Chapter 36: Audacious in the Extreme
Ruilan and Qiulu immediately started sweating profusely when they saw the prince. They were two maids who’d never seen grand occasions before, and even the highly worldly Steward Zhong was so afraid that he couldn’t lift his head.
Prince of Ning’s tyrannical reputation was known to everyone. He had an air of violence about him as he personally fought in battles. His voice was low and carried, making those who heard it tremble and shiver. No one dared look at him easily because of his position and his strength.
And now, the prince knew full well that he was meeting a girl who’d yet come of age, but was holding a beautiful concubine in his arms and roving his large hand over her breasts, squeezing and fondling them until the concubine giggled breathily. It was exceedingly lascivious, and his dismissive attitude went without saying.
Any other noble girl would be both angry and fearful at this, wanting to put some distance between herself and the prince. Even a man would’ve felt humiliated. But Qin Yining maintained her cool composure, as if she hadn’t seen what the prince was doing and made a prim curtsey.
“Good tidings to Prince of Ning. This girl is née Qin, the only child of Prime Minister Qin. I’ve just taken over the Institute of Luminous Grace. As its new owner, I’m here on behalf of Miss Tang.”
“You’ve certainly got some nerve!” The prince snorted in laughter. “And here I thought Qin Meng has an interesting daughter who admires this prince’s strength and is here to offer herself.”
The concubine in his arms chuckled delightedly at this. Qiulu and Ruilan were outraged, but they didn’t dare say anything. They only lowered their heads and didn’t know what to do. Steward Zhong had broken out into a cold sweat and was starting to regret asking Qin Yining for help. How could I have let a girl be humiliated like this by the prince?
Qin Yining didn’t even frown. She just pretended she hadn’t heard those words. “Prince of Ning is indeed strong and your heroic name known to all. I grew up in the countryside, but even there heard of your heroic feats when leading our armies against Great Zhou. It is truly worthy of great admiration.”
The prince hadn’t thought that not only would he fail to scare away the girl, she’d clap a grand title on him instead. He was even more amused by this and leaned forward, despite holding a concubine in his arms. He laughed heartily.
“Well said! I just can’t stand those Great Zhou cretins who usurped their dynasty’s throne under the guise of overthrowing a tyrant! It’s not like they’re that moral and righteous either!”
Qin Yining also smiled while Ruilan, Qiulu, and Steward Zhong heaved sighs of relief. Just when they thought that Qin Yining would continue plying the prince with over-the-top compliments, she suddenly changed the topic. “But Your Highness, do you know that your heroic name will be ruined if Miss Tang remains in your hands?”
The somewhat relaxed atmosphere began to draw taut again with these words. The prince frowned fiercely and his beard shook from rage. He bellowed in ringing tones, “How dare you!”
Steward Zhong shook all over and cold sweat poured out. The two maids felt their knees go weak as they sank to the ground.
Qin Yining laughed lightly. “I wouldn’t have dared come today with this request if I didn’t have some guts myself. Your Highness is noble and awe-inspiring and naturally knows the situation in Great Yan. All talk of Great Yan dominating the war and always being victorious is just bluster.
"I once spent time in Liang and the cities bordering Great Zhou, and know of the scenes of desolation and bleak hunger there. The nobles in the capital are frogs in a well, safe and sound in their little haven, and blithely unaware of the suffering outside. But with Your Highness’ experience and wits, surely you can tell that Great Yan is destined to fall one day?”
Even Steward Zhong lost his nerve at these words and sank to his knees. The prince’s expression had darkened and he was glaring blackly at Qin Yining. “You, girl, how dare you! How dare you curse my Great Yan! Believe me when I say that I can have you cut to a million pieces anytime and not even have to notify your father for it!”
Qin Yining’s heart also quailed when she saw that the prince was in a towering rage. But the arrow was notched to the bow, and she had to draw it back to release it.
She bent her knee. “Your Highness is so enraged because I speak the truth. I say this not to deride Great Yan. If there is a day when the country falls, I will not scrabble desperately after life either. I say all this for Your Highness.” Qin Yining’s eyes were sparkling with the radiance of the stars.
“Your Highness knows well that there will come a day when the enemy troops are at our gates. Since the dawn of time, there have always been temptresses at the sides of rulers who have lost their way. The downfalls of Daji and Taizhen are possibly the future of the empress. Master Tang is a criminal today who attempted to murder the empress, but he may become a martyr and hero in the future for attempting to rid the world of evil! The world would certainly be a different place. Then how will Your Highness fare?”
Qin Yining trailed her head down at this point, stemming her flood of words. She had voiced her argument plainly. It was up to the prince now to decide. Whether or not she succeeded, she had tried her best.
Meanwhile, Prince of Ning was musing over Qin Yining’s little speech. Her words had been very clear. If there really came a day when Great Zhou’s armies were at the gates, with the cowardly and incompetent emperor they had, the son of heaven would certainly pin all the blame on a scapegoat, claiming they were a scourge to nation and people.
