After a ride of about a month, the carriage finally reached the boundary of Qing Zhou City.
Summer had arrived, and with it the sound of lively cicadas in the trees, causing people to feel drowsy as they listened.
Just past the moat, a delicate and tender voice sounded from the carriage. “Ah Niang, will be we living here from now on?” A corner of the embroidered gold curtains were lifted, revealing a round and defined chin, before they were quickly shut tight by the person inside. The curtains tightly blocked off the earlier, fleeting view of snow-like skin。
A woman’s voice called out, “Little lamb, don’t move too much, we’ll only draw the curtains when we reach home.”
The carriage was silent for a while, and the driver drove through the city gates, reaching the main street.
Qing Zhou could not compare to the prosperous and bustling capital; after all, it was a small place, so the streets were not as wide. When driving two carriages on the street, there was undoubtedly some congestion. Only after making several turns did they manage to successfully leave the place. After reaching the south of the city, there were fewer carriages, as most of the dignitaries and nobles lived in the south, and ordinary people did not dare to visit.
Beside both banks of the river grew many willow trees, providing shade in the sweltering heat. On the carriage, apart from a beautiful woman, there was also a maidservant and three young children. As it was incredibly spacious, there was more than enough space to easily accommodate all of them.
The three children were all asleep. There was one boy and two girls. The one who spoke up before was the eldest daughter Xie Zhen, who was five that year.
Xie Zhen inherited her mother’s beauty, and from a young age she was already beautiful beyond words, with an appearance of precious jade, like a young girl standing at the feet of the lotus seat of Guanyin. Her hair was combed into an elaborate bun, decorated with strings of small beads. She wore a cherry-coloured embroidered overcoat, and underneath she wore a gauze skirt embroidered with a hundred butterflies and flowers. Paired with a five colour auspicious lock pendant, she looked even more innocent and adorable.
At that moment she held a green feathered handheld fan and imitated Leng shi’s way of fanning herself. “Ah niang, when will we reach?”
Leng shi glanced at her meaningfully, and she stuck her tongue out, returning her fan to its original position.
“In another half-hour or so,” Leng shi said as she patted her head.
They were travelling from the capital in order to find the Second Master of Duke Ding’s household, Xie Liqing.He had been sent to Qing Zhou to be a magistrate, and having reached earlier than Leng shi and his children by a month, he had long ago finished preparing everything and was waiting for their arrival.
Hearing that there was only half an hour left, Xie Zhen’s limpid eyes curved upwards, and she cheered excitedly, “We’re going to see Daddy soon!”
She turned to look at Xie Rong, “Brother, aren’t you happy?”
Xie Rong calmly agreed, “Happy”.
Xie Rong was older than her by five years, and was also much more mature than her. He rarely expressed his emotions freely, and unlike her, he did not chatter and tweet nonstop as though he were a sparrow. On the way there he made sure to take care of his younger sisters. As the saying goes, the eldest brother is like a father, and Xie Rong had understood that since a long time ago.
On the bridge, the carriage bumped a little, and happened to wake up the youngest daughter Xie Qian. The three children together talked incessantly, and soon they reached the gates of Xie Fu.
At the front of the gates there were already people waiting to receive them. At the head was Xie Liqing. He was dressed in a light green robe, his stature tall and lanky, and with a bright smile on his face he looked in their direction. Behind him there were dozens of servants respectfully bowing their heads to welcome them. A few were curiously examining the people in the carriage, wanting to see what the Madame looked like.
The curtains were lifted, and the first to exit was a ten year-old adolescent, tall and slim, with a pair of defined and high eyebrows, making him seem upright and honourable.
Next stepped out Leng shi, carrying Xie Qian. The moment the crowd saw her, they couldn’t resist sighing, this whole family’s appearance is really so good.
Leng shi was 25 years-old that year, and had preserved her looks well, without too much powder, her face was soft and smooth, like a teenage girl’s. She wore a five-colour light plum skirt and a muslin jacket. In her arms was a three year-old doll-like child, looking even more delicate than her mother with cherry red lips and white teeth. Her sparkling eyes swept over the gates, making everyone delighted with her appearance.
Originally they thought that was all, but they never anticipated that behind, there was still one more person.
