Chapter 178: War!
“He did it, but won’t allow others to talk about it. The emperor wishes everyone to be idiots.” Qin Yining shook her head with a sigh. “I’m talking about this today because I’m in the mood to say all this. Let’s take advantage of smoother times now to make some money, so that we have enough capital to do whatever we need to in the future.”
“Don’t worry miss, I may not have any other talents, but I’ve brains enough for this.”
The Qin fourth miss rose with a nod. “I have full faith in your abilities. It’s early yet, so I’ll go for a ride outside the city.”
“I’ll see you out.”
“That’s alright.” Qin Yining took her leave of the Zhong house after a round of pleasantries and put on a hat offered by Jiyun that had a white chiffon veil around the brim.
Bingtang was already waiting at the door, mounted on the chestnut horse that Huzi had given her. Whitecloud was tethered next to it and arched his neck with a loud sneeze when he saw the fourth miss.
Qin Yining giggled softly and untied Whitecloud’s reins, softly caressing his silky-smooth, silvery-white mane. “Got tired of waiting?”
Whitecloud nuzzled her cheek fondly.
“Miss, you’re gentler to a horse than our prince.” Jiyun smiled as she walked over with her own spritely horse. “The prince will definitely be jealous if he saw this. Smile some more when you see him next!”
Qin Yining blushed and pouted back, “Oh you! Did Pang Zhixi send you to me so you can natter about this all day long?”
Jiyun burst out laughing. “You obviously miss him too, miss. You’re not reprimanding me for nagging you. You haven’t worn any other bracelets or bangles since receiving the strand of red beans. You hug Riceball all day long and even hand wash the square knot around its neck. Isn’t that missing His Highness?”
“You awful girl. I’m going to send you back home if you keep talking. No more rides for you!” Qin Yining tch’ed with a reddened face.
Bingtang and Jiyun winked and smirked at each other, giggling happily.
The Qin fourth miss lightly flipped onto her horse. “Let’s ride for a little longer today before heading back. The old dowager is meting out judgment on one of the kitchen staff for fraud. We’ll just be caught up in an irritating mess if we go back too early.”
Granny servant Liu, in charge of purchases for the main kitchen, had been found swapping out purchases for subpar foodstuffs. She’d also been stealing rice from the manor to bring home. Jixiang, a maid by the old dowager’s side, had happened catch the granny servant in the act and had informed her mistress.
The old dowager immediately raised a fuss and grabbed née Sun, the second, and third madame for a thorough accounting of household affairs. Not only did they find clear evidence for the granny servant’s crimes, but they also uncovered a slew of other unsightly small transgressions.
Qin Yining had watched the madames at work for the last two days and her head pounded at the fallout. She’d finally sought some peace and quiet outside today.
“But what if the old dowager asks where we went? She’s already forbidden you to go horseback riding because it’s not very becoming of a noble girl.” However, the guard hopped adroitly onto her own horse as she asked this.
Qin Yining cheerfully lifted the veil on her hat. “We might as well not live if we’re always concerned about what everyone else says. So many have already said bad things about me behind my back, some of it quite ugly indeed. Who cares? I should’ve hung myself long ago if I cared. They can pay attention to me if they want, and not if they don’t. We’ll all live our own lives, with no one sticking their noses in other people’s business.”
This elicited laughter from Jiyun and the guard steered her horse forward, flanking her mistress along with Bingtang. They picked a quiet road out of the city that saw little traffic.
It was bright and beautiful outside the city walls, the blue sky a wondrous vivid blue. Deep-green grass stood up proudly from the soil. Although it was hot and muggy, the three were wearing veiled hats that blocked out the sun. The white veils on their hats and chiffon material of their skirts fluttered in the breeze caused from the galloping of their horses. They felt an inexplicable sense of refreshment and lightheartedness.
Mistress and servants galloped down a shaded path next to the official road for quite a while before taking a break to look for water. There hadn’t been much rain this year, drying out several creeks and exposing cracked creek bottoms to the air. There was only a thin layer of muddy water and blistering hot pebbles left in the creek they were walking along. They followed the rocks for a while before finding an origin source that had water bubbling out of it.
Qin Yining, Bingtang, and Jiyun filled their canteens first, then let the three horses drink their fill. The three stood beneath the trees and looked out at the nearby road. The golden sunlight was painfully bright.
Bingtang sighed with worry. “It’ll be bad if the drought continues. The harvest will be affected.”
“It’s not just the farms, but apparently much of the land outside is dried up. We’ll really have a disaster on our hands if this continues.” Qin Yining took another sip of water and hung her canteen on the saddle.
