When leaves are carried by the wind and the brittle branch is lined with snow, then the first sprout of flowers, and the cycle repeats, two years effortlessly trickled by.
Xueyue rode her well-trained horse, Heiyue, tall and proud as she returned back to the manor. As the trees outside of her window matured, so did she. Under the careful care and guidance of the Li Family, she became an ethereal beauty. A lone flower hidden deep in the manor, blooming only for those who deserved to see her allure.
When she eased off Heiyue, the stable boy immediately came forward with a gentle bow. "Welcome home, Young Miss."
Xueyue lightly patted the combed mane of her spoiled horse. True to her predictions, the two years they had spent together was enough to form a loyal bond.
Just like Xueyue, Heiyue had finely matured. He was a proud stallion built for stealth and speed. In the entire Capital, no one could ever outrun him. Of course… it was simply because he hadn't met his match in the form of another black stallion belonging to a mysterious Commander whose name had left Xueyue's mind.
"As usual, please take proper care of Heiyue, but please feed him a bit more than usual. We ran for a very long time today," she said while fondly patting the horse's majestic coat of black, a color deeper than the hues of midnight.
When Heiyue stomped the ground in protest and nudged closer to Xueyue, she quietly laughed and promised, "I'll come back tomorrow."
Heiyue snorted in protest. "Such a spoiled horse," she mused to herself. "Perhaps I will visit you this evening with a little treat."
Heiyue nudged her in agreement.
With one last pat, Xueyue nodded towards the stable boy who guided the horse into its stall. Wandering the halls, she quietly hummed a melody to break the silence. Lately, the twins were always busy outside of the house.
After completing his studies and passing every test with flying colors, Li Chenyang had begun accompanying Duke Li Shenyang into the Imperial Courts. He was training to become a Prime Minister and many Courtmen believed he was very qualified for the position.
Like his father, Li Chenyang was an expert at wearing a mask of falsified kindness. He was as friendly as a sly fox waiting for the right moment to pounce.
Li Wenmin, unsurprisingly, walked a different path than his brother. Swords over books, martial arts over instruments, he was built for the battlefield. He focused his time in the military and had been soaring high into the ranks.
Because of their duties and work, the men were always out of the house.
Duchess Li Qixing was lonely at the lessened presence of her sons, but her melancholy was forgotten every time Xueyue kept her company.
The servants always marveled at their loving relationship, it was as if they were a real mother and daughter pair. Perhaps it was because Xueyue was always accompanied by the Lis, but the young woman's features seemed to have evolved to resemble the Duke more and more. It was said the genes in the Li family were always strong, so much so that it was always easy to distinguish them. The resemblance was very strange, but no one dared to spread rumors.
When Xueyue walked into her room, the maidservants followed suit. Immediately, they began to tidy her appearance.
She always found it odd that they didn't talk to her even when she tried to strike a conversation. After two years of trying, she finally figured out they weren't supposed to talk to her.
A dainty knock echoed throughout the room...
"Come in," Xueyue said as the maidservants began to undo her hair and simplistic clothing.
A middle-aged maidservant walked into the room, her clothes more regal and fancier than the other handmaidens. She bowed.
Xueyue instantly recognized her as the Head of the Maid-servants who personally served the Duchess.
"Young Miss, the Madam is requesting your presence in her garden." When she lifted her head, she was satisfied with the efficiency of the maidservants.
Xueyue's hair was already styled into an elegant updo as silver hairpins beautifully dangled from it. Her well-fitted robes were switched with pastel-colored hanfu suitable for spring. Each gust of wind turned the soft layers of the hanfu skirt into a different color.
"Alright, let us head there instantly." She walked towards the Chrysanthemum Wing where Duchess Li was often found in the gardens tending to her flowers.
"Duchess Li," Xueyue greeted, smiling when she saw the beautiful woman glancing out of the pavilion and down at the pond.
"Sweetheart, you're here." Duchess Li Qixing stood up as a soft smile adorned her lips.
"I'm sorry I couldn't accompany you this morning, I was horseback riding with Heiyue. He's very needy these days." Xueyue stepped into the pavilion that perfectly shaded them from the glaring sun.
Duchess Li grabbed Xueyue's hands and sat her down. "It's completely fine with me." She glanced at the blooming multicolored hydrangeas near the pavilion. "The entire morning, I was occupied with the flowers. They needed to be trimmed and pruned."
Her hand gestured towards the pastry dishes in front of her. "I've had the chefs make your favorite rice cakes. Please have a taste," Duchess Li Qixing happily said.
She loved watching Xueyue eat. It was as if the young woman didn't have a care in the world. People might call it unruly, but the Duchess enjoyed a woman who didn't take dainty bites and declare themselves full.
Duchess Li Qixing chuckled when Xueyue picked up one piece, two piece, and soon, the entire plate was cleared.
She was beginning to become a glutton, just like Wenmin.
It seemed Li Wenmin's gluttonous antics had rubbed off on her.
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"I'm glad you enjoyed it, I'll have the chefs prepare it again," Duchess Li Qixing fondly said.
"No, it's fine. Don't tell the chef, but I like your pastries a lot more." Xueyue sheepishly wiped her mouth with the handkerchief. She didn't mean to gobble down the food, but after an entire day of horseback riding, she was really hungry.
Duchess Li Qixing felt her chest swell with warmth. "Then I will be sure to prepare a delicious dessert after tonight's dinner."
Xueyue happily nodded before her eyes trailed to the rich purple envelope on the table. Her eyes lingered on the wax seal of the Imperial Family.
Noticing her curious stare, Duchess Li Qixing followed it and smiled. "It's an invitation to the Summer Tournament that noble and aristocratic sons and daughters attend. It's a wonderful opportunity to showcase the talented youths of your generation."
Every two years, the Summer Banquet would come along. It was often held in selective cities, and this time, it was held in Hechen because the mating season had just passed and the forest was brimming with prey. An additional bonus was the open fields on the outskirts of the prosperous city.
Not to mention, Hechen had a full harvest of crops all season-round, which was perfect for a feast.
"Xueyue, you've demonstrated excellent skills in archery, horseback riding, and sword fighting. If you're interested in attending, I wouldn't mind taking you there." Duchess Li Qixing wanted to show Xueyue off to the world.
It amused the Duchess that Xueyue was so talented in sports useful for the military. Horseback riding over dancing, archery over art, sword fighting over embroidery, she really was a strange child.
"Hm..." Xueyue weighed her options.
The Summer Banquet was not only a place to show off one's skills, but it was also the perfect place to find suitable wives or husbands.
Many young women would enter the competition to show off their talents in hopes of capturing the attention of noble families, or even better, the eyes of royalty.
It was no secret that Princes from other Kingdoms and Empires would attend, and many of them didn't have a fiancée.
Rumors had it that the Second and Third Prince of Wuyi would also be present.
"Will Chenyang and Wenmin participate in the competitions?" Xueyue asked.
Duchess Li nodded. "Yes, they've competed for a while now." Her eyes flashed to the fond memories of the twins, but the happiness left as quick as it came.
Li Minghua used to participate… it had been two years since the death of her first daughter, but time did wonder on the wounds.
The Duchess was slowly moving past the grieving stage towards the stage of acceptance.
"Then I would love to attend the Summer Banquet." Xueyue smiled, happy that the twins could tag along. She didn't want to go alone and become a burden to the family – even though she was never a burden to anyone.
Duchess Li Qixing delightfully clapped her hands. "Perfect, I'll order you new sets of clothes and hairpins! It's going to be so exciting!"
Xueyue laughed at her excitement and patiently listened while the Duchess rambled about the banquet.
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