A career soldier, You Meng had always been scornful of men without backbones—as perfectly illustrated by the likes of the commandery prince. He sneered. “No? Had Your Highness not been a fool, you would’ve foreseen this result before setting out.
“When you surrendered, His Majesty treated you accordingly. You were his subject and your family a subject’s dependents. The emperor took good care of you, but you bred mutinous thoughts. You talked your way into being let loose so you could hunt for the treasure and claim it as your own. You even wanted to revolt and restore your position! Are you really worthy of His Majesty’s trust, the traitor that you are??
“You were a piece of trash emperor! Your subjects and people didn’t have enough to eat or wear, and when you surrendered, you revolted instead of playing the part of a good subject! You even threw away those who shared your bed! And now what, you scared of a little blood? Think about what you did in the first place!”
Color drained from Yuchi Yan’s face. His lips twitched, but formed no coherent sentence in the end.
Having vented his anger, You Meng was finally able to breathe easy. He turned to the frostily stern Pang Xiao. “Your Highness, the emperor means for you and the princess consort to remain where you are. These two are also in your charge.”
Pang Xiao’s face was as dark as a looming thundercloud. He roughly snatched the decree for himself and gave it a quick scan to verify its contents. Suppressing his fury, he grumbled his assent when he determined it wasn’t some drivel that You Meng had concocted.
The vice general left a crew of twenty Dragon Riders behind. “Remain here to protect His Highness. The rest of you shall return with me.”
“Aye!” The designated contingent began their escort of the long fleet of carriages.
To avoid rousing suspicion, Pang Xiao had brought only Huzi and four Elite Tigers on this trip. Meanwhile, Qin Yining had chosen Bingtang, Jiyun and the four led by Xiaoman to accompany her.
The twenty Dragon Riders had been left behind ostensibly to protect the prince, but really, they were tasked to watch Pang Xiao and his contingent, lest the latter wander off or divulge the treasure’s location.
Qin Yining pillowed her husband’s shoulder, her expression solemn and slender brows furrowed. All pretenses of cordiality between Li Qitian and Pang Xiao had at last been shed.
Although the emperor maintained a veneer of politeness, what did he actually say with his actions? Divestiture of military command, lack of trust when placed in the council, and overlooked for any important missions.
Pang Xiao had finally been tasked with a relief mission; yet it was in the capacity of overseeing a former love rival. Meanwhile, the object of both their affections was sent along for the ride!
Everyone knew that she’d once been tapped as an empress candidate for Yuchi Yan. No one knew that Pang Xiao had successfully schemed to the detriment of that plan, but anyone with a bit of common sense would understand the enmity between the two.
Such arrangements were obviously to incite greater estrangement between Pang Xiao and Yuchi Yan.
Things had gone from bad to worse. The treasure had been found, and Pang Xiao had now been utterly, thoroughly ostracized and tossed aside. Even You Meng, a lowly vice general whose military exploits and rank were no match for those of Pang Xiao’s, dared to taunt the prince.
These developments forced her to contemplate the future, and brainstorm what precautions she should take to protect her husband and those around her.
Li Qitian was the quintessential ingrate who’d turn backstabber in a heartbeat. Death was the only outcome for one who placed their trust in him.
“My dear?” Pang Xiao tilted his head sideways at her.
She snuggled meekly against his shoulder. He could see her fluttering long lashes and dainty, pert nose when he lowered his gaze. He reached out to stroke her cheek. “Did that scare you?”
Only until then did Qin Yining come back to her senses. The guards and maids were watching her with concern.
Awkwardness pricked at her when she realized she’d curled up against Pang Xiao as if there was no one around. She’d momentarily forgotten her surroundings!
“I’m alright, just a bit tired.”
“Why not take a nap? There’s nothing left for us to do here at the moment. We need to wait for His Majesty’s instructions before resuming our mission anyhow. Not to mention, we have no inkling how rations and provisions are coming along.”
Li Qitian hadn’t set up a supply train for the trip before they departed the capital. Though disaster relief was the word of the day, the cavalcade of three hundred Dragon Riders made it seem more like law enforcement escorting prisoners.
Pang Xiao knew how low the national treasury was. Li Qitian was perhaps having problems scraping up enough provisions all at once. He might need more time to put things together and would send the supplies later.
The emperor must’ve also surmised that Yuchi Yan had his ways to recover the treasure on this trip back to Great Yan, though having everything pan out as Pang Xiao and Qin Yining had speculated left the prince in a despondent mood.
Qin Yining was meticulous and astute, perceptively plumbing the depths of Li Qitian’s intentions. Yet at times, Pang Xiao really wished that it was they who were being too small-minded in their understanding of the emperor.
The princess consort set off towards the bamboo shack. No sooner had she taken a step than Yuchi Yan, his head lowered all this time, called out, “Don’t go!”
The girl started and looked over her shoulder in surprise at the commandery prince. The sight of disheveled salt-and-pepper hair, a sallow and pallid face, and vacant bloodshot eyes answered her glance. Streaks of tear trails ran down his face, painting an air of derangement to his looks.
In her mind, the image of that noble, scholarly gentleman she’d first encountered at the Prince of Ning’s floated to the forefront. Qin Yining found herself unable to reconcile that young man with this dispossessed outcast.
“You go on and rest.” Pang Xiao watched his wife with concern and commanded the Dragon Riders left to stand guard. “Go help the commandery prince and Secretariat Gu settle in. Keep a close eye on them. There’s no telling what’s out here in the mountains. Don’t let them wander off at will.”
“Aye!” The guards answered with great respect.
The Dragon Riders had previously garrisoned in the northern frontiers. Though they were under the command of Ji Zeyu, their discipline and training were indubitably on par with the Valiant Tigers’. They were also a tad bit curious about and admiring of Pang Xiao, and had learned more about the prince’s dominating competence and affability on this trip.
Even though the emperor distrusted the prince, he would always be a war god to these Dragon Riders. They were responsible for protecting and watching their charge, but also willing to do as they were told when Pang Xiao asked.
A few of them together hefted the trussed-up chickens that were Yuchi Yan and Gu Shixiong and brought them to a tent not too far away, shoving them inside.
Inside the bamboo shack, Qin Yining burrowed beneath the covers. Pang Xiao stepped in before long.
The guards were used to seeing Pang Xiao dote on his wife and immune to seeing the couple rest in the shack in broad daylight. The group gathered by the bonfire, roasting game and chatting merrily. Only a handful of Dragon Riders checked now and then to ensure that Pang Xiao was staying put.
He blocked the entrance with a trellis of lashed-together bamboo. That sealed the triangular enclosure. Faint sunlight dappled through the fissures between the bamboo. Within the dark corner, one could see dust motes dancing in the faint light.
Hugging her covers, Qin Yining watched Pang Xiao and beamed, coaxing an answering smile in return.
Pang Xiao disrobed and kicked off his boots before lying down on the mat that was covered with a thick quilt and pad. He enfolded the covers and his wife’s slender frame into him.
“Are they roasting game, Your Highness?” Are we being eavesdropped on?
Pang Xiao didn’t answer right away. He kept his eyes closed and focused all of his attention on his hearing. He listened closely before answering in a whisper, “Yes they are.”
Thus reassured, Qin Yining responded in a low voice. “We don’t have any pigeons left. But I think my men are already lying in wait.”Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Oh, oh my. What's to happen?