The empress who had utterly mesmerized him back in the day would be the most likely candidate. Once she was given up, her fate was sealed and so too would the Cao clan become criminals, never to make their way up in the world again.
If that day did come, then perhaps Great Yan would be on the brink of death. Just like Qin Yining said, all would be overturned then and a new world order established. As part of the royal family, life wouldn’t be as easy for him then as it was now. Those Clearist wolves and tigers couldn’t do anything to him now even though he was holding onto the Tang daughter, but in the future? Prince of Ning had always been aware of all this.
What he hadn’t anticipated was a young girl able to think so far and deeply ahead, and possess enough courage to voice such treasonous words in front of him. She wasn’t doing it for herself either, but to save someone else. It looked like this girl wasn’t just a pretty trophy. She was someone with depth, wisdom, and valor. Admiration flashed through the prince’s eyes as he looked at Qin Yining.
On the other hand, his continued silence put everyone on edge. A faint sheen of sweat coated Qin Yining’s palms. She could feel the prince’s knife-like gaze scouring her, as if wanting to take her very skin off. Of course she was afraid, but since she’d decided to save the person, she wouldn’t back down.
A beat later, the prince responded coldly, “Miss Tang is indeed in my hands. What do you want with her after taking her? Send her back to the Royal Academy?”
Qin Yining was inwardly delighted. There’s hope yet! She thought for a moment. “The matter has become so large, I don’t intend on returning Miss Tang to the Royal Academy anymore. If Your Highness really does give her to me, I’ll keep her with me as my maid. As for how to explain things to the Royal Academy, I trust that they won’t dare attempt anything given Your Highness’ prestige, as long as you are willing to give her to me.”
Miss Tang would be targeted by Grand Preceptor Cao if she wandered around outside, so she’d still lose her life in the future even if Qin Yining saved her today. Qin Yining was the prime minister’s daughter after all, so those who would wish Miss Tang ill would have to think twice.
The prince laughed heartily when he heard this, so loudly that dust almost came drifting down from the rafters. He smacked the pert buttocks of the concubine in his arms. She understood what he wanted her to do and sashayed into the rear hall.
The group in the main hall heard the patter of multiple footsteps before long. They lifted their heads to see two maids accompanying a small nun past the openwork screen. The nun had a small frame with full cheeks and large eyes. She was quite adorable, and the large convent robes hung loosely on her, making her seem like a child playing dress up in adult clothing.
The prince smiled when he saw the little nun. “Niece Meng,  did you hear what was said just now?”
The little nun turned to Qin Yining with a sweet smile, her two dimples very apparent. “I heard it all. Thank you big sister for your good intentions.”
“And are you willing to be a maid for this big sister?”
“Big sister Qin is a good person and full of heroism. I am all by myself now and even more unlikely to be the noble daughter of old. I’ve come to terms with the situation I’m in. Since I can’t return to the nunnery or go to the Royal Academy, I’m naturally willing to go with big sister Qin and treat her as my mistress. I will serve her faithfully for the rest of my days to repay the debt of gratitude I owe to her.”
The prince nodded, his voice so gentle it was as if he was another person entirely. “Miss Qin, this is Tang Meng, the daughter of the administrative assistant of the Imperial Academy of Medicine, Master Tang. I can see that you have a sincere heart, and are possessed with courage and wit. You should be able to protect her well. I give her over to your care then.”
He smiled tenderly at the little nun. Tang Meng returned his smile and knelt down properly, commending a grand gesture of gratitude. “Niece Meng thanks Your Highness for your shelter these days. You have suffered hits to your reputation because of me. I have no way to repay you.”
“I owed a debt of gratitude to your father, this was just what I should’ve done.” The prince smiled. “Besides, would my reputation have been any worse even without your matter? Go now.” He flapped his hand.
Tang Meng stood up and merrily walked over to Qin Yining. She curtsied and said respectfully, “Miss.”
Qin Yining, Steward Zhong, Ruilan, and Qiulu were absolutely flabbergasted. Things had changed too quickly that they were unable to follow what had happened for a while.
Qin Yining’s imagination had painted a picture of a damsel in distress, a beautiful one that had been snatched by the prince to sully. She was the same age as Tang Meng, and given her own looks, Qin Yining had thought that Tang Meng was the same.
Who would’ve thought she’d be an adorable little girl and completely different from the beauty who needed rescuing? The sullying that she’d dreamt up was utterly nonsensical as well. The prince wasn’t a pedophile, and it sounded like he had a relationship with Master Tang!
Indeed, it wasn’t appropriate for Tang Meng to remain at the Royal Academy or the Institute. There were too many strangers outside and many opportunities for Grand Preceptor Cao to act. With his character, he’d definitely want to hunt down every single one of the family that’d tried to harm his daughter. Prince of Ning had snatched Tang Meng not to carry her off, but to protect her!
What! The shoe drops. So this was going on all along!