Chapter 53: Prior Destiny
However, the handsome young man still didn’t do anything. He didn’t even say anything as he sat there lazily, simply looking noncommittally at Priestess Liu. The stalwart follower was also quite at ease. He was hugging his shoulders and had lifted his chin, as if waiting for Priestess Liu to indicate her position.
The priestess sighed. “When I have not listened to what my patron says? I’ll do as you wish.”
At that, the young man finally stood up and fussed with his cloak for a bit. “Then I’ll look around for a bit.”
Qin Yining had already followed the duchess to the yard and vaguely heard a resonant male bass behind her. She found it a bit familiar, but didn’t pay much attention to it since she couldn’t remember where she’d heard it before.
“Grandmother, shall we go visit the main hall first?” Qin Yining asked merrily as she supported her grandmother out the moon gate and took a turn to arrive at the yard in front of the male hall.
The duchess however, shook her head with a sigh. “Darling Yi, take a look around if you’d like. I’m a bit tired and would like to burn some incense for Mother of the Great Chariot.”
“Then I’ll go with you.” When Qin Yining saw the weariness that hung in the space between the duchess’ brows, she forewent her ideas of looking around.
The duchess’ smile deepened when she saw her granddaughter thus. “It’s rare for you girls to venture forth from the manor. Take a look around! I have Bao-mama and the maids here to keep me company. In any case, I’ll be going back to the carriage to rest after paying my respects. You should go take a look around so that you make the most out of this trip.”
Qin Yining was indeed a bit tempted, but she was also worried about her grandmother’s health. The duchess stroked her cheek when she saw the girl fretting. “Little girl, don’t be so full of concerns at such a young age. What could happen to me? Go visit the main hall with Miss Tang and come pay your respects in the temple later. That settles the matter.” She flapped her hand, shooing the girls away and taking Bao-mama with her to the temple.
Tang Meng smiled. “Don’t worry, miss. I don’t see anything wrong with the elder madame’s body, so it’s just a worry of the heart. She’s merely worried about matters at home.”
Qin Yining nodded. She must be worried about what Priestess Liu said. She didn’t know much about fortune-telling and the mystical arts, and frankly was rather skeptical of the whole thing. After all, that priestess had just said something about the propitious star of marriage being in motion for her! Qin Yining felt her face burn. Somehow, the memory of that lecher who’d arrived from the sky that day rose unbidden. He’d stolen her hairpin and even stroked her cheek!
She frowned and coughed lightly. “Then let’s take a look around. You’re the one most familiar with the surroundings. Where’s the prettiest?”
A laughing Tang Meng dragged Qin Yining behind her in a tour of the nunnery. Qin Yining was still wearing that crimson red, brocade cape  with a white rabbit fur collar. She was the only spot of color in the ink painting that was this winter’s day, in which everything was washed with shades of gray.
Pang Xiao and Huzi had made their way into the open space in front of the temple just in time to glimpse the figures of Qin Yining and Tang Meng in the distance. The girls were slowly moving in the direction of the main hall.
“Milord, who would’ve thought that we’d meet Miss Qin here today? Do you want to go talk to her?” Huzi grinned, as he winked and waggled his eyebrows suggestively. “There was obvious meaning in the old priestess’ words just now. This is a perfect opportunity! Why not…”
Pang Xiao looked disapprovingly at Huzi. The guard coughed and immediately shut up. His master remained utterly still, his eyes the only thing tracking Qin Yining’s fading figure. There was no one around them. Had there been anyone else, they would’ve felt the sharp air subconsciously emanating from the young man, at direct odds with his genteel outfit of white robes and gray fur cloak. The two suddenly heard approaching footsteps, and swiftly ducked behind a thick tree.
The Duchess of Ding and Bao-mama had left the temple and were chatting as they headed for the main gates. “…granddaughter Yi is certainly mature for her age. Perhaps she already saw through the priestess’ test? If she hadn’t even been willing to give alms, then how could she have treated Miss Tang well?”
“Aren’t you thinking too nobly of the priestess, mistress? This old servant feels that she’s just a money-grubbing person.”
“That’s all a surface act. She might seem externally vulgar but there’s a sense of internal benevolence. Otherwise, why would she have taken in Miss Tang? That greedy, grasping attitude is just be an appearance…” The duchess and mama’s conversation grew fainter as they walked further on. Pang Xiao and Huzi didn’t come out until they were far in the distance.
“Milord, this elder madame is actually rather perceptive.” Huzi was very kindly disposed towards the duchess. Pang Xiao nodded and retracted his overly keen edge after a moment’s meditation. He softened the ruthless look of violence in his eyes and relaxed his naturally upright waist so that he slouched slightly. This instantly changed him back into a lazy refined gentlemen.
“Come, let’s go to the temple as well.” Pang Xiao set off at a quick pace.
“Let’s offer some incense as well.” Huzi nodded. “The elder senior master and mistress, and elder mistress are all still in the palace, with no update on their situation. Hopefully the emperor’s anger will be abated if we handle this matter well.”
Some worry appeared on Pang Xiao’s face when his grandparents and mother, “invited” to the palace for a stay, were mentioned.
The figure of Mother of the Great Chariot in the temple was dignified and awe-inspiring. Pang Xiao and Huzi had both lit incense and were on their knees in the grand Taoist gesture of worship. The prince had prostrated himself. I beg thee, Mother of the Great Chariot, to keep my mother and family safe. May my sins fall on my shoulders only and affect not my family.
