Inside the enormous audience room, the Emperor of Wuyi, Wang Fadong, sat on his throne while he watched his children with amusement. They bustled amongst themselves, painting the picture of a perfect family. Despite the loss of two Princesses, everyone went on with their lives as if those two women didn't exist.
Emperor Fadong had many children, but very few sons. He was fine with that, as long as he had a rightful heir and it was none other than Crown Prince Wang Qianghao.
Head Ministers representing various departments were present, as they always were, except for their Prime Minister who was confined in his study, tackling the workload he had today. And in his study, Duke Li Shenyang was silently cursing the Emperor for the stack of paperwork. Both men knew Duchess Li Qixing would be coming today, yet he was forced to work like it was a regular day.
\"There they are,\" Empress Huiyun spoke up just as the Eunuch stationed by the door straightened his back.
\"Announcing the welcomed entrance of Duchess Li Qixing and Princess Li Xueyue!\"
The Princesses who did not accompany the Emperor to the tournament stopped chattering amongst themselves. Even the Ministers who were making small talks paused. They were waiting for someone to step through the door.
It was not everyday that a regular lady was awarded a title as astounding as third-rank Princess. Not even the Emperor's birth daughters had the privilege. The majority of them were fourth or fifth-ranked with only a small handful of third-ranked and an even smaller population of second-ranked.
Silence ensued when an unfamiliar woman stepped into the room. Her silky hair was dark like starless midnight. Drawn on the center of her forehead was a blooming flower that highlighted her peculiar eyes, round and the color of chestnuts. Her long earrings gently grazed her shoulders, highlighting her slim neck bare of accessories.
There was an air of tranquility around her that settled troubled hearts. And when her painted lips slowly lifted into a smile, softening her sharp eyes, breaths hitched.
Duchess Li Qixing slightly bent her head in greeting. \"Good afternoon, Your Majesty, Your Grace.\"
Next, was the unfamiliar woman's turn. Every pair of eyes, except for the Emperor and Duchess, scrutinized her actions.
\"Li Xueyue greets His Majesty, the sun of our Empire, and Her Grace, the gentle moon,\" she softly uttered while dipping into a curtsy.
Emperor Fadong nodded in satisfaction. \"You may rise.\"
Empress Dowager Liuxing smiled at the sight of her precious daughter. Lovely as always. \"Come closer, Qiqi.\"
Duchess Li Qixing gently guided Li Xueyue with her. \"It has been a while, Mother.\"
\"My dear daughter.\" The Empress Dowager's rigid face softened. She stood up and instantly, her maidservants flocked to her side for guidance and support that she brushed off. \"Let us have a discussion in my parlor.\"
Duchess Li Qixing gently squeezed Li Xueyue's hand.
Empress Dowager Liuxing noticed the small exchange but kept quiet until her eyes narrowed a bit. \"Li Xueyue, was it?\"
Li Xueyue lifted her gaze, slightly awestruck by the regal woman that she had forgotten to avert her eyes—it was the proper protocol.
The Empress Dowager raised a brow. This young lady was as bold and courageous as she had heard.
\"What a lovely smile you have.\" Xueyue reminded the Empress Dowager of someone, but she couldn't place a finger on who. Indeed, she resembled Duke Li Shenyang, but something felt strange.
\"I would like a moment alone with my daughter,\" the Empress Dowager said to the Emperor, even though it sounded more like a command.
Emperor Fadong nodded his head. He did not mind the absence of his younger sister. Truthfully, it would be better if she was not standing in front of him. Even from afar, he could see her rage had not simmered down. She was the type to hold a grudge and he was to blame.
\"If anything happens,\" Duchess Li Qixing quietly said to Li Xueyue, \"Ask to be excused. I will have a servant drag my husband here. Fret not, dear child.\"
Li Xueyue slowly nodded her head.
Duchess Li Qixing flashed her a smile and left with the Empress Dowager. She snuck a glance at the Emperor whose stare followed her until she was gone.
\"Little lady, do you know why I called you here?\" Emperor Fadong said with an unreadable smile.
Li Xueyue shook her head. \"I'm afraid not.\"
\"Pity, I expected you to be smarter than that,\" Emperor Fadong teased before gesturing to a group of women standing beside the golden staircase. They were alarmingly beautiful without a single flaw on their face.
\"These are the candidates sent from Hanjian. Lovely, aren't they?\"
Li Xueyue blinked.
\"Which one stands out the most?\" Emperor Fadong asked, his eyes sparkling with playfulness. \"Oh, but please be careful when you choose, you don't want to offend a Princess or two, do you?\"
Li Xueyue coyly smiled which surprised the Emperor. \"Every woman is beautiful in their own right.\"
\"Why didn't you pick one that stands out the most?\"
\"Is it possible to choose between priceless diamonds, rubies, sapphires, pearls, and emeralds?\"
Everyone held their breath at her question while they warily glanced at the Emperor who had not stopped smiling ever since Li Xueyue walked in.
The Emperor slowly clapped his hands and grinned. He nodded at a Eunuch and instantly, two men approached Xueyue with a large tray lined with velvet.
On top of the tray were two sets of necklaces, matching earrings, priceless jewels, gold, silver, and rolls of silk.
\"A gift for your words.\"
Li Xueyue's expression remained the same as when she had walked in, empty and calm. Her smile neither widened nor did she frown at the sight of the extravagant gifts. There was simply no change in her expression. No one could get past her walls.
\"I'm afraid I cannot accept these gifts.\"
\"Oh? Why not?\"
\"Words are just words.\"
\"But some of them can soothe the ears, especially when it's clogged. And yours, little lady, have always entertained me.\"
Li Xueyue did not respond. She simply bowed her head.
The Emperor let out a disappointed sigh and waved his hand. He wanted to test the limit of her supposed indifference. He wanted to see how far she was willing to conceal human greed that was present in everyone he had ever come across.
\"Very well, then,\" he said. \"Send these to the Li Family.\"
Li Xueyue's body jolted and her eyes widened. She resisted the urge to argue with the Emperor.
He keenly watched all of her movements, waiting for her to lose her composure. He knew she didn't like these grand gifts, but the more she hated it, the more he wanted to burden her. She was a very unique girl that he rarely encountered.
\"Would you like to know why I asked you to choose from these gems?\" the Emperor asked.
Li Xueyue did not respond. She held her tongue and waited for him to continue.
\"Do you know what is happening to the candidates that are representing Hanjian?\"
\"They're bringing honor to their families.\"
The Emperor heartily laughed to himself. She reminded him of Wen Jinkai. Subtle with their lethal jabs. She was throwing Duke Li Taojun's words back at him.
\"Yes, they are. In particular, one of my daughters is marrying a Prince and the other has wed an outstanding General. You understand what I'm saying, don't you?\"
Li Xueyue nodded her head.
\"Then can you predict who these Hanjian's candidates are marrying?\"
She nodded again.
\"Perfect.\" The Emperor's eyes flashed and his smile widened. For some reason, it reminded Xueyue of a cheshire cat up to no good.
\"From one of these women, I'd like you to pick a suitable candidate.\"
The Emperor grinned. \"Commander Wen Jinkai.\"
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