Qin Yining wore a simple, pale-green cotton jacket with a black veiled hat, dressing herself like an average commoner. She stood by a street corner to observe from the shadows with Bingtang, Jiyun, Jingzhe and the three other Silver Masks.
“Madame, ” Jingzhe asked quietly, “do we allow this to continue?”
To keep their identities discreet while outside, they referred to Qin Yining as “madame”.
Qin Yining nodded. “Yes, we can’t allow the prince’s name to always be raked through the mud. If he won’t claim the credit, we’ll do it for him.”
“I only worry the emperor won’t stand for seeing yet another of His Highness’s achievements,” Dahan muttered. “He’ll get his knickers in a twist again.”
Of the four Silver Masks with her, Dahan was the most experienced and skilled when it came to analyzing which way the winds were blowing.
Tickled by his words, she laughed, “That one wishes to pull the wool over the people’s eyes and block their ears with foolish policies. The citizens would be difficult to control otherwise. Alas, if only he would stop to consider how simple it is to discern the fool from the wise and the genuine from the hypocrite?
“Simply judge a person’s character by their actions, not their words. In a similar vein, all that’s needed to judge one in power is to see how well fed and dressed his people are.”
With that, Qin Yining turned and led her retinue to the front of the yamen. “Right now, the people are constantly hungry without anywhere to call home,” she added under her breath. “While they live in a constant state of worry, a certain someone is still hung up over the whereabouts of that treasure...”
Those were her truest thoughts. Even if she didn’t have the whole picture, she still had a general grasp of it.
Xiaoman sighed, “That’s why there’s a saying that goes, ‘Prosper, and the people suffer; decline, and the people suffer still.’ It’s always the common folk who suffer most at times like this.”
“Indeed.” The entire retinue muttered their assent, moods bleak.
All of them had experienced hardships in their lives. Bingtang was the only one to be born with a silver spoon, but even her family had been persecuted by a tyrant. Left destitute and homeless, her story dropped from riches to rags, a noble girl demoted to maid.
As for someone like Qin Yining, never granted the luxuries of a happy childhood, her circumstances required no further explaining.
They were the best to understand and sympathize the most with the suffering of the people.
More often than not, the common folk couldn’t care less about who governed them; their sole concern was whether they could feed and clothe themselves.
All they asked was to live free from the turbulence of war.
Alas, they lived in times of turmoil—catastrophe had struck Great Yan again and again, as if someone had cast a curse upon the lands. To have the most basic of needs fulfilled was even considered a luxury at times.
With heavy hearts, the retinue returned to the yamen's front gates, where Pang Xiao and Gong You were readying horses for the group.
The roads were severely damaged, with some mountain trails blocked off due to landslides. Thus, they would have to forgo carriages for traveling on horseback.
“Your Highness, the way to Yang County will be strenuous. We may need to climb over piles of rocks. Will Her Highness be able to handle the strain?”
Pang Xiao laughed, “She will be fine. She may look frail, but she’s just as tenacious as any of us men. An estate that was part of her dowry is also in Yang County, so she wants to visit it. If we can procure some provisions while we’re there, all the better, no?”
Gong You smiled and nodded. “As expected of a woman befitting someone of His Highness’ stature. Speaking of which, Her Highness is from the Yan Dynasty, no?”
Qin Yining had drawn close and grinned upon hearing this. “Indeed, Sir Gong. My father once served in the court of Great Yan as a minister, later as the Grand Preceptor of the Heir Apparent and Marquis of Anping. After Great Yan fell from its inner rot, he pledged allegiance to His Majesty.”
“Ah! I remember, I remember! Your father was Minister Qin, the Master Qin known as Wise Pan An, correct?”
Qin Yining dimpled and nodded.
“I see, so Her Highness is from a prestigious house. It’s no wonder your bearing is so unlike that of an average woman’s. That said, the silver from your dowry and ancestral home is also Minister Qin’s...”
“My father merely wishes to provide assistance. He has no desire to publicize his contributions.”
Hearing this, the soldiers felt yet another surge of gratitude.
Even the easygoing Elite Tigers and Dragon Riders couldn’t help a swell of admiration toward the Faithful Prince of the First Rank and Master Qin. They understood why the two had no intention of touting their own contributions—all they wanted was to help the people, not steal glory from others and go looking for trouble.
Such humility rendered their actions all the more moving.
Pang Xiao led over a bay mare with a docile temperament, along with his own black steed. The mare nuzzled at Qin Yining, tickling a laugh out of her. She couldn’t resist combing her slender fingers through the bay’s mane, her skin appearing white as snow against glossy black locks.
Pang Xiao handed the mare's reins over to his wife. “Even though Thundercloud has taken a great shine to you, he has a terrible temper. It would be very dangerous if he suddenly took off in a fit of excitement with you on his back. This mare possesses both stamina and gentleness. She will be your ride.”
Qin Yining took the reins from Pang Xiao with a smile. “Alright, but you have nothing to worry about. My horsemanship is decent, and I rode wild horses when I lived outside. I even lived with a herd of them for a time.”
With that, she put on her veiled hat and stepped up into her stirrup, mounting her steed with practiced ease.
Today, she wore a cropped jacket paired with a multi-fold, long skirt. Her form was gracious and elegant, the pleats of her skirt fluttering like the wings of a butterfly in flight. Onlookers found themselves unable to look away, the sight of her sitting ramrod straight atop the mare the very picture of gallantry.
Pang Xiao’s eyes shone keenly. He patted Qin Yining’s hand, then hopped on Thundercloud in one swift motion.
Huzi helped Bingtang onto her horse. As he did, he couldn’t help but tease her.
“It's a good thing I taught you how to ride—how would you keep up with us otherwise?”
Bingtang rolled her eyes at him, quipping, “The one who taught me was the madame, not you.”
