Qin Yining spent the night wreathed in smiles, even in her sleep. In her dreams, a beaming Pang Xiao kept asking, “Just stay by my side, alright?”
She nodded boldly in her dreams, much more candid than she was in reality.
She used to often feel lost when it came to the future, but things were much different now. She was going to stay by his side, no matter what troubles came their way. She would never give up, no matter how dire his circumstances. They would weather together the storms that beat down on them.
The next morning, Jiyun and Xianyun were helping her dress and put up her hair when Bingtang returned from her news-gathering jaunt.
“Miss, the prince set out early this morning. He said it was for the grand court session.” A merry Bingtang hung an exquisite pouch on Lian Xiaozhou’s neck. The little girl was busily stuffing her face with snacks.
Crumb-encrusted cheeks bent down to closely scrutinize the pouch. The girl snatched it up for a close sniff and immediately beamed with joy. She ran up to Qin Yining to proffer her new treasure.
“Big sis, smells nice.”
“That’s right. There’s dried flower petals and a few medicinal ingredients inside the pouch. Smell it often in this weather. You can ward off colds this way.”
Bingtang knew that Lian Xiaozhou was an orphan and had a speech impediment. After close diagnosis, she concluded that, in this life, it would be difficult for the child to speak normally like other people. This conclusion had inspired deep tender protectiveness.
Qin Yining smiled. “Isn’t that lovely? Xiaozhou, thank big sister Bingtang.”
Lian Xiaozhou looked at the maid who wasn’t much taller than herself. She bowed merrily. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Bingtang waved her hand.
Qiulu brought over the semi-worn, pale blue cotton jacket that Qin Yining was to wear today. She dimpled at the scene. “Our Bingtang can finally enjoy having her turn as big sister.”
The maid didn’t speak much ordinarily, but the occasional word would always poke straight at the heart of the matter.
Bingtang snorted and feigned anger. “And wouldn’t you like to enjoy being a younger sister? Who told you to be the oldest out of all of us? We’ll have the miss find you a husband later on and marry you off. What should I call your husband then? Brother-in-law?”
“Oh, you! All you know is to tease and make fun of others. I’m going to smack you silly!” Qiulu put down the jacket and chased after Bingtang, who promptly ran circles around the octagonal table and kept up a string of teasing remarks.
Everyone else found it hilarious.
Qiulu had been with Qin Yining the longest and was the oldest out of all the maids. She tended to offer few words and was extremely conscientious.
After a round of meting out punishment, the maid came back to continue sorting through Qin Yining’s jewelry and clothes, as well as take stock of the household’s spending. She’d garnered quite a bit of respect from Xianyun and Jiyun.
“I kept the miss company before you all returned. It was dreadfully lonely in the house,” said Xianyun with a smile. “The miss was in low spirits everyday and very pensive. Only the prince could cheer her up. But everything’s great now. Everyone is safe and sound, and even big sister Qiulu knows how to have fun. This is proof of the good fengshui the prince’s manor has. It’s bringing the miss good luck.”
Xianyun stuck a jade-green flower hairpin in Qin Yining’s hair and looked at her mistress’ fair reflection in the mirror. “Miss, aren’t you going to hurry and marry into the family?”
Qin Yining rolled her eyes, but Jiyun piped in before she could respond. “The prince must be thinking about that everyday.”
“You wicked girls, it looks like I’ve spoiled you! I’ll tell the prince next time I see him and have him beat you!” Qin Yining snorted.
The girls broke out into such loud giggles that they didn’t hear a serving girl at the door until she piped up the second time.
Jiyun went to open the door. “What is it?”
The serving girl stood in the yard and peered smilingly inside the half open door with curiosity. “In response to the miss, two Qin masters are in the front hall. They say that they’re Miss Qin’s uncles. Sir Xu’s already seen them and sent me with this message. Will the miss receive them in Snowtrace Garden or the front hall?”
The giggles petered up and the smile disappeared from Qin Yining’s face. “I’ll go to the front hall.”
“Understood.” The serving girl peeked curiously inside again before dismissing herself with a curtsey.
Newly somber, Bingtang asked, “Miss, are you really going to see them? They’re undoubtedly here to force you to enter the imperial selection. Why don’t you just pretend that you’re sick?”
“That’s right, miss,” chorused Qiulu and Jiyun. They supported Qin Yining and Pang Xiao from the bottom of their hearts. They didn’t want her to serve the emperor at all.
Qin Yining rose to fling her cape over her shoulders. “I can hide for a time, but I can’t hide forever. Avoiding them isn’t really the thing to do either, some things still need to be said. The old dowager only came to deliver a high-handed order yesterday—she didn’t explain the particulars at all. I also want to know where my father is. Jiyun, Bingtang, come with me.”
“Understood.” The two curtsied and readied themselves to follow their mistress.
In the front hall, the second and third elder master were drinking tea with Xu Weizhi’s company. The strategist’s outfit was more opulent than the two Qin elder masters’ simple cotton jackets. His glory as the butler of a prince’s manor was on full display.
When he saw Qin Yining arrived, he coughed and cast a glance in the men’s direction.
“Your family comes to disturb us day and night,” he declared presumptuously. “Take care of this well so the prince isn’t irritated.”
Qin Yining understood and nodded. “I will, many thanks to the honored butler.”
Xu Weizhi couldn’t stop a grin from spreading across his face when he saw the girl’s fast reaction. He nodded and stepped out with his hands behind his back.
Qin Yining turned to the two maids who had followed her. “Wait at the door for me.”
Only niece and uncles were left in the hall. Qin Yining curtsied to her elders. “Second uncle, third uncle, it’s been a while.”
They’d lost a lot of weight, and it could be gleaned from their dress that though they weren’t as badly off as Pang Xiao’s scouts said they were, life wasn’t easy for them.
Having seen the old dowager yesterday, questions swirled in the Qin fourth miss’ head. She cut straight to the chase. “Second uncle, third uncle, did you run into any accidents along the way? Do you know where my father is?”
The second elder master sighed. “Niece Yi, we came today to talk about this with you. When we were all swept apart, we were separated from your parents and auntie. After finally making it to the capital, we ended up being kidnapped by some people.”
“What?!” Qin Yining was highly stunned. Ji Zeyu hadn’t made a another move after the ambush!
The third elder master was a more impatient person and words tumbled out of him. “Our entire family was taken. All of our valuables were robbed, and they even said that your parents and auntie were in their hands. If they are to remain alive and we want our valuables back, we need to send you to the imperial selection!”
“Me specifically? Who are they?” Qin Yining was frightened and furious. The possibility of a kidnapping causing everything hadn’t factored into her speculations at all.
“They really did say to send you to the imperial selection.” The third elder master shook his head. “We don’t know who they are either. But even if we don’t care about our valuables, we need to consider your parents’ and auntie’s life. So when we entered the capital, your grandmother quickly signed you up.”Previous Chapter Next Chapter
!! So the shoe drops!