Li Qitian gazed at the pot of coral sitting in the corner of the study, momentarily lost in thought. Emotions vied for dominance in his eyes, and it took a full hour for uncertainty to leave his face and give way to resolution.
“This servant is here.” The eunuch who’d been waiting in the shadows immediately came forward to make his bow.
Li Qitian’s voice echoed in the spacious hall. “Go to the Palace of Serene Piety and take some new fabric to Helan. Tell Hexiang to serve her mistress well and not entertain any other thoughts. We will not show her mercy if she does.”
“Understood, this servant will go immediately. Your Majesty, will you be choosing an imperial concubine’s token tonight?”
Li Qitian thought for a moment. “We will visit the empress tonight.”
The days passed by quite peacefully for Qin Yining. She’d been grounded ever since running into those two concubines and being yelled at by Pang Xiao. Snowtrace Garden had a wonderful view, and those serving her were Pang Xiao’s specially arranged confidantes. She kept only Lian Xiaozhou by her side and taught the child whenever she had time to.
For example, the Qin fourth miss would continuously ask the girl questions to train her speaking and critical thinking skills. Common sense knowledge and rules of the world were also topics, as well as the art of tea and cooking. Anything that Qin Yining ran into, but Xiaozhou didn’t know, would be very patiently turned into a teaching moment.
On this day after lunch, Qin Yining was feeling a bit bored when she heard some barking. One dog’s voice was rough and low, the other thin and soft. The latter was obviously Salt, but the former was an unfamiliar dog.
Lian Xiaozhou jumped up happily and ran outside when she heard the sounds. “Big sister! Doggy!”
There was a dog hole in the rear wall to Snowtrace Garden. Née Yao’s Pekingese dog Salt often squirmed through it for visits and fun.
Qin Yining chased after the little girl to fling a cotton cape around her shoulders. “Slowly, don’t trip!”
Head maid Xianyun smiled. “Miss, you really do treat Miss Lian as your own little sister.”
Xianyun had a graceful, pliable body with delicate features. Just like Jiyun, she was one of Pang Xiao’s trusted servants.
Jiyun had exemplary martial arts skills and made for a perfect bodyguard, which was why Pang Xiao had sent her to Qin Yining.
Xianyun didn’t know how to fight, but she was prudent and intelligent. She knew the art of tea, how to cook, and was very skilled with needlework. She was an old hand at managing the staff in the residence; Qin Yining didn’t need to say or worry about anything at all. Xianyun could handle everything deftly and was quick-witted and mature. Pang Xiao had given her to Qin Yining now that they were both in the manor.
“Xiaozhou saved my life.” Qin Yining smiled. “If I hadn’t run into her in the mountains, I would’ve starved or frozen to death. The child’s father had just died and she had no one else in the mountains. Just look at her, she’s over ten, but still looks like a child. My thoughts were that if I made it out alive, I would take her with me to thank her. Now that I have the chance to, I must take care of her as well as I possibly can.”
She was afraid that Pang Xiao would discover something and reminded Lian Xiaozhou over and over again to add a year to her age.
“You’re a kind-hearted soul, miss. No wonder the prince only has you in his heart.” Xianyun flung a white fox fur cloak over Qin Yining’s shoulder and brought over white rabbit fur hand warmers that were lined with cotton. “You grew up in the south and will take a while to acclimate to the northern winters. Dress a bit more warmly before you go out. His Highness will be saddened if you catch a cold.
“Many thanks.” Qin Yining stuck her hands into the hand warmers with a smile. They were soft and warm. They must’ve been resting on the heated platform just now, just waiting to toast her cold hands.
Xianyun lifted the door curtains when she reached the door, admitting a blast of winter air.
The courtyard had been swept very cleanly of snow, with only some occasionally drifting off the branches or walls. Dressed in a red cotton jacket, Lian Xiaozhou was stooped on the ground, hugging a snow-white Pekingese and staring at a large, black dog that was baring its teeth back at her.
Qin Yining blinked at the scene. “What’s that?”
“That’s Pepper. He’s ten years old and was brought over from the grand-lord’s old residence. He’s a really good watchdog and very smart. He can understand our words.”
The Qin fourth miss smiled. “That makes Pepper and Xiaozhou the same age then.”
Xianyun looked at the lean, strong black dog and then at the little girl in red crouched on the ground. Giggles couldn’t help escaping her.
Qin Yining walked down the steps, feeling that the black dog was luckier than her. He’d witnessed a young Pang Xiao! She leaned down with a smile, “Hello Pepper.”
The dog immediately looked over, twitching his ears. His tail wagged hesitantly and he no longer bared its teeth.
When Xiaozhou heard Qin Yining’s voice, she ran over with the smaller dog in her arms, her eyes sparkling. “Big dog!”
“That’s right, it’s a big dog. Do you like it, Xiaozhou?”
The little girl nodded rapidly. “Like it! Roast!”
Qin Yining almost hit the ground with her face. No wonder the smart Pepper, who understood human speech, was baring its teeth at Lian Xiaozhou! The chit wanted to roast him!
Having lived in the mountains for so many years, Xiaozhou’s primary cuisine had been roasted food, and she had a particular love of roasted meat. She’d been hunting sparrows to cook just recently as yesterday! And even though she was full now, she still had the urge to turn something over a spit.
Qin Yining poked the little girl’s forehead. “You can’t do that. You have plenty of food to eat now. Pan-fry, stir-fry, stews, deep-fry. There’s all sorts of goodies, but you still don’t find that enough? Pepper has an owner, you can’t cook him, understood?”
A deep furrow crossed Lian Xiaozhou’s forehead as she nodded sadly. She understood everything and was very smart, but still spoke clumsily as she hadn’t made great strides there yet.
But her greatest merit was that she was obedient to Qin Yining. If big sister said she couldn’t roast Pepper, then she wouldn’t think of doing so.
Perhaps because he no longer sensed any hostility after the girl stopped drooling over him, Pepper lifted his head and barked twice, then wagged his tail.
Qin Yining patted the dog’s head and scratched his chin, prompting more barks out of Pepper. He huffed happily and threatened to take off with how furiously his tail was wagging. In the end, he lifted his paws and laid on the ground to expose his belly.
Qin Yining found this hilarious. Who would’ve thought that the legendary watchdog would be so friendly?
In Xiaozhou’s arms, Salt squirmed around and jumped down to circle around Qin Yining’s legs. The fourth miss handed her hand warmer to Xianyun and scratched the other dog with her now free hand.
The animals were soft and warm, and their fur quite pleasant to touch. She couldn’t help but pet them a bit longer. The action seemed to be dispersing the negative clouds in her heart.
“You’re gentler to them than to me, I’m so jealous!” Pang Xiao’s good-humored tones suddenly came from above.
Qin Yining lifted her eyes to see the prince standing in front of her, his hands behind his back.
Salt and Pepper leapt into action, their butts shaken by furiously wagging tails. They turned in circles around Pang Xiao’s legs, plainly wanting to get close and declare their welcome.
Qin Yining rose with a smile and Xianyun immediately handed over a hot handkerchief to wipe off her hands, then put the hand warmer back on.
“How come you didn’t go out today?”
“I actually did and just came back. I’ve got two pieces of news for you.”Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Honestly, this emperor is bad news because he's bad and smart. :\
Btw, running a Chibi Maruko Chan giveaway on Twitter!