Large flakes of snow drifted through the air on Pang Xiao’s way back. Since it was growing dark, Pang Xiao and Huzi decided to push their horses into a faster gallop. They made it back to the manor before the hour of the dog.
The prince strode quickly through the door, whip in hand. “Did anything happen at home today?”
The doorman was standing by the door, looking down. He responded immediately when he heard the question. “The Princess of Anyang came again today.”
“Oh?” Pang Xiao paused. “What was she here for?”
“She said she wanted to see you, I responded that you weren't here. The princess refused to leave, so Sir Xu came out for a bit. Unfortunately, I don’t know what happened after that.”
“Mm. Well done.” Pang Xiao clapped the young doorman’s shoulder. “The days are getting colder. Make sure you bundle up warmly so you don’t catch a cold.”
The young man grinned happily and called out, “Understood! Many thanks to Your Highness!”
Pang Xiao nodded and turned to Huzi. “Have Sirs Xu and Xie wait for me in the study. I’ll pay a visit to Pinecrane Hall first.”
“Understood.” Huzi left with a bow, while Pang Xiao quickly dashed through the flower-hung gate and made a beeline for Pinecrane Hall.
When he reached the doors to the residence, Salt and Pepper came flying out. The dogs thumped their tails madly and circled him with glee. Pang Xiao patted them before entering the yard.
Née Yao’s steward lady, Steward Zhao, approached with a smile. “It really is you, Your Highness. Have you eaten yet?”
“I have.” He’d ascended the stairs as he responded and waited for the young maids to lift the heavy door curtains and push open the door.
After entering, Pang Xiao tossed his cloak and whip in head maid Xunhe, then quickly stepped into the side room.
Yao Chenggu was was piping away on his pipe, cross-legged on the heated platform. Née Yao and née Ma were sitting on the other side of a warmed table, cracking peanuts and chatting.
Seeing her grandson’s return, née Ma smiled. “Dafu, have you had dinner?”
“I have.” Pang Xiao bowed to his seniors and cut straight to the chase. “Did the princess give any of you a hard time today?”
Yao Chenggu’s lips curved upwards around his pipe. He took a measured puff. “No.”
Née Ma’s words fired speedily in response. “Don’t worry, Sir Xu sent servants to have us close the doors and pretend we weren’t home when he heard that the princess was here. Lass Yi’s servants came with another reminder a short while later. Honestly, that princess doesn’t seem that scary to me. What, will she eat us?”
“Mom, the princess is nobility in itself. Sir Xu and Yining were afraid that we would come off worse in the exchange if we received her.”
“Worse off in what way? What can the princess do to an old woman like me? People truly change when they gain power. Goodness gracious!”
Yao Chenggu tapped his pipe absentmindedly against the edge of the platform. “The princess is royalty and we’re Dafu’s grandparents and mother. The princess quite likes our Dafu and wants to join the family. But I hear that she’s already engaged to the Marquis of Northern Stability. She’s certainly not in a good mood with her visit. Sir Xu and the Qin lass were worried that princess would take her frustration out on us or aggrieve us in some other way.”
Née Ma understood the subtleties that everyone was referring to. She nodded and turned to Pang Xiao again. “Didn’t the princess learn a lot of manners in the palace? Why would she visit us just to give us a hard time?”
Née Yao smiled. “Mom, even if she didn’t make things difficult for us and we were polite in kind, that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t have found some fault or another to pick at. She’ll still hold a grudge against us, so it was really for the best that we didn’t see her.”
Pang Xiao sat down sideways on the platform and listened to his family’s conversation. He relaxed when he confirmed that his elders really hadn’t suffered from anything.
Née Ma smiled at her grandson. “You’ve got quite an eye for people. Sirs Xu and Xie sort things out perfectly for you, but that’s also because that’s their role as strategists. Even lass Yi can see things so clearly. She’s talented and beautiful—more than a great match for you. Don’t you bully her, now.”
Pang Xiao chuckled. “How would I possibly bully her?”
“You’ve grounded her,” née Yao interjected. “How is that not bullying?”
“I did that because I had no choice to.”
“You publicly berated a fragile thing like her, then grounded her. It’s already a grave hardship that her reputation’s been ruined—and the princess specifically requested her presence today.” Née Yao explained solemnly to Pang Xiao. “Let me give you a word of advice. Since you like her, think more of her and care for her more. Our family raised no heartbreaker that says one thing but does another.
"You also need to be more attentive. The princess is a treasured jewel of heaven, she’s certainly used to throwing her weight around. She didn’t see your grandparents or me when she visited, so who knows how she made life difficult for Yining.”
A bolt of enlightenment struck Pang Xiao. Here he was, concerned about his family elders, but he’d completely forgotten about Qin Yining!
Guilt crashed over him and he rose. “You’re very right, mom. I’ll go visit darling Yi right now.”
“Hurry and go. Oh, wait.” Née Ma rifled through the drawers next to the platform and fished out a large package. She shoved it at Pang Xiao. “Give this to her as well. Our winters are cold, and her little frame doesn’t look like it can withstand the cold at all. Make sure she doesn’t suffer from the weather.”
Pang Xiao opened the package to find a purple sable cloak along with a purple sable-down hat. Three inches of black sable fur lined the edges of the hat and cloak. They were lined with thick padding that was both soft and warm.
