The next day Xiao Hua woke up very early. After finishing breakfast, she armed herself to the teeth and prepared to go pay respects.
The Jing Province’s weather was very cold, especially in the winter. The winters were long and it seemed fresh snow would always fall before the snow on the ground could melt. Xiao Hua was still eating breakfast when she heard Ding Lan say that it was snowing lightly outside.
Xiao Hua put on her small lined jacket and wrapped the cloak Ding Xiang finished making for her yesterday around her. The cloak was velvet on the outside and fur on the inside. She carried a handheld furnace in her hand and wore wooden clogs on her feet. Ding Xiang held a pale silk varnished umbrella on the side. By the time they stepped out, it didn’t seem that cold anymore.
The eastern three pavilions and the western three pavilions: one was in the east and one was in the west. There was quite a bit of distance between the two sides. Xiao Hua rarely wore wooden clogs in the past, and with the addition of the snow she had to walk extra slowly.
By the time they reached the Chang Chun Pavilion, Xiao Hua realized that she was the last one to arrive.
She took off her clogs and cloak in the hallway and handed the portable furnace to Ding Xiang. Entering the hall, she respectfully saluted the Jing Consort who sat in the seat of honor and Senior Concubine Qiao who sat to her left.
“I plead for the consort’s magnanimity, this servant concubine came late.”
Ding Xiang had informed her of the required etiquette during their casual conversations. Within the estate, apart from the consort and the senior concubine, concubines on the level of madams would have to address themselves as “servant concubines” in front of higher ups. Xiao Hua knew how to salute, but since this place would require more attention to detail, Ding Xiang gave her a few pointers.
The Jing Consort wore a red silk blooming peony lined jacket, her face full of smiles making her seem very approachable. She seemed to have forgotten to bid Xiao Hua to rise, seemingly examining her appearance.
Xiao Hua was dressed very simply today, a small, narrow-sleeved pink jacket with a pale bluish white satin skirt. While it looked good since her age made her look delicate and tender no matter what she wore, compared to the rest of the people in the hall it seemed a lot more simple and crude.
Furthermore, Xiao Hua also appeared very plain. This plain referred to the ornaments and jewelry on her body.
According to Ding Xiang, those with a madam’s status would be given a set amount of jewelry every quarter by the estate. Xiao Hua was newly promoted and had received the allotment of jewelry which were two golden hairpins, a pair of jade bracelets and a pair of earrings. However, this definitely couldn’t be compared to the rest of the harem’s accumulations over the years.
Especially today. Whether or not these people did it intentionally, they were all adorned in gold and jade, and dressed extremely gorgeously. Even the two Madams Yu were extremely dressed up, let alone the Jing Consort and Senior Concubine Qiao.
In comparison, Xiao Hua indeed appeared impoverished.
The Jing Consort’s eyes flashed imperceptibly, Senior Concubine Qiao let out an ambiguous sounding chuckle and Yu Rong directly opened her mouth and spoke.
“This little sis Hua dressed really plainly. Hasn’t she already served in the Hall of Splendor for a while?”
Yu Jiao replied with a smile, but there were barbs within her words: “Really, why would you say that? There are several types of service, right? Everything’s useless if you aren’t favored.”
The Jing Consort let out a light cough and seemed to realize she hadn’t bid Xiao Hua to rise yet, saying with a natural expression: “Little sis please rise and take a seat. This consort was a little dazed at little sis’s beauty just now.”
She added a “right, way too plain” under her breath, and then said smiling to Chun Xiang beside her: “Take out this consort’s unused jewelry later, we can let Madam Hua take them with her when she leaves.” She then smiled and said to Xiao Hua: “ Hopefully little sis wouldn’t disdain it.”
“The consort’s things are naturally all good things, this servant concubine doesn’t even have time to express her gratitude.”
Just based on this short exchange, Xiao Hua could hear the underlying barbs. However, she had already prepared herself before coming here, and didn’t reveal any dissatisfaction in her expression. As for not having been bid to rise, it was even less of an issue. Her time spent training etiquette was not just for show.
She half lowered her eyelids and pursed her lips in a smile. This smile didn’t seem fawning, but also didn’t seem disrespectful. However, her words lacked just that bit of enthusiasm, making it clear to everyone that she wasn’t really as grateful as her words made it seem while also making it hard for them to pick out any faults.
After all, what her voice truly implied required one to pay close attention to grasp. Those that could hear it understood her meaning. Those that couldn’t hear it wouldn’t be able to say anything about it.
