Multiple rejections in a row highly displeased Zhou Meng. The two officials sitting beside him were very familiar with his temperament and could tell that their prince was on the verge of flying into a rage.
In Xiyue, his word was law, especially when it came to women. No woman in the oasis would ever reject becoming his. Hence, Qin Yining’s repeated refusals build his mounting frustration. He’d wanted to be charming and gently woo her, but continual failure had completely sapped his patience. An abrupt return to his overweening, tyrannical ways was in order.
“Fine then, forget it since you don’t want to drink or eat. This prince invited you to this banquet tonight as there is a matter to be explained to you in front of all of the officials.”
The hall stilled into utter silence when his voice rang out. Fully aware of the situation, families of the court officials tactfully withdrew, leaving only Zhou Meng and a dozen or so officials in addition to Qin Yining and the three people she’d brought.
Meanwhile, Zhou Meng’s two dozen soldiers placed their hands on their sword hilts, spreading themselves out in a semicircle around Qin Yining and ready to spring into action at any time.
Her bright eyes scanned the room before she smiled. “Pray tell, Your Grace.”
“Your arrival was just as described in our sacred texts, so everyone truly believes you are the ‘goddess’ who can bring us food and a plentiful harvest.” Zhou Meng didn’t beat around the bush. “I don’t refute that notion, but there’s no denying that for some explicable reason, you and your tribesmen were chased into this no man’s land. This is a truth that no one can deny, am I right?”
“The truth is whatever you choose it to be.” Qin Yining only chuckled softly.
“Then I will be frank. Our tribe has occupied this land for a hundred years and we have always worried that the oasis’ resources are finite. Sooner or later, we will consume all of what this land has to offer. Because of that, we’ve always been searching for a way out.
“We’ve been at it for a hundred years to no avail, so what are your chances when you’ve just arrived? So, I’ll say something that probably no one wants to hear: I’m afraid that you and your tribesmen will never leave.”
Qin Yining’s heart pounded fiercely; she knew that Zhou Meng was speaking the truth. When they’d been harried into this no man’s land by the Tatars, she’d already known that it was highly unlikely that she’d ever be able to leave or see her family again. But although she understood that, it was still different when someone actually said it aloud.
She’d been numbing herself to the future. Ever since waking up from her feverish delirium, she’d forced herself not to think about things, to just take each day one at a time.
Zhou Meng had callously thrown back the curtains for the harsh rays of truth to pierce into her heart. The despair that she’d kept carefully under wraps rushed out uncontrollably like the tides. It was as if she’d suddenly been tossed into the frigid ocean. The freezing chill around her and feeling of drowning suffocation made it seem better to just die.
However wracked with pain and suffering, she didn’t reveal any of it. She would never give them any leverage they could use.
Her only outward reaction a slight smile, Qin Yining rebutted, “Your Grace’s analysis is only one side of the story. Just because you can’t doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t.”
“Stop trying to act calm, no one here’s an idiot.” Zhou Meng gave a short, mocking laugh. “You won’t be able to leave this patch of desert!”
He rose and strode down the stairs before turning around, his long robes flourishing open behind him as he spread his arms wide.
“You say you can walk out of the desert? If you can, why would you have aimlessly run here? Let me tell you something, this desolate place claims at least a dozen of our tribespeople every year! Those who are lucky enough to return say that the landforms outside change in the blink of an eye. Flat land one moment and sandy dunes the next!
“The environment is hellish and capricious. Sandstorms whip up at the drop of a hat, turning the world into such a blur that not even the color of the sky can be seen! The wind will force you to shut your eyes tightly and when you reopen them, you won’t be able to tell which direction you came from. There is no such thing as orientation or a sense of direction!
“You’ll have no food, no water, and no direction! All you’ll have is an aimless wander in a vile environment. Are you afraid yet? You’ve already experienced it once and nearly lost your life, but now you have the courage to boast you can leave the desert? How truly admirable, ahaha!”
Qin Yining knew that everything Zhou Meng said was true. Yet still the expression on her face didn’t change, and her cape hid how her hands clenched into fists so tight that fingernails dug into skin to form crescent-shaped marks.
It was because she knew this odious prince was speaking the truth that each and every sentence stabbed into the heart. What she’d said about leaving the desert was indeed a boast, an attempt to raise her own spirits.
She just couldn’t believe that she would be forever separated from her family like this, forced to spend the rest of her life in an oasis isolated from the rest of the world.
When Zhou Meng saw Qin Yining remain as indifferent as before, completely unmoved, he launched into his next spiel.
