Qin Yining looked at the prince with confusion when she saw Huzi’s strange expression and how the strategists seemed to be biting their tongues.
Pang Xiao was forthright. “I hadn’t expected that Ji Lan would ask to wed the princess. Their interest in each other wasn’t apparent before.”
But the interest between you and the Grand Princess was apparent! Huzi thought wildly. Are you sure you want to talk of this in front of the fourth miss?
Xie Yue and Xu Weizhi knew of the inside information, so their expressions were a bit awkward as well.
Qin Yining turned over the prince’s words and smiled. “There wasn’t mutual interest between the princess and the marquis, but there was… with you?”
Dead silence reigned inside the study.
Huzi silently backed up a few steps, like he wanted to escape the eye of a storm.
The strategists also looked at each other, not sure if they should prudently take their leave.
“After we overthrew the tyrant of Northern Ji, I was often by His Majesty’s side. After we swore brotherhood, I grew close with the Jis. We often visited each other, and the family elders would often joke about me and the princess.”
“I see.” Qin Yining nodded understandingly. “How old is the grand princess? Since she’s the sister of the emperor, she must be at a more advanced age?”
Pang Xiao smiled. “The empress dowager welcomed the grand princess at an advanced age. The princess is a full eighteen years younger than His Majesty. She’s about the same age as the emperor’s children. Therefore, he has only this younger sister. The princess showed high intelligence when young, which naturally drew His Majesty’s affection. I once thought that he wanted to bestow the princess onto me as a way to depend our bonds of brotherhood.
Here, he paused and declared seriously, “But I feel nothing for her in this regard.”
Qin Yining nodded slightly and turned to Huzi. “You just said that the Marquis of Northern Stability was the one who sought out the emperor. He brought up the topic of marrying the princess?”
“Yes, that’s what everyone’s saying outside.” A perplexed expression crossed his face as Huzi didn’t understand what Qin Yining was making a point of.
Pang Xiao immediately caught her drift. “Do you think that Ji Lan didn’t ask for this marriage of his own, free will?”
“A bit, but was there any hint before that something like this would happen?”
Pang Xiao carefully reflected on their shared history and shook his head. “Not at all. Ji Lan doesn’t like the princess. Anyang  kept her distance when young, but maybe Ji Lan suddenly changed his mind and likes her now.”
“That’s possible, but I’m thinking of another possibility. If the princess often heard family elders joke about the two of you when growing up, the hero worship and admiration from a little girl, and the hints and promises of the elders, would enable uncommon feelings to develop for you.”
Pang Xiao urgently wanted to explain when he heard this. “I don’t have anything going on with Anyang…”
“Your Highness, I’m not questioning you, I’m just objectively analyzing this matter. Just think about it. Does the princess like you? You’d be the clearest judge of this.”
It was so quiet inside the study that a pin drop could be heard. Pang Xiao sank into deep thought, as opposed to answering straight away.
“If there were ambiguous feelings between the two of you before, wouldn’t the marquis know? If he knew of it and still asked to marry the princess, then it would be at odds with him making a friendly gesture to you in the Great Yan convoy attack.”
The crowd was silent again.
Their conclusions earlier had been that Ji Zeyu had primarily done all that to extend an olive branch to Pang Xiao. Everything else had been afterthoughts or byproducts.
Thus, Ji Zeyu still wanted to be on good terms with Pang Xiao.
But if he knew of any relationship between the prince and the princess, and still asked for her hand in marriage, wouldn’t that be throwing their brotherhood away?
Therefore, Qin Yining’s idea was that despite how things seemed, the emperor had been the one to bestow marriage in this case, and Ji Zeyu had no choice but to follow imperial orders.
If explained this way, then all would be resolved.
The emperor had decreed the message, making it so that Ji Zeyu couldn’t decline. The imperial majesty had then told the outside world that it’d been Ji Zeyu making the request, thereby creating some bad blood between Ji Zeyu and Pang Xiao—the former candidate for a prince consort.
The most important thing was, the princess probably liked Pang Xiao. If she married the marquis with this kind of feeling, how would that not bother Ji Zeyu? Conflicts and complications would definitely crop up then.
All of these thoughts ran through Qin Yining’s mind, but nothing flickered through her expression. She didn’t plan on saying it out loud either. After all, it dealt with matters of the heart and she respected Pang Xiao’s privacy. She wouldn’t pursue this to the bitter end.
The strategists weren’t fools. Everyone was turning this over in their minds.
Pang Xiao thought for a moment and then smiled expansively. He stood with his hands behind his back and self-deprecated. “Isn’t this prince besieged on all sides with my current situation?”
He brandished his sleeves with a dashing flourish and a smile. “Think about it. The former Northern Ji officials hate me. The surrendered Great Yan officials are terrified of me. The brothers in the army are suspicious of me because of what happened with their pay before. The emperor’s stripped me of my command, and if even Ji Lan turns against me, then I really will be all alone.”
What Pang Xiao listed out was true, but not a hint of emotion accompanied it. In fact, he actually sounded like he was in a good mood.
However, even his strategists could feel the urgent stress of impending danger bearing down on him.
Li Qitian looked at the prim and proper girl kneeling in front of him. He rubbed his forehead with resignation and sighed. “Helan, how much longer do you plan on kneeling there?”
Grand Princess of Anyang, Li Helan, looked up at the emperor and choked back a sob. “Royal brother, you didn’t keep your word. You told me when I was a little girl that I’d be able to marry Pang Zhixi when I grew up. Now that you’re the most noble and respected man in the whole world, how would you not know what Lan’er wants? But you bestowed Lan’er onto Ji Lan! You know that we don’t get along! How am I supposed to live my life in the future?”
Li Helan’s features were daintily pretty, and she appeared even more pitiful when tears clung to her lashes.
Li Qitian had doted on this younger sister from the very beginning, and Li Helan was a very smart girl who knew when to press her advantage and when to retreat. Brother and sister had always had a good relationship, so Li Qitian felt pained too when Li Helan cried over this.
“You should rise. We’ve already made the decision, so it can’t be changed. Besides, what’s bad about Ji Lan? He’s stunningly handsome and knowledge in both civil and martial subjects. Isn’t he perfect to be your prince consort?"
“But Lan’er doesn’t like him. Royal brother, can’t you dote on me this one time and don’t marry me off to Ji Lan?”
Li Qitian rubbed his forehead again when a thought suddenly occurred to him. He replied with a heavy and awkward expression. “Helan, We won’t keep this from you anymore. Pang Zhixi has long had someone he likes and the girl is in his manor now. We know that you like Pang Zhixi, but you won’t be able to win over that girl. Pang Zhixi would never agree to it as well. You should just listen to what I’ve arranged for you. Would I ever lie to you?”
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Oh my word that emperor is a SNAKE. This was darned complicated! Do you guys think so too?