Accompanying a tender cry of “Ah niang, wait for me,” a small form followed the maid down the carriage. Everyone turned to her, only to see Xie Zhen holding up her skirt to jump down from the footstool, crossing over to Leng shi’s side in a few steps before looking towards Xie Liqing and smiling sweetly as she said, “Daddy.”
She was clearly only five to six years old, yet she had such an outstandingly beautiful appearance.
Her face was flawless, with a cute little nose, snowy white skin, and eyes that curved up as she smiled, effortlessly stealing away peoples’ hearts and souls. No one knew for sure whether her beauty was a good or bad thing.
The Xie couple did not put much thought into that. Seeing his daughter, Xie Liqing was immediately happy, and stroking her head, he asked, “Little lamb, did you miss daddy? Did you behave during the trip; did you listen to your A niang’s instructions?”
Little lamb was Xie Zhen’s pet name. At a young age, her physical condition was not good, and she often got sick, like a helpless lamb, causing people to treasure her.
Xie Zhen smiled happily, without an ounce of fear, and said, “I missed daddy! I was really obedient, and listened to A Niang!”
With the family reunited, Xie Liqing hugged his three children tightly, and grinned from ear to ear.
Looking towards his wife, he held out his hand, saying, “This trip must have been hard on you.”
Throughout the years, the couple’s feelings never wavered. Instead, after enduring various difficulties together, they grew more deep and intimate. After not seeing each other for a month, Xie Liqing naturally missed her very much, but could only restrain himself in public.
As she followed her father to the main hall, Xie Zhen curiously glanced around. The hall was not as big as Duke Ding’s residence, but every corner was meticulously designed, most likely due to Xie Liqing’s efforts. Compared to Duke Ding’s residence, this place seemed even more tasteful, and Xie Zhen liked it at first sight. Together with Xie Qian, she ran two rounds around the trees, with their laughter lingering on peoples’ ears.
Xie LIqing laughed along with his two children, while Madam Leng could only shake her head fondly as she made Xie Rong stop them.
- Ah Niang 阿娘: Mother
- shi 氏： A term used to address a married woman
- fu 府：Household, Residence
Taking each of his sisters’ hands, Xie Rong brought them back, saying, “Don’t heedlessly run around, if not, you might end up falling down”.
Xie Zhen nodded her head and held onto her elder brother’s hand tightly. However, she had never been well-behaved. In a moment, she struggled free from Xie Rong and ran to the pondside to gaze at the colourful carps.
Both Xie Rong and Xie Liqing couldn’t control her; only when Leng shi put on a serious face and called her name did she then obediently follow behind the adults. Afraid that Leng shi was angry, she went forwards and held Leng shi’s hand. Raising her hand, she said, “Ah Niang, don’t be angry.”
With her mouth set in a pout, she looked very pitiful and cute.
After seeing this scene, no matter how bad her temper was, Leng shi couldn’t help but soften her heart. Her daughter was just too adorable, causing her to feel reluctant when teaching her a lesson.
Leng shi sighed, and stroking Xie Zhen’s nose said, “Ah niang isn’t angry”.
Hearing her words, Xie Zhen’s eyes brighten. Regaining her vitality once again, her eyes were full of laughter and formed two crescents. However, this time round, she was well-behaved and followed the adults obediently to the main room of the house without any mishaps along the way.
The fu’s chief steward Wang got people to prepare tea but because no children like drinking tea, he specially prepared yogurt pudding and some pastries for them. One might as well say that housekeeper Wang dealt with all matters, big and small.
As Xie Zhen and Xie Xun took turns to take a mouthful each to finish a bowl, Xie Xun, smacking her lips, commented, “Not as tasty as home”.
The home that Xie Xun was referring to was the Xie branch of Duke Ding’s residence in the capital. As she was still young, she could not get used to moving from one place to another.
Without showing any mercy, Xie Zhen immediately saw through her and said: “Why did you eat so much then?”
The three-year old Xie Xun’s face immediately reddened, unable to come up with a rebuttal. After what seemed like half a day, she puffed up her cheeks and said “That’s because I was hungry…”
Xie Zhen tiptoed and took one piece of milk roll from the eight immortals table, passing it to her younger sister.
Although the journey wasn’t overly arduous, it was nevertheless still exhausting. The food and drink had been below their usual standard so it was obvious that all three children had lost weight. Feeling sorry, Leng shi told Xie Liqing “Let’s get the kitchen to prepare lunch. Don’t let the children go hungry”.
