Qin Yining stood behind Pang Xiao with the rest of their retinue. It felt that knives stabbed continuously into her heart as the prefect explained just how dire the situation was.
The previous winter, groups of surrendered officials departed the old city for Great Zhou, leaving the citizens famine-torn streets full of corpses.
Qin Yining had tried her best to take in as many as she could. She owned land in all of the nearby cities, so those she took in could earn their keep. And yet, try as she might, she couldn’t hope to save everyone, no matter how wealthy she was.
Then the earthquake struck, fanning the flames of the catastrophe even further. Nothing was spared, be it Pang Xiao’s stores or her own farmland. And that was only their personal losses; she couldn’t even begin to imagine how badly the common folk had been affected.
She feared they would all end up in the state they found Sister-in-Law Liu in. So many had chosen to end their suffering through drastic means, so they could be reunited with loved ones who had passed.
Amid the heavy atmosphere permeating throughout the room, Gong You volunteered, “Your Highness, the government hasn’t sent any rice. Last year’s famine has already wrung the city dry. Even with more than half of the population dead, those who survived still need to eat.
“The location of this city is unique in that it was once the capital of Great Yan. Many aristocratic houses who held high positions in the Great Yan court reside here. Some of them refuse to serve Great Zhou, while others have retired due to old age.
“Your Highness, I can say with absolute certainty that there are at least a dozen such aristocracies in the old capital and neighboring cities, and they hoard almost seventy percent of all provisions!”
Gong You clenched his fists as he fumed. “They have all that rice, yet when I want to buy from them, they dared to raise the price! One stone of coarse rice used to go for nine silver coins, but they demand eight taels now! They’re profiteering, aren’t they!”
Pang Xiao’s face darkened at this. “Did you ask every one of these landlords?”
“Every single one.” Gong You shook his head with a bitter expression. “They seem to have fixed the price at eight taels per stone. They refuse to sell any smaller units to the people. Why is it that the commoners get the short end of the stick after an earthquake? Those big families were also affected, but they’ve got men to do their bidding and repair their residences. They’re so well fortified that I can’t even climb over their walls!”
Shadows loomed over the faces of everyone in the room.
It wasn’t that there were no provisions left in the city, but that said provisions were in the hands of the great landlords. They wouldn’t comply easily now that they had formed a cartel.
“Have you considered importing from the surrounding regions?”
“Your Highness.” Gong You’s face darkened still. “There were two major quakes and countless aftershocks. More than twenty cities and villages were affected, and only a few of the roads leading south are still in good condition. In order to negotiate with the neighboring cities, I would have to walk and climb my way over boulders and crevices. Even when I manage to strike deals with vendors, the issue of transportation will be a major headache.”
Pang Xiao had a grasp of the situation now. “My condolences, Sir Gong. You’ve been through a great deal.”
He clapped the short, frail scholar on the shoulder. “This place was never far from His Majesty’s mind, yet it had the misfortune of being under the Commandery Prince of Yan’s jurisdiction. I trust Sir Gong understands without it being spelled out, but the years of war have taken a great toll on our national treasury. Even the cleverest of housewives cannot hope to cook without rice!”
“I understand completely, Your Highness.” Gong You sighed and rose to his feet. “It’s precisely when the nation faces trying times that we must do our duty as loyal subjects,” he proclaimed zealously. “Let us skip the pretty words and talk of sharing His Majesty’s burdens. It’s the people whom I pity!”
He turned abruptly to look at Pang Xiao, smiling wryly. “You haven’t seen just how much these citizens have suffered, Your Highness! Not only did they have the misfortune of being governed by the Yuchi bastards who exploited them all those years, but they had to suffer through drought and famine. Then just when things were looking up, there was an earthquake! Tell me, Your Highness… I’ve seen it all with my own eyes, and I can’t bear to watch their suffering go on any further!
“Alas, this subordinate is useless. Now is the time to act, yet I haven’t any money, food or ability to do anything… Frankly, even if I had money, we still might not be able to procure any provisions.”
By now, tears poured down Gong You’s face. He slumped over a table and broke down sobbing. Yamen guards found themselves wiping away tears; even Pang Xiao’s Dragon Riders hung their heads in sorrow.
Qin Yining pursed her lips. As she contemplated all she heard, she came to a series of decisions.
Pang Xiao allowed Gong You his tears for a moment before sighing, “There’s no need to be so hard on yourself, Sir Gong. All we can do now is to look to the future. We can’t do anything for the already deceased, so our next course of action is to ensure the remaining citizens’ survival.”
“Your Highness.” Gong You seemed immensely moved by Pang Xiao’s words. “Very well! If that’s what Your Highness thinks, I will follow you to the ends of the earth!”
“We’re all doing this for the people. What does that have to do with following anyone?
With the two of us working together, I believe we can turn the tides yet!” Pang Xiao replied with a smile.
It was then Gong You remembered Pang Xiao’s heroic contributions had made the emperor wary and distrustful of him for a time. Words of “following him to the ends of the earth” could easily be misinterpreted. However, he didn’t regret saying so. This war hero seemed dependable, unlike those who lusted after fame and prestige. His concern for the citizens’ wellbeing was genuine.
After the main affairs had been attended to, Pang Xiao called Qin Yining over to introduce her to Gong You. “Sir Gong, I’d like you to meet my wife.”
Gong You had already noticed Qin Yining earlier; such a great beauty would capture the attention of anyone immediately, unless they had problems with their eyes. When she arrived with Pang Xiao, he had thought her to be some bedwarmer or another.
Who would have thought this was the actual princess consort!
“So it’s Your Highness. My deepest apologies for not recognizing you.” Gong You bowed.
Qin Yining curtsied in return.
Gong You turned away in haste. “Your Highness, you musn't.”
“I must. Sir Gong has been taking good care of the old capital. Though the situation appears desperate for the people we’ve seen on our way here, the aftermath has been dealt with in an orderly fashion. We arrived quite late, so Sir Gong has been the sole pillar to keep the city standing. The people have not succumbed to the plague, and its spread has been contained. Sir Gong has done a great deal indeed! As a woman, I'm afraid I cannot be of assistance to matters of importance. Considering Sir Gong’s contributions, a curtsey seems hardly unbecoming.”
At this, Qin Yining curtsied once more.
Gong You turned away again, flustered, but his chest bloomed with warmth.
It seemed the rumors were not all to be believed. The Faithful Prince and Princess Consort of the First Rank weren’t the incompetent royals that hearsay made them out to be. The prince wasn’t a tyrant, and the princess wasn’t a temptress. Both had the people’s interests at heart.
“Your Highness, you should occupy the back office while you’re here. I will have my wife make the arrangements.”
“Many thanks for your troubles.” Pang Xiao raised a cupped fist salute.