Chapter 1: Return to the Manor
The tenth month of the year had just begun. It wasn’t yet the eighth day, which heralded the coming of winter, but the days were already turning cold. Even the few pots of chrysanthemums, placed along the hallways of the upper house in the prime minister’s manor, had begun to wilt.
A great matter had occurred in the estate; the servants had no mind to spare for the flowers. The chrysanthemums were left to weather the wind and frost as they would.
Qin-mama rubbed her hands together and huffed into them as she walked swiftly into the Garden of Loving Piety, passed through a connecting corridor, and set foot into a passageway paved with square limestones. She hurried all the way to the main house, her inky-green cape, woven of fine cotton fibers, fanning out behind in her haste.
When she reached the corridor of the main house, a young maid, yet to grow out her hair, eagerly offered forth a brass cauldron hand-warmer. “You’re back, Qin-mama.”
“Mm.” Qin-mama raised an eyebrow and the latter immediately made herself scarce without further ado.
The heavy, padded curtains in front of the doors to the main house were embroidered with inky-green characters for fortune and longevity. They lifted as head maid Jixiang ducked outside after hearing the disturbance.
When she saw Qin-mama, Jixiang quickly pulled her aside and spoke lowly, “Old Dowager is feeling a bit better now. The girls are keeping her company.”
Qin-mama rubbed her chilled hand against the hand-warmer, responding in a similar hushed voice, “Is Senior Madame in?”
Jixiang shook her head and pointed in the direction of the Garden of Tranquility, pulling an expression of mock crying. “Second Madame and Third Madame are trying to talk some sense into her.” Her expression snapped back to seriousness. “Has the lord brought that person back yet?”
Qin-mama nodded gravely as Jixiang’s face flashed through a series of minute changes. The two turned, lifted the curtains and went inside, placing the hand-warmer on a sandalwood accent table with bowed legs that was sitting in the corner where two outer walls met.
Qin-mama patted her cheeks, still slightly stiff from the cold, and squeezed out a small smile appropriate for the occasion. Only then did she swiftly trot around a black-lacquered panel, carved with magpies alighting on plum blossoms, making her way into the side hall.
Compared to the outer room, the old dowager’s quarters were as warm as spring.
Sunlight streamed in through windows gridded with Goryeo paper, gracing the exquisite, carved sandalwood decorations inside with a soft layer of light. Pale-green brocade cushions scattered with flowers sat on chairs, and more flowers blossomed on soft, brocade carpets from Persia. Fine, glittering charcoal glowed in a brazier in the middle of the room.
Two young married ladies attired in fine jewels were in the middle of shifting stools over to the brazier for warmth, and five other charming young girls were either standing or sitting next to the luohan bed that was placed by the window. The bed, made from fine grain sandalwood, was adorned with carvings of well wishes and good luck.
Sitting cross-legged on the luohan bed, the old dowager was wearing a dark gold jacket with a row of buttons down the front, topped with a high, round collar. A brocade headband of the same color, embedded with jade, wrapped itself around her head. A golden hairpin tipped with a jade flower had also been slid in diagonally into her hair. A pale-green cylindrical seat cushion adorned with inky-green flowers supported her back.
As Qin-mama walked in, she was tugging on a young, delicate girl next to her who was wearing a light blue beizi . The old dowager’s expression was quite benevolent and loving, no different from what it was normally.
Nevertheless, Qin-mama was inwardly at solemn attention. The fourth miss was the most favored one alright! Her status in the old dowager’s heart still hadn’t decreased in the slightest even after such an event!
“Old Dowager.” Qin-mama made her greetings. Everyone in the room quieted in bizarre accord as they all looked at her with strange expressions.
The old dowager’s face darkened. She spoke lowly, “Has she been brought back yet?”
Qin-mama carefully bent at the waist, her head lowered. “Yes. This servant received a message from those in the second residence. They say that the senior master, second elder master, master, and second master brought the girl through the Door of Ceremony. This servant has hastened to bring you this message.”
