When Cao Yuqing saw Lu Heng thus, she couldn’t help but sigh and try to offer some consolation.
“Patriarch Lu has been an all-powerful man for many decades, I’m sure he’s not such a fragile person. When I next send a letter, I’ll try to tell him that you are alive and well. I believe that with his love for you, he’ll be on the road of recovery after hearing from you.”
“Yes,” Qin Yining added with a smile. “The road ahead is long, and a moment’s frustration is nothing. All will be fine.”
Lu Heng nodded emotionally, expressing his thanks to them both again, especially Cao Yuqing.
This must be what it means for birds of a feather to flock together, she really is Qin Yining’s aunt! The princess consort was such a remarkable young woman that those gathered around her were also exceptional, there wasn’t an ordinary person among them.
When everyone was seated again, Cao Yuqing spoke of what she had observed when she first arrived.
“It wasn’t easy for me to find this valley when I first came, but that’s only because I was alone. Although the roads are blocked by heavy snow outside, you’ve taken quite a bit of Utkin Khan’s provisions. Such a large amount of food would feed an army of a hundred thousand men for a month or two.
“There’s no way he’ll overlook this offense. Have you thought about what you’ll do if he sent all his troops to search every inch of the desert, when there are less than a thousand of you?” Cao Yuqing’s words hit the nail on the head.
“To tell you the truth, that’s what we were discussing just now.” Qin Yining smiled wryly. “We’re short on food, and the group left on the other side of the desert also needs provisions. With our deep vendetta against Utkin Khan, we certainly weren’t going to pass up an opportunity to ruin his operations. But now that the grain is in our hands, it feels a bit like a hot potato. I’ve been trying to figure out what needs to be done.”
Lu Heng and Uncle Alham nodded in assent. “Yes, we’re still undecided on the best course of action. We’ve nothing to fear if it’s only a few small squadrons sent after us. What’s concerning is if too many of them come at once. We have so much grain and fodder to escort that our ranks will be stretched thin. When the time comes, we probably won’t be able to attend to the front without abandoning the rear.”
“That’s just what I was thinking,” responded Cao Yuqing. “Though this valley is very secluded and the roads are currently blocked by heavy snow, making it nigh impossible for anyone to find your tracks, this isn’t a long-term solution. This is a good hiding place for now, but if Siqin’s men come in pursuit, won’t they barricade you in? In my humble opinion, it’s better to map out the surroundings as soon as possible, then get out of here.”
Qin Yining, Lu Heng and Uncle Alham all nodded in agreement. “As you say.”
“We better choose a snowy day as well,” Qin Yining added. “Although it will be more difficult for us to walk, it’ll be the easiest for covering our tracks.”
The others nodded again.
“We’re too close to Tatar and the Great Zhou border,” said Cao Yuqing after a moment’s thought. “You’re liable to attract unwanted attention with whatever you do. If you’re going to go, you should head towards a remote area.”
“You’re right, I think we should head west,” agreed Lu Heng.
“West?” Cao Yuqing considered this for a moment. “To the east are several large cities and a main road leading directly to Tatar. In the middle is a large patch of desert, and crossing it is a shortcut for traveling to Great Zhou. There are only a few towns to the west, and after that it’s no-man’s land.”
“Yes,” said Lu Heng. “The western landscape is complex and very vast, so it’s easier to play hide and seek with our pursuers. If in the east, we’ll be easily intercepted by pursuers from the towns and provinces. If more troops come, they’ll be able to surround us in a flanking maneuver. We have only eight hundred in our fighting force now, and I’m afraid they’ll account for our full strength.”
Cao Yuqing frowned and tugged at her hair.
“If only Yining’s father were here,” The guard captain smiled ruefully. “He’s so smart, he’d definitely find a way.”
Amusement crossed the princess consort’s mind to hear Cao Yuqing say so. But after smiling, yearning for her father grew even hotter. Qin Huaiyuan’s understanding, patience, and love for her were absolutely unfeigned, and his teachings had had a profound impact upon her.
Truthfully speaking, in her time outside, wandering homeless and adrift, she missed Pang Xiao and Qin Huaiyuan the most. Even née Sun didn’t rate that highly in her heart.
Qin Yining took a deep breath. I will return home sooner or later, I only need to persevere through the current circumstances. When that time came, she would be able to enjoy the happiness of family and be a filial daughter to her father. How wonderful such a future would be!
In fact, during the countless days and nights of hardship in the desert, she’d relied on these positive thoughts to shine a ray of light into the darkness, to keep herself going.
“I agree with Second Master Lu. Let’s go west for now, our chances of survival seem greater there,” continued Qin Yining. “We can take advantage of this time to observe the state of affairs in Great Zhou and the situation between the two nations. If the two sides intend to fight each other, the emperor will certainly send His Highness to the front lines. When the time comes, we can contact the Great Zhou army and follow Pang Xiao’s path. With so much provision to trade, I’m sure the people of Great Zhou will promise to shelter the Minuo tribes.”
Uncle Alham smiled and nodded repeatedly upon hearing this. “This is very good. If that’s true, then things couldn’t be better.”
