Chapter 153: A Great Show (II)
The men from the Warden’s Office and Bureau of Fire Control were greatly panicking now, since the oil-fueled flames had already enveloped the inner residence. The fire was growing ever stronger, and although they could still put it out, it was very possible that those inside the manor would burn to death.
As they battled the fire, tall, strong men ran out helter-skelter from the yard, their clothes hastily pulled on. Womanly screams also echoed through the night. Qin Yining and Qin Huaiyuan were concealed in the shadows of the back alley, dressed in identical black capes.
Steward Zhong came running up to them and whispered, “Miss, it’s done!”
“Good, keep an eye on the front and back alley,” Qin Yining responded in hush tones. “Our people don’t need to pull their punches. Capture anyone who comes out and dislocate their jaw so they can’t bite off their tongue to commit suicide. Break the legs of any that run fast. Let’s take advantage of this chaos to capture them all and take them to the place we arranged.”
“Understood! Don’t worry, miss!” The steward quickly ran off.
Qin Huaiyuan looked down at his daughter with a smile. “We should go as well.”
“Alright, father.” Unnoticed, father and daughter quietly melted into the depths of the alley.
The fire close to the Northern Gathering of Sages was finally extinguished in the wee hours of the morning. Strangely, the houses neighboring the manor on fire were all empty. They only had one or two servants keeping watch, so they suffered no casualties from the fire.
An even more bizarre detail arose when only four men seemed to be present from the manor that had caught fire, despite the thirty that had been seen running out. The survivors were keeping their mouths tightly shut, and their brethren seemed to have all disappeared overnight.
Xu Mao felt an undercurrent of unease and quickly sent a message to Elder Statesman Cao.
The Cao Manor.
The servants within the outer study had all been dismissed to duties elsewhere. The butler stood vigil in front of the residence doors, not allowing anyone to come close to the study.
Inside, Elder Statesman Cao sat ramrod straight on a fragrant sandalwood chair, his expression a heavy glower.  The thumb wearing a jade ring trembled slightly, revealing the depths of his fury.
Sitting across from him was an eighteen year old lady with a robust figure, thick brows, and large eyes. She wasn’t strikingly beautiful, but her features were deeply set and the intersecting collar of her bright red sleeved vest, embroidered with peonies, offset her tanned skin. Her slightly curled long hair had been piled into towering buns on one side of her head.
Although she was dressed like a typical Great Yan noble lady, the stubbornness and domineering bent that she unconsciously exuded had no trace of the tenderness of Great Yan women. This was the princess of the Tatars, Princess Anari.
“Statesman Cao! Didn’t you claim that manor was the safest place in the world and that you’d had everything taken care of? Why are there only four left of my thirty warriors?! Where have the rest gone?” Anari’s brow was knit in great anger. “You owe me an explanation!”
The statesman sniffed dismissively. “Do calm yourself, Your Highness. I did make preparations for everything around the manor. I even spent a lot of money buying the houses around it to completely secure the location. Even if the princess is unaware of how much effort I’ve gone to on behalf of your men, Sir Siqin surely knows. Am I supposed to take this carrying on as a sign of your displeasure with me?”
The man sitting just beneath Anari was the one known as Siqin. He was simply dressed in the outfit of a scholar and remained silent with tightly compressed lips, traces of anger also appearing on his handsome face.
Undeterred, the statesman continued, “As for what happened today, it’s obviously a result of the stupidity of your men. Even if they were captured, it could only be because they’d exposed themselves. So what the princess should be doing right now is thinking of how to resolve this matter, and not yelling and screaming at me, no?”
Anari’s fury blazed even more fiercely as she slammed her hand down viciously. “Even with all the preparations you speak of, my warriors are still gone! This princess held her temper even when we failed two assassinations in your nation and lost so many men in the attempts. A Tatar warrior is a proud hawk circling the plains. Even if they fall in battle, they just return to the embrace of the heavens and earth. But now? So many warriors have disappeared without even drawing their blade, because of your oversight! And you blame my men for being stupid?!”
