Chapter 269: Surrender (I)
Pang Xiao didn’t continue, but unswerving determination could be found in his sharp gaze. He rose and paced for a bit, then summoned Huzi in a quiet voice, “Find a way to get word to the Marquis of Anping that I would like to meet with him secretly. I leave you in charge of the details.”
Huzi blinked, then nodded solemnly and quickly took his leave.
Pang Xiao gazed upon the tightly shut city gates with his hands behind his back, his heart so disquieted that it wanted to sprout wings to fly to Qin Yining. His beloved girl was in the throes of suffering right now, and the worst part was that he was the source of her troubles. But because of his identity, he had to continue to fight.
Such was the resignation of being born in troubled times.
The person that Pang Xiao was extremely distressed about was currently stooped in front of a stove with Missus Nine, stirring a pot of black, wild vegetable soup.
“Benefactor, can the titled dowager of your household eat this kind of soup?” Worry crossed Scholar Ni’s face.
“There’s nothing else to be had these days. We only have this.” Qin Yining’s face was so skinny now that it was smaller than a grown man’s palm, making her almond-shaped eyes appear even larger and brighter.
The old man sighed when he cast a glance at the eighth miss and Qin Huining. The girls were crying silently where they sat, not too far from the others.
All three of them were Qin daughters, but the latter two couldn’t ensure any hardships at all. With their bound feet, they couldn’t dig for wild vegetables, much less hunt. They were completely clueless about what to do with their hands and feet if asked to do the laundry or cook. They were noble daughters through and through, ones who didn’t help with the household chores at all.
In this period of time, the servants that the Qins had brought with them were left to fend for themselves. Most of the work fell to the men such as the second and third elder master, Qin Han, and Qin Yu. Qin Yining and her three loyal maids endured the most amount of hard work.
There had been food stores in the beginning, and Steward Zhong had made ample preparations. However, even the most abundant reserves couldn’t withstand numerous people exhausting them, especially combined with chronic lack of replenishment.
Even one hundred taels of silver wouldn’t buy half a kilogram of rice now, much less ten taels — what’d already seemed an exorbitant price before.
With the increasing numbers of refugees, hunting and digging up wild vegetables became tall orders too. It was better for those in Ning Park since they had the mountain, but those in the city had finished the last of the grass roots and tree bark.
Initially, some died from food poisoning as they ate the wrong thing, but with ever growing numbers of the dead, they no longer knew just why someone had died.
It was always the elderly and children who died first whenever it came to famine. Who in the park hadn’t come with their family? Who didn’t wish that their aged parents or children could live on?
It was Qin Yining’s silver that had bought the supplies, so she had absolute authority when it came to distribution. Nefarious intentions grew in some, but most in the park felt utter gratitude to the Qin fourth miss. Those who wanted do ill had to restrain themselves, if they didn’t want to be denounced by all.
But contrary to everyone’s expectations, she didn’t give all of the food to her family, and neither did she give up on the elderly or children. When supplies ran low, the healthy adults primarily filled their stomachs with wild vegetables and fruits of the hunt.
Apart from the old dowager, every one of the Qins learned how to pick up a task. They set aside what food they could for the old dowager and pregnant second wife.
Twenty days ago, Qin Yining was cupping a bowl of porridge so watery that it reflected her image. She looked at Li Gousheng next to her, down to skin and bones. She looked into his large, teary, black eyes and the other children who no longer had the energy to pick wildflowers for her. There was no way she could bring herself to swallow a single mouthful of porridge.
She stopped eating from the supplies that day forth.
This made Bingtang frantic with anxiety, leading her to tell Missus Nine, Lu Dehan, and Scholar Ni that her mistress had just been injured.
“As everyone knows, the Qin Manor was engulfed in disaster a while ago and a large number of people died. Our miss was heavily injured and just barely managed to avoid the jaws of death. But she harmed the foundations of her body because she lost so much blood, and came up the mountain before she fully recovered. I can give her medicine, but it’s just as bad if she starves. If she can’t recover her lost vitality, it will only hurt her lifespan.”
Even though Bingtang was young, she had superb medical skills and was a descendant of the Tangs. Most had gone to her at some point, for headaches, heat flashes, or any other ailments. Thus, everyone had a deep-seated respect for her.
They shared her worries after hearing her concerns, and began sharing the first of the hunt or foraged berries with Qin Yining. Scholar Ni was 72 this year but always split half of his flat cake with Qin Yining. When the girl refused to take it, he further split the half with the other children.
Rations had run out for everyone starting today. The mountain had also been stripped most of its produce. Given the drought, the wild vegetables they were cultivating grew slowly. It’d be tree bark next for everyone in the park.
