When the Qin womenfolk reached the front door, they discovered an opulent carriage already waiting for them.
“Madame Qin, Miss Qin, please enter the carriage.” Chen-mama had other palace servants move over a footstool and personally helped both of them into vehicle, then carefully closed the curtains tight.
Bingtang and Jiyun would make the trip next to the mama.
Inside the carriage, née Sun clung nervously to her daughter’s hand. She whispered in a worried, low voice. “What do you think the empress dowager wants with us girls? Does it have something to do with your father entering the palace two days ago?”
“Don’t worry, mother.” Qin Yining took her mother’s hand in return and patted it. “The emperor values father greatly, and the empress dowager may not have invited us for anything major. She may just want to get to know us. We haven’t had much chance to visit with her since moving to the capital, after all.”
Née Sun could finally relax when she heard this. “I’m at ease hearing you say that.”
The girl smiled at her mother’s exaggeration. “It’ll be fine. Just relax, mother. Even if there is something, it won’t threaten our lives. We just need to watch our words and actions.”
Née Sun nodded solemnly.
The carriage soon reached the palace doors. Née Sun and Qin Yining alighted to transfer into a small litter. They soon arrived at the empress dowager’s Palace of Serene Piety, in the company of Chen-mama and other palace servants.
The two Qin womenfolk adjusted each other’s outfits and left Bingtang and Jiyun outside before setting foot on crimson, raised platform in front of the palace.
One was greeted with an enormous nine-legged, bronze brazier embossed with flower motifs as soon as they set foot through the doors. A mixture of pine needles, mint, and Indian sandalwood burned within, dispersing a refreshing fragrance.
Mother and daughter lowered their heads, following Chen-mama’s footsteps on the scarlet carpet with blossoming peonies until they reached a side palace.
Feminine chatter and laughter sounded out before they walked through the lattice openwork, arched door.
It looked like the empress dowager had invited others as well.
Both Qin Yining and née Sun heaved silent sighs of relief.
“Reporting to Your Imperial Majesty, Madame and Miss Qin have arrived.” Chen-mama curtsied.
The conversation in the room instantly died down. Qin Yining could feel the gazes of everyone upon them.
The empress dowager declared benevolently, “Hurry and invite them in.”
“Understood.” The granny servant showed the way with a smile.
Qin Yining kept firmly to her place behind née Sun, focusing on the tips of her shoes. They went through all the proper motions of taking measured steps, curtseying in greeting, kowtowing, and saluting the empress dowager’s good health.
As soon as the Qin womenfolk entered the room, those already inside fixed their attention on the newcomers.
There were plenty of rumors swirling about Pang Xiao carrying off Qin Yining as soon as she arrived in Great Zhou. Many of them had long envisioned her to be a vixen, a seductress. Even though many had seen her when she entered the city, due to her usual low profile and keeping to herself, they’d forgotten about that initial, stunning glance.
Now observing her dressed in a plain, pastel lake-green outfit, her dainty steps elegant and her figure slender and genteel—it gave one an exceedingly comfortable feeling, even if they couldn’t see her face because of the lowered head. Genuine or otherwise admiration flourished.
“Oh do rise. This must be the Qin girl? Come closer so this forlorn one can take a look.”  The empress dowager reached out to Qin Yining with a smile.
The girl quickly responded with her right hand and placed it on the empress dowager’s slightly wrinkled hand adorned with a ruby ring. She bent her knee again after walking closer. “Greetings and good health to Your Imperial Majesty.”
“Ah, what a lovely girl. They all say that Minister Qin is known as Wise Pan An. Others say that Miss Qin looks exceedingly like the Wise Pan An in his youth. It now seems that the rumors are quite true. Come, lift your head so I can take a look.”
Qin Yining swallowed her discomfort at being assessed like goods in a marketplace and lifted her head to look at the empress dowager’s chin.
