Chapter 109: Lofty Sentiments
Great Yan’s convoy was immediately welcomed into the city by General Wang Hui and Prefect Liu 1 when it arrived. Everyone knew what was going on when they saw a beautiful girl in the retinue.
The hot-blooded men who’d fought and bled on the battlefields felt their faces grow hot. They weren’t like those who cowardly shrank in their shells and only talked of war on paper. These were men who charged on the front lines and had personally witnessed the cruelty of war. They knew more than anyone else the role that the elderly, weak, children, and women played in war.
They were laying their lives down on the line so that the enemy would no longer threaten their women and children at home. They fought so that everyone would have food to eat, clothes to wear, and children had school to attend and could grow up peacefully. Anyone with a bit of character to them wouldn’t want treachery, rape, capture, and pillaging to happen in front of them!
If they died, then it was their own incompetence and they could do nothing about what happened afterwards. But they hadn’t died yet, and the emperor was sending an innocent girl to the enemy. Wasn’t this blatant slaps to their face?
That Great Zhou emperor bullied and oppressed Great Yan citizens, but their own emperor blindly listened to the trampress and ignored the voice of the people as well as oppressing his own loyal subjects. The blood of the loyal Duke of Ding line had yet to grow cold. All of the soldiers and generals were gearing themselves up for another furious battle, but that cowardly emperor threw all history aside when Great Zhou flung out a casual request to parley. He even offered Grand Preceptor Qin’s daughter of his own accord!
Everyone had a knot of ill will within them that they couldn’t vent. They hated the trash emperor and trampress, and agonized over the annihilated Duke of Ding line. They’d always respected Grand Preceptor Qin and thus sympathized with him greatly and pitied his daughter immensely. With General Wang Hui and Prefect Liu heading the group, everyone treated Qin Huaiyuan and Qin Yining with extreme courtesy.
“Grand Preceptor Qin, Miss Qin, please take lodgings with the prefect for the night.”
“Our lodgings aren’t important,” Qin Huaiyuan dismissed. “A long night is fraught with dreams and anything can change. Why don’t we have someone deliver a message to the enemy camp right now and settle on the negotiation time and location.”
“Yes, the grand preceptor speaks truly.” Prefect Liu nodded.
Qin Huaiyuan turned to his daughter. “Go get some rest. I’ll have someone fetch you if anything happens.”
“Yes, father.” Qin Yining curtsied and withdrew from the room.
The prefect’s wife was waiting outside the door with maids and granny servants. When they saw Qin Yining emerge, they politely led her to the inner residence of the yamen, 2 and arranged her to be in an upper room. The prefect’s wife also commanded the servants to prepare quality food and hot water.
Qin Yining tossed and turned all night, finding it difficult to sleep. No matter how strong she presented herself, she was still a girl who’d yet to come of age. She broke out into a cold sweat at the mere thought of what she was about to endure. She kept saying that she was open-minded and that there was nothing more important than staying alive.
But when the hour was nigh, she suddenly wondered if she could keep living if she really was humiliated. What do we live for? She lost herself in thought as she stared at the lantern’s projection on the window, finally laying down for bleary eyed sleep when pale white graced the horizons. She seemed to have just fallen asleep when servants called to her from the outside.
“Grand Preceptor Qin requests the fourth miss’ presence.”
Qin Yining bolted to an upright position and lifted the bed curtains to see a bloodless Songlan and Bingtang with reddened eyes.
“I know now. Go tell my father that I’ll be there shortly.” Her voice was a bit raspy. She rubbed her slightly throbbing temples and turned to her maids. “Help me wash up and dress.”
“Understood,” Songlan choked out. She took out a jasper colored brocade vest and skirt ensemble as well as a plain pale-green cloak with a white fox fur collar. Bingtang opened the cosmetic box to help Qin Yining with makeup.
Her hair piled into two buns with the remainder trailing down, her brows outlined for elegant emphasis, her eyes shadowed to illuminate their watery depths, and red applied to her lips…
Qin Yining assessed herself in the bronze mirror. She was very different from her normal appearance, being much more visually stunning today. She tried for a smile.
It succeeded, but it made Bingtang and Songlan burst into tears.
“Miss, you, you…”
“Don’t cry, I’m not going to my death.” Qin Yining rose and lightly caressed the long hair that had fallen her shoulders. She smiled. “Stay here and wait. Don’t go with me.”
“Miss! I’m going with you!” Bingtang sniffled. “I know poisons at least! If that damned old man wants to do something to you, I’ll poison him!”
“If he dies from poison, the peace talks fail, and then the Qins are the next to die.” Qin Yining held up a handkerchief for Bingtang’s tears with a wry smile.
Songlan fell to her knees with a sob and grabbed a corner of Qin Yining’s pale-green cloak. “Miss, you saved my life. If you aren’t here anymore, I’ll go with you so that I can serve you in the underworld!”
“Me too! If you’re not here anymore, I’ll go take the trampress down with me and then serve you in the underworld!” Bingtang also knelt and grabbed Qin Yining’s hand.
“Sillies.” She pulled them up and patted Songlan’s shoulder, then pinched Bingtang’s apple cheeks. “You’re both young. If I’m really not here anymore, won’t you take care of my mother for me?”
“Miss…” Songlan sobbed even harder.
