"Please excuse me," Wen Jinkai politely murmured and left the tent before anyone could properly respond. He placed what he took from Xueyue into his pocket. He walked past his family's tent, a place he only stepped into when necessary. He couldn't even refer to the place as a family tent aside from the surname they shared.
If Duke Wen Xuan and his wives considered themselves as parents, then storms were light drizzles of rain. They were a joke of a parent to him, and as far as he was concerned, they were only his parents in name––even if Wen Jinkai had half of his father's genes.
Wen Jinkai lightly stepped up the stairs leading to the royal family, as if he was made to easily tread it. People always found this climb to be intimidating. Because after all, everyone could see whoever was on it. And with the Imperial Family gazing down, it felt like they were being judged. Not that he cared about mindless gossips or useless opinions.
"What are you doing here?" Wen Jinkai harshly snarled, his eyes narrowed at his mentor who had bowed his upperbody to talk to the Emperor who remained seated in his throne.
"I always regret not teaching you manners." Duke Li Taojun shook his head in disappointment. "One hundred percent brute and zero percent gentleman."
"Don't make me repeat myself," Wen Jinkai calmly said, fixing his composure.
"Do I need a reason to appear in front of you?" Duke Li Taojun laughed as he gave his mentee a rough slap on the left shoulder. "You should be bowing to me, you rascal."
"Jinkai, where were you?" the Empress worriedly said. "You didn't accompany us back to the Millenium Petal Manor."
Wen Jinkai briefly glanced at the silent Emperor and responded, "I had business to attend to."
"What business took all night?" The Empress frowned, her eyes searching his body for any visible injuries. She noticed he had changed his clothes into striking black robes with silver embroidery.
"Never mind the business, all that matters is that he came back in one piece." The Emperor chuckled. He trailed his eyes away from the Li family tent. He had seen the small exchange between the Commander and Duke Li Shenyang's family.
"One piece?" the Empress gasped, her eyes widening in realization. The Commander was on a mission last night. What for, she had no clue.
"You should properly greet your mentor, Jinkai. It's impolite to pretend that he's a stranger. He trained you for a good fraction of your childhood."
Commander Wen Jinkai turned a deaf ear to the Emperor's words, his eyes landed on the Second Princess. She immediately straightened at his attention, but by the time she tried to smile, he had looked away. She slumped pitifully in her chair, playing with the beautiful sleeves of her peach pink hanfu.
"Never mind the rascal, he'd never learn respect even if it was beaten into him." Duke Li Taojun shook his head with a knowing smile. "I'm here on an important business."
Commander Wen Jinkai silently nodded, his eyes lingered on the navy and purple tent of the Li family. He wanted to catch just one more glimpse of the only young woman who moved his heart. He was conflicted by her.
One second he wanted her as a mistress, but the next, he wanted her as his main wife. He had grown up in an environment that justified having more than one wife, but he was always appalled by the idea. Despite his feelings, he knew it'd be beneficial to have more than one.
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His mind wandered to Xueyue. Would she accept the idea of her husband having more than one wife? He already knew the answer to his question. She respected herself too much to allow that.
He could see it in the way she carried herself. She knew what she was doing, and every move was calculated. There was nothing accidental about that woman, except for when she collided with him. He could see it in her widened eyes. She was always unsuspecting of him, so open and defenseless. Or was that on purpose as well?
His lips thinned. Was it a facade? Or was she really that naive and simple?
"... I've already spotted a potential one."
Wen Jinkai's eyes sharply snapped to Duke Li Taojun. Potential what?
"Very well, jot down her name." The Emperor waved his hand, his eyes following the tent that Duke Li Taojun had set his attention on.
"Unwed women is the requirement, but it's alright if she's promised to another. We can always break the engagement," the Emperor informed Duke Li Taojun who immediately nodded his head.
"I suggest you pay closer attention to the tents closest to us," Imperial Consort Gu Feiying advised and fluttered her fan with a serene smile. One could never tell what she was scheming.
"Ah yes, the Wen's tent." Duke Li Taojun lightly laughed as he briefly glanced at the beautiful woman.
"S-sure," Imperial Consort Gu Feiying hesitated, her smile widened by a fraction but it never reached her kohl-rimmed eyes.
She briefly turned her attention to her son who was spacing out and whispered something to him. His entire body tensed but before he could say anything, she shot him a look that silenced him.
"I'm glad you're here for the sword fighting competition," the Emperor said to Duke Li Taojun while sipping his tea. "There's a handful of female candidates."
"Oh?" Duke Li Taojun mused, "Females and swords? That's quite a feat."
"Both genders are allowed to compete with each other," the Empress said with disapproval written all over her face. She struggled to mask her contempt for the new rules. "I'm worried about the ladies. They're going to struggle against the male competitors."
"What's there to worry about? A woman is as capable as a man." Duke Li Taojun's words could've been offensive, but it wasn't. The Empress could see it within his gentle and understanding smile.
"It's just unfair." The Empress frowned.
"Perhaps." Duke Li Taojun wistfully smiled. He wished there wasn't so much prejudice against women and their strength. Then again, he was assigned to ruin the lives of three women today – starting with the one the Emperor mentioned.
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