“Why would you think that?” Qin Yining clasped Pang Xiao’s hand with return heartache, running her fingers across his calloused fingertips and palm. Sympathy flashed across her eyes when she noted the new scars and scabs on the backs of his hands.
“I know the difficult situation you’re in, why would I blame you for this? No matter how lofty your position is, it’s not the highest. Many things are out of your control. Besides, the drought is a natural disaster. You’re just a mortal, so why blame yourself for something you can’t do anything about?”
Pang Xiao looked smilingly at Qin Yining, a pool of warm water within his phoenix-eyes. With her smarts and nature, of course she would understand. But to hear such comforting words straight from her mouth still moved him beyond words.
“My darling.” Pang Xiao stretched out his arms and ensconced her in an embrace. He dropped a kiss entirely devoid of lust onto her forehead. “You’re wonderful.”
His voice was low and pleasing to the ear, and a bit raspy because of how touched he was. Warm air huffed into her ears, sending tingles through them, but she didn’t want to dodge the hot sensation. She laid quietly on his chest, closing her eyes to enjoy this brief moment of peace and quiet.
The two of them hadn’t spent time together like this for a very long time — just holding each other without the need to consider anything else. They could put everything down for a little while. He wasn’t Great Zhou’s Faithful Prince of the First Rank, and she wasn’t the daughter of Great Yan’s Grand Preceptor Qin. They were just simply a man and a woman who liked each other.
Since the emperor had decided to surrender, they would no longer be on opposing sides. There wouldn’t be that many cares and woes of the world fettering them then.
Perhaps because she was too much at ease, the weariness of not having slept much last night came crashing over the girl. Qin Yining was exhausted to the bone and wrapped her arms around Pang Xiao’s waist, mumbling, “I’m going to sleep for a little while.”
“I’ve had people prepare some ingredients and can whip up a bowl of noodles for you. Sleep after eating, alright?” Pang Xiao knew his beloved hadn’t had anything to eat for a while. How could he bear to let her go to sleep hungry?
She shook her head, murmuring, “That’s alright.” Her breathing immediately evened out as she fell asleep right after the last word.
Pang Xiao looked down at the person in his embrace. She’d fallen asleep sitting up! His heart clenched painfully as he noted the shadows beneath her eyes and her sunken cheeks.
He carefully gathered her up and placed her on his bed, taking off her embroidered shoes and pulling over the thin blanket.
Her long hair scattered over the blue blanket. What’d used to gleam with luster like a bolt of satin, had now dulled. Her pale face appeared even more wan next to the dark pillowcase.
Pang Xiao looked at her with heartache, standing dumbly by the side of the bed until he was sure she was fast asleep. Only then did he carefully inch his way to the outer side of the bed, propping his head up with one hand to look intently at her.
An outstretched finger traced the shape of her slender eyebrows at a slight distance away from her face. It gave a phantom flick to her long, ephemeral eyelashes, slid past her pert nose, and finally ended at her lips.
This was their second time ‘sleeping together’. Pang Xiao kept watch over her in this way until he himself fell asleep at an unknown time.
The prince was resting with their future princess consort. Who dared disturbed them?
In fact, anyone who approached within ten yards of the tent was chased away by Huzi and a pack of Elite Tigers. It got to the point where everyone gave a wide berth to the commander’s tent.
When Mu Jinghu saw that he wouldn’t be able to see Pang Xiao, he could only go along with Huzi’s arrangements and rest after taking in a full meal.
The prince stayed inside the tent all day without summoning anyone. Huzi didn’t dare approach either. He’d thought that the prince would be out shortly, but there was no movement inside all throughout the night.
It wasn’t until the wee hours of the next morning that the prince stealthily crept his way out.
Huzi wasn’t on night watch that day. He was rubbing his eyes after just waking up when he saw his master surreptitiously sneak out with exaggerated movements. The prince carefully closed the door curtain flap.
I feel like I see yet another side of my master whenever he’s with Miss Qin.
But they’d only just finished their business? The prince really wasn’t treating her with any tenderness at all!
Those might be his thoughts, but there was no way that Huzi would ever dare ask or show any sort of teasing expression on his face. Joke at the prince’s expense? That called for cruel and unusual exercises! He wouldn’t be allowed to stop until he coughed up blood from exhaustion!
Pang Xiao looked sideways at the oh-so-serious Huzi. He stared until the servant was tense with nerves before turning back around. “Have Jiyun and Bingtang keep their miss company. I’m going to prepare food.”
His Highness is going to cook in the army camp?
It’s not good if so many people see him do so! That will severely affect his reputation!
Once again, Huzi didn’t dare say any of this. He could only carry out his orders.
The two maids also thought that something must’ve happened between Qin Yining and Pang Xiao. Who knew that their mistress had just spent the night sleeping in Pang Xiao’s tent?
When the Qin fourth miss awoke, the two maids adroitly helped her wash up.
Pang Xiao came back in with flat cakes and four side dishes, followed by Huzi hauling a large jug of congee. The couple ate without speaking — manners that they’d both been taught. The two ate with very genteel movements.
Qin Yining had quite a decent appetite today, perhaps a function of seeing Pang Xiao again. She put away half a flat cake and a bowl of porridge. The two talked business only after the meal was concluded.
“I was kidnapped by the Duke of An before I came here. He unintentionally revealed that he’s in contact with a secret envoy from Great Zhou.”
“A secret envoy?” Pang Xiao arched a brow in surprise. “How’s that possible? How would I, the commander of the Valiant Tigers, here to conquer the south, not know anything about this?”
Qin Yining sniffed coldly. “Do you know what the secret envoy discussed with the duke? The envoy wanted to kill via a borrowed knife. He wanted to murder you through the duke, then blame it on my father. Given his motives, of course he wouldn’t let you know. That’d only give you time to prepare.”
Pang Xiao knew that Qin Yining was right. He nodded and rubbed the bridge of his nose with a forefinger. “I actually already know this.”
“Then do you know who’s pulling the strings?”
Pang Xiao rubbed her forehead with a smile. “Silly girl, just think about it. Who would benefit the most if I were to die? Who would gain the most from my stroke of bad luck? It’s easily apparent then who wants my death.”
Qin Yining had engraved into her heart the fact that the Purple Star hadn’t ascended the throne in the end. The Great Zhou emperor must be wary about this fortune!
If Pang Xiao were to fall in battle, it’d be the new Zhou emperor and surrendered Northern Ji officials who benefitted the most.
The former wanted to exterminate a latent menace, and the latter wanted to clear away a clash of interests. Pang Xiao’s existence was a firm weight upon their heads. If they wanted to make a name for themselves and have a break of fortune at court, eliminating the prince was a top priority.
Qin Yining couldn’t resist sighing quietly with admiration when she saw that Pang Xiao was as composed as always, not a flicker of change in his expression.
“Your Highness.” Huzi called outside the tent at this time. “Sir Mu requests an audience. He says he’s here to take his leave.”