After getting married herself, Qin Yining gained an increasingly better understanding of Cao Yuqing’s infatuation and heartache. The leader of the Silver Masks was no ordinary woman like those who fell prey to pettiness because of love. Her free spirit and open mind were both qualities Qin Yining truly admired.
“This must be difficult for you,” Qin Yining lamented, not knowing what to say.
Strictly speaking, Cao Yuqing was née Sun’s love rival. Though Qin Huaiyuan always treated Cao Yuqing civilly, he never overstepped the bounds of propriety. If Pang Xiao also had such a devoted woman by his side watching over him, would Qin Yining—as his wife—not feel vexed, even if her husband didn’t fancy the woman in return?
And yet, even if she felt Cao Yuqing’s presence was upsetting, she couldn't bring herself to hate such a reasonable person who knew their place.
The guard captain seemed to read Qin Yining’s thoughts. “Don’t think too much,” she reassured with a smile. “This is my duty. I promised your father I would be his guard. Since his orders are to lend you my strength, of course I will do everything that’s within my abilities.”
Even so, it was impossible for people to be completely emotionless. Qin Yining knew Cao Yuqing only said this to give her a little peace of mind, so she didn't refute the guard’s words.
Cao Yuqing continued, “Let’s discuss serious matters while we have the luxury of being alone.”
“Very well,” Qin Yining assented. “Do you know that something has happened to the treasure?”
“I guessed that something went amiss,” Cao Yuqing replied, “as not one of the six has responded to my letters. I discussed this with your father, and he thinks it’s safe to assume the treasure has gone missing. As for the traitor’s affiliations, the probability of them being an Azure Justice member is just as likely as it being a Silver Mask.”
“How likely do you think it is that the traitor’s a Silver Mask ?”
Cao Yuqing couldn't help the laugh that escaped her. “You certainly are forward. As the leader of the Silver Masks, it’s natural for me to trust my subordinates. Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with how we work, but I can say with confidence that once chosen, we train starting from childhood. Though it seems we work for money, above all, we are taught to be loyal and steadfastly dedicate ourselves to the mission.
“In simpler terms, though silver is how we’re compensated, we don't see money as the most important thing in our lives. Don’t expect people who have been trained to be tools to be much interested in anything else.”
Worry began to gnaw at Qin Yining when she understood what Cao Yuning meant. “So you mean it’s pretty much impossible for any of the six to have betrayed us?”
“Correct,” Cao Yuqing asserted with utmost confidence. “I don’t know what Azure Justice has told you, nor do I know what happened with them, but the fact of the matter is that the treasure has disappeared, along with certain people. You have no concrete proof, but decided the turncoat was a Silver Mask spy who after only a handful of words from the alliance. That’s rather biased of you, no?”
To be honest, the guard captain had a point. The question of how much Qin Yining’s father trusted the Silver Masks aside, she herself didn't have a good impression of Azure Justice.
Back when they fought to overthrow the decrepit emperor, they were more akin to a ragtag group of wandering street performers with a few simple tricks up their sleeves. Though shared hatred of the emperor brought them together, bandits joined their ranks after revenge was obtained.
Since Azure Justice of the past was comprised of Great Yan rebels, most weren’t registered in the nation’s census, even more easily allowing felons with questionable character to slither in unnoticed.
After Great Yan surrendered to Great Zhou, these undocumented individuals were marginalized even further.
The household registry of Great Zhou was based on that of Great Yan. Thus, these hoodlums who were unable to previously obtain citizenship remained illegal citizens in the eyes of Great Zhou.
It wasn’t that Qin Yining looked down on these people—it was just a fact that they were a large group lacking organization, every member acting on their own. Not only were they uncooperative, they often conspired against her at their own whims. They didn't really trust her.
Compared to the highly disciplined and professionally trained Silver Masks, Azure Justice was a pile of scattered sand. It was clear who was the more competent of the two.
Qin Yining spiraled into her thoughts, but the outside world remained a mere breath away.
“Why don’t you tell me the current status so we can figure out a solution,” Cao Yuqing suggested. “I often discussed matters concerning you with your father, so I more or less know how he views the situation. If you trust me, I can even tell you what your father said to me if I find we’re dealing with the same problems.”
Qin Yining was overjoyed at this and gushed, “Yes, please do.”
Without further ado, she first recounted how she and Pang Xiao discovered the treasure and were forced to stay in that very same cave. After being placed under house arrest in the mountains, they found a way to get information out. Then came the journey to the old capital and Yang County, after which were their disaster relief and rice procurement efforts.
Finally, she explained what had happened following Madame Liao’s arrival.
“You’re saying the emperor already has the old capital surrounded? I didn't see any of his soldiers on my way here though.”
“They have barracks set up, of course, but they can’t afford to be too conspicuous. I assume they’ve made camp in concealed grounds and have split up to hide themselves.”
“Fascinating.” Cao Yuqing couldn’t help but smirk from the irony. “The minds of those who occupy the throne are just different from us ordinary folk. The lives of the people mean nothing to them, hmm? I’d say our self-proclaimed noble emperor has chosen the treasure over the refugees.
“If you and the prince hadn’t wracked your brains to help to the point of emptying your own pockets and becoming scapegoats, I fear this place would have long gone to madness. How would His Majesty have the spare energy to search for the treasure then?”
Qin Yining smiled wryly as well.Previous Chapter Next Chapter
For those of you who missed the SOTR final chapter reading last week, here it is on YouTube!