Née Yao recollected the details of the conversation earlier and smiled. “Dad, you’ve probably thought too much.”
“Oh?” Yao Chenggu put down his pipe with a serious expression. “How so?”
“I think Miss Qin is a smart girl. She knows when to advance and retreat, and is well-mannered. She didn’t get angry when I put things in an uglier way, and in fact responded very prettily. She’s respectful to her elders and not an arrogant or petulant person. She also seems to have a good grasp of the current political situation.”
The more she spoke, the more satisfied she was with Qin Yining. Her smile deepened. “I hear that Master Qin has just this only child. Now that I’ve seen her speech and mannerisms, I can tell that Master Qin’s rearing is most excellent. Master Qin must be a smart and refined person as well. If we look at it just from the perspective of character and not politics, the Qins are a good choice for our in-laws.”
Off to the side, née Ma snorted. “You two always think too much and plot too much. In my opinion, our Dafu is a very smart child. Can someone he’s chosen be bad? But you two! The girl’s made such a long journey, but you test and probe her. Aren’t you afraid of wrecking things for Dafu?”
Née Ma’s voice climbed in volume until she was almost slapping the table in the end. Yao Chenggu just listened to the berating without a hint of irritation.
He responded gently when his wife was finished, “Don’t be angry. We need to keep an eye out for Dafu as well. If Yubing had been able to provoke Miss Qin with just a few words, that would only prove the girl isn’t suited for our Dafu.”
“That’s right, mom.” Née Yao nodded as well.
Née Ma harrumphed. “If the girl had gotten angry, that would also be because you two went too far. How can you blame her? So you can test her, but she can’t get angry?”
“That’s not what we mean, mom.” Née Yao explained gently. “Dafu’s position at court is very tricky these days. Although he’s a common-born prince and looks like his future is unlimited, His Majesty’s wariness, the hatred of the former Northern Ji officials, and the other aristocratic families means that Dafu is in a very tough predicament.
“His foundations are shallow and his standing awkward. If he doesn’t have a smart and dependable girl supporting him, not only would that harm Dafu and our family, but the Qins as well.”
“That’s right,” Yao Chenggu piped in. “We’re not making trouble for the Qin lass, but seeing if she’s suited to cross our doorstep at all. If her nature isn’t a good fit, it’ll only be a world of a suffering if she marries into the family. It’d be better to nip it in the bud. Just think about it. If Dafu’s wife doesn’t have the ability to hold down the fort, both families will suffer, not just Dafu.”
“You two always have a world of reasons.” Née Ma was no fool either; she just didn't think as much as the father-daughter pair. After listening to their analysis, she understood their intentions.
In the end, she remarked approvingly, “Your hearts are in the right place and those are good ideas, but the way you did it wasn’t good. Testing her once is fine. But Miss Qin comes from a respectable family and isn’t some good in the marketplace waiting to be priced. You guys can’t pick and prod at her again and again.”
“You’re right, mom.” Née Yao nodded.
Yao Chenggu smiled as well. “As you wish.”
Née Ma sniffed. The idea of Pang Xiao having a girl he liked and the near possibility of great-grandchildren put her in an increasingly good mood.
At this moment, Qin Yining was slowly traveling down the small path that led to the outer study, her hand in Pang Xiao’s.
The stone tiles on the path were neatly arrayed fish scales that’d had all the accumulated snow swept off it. An occasional white stripe peeked out from between the tiles. Twinkling bits of precipitation blew off the thick snow on top of the walls when the wind blew, appearing all the more translucent and sparkling in the afternoon sun.
If they ignored the often bowing and curtseying servants along the way, Qin Yining was quite willing to walk hand-in-hand like this, forever.
“Didn’t you summon Sirs Xie and Xu? Shouldn’t we hurry on over?” The Qin fourth miss drew her hand back and looked nonchalantly off in another direction, purposefully ignoring the granny servant that’d been sizing her up curiously when curtseying.
Pang Xiao smiled. “There’s no rush. They can wait a while.” He gently traced her ear with a slightly callused finger. “Look at that, your ear’s red. Are you cold?”
This guy’s asking when he knows what the answer is! How wicked!
“Look at you being all handsy. People will laugh at you!”
“What’s there to laugh about? Who doesn’t know I nabbed you back home? People would find it weird if I treated you with all due respect.” Pang Xiao reached around and ensconced Qin Yining in his long arms as he spoke, murmuring next to her ear, “The more I am this way, the more realistic it is.”