While Xiao Hua was secretly sizing up how to deal with these women whom she’d have to encounter daily in the future, the people within the hall were also sizing her up. Just from this brief period of time, the Jing Consort and Senior Concubine Qiao could tell Madam Hua wasn’t simple. Despite Yu Rong and Yu Jiao’s naked mockery, this Madam Hua who was only fifteen was able to steadily respond, and appear respectful on the surface, leaving no faults to be nitpicked.
What they didn’t realize was that based on the two lifetimes’ worth of mockery and insults Xiao Hua had experienced, she didn’t think much of Yu Rong and Yu Jiao’s level.
Ding Xiang stood in the back and let out a sigh of relief at seeing Madam Hua’s performance.
She had thought that due to Madam Hua’s young age and inexperience she would fly off her handle at encountering this situation the first time she came to pay respects. Unexpectedly, her response had been very appropriate.
The past few days, seeing her quiet and easygoing nature, she had thought Xiao Hua to be someone without many personal opinions. From her actions today, it seemed like she was actually someone who was well aware of the situation. Only with such a master could the servant feel at ease.
The Jing Consort spoke again, saying situational words such as to ‘serve his highness properly while keeping to one’s assigned role’. Xiao Hua also responded with respectful words such as ‘yes, thank you for consort’s teachings’.
During this time, Xiao Hua took a seat below, and the palace maids in the room steeped tea for all the mistresses and placed it on the nearby table.
After the Consort was done with her speech, there was a bit of an awkward silence.
Senior Concubine Qiao sat there smiling the whole time without saying a word, her expression unclear. Yu Jiao ended up opening her mouth once again, “I heard that little sis entered the estate as a palace maid after being sold into slavery. Where do you come from?”
Despite being the same status, Yu Jiao was older than Xiao Hua by a few years and could indeed call her little sis.
Xiao Hua looked at this loveable and cute person, with fair skin and good looks, whose face was full of clear mockery. She fluttered her eyelashes and said: “That’s right, this servant concubine was sold off into the estate. I don’t have a home. When I was young, my hometown was swept away in a flood and I was sold off by my family.”
The hall was extremely silent. The others probably never dared imagine Madam Hua would speak this way.
Normally when those who were born of low status rose up, they wanted nothing more than for others to be unaware of their low birth. Yu Jiao thought the same way, and planned on embarrassing her. However, the other party unexpectedly had zero misgivings about declaring it out loud.
Xiao Hua naturally understood Madam Yu Jiao’s meaning. However, embarrassment was never given by others, but rather given by oneself. She was low born to begin with, and these people had probably investigated her background in detail. Why make a bigger fool of herself in trying to cover it up?
It was unfortunate she didn’t understand this reasoning in her last life, and would often get into arguments with other over this. Having come back to life and encountering the same situation, Xiao Hua chose to lay it out generously for others to see.
At this moment the hall was extremely silent. The corner of her lips curled faintly without anyone noticing.
The Jing Consort saw that the atmosphere was a little frozen and said: “This consort just received some good tea, and could never bear to drink it. Today let’s bring it out to treat this little sis, and let everyone have a taste.”
Awkwardness could oftentimes be dispelled by taking a sip or two of tea to cover up a few things. Otherwise staring at each other awkwardly would only make things more awkward. Having some actions to interrupt was the best cure for an awkward silence.
Yu Jiao took advantage of the offered respite and raised her teacup for a sip. The others in the hall did the same.
Xiao Hua also raised her teacup, but seemed to have thought of something and placed it down again, saying: “This servant concubine heard the consort say that big sis Yu Jiao was a noble who came from the imperial palace. The palace must be really magnificent and luxurious, right?” Her tone contained some faint hints of envy.
Senior Concubine Qiao raised her eyebrows and gave a meaningful smile. The Jing Consort saw Xiao Hua’s actions and her eyes briefly turned gloomy, lowering the teacup in her hand.
Yu Jiao put her cup aside, glanced mockingly at Xiao Hua and said: “The imperial palace’s regal splendor is naturally not something a low born servant such as yourself could lay your eyes on….” After her mocking words, she carried on describing the palace as majestic, imposing and so on, as though she were showing off her own house while putting on a disdainful appearance.
Xiao Hua also put on an appearance of listening intently.
Yu Rong felt like covering her face, but also didn’t know how she should interrupt Yu Jiao’s words.