“You are their chief, so you are responsible for their wellbeing. Since you can’t leave, you are foreordained to stay here for a lifetime. Why not consider my proposal from earlier?
“The best way to connect two tribes is through marriage. The only way to have my tribesmen accept yours and share the desert’s resources is by us marrying first. You won’t disregard your tribesmen’s lives just for your own selfishness, will you?”
Upon saying that, Zhou Meng threw a meaningful look at the soldiers behind Qin Yining. The twelve immediately unsheathed their sharp swords and struck a stance, ready to fight.
Ulan and Surnaa cried out in fear, but dashed in front of Qin Yining to shield their chief. Uncle Alham’s stance was even more clear as he prepared to wrest a weapon for himself by force. His own had been confiscated when they entered the palace.
“You’d best agree right now. Otherwise, my soldiers will raid your tribe’s camp and the three by your side will be killed.” Zhou Meng struck a pose with his hands behind his back, loftily looking down at Qin Yining.
A frosty gaze boring into her from the side, Qin Yining turned calm in the face of a crazed Zhou Meng.
“So Your Grace means for me to marry you?” Her voice was soft and gentle, a complete contrast to the tense, hostile state of the palace hall.
Zhou Meng’s face lit up as he nodded. “Precisely. If you marry me and become my princess consort, your tribespeople will further intermarry with mine and our two tribes will fuse into one. We will live and thrive in the oasis together while searching for a way out. This way, we will no longer have to guard against one another and can jointly share the resources. Even if we can’t leave, the supplies you brought are enough to continue farming and become self-sufficient. That would be just as well!”
If Qin Yining wasn’t already married and didn’t love Pang Xiao, such an arrangement would indeed be the best way to maximize mutual gain. It wouldn’t be displeasing to her either, because she used to hold the notion that marriage was something arranged by the parents and matchmaker.
It was commonplace to not know if one’s husband was a hero or an idiot before the wedding day. If one ended up marrying a brute, that was just bad luck. That was why she’d never really cared about who she was going to marry.
But the problem now was that she had someone in her heart. No proper woman would serve two men, so how could she just marry somebody else?
Refraining from an immediate reply, she asked, “Your Grace makes sense, but you already have four consorts. Your sacred texts say that the ‘goddess’ is to be the princess consort. Shouldn’t that mean being the official wife?”
Zhou Meng was delighted to see that she was actually considering it. “That’s easy! If you agree to marry me, I don’t want any of them! I’ll drive those four and all of the concubines out, how about that?”
The officials in the hall drew in a sharp breath. They hadn’t expected the prince to go so far just for a woman! He was going to disband the royal harem for her!
Goosebumps rose on Qin Yining’s skin when she noted Zhou Meng’s ardent stare; she forced the disgust off her face with great effort.
Zhou Meng sneered when the woman remained silent.
“You can refuse, but let me go one step further with the truth. Your tribe’s camp is already surrounded and I’ve arranged for an ambush. I’m also ready with large quantities of oil to burn it all to the ground! Why else do you think I selected the most desolate campsite for you?
“I will call it off if you agree to my proposal. If you don’t agree, I will make your tribe pay the price. I’ve never run into any trouble in my life and always get whatever I want! There’s no need for me to continuously bow my head and fawn over you. I’d rather forgo those supplies of yours and rather that none of you ever appeared!
As he said that, Zhou Meng took a few steps forward and placed his hands on the table in front of Qin Yining to lean forward. “Try it if you don’t believe me!”
The soldiers behind Qin Yining also brandished their swords, nearly stabbing into Ulan and Surnaa.
Large beads of anxious sweat rolled down Uncle Alham’s face as he shouted angrily, “You bastards! I’ve never seen a man so shameless as to threaten a woman to marry him!”
“You’d better keep that mouth of yours clean! All of your lives are in my hands!”
Mouth open for another retort, Uncle Alham’s words were cut off when Qin Yining made a calming gesture. She was analyzing the present situation.
Zhou Meng was mercurial and accustomed to being overbearing and arrogant. He was certainly used to everyone falling in line and the world catering to his whims. He was the center of his world, and from the two days she’d known him, he was the type to dig in his heels for a moment’s petulance and care not a whit for the bigger picture.
In order words, he really would kill numerous people and burn down all of the supplies to obtain her. Even if it would make the people suffer, he would still be the grand and stately prince. As long as he could go through his days happily, he wouldn’t care if anyone else lived or died.Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Happiest of New Years!! We have finally sent 2020 off!!
Everyone, ten thousand and my deepest, deepest apologies for going MIA during the December holiday season. I failed epicly at keeping up with my schedule, and I'll try to make up some of the chapters that I missed out on.