“Ai! Don’t go biting the hand that fed you.”
“I don’t recall feeding from your hand. Hya!” Bingtang flicked her reins and steered her horse to Qin Yining’s side.
Huzi was left to rub his nose in defeat before climbing onto his own horse.
Gong You, Consultant Lu, and four young soldiers were also mounted on horses as part of Pang Xiao’s entourage; the Elite Tigers and Silver Masks were to travel with the Dragon Riders.
The group left the old capital and set course for Yang County. If they rode without stopping, they would arrive in half a day.
However, that was when conditions were favorable. To get to Yang County, they needed to pass through the mountains. After the earthquake and the ensuing landslides, those trails were blocked off by boulders. The winding roads to Yang County were so twisted that their horses weren’t able to gallop freely.
They also had to lead their horses over boulders and crevices wherever the roads were completely blocked off.
Gong You held reservations at first—while it wasn’t unheard of for noblewomen to be well versed in equestrianism, not many could endure the mountainous journey they’d embarked upon.
When he voiced his concerns upon arrival, his goal had been to dissuade Pang Xiao from bringing the women with them. The prince had insisted they come along, though, so there was little else the prefect could say otherwise.
When they reached the mountain trails, Gong You, Consultant Lu, and the four soldiers found themselves thoroughly astonished. Qin Yining guided her mare with great dexterity, fearless and attentive.
The group currently faced a boulder that had tumbled down the mountain. It was so large that the trail was blocked off almost entirely, save for a narrow passageway wide enough for one person to pass through at a time.
If the person lost their footing, a deep abyss awaited them down below. Even the horses wouldn’t press onward. Qin Yining, however, edged around the boulder to coax her frightened bay mare through.
The entire entourage was stunned with newfound respect for her.
Seeing how a woman was capable of such fortitude, even the most timid of them were able to summon enough courage to make their way across without further hesitation.
It was truly a long, arduous trek. What should have been half a day of travel had them arriving at their destination after sundown.
Yang County wasn’t faring particularly better than the old capital. The only upside to their situation was that there weren’t as many storied buildings. The damage to the architecture didn’t appear to be as devastating as that of the old capital, either.
Still, the streets were filled with refugees. They watched as the impressive group entered the city and noticed the soldiers among the newcomers. Overwhelmed by their imposing presence, the citizens tripped over each other to make themselves scarce.
Gong You led their entourage to the county yamen.
Half of the building’s walls had collapsed. Tents packed with refugees had been crudely set up in a courtyard outside.
Entrusting his horse to a soldier, Gong You led Pang Xiao, Qin Yining and a few of their guards through the maze of tents to the front of the office.
“Where is Magistrate Li?”
“Eh? You’re Prefect Gong! What brings you here in person? The magistrate just went inside. I'll let him know you’re here!” Having greeted Gong You, a man dashed off in a hurry.
Gong You turned to Pang Xiao to explain. “That was one of Magistrate Li’s followers.”
Pang Xiao nodded and continued standing in the courtyard, waiting. Meanwhile, Qin Yining observed the tents.
The citizens living in them were mostly those whose dwellings had been destroyed. Some were occupied by an entire family; others were allocated so that either men or women with children shared the same tent.
At least it seemed Yang County took care of their people.
And yet, Qin Yining had her doubts regarding why the treasure had been transported here. She suspected Li Qitian’s scouts had made some sort of mistake. The mountain road leading here was too treacherous to navigate.
The way through the mountain closest to Yang County had proved tremendously difficult; the roads were blocked off by boulders, forcing her to edge around them with her horse, her heart in her throat. How could a procession of horse-drawn carriages have possibly made it through with the treasure?
Unless they had taken a different route to get here, that is.
Lost in thought, Magistrate Li briskly strode outside with his follower in tow. Seeing Gong You, he didn’t even bother with pleasantries and cut straight to the chase. “Sir Gong! Where are the provisions? Has His Majesty’s rice arrived yet?”
Magistrate Li was a pale, clean-shaven man with fine features and thick brows on the cusp of his thirties. One could tell he was a no-nonsense sort of person from a single glance.
Gong You coughed. “Let’s talk inside.”
It was then the magistrate noticed the prefect hadn’t come alone. Rubbing his nose awkwardly, he pivoted, “Forgive my rudeness. I’ve been so high-strung as of late that I've forgotten my manners. Let us confer inside.”
Pang Xiao smiled and waved a hand to indicate he took no offense. He, Qin Yining, and their servants entered the building.
Gong You then began the introductions. “Magistrate Li, this is the disaster relief ambassador appointed by His Majesty: the Faithful Prince of the First Rank, Grand Secretary Pang of the Hall of Military Glory.”
It was quite a thorough introduction, albeit slightly incongruous.
But Magistrate Li’s eyes lit up instantly at the words. He hastily bowed at Pang Xiao. “Your Highness! Apologies, how very unbecoming of me.”
Pang Xiao smiled and bowed in return. “I noticed there are many refugees in the courtyard?
Has Magistrate Li relocated them here all this time?”
“That’s right. Their houses were destroyed. I didn’t want them getting near the rubble and catching disease, so I’m keeping them where I can see them. I have to ask, though, has the rice His Majesty sent arrived yet? I’ve dipped into our granary storages, but even if we make the most watery porridge possible, we won’t be able to hold out much longer.”
“I understand. However, this prince was only just appointed not long ago as well. His Majesty’s disaster relief funds and provisions will have to wait.”
As soon as Pang Xiao finished, Magistrate Li furrowed his brows in thinly veiled displeasure.
It was Gong You who pulled the magistrate aside and briefed him on what Pang Xiao had done for the relief efforts, as well as how much the prince had personally donated.Previous Chapter Next Chapter