At this point, those excavating the hole had been working in the rain for the entire afternoon. Everyone was tired to the bone, cold and famished.
Yet Pang Xiao refused to stop, diligently clearing away muddy water with pursed lips. He hunted for any clues he could find in the dim candlelight, leaving no stone unturned. Seeing him suddenly hone in on the ground, the Elite Tigers knelt down to join his investigation.
“Your Highness, are we no longer searching for survivors?”
“I’m trying to confirm whether any pieces of my wife’s jewelry is here,” the prince replied hoarsely. “Search carefully as well—not only must we look for the person, but anything that will give us clues to go off of, no matter how small.”
“Understood.” The four Elite Tigers followed their orders to the letter, rifling through muck with critical eyes.
After listening to Pang Xiao’s conversation with Li Qitian and witnessing the prince’s absolute devotion, the previously exhausted Dragon Riders suddenly felt rejuvenated and warmed up. They came forth to help out of their own volition.
Meanwhile, Li Qitian watched as his men counted the silver stored inside the large chests they’d just lifted out, deflating considerably when he learned they were entirely empty save for one upper shelf.
There was no treasure to be found here!
He had no qualms about sacrificing such a great number of Elite Tigers if it meant finding it, yet his search proved to be in vain. Not only did he expose his true intentions, he’d likely earned Pang Xiao’s animosity!
The spectacle of Pang Xiao turning the cavern inside out with a one track mind had Li Qitian clenching his teeth, apprehension washing over him in waves.
They’d once fought side by side; Li Qitian very much understood the kind of man Pang Xiao was. Losing the princess consort might mean nothing in terms of affection and feelings, but he wouldn’t forgive anything that marred his dignity and reputation.
Finding Qin Yining was the favorable outcome, as Li Qitian could then take her in for thorough questioning. However, if she really was dead, dead men told no tales—what’s more, it would mean he had caused the death of his subject’s wife in search of the treasure.
Additionally, Qin Yining’s father was Qin Huaiyuan—a man whose abilities he’d long desired to make use of. If bad blood arose between him and these two men—such an outcome would be catastrophic!
Regret overwhelmed as he considered this. If only he had investigated more thoroughly before making his move! The cavern collapsing meant there was no one alive to testify, leaving him without any excuse for what he had done and open to condemnation.
However, he noticed that these silver sycees were indeed made by Great Yan upon closer inspection, which improved his mood. The silver did come from that stash of treasure! Perhaps the true stash was close by. Hesitating no further, Li Qitian waved his hand and ordered the Dragon Riders to spread out and search the surrounding area instead of focusing on the cavern.
After two hours of tireless and meticulous labor, the cavern was fully cleared out. There was no treasure, only bodies clothed in Dragon Riders uniforms and peasant clothing.
A headcount showed Li Qitian he’d lost all of the Dragon Riders he had sent!
Not only were they unable to locate the silver, he’d lost so. many. men!
Li Qitian found himself breathless with disappointment and rage, and slapped the fake treasure chests next to him. Such a dismal amount of silver was of little use for the ailing national deficit. It was like trying to put out a cart of burning firewood with a cup of water!
From what he’d heard, Pang Xiao had contributed fifty thousand taels to the disaster relief efforts. A prince had donated such a great sum while the emperor neglected to send provisions and funds—how would this look to outsiders!
Pang Xiao hadn’t found Qin Yining’s body when clearing the cavern, which alleviated his anxiety somewhat. At least, this proved his wife was possibly still alive.
He immediately issued new commands to his Elite Tigers and Huzi. “Deploy more men to surround the perimeter. Leave no stone unturned—we must find the princess consort!”
“Understood!” Huzi and the Elite Tigers answered in a low voice, then went off to execute their orders.
Li Qitian finally couldn’t stand the sight of Pang Xiao covered in muck with a bare chest . “Come up and take a break. Warm yourself with some hot tea. You have yet to find née Qin, no? Maybe she’s still alive and occupied with some urgent business. If you want to find her, you must look after your own wellbeing first and foremost.”
The emperor came to his own conclusions before Pang Xiao had a chance to respond. Qin Yining might have gone off in search of the treasure!
Pang Xiao required close supervision after all!
Not having the heart to rest, the prince politely declined and continued searching around the cavern with his men. He even inspected the hole where Bingtang and Jiyun had hidden themselves, but to no avail.
Pang Xiao expanded the search area to conduct a blanket search with a few men borrowed from the Dragon Riders. They inspected every blade of grass and tree they came across in hopes of gleaning any sort of clue from them.
An entire day had passed when Pang Xiao found the gravely injured Jingzhe, Xiaoxue, Xiaoman and Dahan.
The four unconscious men had evidently been moved inside the cavern by another party, their wounds also looked like they’d been cursorily tended to.
Pang Xiao’s heart pounded with the desire to know what events had transpired, but Bingtang and Jiyun had yet to awaken, while these four Silver Masks remained comatose.
Then, the disaster relief supplies finally arrived.
They weren’t much, but many of the refugees had already died, so there was enough to support those who had survived. From then on, Pang Xiao removed himself from the disaster relief efforts to focus entirely on finding Qin Yining.
But when Bingtang and Jiyun came to and recounted what had happened in the cavern, Pang Xiao felt his heart drop and fear overtake his senses. “She was slashed by a sword?”
“Yes. To protect me, Her Highness had me hide behind the chests. She said since she had no way of escaping, I had to survive and find you to warn you.”
Pang Xiao closed his eyes, feeling as someone had plunged a knife into his heart and was twisting it.
The frail Jiyun recalled the events that had transpired in great detail. “They were fiercer than even the Lu second master’s deathsworn,” she concluded. “We were all injured, and because of the cave-in, it was too dark to see anything. I wanted to rush over to where the fight had broken out, but the ceiling had collapsed and everything was blocked off.
“Bingtang called out to me then and pulled me over to hide behind the chests. When the ground gave way, we had no choice but to crawl into the adjoining cavern. There was air and water inside, but we had no way of getting out until Your Highness arrived to rescue us.”
By now, Jiyun’s tears poured down her cheeks. “This useless servant was unable to protect Her Highness. I have let Your Highness down.” She knelt on the floor and kowtowed again and again, deeply ashamed of herself.Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Alright, you know what was saddest about all this was for me? Not Li Qitian as I don't even want to talk about him, but the fact that the paltry disaster relief supplies that'd finally arrived were enough because so many people had died.
That is so, so sad. :(