Despite his complicated mixture of feelings, Lu Heng was gratified that Pang Xiao had come in search of Qin Yining. This proved she hadn't placed her future in the hands of the wrong person.
Pang Xiao was a true, honest man who was utterly devoted to his wife.
The average person might be oblivious to the inner workings of court, but having been born into the Lu family, Lu Heng had spent many years in its midst and was clearer than anyone about the complicated web between nobles and the imperial family.
Pang Xiao must have endured untold hardships to pass through the no man's land in order to locate Qin Yining in Tatar. In addition to the excruciating pressure he was under, it was highly probable that he’d willingly handed over leverage that could be used against him. At the very least, his family had been exposed to danger by his departure from the capital.
Furthermore, he’d left the country with just two dozen of his comrades and headed into enemy territory, then put his life on the line by entering the desert to search for Qin Yining.
Desert terrain constantly shifted around and danger lurked in all directions, especially with sandstorms that brewed without forewarning. They were very likely to put themselves on the path to the afterlife before they even found who they were looking for.
For Pang Xiao to rescue Qin Yining at the most critical hour, despite all the odds stacked against him, was proof enough of his dedication toward her.
Lu Heng was happy for Qin Yining, that she had someone like that who treated her with such genuine sincerity. Had the prince not made it in time, she would’ve met her end today. The thought of that alternate reality sent another shudder of fear through him.
"Why did you agree to the Xiyue prince’s insolent request?" Instead of replying to Qin Yining's questions, Lu Heng responded with a rhetorical one. "If the Faithful Prince of the First Rank hadn’t arrived in time, what would you have done? Would you truly have gone through with your wedding to that sorry excuse of a prince?"
"Of course not," Qin Yining retorted with a hint of embarrassment. "I was... I was prepared to kill him."
"So you’d kill him, then get yourself killed by his guards? How could you do that to your family and friends?" Lu Heng frowned ferociously as he couldn't help rebuking, "I told you long ago that so long as you think about yourself, we will be understanding of anything you choose to do. Yet you chose to sacrifice yourself! If you really did that, do you think the Minuo would be able to live with themselves??"
Somewhat bewildered by his scolding, the sight of Lu Heng's deathly pallor and Uncle Alham's tear-filled eyes made Qin Yining sigh. "I apologize. All I wanted was for as many of us to stay alive as possible, I didn’t consider much beyond that."
"Because you thought you’d never see your family again in this lifetime, so you decided to throw it all to the wind, even if it meant your death, is that it?" Lu Heng's question was razor sharp, his attitude forceful.
His words precisely echoed Qin Yining's inner thoughts, but having her intentions revealed in front of Pang Xiao and his subordinates in this manner left her rather flustered.
She’d never been the sort to express herself candidly and would never casually murmur sweet nothings, much less confess her sentiments directly to Pang Xiao.
Now that her husband knew she’d decided to end matters with her life because the possibility of returning to Great Zhou was no longer probable, it all felt… well, things were rather awkward.
Pang Xiao, however, only felt a bittersweet sensation tug at his heart, as if a little feather lathered in honey had gently brushed against it. The thought of Qin Yining suffering so much had his heart aching beyond description. He only wished he could turn back time and tie himself to her side so that she’d never have to risk herself or suffer any humiliation ever again.
He sighed as he wrapped an arm around his wife’s shoulder. The rare sight of her rendered speechless like a child who’d been harshly scolded had him stepping in to lighten the atmosphere. "Brother Lu, well met. It has been a while."
Having said his piece, Lu Heng felt it inappropriate to continue this emotional outburst in front of Pang Xiao. He cautiously reined himself in before raising a cupped fist salute.
"Your Highness, I must apologize for my outburst. Her Highness and I have become good friends during this time as we’ve been through so much together. I couldn’t help myself when I saw her risk herself like that."
Sharp as Pang Xiao was, he’d already seen through Lu Heng from afar when he brought Qin Yining back to the campsite. Previous rumors swirled and his own observations had already led Pang Xiao to confirm that yes indeed, the Lu scion had developed deep feelings for Qin Yining.
If he were to say he wasn’t jealous, that would be a complete lie.
But Lu Heng had kept himself in check, and it seemed he hadn’t overstepped his boundaries. Qin Yining seemed oblivious to everything, and Pang Xiao had never for one second doubted her loyalty to him. As men, there was no need to develop a grudge and denounce someone's character over something like this.
Though Lu Heng fancied Qin Yining, he had held himself back and acted rationally. That was actually quite commendable.
Such thoughts flashed through his mind but for a moment. He returned the salute with great sincerity. "Say no more, Brother Lu. I understand. My wife's safety was ensured entirely because Brother Lu spared no effort in protecting her. I will be sure to repay you for this great favor in the future!"
Seeing Pang Xiao salute Lu Heng so seriously, the Elite Tigers saluted together as well. "Many thanks to Second Master Lu!" they thundered in unison.
Such a display was both stunning and intimidating.
Though a sour tang remained on Lu Heng's tongue, he forced himself to take it all calmly as he’d already come to terms with things.
"There’s no need for such courtesy, Your Highness. Though we weren’t close acquaintances before, I see now that Your Highness is a man of great magnanimity. I deeply admire that. I didn’t do anything particularly worthy of note, either. It’s only right for fellow citizens of Great Zhou to help one another in the face of danger in foreign territory."
Pang Xiao couldn't help but give a subtle nod. In front of all his Elite Tigers, Lu Heng credited his actions to "fellow citizens of Great Zhou helping one another", which meant he had Qin Yining's virtue in mind. He found himself rather impressed by the other’s thoughtfulness.
Admiration for you, admiration for you, and admiration for all of you!