Li Xueyue felt the intensity of the onlookers' stares—like a thousand needles pricking into her skin. Worst of all, she knew Bai Tianai and her family were watching. They had caught a glimpse of the cards she possessed.
Yet again, the Emperor had gifted her with something that looked like a blessing on the surface, when it was actually hell underneath it.
She had an inkling suspicion that this was a ploy all along—to get her to use that slip of paper. The Emperor couldn't take back his words nor could he take back the prize. It would be detrimental for her to possess it.
He was testing her again. The title of a third-rank Princess might seem like a dream to most women, but she knew her life from here on out would be paved with hardships.
There would be more suitors than ever, desperate to get their hands on the title of a Prince. There would also be more women pretending to be her friend. It was a double-edged sword, something that she was.
She won't be able to stay safe and sound in the Li family house, but she would be prized like the nation's flower—a peony. She'd never be able to leave Wuyi, not unless there was a greater force that could guide her out.
Nonetheless, she'd be untouchable by the likes of Bai Tianai. Her position could bring prosperity to the Li Family. It was a great honor for a young lady to be bestowed with a title, even if it was third-rank.
There were only two first-rank Princesses in the entire nation and the Crown Princess was one of them. The highest position that a woman of her lineage could dream of acquiring would be a second-rank Princess, but that felt like an impossible reach.
If the Emperor of Wuyi had to give away two Princesses and three other candidates, then it meant the Emperor of Hanjian had to do the same. An eye for an eye until everyone is blind.
Li Xueyue breathed in deeply through her nose.
The Commander's grip on her had tightened considerably. He would not let her go, but he had no authority to keep her.
Her eyes widened briefly when she heard the plea in his whisper, so quiet, she thought it was the wind playing tricks on her. She didn't understand his actions. She would not allow him to weigh her down.
\"Release me,\" she quietly said, her lips barely moving. There was a slight pause before he slowly did so.
Yet again, Li Xueyue dipped herself into an elegant curtsy that many would try to copy, but none could mirror.
\"Words can not describe my gratitude for this priceless gift, Your Majesty.\"
\"Describe it through your actions.\" The Emperor hummed, stroking his shaven chin. He marveled at her perfect posture and deemed it a shame she wasn't a candidate anymore. But she was more valuable to him close, than far away.
Li Xueyue understood his message. Her action was to stay loyal to him, for he had just saved her from a life of despair. Rejecting the candidate position had placed her in a horrible position and the people would definitely drag her through the mud for this. However, he had saved her by giving the public something else to chew on—A new third-rank Princess.
\"I hope you will make your family the happiest it has ever been.\" The Emperor finally found the courage to glance at his sister. He had scorned her but soothed her on the same day.
Nothing could erase her accusing stare. Duchess Li Qixing was furious by his actions and decisions.
But as a Duchess, she could do nothing but hold her tongue. The only problem was, she wasn't just a Duchess. She was his younger sister, someone that he watched grow up.
Sheltered, loved, and adored, Duchess Li Qixing was one of the few siblings loyal to him for the rest of her life.
She was a Wang, before she was a Li.
The Duchess possessed cards beyond his wildest imagination. Starting with the Empress Dowager.
\"It has been a tiring day for you, little lady. Or should I say, Princess Li Xueyue?\" He heartily laughed, but it sounded cold and strained. \"I hope you have a wonderful day with your family.\"
\"Thank you, Your Majesty.\" Li Xueyue bowed her head as the Emperor stalked off, with a silent Duke Li Taojun beside him.
Duke Li Taojun did not have the willpower to look at Li Xueyue in the eye. After all, he had almost ruined her life. Guilt threatened to consume him alive, but he held his head high and walked past her. What a small world they lived in…
When the Emperor finally left, the Li Family was finally able to breathe normally. Duke Li Shenyang nodded to his wife before walking after the Emperor. He maintained a positive expression, hiding his indignation through smiles and blazing eyes.
Duchess Li Qixing rushed to her daughter, her body crashing into her.
\"Oh sweet pea,\" she breathed out, her fingers shaking when it wrapped around Xueyue.
\"You did very well today, I'm so proud of you.\" She held Xueyue close to her. She was terrified that Xueyue would disappear into thin air the same way Li Minghua had done so.
Li Wenmin cleared his throat and stood protectively in front of his mother and younger sister. He shielded them from the prying stares of the public.
Wen Jinkai stood a polite step back to give the mother and daughter some space to talk. His frigid stare landed on the nosy gossipers.
\"What are you looking at?\" Wen Jinkai's voice was taunting and firm. Instantly, everyone began to scatter and disperse.
\"Something like this will never happen again.\" Duchess Li Qixing pulled back until she was at arm's length from Xueyue. \"I will react better next time.\"
\"You don't have to worry, Mother. I'm alright.\" Li Xueyue genuinely smiled. She was grateful for everything that the Li Family had done for her. She couldn't possibly fathom blaming the Duchess or the Duke for the outcome of events.
\"I've been silent for too long.\" Duchess Li Qixing warmly caressed Xueyue's shoulders. \"From now on, I will never hold my tongue. Emperor or not. He is my brother before he is a ruler. Just as he is a son before he is a leader.\"
Li Xueyue slowly nodded her head, but she was unable to fathom the events that would dramatically unfold in the upcoming days ahead.