Chapter 108: Protection
Qin Yining blinked a few times, spending quite a few moments before she digested the meaning behind Weichi Yan’s words. She was a bit moved, but was even more surprised and thoughtful. She wasn’t that familiar with Weichi Yan, but his actions would make others think that they’d already exchanged unending vows of love. If he really wanted to share those words with her, why say them in front of so many people? If he was afraid that she’d take her life because she couldn’t endure the humiliation, why not tell her surreptitiously to give her the hope to live on?
The officials from the Ministry of Rites as well as the emperor’s hundred soldiers and fifty guards were all present today. There were naturally many people from different factions arranged in the convoy as well. Weichi Yan was publicly tying her to his ship and planting Qin Huaiyuan firmly on his side. He was thinking of her reputation at all and in fact wanted everyone to misunderstand that she and the crown prince had illicit relations and privately committed themselves to each other.
Qin Yining admitted that she was being far too cynical. But she was an official daughter of the grand preceptor. She couldn’t just fling herself headlong into a relationship without thought of the political situation. If Weichi Yan was the son of an ordinary family, she’d think that he was just expressing his honest feelings.
But he was the crown prince.
And the crown prince was in a precarious position these days.
The crown prince was also very close to the Prince of Ning.
When the Prince of Ning had carried off Bingtang and she fell for their plot to rescue the maid, that had forced the Duke of Ding and her father into the Prince of Ning’s camp. That was how the Prince of Ning had successfully censured then Grand Preceptor Cao and how her families had offended the Caos. This was why the trampress made moves against them at every possible opportunity. This had caused the death of Sun Yuanming, the destruction of the Suns and robbing support from so many women, as well as indirectly causing her mother’s troubles in the Qin Manor.
This series of interconnected reactions were all a result of schemes from the Prince of Ning and the crown prince’s faction. She’d really naively thought she was saving someone that day, but reality had given her a harsh lesson and her gift was the blood of the Suns.
With these experiences, Qin Yining was no longer a young girl with her brains full of love. She smiled slightly and took Bingtang and Songlan’s hand when alighting from the carriage. She took two steps backwards and spoke crisply, “Please be mindful, Your Highness. Matters of marriage have always been decided by parents and matchmakers. Your Highness’ actions are inappropriate.”
Weichi Yan paused and his pale face rapidly flushed red. He took two quick strides to Qin Yining and reached out for her hand.
“Fourth Miss, you’ve misunderstood. I…”
Slap! His hand caught one of her hands but was immediately slapped away by her other hand, leaving a red welt behind.
Qin Yining frowned and spoke coldly, “Your Highness, there should be a distance kept between men and women! Although others create fanciful, dirty lies about my acceptance of the imperial decree to join the peace talks, that’s all because I’m willing to make this sacrifice for my country! Your Highness’ frivolous actions in front of the group today is a complete disregard of my reputation!”
Weichi Yan looked dumbly at his hand and then at the crowd more than hundred strong around him, then turned to the frowning Qin Huaiyuan. Some parts of his simple mind were finally making the connections!
He thought of how the Prince of Ning had persuaded his father to unground him last night, and then had come to him first thing this morning to urge him to quickly chase down the Qin miss. Some foggy notions were beginning to form in his mind. Weichi Yan felt that he’d been used, but he didn’t know the exact details yet. He only knew that his confession of love hadn’t been answered with Qin Yining’s emotional tears or moving pledge to him. Instead, it’d been interpreted as a frivolous action in public and debasing her.
That was true! She wasn’t a brothel worker, she was a noble daughter. When it came to relationships, it would be illicit relations even if he mentioned all this between only the two of them. Not to mention that he announced it openly like this and gone to grab her hand…
Weichi Yan was the epitome of regret as his face flushed beet red.
“The days are cold. Your Highness must be busy with official matters. Please return to the palace.” Qin Yining bent her knee to curtsey and returned to the carriage, leaving the crown prince stunned where he was, looking dumbly at her pretty figure.
Qin Huaiyuan had observed everything from the side and naturally understood his daughter’s concerns. He had an even deeper understanding of her intellect from what had just happened. When she’d plotted against others in the manor before, that displayed only her wits and methods. What she did now truly showcased her political sensitivity and acumen. She had rejected the crown prince so severely not only to protect her own reputation, but also to indicate to others that he was stoutly loyal to the emperor. That even though he was the Grand Preceptor to the Heir Apparent, he hadn’t become a blade in anyone else’s hand.
She was an unmarried girl, so her censure and rejection of the crown prince’s thoughtless actions in broad daylight were completely justified. She’d also said that marriage was up to the parents, so that also left room for the Qins to maneuver for a possible marriage to the crown prince.
“Your Highness, the auspicious hour cannot be delayed. We must be on our way again.” Qin Huaiyuan bowed with a slight smile. His attitude and courtesies were the same as usual, giving no hints as to what he was really thinking.
“Grand Preceptor, I…” Weichi Yan was so anxious that beads of sweat had popped out on his forehead.
“There’s no need for further words, Your Highness. This subject understands all.”
Understand what?! I’m worried you understand the wrong thing! Weichi Yan cried out in his heart as his lips moved, unsure of what he should say.
Up in the branches, Pang Xiao relaxed and closed his eyes to rest. Once Qin Huaiyuan had gone through all proper courtesies with Weichi Yan, the grand preceptor climbed into the carriage again and gave orders for the convoy to set off.