The imperial majesty blinked, then rubbed the back of the girl’s hand lovingly. “Aiyaya, what an exquisite girl. She outshines all of you.”
A young girl to the side giggled. “The empress dowager doesn’t like us anymore after seeing such a beauty.”
“That’s right, Her Imperial Majesty is so biased. She only likes younger sister Qin.”
The round of jokes provided the perfect cover for Qin Yining to take a quick look around and assess the surroundings closely.
Apart from her and née Sun, there were two other young woman and two middle-aged noble women. It looked like an outing of mothers and daughters. Some skepticism blossomed in her heart.
When the empress dowager let go of Qin Yining’s hand, she took née Sun’s instead and struck up an intimate conversation. She asked if the Qin madame was settling in well and if she’d run into any difficulties. The other madames echoed each word of care.
Qin Yining took her place off to the side with the other two young girls.
The empress dowager was quite a caring conversationist and the hours of morning passed in casual conversation. At one point, Qin Yining even fielded a few questions of Great Yan culture and customs. The girl responded with impartial objectivity.
When it was midday, Chen-mama came in to report, “Reporting to Your Imperial Majesty, the meal has been prepared and the banquet set up in the western side palace. Please make your way there.”
“I see.” The empress dowager rose, holding née Sun’s hand. She smiled into the Qin madame’s look of startled flattery. “Let’s go and enjoy our meal.”
“Understood. Thank you for bestowing a banquet upon us.” The womenfolk chorused and bent their knees before following the empress dowager to the side palace.
Mouthwatering savory aromas wafted through the air of the side palace instead of the usual burning incense. Exquisite crockery with patterns of traced gold gleamed on a massive round table. Various dishes were a delight for all the senses.
After the empress dowager sank into the head seat, she motioned for everyone to take their seats as well. But how did the group dare sit at the same table with the imperial majesty?
“There’s no need for such reservation. Let’s treat this as a family banquet today. We finally have the opportunity to get to know each other, especially Madame and Miss Qin. We must enjoy ourselves to the utmost! After we become familiar with each other, you two must enter the palace often to visit this forlorn one.”
“Understood. Our gratitude for Your Imperial Majesty’s deep favor.” Née Sun and Qin Yining curtsied in unison.
Everyone took their seats, leaving empty the ones on each side of the empress dowager.
Qin Yining sat to the diagonal rear of the imperial majesty, rather curious why all of them had been summoned today.
As she delved into a jumble of thoughts, a eunuch suddenly called out, “Announcing Second Master Lu!”
The empress dowager urged Chen-mama on with a smile when she heard. “Is it dear boy Lu? Hurry and have him come in!”
The granny servant walked out merrily in welcome, and a cheery Lu Heng walked in before long. He was wearing an elegant brocade robe of light gray and a small jade crown in his hair.
The man made the grand gesture of greeting when he drew close. “This humble commoner greets the empress dowager.”
“Oh, enough of that. Come, sit next to me.”
“Many thanks to Your Imperial Majesty!”
Lu Heng adopted a prim and proper posture after sitting down. He quickly cast his eyes around and paused briefly on Qin Yining. The tips of his ears were red when he looked away.
The empress dowager smiled. “My dear, is your mother well? Is everything well at home?”
“Thanks to Your Majesty’s fortunes, all is well at home. My mother also instructed me to inquire after your good health.”
“Good, good.” The empress dowager nodded joyfully, but a frown quickly crossed her face. “I’ve heard that your mother is busying about to locate womenfolk to round out your household again, but you’re unwilling?”
Lu Heng grinned. “Your Imperial Majesty is all-seeing and all-knowing to know even this!”
1. The Chinese honorific for the empress dowager literally means ‘this sad house’, out of respect for her deceased husband. However, I felt that to be too silly in the actual context of dialogue, but I’m not sure if this is any better…
I am back from family vacay and have le goods for a small ROS 400 celebration! Stay tuned! <3