Li Wenmin came back just in time for the Duke and Duchess to drag all three children with them towards the largest tent. Leading up to it was a set of grand staircases that seemed never-ending.
Xueyue nervously trailed behind the twins while she fiddled with her fingers. She kept her head down and focused on each step. She didn't want to catch the unwanted attention of the Fourth Prince, even though he had been watching her the entire time since she emerged from the tent.
"Greetings to His Royal Majesty, the benevolent Emperor of Wuyi. May your wealth be everlasting and your health prosperous," the twins greeted in unison, cupping their hands before dipping into a bow.
Xueyue gulped when she realized every pair of eyes from the Imperial Family was trained on her. She hadn't bowed yet. Nervously, she scrambled into a curtsy, "Greetings to his royal majesty–"
"I take it that you've been well, little girl." The Emperor's strict face shifted into slight amusement when he saw her stiffened and then glanced up at him with confusion.
"Thank you for your concern, your majesty. I've been raised generously by the Duke and Duchess." Xueyue hoped her voice wasn't wavering like her heart. She was confused by his attention towards her, almost as if he knew her. But she didn't remember meeting him.
"I can see that. You've become a great beauty."
The Imperial Family resisted the urge to raise their brows in curiosity. The Emperor rarely complimented people, nor did he treat them this kindly. Just who was this girl?
"Indeed, she is very beautiful, dear Emperor," the Empress mused as she examined the girl from head to toe. "What is your name?"
"Xueyue, your grace."
"Just Xueyue?" The Empress raised a brow, glancing towards her sister-in-law, Duchess Li Qixing.
The Duke opened his mouth and was about to confirm the Empress's words, but the Duchess interjected, "Her full name is Li Xueyue."
"A Li?" The Empress curiously smiled, glancing at the Duke. Indeed, Xueyue resembled him, but there was something very different to her. She looked like the Duke, but not like how a daughter would look like her father.
"How interesting," Imperial Consort Gu Feiying spoke up, her eyes taking in Xueyue's features. "You look so much like–"
"She resembles me, doesn't she?" Duke Li Shenyang interjected, stepping in front of Xueyue.
"Ah, yes. But you weren't the person I had in mind." Consort Gu Feiying strained a smile upon being interrupted. She glanced at the Emperor who didn't seem to mind the issue.
"What will you be competing in, Xueyue?" the Emperor inquired, his eyes shifting to her hazel pair of eyes. He expected her to avert her gaze, but she maintained eye contact – whether it was on purpose or not, he didn't know.
"Archery and sword fighting, your majesty."
"What about the sports suitable for women?"
Xueyue shook her head, "I'm not interested in them."
The Emperor raised a brow before nodding towards the Duke. "You've raised an interesting girl."
Xueyue tried to ignore the penetrating stare of a certain individual which could bore a hole into the side of her head. She knew who was intently staring at her.
"Yes, I have. I'm proud of her." Duke Li Shenyang chuckled a bit.
"As any father should." The Emperor laughed, the sound rich and warm. "You're excused."
The Li Family bowed before heading down the stairs with Xueyue trailing close behind them.
"I look forward to your performance," a voice suddenly spoke, causing the entire family to halt in their steps.
Xueyue gulped before turning around and forced a smile. "Thank you, Fourth Prince Wang Longhe," she said, to which he smirked and nodded.
Her face remained passive and neutral, despite the anxious storm brewing inside of her. He was one of the eligible bachelors of the country. Being the Prince, he could choose anyone he wanted from here. Including her. She shuddered at the idea as goosebumps crawled up her arms.
The twins exchanged glances with each other. Disdain was evident in their eyes. They waited for Xueyue to catch up to them before Li Wenmin stood behind her and Li Chenyang stood on her side, blocking her from the Fourth Prince's mocking stare.
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"After all the families had greeted the Emperor and Empress, an announcement would be made and the tournament shall commence," Duchess Li Qixing said, smiling towards Xueyue who hadn't stopped spacing out ever since she returned to the tent.
"You look lovely in today's outfit." Duchess Li Qixing chuckled, brushing a stray strand of hair behind Xueyue's ears. She still had her baby hairs and it perfectly framed her face. She found it amusing when the hair behaved as if they had a mind of their own.
"The maidservants told me you prepared the outfit yourself, it's beautiful. Thank you." Xueyue brightly smiled.
"Is it now? I shall have the seamstress make you more dresses then. It seems white and blue are very suitable colors for you. They compliment your complexion."
Xueyue's smile deepened. "You don't have to. I still haven't tried on the other ones you ordered for this competition," she mused, not wanting to waste any more money.
Duke Li Shenyang silently agreed with Xueyue. He was slightly glad that she was not the type of woman who would extravagantly spend money on clothes and jewelry. Sure, the Li Family was rich and their wealth could sustain them for centuries to come, but it was best to not overly spend on useless items.
Over the years, he had become quite fond of Xueyue, so much so that he had secretly spoiled her with all sorts of new equipment for her hobbies.
Because he was frequently called to the Imperial Courts, the time spent with his wife had significantly shortened. The twins were always too busy with their exploits to accompany their mother. However, Xueyue was always there to please and cheer up the Duchess.
Xueyue's presence was greatly welcomed to the Duke who had never seen a sad expression on Duchess Li's face since Xueyue was brought to their home.
Suddenly, the loud chatter from outside of the tent died down.
The voices became hushed whispers and then utter silence when a powerful man oozing with authority stepped into the field. The people were left speechless by the sight of the handsome man dressed in extremely well-fitted robes that hugged his muscular form.
Many women swooned when they caught a glimpse of his features. Was it even humanly possible to be so good-looking? Despite the dangerous and dark aura that seemed to surround the man, the women still felt drawn to him.
Mothers pulled their daughters closer, maidservants tidied their Young Miss's appearance, and immediately, all of the daughters looked more presentable than ever.
"Oh my...What I would do to marry my daughter to him!"
"I've never seen a man as alluring, but frighteningly cold as this man..."
The chatter was nonstop and the women excitedly chattered among themselves.
Xueyue was also curious as to what the commotion was all about. Because the curtains were slightly open, she was able to see a man walking towards the stairs of the royal tent leading to the Emperor and Empress.
The Emperor stood up from his throne, a proud and bright smile etched on his face.
No one dared to move or make a single sound. It was so quiet and motionless on the packed open field, even the sound of wind passing could be heard.
The expressionless man cupped his fist and bowed before the Emperor. He had a stance that practically screamed authority and wealth.
"Greetings to the Emperor of Wuyi."
That was it.
There was no compliment or praise for the Emperor. The man kept his greeting simple and plain. Had it been a regular person, he would surely have been tried for offending the Crown and a decree of beheading would be in motion.
But when they saw the fond and adoring expression on the Emperor and Empress's face, their suspicions disappeared. This man was dearly loved by the rulers of this country and that alone was enough for mothers to exchange looks with their daughters. They realized who exactly he was – one of the most eligible bachelors of the nation.
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