Li Xueyue took a daring step backwards, her eyes wide with unsaid emotions. Whether she was frightened or simply surprised, no one could tell.
\"Miss Li, you mustn't burden your family like this.\" The Eunuch bowed to the ground until his forehead hovered a hair away from the dirt.
One of the soldiers slowly said to Li Wenmin, \"We apologize for our crude methods, but under the strict orders of the Emperor, we will have to escort Miss Li to His Benevolent Grace. If the Young Miss is unwilling, we'll be forced to be unkind to the lady.\"
Those were the Emperor's personal guards, the cream of the crop. Soldiers trained since birth; they were stealthy, powerful, and unstoppable. In this world, they only obeyed the command of two people.
When no one moved or responded, the soldiers bowed their heads. The leader of the group, a masked man, roughly pushed past Duke Li Shenyang and firmly reached over Duchess Li Qixing. His hand tightly gripped Li Xueyue's wrist.
A man clothed in black stepped out of the shadows—Duke Li Shenyang's personal guard, Ling. He was prepared to take back the Young Miss but was halted.
\"We apologize, Lady Li,\" the leader said and with one rough tug was able to yank Xueyue towards him. She nearly tripped but he instantly helped to stabilize her. That was until he heard a voice that nearly made him drop to his knees.
\"At attention,\" an eerily placid voice sliced through the tense air. Nothing in this world was more astronomically dangerous and terrifying as this command.
Instantly, the soldiers obediently tucked their hands to their sides and bowed their head as low as it could get, until everyone was in perfect symmetry. Tense shoulders, grounded eyes, and open ears, they were completely submissive.
Every onlooker began to whisper amongst themselves. They hadn't expected this reaction. Who would have the authority to command the Emperor's guards?
The soldiers collapsed onto their knees. Their eyes dilated and a few of them gulped in fear. They were going to die today.
\"Unsheath your swords and fall.\"
Kill yourself. That was the command.
And they were so loyal, they instantly followed the order.
When their hands moved in unison to grab the hilt of their swords, a voice calmly said, \"That is enough. On your foot, right this instant.\"
A few resisted the urge to gasp, but the majority did. One by one, the onlookers cupped their fists while the women curtsied, \"A thousand splendid blessings for the Emperor of prosperous Wuyi!\"
The soldiers remained on their knees, for there is only one man in this world whose words outweighed the Emperor. It was none other than Commander Wen Jinkai himself.
The Emperor sighed. \"What loyal men they are. Your wish is their command.\"
Wen Jinkai's face was murderous. A shadow passed over him, his jaw ticked and clenched. No one would leave from here alive if someone else dared to lay a hand on his woman.
\"What is the meaning of this, Commander?\" The Emperor wagged his fingers. \"These soldiers are not yours to kill.\"
\"What are you waiting for? Fall,\" Wen Jinkai snarled. At his words, they pointed their swords to their throat.
\"Stop. No one is going to perform an honorable death today,\" The Emperor instantly declared, waving his hand for his other guards to stop the kneeling soldiers. But no one dared to move.
\"They laid a hand on an unwilling lady.\"
\"Oh?\" The Emperor chuckled. \"Is that your reason to kill ten of my prized guards? Since when were you a gentleman?\"
The Emperor turned to Li Xueyue, his eyes lingered on her face. Indeed, she was a great beauty, one that could bring an empire to its knees. It was a pity that she possessed this face. He'd rather her utilize that beauty to ruin Hanjian, not Wuyi.
\"All of this fussing for a simple woman?\" someone commented. Strutting into the tense atmosphere was Duke Li Taojun. \"Oh, my! Is that my dear younger brother?\" He barked a loud laughter at the sight of Duke Li Shenyang.
