Chapter 137: Kidnapping (I)
“What do we wan’? We’ll kill you, of course! We specialize in scalpin’ and skinnin’ and pullin’ out yer tendons. We’ll have a few rounds with you stinkin’ women when we get back an’ then peel yer skin off to make lanterns! We’ll slice the rest of you up for the dogs!” The man roared with laughter as he excitedly described what he wanted to do. It was almost like he could see the grisly scene in front of him. His companions guffawed as they too began to get excited.
Bingtang was trembling in fear, but she drew deep from within herself as she forced herself to keep from fainting. On the other hand, Lu-mama was not as strong-willed, fainting at the thought of such atrocities. Her eyes rolled up, and as she fell, she brought the already fainted Cao Yuqing down to the ground with her in twin thumps.
The man could tell that although the color had drained from Qin Yining’s face, there wasn’t the slightest ripple of emotion in her eyes. In fact, she seemed to be even calmer than before instead of showing any fear. He patted her face with one callused hand.
“Tsk tsk, lil girl, aren’t you afraid at all? Go on, cry some so we can have a good laugh!”
Qin Yining jerked away from the man’s hand and retorted coldly. “Aren’t you simply fine men after money? If you really wanted to kill us, you would’ve done so back in the carriage. Since you didn’t, that means you think you have a use for us. But you won’t get silver if the hostages are harmed. You’ll have gone to all this effort for nothing!”
“Aren’t you an interesting one! You’re that old fox’s daughter alrigh’!”
Another bandit called out to him. “Shaddup and quit jawin’. Just knock ‘er out and take ‘er back!”
Qin Yining tensed all over warily. Even though her hands were bound behind her, she hadn’t given up thinking furiously on how to get free. However, the bandit seemed to see through her thoughts and brought his hand down sharply on the back of her neck before she had the chance to attempt anything.
The girl trembled violently once and fell to the ground in a dead faint. The man hauled her up and threw her face down over his shoulder. Bingtang panicked and tried to struggle free, but her little bit of strength was nothing to these bandits. She too was quickly knocked unconscious.
When Qin Yining opened her eyes next, she found herself in a dusky, simply lit room. The scent of straw, fresh firewood, and mildew immediately filled her nose. The moist dirt on the ground gave off its own unique scent, mixing in with the smell of mold. It was a scent that was very familiar to her, bringing to mind memories of the childhood straw hut she’d lived in with her foster mother.
A scrap of a rag was stuffed into her mouth, and her hands and feet were bound by hemp ropes. She cautiously peered around and noted that she and Cao Yuqing seemed to be locked in a small woodshed. She could hear low voices outside the door if she listened closely. The sound of chickens and ducks close by confirmed her budding theory; this was the woodshed of a farm.
She looked around but didn’t see Bingtang or Lu-mama. When she peered closely again at Cao Yuqing, she noted that the concubine had been stripped of all her valuables. Cao Yuqing’s clothing was in slight disarray and her pretty face was still ashen. She was lying on her side on the ground with her eyes firmly shut, a similar rag stuffed into her mouth. Her arms and legs had also been tied with hemp ropes.
The girl was now beginning to panic slightly. It seemed this group had actually kidnapped them to threaten her father. What they’d said about flaying skin and pulling out tendons was just to scare them.
I wonder if they did this for silver or something else. It’d be easier to manage if they just wanted a ransom. But if they had deeper ulterior motives and were tools of her father’s political enemies in a larger plot, then the ladies wouldn’t be traded for anything simple.
Qin Yining was filled with worry and questions. Thankfully, her emotions didn’t impact her ability to assess her surroundings. She’d certainly been searched. Anything that could be used to cut the ropes seems to have been confiscated. After checking her bindings for weaknesses, Qin Yining frowned in defeat. What should I do? Do I just sit here and await my fate?
Right as she’d almost given up, scattered footsteps approached the door. She turned to peek through the irregular door crack and could vaguely discern a very luxuriously dressed person approaching. She could see the sunlight glinting off of silver thread, delineating designs wrought into the brocade.
The woodshed door creaked open, prompting a nervous gaze from the Qin fourth miss. Two men, both with obscured faces, escorted another in. When she got a clear look at who was in their midst, Qin Yining’s almond-shaped eyes widened with stunned shock.
It was an elderly woman!
The plain, ruby-colored outfit the woman was wearing was decorated with orchids picked out in silver thread. A pure-white cloak was flung over her shoulders, and the woman’s hair had turned completely white since Qin Yining had last seen her. Now, it was neatly upturned into big curl with a white flower tucked into the side.
The newcomer walked close and yanked out the rag gagging Qin Yining. The girl looked dumbly back, murmuring, “Grandmother, why is it you?!”
“Granddaughter Yi, apologies for the suffering.” The Duchess of Ding smiled faintly down at Qin Yining and leaned over to undo the ropes on Qin Yining’s limbs.
Once freed, her clammy hands clasped by the duchess’ dry, cool ones, and Qin Yining used them to help herself up. “Grandmother, what’s going on here?!” She looked incredulously at the elder woman and then at the men in the back. “Who are these people?”
The duchess remind smiling faintly, but a sharp light shone out of her shrewd eyes. She surreptitiously assessed the expression on her granddaughter’s face and then looked at the unconscious Cao Yuqing on the floor.
“Granddaughter Yi, do you know of the Azure Justice alliance?” 
Qin Yining’s heart skipped a beat as understanding dawned. “Grandmother, you… Azure Justice is a gathering of rebels that the government has sworn to hunt down!”
“Rebels?” The duchess snorted derisively. “I wasn’t a rebel before, and neither were your maternal grandfather, cousins, and nephew. Even then, at the end of the day, how did they end up?”
Sorrow was born anew in Qin Yining’s heart when she remembered the grisly deaths of the Sun family males. She could understand her maternal grandmother’s bone-deep hate of the trash emperor, and how her grandmother wouldn’t suffer to coexist with the emperor beneath the same heavens. But was joining Azure Justice a prudent response?
Azure Justice was a brand new organization that’d recently risen from the general populace. It sought to overthrow the trash emperor and discard the tyrannical policies he’d enacted, returning a future as bright as clear blue skies to the people. It loved standing up for justice, so it was present wherever it saw people being oppressed or innocents being wronged. Many citizens who’d been suppressed by the emperor or his greedy officials ended up becoming members.
Qin Yining had only learned about all this through chatting idly with Grand Steward Zhong. Her gut reaction back then hadn’t been alarm. The appearance of a rebel organization was only normal with how decrepit the emperor was. Azure Justice might even be able to eliminate the scourge of corruption in Great Yan and act as the hand of justice, saving some who’d been harmed by the trash emperor. But to think that this alliance had something to do with her maternal grandmother!
“Grandmother, is this… what you’ve been doing…” Qin Yining swallowed and continued with difficulty. “Did you create Azure Justice?”
The duchess nodded, her face breaking out into a smile. “There are too many who’ve suffered beneath that filth of an emperor. I only needed to send out a call for countless unheard victims to respond.” She accepted a dagger from the man behind her and placed it in Qin Yining’s hand. “Darling Yi, go. Kill that Cao bitch for your maternal grandmother.
“If it wasn’t for that trampress egging things on, your senior cousin wouldn’t have wanted to kill himself to protect his brains. Your maternal grandfather and the rest of the family wouldn’t have been dragged off either. There are so many evil people in this world, so let’s start with née Cao!
“If you kill her, you’ll be the head of Azure Justice! And all of the power with the alliance will come into your hands!”