Perhaps one day, the Emperor of Wuyi would experience the harsher end of the stick. Even though he couldn't bring himself to look towards his precious sister, he could feel her vicious stare. Contempt. Hatred. Treachery. The intense emotions that coursed through her were filling her with too much negativity.
The Emperor had told himself he would never perform nepotism—it was unfair to everyone.
He turned to face Li Xueyue and beckoned her to him. \"Won't you come forward, little lady?\"
Li Xueyue whispered something to the Duchess. Slowly, she pried Duchess Li Qixing's hands off her wrists. Duchess Li Qixing tried hard to hold on, but Xueyue whispered something again. This time, angst filled the Duchess' expression. Instantly, Duke Li Shenyang stood protectively in front of his wife, shielding her reaction from the prying eyes of the crowd.
Li Xueyue stepped forward on her own accord. When people expected her to beg for mercy, she did the opposite of that. Gathering the sides of her clothing, she dipped into a graceful curtsy.
\"Li Xueyue greets His Majesty.\"
\"You should've greeted me a lot sooner, child.\"
Li Xueyue kept her head bowed as she maintained her curtsy until he told her to rise.
\"Do you understand why I bestowed this gift to you?\"
Li Xueyue kept her eyes trained to the ground. A gift? It felt more like a curse. A death-sentence. \"No, I'm afraid not, Your Majesty.\"
\"I believe you have the potential to flourish in Hanjian. My good friend, Duke Li Taojun was not lying when he said you'd wilt away in a harem.\"
The Emperor gently lifted her chin, examining her face from left to right. From the cupid bow of her lips to the intensity of her shimmering eyes, everything about her was suitable for Hanjian who preferred delicate beauties with hidden potential. He nodded in satisfaction.
The Emperor raised his head to examine Commander Wen Jinkai who was approaching them. Li Xueyue didn't get to react when she felt a harsh tug on her wrist and instantly, her back collided with someone familiar. An arm was tightly wrapped around her waist, his fingers clenched her side.
\"Li Xueyue will not be heading to Hanjian,\" Wen Jinkai peacefully uttered. His tone left no room for disagreement. \"She is promised to me.\"
\"Oh?\" The Emperor laughed. \"With what proof?\"
Wen Jinkai lifted his other arm and something dangled from his finger. The jewelry swayed in the wind, the tassels fluttering. A unique blend of forest green and crystal blue jade captured the ray of the afternoon. Silver branches sprawled out a single name, \"Li Xueyue.\"
Li Xueyue's eyes widened as her hand patted her stomach. Her pendant was gone. For how long now? She suddenly recounted what had happened this morning. Earlier in the day, she had felt a small tugging sensation on her waist belt. Then, the Commander left.
She dug her nails into his arms, hoping he'd release her. He didn't even wince.
Wen Jinkai slowly smiled. \"With the promised token of her pendant.\"
A heavy silence fell over the crowd. The tension heightened. Then, randomly, a hum of whisper began, like the obnoxious buzzing of busy bees. First, they commented about how handsome the Commander was when he smiled. Second, they addressed the biggest concern of all: Li Xueyue was promised to him? How? When?
Li Xueyue wished she could understand the complexity of the Commander's thoughts. She wished she could read what was on his mind right now. Was he even thinking at all? First, he stole the pendant from her, and now he's showing it off for everyone to see; it was akin to staking his claim on her in front of everyone.
\"This is comedy gold.\" The Emperor chuckled, shaking his head.
\"Did you give that to him, little lady? Or was it forcibly taken from you?\" His smile was welcoming and understanding, yet intimidation rolled off of him like violent waves.
Li Xueyue understood what type of man the Emperor was. He couldn't lash out on his people in public, well, he didn't have to, because he could do it through quiet, passive-aggressive means. He was smiling now, but the wider his smile spread, the more contempt he felt.
The Emperor had spent all of his life perfecting the art of benevolence that it wasn't hard to fall for his performance. He was a wolf in sheep's disguise—someone who pretended to care but will turn a weakness into leverage.
