Qin Yining’s pupils contracted violently. She knew there would be trials ahead, but never did she expect to become the mantis stalking the cicada, while Li Qitian played the role of the oriole, lurking behind them undetected!
She’d claimed she was returning to the capital to rest and recover, but not only was she not en route, Dragon Riders had found her inside a cavern of treasure chests while facing off Azure Justice.
It would be very difficult to explain what had brought her here.
She could say that Azure Justice had set a trap for her, but would Li Qitian believe her? Even if that were the truth, he was more than likely to believe what he wanted to believe. Her being in danger meant Pang Xiao’s hands were tied as well!
Standing in the wide space of the cavern, all she could hear was the ringing of weapons clashing and the angry shouts of men fighting.
Spacious as it was, the cavern could only hold so many people, and the entrance was blocked off by imperial reinforcements. There wouldn’t be enough space to accommodate them all if they pressed in closer, much less provide ample space for battle between Azure Justice and the Silver Masks!
The two factions had been fighting each other to the death—but now, they had a common enemy.
However, it seemed that Li Qitian had sent the elite of the elite. Not only did the dragon Riders have exceptional martial arts skills, their formation gave them the upper hand at eight people per squad.
If one squad was losing, the second squad would come forward to take their place; if the second squad fell back, the third squad would replace them and continue charging without mercy.
This rotational strategy served the Dragon Riders well, what with their high stamina. Azure Justice and Silver Masks had already expended much of their energy in combat earlier—they were no match for these tactics.
Qin Yining watched the entrance where the Dragon Riders stood guard. An eight-person squad that had just fallen back was resting while cheering on their comrades. If this continued, her side would likely suffer a crushing defeat and be captured alive by Li Qitian and his men.
If she was taken in for questioning, it wouldn’t be a question of whether Pang Xiao and her father would be dragged down with her or not—Li Qitian wouldn’t hesitate to frame Pang Xiao with high treason!
Qin Yining clutched Bingtang’s hand tightly as Jiyun and Cao Yuqing fought with everything they had to protect her. They were sorely outmatched in numbers and skill. It wasn’t long before half of the Azure Justice had fallen under the blades of the Dragon Riders. Even the Silver Masks were sustaining injuries from the skirmish.
The two girls squatted down and held each other, shrinking into a corner against the chests and cavern wall.
“Bingtang.” Qin Yining gripped Bingtang’s hand, anxious words spilling from her lips. “We won’t be able to hold out if this continues. This might be it for us.”
“Your Highness, I-I-I'm not scared!” Bingtang trembled uncontrollably from the stench of blood and murderous cries of the battleground. Yet even as her voice betrayed her, she shielded Qin Yining with her fragile, tiny body as a final line of defense.
Qin Yining’s eyes burned—even in the darkness, she didn’t miss the tears that welled up in her maid’s eyes.
“Silly girl.” The princess consort sniffled a few times before lowering her voice. “Hide yourself behind the chests while everything’s a mess.”
“Let me finish: Azure Justice most likely didn’t notice your presence, disorderly as they are. You don’t know how to fight, nor do you pose any sort of threat. What’s more, they were fighting the Silver Masks when the Dragon Riders arrived, which makes it all the more likely they didn’t notice you. I am the princess consort, so it’s useless for me to try and hide. They might not even harm me—at most, they’d imprison me so they can blackmail His Highness or convict me of some crime. Whatever happens, staying with me won’t end well for you.
“Jiyun has already joined the fight and attracted their attention. It’s too late for her, but not for you. We left home together, so it won’t do if we all perish here.
“Bingtang, you must hide. As soon as the skirmish ends, don’t wait for them to haul away the chests. Follow the sound of water and hide in that corner. You might even find a way out.”
Bingtang’s face was covered in tears and she shook her head furiously. “I can’t leave you! I’ve been your maid ever since you took me under your wing from the Prince of Ning, yet you treat me as if I were your little sister. I know you’re my mistress, but I see you as my sister too! I don’t have any other family! I don’t want to be without you!”
Qin Yining’s heart ached terribly at her words. Only by clenching her teeth tightly and taking a deep breath did she manage to keep her own tears from falling as well.
“Bingtang, I can’t get away from this. There are so many people who have their eyes on me. Everyone else can run away, but not me. If it were within my power, I would have everyone here get out so they won’t have to needlessly throw their lives away, but that’s not possible.
“Therefore, we must cut our losses while we can, even if it's just one person who makes it out of here. If someone manages to escape, at least that person can bring a message to the prince and tell him to be prepared.
“Right now, his thoughts are on disaster relief. He’s even provided funds out of his own pocket. And yet, those who distrust him have sent people to spy on him. They’ve gone so far as to intercept me. If he’s unaware that something has gone wrong on my end, how is he to protect himself from what is to come?”
Bingtang continued to weep amid the thundering roars of the battleground. Just then, a Dragon Rider lacerated Cao Yuqing’s arm with a slash of his blade.
Seeing this, the maid cried out in alarm, her tears pouring even harder than before. Even Cao Yuqing was getting injured—what about the people she couldn’t see?
The enemy was far stronger than they were. Qin Yining’s intent could not be more clear: if even Bingtang couldn’t bring word to Pang Xiao, wouldn’t that leave him defenseless against those conspiring against him?
“Alright. I, I will definitely let His Highness know what has happened.”
Qin Yining patted Bingtang on the head. “Above all, you must live,” she murmured. “Don’t throw your life away.”
“I understand.” Bingtang wiped away tears and snot, sniffling as she nodded.
The battle had reached a climax. Azure Justice was down to half their original number; the Silver Masks were under immense pressure as their opponents pressed closer. Jiyun and Cao Yuqing were already injured.
Suddenly, someone knocked over the lantern that Azure Justice had brought with them, extinguishing the only source of light within the cavern. It was too dim for anyone to immediately adjust to the darkness, leaving them all temporarily blinded. Qin Yining promptly pushed Bingtang, indicating for her to hide.
The girl had already figured out her escape route—she clambered over the chests and hid in the pocket of space between the boxes and the cavern walls.
The skirmish paused for but a moment before it resumed.
Qin Yining pressed herself against the corner, but out of nowhere, a sword nicked her shoulder. She cried out and fell to the ground, feeling as if she had been set on fire.
Cao Yuqing had an acute sense of hearing and instantly noticed Qin Yining had been injured, but she didn’t dare call for her. Qin Yining might be giving away her location if she answered. All she could do was double down on the enemy’s advances.
The Dragon Riders guarding the entrance prepared a torch and lit a new lantern. The cavern was now bright enough for everyone on the battleground to see each other.
The Silver Masks were wounded and bleeding, yet their eyes shone brightly with determination and the murderous intent of angered, feral wolves.Previous Chapter Next Chapter
My poor Qin Yining. :(