Chapter 276: A Devious Plot (II)
“Greetings to the fourth miss.” It was Qitai walking out of the darkness, lantern in hand.
Qin Yining smiled. “Is my father in the carriage? Quick, take me there.”
The servant smiled back. “In response to the miss, milord hadn’t yet left the palace when I departed. Milord wants you to wait in the residence just outside the city gates — the one that the emperor bestowed. Milord should be just about there when we reach it as well. He’s prepared some dry rations for you — the mixed grain flat cakes that they have in the army. He said for you to bring them back to the old dowager and the others.”
The girl hesitated, but nodded in the end. “Alright then, let’s hurry on our way.”
Qitai had been by her father’s side for more than two decades. He was a trustworthy individual. She also had Jiyun and Bingtang by her side, and Mu Jinghu tailing her from the shadows, so she wasn’t afraid of anything cropping up.
The three girls took their seats in the carriage, Qitai sitting outside with the groom. The inextinguishable lanterns swaying in the night wind, the carriage turned from a dilapidated small road to wide and smooth avenues.
Things were a mess in the city nowadays. The curfew existed in name only as there were no patrols on the streets. Guards were only present at the inner city gates, and they respectfully let the carriage pass when Qin Huaiyuan’s medallion was shown.
The roads in the outer city were much harder to travel. A lot of refugees had been given temporary lodgings there, resulting in masses of starving commoners curled up in tents with wooden expressions, mosquitoes and bugs biting them everywhere. They looked vacantly at the carriage traveling past them.
Heartache assailed Qin Yining as she looked at the view outside her window. She even prayed that the emperor would surrender faster. The more quickly he went about things, the earlier the people’s suffering would end.
The carriage arrived at a residence after a while. Qin Yining alighted with the help of Jiyun and Bingtang, entering through a black-lacquer main door.
It was a residence that was one row of houses deep. The east and west wings were dark, lights on only in the main house. Footsteps sounded as a skinny, older woman came out to welcome them.
Qitai smiled. “This is Wife Zhang. She’s been in charge of cooking for milord, the duke, and the defenders during this time.”
Qin Yining nodded with a smile to express her thanks to the woman.
Wife Zhang hastily made a grand gesture of greeting, kneeling to the ground. She spoke reservedly after rising, “The noodles you ordered to be prepared are ready.”
“Then bring them up for the fourth miss. Cook some more when milord returns.” It was grand to be able to feast on watery porridge these days, so a bowl of noodles was definitely a luxury.
A faint smile crossed Qin Yining’s face. Father most likely called me out so he could share some of what he has with me, so I can get a decent meal.
Wife Zhang dismissed herself after the group entered the main house. The fourth miss sized up the clean and simple small room, taking a seat on a bench next to a square table. “Is this where my father’s lived these days? How come he’s not in the army camp?”
Qitai smiled. “He’s at the camp sometimes too, but ever since the Duke of An fell for an enemy plot and lost twenty thousand men, and almost his own life, the duke’s refused to meet the enemy in battle. We used to have troops stationed outside the city gates, to prevent the enemy from directly attacking the city. However, the duke’s disallowed that and dismantled the military camp. The city gates are closed anyways, so milord doesn’t need to live in the camp.”
“I see. Father’s really suffered a lot.” There were so many bugs in the heat of summer and it was quite muggy to boot. It would definitely be uncomfortable in a tent. Hearing that her father was staying in a house put her much more at ease.
Wife Zhang came back in with a large, square tray. There were three bowls of steaming noodles on it, chopped onions scattered on top and egg drop floating within. It was the perfect fare for a post-rain, slightly chilly mock-autumn night.
Clouds of steam and tempting fragrance wafted from the bowls, but they made Qin Yining’s stomach spasm painfully. Long period of hunger and eating various wild vegetables was tough on the stomach. Though the noodles looked very tantalizing, her stomach’s first reaction was to rebel.
Qitai placed the bowl in front of Qin Yining with a respectful smile. “Please help yourself, miss. Milord gave special orders for you to get some food in you. It wasn’t easy getting ahold of these ingredients.” He then turned to Bingtang and Jiyun. “Milord also said that the two of you have done well in serving the fourth miss. Have a bowl each.”
Smiling, the maids expressed their thanks and took their bowls to another table. Naturally they couldn’t share the same one with their mistress.
Qin Yining picked up bamboo chopsticks and had just picked up a mouthful of noodles when Bingtang suddenly pinched her arm. She looked over, perplexed.
Bingtang was looking at the bowl of noodles and shaking her head. Her clear gaze fixed on Qitai, who standing off to the side with his hands down. She smiled mockingly. “Is this bowl of noodles really from the marquis, specially for the miss?”
Qitai started, his expression a bit unnatural. “Yes. I wouldn’t have been able to get my hands on all this if not for milord.”
“Then the cook wasn’t paying attention when they dumped knockout drugs into the food. If our miss takes even one bite of this, she’ll be out cold for three days!”
Jiyun roared furiously, “What are you trying to do?!”
Hidden in one of the side rooms, Mu Jinghu almost burst in in a blaze of fury.
How utterly wasteful! In times of famine! It was already good enough to have a mouthful of flat cake. A bowl of steaming noodles was such a rare sight, so how dare someone fritter away heaven’s gift like this?? Knockout drugs?! What a waste of good food, such a waste!
Qin Yining remained sitting on the bench and waved a hand behind her back in Mu Jinghu’s direction. Don’t make a move yet.
The gentleman had to grit his teeth and refrain from leaping into action.
She asked solemnly. “Qitai, was it really my father who sent for me today, or are you acting alone?”
The servant pursed his lips, a sardonic smile suddenly blossoming on his face. “Fourth Miss, I can’t face milord or you in this matter, but for the stability of this country, you’ll have to make some small sacrifices!”
An irate Jiyun burst into a flying kick when she heard this and connected with Qitai’s gut. The man cried out with pain and stumbled to the ground, clutching his stomach and breathing hard from pain.
Jiyun grabbed Qin Yining and Bingtang’s hand. “We go!”
Qin Yining knew that time was of the essence and charged out with her guard without another thought.
But when they reached the yard, the main door flew open with a kick, admitting a crowd of masked men. The fourth miss’ steps stilled. She looked at them gravely. “Who are you?!”
Mu Jinghu was now in the shadows between the side room and side wings. She didn’t know his exact position, only kept her hand behind her back and again told him to stand down.
The leader of the crowd sneered. “Cut the blather. Brother, get that chit!” Five men charged after he spoke.
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