\"You don't have to lie for my Commander's sake.\" The Emperor mused, \"He claimed you're promised to him because of the pendant, but did he offer anything to you? Perhaps he promised you something that you couldn't care less about?\"
Li Xueyue was suspicious of the Emperor. He knew exactly what she was thinking. He had already predicted the type of promises Wen Jinkai would utter. She was slightly confused. How did the Emperor know she didn't care for limitless wealth and outstanding titles?
\"You're a proud woman, Lady Li. Money can't buy you. Gold doesn't faze you. Servants bore you. A handsome husband means nothing to you. What you desire is beyond superficial things. Am I correct?\"
Unfortunately, the Emperor hit the nail on the head. And the Commander knew this. His arm tightened over Xueyue, almost as if he knew he'd lose her. Almost as if he was certain she would disappear from his grasp. If he understood how easy it was to lose Xueyue, why couldn't he cherish her when he had the chance? Why couldn't he learn to change for her? But then again, he was such a great catch, why did he have to change just for her? Both of them were too stubborn to change for each other.
\"Some flowers are destined to be the only one in the garden. That way, they bloom the prettiest of them all.\"
Li Xueyue felt her lips part. The Emperor's words reminded her of what she had told the Commander. She wanted to be the only flower in the garden, not one of a dozen.
\"Indeed, Your Majesty. Your words are always profound and earnest.\" Li Xueyue smiled. \"Unfortunately, gardens are only beautiful because of the different flowers found within them. It's a bore if there's only one type.\"
She bowed her head and continued, \"Your generous gift is appreciated from the bottom of my heart. In return, I would like to show you something.\"
She struck out her hand, revealing a sole slip of paper. Plain, unfolded, with two words: 'A wish.'
The Emperor's smile deepened as his eyes crinkled. The tables had turned on him. \"I see. What is your wish?\"
\"It is a simple one.\" Softly, but slowly, she revealed a serene smile. She was mist-like, beautiful and idle. \"I wish for my family's happiness.\"
The Emperor let out a burst of hearty laughter, the pleasant noise airy and powerful. It was a laugh from his core. He couldn't wipe the smile off his face now. \"Daughters are indeed the pillars of their family—supportive and useful.\"
\"Without the pillar, a house cannot stand.\" Li Xueyue smiled.
\"And here I thought you had abandoned poetry for martial arts.\" The Emperor nodded approvingly. \"Very witty of you.\"
He took a step towards her and the Commander clenched her to him, his eyes set ablaze. He would not allow anyone to touch what was his.
\"Is that your wish?\"
\"Are you sure?\" The Emperor's gaze lingered on the Commander. He found it so amusing that Wen Jinkai didn't realize he was the cause of this mess. If he hadn't meddled in Xueyue's life, she wouldn't have been chosen as a candidate. Well, the Fourth Prince was also to blame.
\"You could use this wish to obtain things beyond your wildest expectations. Marriage to a Prince, more money than you can ever dream, an expensive house with hundreds of servants to wait upon you.\"
\"You said so yourself, Your Majesty, these are things I do not care for. What is the purpose of marriage if I do not have my parents' blessings? What is the use of money and houses if I cannot be with my family?\"
\"You truly exceed my expectations every time I see you.\" The Emperor clapped his hands. \"Very well then.\" he took the paper from her palm, ripped it and then grabbed Wen Jinkai's free hand.
\"For your thoughtful words, I will present you with another gift,\" the Emperor mused, placing the ripped paper in the Commander's hand.
\"Li Xueyue, the daughter of Duke Li Shenyang and Duchess Li Qixing, from this day forward, your title will be changed from Lady to third-rank Princess.\"
Li Xueyue's eyes widened.
\"A man who weds a Princess can never wed another, for she is a treasured peony of this country.\" He flicked his long sleeves behind him and continued, \"A Princess can wed whoever she wishes, but no one can forcibly take her hand.\"
Wen Jinkai could not force himself to be her husband. His claim over her was automatically voided. Even if she was dragged and forced to her wedding, as long as she's able to say she did not consent to the marriage, it would automatically end. And even if the Commander kidnapped her and married her against her will, it will not be a marriage recognized by the state. She would still be a free woman.
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