Qin Yining’s eyes widened, her lips trembling so much from anger that she was unable to unable to utter a single sound.
Li Qitian savored the response. “Oh? You didn’t carry her off?”
“No at all,” responded Pang Xiao confidently. “She threw herself at me.”
“You, you…” Qin Yining couldn’t even form a full sentence in her fury. Tears trickled down her face like pearls from a broken necklace. She choked out in the voice of a small, injured animal. “You go too far!”
Pang Xiao’s back was proudly ramrod straight; he cast only sidelong glances from the corners of his eyes to look at the girl. She was just a lowly ant in the dust, completely unworthy of a single iota of attention from him. The expression on his chiseled face was all the colder because of this contempt; the jeering curve to his lips heralded mockery that spewed forth every time he spoke, consigning her to the bottom of an unfathomable abyss.
Qin Yining’s body trembled like the branches of a tree besieged by the storm—a pitiable sight.
Li Qitian coughed, looking at Pang Xiao knowingly with a teasing expression.
The prince seemed to sense it as he turned to look back at the emperor, tenderness and hate that hadn’t been retracted in time flashing through his eyes. He also coughed, but to cover up the awkward moment as he’d realized Li Qitian had been looking right at him.
Meanwhile, the emperor felt as merry and content as if he’d drank a bowl of hot soup during the winter solstice. All of this was vastly more entertaining than a production of the opera ‘Romance of a Hairpin’!
He could tell that Pang Xiao did have a sliver of feelings for Qin Yining, but that sliver wasn’t strong enough to overcome the hatred of his father’s murder. That meant Li Qitian could officially be at ease in activating the Qins as a balancing force at court. He wouldn’t have to worry about the Qins forming a faction with Pang Xiao.
Speaking through her tears, Qin Yining knelt. “Your Majesty, please see to that justice be done! He denies it to my face and even twists the truth! This subject didn’t, didn’t voluntarily…” Any woman would be shy about the words to come, as evidenced by the girl’s flaming red face.
But it was impossible for Li Qitian to harshly punish Pang Xiao at this juncture.
The prince was his only confidante in the council, and there would be plenty of use for Pang Xiao in the future. The emperor wouldn’t allow the prince’s reputation to be damaged like this. Although Pang Xiao’s actions that day were common knowledge, Li Qitian still wanted to show imperial bias.
Besides, was a man supposed to turn on the pomp and circumstance when asking for the hand of his enemy’s daughter?
Obviously, this line of thought was off-limits when speaking to Qin Yining. She was the daughter of Qin Huaiyuan after all. It wouldn’t look too good if he neglected her due to favoring Pang Xiao too much.
“We will investigate this carefully. You are dismissed for now.”
Caught in mid-sob, Qin Yining lifted her head to look at Li Qitian. Hurt and sorrow flashed through her eyes, but headstrong insistence wouldn’t be tolerated in front of the emperor. She could only curtsey and follow the order. “This subject takes her leave.”
Li Guanwen led Qin Yining back out of the imperial study.
Pang Xiao couldn’t help but turn his head to track her departure. He didn’t collect his thoughts until the eunuchs had firmly closed the inner doors to block the cold air coming from outside. He righted his stance to meet Li Qitian’s teasing smile.
“Your Majesty, what are you looking at?” asked the prince awkwardly.
“It seems my wise younger brother has fallen into a honeyed trap.” There was only the two of them inside the hall, so the emperor’s tone was much warmer than usual. “Don’t blame Us for not warning you, that little beauty is a rose with thorns. Be careful not to prick yourself.
“Having some affection for her is one thing, just treat her as a toy. Don’t sink in too deep. Don’t forget how General Pang… anyways, what kind of beauty can’t us brothers get our hands on? You need to think of your reputation as well. Don’t give people something to talk about.”
Li Qitian’s words seemed to have come out of nowhere, but the provocation within was very plain to hear.
Though Pang Xiao could see right through his sworn brother’s intentions, he nodded in agreement without anything flickering through his face.
“How would your subject really do anything to her?” he bit off. “I will not suffer those who killed my father to live! Those I flayed back in the day weren’t enough to sate the call of vengeance. The origin of this evil hasn’t been uprooted yet!”
The response made Li Qitian fall silent.
If Pang Xiao truly dug his heels in and decided to oppose Qin Huaiyuan, then the emperor’s plan for balance at court would be ruined. This was the least desirable outcome, not to mention that Qin Huaiyuan was actually someone with real talent to his name. Li Qitian really did appreciate true talent.
Did I overdo it with the provocation just now?
Seeing the expression cross Li Qitian’s face, there was nothing in Pang Xiao’s heart other than clear understanding of the situation. He had fully seen through this ‘brother’ of his.
But outwardly, struggle and resignation vied in his face. He finally conceded with consideration, “I know that Your Majesty values talent, and that Qin Meng does have a good thought or two rattling around his brain. I will do as Your Majesty wishes and refrain from starting anything with him. Of course, that doesn’t apply if they’re the ones to stir up trouble first.”
Li Qitian nodded with satisfaction after receiving this promise. “With your fame, how will they dare try anything at all? But the Qins have arrived at the capital with the exception of Qin Meng. The men We’ve sent out haven’t found anything at all. This really is a headache. Hopefully no accident’s befallen Qin Meng, hmm?”
Yet another probing.
“Perhaps he got lost when he was separated. Who knows? Maybe the heavens know of his deep sins and have meted justice on my behalf!”
The response displeased Li Qitian, but it confirmed that the Qins wouldn’t be friends with the Pangs. The emperor didn’t want to dwell on this and changed the conversation to discussing matters of policy after Pang Xiao had entered the council.
By now, Qin Yining had washed her face in the side hall, smoothed some lotion over her face, and redone her hair.
Those who serve in the palace are attentive, alright!
Her attitude was exceedingly cautious since the head eunuch himself was attending to her. Li Guanwen wanted to make friends with her, so they treated each other with extreme politeness and goodwill.
When she’d cleaned herself up, she clambered into a covered cart for use inside the palace and left escorted by young eunuchs.
It was a bit chilly inside the vehicle, which was a perfect environment for her to calm down and collect her thoughts.
Suddenly, the slow-moving, wax wallpapered cart stopped.
“What is it?” asked Qin Yining out of curiosity.
No one responded.
Alarm clanged in the girl’s heart, and she was just about to lift the curtains for a look when they were lifted from the outside.
Two young girls dressed in opulent clothing stood in front of the carriage.
One of them was wreathed with a dignified and noble air; the other dressed in red was a familiar face, the Princess of Anyang. Standing next to her was a young, married woman in the prime of her beauty. 
The young woman was of average height, but had a full figure. A cape with a red, fox fur collar was flung around her shoulders, making a set with the rabbit-fur hand warmers of the same color, embedded with rubies, around her hands. Her makeup was exquisite, her lips glistening and full. Though she was a bit older than Li Helan, her looks firmly crushed those of the princess’.
Who out of high society could stand side-by-side with the princess and walk about freely in the palace?
Li Helan smiled. “Don’t feel at odds, Miss Qin. It’s rare that we have a girl of a similar age entering the palace. Big sister Lu and I had some free time and came to visit when we heard you were here.”
Evidently, they were familiar enough that Li Helan called the young madame ‘big sister’, instead of just madame. Young Madame Lu didn’t think anything untoward of the honorific either, and was seizing up Qin Yining with curiosity.
1. The idiom used for this also means she’s 24 years old, but it felt kind of weird just writing that from one glance.
Sigh, the only thing worse than a competent fool in power, like Yuchi Yan, is a smart villain in power.