Chapter 44: Being Courted?
Things were in full swing in the outer courtyard, with faint sounds of theater filling the air. Servants were rushing to and fro through the alleyways and around the artificial mountain. Qin Yining was afraid of bumping into one of the honored guests, so she took a winding and remote little path through a moon gate  and took another turn before finally reaching the place that Liuya had told her. This was also a place where they received guests in the outer residence, but it was a bit more narrow and out of the way. It was reserved for those guests who didn’t have a high status.
Qin Yining entered the small yard and saw a tall, thin man standing with his back to her. His cloak, trimmed with long, snow-white fur, was quite familiar to her. A thirteen year old pageboy by his side saw her and quickly bowed. When the man turned around, he revealed himself to be the young man that Qin Yining had met in the Prince of Ning Manor.
She was a bit taken aback. According to her speculations, this was the prince’s son who’d once been an imperial prince. Why is he being used as a messenger? His status was lofty, so why had they put him in this yard?
“So it’s your honored self.” Qin Yining bent her knee in greeting. “The servants were careless and actually put you here to wait for me. I’ll have them prepare the main hall immediately.”
The young man laughed softly at her words, and his normally furrowed brow eased slightly. His bright eyes fixed themselves on Qin Yining as he spoke in a gentle voice. “Don’t mind it, lady. I had them purposely bring me to some place out of the way. After all, my to-do is three days later. The grand preceptor is treating his guests today and there’s too many who know my face. It wouldn’t be good if they saw me now.”
What does he mean that his to-do is three days later? Qin Yining’s mind went back to the old dowager casually saying that the crown prince would personally visit and hold a banquet for his teacher three days later. As soon as she made the connection, she started with shock and quickly fell to her knees. “So it’s Your Royal Highness! This girl was brash and rude, please forgive me.”
When Qiulu heard that this was the crown prince, her hands immediately turned clammy from fear as she thumped to her knees as well.
“You and I didn’t make a fuss about our identities when we met, why are you worried now? My name is Weichi Yan, secondary name Qingyan.  Just treat this as getting to know a friend, my lady, or getting to know your father’s disciple.” Weichi Yan extended a hand to help Qin Yining up.
“This subject wouldn’t dare.” She stood and took two steps backwards before continuing politely. “I made a mistake about Your Highness’ identity earlier and might not have accorded you proper respect and due. Please forgive me, Your Highness.”
“Oh? Who did you think I was?” Weichi Yan was concerned about a different point than Qin Yining.
She lowered her eyes. “I thought you were the son that the Prince of Ning gave up.”
Weichi Yan laughed softly. “Why did you think I was him? We don’t look alike at all, and he’s older than me.”
“I guessed from your speech and gestures, and from what you called the prince, as well as your bearing in the Ning Manor.” Qin Yining responded respectfully. “It never crossed this subject’s mind that you were the crown prince, and said all manner of nonsense about your painting. I am ashamed.”
“No, your words were very helpful to me that day. You could say that they were a smack of enlightenment on the head. They helped me understand that what makes a good painting isn't the skill of one’s technique, but a true understanding of the world that reflects the realest form of the subject. That’s what gives a painting its soul.” Weichi Yan waxed eloquent as he talked about painting. His eyes gave away his passion as they gleamed in the night. “If I wasn’t the crown prince, I’d truly want to travel the world and see all the lands with my own eyes. I would surely be able to create paintings with such a soul then.”
Qin Yining lowered her eyes, concealing the emotions within. It looks like the crown prince really does love painting. But as the heir to a nation, is it really the best to have such an ardent pursuit of leisurely activities when Great Yan sways from the great winds battering it?
“Your Highness, then why did you gift the painting to me?” She tried to right the topic’s course back to sensibility.
“Ah, that painting isn’t suited to be hung in the Ning Manor.” Weichi Yan came back to himself. “It’s fine if I gift it to a lady though. Treat it as thanks for the success of that matter.”
Qin Yining instantly understood his meaning. There was no leader in the herd of horses in the painting, a detail that could be explained in several ways. It could be alluding to the emperor occupying the lead position, but not fulfilling his duties. It could also insinuate that the leader was cowering in the back of the herd instead of standing out in front. if this painting hung in the home of someone who had a claim to the throne, it could be distorted as the Prince of Ning mocking the son of heaven, and possibly even harboring traitorous thoughts. But no one would think any of that when if it hung in a girl’s room.
As for the thanks he mentioned, it was likely the Prince of Ning’s successful attempt to rid Grand Preceptor Cao of his position. Still, Qin Yining didn’t want it. “I should not reject Your Highness’ gesture in gifting me the painting, but there should be a distance between men and women. Please take back the painting.” She immediately gave orders to Qiulu to retrieve the painting.
Weichi Yan frowned, and his follower immediately blocked Qiulu. “Why be so distant with me, my lady? Your father is a grand preceptor even if you do nothing, with his future tied to my Eastern Palace [3. The name of the Heir Apparent’s residence through imperial history, also a common indirect reference to the Heir Apparent himself.]. Perhaps even your own future will be tied to the Eastern Palace. Why refuse my gift?”
Qin Yining’s heat quailed when she heard this, and she lifted uncertain eyes to look at Weichi Yan. He was looking back at her with an impassioned, meaningful look in his eyes. His fair skin was slowly turning a deep red, the flush creeping down his neck, noticeably contrasting his snow-white fur collar.