The old dowager’s frown deepened. “But did you see what kind of girl she is?” Without waiting for Qin-mama to respond, she spoke again, her voice cold. “No matter what, she’s a girl from our household! Our darling Huining has been with us for fourteen years! I’ve held her in the palm of my hand and loved her as my precious jewel. How did she turn from my dear granddaughter into a fake?!”
The girl clad in blue sitting closely to the old dowager started sniffling and crying again when she heard this.
The old dowager sighed and tugged on the blue-clad girl’s hands, soothing her, “Don’t cry, my darling. My heart breaks so when you cry.”
Qin Huining hiccuped as she snuggled closer to the old dowager, tears streaking her cheeks. Her bright, almond-shaped eyes were almost as puffy as walnuts after all the crying she’d done.
“Grandmother, your granddaughter has freely enjoyed all these years of your love. To you, and the Qin family… how can your granddaughter be fake? How can I be fake?”
The rest of the room was dead quiet as the blue-clad girl sobbed out her grievances. All the girls in the room looked at the old dowager as one.
The old dowager couldn’t bear to see the only granddaughter from her eldest son cry. She gathered the girl in her arms and wept with her. “Don’t you worry! No one will dare tell you to leave! I watched you grow up, how are you not your parents’ daughter? This matter isn’t settled yet! Who knows, they might have brought back some savage runt who only wants power and wealth! Grandmother wants you no matter what. Grandmother loves you no matter what!”
“Grandmother!” Qin Huining knelt in front of the old dowager, visibly moved. She hugged her grandmother’s legs, resting her tear-stained face on the old dowager’s knees. No matter what happened, she would still be the eldest Qin daughter of the official wife, as long as the old dowager loved her!
The old dowager patted Qin Huining’s head with a wrinkled hand that bore a jade ring. How would anyone not understand this heartwarming scene by this point? The young girls of the second and third branches of the family  were all moved as a few tears were shed.
“Old Dowager, the senior master, second elder master, master, and second master have returned.” The young maid’s voice traveled in crisply from outside the door as a gust of cold air barreled inside with the lifting of the curtains.
Everyone craned their necks for a look as the men circled around the panel. Next, a tall, limber young girl with delicately arched eyebrows and eyes came into view. She was bashfully beautiful.
The eyes of those assembled lit up when they saw her walk into the room. She was thirteen or fourteen years old, wearing new clothes of plain downy yellow and a cloak embroidered with flowers. She walked with a light step, and although she was skinny, there was a certain bearing to her frame. Her jet-black hair was first coiled into two small buns that then trailed down past her shoulders, held into place by only two downy yellow ribbons.
She wore no powder on her cheeks and her plump lips appeared a bit pale. Her eyebrows extended gracefully to frame two almond-shaped eyes that glittered with light, presenting quite a beautiful sight. Her features bore a remarkable likeness to the senior master Qin Huaiyuan in his youth!
It was apparent that the girl had never seen such a large occasion that was currently on display in front of her in the Qin home. She was standing with her head slightly lowered, a bit of apprehensive shyness and slight panic intermixed with her quiet demureness. It was enough to evoke pity from those who saw her.
The Qin family was known for beautiful children, and Qin Huaiyuan had excelled among his peers in that. He’d been hailed as the head of the “four gentlemen of the capital” in his youth, and all the young ladies had flocked after him. His carriage was always filled with flowers and fruit whenever he took a spin around the city.
He was well read and highly intelligent, his plots without parallel. He’d used a scheme to drive a wedge between the then ruler of Northern Ji and General Pang Zhongzheng, the Protector of the Nation, at the age of twenty three, successfully getting rid of the latter. That had caused Northern Ji to slowly self destruct in a wave of chaos. Qin Huaiyuan’s rise had been meteoric since then and he was now prime minister of Great Yan.
Although Northern Ji had now changed its name to become Great Zhou, and General Pang Zhongzheng’s remaining child was currently carving his way into Great Yan and was almost at the doorstep of the capital with an army in tow, Qin Huaiyuan still retained his looks and talents. Taverns even told tales of the “Wise Pan An’s Marvelous Plan”  in getting rid of a wily enemy.
