Pang Xiao was beside himself with joy—it was but a simple note from Mu Jinghu, yet he felt like he cradled a precious treasure in his hands. He spun around and around, elation written all over his stubbled face.
Huzi, Xu Weizhi and Xie Yue rushed forward, ignoring all decorum as they tightly packed together to read the note. They studied it twice over before shouting with joy. "It really is Her Highness! Who would’ve thought she’d be taken away to Tatar!"
"Sir Mu's letter came at a most opportune time! If we keep going without a word about Her Highness's whereabouts, His Highness might’ve been driven insane!" Huzi teased, laughing.
Xu Weizhi and Xie Yue also wore smiles of relief on their faces, the immense weights on their shoulders finally gone.
As Pang Xiao had lost much of his appetite and slept fitfully, he’d lost much weight, rendering his handsome features exceptionally angular. He looked abnormally unkempt, what with his messy hair and stubbled chin.
After defying thirty odd royal decrees, his search still proved unfruitful, leaving him no choice but to return to the capital. Since then, Pang Xiao hadn’t had a day of peace—Li Qitian's paranoia intensified to where he would humiliate the prince in court by angrily denouncing him on more than one occasion.
But Pang Xiao couldn’t care less. All he wanted was for Qin Yining to return.
He despised his past self. Why had he bear to let Qin Yining investigate the treasure's whereabouts alone? Though the treasure was important to them, how could it compare to the importance of Qin Yining's safety?
Pang Xiao didn't have the faintest idea how he got on once he returned to the capital, much less face Qin Yining's parents. He grew violent, unable to control his temper. It got to the point where even seeing Li Qitian filled him with murderous rage.
If he’d killed Li Qitian, would his darling have been spared from mishap? Would she have been spared from becoming a sacrifice in their power struggle?
All of those negative emotions dissipated into the wind with this one note.
"Prepare my horse at once!" Pang Xiao finally had the courage to see Qin Huaiyuan.
Huzi’s affirmative grunt floated in the air; he’d already dashed out to prepare Pang Xiao's steed.
Xie Yue and Xu Weizhi had an inkling of what Pang Xiao was about to do. "Your Highness," they inquired hastily, "do we inform the grand-lord, grand-madame and old madame?"
Pang Xiao slapped his forehead. "I almost forgot. I shall leave it to the two of you to notify them, then. Tell them I have gone to discuss plans with my father-in-law."
Née Yao hadn’t been particularly ruffled by Qin Yining's accident. Instead née Ma and Yao Chenggu were the most anxious. They had once worried their rebellious, obstinate grandson would live out the rest of his days alone. Then, the heavens bestowed him with a good-natured wife whose beauty outshone flowers and precious jade. Never did they expect their joy to be short-lived—the newlyweds were forced to travel to the disaster zone, and only one returned.
Née Ma had devoted her days to reciting Buddhist scriptures and even abstained from meat, entreating the bodhisattvas for Qin Yining's safety with sincere prayers. She immediately beamed from ear to ear as soon as Xie Yue and Xu Weizhi came with news of Qin Yining. She hurried to light incense to thank the gods.
Yao Chenggu also heaved a sigh of relief. "It would be a great injustice for a good girl like her to lose her life. This is good news indeed. The heavens help the worthy at last."
"As you say, Grand-Lord. Things are finally clearing up. Otherwise, His Highness will soon rip a layer of his own skin off!" Xie Yue laughed heartily.
Xu Weizhi was a touch more attentive than Xie Yue. He remained quiet as he observed the reactions of Pang elders. He rested his gaze on née Yao, whose features were tinged with unease.
"Old Madame, is something on your mind?" Xu Weizhi smiled with his hands raised in a cupped fist.
Née Yao blinked, she hadn't expected Xu Weizhi to single her out. Xu Weizhi and Xie Yue were considerably aged— enough to be Pang Xiao's elders—so she saw no need to hide her thoughts from him.
"To be honest, I am thinking about those barbaric Tatars. Despite the years Prince Consort Ji spent in Tatar, he didn’t emerge victorious over them. All of the returning soldiers talk of how dauntless and ferocious the Tatars are. Née Qin is a beauty with the countenance of flowers and the moon itself—I can hardly imagine how much she must have suffered after being spirited away by the Tatar khan's consort."
Her words were obscured indeed.
As Qin Yining's mother-in-law, one could interpret née Yao's worries as heartache over Qin Yining's suffering.
Someone who could read née Yao as well as Xu Weizhi, however, detected her true concerns. What could those "dauntless and ferocious" Tatars do to her "beautiful as flowers and the moon" of a daughter-in-law—namely, Qin Yining's chastity.
Xu Weizhi was at a loss for words. He considered Qin Yining's quick wit, her understanding of the prince, and the ways she’d helped him. Pang Xiao had been so ashamed of his failure to bring Qin Yining back that he hadn’t dared face Qin Huaiyuan, yet the prime minister remained understanding through it all without breathing down Pang Xiao's neck.
The Qins were far too forgiving, both father and daughter. Xu Weizhi greatly admired that about the two of them. He had no love for née Yao's pettiness though.
"It is just as the old madame says. Though if I may say something unpleasant," he couldn't help retorting, "someone with the status of Minister Qin's daughter could’ve easily lived a peaceful life. Who would’ve thought that she’d encounter such misfortunes shortly after marrying His Highness? She may still be alive, but her situation doesn’t look particularly optimistic."
Xu Weizhi's words were equally vague—at a glance, it would appear that he agreed with née Yao’s pity for Qin Yining. In truth, however, he meant to say: if Minister Qin's daughter hadn't married your son, she wouldn't have had to suffer like this. Yet you—her mother-in-law—only care about nonsense trivialities. You evidently have no love for anyone who is not of your own blood if you’re only concerned about Qin Yining's chastity.
Though née Yao and Xu Weizhi didn't speak quite so plainly, neither of them were fools.
Yao Chenggu was the first to understand. He shot his daughter a frowning glance before taking out his pipe to fill it with tobacco.
Née Ma had to think for a moment before she understood the underlying exchange. Her eyes widened immediately, but it wasn’t her place to chastise her own daughter in front of Pang Xiao's strategists. She held her tongue, hands shaking as she forced a smile.
Seeing that the atmosphere had been shattered, the astute Xie Yue and Xu Weizhi took that as their cue to excuse themselves. Out in the courtyard, they shared a look and couldn't help sighing as they made themselves scare with hurried steps.
Once née Ma deemed the two far enough away, she slammed a hand on the stove. "You stupid girl, what were you thinking? Have you no conscience?"
"Mother! What are you saying?" Indignant, Née Yao rose to her feet and looked back at née Ma.
"Do you think I didn't understand what you were saying?" said née Ma. "Even if I’m fool enough to not understand, did you think your implications would escape the notice of people as intelligent as Sirs Xu and Xie? You really are… how do I even describe you? Do you not care whether lass Yi lives or dies because she is not your child?"
"Who says I don’t care? I’ve also been so worried that I can hardly eat and sleep. How can I not be concerned, especially seeing how distraught Dafu has been?"
"Yet when you find out lass Yi is alive, you express no guilt over how that brat of yours has dragged Minister Qin's wonderful daughter into his troubles. Not only did you neglect to ask how she is, your primary concern is her chastity!"Previous Chapter Next Chapter