Cao Yuqing pulled Qin Yining into her arms and patted the girl’s bony back. "I’m fine, I’m fine. Your Auntie Cao has more than a few tricks up her sleeves. Why would anything happen to me? Never mind me though—you've gotten so thin! You must have endured so much."
Her sincere concern and small, yet warm embrace almost made Qin Yining burst into tears on the spot.
She sniffled a few times. After a good moment, she replied, "I am well. Though we were met with danger throughout our journey, we survived them all in the end. The past is in the past. Look at me, I’m okay! I’m just worried about all of you buried underground the day I was taken. Is everyone… alright?"
What Qin Yining wished to hear the least was that anything bad had happened that day. She thought of everyone’s lively faces; they were all still so young. If they ended up losing their lives to protect her, Qin Yining would blame herself for their deaths for the rest of her life.
Cao Yuqin sympathetically patted her on the shoulder. "Don’t think wild thoughts," she consoled. "The heavens have been on our side as of late, so we are all well. His Highness arrived on the scene with his men later on and dug the entire cavern open to save everyone.
“Jingzhe and the other Silver Masks had already run out by then, but their injuries were more serious. I prescribed them with bed rest, and they've mostly recovered now. Bingtang and Jiyun were rescued by His Highness when he went back, so you have no need to worry about them."
"Good." Qin Yining heaved a long sigh. "If something really did befall anyone because of me, that guilt would’ve stayed with me for the rest of my life."
Taking note that Qin Yining fell quiet without any further questions, Cao Yuqing took the initiative to add, "I once thought His Highness liked you for your looks, but trials and tribulations reveal one's true colors. I now see that the love His Highness holds for you is true.
“Do you know that he disobeyed more than thirty royal decrees in order to stay behind to look for you? Despite His Majesty urging him time and time again to return to the capital, he stayed put. He nearly dug up the entirety of the old capital and Yang County, and only when he was certain your body was nowhere to be found that he managed to rein in his worries somewhat and return to the capital with his men."
Bittersweet emotions tugged at Qin Yining's heart, with the thought of Pang Xiao bringing her back to the brink of tears.
"Is all well with him now? Did His Majesty not take out his anger on him? What of my father and mother?"
Cao Yuqing patted her shoulder in a soothing manner. "Rest assured—everyone is well. His Majesty still has use for someone as educated and competent as His Highness, so why would the emperor touch him?
“Your disappearance, however, has made him so thin that it's as if someone had stripped him of a layer of his skin. There’s no need to worry about your father either. Though he worries about you, he’s a man full of wisdom who knows what course of action he should be taking at any given time. He’s fully capable of looking out for himself."
Qin Yining laughed heartily at that, but smiling only squeezed more tears out of her. She dabbed at her eyes with her sleeve. "I know. All is well so long as everything is well at home."
"I saw you being taken away right before my eyes that day, but was powerless to do anything. I then infiltrated the Tatar capital to continue searching for you, but to no avail.
“Later, I heard that Anari Khan had been assassinated, and it wasn't long before I saw Utkin Khan's call for arms. Only then did I learn that you’d killed Anari Khan. I exchanged mail with your father, who told me it was imperative for me to find you. He also had me bring you a message."
"What message?" Qin Yining looked at Cao Yuqing intently.
The guard captain looked from side to side and noticed the rest of the tribesmen listening in on their conversation with perked ears; they were seated at a campfire not too far away. She looked back at Qin Yining with a questioning look.
Qin Yining laughed in understanding. "Not to worry. I have been in everyone's care and protection for the past days. They are all trustworthy comrades."
After Uncle Alham translated Qin Yining's words to Caganbhara and the others, they all flashed friendly smiles. Some of the younger fellows and middle-aged individuals even appeared completely flustered as they stole glances at Cao Yuqing and Qin Yining.
Never had they seen such beautiful women in their lives; what's more, two of them were present at the same time!
Cao Yuqing understood the situation from Qin Yining's reaction. She lowered her voice and continued, "Your father wishes for you not to return to Great Zhou yet. It will be safer for you outside because Utkin Khan wishes to declare war. You also know of Great Zhou's current plight. His Majesty does not wish to go to war, so he is searching for the easier way to quell Utkin Khan's anger.
“If you return, you will certainly be handed over to Utkin Khan as the culprit. Going back will be the same as endangering yourself, like a lamb entering a tiger's den. Thus, your father wishes for you to stay away for some time. We can consider how to proceed depending on how the situation in Great Zhou unfolds."
Qin Yining couldn't help but stare blankly, at a momentary loss for words. She was finally able to see someone from her family, yet still couldn't go home because of such reasons! She would be lying if she said she wasn't disappointed.
However, she also understood the gravity of the situation. She had already learned that Pang Xiao, her parents and the rest of her family were alright, so she no longer needed to fret over their well-being; that was a blessing in itself.
"I understand." Qin Yining dimpled. "I’ve been well here, so please tell my father how I’ve been."
Cao Yuqing nodded with a smile, then gave Lu Heng and the others a friendly smile before curtseying. "My Yining has been in your care for this period of time. We will surely repay you for your kindness in the days to come, should the opportunity arise."
The others didn't understand what Cao Yuqing had said, but Lu Heng and Uncle Alham did.
Hearing that Qin Yining had referred to Cao Yuqing as her aunt, he treated her as her elder. He stood up and returned the curtsey with a bow of his own.
"There is no need for such formalities. We are friends who have been together through thick and thin, so there’s no need to bother with that."Previous Chapter Next Chapter