The old dowager smiled when the girls returned to the outer room. “It’s growing late. You all should be heading to the Garden of Tranquility for lessons in manners, no?”
“Yes, grandmother.” The girls nodded.
“Old Dowager, we’ll have lessons as usual today,” said née Sun. “I’ll take daughter Yi for a visit back home tomorrow morning. Zhan-mama can teach the other girls as usual then.”
The old dowager nodded with a smile, seemingly not detecting anything untoward in née Sun’s words. Qin Huining, staring at the two, finally couldn’t help but tug on née Sun’s sleeve and ask apprehensively, “Mother, are you not taking me? I also miss my maternal grandparents.”
Née Sun had originally been hesitant. When Sun Yu had brought word just now, he’d said that the duchess had wanted to see the newly found pearl, but he hadn’t mentioned anything about their foster daughter. But her thoughts quickly took a spin in another direction. They want to see their granddaughter, but didn’t say which one. I’ll just pretend I got confused and bring Qin Huining along as well.
“Of course you’re coming.” Née Sun brushed back Qin Huining’s hair tenderly. “We’ll go together tomorrow morning.”
Qin Huining smiled cutely as she clung to née Sun’s arm. The sixth miss spoke with admiration from off to the side, “Senior aunt, please bring us with you if you have the chance in the future. I’ve heard that the Duke of Ding’s garden is even larger than ours, and that it’s quite beautiful!”
The second madame’s expression underwent some subtle changes, and she glared at the sixth miss. But the girl wasn’t as docile as usual and was looking at née Sun with blushing cheeks and sparkling eyes.
Née Sun felt quite heady with the rush of compliments and nodded. “I’ll take you all with me if there’s a chance in the future.”
“Thank you, senior aunt!” The sixth miss smiled sweetly.
“We’re all one family so it’s good to visit more often. Granddaughter Yi has just returned this time, so she’ll have much to say to her grandparents. You girls can go next time. You’ll all have an opportunity.” The old dowager didn’t think much of the comment. Kids will be kids. They so love to play. The girls all responded affirmatively.
Qin Yining had a very busy day, but perhaps because she was to visit her maternal grandparents on the morrow, she was a bit distracted during her studies. She couldn’t even remember the various rules and manners that Zhan-mama taught her, even after the mama repeated herself. The palace servant gave up for the day after a few attempts. Qin Yining also discovered that Qin Huining’s sneaky glances at her had grown even more vengeful. It was as if the latter had declared a blood feud between them.
She still went to the study in the outer residence in the afternoon, listening to the teacher behind a screen. Night had already fallen by the time she returned to Snowpear Courtyard. Her emotions were a bit all over the place because she was to meet the Duchess of Ding tomorrow and had no idea what her maternal grandmother would be like.
She had Ruilan prepare her outfit and then asked Zhan-mama to look it over, only resting when she was certain that everything was in order. But even as she lay in bed, she carefully recalled the circumstances of Bao-mama’s visit. They all said that birds of a feather flock together. Bao-mama was a trusted confidante by the duchess’ side and would naturally have some insight into the duchess’ demeanor. Her style and way of speaking would inevitably be similar to her mistress. Qin Yining finally went to sleep peacefully after she thoroughly went over all the sticky situations that could develop and brainstormed strategies in response.
The night passed without incident. After greeting the old dowager in the morning, Qin Yining went back to Snowpear Courtyard to wash up and change clothes. She had chosen a pastel pink, plain, silk padded jacket with large sleeves for the day. It was paired with a downy-yellow, simple pleated skirt [1. This particular skirt is made from eight panels of fabric]. The outfit was completed with a crimson cape lined with white rabbit fur on the collar.
This heightened Qin Yining’s bashfulness as a young girl, but didn’t downplay her looks, whereas the fabric and work of the clothes emphasized her status as a noble daughter.
As for jewelry, she selected two jade cloves and a crab-apple hairpin from the jewelry set that third madame had gifted Qin Yining to adorn her hair. Since her hair, styled in a partially upswept style, was jet-black, the crab-apple hairpin only heightened the inky luster of her locks, which made the hairpin appear exquisite and precious in return.
“Mama, I think girls at my age doesn’t need powder, right?” Qin Yining looked at the various bottles on her vanity mirror and started coughing at the various fragrances that were assaulting her nose.
“The miss is perfect this way.” The palace servant tucked away some errant strands of hair with a smile. “You were born with good skin, and young girls don’t need powder or rouge. But it’s cold outside, so you should use the ointment lightly scented with jasmine on your face. It wouldn’t do for the wind to chap your cheeks.”
“As you say, mama.” Qin Yining nodded with a smile. She was bringing only Ruilan with her to the Duke of Ding’s manor. She could’ve brought a mama as well, but upon further observation, Qin Yining discovered that Zhu-mama was a quiet one who did everything she was told. The old servant wasn’t suited for important tasks at all, whereas Zhan-mama wasn’t one of her people, so there was nothing to be done either.
Ruilan had changed into a pale-green outer jacket and skirt combination for the trip. She’d slipped a bright-red long vest with a furred collar over the outfit. The coordination of red and green looked quite fetching due to her youth, and made her appear very dependable as well. “Miss, the carriage has been prepared. Senior Madame says the carriage will be parked outside the second door and leave via the western side door. We should head for the carriage now.”