Jiyun however, slowly put hers down and flung the veil of her hat backwards. She leapt lightly onto a large tree and shaded her eyes to look in the direction of the official road.
The Qin fourth miss found this behavior curious. “What is it?”
Jiyun lifted her left hand slightly to indicate silence. Qin Yining and Bingtang felt that things were amiss and looked in the direction of the guard’s gaze. They seemed to see a vague dust cloud in the far distance.
“A lot of people! Miss, there’s a lot, a lot of people running this way!”
Qin Yining’s heart skipped a beat and she asked hurriedly, “Quick, take a close look. Who are they? Is it the army or civilians? Are they on horseback?”
She craned her neck as well, wanting a closer look. But her line of sight was blocked by her lower position. All she could see was the dust cloud growing bigger and bigger.
“It shouldn’t be the army, not from the way they’re dressed… Miss, we should hide. They’ll be here in a short while.” Jiyun jumped down and pulled Qin Yining behind the tree. Bingtang quickly brought the horses over as well.
The three girls hid the horses carefully and doubled back, stooping behind the large tree to peek towards the road. When the crowd drew near, they could make out that it was a group of raggedy, tattered civilians!
There was a good thousand in the group; both male and female, young and old. Everyone had packs on their back and bedraggled hair, dirty clothes and panicked expressions. All were supporting each other in a frantic sprint towards the capital. They were gasped and panted for breath, faces pale from exhaustion. But no one stopped to rest.
An elderly man fell down because of his slower speed. The crowd behind him accidentally stepped on him a few times before his children could help him back up. Lost children washed away from their parents cried helplessly for their parents. It was an utter scene of chaos that seemed prompted by demons chasing behind the group!
Qin Yining turned back with the color drained from her face. She also collapsed to a sitting position as her brain buzzed, murmuring, “Is this… has Great Zhou started attacking again? Pang Zhixi… didn’t we have the peace talks? Ah. Right, the Tatar assassination. Not only was that a present to me and my father, but an excuse to restart the war!”
Bingtang was closest to Qin Yining and heard her mistress’ words clearly. Cold sweat poured down when she heard ‘war’. Although she was a maid now and had been a nun for a little while, she was still a noble daughter at the heart of things.
She’d never suffered much in her life, a marked difference from Qin Yining, someone who’d been a noble daughter for less than a year. She’d only heard of the horrors of war before and had never seen them with her own eyes. The most accurate impression she’d ever had was when she accompanied Qin Yining to the peace talks at Xihua. That trip had only shown her the magnificence of troops lined up in rank and file.
She was now faced with the sight of so many charging in a frenetic rush, all of them distraught and terrified. Some deaths even occurred from all the trampling. Loud cries and wails filled her ears. And this is only a quick passing! Just where had all these people come from? It was such a long road, so despairing scenes must’ve happened continuously!
It was the first time that Bingtang had experienced, up close and personal, the fear of looming disaster.
“What should we do, miss? If, if the little prince really does come charging through with his army, will they harm you? His men might not know you!” Bingtang’s voice was dry and her brain had ground to a halt. It took her a while to even voice half coherent thoughts as these.
Her mistress’ face was wan and she gripped Bingtang’s hand with one hand, her own clothes with the other. She slowly relaxed her palm only when her collar was a wrinkled mess. Qin Yining took in a few deep breaths before patting maid’s shoulder comfortingly.
“Don’t be afraid. They won’t come charging in so quickly. Pang Zhixi’s troops had already withdrawn from the city of Liang after the last battle. Although the emperor gave up some of the larger cities on the border to Great Zhou, it’d still be impossible for the numerous Valiant Tigers to soundlessly, invisibly make it to our capital.”
“But all these refugees… they’re obviously terrified and fleeing to the capital.” Bingtang wiped off sweat from her forehead with a sleeve.
“We should go back first and discuss this thoroughly with Steward Zhong. I’ll also ask my father for what news he has. Whatever information they have will be a lot more accurate than the three of us speculating wildly here.”
Bingtang nodded, yet mist immediately gathered in her big, round eyes and her voice was a little choked up. “But miss, I’m still really scared.”
“Don’t be scared, don’t be scared.” Qin Yining pulled her close with an arm and patted her back. Although the two girls were the same age, Bingtang looked like she was twelve because of her small stature. “I’ll let you all go if something bad really does happen. Just leave the capital and head south along the coast.”
“What about you then, miss?” Bingtang sniffled loudly.
Qin Yining only smiled wryly and didn’t respond.
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