His adeptness at concealing his emotions meant that no one knew his true feelings, and he certainly never expressed them in front of Qin Yining. It was because he never put any sort of pressure on her that he was able to remain by her side as her friend and companion.
Perhaps that was enough.
Since Pang Xiao was the only one in Qin Yining's heart, him forcing things that could not be would not only result in nothing at all, but also mean damaging his friendship with her. He was better off burying those feelings that could never be returned, shoving them deep inside his heart as his own personal keepsake.
He couldn’t quite keep an open mind about everything yet; he frequently lamented at the thought of how Qin Yining would never be his. However, if his silence was the price to pay to stay by her side as a friend for the rest of his days, such a trade-off was the best outcome for him.
Lu Heng couldn't help laughing at himself as he considered this.
At the end of the day, he was still a merchant who constantly sought to maximize the benefits of his every action. If he were truer to his own heart or a person who felt more intensely, he would’ve rather died honorably as a fractured piece of jade than live disgracefully as a broken tile—such was the heroic thing to do. However, all he did was calculate his gains and losses.
As he dwelled upon this, the sounds of people conversing outside traveled into the room.
He recognized their accent to be that of the south. If they’d spoken any more quickly, he wouldn't have been able to discern what they were saying. Therefore, someone like Uncle Alham who was only passable in the language of Great Zhou, wouldn't understand them at all.
Qin Yining, however, found the dialect they spoke to be similar to that of the tongue of Great Yan, so she had no trouble comprehending them.
"The Prince of Xiyue has brought people here." Qin Yining murmured before hurrying to take a seat off to the side. The others moved to their own places and acted as if they’d just been idly chatting away.
Qin Yining even went so far as to ask those outside about the local customs. "How are the sights around here? Is this winter in this oasis, or is it summer? How is it that I feel that it is colder here than in the desert?"
Zhou Meng's voice drew nearer—perhaps drawn by the sound of Qin Yining speaking—his words tinged with mirth as he replied, "To be honest, Xiyue tends to be quite a bit colder than it is outside. It is also much windier here, but we have the Xiyue Lake to thank for feeding the entire oasis and watering the trees, flora and greenery that keep the sandstorms in Xiyue small."
It seemed that the tribe had claimed the oasis as their own after they came across the place.
Qin Yining stood and continued, "It is rather warm in the palace, yet my guards seem to be dressed for colder weather."
Zhou Meng laughed heartily. "That is because the palace incorporated heated walls and brick beds when it was built. Since Miss Pang is still recovering from your illness, of course we must choose the warmest quarters for you."
"Many thanks to Your Grace, then." Qin Yining nodded.
Zhou Meng clasped his hands behind his back, his eyes shining as he stared at Qin Yining. Seeing that color had returned to her face after seeing her own people, he found himself feeling content.
It seemed that to please beautiful women, one had to do as they wished. When pretty women were in good spirits, their smiles were also pretty, which pleased him all the more.
Where was the harm in coddling a delicate lady as beautiful as she?
Having made up his mind, Zhou Meng leaned down a bit closer with his hands behind his back. "I have arranged for your guards to visit you every day. Is that to your liking?" he asked with a smile.
Qin Yining elected to serve him tea at this moment, her body conveniently angling away from Zhou Meng's advances.
"Wonderful tea!" Zhou Meng looked at the tea she served him, the glee in his smile growing as he took it for a sip. This green tea—which he usually found to be bland and tasteless—seemed full of sweetness.
From what Qin Yining could tell, Zhou Meng's mood had improved a great degree. Only then did she add sweetly, "Your Grace, I have wandered to a foreign land far away from my home and miss my hometown dearly.
“Of course I am delighted that Your Grace is kind enough to permit my people to visit me every day. However, I do not know anyone else in this palace, so it is a bit awkward to ask servants to do my bidding. Could Your Grace permit my people to stay here? I see that there are quite a few empty halls to spare, so it would require no extra effort to house them. I will also restrict their movements so that they cannot wander around your palace as they please."
Zhou Meng's eyes narrowed slightly as he slowly put down his tea.
"I should not refuse Miss Pang's wishes. However, the palace is the home of not only this prince’s wives and concubines, but also my sons and daughters as well. It would be rather inconvenient if outsiders were allowed inside."
At the sight of despondence and disappointment filling Qin Yining’s watery eyes, Zhou Meng immediately assumed that he had spoken too harshly and added, "How about this: I will allow them to visit everyday for four hours at a time, and I can also arrange servants to accompany you for walks. What do you think? I should mention that my daughters and wives all greatly admire the goddess and they are all gentle people. You will not feel lonely if they keep you company."
Qin Yining pursed her lips. "Very well. I ask that Your Grace not go back on his word. And about my cousin—he is only too concerned about me, so I ask that Your Grace set him free."
The sight of such a beauty furrowing her brows and pursing her lips was just too heart-wrenching—Zhou Meng practically wanted to immediately call for all of his most precious fruits and best-looking garments to cheer her up. Her wish was his command, and such a request wasn’t that unreasonable. They would all be family once she married him, anyway.
Thinking of this, Zhou Meng put on an air of generosity. "Though your cousin spoke quite out of turn and offended me, I will pursue the matter no more since Miss Pang has pleaded for leniency in his stead. Let him return to your people, then."
Only then did the hint of a smile grace Qin Yining's lips. "Many thanks to Your Grace."Previous Chapter Next Chapter