Qin Yining compressed her lips tightly, taking a few deep breaths before regaining control over her emotions. She continued gravely, “If I may ask, who might this young soldier be to the prince? Judging from your speech, you don’t seem a vice general. The position of a strategist is the only one appropriate for one with such talent.”
The young man started, then smiled. “Miss Qin has quite a sharp eye.” But this time, his voice wasn’t that of a young man at all. It was the raspy one of an elder.
“This old man is Xie Yue, secondary name Hongchang. I am one of the prince’s attendants and have served him for five years. I am skilled at strategizing and disguises, which is why I was selected for this trip. The prince was worried that others wouldn’t be able to properly explain things to you and create misunderstandings instead, and was also concerned that they wouldn’t be able to fully describe Great Zhou to you. He’s given me special orders to stay by your side and clear up any questions you may have.”
Qin Yining looked curiously at the young face and nodded merrily. “So it’s Sir Xie. My apologies for the disrespect.”
“Not at all.” The slightly hoarse, young voice returned. “Let’s go to the campground first, miss. Just keep silent when you see Minister Zuo in a moment.”
The girl waved her hand. “No rush. I understand the situation now. We can think of a plan first before returning. It won’t be convenient to talk about this once we enter the campground.”
Xie Yue was slightly surprised by the Qin fourth miss’ reaction. “Does Miss Qin have a plan?”
“I do have some thoughts, but need the honored strategist’s weigh-in on them.”
“It would be wonderful to hear more.” Xie Yue raised a cupped fist salute.
“Since that Minister Zuo Jinwei’s been promoted to the new general of the Valiant Tigers, he certainly isn’t a fool. He’ll grow suspicious that his secret reports aren’t receiving a response. He’ll try again. This time, don’t block it.”
“Oh?” Xie Yue arched a brow. “Whyever not, Miss Qin?”
“The Valiant Tigers are the fruit of the prince’s many years of hard work and efforts. I won’t allow someone to just seize it all for free.” With a curve of her lips, a confident light shone out of her almond-shaped eyes. It was piercingly bright.
Her appearance of having a card up her sleeve somehow reminded Xie Yue of Pang Xiao, already making double time back to the capital. A few more hints of gravity entered his expression.
“It’s not easy to train one person, let alone an army of a hundred thousand. Not only do the Valiant Tigers have excellent battle capabilities and superior formations, but they possess strict discipline and regimen. Such an army is a defensive shield in the prince’s hands, but a lethal weapon in others. Is that Minister Zuo really have so competent? I say he’s just earned some imperial favor, so I’m going to make him lose it!”
“What does Miss Qin mean?”
“His Highness returning and continuing to pretend being sick is too risky. Even if he’s lucky enough to succeed, His Majesty already knows that the prince has privately sent out troops. He just hasn’t arrested the prince for it, but the seeds of doubt will have been planted. If this is the case, His Majesty will be ever more wary of and plot against the prince.”
“But what’s done is done, do you have another idea? Does it have something to do with letting Zuo Jinwei’s report through that you just mentioned?”
“Mm hmm.” Qin Yining smiled craftily and beckoned Xie Yue closer, whispering a few words next to his ear.
The strategist’s eyes widened the more he heard. At the end, he was looking at Qin Yining with a worshipful expression. “Miss Qin is the daughter of Wise Pan An alright! Such a plot puts this old man to shame.”
“Not at all. I’ll be relying on your mastery of disguise in this.”
“What I do is just a parlor trick. Thankfully it can be put to good use in helping the prince.”
Qin Yining nodded with a smile.
Xie Yue also smiled when he thought of the fourth miss’ plan. The resentment and irritation from earlier had all but disappeared, and he now treated the girl with utmost respect.
The group entered camp only after Xie Yue disguised Qin Yining’s appearance. She was turned into a young man with ordinary features and also changed into a Valiant Tiger uniform.
Lian Xiaozhou was astonished by the change. She kept tugging on the unknown young man’s hand.
Qin Yining smiled comfortingly at the child. “Be good, Xiaozhou. Bad guys want to plot against big sister right now, so I have to change into this. When we enter the campground later, you have to pretend not to know me or say anything, understood?”
Lian Xiaozhou nodded repeatedly and covered her mouth with her small hands, purposefully looking away from Qin Yining. “I won’t say anything.”
The adorably childish actions teased Qin Yining into chuckles. She patted Xiaozhou’s head. “What a good girl. Come find me later when there’s no strangers around. Follow this uncle for now. Do you know what to say if someone asks who you are?”
Lian Xiaozhou nodded heavily. “Yes.”
The Qin fourth miss then inserted herself into the search party that’d brought her back from the mountains. They’d only found the young daughter of a hunter today. There was no sign of the one that the Faithful Prince of the First Rank had obsessed over for so many days.
Zuo Jinwei had long since seen the fire in the mountains and heard the dozen whistling arrows. He’d been standing at the entrance of the campground, frostily glaring at the Valiant Tigers who were busily pretending he was air.
