Lu Heng pulled Qin Yining behind him, his guard raised. Meanwhile, Mu Jinghu took a defensive stance before the two of them. As he observed the shadows cast by their pursuers and took in the footsteps and voices, he silently calculated his chances at winning in a fight against all of them.
Qin Yining subconsciously held her breath, eyes wide with fright. Her heart raced so fast that it felt as if it was about to leap out of her chest.
As the sound of footsteps drew near, the red-orange glow of the torches grew ever brighter. The princess consort clutched her bag of belongings, knuckles growing white as she tensed in apprehension.
When the soldiers were about to enter the alley, Mu Jinghu prepared himself for battle. Suddenly, a scrawny youngster quietly pushed open a wooden gate beside the three and frantically waved in their direction.
"Hurry, in here!" he whispered in the Tatar language. The three rushed in his direction. As they did, the soldiers turned and raised their torches to look into the alley. They didn't spare the unassuming wooden gate a second glance as they’d just searched those houses from the front doors. There was no point in entering again through a side door.
They walked to the end of the alley and reached a dead end. Convinced it was impossible for someone to conceal themselves here, the soldiers moved on to search elsewhere.
Only after they left did Qin Yining, Lu Heng, and Mu Jinghu finally heave sighs of relief. They turned around to express their gratitude at the young boy who’d let them in.
"Many thanks to you, young man. If not for your assistance, I fear we’d already be dead. Rest assured, we will not overstay our welcome. Once those people are far enough away, we will leave. We shan't cause you any trouble."
The young boy nodded. Features obscured by the darkness, all they could make out was his skinny body and two bright big black eyes. In a hushed voice, he whispered something that caused Lu Heng to tense and clamp his mouth shut.
Sensing that something was off, Qin Yining murmured, "What did he say?"
Lu Heng answered, "He asked if we were the brave warriors who killed the khan."
The little boy's excitement grew as he regarded Lu Heng. Speaking rapidly in the Tatar tongue, he tugged at Lu Heng's sleeve to pull him into the dwelling.
Qin Yining grew nervous. "What’s going on? Perhaps we should leave."
However, Lu Heng responded, "He says he’s from the Minuo tribe. He saw us with the hunting group that day when Anari was stopped in the streets. If we were the brave warriors who killed the khan, we are the heroes of the Minuo. That is why he allowed us to hide here."
"But we aren’t..."
"One moment." Lu Heng went along with the boy and entered the house, leaving Qin Yining and Mu Jinghu no choice but to follow.
Before they entered, Qin Yining pointed at the cloth hanging beneath Mu Jinghu's chin. Suddenly remembering he needed to conceal his identity, he quickly covered his face and flashed Qin Yining a grateful smile.
They entered a spacious brick house. The grand hall was lit by torches, where thirty odd weak and elderly tribespeople, thin as twigs, convened in ratty clothes.
Seeing the boy enter with Qin Yining and her two companions, the hall fell silent. All eyes looked toward them, and a teen slightly taller in stature came forward with scrunched brows. "Harbhara, what kind of people have you brought inside?"
Lu Heng turned his head back to murmur, "The child's name is Harbhara. That means 'black tiger' in the Tatar language."
Qin Yining nodded.
"They're the brave warriors who killed the khan," Harbhara replied. "I bumped into them as they were being pursued by her dogs, so I let them in."
"But we have the weak and elderly of our tribe here. If we’re discovered… and how do you know they were the ones who killed the khan?"
Harbhara's brows pinched together as he stuck his hands on his hips. "Caganbhara, don't tell me you're getting cold feet? You’re the one who said whoever can avenge our aav and eej will be the new chief of our tribe. Everyone heard you loud and clear! Was I supposed to turn a blind eye to our chief in their time of need?"
"That's right, but..." Caganbhara objected.
Harbhara clapped his hands. "Then it's settled. Those soldiers outside were saying a man and a woman killed the khan, and that they're from Great Zhou. Well, we happen to have seen them before, and they’re the same visitors from Great Zhou who were living in the palace. How can I be wrong?”
"But they’re from Great Zhou. How can they be the new chief of the Minuo tribe?"
"You didn't say people from other countries can't be chief. Anyway, whoever kills that monster is a warrior and a hero. They’re someone who has avenged the blood debt of the dead Minuo warriors and families. If we let them get caught by guards, how will we face our aav and eej in heaven?"
"Fine, my good brother, you're right." Caganbhara clapped Harbhara on the shoulder. "I'm just overthinking things. Since they're the ones who've avenged our aav, eej and the rest of our people, they can lead the Minuo tribe."
The conversation between the two boys was heard clearly by all, both young and old.
Qin Yining couldn't understand a word while Mu Jinghu was only able to grasp half of what had been said. Lu Heng understood everything; a calculating glint flashed through his eyes, but he didn't interrupt.
Just like that, the princess consort peered at the crowd of weak and elderly who followed the boys' lead, putting hand to chests as they bowed at the Great Zhou citizens. The crowd murmured something lowly.
Lu Heng turned and explained what the two brothers had said. "They already recognize us as the new chief of the Minuo tribe," he added.
Qin Yining's jaw dropped. "That… can’t be right."
"Strength in numbers. If we are to leave Tatar, perhaps they can help," Lu Heng replied. "Now that they’ve recognized us as their chief, they won’t change their minds. It will only sadden them further if we were to turn them down."
"But we don’t meet their requirements," Qin Yining objected.
"Since they think we have, it means Siqin has told the public the same thing."
The princess consort understood at once.
Once everyone was properly introduced, Harbhara and Caganbhara lead Qin Yining, Lu Heng, and Mu Jinghu to their seats, eagerly asking how they’d heroically defeat the khan. Unable to converse in their language, Qin Yining remained silent and listened on with a smile.
Though she was dressed as a man, anyone could tell she was a beautiful woman from her exquisite features. The tribesmen found themselves unable to tear their eyes away from her elegance.
Taking advantage of the commotion, Qin Yining addressed Mu Jinghu. "You should leave soon. We’re safe here and can find a way to leave by ourselves. Hurry back to your uncle-master, lest you get into any trouble. All I ask is that you do not forget to pass Pang Zhixi a message on my behalf."
Troubled, Mu Jinghu's brows knit together at that. A moment passed before he replied, "Very well, as you say."Previous Chapter Next Chapter
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