Chapter 523: Staying or Going

“I’m not leaving.”  The interplay of concern and reluctances on the faces surrounding her further strengthened Qin Yining’s conviction in her decision. 

True enough, she could just leave and evade the Tatar pursuers. With Cao Yuqing and Azure Justice guarding her, she could find a safe enough place to hide and wait for this wave of soldiers to depart before disguising herself to sneak back to Great Zhou. She could also hide herself as a Tatar and bide her time for a better chance to escape. If she did that, she’d definitely be able to survive. 

But what about after?

They were all bosom companions who’d braved life and death together. If she shrank back now and escaped alone in their time of need, leaving the tribesmen to shoulder the dangers, what would that make her? She would never have a clear conscience for the rest of her days.

Qin Yining had never been someone who prioritized saving her neck at all cost. Although she attached much more importance to her own life after marrying Pang Xiao, that didn’t mean she would change her bottom line. 

A man of character had things they would and would not do. Although she was a woman, her heart didn’t lose out to a man’s in the slightest.  

Furthermore, hadn’t the Minuo incurred Siqin’s wrath because they’d helped her and Lu Heng in the first place? Even if it was impossible for them to suffer under persecution in the capital, it would’ve been much easier for them to just quietly leave by themselves. Why did they leave with her and Lu Heng, the two biggest bundles of trouble they could’ve picked up? If it wasn’t for abiding by their promise and keeping their vow, who would do such a foolish thing? 

Although a multitude of thoughts had passed through Qin Yining’s mind, only a breath’s time had passed in reality. 

“What a coincidence, I wasn’t planning on leaving either.” Lu Heng smiled as well. 

Qin Yining looked at her friend, happening to meet his answering gaze. The tacit smile she shared with Lu Heng confirmed that they were thinking the same.

Cao Yuqing stared at Qin Yining, lips tightly pursed, and heaved a great sigh, dejectedly lowering her eyes. 

Uncle Alham looked at them with a complicated look on his face, not speaking for the longest time. This burly hulk of a man who never shed tears, even with a blade placed at his neck, felt his eyes redden from emotion. 

Although the listeners didn’t understand what Qin Yining and Lu Heng said, they could guess most of it from the two’s smiles and Uncle Alham’s expression. An anxious clamor for a translation started to rise. 

Uncle Alham took a deep breath before explaining what had just happened to them, his words touching them in the deepest parts of their hearts. 

Everybody urged them to leave. Although Qin Yining was stymied by the language barrier, Lu Heng understood full well. He just shook his head with a slight smile, indicating that the tribespeople didn’t need to continue their persuasions.

A few looked pleadingly at Uncle Alham. 

Uncle Alham tried to advise them again, but Qin Yining just waved her hand. “Uncle Alham, don’t try to change my mind. I’ve already made my decision.” 

She turned to Cao Yuqing with a smile. “Let us bid our farewells here. Auntie Cao, you really don’t need to risk going into the desert with me. With so many tribesmen and supply wagons, there’s sure to be no problem. Furthermore, father really needs somebody to protect him now. I don’t want him to worry about my situation while I’m in the desert, so I hope you can also tell him not to worry.”

She then turned to Liao Zhibing and the Zhao brothers. “The three of you also don’t have to continue on with me. Return to the border and go back to your previous lives. I’m confident that our Azure Justice members can live each day in safety and happiness.” 

Liao Zhibing frowned. His mouth kept opening and closing, but in the end, he didn’t voice an objection, a decision that relieved Qin Yining.

Cao Yuqing looked deeply at the girl, her face strained.“I really want to knock you out and take you with me.”

“Auntie Cao, since you’ve said that, you definitely won’t do it.” Qin Yining laughed, “I’m glad you’re so reasonable.” 

“But you aren’t being reasonable.” Cao Yuqing dismissed impatiently, “If I let you die here, how will I be able to face your father later?”

“Auntie Cao, I’m not doing this because I’m being unreasonable, but because I have my own bottom line. I believe that even if father hears my decision, even if he’s pained, he still wouldn't oppose it. There are just some things that cannot be done in life. You will be forever haunted by the specters of guilt if you go down those paths. I don’t want to be that kind of person. I hope Auntie Cao can understand.” 

Cao Yuqing tsk’ed with annoyance. “Little wench, if I didn’t understand you, I would’ve already knocked you unconscious and heaved you on my shoulder to take home. 

Qin Yining knew that Cao Yuqing was in a tough spot, but her decision was final. All she could do was smile apologetically and muse further on her next steps.

“I’ll have to trouble Auntie Cao with delivering a message to His Highness.” 

“What message?”

“I’m running for my life and have long lost all of my belongings, nor do I have any keepsakes that I can leave behind for him.” Qin Yining spoke with a rueful dimple. “Auntie Cao, please just tell him not to worry about me. I’m tough and resilient—not even a wolf can eat me. I’ll make it out alive. Please have him help take care of my parents, as well as look after Bingtang and Xiaozhou.

The princess consort hesitated at this point, but drew close to whisper in Cao Yuqing’s ear in a voice that only the two of them could hear. 

“If there really is no place for him at court in the future, I don’t believe he’ll be taken down without a fight. If he wishes to win the trust of Northern Ji’s old guard, have Xiaozhou lead him to the mountain where we first found her. Something very useful is hidden in her old residence.” 

Cao Yuqing stared at Qin Yining with astonishment. However, the girl just grinned back at her. 

“Auntie Cao, don’t tell him that for now. But if I’m still not back after a few years and it’s certain that I… By that time, he and the emperor will have a death feud with each other. If he’s still that Pang Zhixi who strives to help the people, tell him then. Otherwise, let this secret die with you. You can’t tell even my father. Consider this my last wish—Auntie Cao, can you do it?”

Cao Yuqing’s heart tightened painfully when she noted the girl’s indifferent manner towards life and death, and how she was calmly arranging her last affairs. 

“I’ll leave that for you to tell him personally,” Cao Yuqing snorted coolly. “I don’t want to get dragged into your father-daughter business. Don’t worry, you won’t die.”

“I know. There’s no time to lose. You all should hurry up and go.”  Qin Yining urged Cao Yuqing, Liao Zhibing, and the Zhao brothers to be on their way. 

Cao Yuqing pursed her lips and stood up, pinching Qin Yining’s cheek in exasperation, “You really are a worrisome child!”

Liao Zhibing, Zhao Promise, and Zhao Unbreakable saluted Qin Yining. “Alliance Head, we’ll be going now.” 

“Farewell, and stay safe.”  Qin Yining dipped a curtsey in return. 

Uncle Alham and the Minuo watched as Qin Yining said her farewells. The way she was absolutely determined in her decision to remain moved the tribesmen even more. 

In their minds, Qin Yining was a woman with family and a husband who dearly loved her in Great Zhou. If she went back, she would be able to live out her days in happy splendor. Compared to Lu Heng, who didn’t have a family to return to, her decision was much more significant. Thus, in their eyes, Qin Yining was held in even higher esteem. 

Qin Yining watched as Cao Yuqing and the rest mounted their horses and rode off. “Since we’ve made our decision, we should ensure we’ve packed enough water and be on our way as well.” 

“Alright.” Uncle Alham nodded before leading people to oversee the rest of the tribe. Along the way, they relayed the news that Qin Yining and Lu Heng had refused to flee for themselves.

Within just a few moments, the entirety of the tribe knew about it, and their respect and admiration for the two swelled to new heights.

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