Qin Yining ladled a bowl for Scholar Ni first when she saw the soup was ready. She then served the eighth miss and Qin Huining.
The eighth miss smiled with gratitude, while Qin Huining looked down expressionlessly. She was likely out of strength to even smile.
The fourth miss paid it no heed and called over Bingtang, Jiyun, and Qiulu to help. After preparing bowls of soup, they brought it to the second floor.
In the dry and hot summer, the door to the second floor hallway was usually left open. But today, it’d been closed and even bolted from the inside. After Bingtang knocked on the door, it opened a crack to reveal Qin-mama.
“Fourth Miss.” Some awkwardness played on the granny servant’s face.
Qin Yining smiled. “The vegetable soup’s ready. The hunters haven’t come back yet, so line your stomachs with something hot first.”
The servant nodded with a smile, but didn’t have any intention of letting the girl in. She reached out to take the full, ceramic bowls.
Qin Yining looked skeptically at the mama. Her heart skipped a beat when she glimpsed the lingering traces of blood and white fur in the mama’s fingernails. She shoved open the door, the scent of stewed meat filling her nostrils.
“Qin-mama, the hunters haven’t come back yet. Are you hoarding meat in the rooms?”
The granny servant’s head trailed down mutely.
Bingtang, Jiyun, and Qiulu all entered as well. Qin-mama hastily shut the door again. Qin Yining made quick time further into the suite, noticing that all of the windows were closed. She smiled sardonically, “What now, aren’t you hot on such a stifling day?”
She shoved open the door to the old dowager’s room, sending it crashing with a bang and startling the old dowager and second wife.
The two were each happily nibbling away at a small rabbit leg. An earthenware pot was in front of them, the stew inside bubbling audibly.
Bloodstains yet painted the rim of the night bucket in the corner. Snowy-white rabbit fur had been stripped and thrown onto the ground. The red knot in the shape of a plum blossom, that Pang Xiao had personally affixed onto Riceball’s neck, was dyed crimson.
A whirring sound filled Qin Yining’s brain. “You, you ate my Riceball?”
The old dowager drank a mouthful of soup and smacked her lips. “Come, come. I was going to share with you too. Look at how skinny you are! Drink some soup and get some nutrition in you.”
The second wife wasn’t showing her pregnancy yet, but was over the stage of morning sickness. She was at a period where food was highly desirable and so didn’t lift her head as she guzzled the soup down.
Qin-mama spoke awkwardly, “Fourth Miss, Old Dowager and the second wife both need nutrition. Old Dowager’s only had a bowl of soup this morning and really was overcome by hunger. The hunters hadn’t come back yet, so, so…”
The rest of the explanation was bottled up when the granny servant met Qin Yining’s furiously widened eyes and angrily slanted eyebrows.
“When have I not given you meat to eat? We leave the best for you when the entire family is drinking vegetable soup! My little bunny isn’t even the size of a woman’s palm. Is there even 50 grams of meat after it’s skinned and deboned? Just how heartless are you to not show mercy to such a small rabbit?? The hunters will be back soon, you couldn’t even wait a few minutes!”
The old dowager ignored the awkwardness in the situation and threw her spoon into the bowl. She sneered coldly, “Is this the filial piety you show to your grandmother? There is a famine upon us, and you’re the only one who keeps a pet that needs to be fed! Is 50 grams of meat not meat? The 50 grams is your second cousin-in-law’s nutrition and will help her give your second cousin a son!”
Qin Han’s wife mumbled around a mouthful of soup. “Cousin Yi, I’ll pay you back a hundred rabbits in the future. Don’t be mad. Come, have some soup. The meat soup that comes from the big pots don’t even have the taste of meat. Come and try this.”
Tears abruptly streamed down Qin Yining’s face.
She’d never once thought of killing Riceball even when she went to bed hungry, because it’d been a gift from Pang Xiao. He’d said it was their pledge and a token of the negotiations between Great Zhou and Great Yan. He’d personally undone the red knot from his jade pendant and tied it around Riceball’s neck.
They had been so close that even now, she seemed to be able to recall his unique scent.
She understood all the logic and that each fended for their own during war.
But she’d seen with her own eyes people fall, one by one, dead of hunger in the streets, and the empty eyes of someone who’d had to eat their own children. In her hungriest moments, she remembered that bowl of cold noodles Pang Xiao had made for her. How she wished he would suddenly appear and save them from this suffering!
She’d never thought of eating Riceball, no matter how hungry she became. She hid Riceball in her room and took care of it conscientiously, cuddling it to sleep every night.
Somehow, it felt that there would be no proof of their pledge of love if not for the bunny.
But now Riceball had been eaten…
Qin Yining could feel the snap of her extremely taut nerves, the pillar that had kept her going. Tears spilled forth uncontrollably.
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