Qin Yining stepped into the sedan holding an decorated hand warmer. Ruilan stood next to the sedan, following as it headed out to the second door. They swapped out for a small carriage, wallpapered with wax paper, reaching the western side door after a short travel. There was already a long convoy waiting in front of the door.
The prime minister’s wife was openly heading home in full glory, and bringing her daughter as well. It wasn’t a quick scurry home in a single carriage like last time. Two luxurious carriages adorned with tassels had been arranged for the mistresses. A small, plain one followed behind for the mamas honored enough to come along for the trip. The convoy was rounded out with two more carriages loaded with gifts. There were at least a dozen servants and guards in the retinue as well.
Qin Yining climbed into the first carriage using a red lacquer footstool. She lifted the carriage curtains to see née Sun and Qin Huining sitting closely next to each other in the main seat. Jin-mama was sitting in the side seat and quickly greeted the fourth miss. Qin Yining returned the greeting and curtseyed to née Sun.
Née Sun was wearing a pale purple garment today, her knitted silk cloak quite an opulent fashion statement. Her exquisite makeup had erased all traces of age from her face, leaving only a demure and beautiful madame. Qin Huining’s outfit, on the other hand, was stunningly outside of Qin Yining’s expectations.
Qin Yining sat down across from Jin-mama and began openly looking over Qin Huining. The foster daughter had thrown on a turquoise, knitted silk cloak and an aqua brocade dress. Her clothing was styled in muted shades, but she’d definitely put hard work into her makeup. Her slender eyebrows arched slightly upwards, and powder had been perfectly applied. The deep red of her lips hearkened to the red jade beads of her earrings, enhancing the girl’s overall looks a great deal. The ensemble did indeed look good, going beyond her usual demureness and giving a few hints of a sharply domineering beauty.
She was perhaps made uncomfortable by Qin Yining’s frank assessment and frowned slightly. “What are you looking at, younger sister Little Creek?”
“Miss Huining looks so pretty that I lost myself in appreciation.” Qin Yining smiled.
“It’s nothing compared to your natural beauty.” The response held barely concealed jealousy. Qin Huining had dressed to win against Qin Yining, because she’d thought that the newcomer would dress to the best of her ability for her first visit to the Duke of Ding. Who would’ve thought that Qin Yining wouldn’t use any powder and wear barely any jewelry?!
Most irritating of all was that the charm and allure in Qin Yining’s appearance was all natural and apparent even without cosmetics. Qin Huining had been a bit proud of her getup today, but she could feel her pride shatter all over the floor with Qin Yining sitting in front of her.
The atmosphere grew a bit awkward. Jin-mama coughed lightly and took a look at née Sun who was resting with her eyes half closed after that interlude. The old servant smiled. “Fourth Miss, it’s your first visit to the Duke of Ding Manor. How about I introduce the household there to you?”
Her attitude was especially respectful. There wasn’t a trace of her initial impatience to be found.
Qin Yining knew that these people were materialistic and changed with the wind. She wasn’t angry at this and smiled gratefully instead. “Many thanks to Jin-mama, I was about to ask you the same.”
Jin-mama began her explanations in a low voice. Although the Duke of Ding was a venerated and wealthy official, they were primarily a family of scholars. Their house rules were exceedingly stern. Although they were accustomed to wielding power, none of the children of the main or side family branches, especially the three generations directly beneath the duke and duchess’ care, had ever had bullying scandals. What was most admirable and rare to Qin Yining was that all of the girls in this household were very close to each other. If the duchess caught anyone scheming or framing others, heavy punishment was sure to be in store.
“The duchess says that a family united is a family that can withstand external pressure and attack. Although a flower looks pretty from the outside, it won’t live long if the core is rotten.” Jin-mama basked in shared glory, whereas Qin Yining was in deep agreement. Compared to this, the prime minister's manor seemed rather… base…
There were only two branches to the duke’s family clan. Née Sun was the official firstborn daughter, but ranked number three in her family tree. Her two older brothers doted on her quite heavily.
“Miss, your senior uncle and second uncle are all generals fighting against Great Zhou and aren’t in the manor at the moment. However, your senior aunt and second aunt are both present. You have six female cousins and five male cousins—the eldest of whom came yesterday with the invitation.” Jin-mama started describing the members of the household after going over the family culture. Qin Yining committed everything to memory and was fully familiar with the Duke of Ding Manor’s household structure and atmosphere by the time they arrived.
“The lady’s come back!” A delighted voice sounded from outside the carriage. One could hear the orders being given to a runner. “Hurry and tell Elder Madame that the eldest lady and miss has returned!”
The servants had already placed a red lacquer footstool on the ground when they lifted the carriage curtain. Jin-mama jumped off to help née Sun alight, Cai-mama and Bitong supported Qin Huining, while Ruilan supported Qin Yining.
The group had just crossed the inner door inside the main doors whereupon they were greeted by the hubbub of two older women leading a group of young girls.
“I told everyone to come out later, but your second sister-in-law wanted to come out earlier because she said you’d be here soon. Now look, we’re all cold.” One of the older women held née Sun’s hand and spoke intimately, “Aw, your hand is so warm!”