Weichi Yan couldn’t return Qin Yining’s clear gaze for more than two breaths. He looked away, his heart pounding, and coughed twice to cover up the moment. “Keep the painting, or burn it if you don’t want it. Unfortunately, I have other matters to attend to and won’t keep you any longer, my lady. Farewell.” He hastily turned and left as soon as he finished speaking.
When Qin Yining watched him skitter out with his follower, the description ‘running with his tail tucked between his legs’ came to mind. Her thoughts were a bit heavy. The crown prince’s words had been very clear just now. Could it be that her future would be tied to the Eastern Palace like the others guessed? It looked like the crown prince was certainly of that mind, and now that she was the grand preceptor’s daughter, her status was certainly sufficient to justify such a match. But for some reason, she didn’t feel the joy of impending wealth and glory, the possibility of mothering the entire nation. That wasn’t what Qin Yining wanted.
She only wanted her family to be together safely and securely, and to live out her days in peaceful inconsequence. She didn’t want great wealth and glory, she just wanted smoothness and stability. As the crown prince or the emperor’s woman, she would never know peace. But if such a thing happened, could she really reject it? Now that her father was the grand preceptor, it meant that they’d taken a stance. They no longer had the luxury of watching on the sidelines. Marriage was the best way to consolidate their position. If her father really wanted to be a royal in-law, she was the only candidate to marry the crown prince.
As a Qin daughter, she had no right to refuse such an arrangement, especially when it was one of untold honor in the eyes of everyone else, one that that would attract much jealousy and admiration.
Qin Yining was quiet on her way back to Snowpear Courtyard. Having witnessed everything that had just happened, Qiulu’s face was still red. But she didn’t dare say anything when her mistress remained quiet.
Qin Yining felt irritation rise within her when she saw the painting in her residence again. “Store the painting well.”
“Understood.” Qiulu was about to roll it up when a serving girl outside reported, “Miss Huining and Sixth Miss are here.”
Before Qin Yining could even respond, the door curtains were lifted and Qin Huining walked in with Sixth Miss Qin Shuangning. Their head maids dutifully tailed the two.
“We had nothing to do, so we decided to visit at fourth sister’s. You don’t mind, do you?” The sixth miss had already taken a seat at the table for eight even as she spoke. Qin Huining also sat down casually.
“Of course not.” Qin Yining arched a brow. “I just find it weird. Sixth sister and Miss Huining don’t like me all that much, so why have you come? Qiulu, put the painting away. Liuya, serve tea.”
The sixth miss and Qin Huining didn’t think that Qin Yining wouldn’t even bother with a pleasant charade and cut straight to the chase. Their expressions froze for a second. Qiulu and Liuya went about their duties, but the sixth miss unfroze just in time to snatch the painting out of Qiulu’s hands when she saw the maid about to roll it up. “To think you’d have a painting here! Do you know how to appreciate these kinds of things?”
As she unfurled the painting, the signature ‘Bright and Clear Peace’ came into view. The sixth miss burst out laughing and threw it on the ground. She struggled to talk as she grew breathless from laughter. “And you still don’t admit you’re a barbarian! Look at you treasuring a fake painting!”
Qin Huining also saw the signature as she glanced over at it. Did the crown prince paint this?
Qiulu scrambled to pick up the painting, deathly afraid that the sixth miss would stomp on it. Qin Yining had already grown angry. “I naturally don’t understand these things, but while I grew up in the mountains, did you as well? Do you even know what manners are? You share the same mother as seventh sister, but why are your personalities so different? It looks like the one by the wife’s side is indeed more learned and refined! Logic doesn’t fail me, at least!”
The sixth miss’ laughter abruptly cut off. She snorted. “Don’t be too full of yourself! It’s just a fake painting. The crown prince has never given away one of his paintings just like that. You’re just a girl, don’t try to use a feathered dart as a stray arrow!”
“What do I have to be proud of? Everything I own is my birthright, so why should I be full of myself?” Qin Yining automatically ignored the second half of Qin Shuangning’s words.
But alarm bells had already started clanging loudly in Qin Huining’s heart. Did the crown prince really gift her that painting? How did Qin Yining get involved with the crown prince? Is she really going to be the crown prince’s consort in the future? She wasn’t willing to accept her thoughts and couldn’t quite keep her expression under control. A tinge of resentment flavored her voice as she spoke, “Look at how Little Creek’s household is in shambles now that you lack two head maids. How come we haven’t had a cup of hot tea yet?”
“And isn’t it all thanks to their great mistress? The barbarian groomed and taught a thief who went and targeted the old dowager’s things!” The sixth miss laughed heartily. “All you’re good for is strutting around with a fake painting!”
Qin Yining clenched her fists. What to do? She really wanted to beat people again!
Fortunately, her resolve wasn’t tested much further as scattered footsteps came in from the yard. Qin Yining rose to see two fifteen year old, beautiful maids coming in with a group of strong granny servants. The two maids gave the grand gesture of greeting when they saw Qin Yining standing in the covered walkway. “Servant Yaoqin (Yuqi) greets the fourth miss. The guests are enjoying the grand preceptor’s banquet in the outer residence, and their womenfolk sent many gifts to Fourth Miss. The lord bade us to bring them along as well.”
The two maids gave way as they spoke, clearing a path for the strong grannies to lift various gift boxes into the house. Qin Huining and the sixth miss were almost blinded by the amount of gifts coming in. Their faces immediately darkened. What was the meaning of this? They’d just laughed at her, and now the barbarian was using all of these gifts to slap their faces!