1.2 Precarious Road
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Mia sat silently on the carriage, observing the natural terrain and landscape throughout her journey. It seemed that the orphanage she came from was quite remote, the horse carriage steadily passed through acres of wild fields, some tall hills and mountains as the background.

Despite her uncertain destiny ahead, her eyes took all the beauty around her. After all, she had not seen this kind of scenery for a long time.

She noticed only rare occasions of small thatched houses that belonged to some local farmers. The girl called Hui was tightly holding her hands. She could feel the tremble of Xiao Hui's body from her grip. There was a male adult, another servant from the Ji household, who was holding the reins of the horse in front of the carriage. He never spared any glance to the girls since the moment they boarded.

The other four girls were huddled together, their eyes downcast, not daring to observe the scenery the carriage passed by. After all, they still did not know yet what kind of household they were going to work in, and what kind of work they would be required to do. All they knew was, they could never go back to the orphanage. Despite the harsh treatment of Han-niang, the place was their childhood home and all the girls resided there were like their sisters. There was next to no chance they would ever meet again.

Next to their horse carriage, a smaller carriage carried by two male servants also kept pace. Another two sturdy looking males with neat appearances followed from behind both carriages. Mia thought those two must be some sort of personal guards of the household that had fetched her and the others.

The plump woman inside the carriage was the head matron of Ji household. She was in charge of managing female maids and male servants for her master's household needs. She looked after everything that had to do with domestic chores and general needs of her employers and the family; from general house and garden maintenance, cleaning, kitchen, even to personal servants of her master, mistress, and their children. Under her management, were several tiers of maids and servants who must report to her. Of course, her authority was only after the master's or the mistress' approval of the selected maids or servants themselves.

The plump woman was called Meng-momo. She had no immediate family or kin as she had followed the Ji house Madame, Wu JianRui, from the latter's childhood. In fact, they practically grew up together. Meng-momo became a part of Wu JianRui's dowry when the latter got married to Ji ChanFang, the current master of the Ji clan. She was the most trusted person by Wu JianRui, and likewise Meng-momo dedicated her past youth and her now-advancing age to look after the Madame and her family. With Wu JianRui's care, her living condition and privileges were levels above matrons of the same standing in other households.

At the moment, Meng-momo was observing the young girls she had just picked from the orphanage, from behind the thin muslin curtain of her carriage. It was actually her first time to visit the orphanage. The time to travel to the location was too far from Ji residence. However, she could not find any suitable young females from other agencies closer to town. Most of the females offered by the usual agencies she had visited for the past few weeks were too old, too rough, or too ugly. The last condition was actually quite important as she specifically needed to find candidates to be personal attendants for Young Miss Ji.

The Young Miss was going to turn six in a month's time, and it was time that she had her own personal attendants. The ones that she had at the moment were Wu JianRui's maids and were too old to accompany her growing up. After all, loyalty from a servant to the master must be built since young. These new attendants, when approved by Wu JianRui, would follow the Young Miss for the rest of their lives, unless if they were released of their employment contract.

And just like Meng-momo to Wu JianRui, these attendants would form a part of the young miss's dowry when she got married. They would follow her to her future husband's household.

It was imperative that Meng-momo spared no time, expense, or distance to find those candidates. Only when one of the agencies mentioned about a remote orphanage housing orphaned girls, that Meng-momo took the chance to make the journey.

And she was glad she did.

The candidates she was looking for must not be too old, no more than three or four years older than the Young Miss. They must be pleasant-looking to reflect the prestige and status of the only daughter of the Ji clan, but must not be too good looking. After all, a pretty maid would just attract unnecessary attention from men. Meng-momo did not want the Young Miss to be troubled in her future husband's household because of her maids attracting bees.

Especially when said husband's household was going to be of the imperial family and the husband was going to be the Third Prince.

Prince Zhang GuoFu, titled Prince Yong, was going to turn twelve this coming spring. He was the only son of the deceased Royal Consort Chin, who died from giving birth to this one and only child. 

As she was the favored concubine of Emperor Zhang, after her death, the Emperor grieved for one full year. During this time, the imperial family did not conduct any festivities that were normally done every change of season. This event twelve years ago was certainly an unprecedented treatment for any concubine in the harem ever, living or in death. Royal Consort Chin's rank was alleviated from her initial status of a mid-rank Jiu Pin to the one and only Royal Consort.