\"It's been a while, Taojun. I'm surprised you're standing here, instead of the red light district,\" Duke Li Shenyang responded with a smile. \"Last I saw you, you were begging our father to inherit a title.\"
\"Heh, well, I got it didn't I? I'm a Duke now. Of course, it wasn't from him, since you so lovingly decided to rob that from me.\" Duke Li Taojun grinned, his eyes lingered on the woman whose future he had just ruined. His over-the-top happy expression darkened. Now that he had seen her up close, he was terrified at what he saw. Li Minghua…? He rapidly blinked and the vision instantly faded. No, that was not possible.
Duke Li Taojun realized how small this world was. His eyes raked over Li Xueyue's features, almost astonished by his discovery. How… could this be? Impossible. Absolutely impossible. There was no way in hell she was standing in front of him. He must've had too much to drink.
\"Well, your decision created a butterfly effect, Duke Li Taojun.\" The Emperor heartily laughed. \"I thought my fourth son would be the only one to protest, but I miscalculated the reaction of my dear Commander.\"
\"Ah, yes!\" Duke Li Taojun forced himself to tear his eyes away from Li Xueyue, but it wandered back to her in disbelief. Did she realize the same thing as him? No, she didn't. He could see it in her bewildered expression, so beautiful and docile, he was reminded of a woman he was forced to share the bed with.
\"Now I remember why I chose her,\" he said, nodding in approval. \"She's such a sight to behold, I was momentarily distracted.\" He shook his head, almost as if chiding himself. \"Her excellent demonstration today has caught my eye, and if it's able to hook my attention, I can guarantee the same for Hanjian's prized Generals. Who knows? If she's lucky, maybe the great Commander of Hanjian will take an interest in her.\"
\"Young lady, you're unsuitable for these men,\" Duke Li Taojun brazenly said, nodding towards the aristocratic sons who had gathered to watch them. \"They're all gentlemens, that's for sure, but you're destined for more than that. Your skills put you leagues above the boring position of a harem. You need someone more free-spirited and compatible with you.\" He winked, \"What do you say? Would you rather bring honor to your family?\"
\"She'll dishonor us all if she goes,\" Duke Li Shenyang firmly said with a sly smile. \"And don't worry, dear brother, I do not need your help. I'd never allow her to join a harem in the first place.\"
\"Well, I'm just saying—\"
\"No one asked for your opinion.\"
\"Too bad,\" Duke Li Taojun wistfully said. \"The decision has been agreed upon. Li Xueyue is the last candidate heading straight to Hanjian, whether she likes it or not. And there is nothing in this world that can prevent it.\"
Duke Li Taojun turned to Li Xueyue and forced himself to look only at the bridge of her nose. He couldn't look at her. There was simply too much guilt weighing his heart down. Guilt from the realization over something that could save her, but decided to keep his mouth shut because of uncertainty.
\"Young lady, don't make this harder than it already is. You're burdening your family if you do not step forward.\" Duke Li Taojun gestured to the crowd who had not missed a single ounce of this drama. \"Everyone is watching. You have the people's attention. Nothing you do or say will change the decision that's already been made. So, please, don't tarnish my brother's reputation for your own good.\"
If there was one thing that Li Xueyue feared, it was burdening the people that loved and cared for her. With great hesitation, she took a small step forward. Duchess Li Qixing instantly tried to grab her.
In a hushed whisper, the Duchess said, \"No, you are not a burden to us. It's okay. Stay.\"
Li Xueyue glanced at the Emperor and then the crowd. She forced herself to stop looking when her eyes nearly landed on the Bai Family. Even after two years, she would still feel the chills whenever she thought about them and a chill just went down her spine. She couldn't help it.
\"Sister-in-law, you're such a loving mother, but please, don't stunt the bravery of your daughter,\" Duke Li Taojun said.
The Emperor glanced at Li Xueyue. \"Come forward, girl.\" He kept his gaze locked onto her, no one else. He feared he wouldn't be able to look at his sister without feeling remorse settle into him.
The Emperor had robbed a mother of a daughter, and that mother was his precious younger sister. A younger sister who married his best friend, the Prime Minister of Wuyi. How could he not feel crumbling guilt when he had just devastated both of them at the same time?
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