The girl blinked and whispered back nervously, “Are there a lot of spies in your household?”
The prince smiled. “There are plants from all sides in all sorts of unimportant places. But don't worry, I know where they are.”
Qin Yining nodded. The Zhou emperor would likely be much more on his guard if the Pang Manor had airtight and watertight security. Allowing some spies to find their footing here meant that the prince could control what information got out.
Perhaps he could even use them for his own purposes at crucial times.
Seeing his beloved nod so acceptingly and refrain from any questions, and in fact wearing an understanding expression, Pang Xiao couldn’t help himself from pinching her cheek. “You understanding everything makes me feel like there’s nothing for me to do.”
Qin Yining chuckled. “How is there nothing for you to do? You had to rush back for your ‘sickness’, pave the way for my father’s future, worry if the elders at home will dislike me, and think of ways to make me happy. You’re going way beyond multi-tasking. How is that the mark of a useless person?”
“You know everything?” Though Pang Xiao knew that his darling would be on the same page as him, it still made him happy to hear her actually say all this.
“How would I not know what you’ve done for me?” Qin Yining sighed softly and slowed down.
The prince also came to a halt and looked down at her, tucking a strand of hair behind an ear and tightening her collar against the elements.
The girl looked back up with eyes brimming with good humor.
Whenever this man faced her, he would retract all of the keen edge he showed to others and display only the most special of sides to her.
When he’d been notified that she was in danger, he’d flung himself into the pit of the Zhou emperor’s paranoia, despite not knowing if he could find her.
He’d disregarded his own reputation without a second of hesitation, just to make sure the Qins would have a solid future in Great Zhou. He hadn’t cared about public opinion at all when he put on the show of a highwayman kidnapping someone.
The Zhou emperor had accepted the surrendered officials because he wanted to balance the scales of power between the former Northern Ji aristocracy and the new, homegrown nobility. Qin Huaiyuan headed up the Yan contingent, so the Qins were sure to become core members at court once they settled in.
The emperor was already so wary of Pang Xiao, so how would he possibly allow the prince to have such powerful in-laws?
If Pang Xiao continued to express the same ardor to her as he had in Great Yan, then Qin Huaiyuan’s future, and the rest of the Qins as well, would be dead on arrival.
Qin Yining sighed and snuggled into his embrace, resting her cheek on his chest, and wrapping her arms around his lean waist.
It was the first time that Qin Yining had voluntarily hugged Pang Xiao in public. He froze, not knowing what to do with his arms, and only reacted after half a beat. He slowly tightened the hug and nuzzled his chin lovingly on her forehead.
“Are you cold?”
“Mm. It’s really cold here. It’s much colder than Liang. But, I feel very safe right now.”
The greatest compliment a man could receive was that of his beloved declaring she felt safe.
His darling Yi was so incredibly considerate. She’d gone through all these trials and travails: almost being assassinated, almost freezing to death in the mountains, then almost starving to death, and then filling in all the holes created by his impulsive actions after being rescued. But she hadn’t had a single word of complaint after seeing him, nor did she display a single bit of negativity. It was as if these were all her rightful burdens.
He hadn’t cleared away the obstacles in front of her, nor taken her world on his back, but here she was, repaying his imperfections with a confirmation of safety.
Pang Xiao closed his eyes and dropped a weighty, precious kiss on her forehead.
“No matter what, you’re by my side now. As long as I can see you and do something, as opposed to spending the days on tenterhooks, nothing else matters.”
Qin Yining grinned. “That’s right. We can weather anything together. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
The prince answered with a smile and ran his thumb across her lips. The soft sensation deepened the look in his eyes, but was dodged by a bashful two steps backwards.
“Let’s go to the study, it’s not good to keep people waiting.”
Pang Xiao nodded with resignation and recaptured Qin Yining’s hand in his own. He warmed up her slightly chilly fingers with his warm palm. “Though the manor is big, I’m usually found in the outer study. I rest in the study as well, so you can just come find me there.”
“I’ve been ‘kidnapped’ here after all, so we have to keep up the act some.”
“I’d want to keep you ‘tied up’ in the study, but that would be far too disrespectful to you, and the rest of the family would only look down on you if they saw. We’ll have to do things this way for now.”Previous Chapter Next Chapter