It took a moment for Pang Xiao to process what she’d just said. Hesitantly, he replied, “It would be unwise for you to be publicly involved. I have my ways to convince them. You should stay out of this.”
The rich families were sitting around, waiting for people to grovel at their doors—what decorum would they show? What's more, many of them had once served in the court of Great Yan. It was possible that some still didn’t recognize Great Zhou as the lawful government.
The true integrity of their character notwithstanding, if they were to condescend Qin Yining from their moral high horses, it was sure to get ugly.
As the daughter of the once-Grand Preceptor of the Heir Apparent, she’d also been considered for empress. Now that she was the princess consort of the one who’d trampled their nation, she was the biggest traitor in their eyes.
Pang Xiao knew Qin Yining had undergone much hardship since throwing her lot in with his. How could he possibly stand to let others wag their tongues about her now?
Seeing the doubt written over his face, Qin Yining had more than an inkling of what he was concerned about. Warmth spontaneously burst forth in her heart. Wrapping her hands around Pang Xiao’s arms, she nuzzled his shoulder.
“Don’t worry. Am I someone who cares what others think of me? Besides, is it even possible to gain everyone’s approval? Our positions are all different, so I understand if they want to curse at me.”
“That may be, but listen to me on this. I’ll go myself. Don’t get involved or try to come along.” Pang Xiao’s heart ached for Qin Yining as he drew her close. The more sensible she was, the more he felt for her. Why else would she have had no choice but to be well versed with the dark side of human nature, at an age when she should’ve been innocent and carefree, if not for the many hardships of life?
Though they were obscured by the dark of the night, they were still out on the streets. Qin Yining gently pushed Pang Xiao aside, her cheeks flushed.
Even when no longer holding her, he still kept an arm around her shoulders as they strolled back to the yamen.
“If you insist, then I will say no more. It’s true we should err on the side of caution for the time being.” Qin Yining also didn't want to be conspicuous and attract trouble for Pang Xiao. Li Qitian had already surrounded the old capital, after all.
Her husband nodded as he understood what she meant. “That’s right, we only need to concentrate on the disaster relief efforts and watch how we speak about other matters. We can’t give anyone anything that can be used against us.”
“I understand. If I can’t participate in the negotiations, I have no reason to meander about outdoors either.” Qin Yining had witnessed the chaos and cruelty of war before with her own eyes.
When people lived in constant fear for their lives, morality was a luxury. It was to go outside during such times of duress; some might jump at the opportunity to cause trouble.
Seeing how sensible she was being, he would’ve pulled her into his arms to show her the depths of his love if they weren’t out on the streets.
When the two neared the soup kitchens, they saw a restless crowd struggling outside.
In a crowd of several hundred, the able-bodied had forced their way to the front, leaving the elderly, the weak, women, and the young cut off on the outskirts. Dirty, withered hands raised high broken bowls and scraps of pottery, fighting for a ladle of porridge. Amid rubble and old trees plucked clean of their leaves, children wailed while the elderly choked back their sobs...
The sight slammed into Qin Yining and Pang Xiao’s; hearts dropped and tore with anguish.
So what of treasure or power struggles? Right now, they meant nothing compared to a stone of rice!
These were the citizens left to fend for themselves for two months in the aftermath of the earthquake! No one cared or asked about them! They’d gone through series of misfortunes—their old emperor a tyrant and their current emperor treasure-hunting without a care for his people.
When gods fight, the mortals are the one to suffer. But what had the common folk done wrong?
Pang Xiao gnashed his teeth so hard they ground on each other, then pulled at Qin Yining to walk away.
It was only after they’d distanced themselves from the commotion that Pang Xiao denounced, “We can’t go on like this. Our provisions won’t last much longer. I need to get those rich families to cough up some of their stores, or more people will die! They escaped being crushed to death only to be starved to death by their own emperor… f*cking hell!”
He punched the yellow mud wall beside him in his fury. Already riddled with cracks from the tremors, it crumbled to a cloud of dust and rubble with a loud rumble.
Qin Yining took Pang Xiao by the arm. His hand was balled into a tight fist, veins protruding. A mixture of blood and dirt covered skinned knuckles, making for a ghastly sight.
However, she didn't nag, only wordlessly took out their water pouch to clean his hand. She rubbed onto his wounds the medicinal ointment that Bingtang had given her, then bound a light-green silk handkerchief around them.
Pang Xiao’s spate of fury dissipated like smoke beneath Qin Yining’s gentle care; his heart now calm as still water. He lowered his eyes to gaze at the woman attentively tending to his injuries.
Come what may, he would be strong enough to handle it all, so long as he had her by his side. He had to—he was a man with a family to support. For her, he would hold up the sky.
“My darling, I...” Pang Xiao trailed off with remorse.
Qin Yining took a fingerful of his stubbled cheek. “Don’t hurt yourself like this next time.
This is a disaster zone. Even healthy people are afraid of catching disease, yet you injure yourself without cause? If you do this again, I'll hurt myself with you.”
“That won’t do. I have thick skin, you can’t say the same for yourself.”
“Does thick skin mean you don’t feel pain? Even if you don’t, my heart does.” Qin Yining turned and walked in the direction of the yamen. “If you keep doing this, I won’t let you sleep inside.”
Sigh, this is heartbreaking.