Xie Liqing didn’t have any objections and let chief steward Wang make the arrangements.
During this period, Xie Xun had eaten even more pieces of honey cake and milk rolls. As they had come from the capital, Xie Liqing, worried that they wouldn’t be accustomed to Qing Zhou’s cuisine, had specially invited a chef from the capital. After so long of not being able to have a proper meal, the three children ate quite a bit and even Xie Rong had one extra bowl of rice.
Pleased, Leng shi patted and kissed each of them in turn, feeling endless love for them.
Afer lunch, the children were all tired so Xie Liqing had the servants bring them to their rooms to rest.
Worried, Leng shi accompanied them, taking the chance to observe the situation of the rear yard. The rear yard was adequate, with the main room reserved for Xie Liqing and Leng shi, while Xie Xun and Xie Zhen would live in the East wing, with Xie Rong residing in the West Wing. Besides these rooms, there were several other side rooms which could serve as the study and the embroidery room. Seeing this, Leng shi felt quite satisfied.
The house was was well-arranged, furnished with all the necessary items, and there was nothing that she needed to worry about.
In the wings, there were yellow pear wood tables and chairs and a red sandalwood wardrobe. Several kinds of antiques were displayed on the shelves, and the bedroom was behind a folding screen with twelve magpies drawn on it.
Upon arriving in the new surroundings, Xie Zhen’s drowsiness completely disappeared. Looking everywhere at least three times, she finally committed her new home’s appearance to memory. Afterwards, Madam Leng assigned two maidservants to bring Xie Xun and Xie Zhen to the east area so they could have a rest. The moment her head laid on the pillow, Xie Xun immediately fell asleep. On the other hand, Xie Zhen tossed and turned on the bed for a good while before falling asleep silently.
Leng shi called all the servants to the main room’s entrance. Including the maids and the old female servants she had brought from Duke Ding’s household, there were altogether 30 to 40 servants in the residence.
As the house had only recently been set up, the servants were also new. Previously, as there had been no principal wife, no rules and customs had been put in place. But now, with Leng shi’s arrival , they knew they couldn’t be as relaxed as in the past. It was time to step up.
Sure enough, Leng shi redistributed the duties and set several rules in place, leaving them to do their respective duties. Anyone who violated the rules would be punished.
Leng shi was naturally a stern and indifferent person, and only in front of her husband and children would she become gentler. Unfortunately, it was precisely because of this natural disposition that the elders in Duke Ding’s residence disliked her. They thought that she had a naturally unkind face that was lacking in luck. In actuality, she was not unkind, she was simply aloof, which gave people the impression of arrogance.
However, Xie Liqing was fond of this arrogance of hers. In front of others, she would be distant and cold, however, only in the night would he know of her passion.
Having not seen each other for a long time, they spent a lot of time showing their affection to each other. If they had not had to consider their three children, the movements would definitely have been earth-shaking.
At night, when it was dark and silent, Xie Zhen suddenly felt the sky flash brightly, with a ray of light passing through the windows. Rubbing her eyes sleepily, she got up from the bed asking, “What happened?”
The maidservant Shuang Yu had likewise been awakened. Wearing her shoes hurriedly, she came to find her, asking, “Second miss?”
Xie Xun was still sleeping deeply.
As Xie Zhen wanted to get out of bed, Shuang Yu went to help her put on a pair of embroidered shoes and lead her out of the building.
Once outside, they found out that it wasn’t their residence that had been lit up. Rather, it was the neighbouring courtyard that was brightly illuminated. Xie Liqing and Leng shi had also changed into their clothes quickly and had people find out if anything had happened. Surely there wasn’t a thief next door?
Xie Liqing had just moved in recently, and was usually busy with work. As such, he wasn’t very familiar with the neighbouring household. Even when Leng shi asked him whose household it was, he was unable to give her an answer.
Soon enough the servant returned, and reported what they had heard. “The young master of the Li Household is sick, with a terribly high fever. Right now the Li household is busy finding a physician to treat him.”
As there was no thief, several people sighed in relief. Rubbing her eyes, Xie Zhen returned to her room sleepily. In a daze, she thought. It was merely a fever, yet they had made such a big fuss. Their young master was surely even more delicate than her.
- 八仙桌 Eight immortals table: an old fashion square table that seats eight
- 奶卷 : milk roll