Qin Yining tilted her head back, accepting a fierce storm of kisses. The prince’s rigid arm felt like it would snap her waist in half. She could hear his muffled growls and huffs, like those of a trapped animal. The only response was for her to reach up and encircle his neck to massage his scalp reassuringly.
Pang Xiao’s kisses gradually slowed and became more gentle, as if apologizing for their violence earlier. He traced her reddened, swollen lips with his tongue and clasped her lovingly when their lips parted.
“My darling, you’re so wonderful that I long presumed you’re mine. If someone suddenly told me one day that you can’t be part of my future, I’m afraid I would go off the deep end.”
Qin Yining leaned against his shoulder and nuzzled into him like a cute kitten. “That won’t come true. Believe me, I can take care of this. Just let me think of a good plan first.”
“Alright, I know you’re smart and will definitely find a way. Tell me whatever you want me to do. I’ll do anything you say.”
His exceptional caution both touched and distressed Qin Yining. His straits were difficult enough. She had to handle her matters well so that he wouldn’t worry about them.
“Your Highness, Your Highness!” Huzi’s voice suddenly travelled in from outside. “His Majesty has arrived! Hurry and prepare to receive the emperor!”
Qin Yining started, quickly extracting herself from Pang Xiao’s embrace to search for a place to hide.
He pointed at a room divider in a side room. Understanding, she immediately ran for the black lacquered, redwood divider.
She’d just slipped behind it when a round of hearty laughter travelled inside the front hall.
Pang Xiao pushed open the doors and had servants lift the door curtains. He quickly knelt to make a gesture of greeting. “Your Majesty! Your Majesty’s glorious arrival brings honor to this humble abode. Why didn’t you send word ahead so that proper preparations should’ve been made?”
Mouthing respect and deference, Pang Xiao brimmed with confusion. He’d just handed Li Helan over to the emperor. Though he hadn’t said anything harsh, His Majesty was certainly the type of person to still think of it as a great loss of face. But what was he doing here after such a short period of time?
Did resentment drive him, or guilt? Dissatisfaction, or were other plots afoot?
“Pease do rise, sage younger brother.” Li Qitian lifted Pang Xiao with both hands and walked hand in hand to the front hall together. He took the head seat with a smile. “We had thought you would be with your elders or in the study. But We asked the servants only to find you here! It’s quite drafty in this front hall, be careful of catching a cold.”
The line of conversation seemed ordinary, but it was full of hidden meanings and probing intent.
Pang Xiao snapped to mental attention. It would seem that everything that had happened earlier had fallen into Li Qitian’s ears. The emperor might not know the particulars, but he knew that the old dowager had come to visit, left cursing and screaming, and been chased a block away by a big, black dog.
“Many thanks for Your Majesty’s concern.” Pang Xiao stood by the side with his head lowered. “There were guests just now and they left not long ago. This subject was originally going to keep grandmother and the others company.”
“So We see.” Li Qitian nodded.
Li Guanwen respectfully offered tea.
The emperor took it and dismissed the eunuch, along with his other followers. When no one was left in the hall, he smiled. “Take a seat while we chat. We’re all brothers here, why be so restrained?”
“Many thanks to Your Majesty.” Pang Xiao bowed with cupped fists and took a seat on a nearby round chair.
“It’s the annual grand court meeting tomorrow.  We’ve made this visit to discuss something with younger brother.”
Behind the divider, Qin Yining held her breath in concentration and didn’t dare make the slightest sound. Her brows were knit tightly out of puzzlement.
Li Qitian took a sip of tea and continued with a pleasant expression. “We are immensely gratified and thankful that sage younger brother pacified the southern disorder. Out of consideration for younger brother’s health, We had you rest for a while and didn’t bestow rewards or titles on you. You don’t blame Us, do you?”
“Now what kind of words are these, Your Majesty?” Pang Xiao responded blithely. “You know this subject’s character the best. I’m used to being idle and hate all that troublesome nonsense. I followed Your Majesty in fighting our way across the world so that one day, I would be able to live it up without having to worry about anything else! My life now is exactly what I wanted, and all this is because of Your Majesty.
“I can’t thank Your Majesty enough, why would I blame you? Besides, if it wasn’t for Your Majesty, where would all my glory and fortune be now? Your Majesty is a man of your word and you’ve made good on all of your promises. Your subject could cry tears of gratitude!”
The words moved Li Qitian some. “Ai! It’s all in the past, but my heart still quails when I think about it now…”
When Qin Yining heard Li Qitian start to wax nostalgic and grow sentimental, she couldn’t help but compliment Pang Xiao’s response.
It was her first time seeing Pang Xiao interact with Li Qitian. She finally understood why, though Li Qitian was so wary of Pang Xiao, he hadn’t erupted in open hostilities with the prince.
On one hand, the emperor probably didn’t have the confidence to be at Pang Xiao’s throat. On the other were the results of the prince’s continual displays of meek subservience. He indicated weakness whenever possible and brought up the hot-blooded memories of yesteryear when appropriate. Not only would this relax Li Qitian’s guard, but it also instilled some reservation from taking action thanks to their historical closeness.
But most of all, Qin Yining felt heartache for Pang Xiao. She really didn’t want her man to be bullied, but they had no other choice since they were on someone else’s chopping block.
After a round of reminiscing the past and honoring fallen brothers, Li Qitian rose and clapped Pang Xiao’s shoulder. “How would We not know your temperament? But you’re a man of great talent and We can’t bear to bury your skills. We’ve made a close observation of things during this time and after careful thought, have decided to have you join the Grand Secretariat. Be a Grand Secretary and Our right hand man.”
Having absorbed the lessons of Northern Ji’s system of a chancellor grasping sole authority, Great Zhou had abolished that structure and changed to one of the Grand Secretariat.
This organization was the most distinguished and influential body in central government. Staffed with one Senior Grand Secretary, one Secondary Secretary, and rounded out by Grand Secretaries, it was made of three to seven people jointly sharing power. All matters were laid out for general discussion, with final decisions determined by voting. The Senior Grand Secretary had two votes, while the others had one vote each.
Li Qitian said portentously, “Younger brother, you fought through the world by Our side, nothing private has ever been kept from you. Even though We sit on the dragon throne, who knows how many truly accept Our rule? The officials form factions and cliques, each pursuing their own agenda. They appear deferential on the surface, but everyone has their own motives.
“Take the current Grand Secretariat, for example. Right now, the Senior Grand Secretary is one of the old adherents of Northern Ji. He’s a highly respected person with immense moral integrity, and enjoys great prestige at court. If We want to form good relations with the old Northern Ji officials and have them obey imperial commands, special attention must be paid on this front. The Secondary Secretary is alright. Zhou Min is Our father-in-law and one of us.
“But things are taking a turn now. The Senior Grand Secretary has set foot beyond seventy years of age and petitioned his desire to retire. We permitted it, leaving the seat empty. Naturally the Secondary Secretary is the one for it, which still leaves an opening in the Grand Secretariat. You are Our confidante and will have one vote within the organization. With Our Father-in-law having two votes, that makes three votes for our camp. You’ll be able to suppress the other two Northern Ji holdouts. It’ll be whatever us brothers say when it comes to any affairs of state!”
1. This does have historical roots. It’s a once a year tradition in which a hundred officials meet the emperor. Treated as an annual checkup to grade everyone’s accomplishments, it’s either usually held in October or January. It’s also a chance to display the ostentatious pomp of the palace.
I hope the last bit of political talk wasn't too esoteric? I tried to break it down plainly.
And LOL. Anyone else get sudden danmei vibes between the two men? XDDD