Chapter 557.2: The Status Quo

Yi Binghu inwardly screamed at the men stationed at the pass. What were their brains made of?! How was it that Kang Qiong—the supreme commander of the Dragon Riders—said he’d arranged for Pang Xiao to stay at the relay station when in reality, he intended for the prince to lodge in comfort at the rear residence? And now, even this seemingly upright General Tao was doing the same?

Pang Xiao fiddled with his whip while he observed Yi Binghu’s expressions from the side. What an utterly amusing sight. 

On the other hand, the prince’s whip caught General Tao’s eye. He gave it a blank stare, then stepped forth to offer a respectful salute.

“Subordinate Tao Jun greets His Highness.”

This is Tao Jun?

A scar snaked across his brows and extended to his temples; he wore a pipe tucked into his belt. Though his rough skin aged him, he appeared to be around his thirties. His appearance was just as Ji Zeyu had described, so Pang Xiao understood at once—this man was the head of his sworn brother’s one hundred confidantes. There was no doubt that he’d suddenly become even more respectful upon seeing his old commander’s whip.

“At ease. Felicitations to General Tao’s recent promotion! This prince has yet to send my congratulations.”

At the time of his departure, Ji Zeyu had told him that Tao Jun was a commander, but he was the supreme commander of Skywolf Pass now that they’d met. He must have received a recent promotion. 

Tao Jun knew that he was no one of importance. Since he and the prince had never crossed paths before, Pang Xiao would possibly have known his previous rank. However, he spoke of a recent promotion and held Li Zeyu’s token in his hand. This marked the prince as someone his old commander greatly approved of, so Ji Zeyu must’ve been the one to tell Pang Xiao about Tao Jun!

“His Highness must be worn from travel and all its hardships.” An amiable note colored Tao Jun’s respectful tone. “It has been a hard trip indeed. This subordinate will send for people to prepare food and wine at once for a welcoming banquet.”

Pang Xiao laughed at that. “Many thanks to General Tao.”

“This way, Your Highnesses.” Tao Jun turned to the side to let them pass. Pang Xiao and the princess consort’s carriage took the lead, while the general himself walked in front of the Elite Tigers and remained extremely courteous as he fell in their ranks.

Wei Erbao, Li Daniu and the others couldn’t help snickering. 

“His Highness’s prestige shakes the four corners of the earth indeed!” they discussed quietly. “Even the Dragon Riders treat him with utmost respect in every way.”

“Now, ain’t that the truth! Some people think they’re oh-so-important because they hold a minor position when really, they’re just a clown dancing around. I could laugh until my teeth fell out!”

Yi Binghu was already beside himself with rage from seeing Tao Jun treat Pang Xiao the way Kang Qiong had, but now, even those accompanying him were saying such things! His flush turned an alarming red and veins throbbed on his forehead. If he didn't have a reputation to uphold, he would’ve broken out in loud curses at them.

“You will cease this impudence! Stop dawdling and enter the city!” With that self-righteous rebuke, Yi Binghu recovered his dignity and promptly brought up the rear with his horse.

Wei Erbao and the others watched from behind, unable to suppress their mirth. They walked and chatted with laughter as they followed, the atmosphere as relaxed and merry as if it was the new year.

Once again, Qin Yining was led to the rear residence to rest while Pang Xiao brought his men to the banquet. He also took Ji Zeyu’s whip with him, which had quite a few people treating him courteously and cordially at first sight.

After the banquet, Tao Jun solemnly saluted Pang Xiao in the main hall of the rear residence. 

“Your Highness, since my master gave his token to you, all one hundred of us brothers are also yours. If Your Highness has any instructions for us, just say the word and we will risk life and limb to see it done.”

Pang Xiao’s gratitude toward Ji Zeyu grew further. He lifted Tao Jun up with both hands with a chuckle.

“Please, there is absolutely no need for such grand courtesies. This prince is returning to the capital to face trial, so there is nothing that I need done for now.”

Hearing this, Tao Jun replied, “Your Highness, please forgive my bluntness, but your situation will be far from optimistic when you return to the capital. I fear His Majesty plans to make you answer for your actions with your life.”

Seeing how honest Tao Jun was in spite of everything, a deep understanding dawned on Pang Xiao that Ji Zeyu’s men were also recognizing him as their master as well because of the whip. He couldn’t help but ratchet his respect for Ji Zeyu’s leadership skills up a few notches.

“Has anything major happened in court while I was away?”

“Everything is recorded in the imperial reports down to the most minor detail, and most of them are unrelated to His Highness,” Tao Jun answered. “The most critical matter at hand is that the Tatars have begun to stir, and their intent to attack Great Zhou is very clear. 

“Though they lost their first shipment of war provisions, their Utkin Khan seems very adamant on stirring up conflict and appears to be gathering rations yet again in preparation for battle.

“If I may be frank, the nation’s treasury is empty, which makes disaster relief efforts difficult. His Majesty has issued a series of troop deployments in preparation for war. This subordinate was just a commander before, it was because of recent developments that I was promoted to guard the pass as a general.

“However, successful as troop maneuvering  has been, what the court still lacks the most is silver. A declaration of war will require the nation’s resources. The Tatars remain unyielding, saying that they mean to avenge their Anari Khan. His Majesty's own intentions also remain to be seen. 

“But in this subordinate’s humble opinion, it would be best if Your Highness didn’t bring Her Highness back. This subordinate is concerned His Majesty will hand Her Highness over in order to prevent war.”

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