How dare the Faithful Prince of the First Rank!
The emperor had stripped the prince of his command and turned over these troops to him, Zuo Jinwei! How dare Pang Zhixi defy an imperial order and send out troops for his own use? How dare he stick his nose into Zuo Jinwei’s army??
Zuo Jinwei’s report to the emperor had yet to result in a response, and things felt increasingly off the more the commander thought about things. He turned to his confidante. “Send another report that Pang Zhixi has privately deployed the troops. Send it with due haste!”
“Yes, General!” His attendant ran off to carry out the orders. 
Looking around at the orderly Valiant Tigers within the tent, Zuo Jinwei extended his gaze to the rest of the camp with a cold snort. Pang Zhixi was here somewhere, in one of these tents. If Zuo Jinwei got his hands on the prince, he’d give him what for!
Delight suffused his heart when his thoughts traveled here.
When he was enjoying some food and wine that dusk, a vice general suddenly reported in.
“General! High Highness would like to see you!”
Zuo Jinwei shot to his feet, not even registering that his wine pouch had fallen to the ground.
“Well isn’t this something! Wasn’t he hiding himself well? Why does he want to see me now?”
“This subordinate doesn’t know either. But I heard just now that the prince seems to be gravely ill. He looks to be in very poor health.”
“Very ill? Does he miss his little lover so much that he’s fallen ill after so many days of not finding her?” Zuo Jinwei brayed with mocking laughter. “To think that a killing machine like the Faithful Prince of the First Rank would be such a lovestruck fool!”
His self-satisfied laughter could be heard miles away from the tent. He’d been kept down for far too long and could finally vent his feelings with this rare opportunity.
“Well then! This general shall see what kind of tricks he’s up to now! First he hides from me, now he wants to see me!”
The vice general laughed along when he saw the high spirits that Zuo Jinwei was in. “Perhaps he finds himself powerless in certain matters and wishes your help.”
“Oh?” Zuo Jinwei thought about it briefly and made the connection to His Majesty. It looked like the prince knew that his actions would certainly anger the emperor and was deathly afraid of imperial temper. Maybe he wanted Zuo Jinwei to put in a few good words for him?
The general left the tent with these thoughts and strode over to Pang Xiao’s tent, his vice general in the lead. They were greeted by the bitter smell of medicine as soon as they lifted the door curtain flap.
‘Pang Xiao’ was lying on the military-issued bed, his hair bedraggled and his complexion so very awful. There were three thick layers of blankets wrapped around him, but he still seemed very cold.
A small, skinny, and slightly hunchbacked youth was waiting off to the side, having placed a handkerchief on Pang Xiao’s forehead.
Zuo Jinwei retracted his arrogance from moments ago and bowed with cupped fists. “This general greets Your Highness. Having not seen you over the past few days, this general thought you were avoiding me!” A jeering upturn curved his lips.
The Pang Xiao on the bed shook his head weakly. “This prince is here with imperial orders to mobilize the troops for training exercises, but unexpectedly fell sick after arriving here. It looks like the exercises must be foregone. This prince has the will, but not the way. We’ll have to trouble General Zuo to lead the men back to the capital.”
His voice was so hoarse that it barely seemed human. It was quite faint as well, and he started coughing as soon as he finished. His complexion turned even more pale and wan.
Zuo Jinwei sniggered inwardly. It’d be best if he croaks just like this! However, a concerned expression still hung on his face. “Please do take care of yourself, Your Highness. This humble official will take care of leading the troops back.”
“Then, our thanks.” Another fit of coughing.
Zuo Jinwei didn’t want to keep smelling the pungency of medicine and dismissed himself. His vice general exited the tent as well.
When they returned to their own, Zuo Jinwei guffawed with carefree laughter.
“How laughable! Pang’s not changing his tune even at a time like this! What imperial order for military exercises? He’s just trying to pull the wool over my eyes! He’s falsifying an imperial decree!”
“Indeed, to think that the prince would be so bold. Defying imperial orders, privately deploying troops, falsifying the emperor’s decree… I say he wants to rebel!”
Zuo Jinwei nodded emphatically. “This won’t do. I can’t rest since I’ve discovered his ruthless ambitions. The emperor must know of this!”
The commander readied paper and brush to draft a quick missive, carefully describing how Pang Xiao had faked imperial orders moments ago. “The Faithful Prince of the First Rank grows prideful in his enjoyment of imperial favor and masks dark intentions. He continues to style himself as the commander of the Valiant Tigers and sends the troops out for personal business. A falsified imperial decree is his flimsy excuse and contempt of authority his true intention. Please be on your guard, Your Majesty!”
He put down the brush, sealed the envelope with wax, and had a messenger bring it to the capital.
“The emperor won’t tolerate him this time!” Zuo Jinwei felt quite gratified at having plucked out the thorn in his side. He happily threw back a cup of wine and flashed a wide grin.
Previous Chapter Next Chapter