Thanks to Anari's antics, Qin Yining was at long last granted a day of peace and quiet. Siqin seemed to be kept on a tight leash, since he didn’t have the opportunity to bother her, giving her frazzled nerves a bit of respite.
The next morning, before the sun or Qin Yining had risen, the door curtain to her tent was pushed aside for dawn’s autumn wind to burrow in without mercy. Qin Yining shivered her way awake and swiftly sat up to watch the doorway, raising her guard.
Her visitor was a stocky, middle-aged woman donning indigo, narrow-sleeved robes under a black vest. Her hair was sleekly tied up behind her head. Blatant contempt colored her features when she saw Qin Yining, and the woman scoffed at her in an accented rendition of the Great Zhou tongue.
"It looks like you slept very well. The khan has ordered me to supervise you. She and the consort have already risen to prepare for departure, but a prisoner such as yourself is still shamelessly sleeping in! Get up and get dressed!
Qin Yining understood at once—Anari could no longer stand the sight of her living comfortably, so arranged for a granny servant to torment her. As for the maid whose eyes sparkled whenever she looked at her, it seemed Qin Yining would never see the attentive girl again.
The princess consort remained silent as she rose to groom herself. After washing her face with cold water, she haphazardly rubbed some lotion onto her face, then did her hair in a simple updo and put on her hat of red agate tassels
As she was all by her lonesome, she didn't have any belongings to take with her save from her medication, which she packed into a small bundle.
"Let us go." Now ready, Qin Yining turned to address the maid and exited the tent.
The old maid hadn't expected the princess consort to be so adept at caring for herself—not only did the girl not try to bargain for better treatment, her movements were quick and efficient. She was completely unlike the expected vixen, the one who’d dared seduce the khan's consort in exchange for days of comfort.
For a moment, the older woman couldn't keep up with her thoughts, but still remembered the khan's orders full well and chased after Qin Yining with long strides.
"Hurry up, don't dawdle! Who do you think you are? What place does a prisoner have strutting around arrogantly before the khan?" A hard push emphasized her words.
Qin Yining stumbled and nearly fell to the ground. When she regained her balance, she turned around angrily and drew back her hand, promptly slapping the maid across the face.
"And what do you think you are? How dare you address this princess consort like this!"
The old maid spun around in place from the force of the slap and fell dizzily to the floor. Astounded, she cupped her check and looked up at Qin Yining. "How, how dare you strike me?!"
"You are a servant, and I am your superior. Why should I not slap you for insubordination to your betters?! I am a guest of your khan's consort, yet you, a lowly servant, step completely out of line. Do you think this will be overlooked when you Tatars speak with Great Zhou?!" Qin Yining did not yell, nor did she speak quickly, but the threat in her voice was extremely clear.
Those hustling with preparations outside drew close to see what the commotion was about. Seeing the granny servant scolded after a failed attempt to teach Qin Yining a lesson, the people muttered and gossiped amongst themselves.
Qin Yining continued to berate the maid, "If you will not attend to me properly, then go back to wherever you came from and send someone who knows their manners! I’ve always heard the Tatars prided themselves on their hospitality and spoke reason. The excellence your people have to offer is tarnished by insubordinate things like you who bully the weak!"
Among those who understood the language of Great Zhou, some thought Qin Yining spoke too severely while others thought the old mama was out of line and had angered their guest.
The flurry of conversation among the bystanders grew louder.
Just then, Anari rushed over in a bright scarlet cape, whip in hand. She flew into a rage at the sight of the person she’d arranged on the ground with a swollen cheek. "How dare you, displaying such impudence on my territory!"
"Khan." Qin Yining addressed Anari with utmost formality. "As a woman, I am ignorant on many fronts. However, I still know of how one should treat guests.
"For a woman as well-educated and far-sighted such as the khan, a servant’s disrespectful conduct will only serve to unjustly tarnish your good name. Some will know that a servant is responsible for their own misconduct, but those who do not will think the servants are acting on the khan's orders to abuse a helpless guest."
Seeing the swollen handprint on the maid's face, Anari's face grew white with anger. "How thick-skinned you are! You dare call yourself helpless after hitting someone's face like that?!"
Qin Yining looked at the leather whip in Anari's hand and smiled. "Khan, I respect you as a heroic woman. Though your consort forcibly brought me to your country to be your guest, I am still Great Zhou’s Faithful Princess Consort of the First Rank, and the daughter of the Minister of Rites. You can kill me, but you may not insult me!
"I am a person of little patience and a bad temper. What's more, I am quick to act on my impulses. If any of your people tries to disrespect me again, I shall end myself instead of subjecting myself to your torment. I will not be able to guarantee that you will succeed in discussing terms if it comes to that."
"How dare you threaten me?! Let me tell you something, Tatar's forces are strong in numbers and well-fed. It would be as easy as breathing to stomp all of Great Zhou’s chicken-hearted cowards into the ground! Go ahead and die. You can die. We won't negotiate anything—I will lead my warriors in a charge and kill your people without leaving anything behind!" She swung an arm into the air as she spoke, her servants cheering her on.
Worry clawed at Qin Yining.
She could now say with certainty that there was something wrong with Siqin and Anari's relationship. Anari seemed so sure of herself that she didn’t seem particularly concerned about the prospects of going to war—in fact, she seemed to wish for it.
When it came to Great Zhou, Pang Xiao was already in an awkward predicament. Knowing him, he would certainly rally his troops to avenge her should the worst happen to her. The question of whether the emperor would give him the authority to do so or not aside, the amount of suffering that war would bring wasn’t something she wished upon anyone.
Shifting her thoughts, Qin Yining showed no sign of backing down. "The khan has many people to do her bidding and a loud voice, I have no wish to compete with you in these regards. Did you not say we were to return to your capital? I will be going to my carriage, then.”
The princess consort nodded, then headed straight toward a flatbed cart. Lu Heng was already seated inside. Seeing Qin Yining approach, he smiled and moved aside to make space for her.
"You best not aggravate them," he muttered, "or they may physically retaliate. It seems to me their motives for kidnapping us aren’t as simple as obtaining ransom."
"You’ve noticed as well?" Qin Yining murmured back.
They wordlessly came to the same conclusion. It seemed that Lu Heng had already grasped some of their situation, thanks to his sharp wits.
Seeing Qin Yining fawn over Lu Heng as soon as she boarded the cart, Anari’s suspicions about the integrity of the girl’s character grew. With a dark look, she announced their departure. No one was allowed to rest throughout their day-long journey, and they finally reached the gates of Khanbaliq after nightfall.
Out of habit, Anari turned her head back to brag, "We Tatars have a long history—it's almost unfair compared to your tiny nation. Today, I shall broaden your horizons."Previous Chapter Next Chapter