“And aren’t they?! If they weren’t, how could the manor have caught fire in the middle of the night? Why did they panic when evacuating, which undoubtedly allowed their foes to capture them in one fell swoop? You should be angry, Your Highness. If I had such useless troops, I’d be just as displeased.”
“You! I’ve long since heard that those in the Central Plains only know how to run their mouths and don’t know how to do any actual work. This princess has finally seen it for myself today!”
“I pale in contrast to Your Highness’ ineptitude! I bow to your superiority in doing things illogically! To think that the Spring Portrait Garden that I gifted you was turned over to someone else just like that! I haven’t even asked Your Highness what the meaning was behind that, but here you are, barking and shouting at me about the incompetence of your own troops!”
Seeing the conflict between Anari and the statesman growing ever more serious to the point of even dragging in matters between the Tatars and Great Zhou, Siqin stepped in to smooth things over.
“Don’t mind this, Elder Statesman Cao. The princess is only concerned about the lives of those warriors. We still have a long path of partnership ahead of us, so there’s no reason to harm our relationship because of this minor incident. Statesman Cao is right, what we should be focused on now is how to resolve this matter.”
Anari had nursed a bellyful of anger over the past couple of days and had nowhere to vent it, but miraculously, she calmed down after Siqin’s words. Although fury still marred her expression, she didn’t voice offensive words anymore.
Statesman Cao’s expression also warmed slightly as his gaze flickered between Anari and Siqin. “These people wouldn’t have disappeared for no reason. Someone must’ve captured them. It’d be fine if it was anyone else, but things will get dicey if the emperor has them.”
A light gleamed in Siqin’s sharp, hark-like eyes, but it was quickly replaced by a genteel smile. “No matter who has taken them, they’re discarded pieces now, so we no longer need to think about them. Statesman Cao, what do you think will happen to the men if it really was your emperor who took them?”
The statesman arched an eyebrow. If he understood correctly, Siqin meant that if the situation could be wrapped up neatly, then those missing could be ignored like trash. This Tatar has a bit of the Great Yan style in his thoughts and words.
“Sir Siqin doesn’t need to test this old man,” Statesman Cao responded expressionlessly. “If the emperor really does know of this matter, then both you and I will be in difficult positions. But rest assured, with your words, I know how to wrap this matter up well.”
“The statesman is a smart man. It’s so refreshing to deal with people like you.” Siqin smiled faintly.
When Anari looked at Siqin’s handsome face conversing easily with Elder Statesman Cao, a lovestruck look snuck into her eyes. Siqin happened to meet her gaze and instantly retracted the edge in his eyes, smiling faintly in response. Anari immediately felt like she’d fallen into a pool of warm water and drifted along a sea of happiness.
The statesmen took note of their interaction but didn’t pay it any mind. He summoned a confidante for a hushed conversation.
“Summon our men at the Warden’s Office and the Bureau of Fire Control. Whether it’s threats, cajolery or even torture, make them spit out some valuable information. I want to know about everyone who’s passed by the manor and especially any suspicious people in the past couple of days!”
“Understood.” The servant left with his orders.
Anari and Siqin were at ease for the moment when they saw the statesman take concrete action.
Qin Yining and Qin Huaiyuan were sitting across from each other in the outer study of the Qin Manor. The lord was reclining on the luohan bed next to the window, and Qin Yining had moved a stool over to the foot of the bed. The two were eating snacks and drinking tea, analyzing the current situation.
“So now that I’ve handed those people over to father, the rest is father’s responsibility now. I won’t be involved anymore.” Qin Yining sipped the hot tea to wash away the sweetness of the snack.
Qin Huaiyuan arched a brow. “I rather suspect that you dragged me into this just to clean up after you.”
Qin Yining giggled. “That’s right! I can’t do anything to them after capturing them, so I still have to give them to father in the end. They’ll definitely be useful to you.”
Qin Huaiyuan was a bit tired since he hadn’t slept all night. But the smile on his face only deepened as he looked at Qin Yining’s charming face brimming with energy. He was struck by the impulse to quiz his daughter.
“Well then, what do you think should now be done with these men?”