Seeing so many eyes on her, Xueyue knew she couldn't delay the acceptance of the prize any longer.
She breathed in and said, "I-I'm alright, Chenyang. I should go up by myself. It won't look good for you to accompany me. The people might speak badly of you."
Xueyue knew how women constantly flocked around him. If she walked up the platform with him in tow, they would think she was purposely flaunting her close relationship with him.
"They know you're a Li, they won't dare to speak badly of me or you," he said.
He noticed the anxiety within her eyes. He frowned. 'Why is she worrying so much about me?' he thought to himself.
She was clearly not in the best state of mind, yet she worried about him more than she worried about herself.
Li Chenyang's fingers curled into a fist. He was going to ruin whoever tried to harm her.
"It's alright, really," Xueyue reassured him. She forced her fear down her throat and gave him her usual smile.
Seeing her smile and the fear subduing in her eyes, Li Chenyang slowly nodded.
Xueyue closed her eyes to take another deep breath. When she opened it, the fear was no longer evident.
Raising her chin, she was prepared to walk straight onto the golden platform. But when she took her first step, someone firmly grabbed her wrist.
Startled at the strong grip, she turned around only to see Wen Jinkai. Instantly, Xueyue pulled her hand back as if she had been burned by him.
The man's eyes flickered with surprise. He had never been rejected by a woman, but then again, he had rarely touched nor interacted with them.
"Be careful, the first step is slippery," he told her, regardless of the fact that she stared at him like he was someone crazy.
"I know. Thank you," she quietly said, and turned to walk off. She felt wary of him. 'He could get any woman his eyes set on, so why would he approach me? If he wasn't interested in a Princess, why would he be interested in me?'
Now that she thought about it, it was strange that he rushed to save her. Did he feel indebted to her? He didn't have to.
Clearing her thoughts of him, she decided to walk up the grand staircase. She could feel hundreds of pairs of eyes focused on her every step. It was unnerving, but she knew it would be best for her to stay calm.
"Li Xueyue greets the benevolent Emperor and gracious Empress of Wuyi." Xueyue bent her body and bowed deeply to the Emperor.
"Raise your head, child," the Emperor spoke up with a small smile. He would always remember the polite child that was the first to bow to him when he was dressed in peasant clothes.
Li Xueyue slowly raised her head.
"I've heard quite a lot about you," the Emperor thoughtfully said, lightly stroking his beard.
Li Xueyue bit her tongue. She hoped her expression didn't give anything away.
"My sister speaks quite fondly of you." The Emperor noticed her anxiety simmer down.
"She spoke of your profound skills in archery, horseback riding, and sword fighting. I usually don't believe bragging women, but it seems she did not lie to me this time," the Emperor mused, growing amused at her profound expression.
This young woman was so easy to read, her face was practically an open book. Now that he looked at up close, she had truly blossomed into a great beauty.
No wonder Duke Li Shenyang severely refused every request of bringing Xueyue into the palace to meet the Princes...
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"Thank you, Your Majesty. But I'm afraid I'm not as skilled as you've highly praised," Xueyue humbly said, not admitting her skills.
The Emperor smiled at her polite behavior. It seemed years of being spoiled hadn't ruined her.
"How old are you this year, Xueyue?" he asked her. She seemed quite young and he just happened to have two Princes in mind.
"I'm turning eighteen this year," she said, confused at his question. When she felt a heavy stare bore a hole into the side and back of her head, she swallowed. She didn't know who was staring from behind her, but she did know who was staring at her side.
Fourth Prince Wang Longhe never tore his gaze away from her. He was watching her when she competed and had continued watching her when she daintily climbed up the stairs. When he saw Xueyue had snuck a glance at him, he smirked and winked at her.
Xueyue stiffened and immediately glanced away from him. She didn't know her quick reaction only intrigued the Fourth Prince.
His smirk transitioned into a smile. 'How cute, she's shy towards me. Hmm, she must've had a crush on me. That's why she was so quick to look away.'
"Eighteen is not a bad age to get married. The Fourth Prince is turning twenty this year," the Emperor spoke up, a light gleam in his eyes. He had heard his beloved Consort Gu Feiying had paid a visit to the Li Family to inquire about a certain Li Xueyue.
At the Emperor's words, Xueyue paled. Her eyes were no longer calm and collected. Married to the Fourth Prince? She'd rather jump off a cliff.
The Empress was the first to notice her uneasy expression. She inwardly smiled.
Did this girl not want to marry the Fourth Prince?
It would be considered the highest honor to marry into the royal family. Why was Xueyue so reluctant to?
"Dear Emperor, you're scaring the child." The Empress came to Xueyue's rescue. An enemy of her enemy was a friend.
"Oh my, I didn't mean to." He laughed, the sound warm and hearty. "Eighteen is the ripe age for marriage, don't you think so?"
The Empress knew it was unwise to go against his words. He was purposely testing her, daring her to step on egg shells.
She smiled at him. "Indeed, eighteen is an ideal age for marriage. But Li Xueyue is a young lady with immense potential. Marrying at a young age would hinder her growth."
The women stared at the Empress in awe. She skillfully dodged his trap and didn't say he was wrong, nor was he extremely right.
The Emperor smiled at his intelligent wife. "Hmm, you are right. Eighteen is only for noble ladies suitable for housekeeping."
"Besides, we're here to discuss her reward and not marriage. Don't tease the poor girl too much." Seeing her husband finally relent to her, even if it was for a slightest bit, the Empress was slightly relieved.
Xueyue felt grateful for the beautiful and regal woman in front of her. She would never forget this act of kindness.
"Alright, my dear. I suppose we shouldn't delay the other competitions any longer." The Emperor hummed, waving his hand to the Eunuchs.
Two of them stepped forward, each holding one end of a long table filled with all sorts of prizes. They were wrapped individually in cloth and placed in boxes, so it was hard to see what type of gift was inside. It could've been a jeweled sword, priceless set of accessories, a decree granting an outstanding title, and anything a person would die for.
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