“Not thinking anything is just father protecting my dignity. You’ve destroyed all of my august achievements!” Tears finally trickled down the girl’s face.
Pang Xiao grew even more frantic when his darling started crying. “Don’t cry, I know my wrongs, alright? I won’t do this again. It’s just that I care about you and was afraid that father-in-law would suddenly think of the old times with his prior liege. What if he bestowed you to the Commandery Prince of Yan? What about me then? My wife was lost by another, who will make things right for me then?”
In his urgency, the prince dropped the proper, official accent and spoke in a thick northern brogue.
Having grown up in the south, Qin Yining rarely heard northern accents as bona fide as the one Pang Xiao’s grandparents spoke with. It was such an intriguing accent and imparted a sense of closeness.
Her tears dried up at the prince’s words and she burst out laughing. In mock anger now, she accused, “You’re so utterly shameless! What pointers? Father was talking about shadows, the one you cast on the ground!”
“Yes yes yes. Shadows, not pointers. You're absolutely right.” Pang Xiao smiled with embarrassment and wiped away his girl's tears with his sleeves. Being rough around the edges, he used too much force and rubbed Qin Yining’s cheeks raw.
She backed away from the pain and leveled a glare. “Why aren’t you leaving yet? What are you still doing here??”
Her newly reddened cheeks made her seem very much like a bristling bunny. Pang Xiao adored the sight like no other and pulled her in for a few kisses.
Entire face now beet red with anger, Qin Yining would’ve lashed out with loud curses if it wasn’t for her sisters living close by. She was covered in sweat by the time she finally peeled the ‘Pang taffy’ away from herself.
Yet reluctant to leave, the prince planted a shy kiss on her cheek. “Then I’ll be off, really off now.”
Qin Yining kicked him angrily. “Get out of here!”
This bunny even bites when it’s cornered! This is so much fun!
Deeply amused, Pang Xiao jumped lightly out of the rear window.
Qin Yining watched him leap up onto the wall in one go, like a black leopard on the hunt in the middle of the night. His body was agile and light, vanishing into the darkness in the blink of an eye.
The girl quickly shut the window tight and crawled back into her blankets. The events of this evening were mortifying. That shameless guy deserves a, a, a wad of spit or something!
Next morning saw Qin Yining sitting in front of the dressing table while Xianyun and Bingtang put her hair up. She scooped a bean-sized portion of the new jasmine flower lotion that Bingtang had mixed for her, spreading it out over the backs of her hands and wrists.
Lian Xiaozhou instantly stuck her nose onto Qin Yining for a few deep sniffs. “Big sister, smells so good.”
The fourth miss smiled. “Let’s have your big sister Bingtang apply some for you in a moment.”
The little girl bobbed her head, beaming merrily at Bingtang.
Bingtang deftly twirled a strand of Qin Yining’s ink-black locks and secured it on her mistress’ head. She used a delicate golden hairpin with a bug motif to pin it in place.
“All the miss knows is to lavish her with attention. She’s spoilt to no end!” Though her tone was sour, it was obvious that the maid was joking.
Lian Xiaozhou grabbed the satchel hanging on her waist and brought it up for a sniff, then waved it at Bingtang.
Qin Yining smiled. “Don’t underestimate Xiaozhou, she understands everything. She knows that you give her nice things and treat her well, don’t you Xiaozhou?”
The little girl nodded rapidly. “Big sister Bingtang, good!”
It was a sad fact of reality that Lian Xiaozhou had lost a great deal of her speech abilities. Bingtang pitied her all the more for it and shared anything fun or delicious that she came across. The maid had also taken up the task of teaching Xiaozhou how to read and recognize various herbs. She really did spend more effort on Xiaozhou than compared to serving Qin Yining.
Being the highly intelligent person she was, Xiaozhou had a clear grasp of everything, even if she couldn’t vocalize it. How would she not know how kindly Bingtang treated her?
Therefore, the little girl viewed Bingtang as another big sister and sought to grow closer to the older girl. She always set aside a few skewers of roasted bird whenever she cooked her favorite cuisine.
Sadly, their current manor provided only cramped quarters. It was a hassle to have to find an unoccupied rear alley whenever Xiaozhou wanted to roast her latest catch.
“Greetings to Madame Cao.” Qiulu’s voice travelled in from outside. The door curtains lifted to admit Cao Yuqing wrapped in a blue-black cape with a fur collar.
Ever since Cao Yuqing informed the Qins that she was no longer Qin Huaiyuan’s concubine, but a guard in his employ, the family had stopped calling her Auntie Cao. Taking into consideration her age and two marriages, they swapped her address to Madame Cao instead.
Cao Yuqing smiled down at the girl sitting in front of her dressing table. “I’m here early.”
“Please have a seat, Madame Cao. Qiulu, quick, go and fetch the almond tea.” The fourth miss smiled up at her visitor. “I had them make almond tea this morning. It’s wonderful when paired with snacks. Would you like a taste, Madame Cao?”
“Alright.” The older woman’s smile was a stunning stroke of beauty across an otherwise stern demeanor. Her limpid eyes spoke of depths of emotion, as if seeing someone else far off in the distance when she looked at the Qin fourth miss.
Qin Yining didn’t think too much about it and quickly put up the rest of her hair. She skipped powder and grabbed two random pearl earrings to round out her outfit. Taking a seat at the eight-sided table with a smile, she offered with her own hands the tea and snacks that Qiulu had brought over.
Cao Yuqing happily accepted and took an elegant sip, carefully savoring the flavor notes within. “It really is very fine.”
Putting down her cup, the guard captain broached the subject of her visit. “I’m here today on orders of milord to bring you new guards. All four of them are very dependable and highly skilled in their own ways. They’re perfect candidates to keep you safe.”
She rose and called at the door for four teenagers of average height, build, and looks. The four bowed in unison.
“This is Jingzhe—his name is the characters for the time of spring when insects wake. This is Xiaoman, a reference to the eighth solar term of the year. Xiaoxue is named for the twentieth solar term, and Dahan for the cold of winter.”
Qin Yining looked at each person as they were introduced.
Jingzhe was taller than the rest and looked kind. Xiaoman had more delicate features and seemed a bit like a girl. Despite having the character for snow in his name, Xiaoxue was the exact opposite with a deep tan and thick eyebrows paired with a large mouth. Dahan looked the oldest, but was quite expressionless.
Though all four were talented in different ways, they shared the common trait of being completely nondescript in a crowd.
The fourth miss smiled. “Were they named for various types of weather?”
“Yes. Their original names weren’t these, but the emp… the one that made this rule said we are to use the twenty solar terms as code names. Replacements are to take the place of any that fall. Jingzhe is very strong in martial arts, Xiaoman adept in the art of disguise. Xiaoxue has the best qinggong [ref. The flying skills that we often see in wuxi films.[/ref] among the four Dahan is steady and experienced—he’s very good at thinking on the fly and coming up with adjustments on the spot. They’re all very loyal. Milord took great pains in selecting the four of them for you.”
Cao Yuqing reclaimed her seat next to Qin Yining, bestowing a satisfied smile on her well-trained men.
The Qin fourth miss nodded solemnly. “Thank you for going to this trouble, Madame Cao. I understand your kind intentions. I will show them only the best treatment at my side.”
“That’d be the best.” Cao Yuqing smiled. “They all come from impoverished backgrounds and sold themselves when they had no other choice left. I know you treat your people well, so it’s their great fortune to become your men. Milord has given them the cover story of being part of your future dowry. They’re known as honest and obedient servants who will look after the family. No one will suspect them of anything.”Previous Chapter Next Chapter
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