Constantly vigilant since they were two people on the run, Qin Yining and Lu Heng's bags were always packed and ready to go. The moment they saw Harbhara rush in with a panicked look, they immediately grabbed their belongings.
As they ran, Lu Heng asked anxiously, "Have soldiers come for us?"
Harbhara nodded. "Instead of searching door to door like last time, they've come straight at us. It's possible they already know you’re with the tribe."
Lu Heng pulled at Harbhara to a stop. "If that’s true, I fear they already have us surrounded. If we leave from a side alley, we’ll be captured on the spot."
Harbhara jolted and surveyed their surroundings, his face stark white.
Qin Yining didn't understand what he was saying, but judging from Lu Heng and Harbhara's expressions, she could tell that their situation was bleak. She quietly inquired Lu Heng about their predicament and agreed they were in a tight spot when she understood what was going on.
"I fear there’s more to our situation than what meets the eye. If the soldiers really are making a beeline here, Siqin must’ve secured his grasp on the throne and now has the time to contemplate where we’ve gone. The city defenses are watertight, so it will be difficult to escape. Siqin knows escaping will be no easy feat for us, which is why he’s certain someone is hiding us."
"You’re correct. Anyone who would risk helping us is sure to be a sworn enemy of Anari’s, thus making a Minuo tribe the prime suspect." Lu Heng's face paled from anxiety.
In such a critical moment, neither he nor Qin Yining could think their way out of this even if they had the brightest of minds. When the soldiers found them, that would mark imminent arrest.
They’d come so far—the prospects of being captured after the lengths they’d gone to was greatly disappointing. What's more, Siqin was the one in power now. If they were sent back to him, little good awaited them after he used them as bargaining chips with Great Zhou.
Harbhara gritted his teeth, torn by indecision. If only I hadn't taken these two in…
No, no, the people of the Minuo tribe weren’t so soft that they'd throw in the towel before putting up a good fight. They weren’t hypocritical, chicken-hearted bastards.
Since he’d already sworn that whoever avenged his aav and eej would be appointed their new chief, his words were nailed into place as soon as they left his mouth. There was no room for second thoughts. If worst came to worst, the most that could happen to him was death!
With these thoughts in mind, Harbhara tugged Lu Heng by the hand. "When we make a run for it, I'll hold them off so you can escape!" he asserted firmly.
"I refuse!" Lu Heng shot him down sternly. "I can’t allow you to take such a risk alone. Listen: if the search party does come, pretend you didn’t know who we are. Just tell them we came here on our own accord, so you didn’t willfully hide us away! If we’re taken, it’s probably to use us to negotiate terms with Great Zhou, so we shouldn’t be killed. But if you rebel, you face a certain death!"
"No! You two are the current chiefs of Minuo. It’s unheard of for our chief to put themselves in harm's way!"
"But you still have the rest of your tribe to consider! Not just the thirty odd elderly and weak living here—there are still more than four thousand of your tribesmen out there waiting for you to rescue them. If anything happens to you, it may mean the end of the Minuo!"
Harbhara stubbornly pulled at Lu Heng. Though fear bubbled in his heart, he refused to stand down.
Qin Yining didn't know what they were arguing about. Just as she was about to ask what they were discussing, Caganbhara practically flew out of the house. He pulled them over to a hut full of firewood in a corner without a word. Brushing aside some of the sticks, he revealed a large vat. After patting around the inside of the vat, he ended up removing its bottom.
"Go in quickly, hurry!" Caganbhara urged.
Harbhara took the lead, followed by Lu Heng and Qin Yining. Below the vat was a rather spacious cellar.
After replacing the bottom of the vat, Caganbhara covered it with a large pile of firewood. Then, he picked up an armful as if he had come outside to gather wood and turned to head indoors. Little did he know that as soon as he stepped in front of the doorway, he would be greeted by the search party.
"Where are they?! Answer us, where did you hide them?!"
Caganbhara was so terrified that he nearly dropped his firewood. He shook his head in alarm. "What are you talking about? What people?"
"Don't play dumb with me! Those two Great Zhou people, a man and a woman! Where did you hide them?!"
"Sir, I really don't know. We're just barely getting by, and ever since something terrible happened in our city walls, we can hardly fill our own bellies. Would we have the provisions to spare for two outsiders we don't know?"
The officials glowered so intently that his glare could’ve drilled two holes into Caganbhara’s lanky body.
"Don't think we don't know what's going in your brains! The brilliant late khan was godly on the battlefield, and she culled the Minuo tribe. Then, your aav and eej were eaten by wolves during a hunt, so you begrudge her. For all we know, you've been waiting for your chance to take your revenge! Now that the two criminals who killed Anari have escaped, would you not want to help them?"
"Good sir! Please have mercy and don't blame us for something we didn't do!" Helpless and hapless, Caganbhara threw down his firewood. "The only thing going through our minds is how we are to feed ourselves and stay alive. Would we have the energy to consider anything else? The khan's accident has been hard on us as well, but you can't pin such a grievous crime on us just because you can't catch her murderers!"
"Milord, why are you wasting your breath on them? Let's just search the premises!" A member of the search party piped up when he noticed their conversation escalating. Fed up with his verbal tug-of-war with Caganbhara, their leader immediately ordered the men to fan out.
Caganbhara lowered his head, looking like the very picture of an aggrieved innocent who’d been accused unjustly. In truth, he was so nervous that he could hardly think straight. His heart skipped a beat when the soldiers drew near the hut of firewood. He relaxed slightly whenever they walked away, and tensed up again when they came back.
He tried to control his emotions, not daring to arouse suspicion in the slightest, and watched as the group poke at the firewood with their swords and scattered the sticks around in a mess. Though they realized no one was hiding inside, they moved all the wood aside in one swift motion. In the corner was a big, fat vat.
"Sir, there's a vat here, but it's empty."
The leader stepped forward to inspect and was indeed met with the sight of a dusty vat that hadn’t seen use for some time. It was a rather anticlimactic discovery. Considering how heavy it was, it wasn't likely for someone to move it once it’d been set down in the corner.
Uninterested in the hard labor it would take for them to move the container, the search party spread out to take a good look. Not seeing any other hiding places, dejection struck them. Some of them even gave the vat a good kick, but it still didn't budge.
Caganbhara was about to break out in a cold sweat, but he continued putting on an unperturbed front. Meanwhile, Lu Heng, Harbhara and Qin Yining were beside themselves with nerves in their hiding spot in the cellar. If they were discovered here, all three of them would be dragged off then and there.Previous Chapter Next Chapter