Chapter 62: An Imperial Summons
The old dowager leaned forward and asked anxiously. “You mean that only I, your senior aunt, and granddaughter Yi were summoned?”
“Yes,” Qin Yu responded solemnly. “Senior uncle is hosting the eunuch from the palace and says he’ll pay a visit shortly. He asked the three of you to please prepare yourselves.”
The old dowager knit her brows together tightly. Qin Yu took his leave, duty done, and pulled his wife aside in the outer room. “Cousin Yi’s never been to the palace before. As her sister-in-law, you should tell her what to look out for.”
His wife smiled at him, nodding. “Don’t worry, I know what to do.” She sent Qin Yu out with her eyes and reached over to tap the second wife’s arm . “Come, the madames will serve Old Dowager. Let’s go help sister-in-law Yi.”
The second wife put down the embroidery piece that she was showing Jixiang and followed the first wife into the inner room. Silence had taken over the room as the old dowager’s forehead rumpled into knots of anxiety. She patted her chest as she grimly spoke. “I somehow feel that the happenings today are bad. The Caos sent us Laba congee for no reason at all, and who knows what Empress Cao said in front of the emperor that resulted in the three of us being summoned.”
Née Sun was also nervous. Although she was a madame with a first rank title and had seen her fair share of grand occasions, she still felt her limbs grow clammy at the thought of facing the emperor and empress. She probably wouldn’t be able to say anything in front of them. “Old Dowager, why don’t we have the lord accompany us?”
The old dowager shook her head. “Didn’t you hear my question earlier? The emperor and empress only want the three of us to go. Meng’er was specifically not listed, and he can’t go without being summoned. Forget it, we’ll find out what’s going on when we get there.”
To the side, Qin Yining put a smile on her face to lighten the mood when she saw how grave and on edge the old dowager and née Sun were. “Grandmother, mother, don’t worry. My father’s position is much different now, so I’m sure nothing major will happen during this trip. There are only two outcomes possible for an unexpected summons, a reward or punishment. We haven’t done anything wrong, so it naturally won’t be punishment.”
The entire house had been filled with unease before, but now the light of comprehension dawned. Only née Sun still responded anxiously, “But our family is at odds with the Caos.”
“The emperor is wise and majestic, so he won’t make a big deal out of the small scuffles between his subjects as long as they don’t harm the foundations of the nation. Not to mention that the empress is the motherly model of the nation, so she won’t stir up anything simply on account of her own personal grudges.” Qin Yining’s rain of praises was for one purpose: even if the trampress tried to use pillow talk with the decrepit emperor for her own gains, the world would laugh at the emperor if he made trouble for the females of a loyal subject’s family. The emperor still cared about his dignity, at the end of the day.
“Daughter Yi speaks truly.” Qin Huaiyuan had slipped into the room, unnoticed by the others till now, and started to comfort the old dowager before he even took off his cloak. “There’s no need to worry, there are no changes at court that would lead to this, and our family’s position is secure. All you need to do is act with caution and react according to the situation. Don’t agree to anything that the emperor and empress declares. Just say that you need time to go home and think about it. You’re a titled old dowager and the emperor has made filial piety one of his primary tenets in ruling the nation. He won’t make trouble for you.”
The old dowager nodded, comforted by the reassurance. Qin Huaiyuan then turned to née Sun. “Just follow mother’s lead when you’re in the palace.” The less you say, the fewer mistakes you can make. Don’t make any move of your own accord.
Née Sun nodded. Finally, the patriarch turned towards his daughter, and the fondness in his eyes almost overflowed when he beheld her. “Be alert and keep your wits sharp, daughter. Serve your grandmother and mother well.”
“Understood.” Qin Yining nodded, smiling at him.
Of the three, the old dowager had the most experience in these situations and Qin Yining had proven herself to be a smart and perceptive girl. Only née Sun was a loose cannon, but she probably wouldn’t dare cause any trouble in front of the emperor. Therefore, Qin Huaiyuan was still very much at ease. He gave a few more instructions before leaving in a hurry, not glancing at Qin Huining a single time from beginning to end.
The girl had purposefully moved to an obvious spot when Qin Huaiyuan had entered the room and was now clenching her teeth hard with a lowered head. The fires of envy and anger threatened to immolate her already tenuous self control.
Now at ease, the old dowager had Qin-mama prepare their outfits. “This is granddaughter Yi’s first trip into the palace. Have we readied her formalwear?”
“Not yet.” The mama frowned. “I had the embroidery quarters hurry their work a few days ago, but the work is detailed and takes a great deal of effort. I’d thought that the clothing need only be ready by New Year’s Eve when we all entered the palace to make our greetings, so I told them to take extra care. Who would’ve thought that it’d be needed sooner?”
The first wife looked at Qin Huining, who’d remained sullenly quiet all this time. “Oh, that’s easy. Niece Yi and Hui look to have a similar build. Why don’t we bring forth niece Hui’s formalwear and have niece Yi use it for now?”
The first wife had actually said this on purpose to needle at Qin Huining. She’d long since disliked the foster girl’s white lotus facade that harbored a scheming mind. She’s so like the concubine-born girls of my own home.
Hidden in the background, everyone’s gazes flicked over to focus on Qin Huining. She was wearing a plain dress ensemble of pale-green and not much in the way of hair ornaments. Her subdued and simple outfit wasn’t quite to the point of looking like she was in mourning, but it was a sore sight on a holiday like Laba. Her sisters and aunts-in-law knew that Qin Huining loved putting on airs like this. It wasn’t as if the girl was being shorted on any powder or jewelry, but she just had to put up the pretense of being maltreated.
