After dinner, everyone retired to the comfort of their bedroom– except Duke Li Shenyang who entered his private study.
Duchess Li Qixing quietly sat in front of her vanity, her eyes clouded with a daydream. The head maidservant began to carefully take out the hairpins that made up the intricate hair design.
"Milady?" the head maidservant quietly spoke up with a worried expression on her aging face. "Is everything alright? You look very pale. Shall we have the chef boil a herb tonic?"
"No, I'm fine, Jinxia." Duchess Li Qixing ran her finger over the sharp parts of her specialized hairpin. If needed, it could dangerously stab someone's eyes. Xueyue's hairpin was designed to be the same. A lethal weapon disguised as beautiful jewelry.
"There's just something occupying my mind, that's all," she sighed.
"Then, would you like to use lavender and eucalyptus oil tonight? To relieve stress," Jinxia said while running a comb through the Duchess's hair.
"Yes, I'd like that," Duchess Li Qixing replied. She frowned to herself. Would Xueyue be able to experience the same luxury if she was a candidate? Fear clawed her heart. No, no, no. It can't be Xueyue.
Duchess Li Qixing felt remorseful for being selfish enough to wish that crude fate on someone else. It was immoral of her, but what else could she do? Once the Emperor made up his mind, no one could change it.
Just the image of Xueyue standing on enemy lines was enough to send the Duchess to tears. Such a wonderful and innocent little thing… how could anyone fathom sending Xueyue to war? Of course, she wouldn't join the battlefield, but every day her new life would be a strenuous battle. What type of husband would she have?
What if Xueyue ended up with an abusive husband who didn't understand "no" means no? What if Xueyue was belittled by her husband's harem? What if she was starved? Or worse… the marriage wasn't a marriage at all and more than one man would touch Xueyue.
Duchess Li Qixing's thoughts spiraled down the rabbit hole of morbid things until she was as white as the full moon tonight. No... no... no. She began to tremble, her eyes shaking. Could the gods be so merciless? She had already lost one daughter. She didn't want to lose another.
She was so lost in her thoughts that she didn't hear the Duke entering the bedroom and excusing Jinxia for now.
"No!" she shrieked when a pair of hands settled on her shoulder and she was forced to turn around.
Duke Li Shenyang's eyes widened when he saw the crazed expression on the Duchess's face. Anxiety and fear were prominent in her quivering eyes.
"Darling, what happened?"
"It can't be Xueyue!" she cried out.
Duke Li Shenyang's face softened. He understood what terrified his wife. It was what terrified him and the twins as well.
Starting from tomorrow, Xueyue was to be kept hidden at all costs. But how? She has already signed up for two of the most-watched tournaments. It would be reckless of them to withdraw from it. Her reputation would be ruined and people would always whisper of the woman who chickened out.
"If the Emperor is willing to send off his daughters, he'd be willing to send off his nieces," Duke Li Shenyang said. He couldn't promise his wife anything. He didn't want to comfort her with false hope.
"Wouldn't this damage the Emperor's reputation?"
"Thousands of sons will be saved from slaughter at the expense of five daughters. Do you think anyone, except the family of those girls, will weep?" Duke Li Shenyang could do nothing but gently squeeze her shoulder.
"Then what are we going to do?"
"For now, we shouldn't do anything. If we bring up the idea of exempting Xueyue, then it will only bring unwanted attention to her."
"What if she's selected? What shall we do then?" Duchess Li Qixing wept, "Is there truly nothing we can do?!"
"I'm afraid not."
Duchess Li Qixing's eyes watered. She didn't want to cry at such a crucial time, but couldn't help herself.
"Sweetheart, why are you so upset? The selection hasn't been made yet and you're reacting as if she's already sent off."
"I… I just have a bad feeling about this."
"That's because your favorite hobby is overthinking." Duke Li Shenyang laughed, attempting to lighten up the situation. "Perhaps a bath will liven you up." He didn't wait for her response before calling in the head maidservant.
Jinxia bowed deeply. "Milord, Milady."
"Prepare the bath," Duke Li Shenyang ordered and then excused himself.
"Where are you going?" Duchess Li Qixing frowned.
"To have a discussion with our sons. Fret not. All will be well," Duke Li Shenyang reassured her and exited out of the door.
- - - - -
The next morning.
"Okay, Xueyue I need you to smear this on your face." Li Wenmin handed her purified dirt.
"What?" She was bewildered by this idea.
"Also, wear this rag." He handed her the dark brown clothing.
"Are you trying to make her look like a beggar?" Li Chenyang retorted, rolling his eyes. "That's only going to draw more attention to her."
"Well, do you have better ideas?" Li Wenmin scowled, crossing his arms, "I'd like to see you conjure up something."
"Dress normally. Not too eye-catching or plain. Something that will make you blend into the crowd," Li Chenyang remarked, waving his hand for the maidservant to take away the rags that Li Wenmin gave her.
Li Wenmin frowned. Okay. So maybe that was a better idea.
"I'd hate to admit it and boost her already high ego, but you do realize that Xueyue doesn't… necessarily possess the ability to 'blend into the crowd' right?" Li Wenmin sighed, gesturing to the porcelain doll in front of the vanity.
Her long, shiny hair was styled into a bun that resembled rose petals. The little butterfly hairpins only enhanced her youthful appearance. It was difficult to not notice her when everything she did brought attention to her.
"That's why she has to be kept inside the tent at all times unless it's to participate in the tournament. She must remain hidden inside the tent," Li Chenyang said.
He frowned when he saw the maidservant approaching Xueyue with the outer-layer of her hanfu. "No. She'll wear the light blue hanfu. Pink makes her more feminine and docile. It'll attract attention."
"I'm not attracted to femininity and timid appearances though," Li Wenmin said. "What if the Official that's choosing the candidates wants someone stern-looking?"
Li Chenyang scowled, "Can you stop contradicting me?"
Li Wenmin scrunched his nose. "No."
"Of course not" Li Chenyang scoffed. "Little boys always like to bicker."
"We're the same age!" Li Wenmin argued.
"Really? It feels like I'm older by a couple more years," Li Chenyang retorted.
"Also, your plan of keeping her hidden is stupid," Li Wenmin huffed. "If she's a new face in the crowd, then the Official will be keen to watch her."
"Then what the hell should we do?" Li Chenyang groaned. "One thing always contradicts the other."
"Maybe we should do nothing? Let nature take its course," Xueyue finally spoke up when the maidservants laid out her clothing.
"Oh." Li Chenyang frowned. "Wouldn't we feel useless? For not intervening."
"We'd feel bad regardless," Li Wenmin said. "Let's only intervene when it's too late–"
"There better not be 'too late' moments." Li Chenyang sighed before standing up and dragging Li Wenmin with him. "We'll see you when you're properly dressed, Xueyue."
She nodded and comforted, "Try to not worry too much, Chen-ge."
"Can't. I inherited Mother's favorite qualities," Li Chenyang mumbled.
"It's a double-edged sword."
"Just like you." He chuckled before bidding her goodbye.
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"I'll see you later, okay?" Li Wenmin said. "Don't overthink it like our idiot brother. Nothing will ever happen to you."
"Great, idiot, you just jinxed her," Li Chenyang scowled before grabbing Li Wenmin's collar. "Let's go."
Finally, Li Wenmin sullenly left but not before peeking his head around her door and waving goodbye.
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