Senior Concubine Qiao’s smile grew wider, but included a hint of derision.
When Yu Jiao finally finished describing what she could, she heard Xiao Hua say, “Big sis Yu Jiao is really familiar with the palace. Your family must be from the palace, right?”
These words made Yu Jiao choke up on the spot.
How could her family be from the palace? Everyone knew that palace maids were selected from the commoners.
The Grand Xi Dynasty had a selection system where the royal family’s servants were all innocent maidens chosen from common families. The slighter better households would normally not send their own daughters to become a servant for others in the palace. Palace maids had to be twenty five before they were released. They would be old maids by that time, and a marriage partner would be difficult to find.
Another way of looking at it was that once you were a palace maid inside the palace, no one would care if you were a commoner or a noble. You became first and foremost a servant.
The meaning of Xiao Hua’s words were very clear. Weren’t you mocking me for being sold off as a servant? Weren’t you the same? It was just that her method was much more veiled, unlike Yu Jiao just now who mocked so openly, making her seem vulgar and classless.
However, it was precisely because Xiao Hua’s manner of mocking was veiled that her tossing out the phrase “your family must be from the palace” at this moment was a huge slap to the face.
Yu Jiao was a little dense, but not completely brainless, and reacted right away.
Xiao Hua took advantage of her young age, inexperience and sort-sightedness to blink her eyes in “confusion”: “Could it be, big sis Yu Jiao’s family isn’t from the palace?”
Didn’t she look down on her birth, and her lack of experience? Well, she was truly lacking experience, right?
Yu Jiao was choked up once again.
The Jing Consort stepped out to pacify things, “Alright, alright, this is the Jing Province’s Jing Prince Estate, no need to talk about such far away matters. Drink some tea, drink some tea.”
This was the second time the consort had said to drink tea. The one who needed this lifeline naturally took advantage of it, but Xiao Hua still didn’t touch her teacup on the table and sat there with her eyes half lowered.
“Madam Hua doesn’t like drinking tea?” The Jing Consort smiled and asked, her hands subconsciously swirling her own tea.
Xiao Hua’s face was smiling, but said in an embarrassed manner: “This servant concubine isn’t too good at drinking tea. In the past this one was a servant and couldn’t have drank tea, only water. Moving into the pavilion, there was some tea given as part of the allowance but unfortunately this servant finds it hard to sleep after drinking it, and thus stopped drinking tea. The consort’s tea is good tea, but this servant concubine doesn’t have the fortune to enjoy it.”
The Jing Consort let out an “oh” and didn’t speak again.
After a moment, the Jing Consort placed her cup down and said: “Time has flown in the blink of an eye, this consort won’t keep everyone any longer. It’s snowing outside and the roads are slippery. Take care on your way back.”
Only now did the others stand and salute the consort once more before leaving one after the other.
In the hallway outside the house, Ding Xiang and Ding Lan helped Xiao Hua put on her cloak. The portable furnace wasn’t as warm anymore, but still had a little heat. Xiao Hua clasped it in her hands.
Putting on her clogs and opening up her umbrella, Xiao Hua left the Chang Chun Pavilion with the other two.
There were two paths to take back to Xiao Hua’s western pavilion. One was to go in front of the Hall of Splendor, the other was behind. The route behind the hall was shorter, and seeing the snow fall harder and harder, Ding Xiang carefully supported Xiao Hua along the shorter route.
“Madam is really awesome. I saw Madam Yu Jiao’s face turning purple from anger.” Ding Lan spoke from the side.
Xiao Hua smiled lightly and didn’t deny anything, “It couldn’t be helped. We can’t keep letting others slap our face without returning the favor.”
Actually Xiao Hua was still aware who she could provoke and who she couldn’t. If it was the Jing Consort or Senior Concubine Qiao saying these things today, she could only have endured.
But Yu Jiao’s status was the same as hers, and she was also someone not favored. Since she dared to act as cannon fodder, Xiao Hua would naturally use her to express her attitude.
Even if she needed to be sufficiently respectful, she wanted to tell others that she wasn’t a soft persimmon.
With her new status, she naturally couldn’t deal with things the way she did in the past. She couldn’t blindly retreat, but also had to retreat. The space between was not easy to grasp.
Xiao Hua fell deep into her own thoughts as delicate snowflakes fluttered down. The air was filled with a soul penetrating chill that made one feel wide awake if breathed into the lungs.
Ding Xiang suddenly said to the side: “Madam, his highness seems to be up ahead.”