She lifted her head with a wide-eyed, doe look as she wrung her handkerchief, looking apologetically at the old dowager. “Grandmother, I just so happened to send that garment off to be washed. I didn’t know that it’d be needed today. Plus, sister Yi is taller than me, so she probably wouldn’t be able to wear it either.”
The emperor had summoned them by name but left out only her out of the main branch. This was already a deep humiliation, so why wasn’t father even looking at her when he came to visit? And now they wanted her to give her clothes for Qin Yining?! Dream on!
The old dowager frowned, slightly irritated. “I don’t think granddaughter Yi needs to go to all that trouble. Didn’t I give you a bolt of pale-pink Sichuan satin decorated with small, peach blossom flowers a while ago? The clothing from that cloth should be ready, no?”
“It’s already been delivered.” Qin Yining nodded.
“Then wear that one. Little girls should wear bright and delicate colors to be a pleasing sight.” The old dowager’s words were the gavel of her decision, and the first and second wife flanked Qin Yining back to the Venerable Study Hall to help her dress.
Meanwhile, a lump formed in Qin Huining’s throat. She had her fists clenched so tight that her fingernails had drawn blood, and now wisps of blood had soiled her handkerchief. The old dowager had plainly been criticizing her for dressing too plainly just now! How fast the favored fall. How much had the old dowager doted on her before? She’d even said that she would love Qin Huining no matter what happened in the future. But now?! I’m not her real granddaughter alright! All these people are spitting on and kicking me down one by one! Even the old dowager is biased to the point of no return!
Qin Huining ducked her head as two teardrops landed on her clothes. The old dowager didn’t miss that either, and frowned fiercely. When Qin Yining was studying diligently, Qin Huining seemed to only know to gossip without end. While Qin Yining got along well with her sisters and never started fights, Qin Huining was close only to the sixth miss and no one else. Qin Yining had never breathed a single word of complaint in Snowpear Courtyard, and didn’t flaunt her move to the Venerable Study Hall either. But when Qin Huining had resided in the Garden of Tranquility, she’d often boasted about it to her sisters, and was now full of resentment when living in the Snowpear Courtyard.
The old dowager had purposefully ignored her for a few days to see how the girl would react. With her behavior now, it was as if the Qin family had sorely mistreated her… her every step and gesture was full of provocation.
Old Dowager Qin was an old hand at life in the inner residences. Once she let go of her fondness and bias, she read the situation more clearly than anyone else. Her feelings towards Qin Huining had thoroughly cooled now. She bid everyone to go about her business so that she and née Sun could get ready.
It didn’t take long for the three to get ready and board the small carriage to the outer doors. They then switched out for a warmer and more spacious carriage outside the manor. With its red wheels and decorative cloth on the roof that trailed down into numerous tassels, the picturesque carriage made swift work of the journey, soon arriving at the palace doors. The guards looked them over briefly before allowing a eunuch to help them into another carriage that took them to the empress’ Soaring Phoenix Palace.
Qin Yining had spent a good amount of time with Zhan-mama by now and understood palace etiquette. She kept her head quietly bowed when she alighted from the carriage, not peering about brashly. The palace wasn’t like her home. Anyone could make trouble for her at the slightest misstep. If she made a mistake, she might end up dragging down her entire family as well. Thus, she didn’t dare put even one toe into the realm of impropriety.
The group was swept through the bluestone path into a spacious yard. When they set foot into the complex proper and arrived at the doors of Soaring Phoenix Palace, another eunuch went in to report their arrival. He soon came back, smiling cheerily. “Old Titled Dowager, Madame Qin, and Miss Qin, please come in. The emperor and empress are both present.”
The three rearranged their garments to fix anything that had slipped out of place and bent respectfully as they entered, following the eunuch to a side hall.
The cloying fragrance of lilies violently assaulted their noses as soon as they stepped inside, making Qin Yining frown slightly. A thick carpet of peonies in full bloom covered the ground. The Qin family ladies didn’t step far into the hall, dropping into the grand gesture of greeting a few steps inside. The old dowager took the initiative in calling out, projecting across the hall, “This old woman Qin née Gu has arrived with daughter-in-law née Sun and granddaughter née Qin. Our greetings to the emperor and empress. May the emperor possess eternal fortune and the empress enjoy good health!”
“You may rise.” A lazy and high-pitched female voice answered her. Qin Yining was definitely familiar with this voice. It belonged to the same person she’d seen at Celestial Nunnery. She couldn’t help but silently be grateful that the gentleman that day had pulled her into hiding. Otherwise, this particular meeting may have gone an entirely different route.
Age had given the emperor’s voice a unique rasp. “It’s but a private meeting today, there’s no need to stand on ceremony. Take the empress’ words as my words. You are all Qin Meng’s family, which makes us all well acquainted here. There’s no need for such politeness.”
“Many thanks to the emperor and empress!” The old dowager led née Sun and Qin Yining in another curtsey. Having given all due respect, the three rose to their feet. Because Qin Yining kept her head lowered out of fear of gazing directly on the emperor’s face, she could only sneak peeks out the corners of her eyes. From what she could determine, there seemed to be more than just the imperial couple and servants in the hall. There seemed to be some strangers, and some men as well!
The empress smiled. “Miss Qin, come over here. This seat wishes to take a good look at you.”
The old dowager and née Sun’s hearts both skipped a beat. Qin Yining was a bit nervous, but decided to go with the flow. She silently assented and slowly walked forward, circling past the brass, three-legged cauldron that etched with flowers. Keeping her head low, the corners of her eyes did indeed glimpse foreign males, one with a small mustache of around thirty years around, and a young man roughly nineteen years old. There was also a middle-aged woman wearing opulent clothes beside them. Interestingly, the three of them happened to be sizing her up at the same time.