrived. 2
Qin Yining rose early, but was quickly greeted by Bingtang. The grinning girl wasted no time in slathering a white paste on her mistress’ face. It smelled faintly of herbs and was soon joined by a pale-green ointment. Thankfully, this one was reserved for the palms and backs of her hands. It seemed that it was primarily for reducing scars. Bingtang told her mistress to lie still for fifteen minutes before washing her face.
“The scars on your hand have mostly healed, miss,” Bingtang said. “You can just use lotion for upkeep in the future.” 3
Qin Yining lay back on the reclining couch and barely moved her lips as she spoke. “I also think that the skin on the backs of my hands have become softer. My skin was so coarse and rough before that I usually wouldn’t feel even a pinprick. But when I was practicing embroidery with Songlan last night and accidentally stabbed myself, I still felt it, even though it didn’t bleed.”
Songlan and Qiulu came in with hot water and silk towels. They smiled when they heard their mistress. “You still say your skin is coarse and rough, miss? Your skin is now as tender as tofu! Even Miss Huining’s maid Fugui quietly asked me yesterday what you use on your skin.”
“Then how did you respond, big sis?” Bingtang smiled.
“I said that the miss uses the same rose lotion that everyone gets every month,” Songlan responded. “Our miss is the lord’s daughter and she’s like her father, possessing an inborn beauty. She’s simply had good food and rest since coming home, so naturally her skin has improved as well.”
“Right!” Bingtang nodded. “We’re not telling them! They mean the miss no good, and Miss Huining hasn’t gotten any better since moving to Snowpear Courtyard.”
However, Qin Yining had gone deep into thought. It was only after she’d rinsed off the pastes after fifteen minutes and applied lotion that she spoke again. “Bingtang, you have such skill that it’s a pity that it’s only used on me. Have you ever thought of selling your scar ointment?”
Bingtang started, but then just blinked in thought. “I don’t want my family’s recipe to end up in outside hands.”
“Making it into a medicine, and then altering it to make it less effective might work. Where one box of ointment was enough before, make it so that three is required. Folks will still fight over it. Now that calamitous times are descending upon our country, we don’t know what will happen in the future. You’ll be safer with some silver to your name. Although I have money and won’t leave you behind, your identity is different after all. You should be prepared.”
Bingtang thought for a moment and nodded cautiously. “I know you mean well, miss. I’ll think about it.”
“There’s no rush. If you want to do this spot of business, I’ll have Steward Zhong arrange things for you. All you need to do is make the ointment. Actually, you don’t need to restrict yourself to that, you can also put the scar lightening effect in lotions or powders. You also don’t need to make the effects so readily apparent. They can take effect slowly. That’ll be enough for the ladies and misses in the city to hand over enormous amounts of silver. After all, all women like to be pretty.”
Songlan and Qiulu both nodded and tugged at Bingtang’s sleeves. “Miss speaks truly. You might as well make use of your skills and earn some money.”
Bingtang thought of her noble father and how that noble mentality had ended with the destruction of the entire Tang clan. She no longer hesitated and smiled at Qin Yining. “Then please make the arrangements for me, miss. We’ll split the gold I earn.”
“Oh I don’t want your money! If this really does become a lucrative spot of business, I’ll be using your product for free in the future.” Qin Yining tapped Bingtang’s chubby cheeks playfully and walked off merrily for Songlan to brush her hair. Bingtang looked at Qin Yining’s departing figure, gratefulness blossoming in her heart.
Laba congee was the delicacy of choice during the Laba Festival. Great Yan even had a tradition of sending congee to each other. Qin Yining heard laughter travel out from Garden of Loving Piety long before she entered the house. The sweet scent of congee wafted through the air. She handed her cape over to Songlan with a smile and entered the house, curtseying primly to the old dowager, née Sun, second madame, and third madame.
The old dowager greeted her granddaughter happily. “Come here granddaughter Yi, come taste the Laba congee that the Eastern Palace has sent over.”
The Eastern Palace? Ah yes, now that the crown prince was Qin Huaiyuan’s student, he would naturally send over congee on this day.
“This is all thanks to senior brother-in-law,” the third madame fawned. “It’s not just everyone who receives congee from the Eastern Palace. I’ll have something to boast about when I go home.”
The second madame simply smiled without saying anything, and the old dowager laughed heartily at these words. Amidst the merriment, Jixiang quickly strode in at this time. “Reporting to the Old Dowager, a granny servant has just reached the inner doors to report that the lord sent Qitai to tell us that the Cao family has sent us congee.”
The old dowager’s good cheer instantly deserted her, and her heart started to pound uneasily. The Caos normally had nothing to do with them, so why had they suddenly sent over congee? An urgent patter of footsteps sounded before she had a chance to respond, and young master Qin Yu strode in. “Old Dowager, senior uncle was afraid that the servants wouldn’t explain clearly and had me bring a message. We don’t know what the Caos have said to the emperor, but the emperor and empress have summoned you, senior aunt, and cousin Yi.”
- Capital characters in Chinese are much more complex than the regular to prevent forgeries. The character for one is 一 in the usual way of writing, and 壹 in capital. ↩
- A traditional Chinese holiday celebrated on the eighth day of the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. It’s customary to eat congee on this day. ↩
- The lotion in this day and age was a paste made from crystal sugar, honey, powder, fat, and fragrance. Only high society used it. ↩