Chapter 35: A Noble Youth
However, the group was momentarily forestalled at the doors of the manor. After all, Qin Yining hadn’t sent a calling card ahead and was here alone, with no accompaniment from anyone of a similar stature. She had no way to prove her identity. Her identity as Prime Minister Qin’s daughter was also absolutely nothing to the prince. Whether he saw her or not was his whim. Yet, the guard at the door faltered beneath the dual prongs of Steward Zhong and the merrily beaming head maid. He looked at the red lacquered, wax papered carriage for a long moment. This was no easy matter, it was his head on the block if he let in someone who caused trouble. After a moment to think, he quickly spoke, “Wait a moment, I’ll go inform the head butler.” Without waiting for a reply, he bolted into the manor.
Ruilan and the steward returned to the carriage with that message. Qin Yining thought for a moment and sighed. “Bring me the veiled hat. I’ll go myself.”
“Why don’t you wait a moment, owner? Let’s see what they say.” The steward was rather hesitant.
“No need. We have no calling card. We probably won’t be able to see the prince if they don’t see me.”
Ruilan and Qiulu didn’t quite understand their mistress’ words. How would she be allowed in simply because the servants got a look? On the other hand, Steward Zhong was an old hand in this game and immediately understood. It was rather clear that he knew of the prince’s preferences, especially in light of the glimpse he’d gotten of Qin Yining’s beauty. Although Qin Yining wasn’t about to try seducing the prince, she was not above using her beauty to gain a foot in the door. When the guard sees a beautiful girl ask for entrance, he would come to certain conclusions on his own and return with a favorable decision. The owner’s going to these steps to save my family! Steward Zhong was even more moved at the extent his mistress seemed to be going to, and he spoke in a trembling voice, “I will never forget the great debt of gratitude I owe for your magnanimous actions.”
Qin Yining shook her head with a slight sigh. “There’s no need to stand on ceremony now that things have come this far, Steward Zhong.”
She had put on the hat by now and reached for Ruilan’s hands to alight from the carriage, using a red lacquered footstool to gracefully step out. She was wearing a honey-colored vest ensemble with plain flowers cinched at the waist, paired with a long skirt of ivory white chiffon. A crimson cape topped with white rabbit fur completed the ensemble, and although her features were obscured by the veiled hat, her posture alone gave away her identity as a noble daughter of good manners.
The guard had come back with the head butler in tow, and so the two were greeted by the sight of a charming lady as soon as they stepped through the door. Almost immediately, a few conclusions were made.
The butler was a hair over forty, his chubby body wrapped in a brocade robe of dark green. A semi-circle hat  balanced perilously on his head even as his eyes disappeared into the creases of his face when he smiled. “Hello miss. Are you the one who’s asked to see the prince?”
“Yes. Please pass on the message that the daughter of Prime Minister Qin has urgent business to discuss with the prince.” Qin Yining smiled slightly, her voice gentle. There was only one thin white veil attached to her hat. An opportune gust of wind discreetly revealed her finely honed chin and curved lips.
The butler was mesmerized. Just what does this lady look like? She looks so alluring even from behind a veil. The prince would definitely be interested in seeing her.
The creaking of carriage wheels interrupted the butler’s musings. The group turned collectively to see an opulent carriage, replete with red wheels and tassels of pearls, rolling to a halt a few steps from them. It looked to be quite the luxurious vehicle, considering the riding compartment seemed to be made of royal blue satin. The whole carriage glimmered in the sunlight as the pearly tassels swayed with the movement of the carriage.
The coachman hopped off his seat as servants lifted aside the door curtains. A tall, skinny young man emerged, stepping adroitly down from the carriage. His hair was swept upwards and fastened with a jade holder. His face was long and features not precisely the height of good looks, but a domineering bearing exuded from his scholarly air. His brows were thick and long, a faint furrow imprinted on his forehead. A tad pale, his face was framed by the snow-white fox fur collar of his cloak that brushed his face every now and then. On the whole, he appeared very noble. The butler hastened to greet the newcomer with merry smiles, but was stopped by an upraised hand.
“This lady is…?” The young man’s voice was a bit hoarse as he kept his gaze focused on Qin Yining.
The butler responded respectfully. “It’s Prime Minister Qin’s daughter here to see the prince.”
The young man played with the tassel of the satchet at his waist and smiled. His hands left the sachet for a moment to cup together in a salute of respect. “Hello Miss Qin.”
“Greetings to the gentleman.” Qin Yining responded politely as well.
“You wish to see the prince? Then come with me.”
Qin Yining’s eyes flicked upwards in quick surprise. She could see the young man’s self assured expression through the white veil, and more interestingly, the lack of objection from the butler as well. This should be a master of the manor. Judging from his age… possibly the Prince of Ning’s son? But he didn’t call the prince “royal father”, and used the reference of “the prince” instead. She quickly thought of the son who’d been adopted by the emperor and had been an imperial prince for less than a year. It was the same boy who’d been summarily returned to the Prince of Ning after one of the emperor’s concubines had a boy. This “highness” was an imperial prince, but not really. Could one call him the son of the prince then? But he’d been adopted by the emperor. He certainly was in a very awkward position.
Even as she thought, Qin Yining trailed behind the young man, with Ruilan, Qiulu, and Steward Zhong bringing up the rear. They headed through the main doors, circled past a large, man-made pond, through an artificial mountain and into a residence.
