Qin Yining hid behind some shrubbery with Lian Xiaozhou, unspeakable fear and loneliness descending with the popping sounds of burning trees.
Having lived in the mountains, she felt a connection with each blade of grass and tree. She sometimes even felt that they were conscious. Who knew how much wildlife would suffer in this fire? But she had to do this in order to protect Lian Xiaozhou.
Grasping Lian Xiaozhou’s hot, little hand, she suddenly understood better Pang Xiao’s resignation. She felt guilty enough burning the mountain, he surely felt even worse slaughtering untold numbers of people for the sake of eventual peace.
As her thoughts ruminated, the whistle of an arrow in the distance suddenly broke through the air. She shot to her feet, but a dozen spots around her answered with whistling arrows before she could react.
This must be the rescue party. Who would’ve thought there’d be so many?
Having never heard so many whistling arrows before, Lian Xiaozhou was petrified when they rang out in close proximity. Her tiny hands clung tightly to Qin Yining’s sleeves as she fretfully cried out for her big sister.
Qin Yining stroked her head soothingly with a smile. “Don’t be scared. The people looking for us is here. They’re here to take me home.”
Lian Xiaozhou didn’t seem to fully understand. “People from, big sister’s home?”
“That’s right, so you don’t need to be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid.” Lian Xiaozhou nodded firmly, but was plainly still frightened as her grip remained tight on Qin Yining’s sleeves.
To be honest, Qin Yining was also slightly nervous. What if her pursuers hadn’t all left yet? She would’ve just attracted their attention with the fire.
Footsteps slowly approached them not long afterwards. The crisp crunch of snow and withered branches tramped ominously onto their hearts.
In their position behind the shrubbery, the girls held their breath and stilled their movements. Through chinks between the leaves and branches, the Qin fourth miss could tell that the group’s leader was a small, skinny, and slightly hunchbacked young man. He was wearing the accoutrements of a Valiant Tiger commandant . The dozen that followed behind him were also dressed as Valiant Tiger soldiers.
The Valiant Tigers had long since returned to the Great Zhou capital, what were they doing in the mountains?
Had Pang Xiao hurried here after learning of the convoy being attacked?
As waves of shock roiled in Qin Yining’s heart, the young man in the lead shouted in a raspy voice, “The Valiant Tigers are here on orders from the Faithful Prince of the First Rank to search for Riceball…”
After repeating this ten times, the soldier next to him took over for the next ten repeats, and another one after that.
The announcement travelled down the line of soldiers as the men searched the surroundings.
Qin Yining’s anxious heart could finally settle back in its rightful place, ensconced with new degrees of joy and sentimentality. Pang Xiao really had sent the Valiant Tigers to look for her! And he’d given them this code out of concern that she wouldn’t recognize his men!
She emerged from the shrubbery, Lian Xiaozhou in hand.
Her movement instantly drew the attention of the rescue party, heads whipping back to her position. The young man in the lead came up with a cupped fist greeting. “Are you Miss Qin?”
His features were quite ordinary, but the look in his eyes exceedingly sharp. He looked at Qin Yining with seven parts assessment and three parts judgment, but gave off no hint of hostility.
“I am, where is the prince?” She kept her arm around Lian Xiaozhou and patted the child comfortingly.
The young man glanced at the child before responding respectfully with cupped fists. “Please come this way, Miss Qin.” He turned to a soldier next to him. “Fire the whistling arrow.”
An audible alert immediately rose into the air, answered shortly by another whistling arrow to the northeast, quite far away from their location.
“This way please, Miss Qin.” The young man finally smiled.
Though she was perplexed, Qin Yining nodded without a flicker of change in expression.
With the dozen soldiers guarding them, Qin Yining and Lian Xiaozhou didn’t have to worry about wild animal attacks or enemy ambushes. The trip proceeded quite smoothly.
At the foot of the mountains, the commandant looked into the distance and pointed at smoke from cooking fires rising into the air. “We’re headed that way, Miss Qin. The search parties look like they’ve already set up camp there.”
Qin Yining nodded, then asked with befuddlement, “How come your prince hasn’t come for me himself?”