With his forehead to the ground and in fervent prayer, Pang Xiao looked... fragile. Huzi, kneeling next to his master, felt pain lance through him at the sight. He was never far from his master and understood the prince’s troubles most deeply. Everyone only knew that the prince possessed great power and was a decisive killing machine, but who could see the troubles unique to him in his high position? The most tragic thing for a human was to give everything that they were, but to be misunderstood or denounced in return. Even his own family would lecture the prince for his ruthlessness at times, exhorting him to stop showing such blatant disregard for life. But who understood the prince’s helplessness in the matter? He really had no other choice sometimes.
Creak. The door broke the solemn silence within the temple. Pang Xiao and Huzi both turned to see Qin Yining of the crimson cape and the little nun Tang Meng entering arm-in-arm. It looked like they were in good spirits, as Qin Yining’s particularly radiant smile, dimples, and merrily creased eyes were especially adorable.
Pang Xiao was momentarily stunned before he whipped himself back around. His ears were bright red as he remained stiffly on his knees. His head was tilted back up to the goddess’ image and he seemed to be deep in sincere prayer.
There were three prayer rush cushions arrayed before them. Huzi had been on the leftmost one, but he had risen and was standing off to the side now. Pang Xiao had occupied the center one, leaving the two on his side free. Qin Yining hesitated, but it was a public premise and she had no right to ask him to leave. She settled for ignoring the man and lit incense sticks with Tang Meng, taking the cushion on the right and closing her eyes in pious prayer. Tang Meng took the left cushion and also made the grand gesture of Taoist piety.
Although Pang Xiao was still kneeling and hadn’t moved his head, his eyes had already flicked toward Qin Yining by his side. She looks so cute and fragile, but her destiny has been such a troubled one…
She should be fourteen by now?
He’d been her current age when they’d first met. The seven year old’s clothing was nothing more than rags, but were faded clean from all the washings they’d received. She’d been haggling vociferously with the shopkeeper of a medicine shop that her family apparently had a tab open with, but she’d been swept out empty-handed with nothing for her foster mother’s sickness. A shop associate had even pushed her roughly to the ground.
He’d been watching from close by with Sir Zheng and Guard Zhao, and the guard’s snicker of schadenfreude had made him uncomfortable. He’d thought she’d cry then, she really did have a reason to, but she’d only stood up, dusted herself off, and stubbornly shouldered her tattered wicker basket, using her remaining copper coins to buy two meat buns for her foster mother. Even now he’d been unable to forget that pair of large and bright eyes in the small face. She’d patted her flat little tummy and put on a brave smile to tell her foster mother that she’d already eaten.
He hadn’t been able to leave just like that and pretended to pass by her house, asking for a sip of water. The little girl was stunned silly when she saw him, taking a few long moments before crying out, “Brother Beauty!” and running off to boil some water. He’d handed his entire money pouch to her when he drank. There were roughly ten taels of silver and a handful of coins inside. She’d been scared silly by the amount of money and wouldn’t take it no matter what, so he’d forced a supercilious, disdainful look on his face and sniffed that this was merely some loose change for pathetic beggars. He’d then departed in style under the baleful glares of Sir Zheng and Guard Zhao.
The two men were his father’s old troops and complained angrily in highly charged voices as soon as they left.
“Why did you help the enemy’s daughter?!”
“That sonuvabitch Qin Huaiyuan deserves to die! That bastard’s schemes are the reason General Pang died from false crimes i! The general was carved alive into slices and fed to the dogs! None of the Pangs survived that tragedy…”
Pang Xiao had been fifteen years old, a year into his military service after Li Qitian had found him. The now Great Zhou emperor had hoisted the banner of General Pang high and made revenge for this wrongful death a key reason for overthrowing the old emperor. However, no one had ever asked Pang Xiao if he was willing to participate. The army had just suddenly stopped outside one of his grandfather’s restaurants one day and carried him off… no one had even known that Pang Xiao himself was just the product of one of General Pang’s drunken nights. Possibly the general himself didn’t even remember the boy existed. And if the matriarch of the Pang household had been a kind soul, why would she have soundlessly swept Pang Xiao’s birth mother out the door?
His life had been decided by others the moment he was born, and how was this girl any different? He’d asked Sir Zheng back then, “What does this little girl know? You all stole her away that year and put her through endless suffering all this time. Seven years of this should be enough! If you really have it in you, why not seek revenge on her father? Why visit agony on an innocent child?!”
Sir Zheng had only responded with—the crimes of the father are the sins of the daughter. It was a fundamental disagreement in principles, and it wasn’t something that arguments could resolve.
A year later, Pang Xiao had built up a certain level of authority in the army and turned into a killer with steady hands, even when taking life in cold blood. But whenever he thought of the little girl, a patch of tenderness would visit his stone cold heart. He’d sent people to go find her, wanting to help her some. But the city of Liang had already been ravaged and looted. There was only an empty, broken shell left of her home. He’d captured people to interrogate, to ascertain the girl’s whereabouts, but had only learned that her foster mother had died a month prior and the girl had been missing since then.
He’d thought she was dead. A mature little girl, someone who called him ‘Brother Beauty’ in a soft, sweet voice, a child who filled him with guilt and pity, had died just like that. Soundlessly. Unnoticed. Her grievances unanswered.
Who would’ve thought that he’d see her again seven years later? She’d blossomed into a beautiful flower, and caught him off guard whenever she entered his eyes.
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