The girl in front of them was the spitting image of the young “Wise Pan An” in both looks and demeanor. There was no need to investigate anything—she was absolutely Qin Huaiyuan’s daughter. But, if she was Qin Huaiyuan’s daughter, then who was Qin Huining who’d spent 14 years in the eldest Qin son’s household?
Everyone’s gaze unconsciously flitted between Qin Huining and the young girl until Qin Huining’s face turned beet red with indignation. The old dowager made a moue and busied herself with patting Qin Huining’s hand comfortingly on one hand, whilst sizing up the young girl with a dismissive expression on the other.
The girl was dressed decently, but she didn’t even dare lift her eyes. She was the very picture of a country bumpkin with the little airs of someone who’d never been in a big city… apart from looking like her eldest son, there was none of the proper air that the official firstborn of an old and well-known family should have.
My darling Huining is so much better! The old dowager tightened her grasp on Qin Huining’s hand, bringing untold comfort to the girl.
“Greetings to mother (Old Dowager).” Qin Huaiyuan, second elder master Qin Xiuyuan, master Qin Yu, and second master Qin Han all paid their respects to the old dowager.
The old dowager spread out her hands. “You may rise.” She kept her eyes fixed on the young girl.
“Daughter Yi, why haven’t you kowtowed to your grandmother yet?” Qin Huaiyuan asked coldly.
“Daughter Yi?” The old dowager arched an eyebrow.
“Yes mother, she’s only had a nickname in the outside world all these years. Your son has given her a proper name already—Yining.” He glared at the dumbly staring girl with displeasure. She’s someone who grew up in the countryside alright. She knows nothing of the world and has no manners at all. She’s just standing there like a block of wood.
The young girl pursed her lips and mentally ran through the courtesies that her second elder cousin Qin Han had taught her in the inn. She knelt down docilely to go through the proper courtesies.
“This granddaughter greets her grandmother.” Her voice was as if an oriole’s ringing tones out of a valley, quite moving.
The old dowager took in her movements with a sideways glance. She barely manages to pass muster. She snorted softly, “You’re called Yining now? Then what were you called before?”
“In response to grandmother, I was Little Creek before.”
“And why were you called that?”
“Because my foster mother found me by the side of a little creek. That's why she called me Little Creek.”
Everyone had different thoughts when they heard this. Some jeered while others sighed. Qin Huining clenched her fist tightly, but put on a heartbroken expression on her face. Qin Han sighed with pity. He really felt for this younger cousin of his, who’d led such a hard life since youth.
The old dowager however, smiled mockingly. “You were called Little Creek because you were found by a creek? Then wouldn’t you be called Doggy if you were found in a den of dogs? Stupid, ignorant peasants who didn’t even know how to name a child! I think you can forgo being called Yining, you’re not worthy of it either. Just keep your ‘Little Creek’.”
Everyone was gravely silent.
Qin Yining rose her head with surprise to look at the old dowager. It appeared that this family didn’t welcome her in the slightest, and her grandmother even openly disliked her. Well, I suppose that only makes sense.
She’d heard that the concubines of large families in cities would plot and scheme for a long time for just a bit more to make it through the winter. Now that her true father had found her and brought her back just like this, she must have stolen someone’s place or become an eyesore…
And truth be told, she rather preferred being called Little Creek.
But she was a daughter of the Qin family! Why did she have to offer up with both hands what belonged to her? Was it her fault that one of her father’s political enemies had stolen her when she was born? Should she not come home after arduously making it through all these years?
The old dowager somehow felt uncomfortable as the girl’s clear, beautiful almond-shaped eyes gazed into hers.
“I heard you’ve been hiding deep in the mountains all these years by yourself?” The matriarch spoke coldly again.
“Yes.” Qin Yining looked down again.
“Why did you go to the mountains?”
“Because of the war. People are destitute in the cities and there are many who want to take advantage of the nation’s troubles to get rich. So they kidnap people to sell as slaves. I was afraid that would happen to me after my foster mother died, so I went up into the mountains myself.”
The city of Liang where she’d been was on the border of two countries. Fires of war had raged there for more than ten years, and nine out of ten houses were deserted by now.
“Well aren’t you clever, knowing to take shelter in the mountains.” The old dowager snorted.
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