The young man looked around, then responded lowly, “After the prince returned to the capital, the emperor bestowed upon him a hundred acres of fertile farmland, a hundred taels of gold, ten beauties, and a month’s worth of leave. Out of consideration for the prince’s hard work, His Majesty rescinded the Valiant Tigers command token. Their commander now is Zuo Jinwei, Minister of the Bureau of Military Affairs.”
Qin Yining halted when she heard this and asked lowly, “His Majesty’s stripped the prince of his command?”
When the dozen Valiant Tigers saw that the two had matters to discuss, they retreated a dozen steps to give them some space.
The young man nodded heavily. This was a classic case of stewing and eating the hounds when all the hares were hunted down.
Qin Yining pursed her lips, a frown wrinkling her brow. “Then why are the Valiant Tigers here now? I remember they returned to the capital a long time ago. They should’ve already returned, barring any accidents. Or was it an imperial order that sent the men here?”
The young man shook his head.
“It wasn’t an imperial order. The prince privately deployed troops to search for you.”
“Heavens! He’s crazy! The emperor is wary of him to begin with. The personal use of troops is a fault that can be used against him, a mistake that he created! Where’s your prince now?”
The young man was looking at the Qin fourth miss a bit differently from moments ago. It would appear that the lady who’d caught his prince’s fancy wasn’t a dunce.
“Miss Qin is correct. The prince was resting at home when he caught wind that the Marquis of Northern Stability had suddenly attacked the surrendered Yan officials. He was worried out of his mind, but no longer had anyone he could send. So he announced that he was ill and personally paid a visit to the army, then made the long trip himself to search for you and your family.
“Though the command token is in Minister Zuo’s hands, our brothers in the army listen only to the prince. His word alone is enough to have everyone follow him. There are a hundred thousand Valiant Tigers in total. Twenty thousand came with him. The new commander followed as well as he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to explain himself to His Majesty.
“When they left the capital, the new commander sent in a report censuring the prince for usurping command of the troops and harboring thoughts of rebellion. The prince’s men intercepted this report. A few days ago, Minister Zuo sent in another secret report condemning the prince. We blocked this one as well.
“However, because His Highness took all this action himself, it’s the same as rebelling if anyone exposes it. That’s why he’s covered his tracks throughout this trip and avoided meeting Zuo Jinwei. He’s also evaded leaving direct evidence of his actions. So when you see Minister Zuo in a moment, please be careful and don’t let word of this slip.
“The prince travelled day and night to reach this location and have been searching with his men over the past six days. He didn’t find you, but found many of the others separated from the group. When he saw the fire in the mountains, he said that must be you and sent us here. The whistling arrows confirm that we’ve found you, but he’s had to hurry back before seeing you.
“He’s used his illness during this time as an excuse to refuse all visitors. Although Minister Zuo’s missives have been blocked, who’s to say that His Majesty won’t find out from other sources? If he wants to expose what the prince has done, then being sick won’t be enough of a shield. The prince is very worried that His Majesty will search his manor, so he’s rushed back with all haste.”
The young man now looked at Qin Yining with more than a few hints of resentment. He was all but wagging a finger at her nose and denouncing her for being a femme fatale.
The Qin fourth miss’ face was also burning—not out of shame, but because she was incredibly touched.
She’d always known that Pang Xiao liked her. He was a ball of flaming emotion with her, contrary to his usual cool indifference to others. He’d never hidden the fact that he cared for her, but she’d never thought that his feelings ran so deep.
He cared so much about her that he would defy an imperial order and risk being labelled a traitor! She really hadn’t thought that he would do so much to find her!
He was already in difficult circumstances because he’d been stripped of his authority. And now to find her, he’d dug an even deeper hole for himself.
How can he do all this!?
Pang Xiao’s affections were so ardent that it felt like setting herself aflame was the only way to return his devotions.
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Oh my, we see a huge deepening of their care for each other. <3
Btw, this is the glossary if anyone wants to keep all the people straight! Be warned, there may be spoilers: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1dc3W3iT1W_jZ09GsLZ_TcGR4_LecoxZnRrjRqea6-uY/edit?usp=sharing