After the grieving period ended and the young Prince turned one year old, the Emperor titled him as Prince Yong of the first rank – a qinwang

The Emperor had two other older sons from his Empress: the Crown Prince Zhang KongJing and the Second Prince Zhang JunLi. However, these two older princes were named by the Empress while the Third Prince Zhang GuoFu was named and titled personally by the Emperor.

Since the death of Royal Consort Chin, there was no other concubine as favored and attain such title. The only woman sitting at the apex of the royal harem was Empress Zhen, her power and authority undisputed and unchallenged. There were younger and lower-ranked princes from other concubines, but these seedlings would not ever have the chance to grow strong and climb to the top, especially with the current powerhouse of the Empress guarding her and her sons' territory.

Although the Third Prince was not the current titled heir for the throne, with the imperial engagement granted by the Emperor between him and the only daughter of Ji clan, it was clear to see that the Emperor wanted a strong backing for his favored Consort's son. Ji ChanFang was the holder of the Tiger seal, one of two military seals depicting the two major forces behind the Zhang Empire's might.

Ji ChanFang himself was the sworn brother of the Emperor. Although they were not blood related, they already had their relationship way before the current Emperor inherited the throne. Emperor Zhang SongWang was well versed and trained in the military during his youth with well-known history of military achievements. Along with Ji ChanFang aiding him, he ascended to the throne smoothly after the previous emperor passed away.

To balance and maintain the power between the military forces and to keep the imperial family as the main power holder, Emperor Zhang took Empress Zhen as his wife. Lady Zhen was the daughter of the other holder of empire's military seal, Old General Xun. Although General Xun was already semi-retired and the military might had passed to his only son – blood brother of Empress Zhen – Zhen YongWen. The thirty-two-year-old man was the current holder of the Wolf military seal.

Although Ji ChanFang was not too pleased to have his only daughter entering the golden cage of the imperial family, he had faith in his sworn brother. At the very least, he believed that his daughter would be treated well by the Third Prince. His daughter was the only daughter born by Wu JianRui when they were not at the prime of their youths anymore. In fact, he only took a single concubine who had born him a son four years before Wu JianRui was finally able to conceive.

Despite the inner scheming of other smaller powers from the officials and the royal harem members, as long as the Emperor and the Empress had their power balance at about the same tier, her daughter's future should not be full of turbulence. He was not stupid to not realize that the engagement was a way to keep his family closely tied to the Emperor, while keeping balance to the ever-growing power of the Empress' paternal power.

To know her master's and mistress' general situation, Meng-momo was astute indeed. Hence, she made her choice to pick the five girls at that orphanage.

At the moment, Meng-momo was observing the smallest girl of the group. Despite looking malnourished and weak, the girl had clear complexion behind the dirt on her face.  She had symmetrical face, smooth small round chin, nose bridge on the higher side, full lips, hooded eyes.

The little girl's eyes were almond shaped and double lidded, a feature that was not too common in the Zhang empire. Full set of long thin but full eyelashes framed her eyes, adding more to the melancholy look. Although the whole feature made her look somewhat weak willed, her current gaze showed none of that. She was the only one observing her surroundings ever since they left the orphanage. With her eyes shining full of curiosity, wonder, and - Meng-momo dared to say - load of questions, the girl was alert and sharp, taking into view everything she had seen along the road.

What Meng-momo was amused about was that although the little girl had a soft frown on her eyebrows and was slightly puffing her cheeks, clearly lost in her own thought, she was constantly patting her companion's hand in reassurance. Despite being the smallest, she seemed to be the bravest. Throughout the journey, with her patting gestures and small whispers Meng-momo could not hear, she still comforted the other. Soon after, her companion fell asleep on her shoulder, her hands still circling the smaller girl's arm.

 

Info dump galore (´・ω・`) Don't worry too much though. The names will be repeated often. And if you are new to historical chinese stories, the terms used may be a tad confusing (like, what the heck is Qinwang? and what is a momo? And those funny sounding names?). But they won't derive any plot. I am not used to Scribblehub functions yet, and have not worked out the best way to put footnotes so they look tidy.

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