Qin Yining blinked back the tears that were about to leak out and flashed them a dazzling smile.
“Alright, I’ll be off now.” She turned and pushed open the door, striding forward without hesitation.
Bingtang and Songlan gulped, chasing out with tears. However, they could only stand in the hallway and watch their miss follow the prefect’s wife, slowly disappearing into the distance.
Qin Huaiyuan hadn’t slept all night. He was currently standing in the covered hallway with a black fur cloak on, losing himself in thought with the vivid blue sky overhead. General Wang Hui was preparing to go out and Prefect Liu was waiting off to the side.
“Father.” A clear call pulled him back down to earth. He followed the voice to see a plainly dressed, yet still stunning Qin Yining. She was looking at him with a faint smile. “Father, shall we be on our way?”
Qin Huaiyuan’s Adam’s apple bobbed. He grit his teeth after a long moment and nodded. “No one’s at ease with the location being within the city or outside of it. After last night’s negotiations, we’ll be erecting a temporary tent outside Xihua, between the two armies. Both sides are allowed one hundred soldiers each. Daughter Yi, you’ll come with me later.”
Qin Yining nodded docilely, her pearl tassels swaying slightly next to her cheeks. “It’s just as well that it’s not in the city. That way, Great Zhou won’t have the opportunity to plant spies. We need to shut the city doors tightly after we leave and have people be on guard.”
“You’re right. I’ve already discussed this with Prefect Liu and General Wang Hui. The officials from the Ministry of Rites will lead the peace talks. General Wang Hui and Prefect Liu will stay behind to guard the city.”
“That’s wonderful. We can be at ease this way then.”
General Wang Hui selected a hundred soldiers before long. With Qin Huaiyuan and Minister of Rites Cui Wenqing leading the way, Qin Yining brought up the rear by herself. They left the yamen together. Just before they cleared the city gates, Qin Huaiyuan took Qin Yining up a city walls. The general, prefect, and soldiers followed close behind.
As they looked out over the grand city gates, a wild gust teased at Qin Yining’s long hair. The dawn sun illuminated tracts of land as it continued to climb in the sky. The Great Zhou encampment was not far from the city walls. Her eyes followed the horizon to gaze upon the endless mountain ranges in the distance, their tops capped with white. She suddenly felt that the world was a vast and expansive place, and the knot of dejection within her unfurled.
“Daughter Yi, are you afraid?” Qin Huaiyuan stood with his hands clasped behind his back.
“What am I afraid of? No one leaves this world alive. It’s just death, so what should we be afraid of?” Her voice wasn’t loud, but it carried clearly to those present.
The one hundred soldiers chosen had accepted their duty with expectations of a grisly death. Even Minister Cui Wenqing was sweating profusely with nerves. If the peace talks failed and Great Zhou erupted in open hostilities, none of them would come back from the negotiations alive. But now, the men had been spurred onto new heroic highs. Courage bloomed within them and lofty sentiments roared at the skies!
What was there to be afraid of? A little girl was proclaiming such viewpoints, so what reason was there for strapping men like them to be afraid?
“Miss Qin is the daughter of illustrious family, alright!” General Wang Hui answered with great emotion. “Don’t worry, Grand Preceptor Qin! If the talks fail, we’ll take down these petty thieves with us! How dare they come bullying to the doorstep of Great Yan!”
“Good. With General Wang and Prefect Liu guarding the city, we can rest assured about our backs.” Qin Huaiyuan smiled peacefully and called out, “Prepare the carriages. Move out!”
“Yes!” The men shouted back, their voices soaring to the clouds.
Qin Huaiyuan and Cui Wenqing took he first carriage while Qin Yining sat in the second by herself. They were escorted by the hundred soldiers to the temporary camp that had just been set up between the two armies. Due to the two sides bringing equal amounts of soldiers, everyone’s own tent and equipment, and the ones needed for negotiations, the temporary campsite was quite large.
Qin Yining’s convoy pulled into the campground to see two groups of men facing off against them.
One group was dressed in red clothing and black armor with a tiger head embroidered on their sleeves. Behind them, several black flags with a golden tiger and one red flag with a black ‘Pang’ cracked in the wind. The other group was dressed in regular muddy yellow uniforms, with the ‘Lian’ flag rippling in the breeze. Qin Yining understood that the first group were the Valiant Tigers loyal to Prince Pang Xiao, and the second were regular Great Zhou troops loyal to Lian Shengjie.
Their carriages rolled to a half as Qin Huaiyuan and Cui Wenqing first alighted, Qin Yining following after setting foot on a black lacquer stool. They raised their heads to see a group walk out of the opposing tent.
The leader was a fit man over fifty with drooping bags under his eyes and an oily face. He was a general in golden armor, and his eyes fixated on Qin Yining as soon as he saw the girl. He instantly halted and looked like he wanted to dig out his eyes to put them onto the girl.
Such a lecherous person must be Great Zhou’s Minister of Military Affairs, Lian Shengjie. Qin Yining was inwardly repulsed but maintained a calm expression on her face. Her eyes darted around to land on an elder over sixty. He was dressed in a pale-gray cotton cloak and his long beard fluttered in the wind, imparting ethereal hints to his figure.
Who is he? He looks like a strategist.
The elder who looked like an immortal was staring intently at Qin Huaiyuan with eyes of hate!