Qin Yining headed for the gates of Ning Park with Jiyun holding an old wax-paper umbrella by her side. They saw Qitai wearing straight robes of fine, vivid blue cotton, also holding a wax-paper umbrella.
The man quickly put the umbrella away and bowed when he saw the girl. “Fourth Miss.”
“Please do rise. Uncle An’s served my father for many years, so there’s no need for this. It’s not right that you bow like this to me.”
Qitai was surnamed An, and the man refused to listen. He finished his bow properly before rising with a smile. “Milord sent me here with a message that he has important business to discuss with you. He’s been summoned to the palace at the moment and probably won’t be free until nightfall. He asks for you to wait at the foot of the mountain at the hour of the dog. He’ll be there then.”
Qin Yining nodded. “I understand. Did father say what it was about and why he hasn’t been able to visit? The old dowager and other family members miss him dearly.”
“He’s really been too busy. To be honest, even I’ve been so busy at his side that the days blur into each other.” Qitai looked around and lowered his voice when he saw that no one else was present. “The emperor looks like he wants to surrender. There’s a lot of things involved when it comes to something as big as this. Milord’s been discussing this with the emperor all day. He doesn’t have any free time at all.”
The fourth miss nodded understandingly and sighed. “Father really is in a difficult spot. Please take good care of him, Uncle An, and remind him that he needs to rest.”
“Yes, this servant will naturally keep an eye on that.”
“Is my father well? Is Auntie Cao well?”
“Milord goes hungry every other meal in the army, but it’s better than being outside.” Qitai smiled. “Concubine Cao has remained in disguise as a man while protecting milord. The two actually seem more like friends. They don’t talk much, but they understand each other well.”
His words were a roundabout way of saying that Qin Huaiyuan and Cao Yuqing still hadn’t consummated their marriage.
Qitai spent his entire day by her father’s side, so naturally he wouldn’t overlook anything.
Qin Yining heaved an inward sigh of relief for her mother. “I understand. Many thanks, I’ll wait for my father at the foot of the mountain at the hour of the dog.”
“Alright, then this servant takes my leave. I need to return to milord for further duties.” Qitai bowed.
Qin Yining nodded and sent Qitai off with her eyes. When the man was far off in the distance, she turned to Jiyun. “It looks like the emperor really has decided to surrender.”
“Although I shouldn’t say this, I feel hugely relieved after hearing that.”
The Qin fourth miss understood her maid’s sentiment. “I know. Once the war ends, so does the siege on the city. We’ll have another way out for us then. As for weighty matters of right or wrong for the country, it’s not something up to you or me.”
“That’s right. And when the fighting stops, the prince will definitely come looking for you, miss. You’ve suffered so much during this period, His Highness will definitely be heartbroken.” Jiyun’s imagined scenes of reunion were touching affairs, given how much Pang Xiao cared for Qin Yining.
The Qin fourth miss rubbed her burning ears. Though her expression didn’t change, she was lighthearted.
Despite it being inappropriate to rejoice when the country was about to be no more, Qin Yining felt that thanks to the former emperor embezzling all of the nation’s funds, the fate of Great Yan had long since been written in stone. Such was the truth even if people would rather not admit to it.
Now that Weichi Yan wished to surrender, it felt like an enormous weight had been lifted off her back.
Guard and mistress walked back in to see an expectant née Sun waiting eagerly for them. Qin Yining spent some time conveying why Qitai had come, then went into detail regarding the situation of Qin Huaiyuan and Cao Yuqing during their assignment to city defense.
Née Sun’s brow smoothed out when she heard the summary and her uneasy heart settled back in its proper place. The frustration and irritation brought on by constant hunger over the most recent period also dissipated. She beamed merrily. “My darling daughter, you can’t lie to me now.”
“How would I ever? It’s all from Qitai. He’s by father’s side all day and knows more than us. Unless he told me white lies, I can promise that there’s absolutely nothing going on between father and Auntie Cao.”
Née Sun blushed, then felt embarrassed that her daughter had witnessed her display of envy. She coughed. “Listen to you, silly. Is your mother the jealous sort?”
“Of course not, your daughter was just worrying over nothing.” Qin Yining stuck her tongue out, teasing her mother into laughter.
Everyone in the park was hungry, but the long anticipated rains had finally come. When combined with née Sun and Qin Yining’s carefree laughter — the general mood was greatly uplifted.
And so persistent impatience and fright subsided on this rainy day.
Qin Yining went about her day as usual and left with Jiyun, Bingtang at the hour of the dog. As soon as she set foot outside the door, she saw Mu Jinghu, skinny as a stalk of hemp in pale-blue robes, standing with his hands behind his back.
“Are you headed out?” His delicate features had become more angular thanks to hunger, but his eyes remained as clear as ever.
Qin Yining nodded with a smile. “My father’s sent for me.”
“Then I’ll watch over you from the shadows.”
Some guilt struck the girl. “Why don’t you stay and rest if you’re tired, Sir Mu? No one can get a full meal these days, and as highly skilled you are, you still have a mortal’s body. You also feel hungry without food. Where will you get strength from without a full meal? I really feel very guilty. I’m just going down the mountain for a word from my father, so you don’t need to come.”
Mu Jinghu frowned in monetary thought. “That’s not a very good plan. I promised the fox I would protect you. Don’t worry, I know my limits. Plus, my diet is actually a bit better than yours. You’re a fragile little girl but you’re still fine. I’m a cultivator who hones my body inside and out, so how am I any weaker than you? Or are you worried I’m going to eavesdrop? Then I’ll just hide in the shadows and won’t come out if you don’t want me to. Does that work?”
“What? Don’t say that, Sir Mu. How would I be afraid about you eavesdropping? I’m just worried about exhausting you. Oh well, since this is the case, please remain in the shadows. Listen to my covert commands if anything happens.”
“Alright.” Mu Jinghu inclined his head with a smile. “Then you guys go on ahead.”
Qin Yining knew that the gentleman had his ways of keeping up. She followed the winding path down Mt. Eternal Spring, holding Bingtang and Jiyun’s hands while they held lanterns in the other.
After reaching the foot of the mountain, they glimpsed a carriage parked not too far away. Inextinguishable lanterns hung on the carriage swung to and fro in the night wind. The smell of wet grass after the rain permeated the air, instantly providing a jolt of good mood.
The three girls walked quickly to the carriage, alerting the person in front of it to welcome them. When Qin Yining took a close look, she saw that it wasn’t Qin Huaiyuan.
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