The convoy moved off slowly, with Weichi Yan and the eunuchs sending them off to the side. It took the crown prince a long time to come back to his senses. He climbed listlessly into the saddle with none of the high spirits he’d come riding up with. The eunuchs following him tried to guess their master’s mood from his expression.
“Your Highness, that Qin chit is simply too blind and ignorant! How dare she be so arrogant when someone as dashing as Your Highness still wants a sullied woman like her! Your Highness, how about…”
“Move!” Weichi Yan cracked his whip over and ordered angrily, “To the Prince of Ning’s manor!”
The eunuch realized to his horror that this bit of flattery had been aimed in the completely wrong direction. He didn’t dare say anything and bowed in acknowledgement, leading the eunuchs in tailing the crown prince back to the city.
Peace slowly reconvened back on the road. Pang Xiao opened his eyes and landed lightly on the ground, Huzi close behind him.
“Master, that crown prince really does like the Qin fourth miss.”
“He does, but he really go about things brainlessly.” Pang Xiao walked further into the copse of trees to where their horses were tied.
The guard was surprised that Pang Xiao had responded and quickly followed up. “Master, although the crown prince didn’t consider the fourth miss’ reputation with his public actions, it was a display of honest emotion.”
“The hand in the shadows was making use of precisely that. He was sold and turned around to count money for the one who sold him. It’s not a bad thing to keep this kind of corn prince around.”
“Master, I don’t understand.”
“Didn’t he say to head for the Ning Manor?” Pang Xiao had reached the horses and were untying the reins. “The crown prince was ungrounded only last night. He spent the entire new year reflecting in the Eastern Palace. He rushed here as soon as he regained his freedom and did this idiotic thing. Now he’s gone back to find the Prince of Ning. Do you still not get it?”
Huzi blinked before he gave a long “ohhhh”.
“It’s that Prince of Ning again! He wants to recruit Qin Huaiyuan still! Aiya, last time he tried, all of the Sun males lost their heads. This time, tsk tsk. Thank goodness the fourth miss knew the importance of her reputation and avoided the entire mess.”
“She’s a smart one.” Pang Xiao caressed the gleaming black fur of his treasured horse. What a waste of my nervous sweat just now.
“Master, do you mean that the fourth miss did that on purpose just now?”
“Eh, master, you haven’t answered me yet.”
Pang Xiao had nothing more to say. Huzi pouted with dejection and followed Pang Xiao in leading their horses to the road.
“It’s just us two,” he muttered. “What can we do even if the Tatars do show up? Besides, their convoy has at least a hundred fifty men. The Tatars number thirty at most. They won’t kill the entire retinue.”
Pang Xiao arched an eyebrow at Huzi and tugged out a black leather necklace from his collar. There was an exquisitely carved, red jade whistle in the shape of a tiger’s stripes.
“You’re going to summon the Elite Tigers?” Huzi was greatly taken aback. Pang Xiao answered with blowing on the whistle. A high, desolate hawk’s cry soared through the skies.
A short while later, ten extremely fit men came thundering down the road on horseback from the capital’s direction. They were all just over twenty, tall, and stocky. They rippled with vitality, making it obvious at a glance that they possessed great martial skill. When they saw Pang Xiao sitting commandingly atop his black horse, they jumped down in unison and went one knee to the ground.
“Master!” They raised synchronized cupped fist salutes.
“Mm, rise. You’ve had a tough journey. Come with me.”
“There is nothing tough in following our master, but an honor!” The ten mounted their horses again and fell in behind Pang Xiao.
Huzi tsk’ed silently. The Elite Tigers were a troop that Pang Xiao had poured specific care into. They were all made homeless by the war and on the surface seemed like ordinary soldiers of the Faithful Prince of the First Rank. There were only a hundred in this troop, but they were all handpicked from thousands. Those who didn’t make it were part of the Valiant Tigers. Therefore, many Valiant Tigers had been personally cultivated by Pang Xiao. They all wanted to be part of the Elite Tigers and serve the prince closely.
Given the chaotic times they were in, the prince had left forty Elite Tigers to protect his manor before setting out. He’d surreptitiously inserted twenty of them in the Great Zhou capital to execute various missions, and had six dress up as pageboys, body servants, and bodyguards to protect the dowager madame and the others. He’d brought only thirty four with him to Great Yan, and each had their own mission.
Now that they knew the Tatars had infiltrated Great Yan, he’d redeployed ten of them to protect his enemy’s daughter. Huzi had no idea what to say about this anymore. They trailed the Great Yan convoy at a modest distance, able to maintain their cover but also protect the retinue. At dusk, they actually did discover a group of Tatars dressed as bandits. Pang Xiao’s men easily swept them out of the way.
For Qin Yining, the road was rather peaceful. For Pang Xiao and Huzi, it was a welcome break from tedium.
On the afternoon of the eighteen, the retinue finally arrived on the outskirts of Xihua. Qin Yining lifted the carriage curtains to see the fiery setting sun illuminated between mountains in the distance. Xihua’s ancient walls stood guard, looking piteously down on the wavering nation of Great Yan. Camps of the two sides were set up on the open fields, and the breeze itself brought traces of gunpowder and gore.
This was a cruel battlefield, and Qin Yining’s expression grew solemn.