Considering how His Majesty had arrived in secret and surrounded the old capital with soldiers, Qin Yining wouldn't have sought out Missus Liao if the woman hadn't come of her own accord. There they were on the cusp of a crisis, with people causing problems left and right; why would she agree to meet with a complete stranger at a time like this?
After a moment of contemplation, she decided someone as sharp as Missus Liao must have realized just as much. If she’d come despite the risks, it could only mean that a major problem had come up.
If it wasn't an internal problem Azure Justice couldn't take care of themselves, then it must have to do with the most urgent matter at hand: the treasure.
Qin Yining wasn't sure if it was her own paranoia or the devastating circumstances they were in, but she’d been on tenterhooks ever since arriving at Yang County, constantly anxious that something bad was about to happen.
As her thoughts ran wild, she heard the sound of footsteps approaching. Jiyun escorted Missus Liao inside. The woman wore an embroidered, silk aqua jacket and her hair was held in place by a silver hairpin. Now in the presence of Qin Yining, Missus Liao hastily knelt on the ground in the grand gesture of greeting. "This commoner greets the princess consort."
"Please rise, big sister Liao, we're old acquaintances by now. There’s no need for such formalities." Qin Yining occupied the head seat and pointed at the empty spot beside her. "Please, sit and have some tea."
"Thank you, Your Highness." Missus Liao sat beside Qin Yining, her body turned slightly to the side and her gaze lowered. "This commoner is but the wife of a mere merchant. I dare not trespass on your generosity for associating with someone as lowly as myself, Your Highness."
Qin Yining dimpled at her words. "Sister Liao grows aloof with every blink and spoken word. I recall you went on a business trip with your husband. What brings you here?"
Missus Liao smiled bashfully. "Indeed, I was traveling with my husband. However, I received word of the disaster and wanted to help in what little way I can. I've brought some provisions and medicine with me, but it took awhile to get here as the mountain roads are difficult to navigate. Upon arrival, I learned that the disaster relief ambassador is none other than the Faithful Prince of the First Rank, and that Your Highness had come along. I just had to pay you a visit."
Qin Yining beamed with joy, deeply moved by her words. "How righteous of you, sister Liao! This is a great deed for the people! I thank sister Liao on their behalf!" At that, she stood to curtsey.
Taken aback, Missus Liao leapt to her feet and protested the courtesy she was being shown.
"This won’t do, Your Highness! This isn't proper! The Prince and Princess Consort of the First Rank are the ones who have done much for the people. People like us don’t have much skill to our name and can offer paltry supplies at best. I am unworthy of such grand displays of gratitude."
As Missus Liao helped Qin Yining up, she pressed a small ball of paper into the princess consort’s palm, her movements concealed by their sleeves.
Though Qin Yining didn't visibly react, she clutched the paper tightly and exchanged a few more pleasantries with Missus Liao. She had servants take stock of the supplies and update the inventory records accordingly. She then personally saw the madame out and thanked her once again on behalf of the refugees.
Even long after Missus Liao had taken her leave, the servants tasked with putting away the provisions and medicine exclaimed with wonder. "It looks like there are a lot of kind-hearted people in the world after all. There are still upstanding merchants who are willing to donate to complete strangers."
"His Highness himself donated fifty thousand taels of silvers. The princess consort even sold her dowry."
"Ai. If only the Dings and the Peis had even a sliver of kindness—then they wouldn't have been exterminated. When His Highness went to negotiate for rice, they insisted on twelve taels per stone! Those immoral scumbags blinded by money were more despicable than robbers! And now they’re dead because of it. Serves them right!"
Shame rose in Qin Yining as she heard their criticism of the Dings and Peis. The elderly, children, and women of those families hadn’t participated in the atrocities at all, yet she’d sentenced them to death all the same.
With a heavy heart, she returned to the back office and dismissed her servants, leaving only Jiyun and Bingtang. After everyone made themselves scarce, Qin Yining asked Jiyun in a low voice, "Take a look around and see if the coast is clear."
The guard’s face sobered in an instant. After carefully surveyed their surroundings to confirm a lack of surveillance, she gave her mistress a nod.
Qin Yining quickly unfolded the piece of paper and perused its contents. She reread the lines of tiny characters twice over. Her worst fears were realized.
The treasure had indeed been carried off by the joint efforts of Azure Justice and the Silver Masks. Missus Liao had received daily updates on the treasure's whereabouts via carrier pigeon. The last pigeon carried a message from Azure Justice, informing her that the treasure was in jeopardy due to traitorous intent growing amongst the Silver Masks.
That was the last time she received any messages. After colossal effort, she finally recently learned of the treasure’s location in Yang County. She came with a group of people to investigate, but neither found the treasure nor the whereabouts of the original group of Silver Masks and Azure Justice members.Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Oh my, the mystery thickens.
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