Lu Heng also nodded assent. “If things go well, they will naturally develop in this direction, and everyone will be saved. As for how to eke out a living after going to Great Zhou, the nation is vast in territory and abundant in natural resources. There are many beautiful places with uninhabited mountains and rivers. It’s also easy to survive on the grasslands, so there’s no need to worry about that. But there’s another scenario we need to consider. What if we meet our pursuers first?”
Uncle Alham wiped his face and clapped Lu Heng on the shoulder. “Ole brother Lu, my boy, can’t you say something positive? If that really happens, none of us brothers are afraid of them! We Minuo raise no cowards! Anari tortured and killed our former chief, harmed so many of our people, and didn’t even spare babes still in their swaddling clothes! We’re going to fight them to the end, there’s no question about that! When the time comes, we will fight!”
Uncle Alham’s grasp of Great Zhou was extremely subpar, but Qin Yining, Lu Heng and Cao Yuqing felt an immediate sense of heroic pride flame up in their hearts upon hearing his words.
Cao Yuqing had always been a frank and straightforward person, and she chuckled at Uncle Alham’s speech. “Yes, if worst comes to the worst, we’ll fight them. Being afraid of them won’t do!”
For a moment, both Qin Yining and Lu Heng didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Qin Yining understood Cao Yuqing a bit more than the Lu second master, so she wasn’t too surprised by the declaration.
Lu Heng, however, regarded Cao Yuqing with new heights of respect. Such a delicate beauty is actually the bold and fearless sort, undaunted in matters of life and death!
“Should we encounter such a situation, of course we won’t be afraid, but that’s also the worst-case scenario,” Qin Yining responded gently. “We must try our best to prevent such a thing from happening. The most important thing is to minimise the loss of life among our tribesmen.”
“That’s right,” agreed Lu Heng. “First things first then, let’s probe the surroundings tomorrow and start moving west as soon as we can. At the same time, we’ll send out scouts ahead of us to assess the situation, which should also help keep casualties down.”
“An excellent idea.” Qin Yining nodded.
After thinking it over, Cao Yuqing found it feasible. In any case, she couldn’t come up with a better idea, so she too nodded in agreement.
Siqin and Uncle Alham then went to see the rest of the tribe and explain what had been agreed upon, giving the tribesmen a chance to discuss the situation as well as boost their morale.
Meanwhile, Qin Yining pulled Cao Yuqing back to her own tent.
It was a very simple tent, tall enough for a grown person to walk around in only if they stooped, and the floor was carpeted with animal skins and quilts. Because Qin Yining was now regarded as the chief of the Minuo tribe, the women traveling with the group had thoughtfully prepared hot water for their leader. They had also prepared a precious hot water pouch, filled with boiling water and placed under the bedding to warm the bed up.
Qin Yining pulled Cao Yuqing down to a cross-legged position facing her, then dragged the quilt to cover their legs, the hot water pouch in the middle between their feet.
Cao Yuqing giggled. “Oh, it’s so warm!”
“Yes.” Qin Yining also half-closed her eyes in comfort and took Cao Yuqing’s hands in hers. “Auntie Cao, you must have suffered a lot looking for me out there, all by yourself?”
With her hands held by Qin Yining, Cao Yuqing felt both awkward and delighted. Though she was married, she’d borne no children, and there was no one in her family’s younger generation whom she particularly liked.
In addition, due to her deep affection for Qin Huaiyuan, she loved Qin Yining too, and had always regarded Qin Yining as family in her heart.
She regarded herself as a boorish person incapable of pretty pleasantries, and could only dedicate her whole heart and act according to her conscience. It was enough in this life to bear no regrets or guilt, and she’d never thought that Qin Yining would take her by the hands and speak to her without resentment.
She’d never had a younger family member take her hands and speak to her like this before Seeing Qin Yining’s brows and eyes curved into crescents, Cao Yuqing’s embarrassment faded away, leaving behind only joy. She tightly grasped Qin Yining’s hands to warm them up.
“Fortunately, I’ve weathered all kinds of storms in the outside world over the years, so I’m not afraid to walk alone. I was just very worried when I couldn’t find you. I was injured when Siqin’s men took you, and didn’t know how to tell your father what had happened. My only thoughts then were that if anything should happen to you, I wouldn’t have the face to see your father ever again, so I might as well die. But by the grace of the gods, you’re safe and sound. I couldn’t have been happier when I heard you’d assassinated Anari Khan!”
Cao Yuqing was so outspoken that Qin Yining couldn’t help laughing her eyes out. “Auntie Cao, thank you so much!”
The girl’s genuine sincerity warmed the depths of Cao Yuqing’s heart, but she pretended to be angry instead. “Only strangers would be so polite like this.”
“No, I mean it, really!” Qin Yining replied hurriedly, “Auntie Cao, I see you as my family, so how can we be strangers? It’s just that I like everything to be out in the open. I’m grateful to you, so I want you to know.”
Cao Yuqing couldn’t help snickering,“Oh you, aren’t you afraid your mother will be angry that you’re so close to me?”Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Aw, these two are so heartwarming.