A horizontal board hung in the main hall, with the characters for benevolence carved on it. A painting of eight horses hung beneath it, overlooking a long table of fragrant rosewood. A lazurite vase, filled with fresh flowers, was placed on either end. A brass, perforated brazier sat in the middle of the table, filling the air with the faint scent of pine oil and sandalwood from an unknown incense mixture. The young man strode across a gleaming floor of black marble and made a beeline for the head seat. “Please sit, miss.” He indicated with a smile.
Qin Yining further confirmed her earlier thoughts when she saw the young man comfortably occupy the main seat of the hall. She smiled in thanks and took off her hat, occupying one of the side seats. Ruilan, Qiulu, and Steward Zhong all took silent places behind her.
The young man started visibly when he saw Qin Yining’s face and immediately looked down with a cough. “You must be the daughter that Prime Minister Qin just found?”
“That would be me.” Qin Yining was a bit nervous. She was afraid that the young man would ask about the purpose of her visit. After all, discussing the matter of Miss Tang and actually requesting her return from the Prince of Ning were two wholly different things. If she talked about it with anyone else, it’d be easy for others to misunderstand it as a criticism of the prince.
Therefore, she purposefully averted her eyes and focused on some brushwork hung on the wall in front of her, then looked at the painting of eight stallions above the main seat. The painting was one of eight handsome, wild horses galloping over the plains. There was no artist name or seal to it. The young man’s eyes kept wandering back to her face, and he initiated conversation with a smile when he saw her interest in the painting. “What do you think of this painting?”
Qin Yining was stumped. She hadn’t studied paintings much and could only answer with a dry cough, “It’s a nice painting."
The young man had thought that she’d studied paintings, and so was rather surprised to receive such an uninspired reply.
Qin Yining realized that her response had been too insincere when she noted the young man’s expression. She coughed. “The horses are very life-like, but I’m certain that the painter has never seen a real herd of horses.”
The youth was very surprised and rose to study the work. He turned to her, curiosity in his voice, “What makes you say that? I don’t see anything wrong with it.”
Qin Yining blinked in puzzlement when she saw how earnest the young man was. She said softly, “I grew up in the wilderness and was once saved by a herd of wild horses much like this one. Thus, I know a little bit of what horse herds are like.”
The young man had long since heard the story of Prime Minister Qin’s daughter being swapped at birth and wandering around outside for fourteen years. But now, his interest was thoroughly piqued. “If you don’t mind, please elaborate. What was the herd of wild horses like?”
Qin Yining dimpled. “I was attacked by wild wolves one year and was on the run through the woods. In the middle of my frantic escape, I happened to run into a herd of wild horses grazing on the plains. I charged towards them without thinking because I was so afraid, and there was no one around to save me. The lead mare saved me then.” 
She seemed to be able to see that striking chestnut wild mare of her memories as she spoke, as her smile grew simultaneously bigger and gentler. “The lead mare of the herd is just like the one running in the middle of the pack in this painting. Taller, with a longer mane, she was very fit, dashing to and fro with brave grace. She’s the one who protects the herd in emergencies and has even dared to fight wolves. Back then, I survived because the lead mare led the others in creating a defensive galloping circle when I led the wild wolves over.”
She walked to the tilt her head up at the painting, putting her three paces away from the young man. “The horses in this painting are handsome and very life-like, but the painter put the lead mare in the middle of the herd to heighten her looks. But in a real horse herd, the lead mare’s place is the front. The positioning is completely off, which is why I said that the painter must’ve never seen a real horse herd in the wild.”
The young man nodded continuously and turned to Qin Yining with an ardent look on his face. Yet when he met her clear eyes, he quickly averted his own, his ears burning. “You have such a rich breadth of experience, it’s I who’ve learned something today.”
Qin Yining quickly shook her head. “Your words are too much, sir. I haven’t studied painting at all, and so can only see the good in this work. Otherwise, my words are but random gibberish. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
“You’re too polite, miss.”
The two were exchanging pleasantries when a servant came in to report, “His Highness is here.”
Moments after he spoke, a random patter of footsteps sounded in the hallway. They didn’t have long to wait before a man of roughly fifty stalked in from the rear hall. He was exceedingly tall and strong, and was garbed in an eggplant-purple silk robe. A small, golden crown perched on his head.  His sideburns and beard obscured his features, but he walked with great vigor. The Prince of Ning was not alone, though. He was actually holding a tantalizing woman dressed in pale-green chiffon in his arms. When the Prince of Ning entered the front hall, his eyes lit up upon seeing Qin Yining. When he saw the young man, he laughed and lifted his hands in a cupped fist salute.
The young man politely returned the gesture. “Miss, I won’t disturb your conversation with the prince.” He made a genteel bow and headed into the back through the openwork screen.
It was the prince’s turn to occupy the main seat, and he did so. He pulled the seductively smiling lady over to sit on his thighs, eliciting a giggle. He turned his attention fully to Qin Yining, and spoke in a low, resonant voice, “You’re Qin Meng’s daughter, hmm? What business do you have with this prince?”
- A very innocuous description for a hat made of six panels of fabric. Popularized in the Ming Dynasty, it symbolized all beneath the heavens as one.
- Mares are actually the leaders of wild horse herds!
- These are Chinese crowns, which aren’t like the big Western crowns. These are more used to hold a man’s hairstyle up.