69 Friend and Foe
Li Xueyue thought the dangers of having a new title wouldn't come knocking on her door so quickly, but to her surprise, they came less than a week after the tournament ended.
Ever since her new title was announced less than a week ago, invitations to soirees and banquet never stopped pouring in. Each day, a new stack of invitations was brought before Duchess Li Qixing and Li Xueyue. The first time, they were astonished, but by now, they've already turned a blind-eye to it.
Duchess Li Qixing believed Li Xueyue should only attend the important ones, which was two out of every hundred that arrived at their doorsteps.
This morning, she thought she was preparing for one of the usual parties, but later found out it was the opposite of that.
The handmaidens had outdone themselves yet again. Her soft, white hanfu fluttered in the wind, the material shimmered from the tiny crystals sewed into the material. An airy layer of pearl pink was draped over the white hanfu, creating the perfect epitome of spring. Lilac ribbons were tied around her tiny waist as flowers bloomed upon the bottom of her skirts.
Li Xueyue had expected festive music or to be greeted by the sight of various aristocrats mingling, but instead, she found herself in front of a grand staircase. Under the sunlight, the wide steps were blindingly beautiful.
It felt like the staircase led up to Heaven, except, it was guiding her closer to the Imperial Palace. Looming over her was a magnificent door so tall, she had to crane her head just to see the top frame where it ended.
Li Xueyue turned to Duchess Li Qixing who warmly smiled at her. \"There is nothing to fret, darling,\" she said before presenting a polished marble slab with the Li's family name engraved on it. She showed it to the tens of guards that lined the walls of the entrance. It was a pass that would allow her to enter the Palace.
Instantly, the palace guards bowed low and deep. A loud voice announced, \"Granting access to Duchess Li Qixing and third-rank Princess Li Xueyue!\"
Li Xueyue's eyes widened when the door opened with steadiness and ease. She had expected it to creak and groan, but it opened silently and smoothly. The palace grounds left her speechless.
What greeted her were the large rooftops of glistening gold and pillars of passion red. It was daunting to stand before the entrance where Eunuchs and servants lined the pathways, with ample guards to guarantee safety.
When Duchess Li Qixing guided Li Xueyue inside, everyone bowed low. \"Welcome home, first-rank Princess Wang Qixing and her daughter, third-rank Princess Li Xueyue.\"
Li Xueyue resisted the urge to gasp upon hearing Duchess Li Qixing's true ranking. She was one of the only two first-rank Princesses in this country.
Before Duchess Li Qixing married the Duke and had children, she was the pampered Princess Wang, known for causing mischief. There were multiple times that her pranks had gotten her in trouble, but because she was the Emperor's sole sister, he turned a blind eye to it each and every time.
To the Duchess, this palace was her playground. She understood the layout of the palace like the back of her hand and it was evident in the way she carried herself with confidence and respect.
\"Beautiful, isn't it?\" Duchess Li Qixing mused. She took gentle steps with Li Xueyue accompanying her by her side. Behind them were the palace Eunuchs and the Li Family's maidservants.
\"People used to tell me nothing was luckier than being born a Princess.\" Duchess Li Qixing chuckled to herself while she guided Li Xueyue to the throne room. \"I used to think the same thing.\"
\"What made you change your mind?\" Li Xueyue curiously asked. She observed her surroundings, from the painted doors to the polished and meticulously cleaned hallways.
Duchess Li Qixing lowered her voice so that only her daughter could hear her. \"Because each day here felt more suffocating than the next.\"
Li Xueyue blinked before nodding. She imagined it must've been difficult to be looked upon as the picture of perfection. First-rank Princesses were expected to be role models for women of the nation, and their words meant law. But with great power comes great responsibilities.
\"My devious pranks were my only escape from this place,\" Duchess Li Qixing said when she fondly passed by a secluded spot where she had tricked one of the Palace Ministers.
\"Every day, I was surrounded by Palace women and Imperial Concubines who fawned over every word that I said. But I had forgotten, they were my brother's women, not mine.\" Duchess Li Qixing smiled when she passed by a familiar face, but didn't stop for her. \"When so many people compliment you daily, we tend to think they're our friends. In reality, they were foes.\"
Duchess Li Qixing grasped Li Xueyue's hands as she halted. \"The Palace is a dangerous place for women. Even the prettiest flowers get trampled upon here. The more you bloom, the more you wilt.\"
Do not marry the Fourth Prince.
Li Xueyue understood Duchess Li Qixing's intended meaning. The Palace life and all of its luxury might seem like a dream, but it was all a facade that covered up the horrendous scheming from wise ministers to intoxicating concubines.
There were hundreds of concubines locked behind the palace walls and only the Emperor's favorite accompanied him. Consort Gu Feiying was one of them, not because she was simply his favorite woman, but because she was a Princess from a neighboring country.
Once a woman enters the palace, it would be difficult for her to leave.
Glancing at Duchess Li Qixing's serene smile, Li Xueyue couldn't help but wonder what kind of strings Duke Li Shenyang had to pull to marry a first-rank Princess.
With her position, Princess Wang Qixing must've had the opportunity to become a Crown Princess of another Empire, but she didn't. She married a respected Duke. Granted, his position was highest on the social hierarchy directly below the tier of the Emperor and Empress.
Perhaps that would be a story for another time… And if only Li Xueyue knew that way before she was born, her life was already entwined with Duke and Duchess Li Qixing.
\"You are a wise girl, my dear.\" Duchess Li Qixing's smile deepened when Li Xueyue nodded.
\"I hope you learn from my words and not through your actions.\" With that said, they proceeded walking to the throne room.
Li Xueyue heard a bit of a commotion behind her. She turned to look and noticed there was a man and a woman with different styles of clothing that didn't match the trends in Wuyi. The clothing almost looked, foreignly designed?
\"Who caught your eye?\" Duchess Li Qixing lightly laughed when Li Xueyue jumped.
\"No one,\" Li Xueyue answered, a light blush stained her cheeks when she realized Duchess Li Qixing was already far ahead of her. Despite that, half of the servants stayed behind and waited with Xueyue.
\"L-let's head to the throne room,\" Li Xueyue mumbled, picking up her footsteps to hurriedly catch up to the Duchess. And little did she know, she had caught the attention of the crowd. They knew who she was, but she'd never know who they were.