The streets of Khanbaliq were lit brightly. It seemed that the Tatar capital had no curfew, for the streets still bustled with activity as men and women strolled around in their traditional garb. Tea houses and bars remained open for business—open doors and windows offered glimpses of patrons clinking ewers full of wine with each other.
When the khan's convoy arrived at the city gates, the guards standing watch immediately bowed. The crowd of civilians on the street also parted ways and bowed, passionately welcoming the khan in the Tatar language.
Looking at the lively crowd from their cart, Qin Yining and Lu Heng couldn't help but glance at each other.
Back in Great Zhou, Li Qitian would’ve never chanced such a public appearance in front of his people. Such rambunctious gatherings would leave him wide open for assassination.
Apparently, Anari was held in considerably high regard by the general populace and often engaged with them normally—their honest enthusiasm warmed even the hearts of outsiders like the hostages.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Lu Heng muttered into Qin Yining's ear.
Qin Yining knew what he was about to say. She nodded. "Those who possess true skill have nothing to fear, I suppose."
Anari was a formidable force to be reckoned with on her own, but Tatar's war god, Siqin, also stayed closely beside in protection. Her bodyguards were even more diligent in ensuring her safety. It would’ve been strange if someone as who enjoyed showing off as much as she did took the care to hide herself.
The convoy set course for the magnificent historic beauty that was the Tatar royal palace. Yet as soon as they turned a corner, two teens dressed in rags ran out from the crowd and dropped to their knees before the entourage.
Anari raised a hand to bring them to a halt. The surrounding crowd looked in their direction, equally curious.
"What is it now?" She sneered. "I let you off last time, but you come back looking to die?"
“Great khan, we beg you to spare our aav and eej! Please spare our aav and eej!"
"I already let you off once, how dare you come to me again? Your parents committed serious crimes, so it serves them right to be slaves! The same goes for the rest of your tribe!"
"No, the Minuo tribe submitted to the khan's rule when you were still regent, yet the khan still showed us no mercy! We were once a great tribe of over twenty thousand, but we’ve been massacred to where less than four thousand of us remain—our elderly, sick, women and children. Our father and mother already serve you, so why does the khan continue to persecute us?"
"It's what your people deserve!"
Anari proceeded to recount all of the times the Minuo tribe had obstructed her rise to power.
The scene was dead silent, save for the bickering between the khan and the two young teens.
Qin Yining had no idea what they were saying because they were speaking in the Tatar language, but she noticed Lu Heng appeared to understand.
"Do you know the Tatar language?" she whispered.
Lu Heng met her bright gaze and nodded with a smile, then murmured a brief summary of their quarrel in her ear. Qin Yining fell deep into contemplation.
The people of Tatar were different from that of Great Zhou in that most lived grueling lives as nomads. Though they appeared united under the khan, they were a fragmented nation comprised of several tribes.
The Minuo tribe once boasted a population of twenty thousand people, making it an exceptionally large Tatar tribe. However, power struggles had that number cut down by Anari's hand to the current four thousand elderly, vulnerable and disabled.
Qin Yining also knew full well how political conflict was a survival of the fittest—showing weakness meant forfeiting your life. Despite this knowledge, her heart hadn’t hardened completely.
As she watched the fight escalate to where Anari pulled out her whip to rush at the two teens, she couldn't help speaking up. "Khan, is this the planned demonstration of your famed hospitality for outsiders such as myself?"
All eyes turned toward her when she opened her mouth. As she spoke the language of Great Zhou, most of the spectators didn’t understand her. However, Anari did.
She spun around angrily and met the subtle taunt in Qin Yining's otherwise indifferent gaze, shouting, "What do you mean?!"
"I mean exactly what I said. The khan is very fluent in the language of Great Zhou, so I trust you understand."
Anari dropped her inclination to beat the two youths with her whip and instead turned to stomp over to Qin Yining, fuming.
Concerned, Lu Heng put himself between Anari and Qin Yining. In the Tatar tongue, he said, "Her Highness spoke out of consideration for the khan. There is no need to take her words to heart. Killing someone is but removing their heads. The khan has already persecuted so many of their people and captured their parents—why go through the trouble of beating two children in front of a crowd?"
Though Qin Yining was grateful for Lu Heng's support, she didn’t have a habit of relying on others to finish the fights she started. In the language of Great Zhou, she continued, "The khan is a hero and the leader of a nation. You have a great army and numerous talents on your side, yet you refuse to spare a tribe that has already bowed down to you. Now, you mean to harm two filial and innocent youths—do you not care if others think you heartless?"
Anari flew into a rage and cracked her whip viciously. "Who do you think you are?! How dare you point fingers at me! The Minuo tribe rebelled and lost, so they are my slaves to kill or slice up as I please. Since when do I need to explain myself to the likes of you?!"
"As you say, as you say, you are free to do as you please." Qin Yining waved a hand with the air of tolerating a child throwing a tantrum, and sighed. "However, are you not concerned with the sympathy for one of your kind? Look at your subjects—are you certain killing the weak is the only way to display your authority as the leader of a nation?
"Khan, I have always considered you a female hero with wit and method. However, it now appears you are nothing more than an upstart social climber blinded by her own power."
"What did you say?! Who are you calling an upstart social climber?!"
"Are you not? True rulers with class don’t flaunt the little power they hold, nor demonstrate their authority at the expense of the innocent. You are already the khan, why do you remain so quick to show off? You embarrass yourself by sauntering around like a new money upstart, showing off their big hairpin that’s made of three catties of gold. And yet, you lack actual wealth. This only hurts your image, and I fail to see the heroism you wish to display."
Each word stabbed at Anari's heart like knives. Cheeks ruddy with humiliation, she made a move to use her whip, only to see the civilians gathered around them staring quietly at her. Qin Yining's words echoed again in her head—if she did lash out, she would only be proving the princess consort right.
It was at this moment that the two pleading teens slipped away in the crowd, their movements as nimble as pond loaches. Slow to react, the guards cried out in alarm before pursuing them.
Anari looked back to see the two had already run far away and the guards chasing them had knocked the crowd helter-skelter. Her frustration grew even further.
Qin Yining shook her head. "To repay the khan for hosting us free of charge, I shall offer you these words of wisdom: 'The ruler is the boat, his people the water. Water can carry the boat, but it may also overturn it. Thus, rulers would be wise to take caution, for it is this awareness that will nullify the risk of being overturned.'
“I recommend 'Xunzi' for the khan to read in your leisure time. I am sure the khan's consort will understand any passages that elude you and would be amenable to explaining them to you."
She spoke with a smile, but her words held a reminder— if Anari could find it in herself to swallow her pride in the slightest, she would understand Qin Yining's implications.Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Oh dang, this is a good ole murdered by words!