Née Ma smiled. “Don’t mind this color for being a bit too adult, the fur is great quality. I had your mother pick it out. The important thing is that it’s warm, and not how pretty it is. Lass Yi is pretty enough anyways.”
“I thank you for her.” Pang Xiao put away the cloak and hat with a smile, readying to head out.
Née Ma called after him, “Hey, tell the lass that she can send servants to me if she needs anything!”
“Will do.” The prince was already out the door.
Yao Chenggu grabbed a handful of peanuts with a smile and shake of his head. “That brat!”
Pang Xiao took a circuitous route to avoid people, arriving at Snowtrace Garden when the snow had stopped.
White carpeted the yard, reflecting the warm light peering through the windows. The illumination formed an orange-yellow glow, vaguely tracing out two figures on the window.
Pang Xiao smiled. Having someone wait for him at home gave him an unprecedented feeling of being grounded in life.
The granny servants walking around in the yard hastily curtsied when they saw Pang Xiao standing at the entrance with a bundle. Their greetings disturbed those inside the house. Xianyun lifted the door curtains before long. “You’re back, Your Highness.”
“Mm.” Pang Xiao walked through the door with the bundle.
“The miss just gave orders for us prepare hot soup to dispel the effects of alcohol. We heard that you were at a dinner engagement today, so you must’ve drank some wine. But the miss guessed wrong. You don’t look drunk at all, Your Highness.”
Qin Yining’s laughter filtered through the house. “He must’ve drank some, even if he isn’t drunk. Have some soup still, it’s good for you.”
Pang Xiao walked inside with a chuckle. “I’ll have some. It’ll be a waste otherwise since it’s already been prepared. What are you doing?”
The Qin fourth miss was leaning against a large cushion. Three lamps had been lit on heavy heated drawers and end tables. They were covered by thin silk fabric, and Qin Yining was working on embroidery with the light cast from them.
“I’m making a hat for the grand-madame.”
The prince grinned. “You’re thinking of grandma, and so is grandma thinking of you. She was worried that you’d be cold and had my mother buy this for you. Try it on.”
He rested the large bundle on the heated platform and handed the contents to his beloved.
Qin Yining put down her needle and thread to caress the gleaming, smooth sable fur. She hugged it to herself. “It’s so warm. The grand-madame and old madame have been so thoughtful towards me. You must thank them well for me.”
“What thanks? They really are treating you like my wife.”
Pang Xiao looked at the girl resting her face on the dark furs. Illuminated by the lamp light, she was as adorable as a kitten. Impulse gripped him and he reached out to fold her into his arms, burying his face in her shoulder.
“You’re so wonderful, my darling.”
About to enter with the soup, Xianyun quickly retreated when she noted the situation.
Blushing, Qin Yining hugged Pang Xiao’s neck. “What makes you say that?”
“Today was a hardship for you.” Pang Xiao kissed her forehead with a smile.
Qin Yining shook her head. “What hardship? The princess didn’t make things difficult for me. All I had to do was to keep my head down and not anger her. I’m an old hat at this now.”
Thinking of this, she sat upright on his leg and continued solemnly. “I think it’s very clear that the emperor is causing friction between you and the Marquis of Northern Stability. You should be careful.”
“I know.” Pang Xiao was a sharp man. After meeting with Ji Zeyu and analyzing Li Helan’s actions, he also had a clear grasp of what the Qin fourth miss was thinking of.
“Don’t worry, I have no feelings for the princess and won’t give anyone an opportunity to attack me.”
“That’s good.” Qin Yining leaned against his shoulder. “Is the emperor still telling you to rest at home?”
“Yes, but I think these days will soon come to an end. The surrendered Great Yan officials have arrived. It’s time to dole out rewards and honors. He won’t be able to convince the general public if he tells me to rest for much longer.”
The girl nodded. “Just be careful. I feel like things are getting more and more complicated. You should make some more preparations.”
Pang Xiao rubbed his chin against her forehead. “You’re only worrying about me. The Qins have made it to the inns today, aren't you going to ask about them?”
“About what? My parents aren’t back, so it’s only the old dowager, my uncles and the others in the inns. I’m sure they’ve heard about you carrying me off. If they really cared about me, they’d come looking for me. If they don’t, then it’ll be just as nice for us to live separately for a while and not bother each other.”
The prince could tell from her words that she had a bone-deep dislike of the Qin old dowager. She wasn’t a saint, after all. The old dowager didn’t view her as part of the family, so she didn’t want to try to appease the Qin matriarch.
The matter of Pang Xiao carrying off the Qin fourth miss was a hot topic around town. If the old dowager really did care about her, she would’ve come first to demand an explanation from the prince.
“I’m waiting to see how the old dowager and my uncles react. I want to know what they’re thinking of before I decide how to handle the family real estate.”
“Mmhmm. My family’s here—they can’t live forever in the inns, can they? No matter what position His Majesty hands out, we need to make a home in the capital.” Qin Yining thought for a moment. “Steward Zhong’s taken care of everything in Great Yan and delegated my businesses and farms to a suitable person. He’ll arrive in the capital after a few days and bring all of my silver. I want to find a suitable residence for the family, so I’m thinking about where to buy.”Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Wot. PX forgot about Yining? Servants! Haul off the Faithful Prince of the First Rank for thirty smacks of a plank! XD