Chapter 444: Scenes of Devastation and Despair

Panning the familiar city gates and once-familiar streets, Qin Yining’s lips quivered. Heartbreak and grief coursed through her veins like lava, debilitating her.

This was a place plagued by frequent ills. Other than the harassment and turmoil of war, those who called this place home were constantly tormented by natural disasters. 

Did the heavens intend to destroy every living soul? 

Her time in the capital may have been limited, but this had become her home after returning to the fold. Though brief, the time she’d spent in the city was richer and more memorable than her previous fourteen years of life.  

That’s why, out of the entire group. Qin Yining least wanted the old capital to lay in ruins. 

Pang Xiao flung an arm around Qin Yining’s shoulder and gave it a gentle pat. He turned to call out his orders. “Let’s head into the city and swing by the yamen first.” 

“Yes, Your Highness.”

A long, scraggly gorge ripped through the formerly wide and level avenue. Most of the houses lining it laid in shambles.

The stench of death permeated the street. Smell of white limestone powder wafted into the air, intermingling with the stink of incinerated bodies and the fetid scent of corpses not properly disposed of in time.

It was now July, and given that the old capital sat in the south, those entombed in the wreckage didn’t need much time before exuding the pungent odor of rot. 

As it were, crude, makeshift shacks raised by bedraggled people peppered the streets. The few houses fortunate enough to sustain only cracks in their facade still boasted of structural integrity. However, those naturally belonged to the rich and powerful. 

Residences still standing in more or less pristine condition were evidence of immense care in the building process and selection of material. Commoners, however, called mud houses home. How would those possibly withstand the earth dragon’s violent thrashing?

Taking in the scenes along the way, Qin Yining’s forehead furrowed. These streets—those she knew well or those she’d never trod on—were now all piles of rubble. 

Pang Xiao held her close and shielded her from the heartbreaking sights, knowing how upset she must be. After all, this was once her home. 

The procession made their way to the former Hall of Heaven’s Will, now known as the ‘Old Capital Prefecture yamen’. The people they encountered completely ignored them, so faint from hunger that they couldn’t muster the strength to lift their eyelids.   

They were simply too hungry. 

Since roads to the old capital were blocked off, the city craved supplies. Food was in scarce supply, and stores with stock refused to open for business. No food could be procured even if there was any silver to be found.

There was also no sign of the supplies supposed to arrive from the imperial court.  

Given that surrender was how they’d become part of Great Zhou, it was naturally difficult for the people to feel any sense of belonging. 

And as expected, Great Zhou had forgotten about them in their time of need, not unlike that bastard former Great Yan emperor, who never cared about the welfare of his people. 

So what of a new emperor on the throne and a new nation name? What was to be discarded would still be discarded. 

Deep grooves carved themselves between Pang Xiao’s slender eyebrows when he noted how sallow-faced and emaciated the refugees were.

“Sister-in-law Liu! Sister Liu!” A bitter wail suddenly sounded from the side of the road, low and weak. Everyone looked in the direction of the cry, while several townspeople scurried toward a remote alleyway. 

A husk of a woman dangled from a belt, her body swinging off a thick trunk stretching obliquely outward. A tattered skirt and bare feet swayed gently under the leafy umbrage. Underneath her bare feet were several bricks and rocks, kicked over in a mess.

Qin Yining exclaimed in horror and clapped a hand over her mouth. 

Pang Xiao followed that up with a hand over her eyes, shielding her from the gruesome sight.

Huzi rushed over to see if he could help, but returned momentarily, crestfallen. 

Amid the feeble whimpering of refugees too starved to cry, he murmured, “That woman was a widow. Her ill husband starved to death last year during the famine. When the earthquake struck, her son and mother were crushed beneath the rubble of their old house. She was the only one spared because she was a servant for a rich family in town. But that family can no longer afford to pay her and kicked her out. She has nothing to live for already and went without food for many days. Her despair drove her to…”

Brows knitted, Pang Xiao gave a quick nod. “I see. Let’s move on.”

The band of people pressed forward, leaving behind the faint cries. However, scenes like these were found in abundance everywhere throughout town.

A chunk of the yamen’s walls had been knocked off by the earth dragon’s exertions. It bore obvious signs of having been patched up later. The front gate of the yamen was locked. Pang Xiao had the guards knock and announce their arrival. 

The men who answered barely had the strength to remain on their feet. They scrambled to open the door together after learning who Pang Xiao was. 

Several wan guards craned their necks for a look at what trailed behind Pang Xiao’s entourage, but saw only a carriage and a horse. No rations or supplies were in sight.

Disappointment flashed across their eyes, but they managed to welcome the visitors with respect before carefully shutting the door. 

The local prefect posted to the old capital was a forty-year-old man by the name of Gong You, courtesy name Zhongtang. He was a Metropolitan Graduate Scholar from Northern Ji, and had always enjoyed deep favor from Li Qitian. Bestowed with the title of prefect, Gong Yu was sent to oversee the affairs of the old capital and those of its neighboring cities. 

Gong You hurried out of the building to greet Pang Xiao and his men.  Both parties exchanged pleasantries before stepping into the front hall.

The prefect cut to the chase. “Did Your Highness bring the supplies with you?” 

Pang Xiao forced a smile and sighed. He couldn’t very well just tell the embattled prefect that Li Qitian didn’t give him any supplies. 

“This prince set out first, out of concern of the situation here. Supplies from the Ministry of Revenue should arrive shortly.” 

Suspecting nothing, Gong You sighed. “It must have been a difficult trip?”  

You wouldn’t have taken so long otherwise.

Pang Xiao recognized the message unsaid, and his smile grew more labored. 

“This mission is entirely beyond me as well. The Commandery Prince of Yan was the original envoy for the relief mission. Who would’ve thought that he’d mutiny along the way and desert the nation!? We were held back for quite a few days to deal with the mess, and I became the stand-in envoy for the mission.” 

“So that’s why!” Understanding dawned on the prefect. “How can the Commandery Prince of Yan bite the hand that feeds him! His Majesty trusted him so much that he was sent on this mission because of his local familiarity. This was out of concern for the people’s stability—but he uses the chance to run off!”

At that, Pang Xiao could tell that Gong You was a passionate and honest man. He needed to be just as forthright when working with the prefect; it also happened to be the prince’s preferred working style. 

“Ai, forget about him.” Pang Xiao sighed. “How are things in town? This prince didn’t see any soup kitchens set up on my way in.”  

Gong You shook his head and smiled ghastly. He answered with dejection, “There are things Your Highness isn’t aware of. The old capital was hollowed out long ago. Last year’s famine took sixty percent of our population. Sixty percent!

“It was no wonder that the Great Yan should fall!” The prefect gestured with the thumb and pinkie of his right hand, explaining with anguish. “That imbecile of an emperor was utterly unfit and forced people out of their homes into the streets! Truth be told, when l was sent here last winter, the entire city was a ghost town! We were lucky to be spared of a plague!

“Who would’ve expected the remaining forty percent to be hit by the earthquake barely a year after the famine! There’s no telling how many will die this time around!”

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etvolare's Thoughts

This is truly awful. :( How appropriate for a chapter with three unlucky 4s? The number four has the similar pronunciation to death in Chinese.