There the group knelt in the cellar beneath the bottom of the vat, which they propped up with a stone brick. The vat's parts were made so seamlessly that no one suspected it was the entrance to an underground vault.
Not having the patience to direct their attention at a shabby container, the search party vented their anger by hurling a rock at it. With a crisp clang, the vat shattered into pieces. The soldiers laughed loudly, as if they’d found something worth celebrating.
The Minuo dwelling was only so big—they’d searched every nook and cranny, but hadn’t seen any spaces capable of hiding people. The leader of the search party had no choice but to leave with his men.
In the cellar, Qin Yining, Lu Heng and Harbhara heard the receding footsteps with slow sighs of relief. Despite this, they didn't dare move a muscle—they continued to hold up the bottom of the vat, not daring to show any sign of their presence.
Outside, Caganbhara frowned and saw the soldiers out with a pained expression. Small fry like him didn't dare complain about a vat being smashed, or being searched for no reason at all, for fear of stirring up even bigger trouble.
The soldiers took even more pleasure from Caganbhara's look of cowardice, seeing it as a mighty achievement.
Caganbhara didn't dare return to the backyard even after the men were far away. Instead, he huddled with his people in the front hall for warmth and quietly reminded everyone not to reveal their secret under any circumstances.
In the cellar, Qin Yining asked Lu Heng in a low voice, "What were the people outside saying?"
The cellar was spacious and well-ventilated. In the north where Tartar was, autumn was about to transition into winter, so it was actually much warmer underground than it was outside.
Lu Heng couldn't see Qin Yining clearly in the dark, but he felt his way to draw closer to her and murmured a summary into her ear.
Qin Yining listened attentively and scrunched her brows. "I don't think things have ended quite yet. Someone as careful and crafty as Siqin likely has traps set up outside. They didn’t find us only because they didn't expect the Minuos to have an underground vault. Once Siqin finds himself backed up in a corner, they’ll make their move."
"I think the same. If we rashly leave the cellar now, we may be spotted by spies that’ve stayed behind. Caganbhara isn’t in a position to check if the search party has completely pulled back."
"Then we wait here," Qin Yining replied, "and figure out how we are to leave after nightfall."
Lu Heng assented with a nod.
Because Harbhara didn't quite understand what they had said, Lu Heng translated their conversation for him in a low voice. "We can’t prolong our stay here," he concluded. "If we don't find a way to leave, Siqin will catch us sooner or later. If that happens, the tribe will be in danger."
Harbhara bit his nails nervously, looking as if he was coming to some sort of decision. After a long moment, he finally spoke up. "When the night comes, let's find a way to sneak out and leave Khanbaliq."
"You mean to leave Khanbaliq with the rest of your people?" Lu Heng immediately asked, concerned. "There are many whom you must protect. Should you go against that wily, merciless fox Siqin, I fear it will only end in death for you all. Be careful, ensuring everyone's safety is the most important matter at hand."
Moved by his words, Harbhara smiled. "I knew I didn't rescue the wrong people," he gushed sincerely. "I knew you two were righteous people who wouldn't abandon us just to ensure your own safety."
Lu Heng couldn't help rolling his eyes. "This is no time to joke. Were it not for your help, we would’ve been caught long ago. We’ve been through so much together that we’re comrades whose bonds are close as blood brothers—would we still have the right to call ourselves human if our actions harm the tribe?"
Harbhara was so moved that he sniffled hard. To be perfectly frank, he and his people hadn’t known Lu Heng and Qin Yining for long. He had indeed felt a pang of regret when the soldiers had arrived to search for the two. In fact, he’d thought if they were found, the two would’ve found a way to escape and completely forget about the lives of the Minuo.
As it were, reality was that the two foreigners continued to hold fast to their sense of morality.
In the years that Tatar had established trade with Great Zhou, the people of the other nation left a bad taste in his mouth— he thought them all to be devious, crafty, and not to be trusted. Now, he saw things clearly: people of integrity did exist in Great Zhou, just as vile folks like Anari could also be found in Tatar.
Huddled inside the cellar, the three quietly listened for signs of activity outside and conversed with each other in low voices. As Qin Yining and Harbhara didn't speak the same language, Lu Heng acted as their interpreter. All in all, things were peaceful.
Before long, night had descended upon them Just as Qin Yining and Lu Heng were considering if they should make their way out, they suddenly heard Caganbhara's quiet voice. "It’s clear now. Hurry out, the patrols have already left."
The three ducked low to move to the cellar entrance. Moving the bottom of the vat aside, they emerged with faces covered in dust. Taking in the moist air and scent of hardened mud, Qin Yining shivered as the cold midnight winds hit her.
Caganbhara pulled them indoors with quick strides. As they gathered around the fire and sat down, they were served bowls of piping hot rice soup and dry flat cakes.
Qin Yining took a few bites of soup and flat cakes, then murmured, "We still don't know how strict the city curfew is. If it’s been relaxed even in the slightest, we should make haste and slip out quietly. We can make further plans after we leave Khanbaliq."
Lu Heng nodded and translated her words for the rest to hear. The people of the Minuo tribe fell into contemplation—Harbhara and Caganbhara most of all. They had sworn in front of the ancestral tablets that whoever avenged their tribe would become the next chief.
Naturally, the brothers weren't cowards who feared death—though they weren't completely comfortable with accepting two Great Zhou citizens as their chief, they’d come to a thorough understanding of Lu Heng's character and methods after all the time they’d spent together. The brothers genuinely trusted them.
Even if it meant their numbers wouldn't thrive as they once did or roam over beautiful grassy fields of waterweeds that they owned, the remnants of the Minuo should still be able to live good lives if such intelligent and experienced people were their chief.
"Second Master Lu, it's as I said before: we of the Minuo never go back on our words, nor do we ever regret the vows we make. Since Second Master Lu and Her Highness are now our chiefs, we entrust our future to you!"
This was the first time Harbhara and Caganbhara were so agreeable with each other. Usually, certain degrees of contempt and annoyance colored their treatment of one another. All they wanted in this moment was to repay Qin Yining and Lu Heng for avenging their parents by killing Anari.Previous Chapter Next Chapter
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