When Xueyue arrived at the main entrance of the Li Manor on top of a malnourished and blind horse, the household staff were bewildered and surprised. Above all, they didn't expect to witness her tall and proud stature, as if she was made for that spot. It suited her well and it was the first time they had seen her with so much confidence.
When one of the handmaids came forward with the stable boy, Xueyue brushed their help aside and glided off the horse with ease.
Xueyue's soft hands brushed against the horse's mangled mane. He nudged his head closer to her palm. "This is Heiyue," she said to the stable boy. "Please handle him lightly and treat him very, very well. If he doesn't want to walk or be brushed, leave him be. Don't roughly grab his reins or whip him."
The stable boy immediately nodded his head and took the rein that Xueyue offered him. "Under no circumstances may you hurt him. Is that clear?" she demanded.
The stable boy gave her a curt nod. "Of course, Young Miss."
"Will you guide me to the stables?"
He blinked at her question before rapidly nodding again. He hadn't expected her to go from firm to soft in a matter of seconds. "Right away, Young Miss." He took her in the direction of the stables, but never dared to step in front of her.
Xueyue intently watched as the stable boy led Heiyue to a clean stall. It was large and had ample room for Heiyue to easily lie down and rest. She watched the stable boy's every move when he fed and groomed Heiyue. The stable boy was gentle in his actions and fondly took care of the horse as if his life depended on it.
Only then did Xueyue relax and decided to head towards the main house. Her group of quiet maidservants and hidden guards quietly followed her, but immediately paused in their steps when Xueyue stopped in front of the doorway.
"Oh, I almost forgot." She turned to face the stable boy."Please let him roam the open fields if he wants to," she said with a smile.
The stable boy's eyes widened at her friendly smile, almost momentarily awestruck by it before Heiyue roughly nudged him on the back, as if demanding for him to reply. "O-of course, Young Miss."
Xueyue's smile brightened as her gaze turned to Heiyue who snorted and stomped the ground. "I'll see you later, little one," she said to him, even though he didn't understand her. She glanced back one last time before striding off.
By the time Xueyue had walked into the main house, Li Chenyang was already home, and grumbling to himself in the foyer. He didn't like losing to a blind horse with thin legs. He knew he shouldn't have let his guards down.
His mind flashed back to the memory of Heiyue racing towards the trading port. Heiyue was so nimble and swift, all Li Chenyang saw was a whir of black.
When Li Chenyang heard a small commotion outside that signaled the arrival of a carriage, he thought it was Li Wenmin returning home. He was proven wrong when he headed outside and saw an extravagant carriage of the Imperial Family.
His mood dipped when all of the Li servants came out. They lined the walkway and entrance, with their hands tucked in front of them. When the carriage door opened, all the servants bowed.
A dainty maidservant from the imperial family stepped in front of the carriage door, went down on her knees and bowed her head to the ground, allowing herself to be a human step stool. One golden-pointed shoe stepped on the maidservant's back, and the other leg followed when another maidservant walked forward to help the woman out of the carriage.
Duchess Li tried to not strain her smile at how spoiled the Imperial Consort was. The era was progressing and not many people saw it was necessary to use a human as a stepping stool.
"Greetings to Imperial Consort, Gu Feiying!" the servants chanted when they lowered themselves onto the floor in a grand and deep bow.
Li Chenyang cursed under his breath. 'That fourth prince's mouth sure tattle fast. He really cried to his mommy! What a baby.'
Li Chenyang kept himself hidden behind a pillar when the Duchess came out and stood in front of the main entrance to greet the guest.
Duchess Li Qixing wore a graceful and warm smile. As always, she was dressed to perfection in a beautiful forest green hanfu. Her hair was intricately wrapped around hairpins with dangling gems, since it was the latest fashion.
She had already anticipated Imperial Consort Gu Feiying's arrival.
"Imperial Consort Gu, it has been a while." Duchess Li bent her legs for a tiny curtsy out of respect, even though she didn't have to. She was the emperor's treasured younger sister, one that he had watched grow up. To him, she was more important than all of his consorts.
Li Chenyang silently praised his mother's unwavering spirit. His father was still in court dealing with the emperor. Duke Li Shenyang was very busy preparing for a war that might erupt between the Wuyi Empire and the Hanjian Empire.
While Duke Li Shenyang was away, Duchess Li Qixing was the Master of the house. And she did her job perfectly.
Imperial Consort Gu didn't even spare the Duchess a glance as her eyes swept over the expansive and artfully decorated mansion. It was a sight to behold and evidently one of the best houses in the capital.
The garden was neatly trimmed and not a single petal was out of place. Her eyes flashed with envy. This place sure lived up to its expectations and price. The house was constructed by the best master craftsmen, analyzed by a Feng Shui master, and blessed by the highest monk of a renowned temple located in a remote forest.
Imperial Consort Gu was too busy finding a flaw in the house to bother greeting the duchess, her sister-in-law.
Duchess Li Qixing, who was familiar with the woman's bad temper, didn't drop her smile. Instead, she maintained her raised chin with dignity.
Voice like honey, and eyes like a fawn, Imperial Consort Gu Feiying spoke, "Ah, pardon my manners. I forgot to greet you." She gracefully fluttered her fan before giggling. "But then again, there is no need for formalities. We are, after all, sisters-in-law."
With beauty that no woman could match, a voluptuous body with bountiful assets, and a gaze so alluring and seductive, it was no wonder why the emperor married her.
Her beauty came from being a pampered princess from another kingdom. She was young and married the emperor the minute her menstrual cycle started. From being a princess spoiled by her father, the imperial consort was haughty and ill-tempered. She wanted everything to go her way and it almost always does. She was currently the emperor's favorite consort.
Duchess Li Qixing's face remained kind and gentle. She didn't flinch at the subtle insult thrown at her.
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Imperial Consort Gu Feiying was poking at the fact that the Duchess had bowed when they were practically at the same rank. All they had to do was give out pleasant exchanges. She was purposely trying to embarrass the outstanding Duchess.
But Duchess Li Qixing was already far too familiar with these types of women. Her older brother was the emperor, what was there to be afraid of? Would the man choose his blood-related sister or a bed warmer?
The answer was clear.
"Of course, Mei-mei . How could I ever forget?" Duchess Li Qixing walked forward, her smile wider and faker than before.
Imperial Consort Gu's smile became strained at the subtle jab that she was younger than the Duchess, thus, she was supposed to show respect towards the superior senior.
"Come, let's not stand outside. I know your body is very fragile, and I'm afraid you might catch a cold. I fear my beloved brother would fret over it." Duchess Li Qixing's words seemed welcoming and kind to the naive ears of her servants, but the smarter maidservants knew this conversation was an exchange of insults.
Beloved brother… She was clearly pointing out how much the emperor doted on the Duchess — sometimes more than his consorts.
The imperial consort let out a light chuckle and continued to fan herself. Her sleeves slipped a bit lower, revealing her decorated wrist and hand, filled with blinding jewelry. She was attempting to mock the humble Duchess who only wore special accessories when she left the manor.
The servants tried to not oogle and stare at it in awe, and a few of them were failing at masking their emotions.
"Of course, Jie-jie . I've yet to see your manor," Imperial Consort Gu Feiying grounded out, her voice never faltering when her eyes shone with bright animosity.
Duchess Li Qixing laughed and lightly patted the woman's hand. "Come now, let me guide you on a tour. We can discuss the matter of your visit over tea."
Her eyes met a pair of eyes far ahead in the house. She could tell it was her son. She nodded once and Li Chenyang instantly understood the message: Hide Li Xueyue at all costs.
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