When Siqin gave his order, he’d assumed the Minuo were already prepared for such a situation. It was likely his men would find nothing, but he hadn't anticipated the tribe’s camp to be completely vacated. They were gone without a trace!
When the messenger reported back to the khan, he feared deeply for his life. Under Anari's rule, her volatile temper meant that calling for her subordinate's head when angered was nothing out of the ordinary. Though the new khan was benevolent, who could say for certain if he would change once he took the helm of the nation?
Siqin, however, assuaged his worries. It was just as the rumors had said—though the Minuo treason angered him, he didn't take out his displeasure on those beneath him. He even offered warm words of thanks. "The times lately have been rough. I thank you all for your diligence."
This greatly warmed the hearts of all those who’d lived under Anari's tyrannical rule. For the lofty khan to speak to them in such an approachable manner moved them beyond description.
Fueled by gratitude, the search party doubled down on their efforts and dug nine meters into the grounds of the Minuo tribe's dwelling. Eventually, they discovered a cellar beneath the broken vat.
The group wrung their hands; they’d smashed that big vat to pieces that day, yet they didn't think to inspect what was underneath. If they’d been more careful, perhaps they would've already caught the two killers!
The entire tribe had vanished.
Once they had confirmed this, Siqin ordered the search party to withdraw.
"There's no need in continuing to search the city. They must’ve escaped with the Minuo. It’s impossible for such a large group to vanish into thin air, and very few of them are able-bodied. They’re mostly comprised of elderly, women, children and the weak, thus limiting their mobility. Furthermore, four thousand people moving in such cold weather are sure to leave traces behind. Keep an eye out for such signs, and don’t let any clues go unnoticed!"
The more forgiving the khan was, the guiltier these hotblooded men grew. His graciousness shamed them, as it was their oversight that’d allowed Anari's murderers to escape. But the khan didn't hold it against them. They couldn't answer to their guilty consciences if they didn't step up their game.
While Siqin scoured the land for the Minuo tribe's whereabouts, Qin Yining led them through the snow-covered wilderness with Lu Heng, Harbhara and Caganbhara.
"It’s impossible for such a large group not to leave any tracks," Qin Yining noted to Lu Heng, worried. "I only hope they won’t catch up too quickly."
Lu Heng trudged onward, snow crunching with every panting step.
"Siqin will definitely get to the bottom of this since he’s just assumed the throne, and because we’re a convenient scapegoat for him. If he orders his army to come after us when his anger gets the better of him, I fear none of us will escape with our lives. I’ll discuss with the brothers when we make camp tonight. It’s understandable why they would want to move away, but it is far too risky for them to run away with us fugitives."
"In other words, we got them involved in our troubles." Qin Yining felt rather guilty.
"They’ve also been driven to desperation due to Anari's oppression," Lu Heng replied. "Even if we weren’t around, they would’ve had to move regardless."
"That may be so, but they’re in more danger because they’re with us. Siqin’s probably sent his soldiers already. If they leave us now, the soldiers are unlikely to go to the trouble of chasing down a group of elderly and weak people."
"That’s true." Lu Heng found Qin Yining's reasoning rather logical, so he immediately sought out Harbhara and Caganbhara to confer with them.
After repeating the princess consort’s analysis, he added, "My primary concern is dragging you down with us. If we go our separate ways before we enter the desert, you only need to tell the soldiers that we abandoned you a long time ago. I trust Siqin won’t hurt you in order to maintain his reputation as a just ruler, seeing as he’s just assumed the throne.
"But if you stay with us for the entire trip through the desert, we'll lose at least half of our number. You already have many in feeble health. How much of the tribe will make it out of the desert with their lives? Furthermore, a group this large travelling and living together will become a bigger target. The soldiers will likely catch up with us, which will mean the end of the entire Minuo tribe."
In truth, Harbhara and Caganbhara were already quietly discussing this issue among themselves when Qin Yining and Lu Heng brought it up. They’d summoned all the strength they had to take their people away from Khanbaliq, so that the Tatar royals could oppress them no longer. Once they left, they would have a chance to recuperate outside of the city. Had they stayed, they would’ve been devoured one by one.
But of the four thousand members of the tribe, most were elderly, weak, women or children. Only a few of them were men, and even then, some of their number were disabled from past injuries.
The Minuo didn't have many horses, nor did they possess sufficient supplies. They moved at an uneven pace; the physical condition of each person differed, so those who could walk quickly had to wait for the slower ones. Even then, the elderly and the weak lagged behind.
If they were to ensure no one was left behind, it wouldn't take long for Siqin's men to catch up with them. But if they abandoned those lagging behind in the desert, those people were sure to be thoroughly investigated by Siqin, most likely via torture.
The skies had already darkened. Winds of the barren fields howled into the night, stirring delicate flurries of snow into an icy storm. The cold winds scraped their faces like knives.
The group shivered from the cold. Qin Yining and Lu Heng were fairing relatively well—though they weren’t garbed in fanciful robes, at least their clothes were made of cotton. Even as they were pelted by ice, they gritted their teeth and managed to endure their ordeal.
Behind them, however, were women and children who’d labored under Anari for over a year and were only clothed in a single layer of rags. Some were still wearing straw sandals, their toes and skin red and blistering from frostbite. How were they to survive the desert like this when the temperature changes between night and day were so drastic?Previous Chapter Next Chapter