Li Xueyue felt her smile slip into a straight line, the light in her eyes darkened. She opened and closed her mouth, struggling to form a proper answer. Her eyes swept past the beautiful women standing at the foot of the staircase. They were all so gorgeous that the very spot they stood seemed ethereal.
Pain pricked her chest, spreading far and wide until she was practically numb. Her heart slowly built up rhythm as something clawed at it, squeezing the fragile thing in its grasp.
Her world nearly spiraled out of control, but she forced herself to remain calm. 'Why should I be affected by whom the Commander marries?' she asked herself.
'Because you care about him,' the little angel on her shoulder whispered.
'Bah, he doesn't care about you,' the devil on the other side of her shoulder retorted, rolling her eyes.
Li Xueyue's eyes lingered on a woman in particular who held herself with more class than everyone else. She was stunning and she knew it. Her confidence made her stand out the most, in the fiercest and most blinding manner.
\"The chosen candidate will be the Commander's first wife. Wouldn't it be better if he chooses himself?\" Li Xueyue finally said while forcing her stare back to the Emperor who peered down at her with a devious smirk.
\"What if I told you that the Commander specifically requested me to ask you to choose a bride for him?\"
Li Xueyue blinked, her fingers slowly curling into a fist under her long sleeves. She swallowed and forced herself to remain logical.
Was the Emperor testing her? Or was he lying? Did Commander Wen Jinkai really requested something like this?
Li Xueyue smiled. \"What a strange thing to request.\"
\"Do you want to know what else is peculiar? Up until last week, you were supposedly promised to him. Now you're not,\" Empress Huiyun finally spoke up. Her face was filled with patience and understanding, but Xueyue didn't know if it was sincere or not.
\"A wife would stabilize our Commander's life. It will keep him grounded, don't you agree?\" Empress Huiyun asked.
Li Xueyue bit her bottom lip. Indeed, a wife who could yield to the Commander's wishes and lifestyle would be suitable and beneficial for him. He'd like that; a submissive little thing who'd be satisfied by materialistic gifts.
She would not be that type of wife for him. She'd argue to hell and back for her freedom. Obedience was not something she'd willingly give to her husband.
\"Yes, it will.\" Li Xueyue nodded even though everything in her wanted to scream \"no.\"
She was forcing her aching heart to stay quiet. Yielding to her heart's desire had ruined her life once, she didn't need it to happen again. She didn't understand her own feelings. She didn't understand why it hurt her so much to answer these questions.
\"It seems you're unwilling to select a wife for him.\" Empress Huiyun softly sighed, shaking her head in disapproval.
\"It would be unfair to the Commander if someone else selected his wife for him,\" Li Xueyue said.
Li Xueyue was purposely relating everything back to the Commander's well-being, but at the expense of her own interest. She didn't want to choose for him. She didn't know why.
The Emperor smiled in satisfaction at her words. She was very tactful in the way she spoke. He supposed he had misjudged her for having a weak character. She was intelligent and would stand a chance of surviving in the royal harem if she were to wed the Fourth Prince.
Fourth Prince Wang Longhe hadn't stopped asking about her for the past week, even though he ran the risk of never taking a wife other than Xueyue. But he did not seem to mind, and that was the most intriguing part.
A Commander who'd never yield to her and a Prince who was willing to wed only once in his lifetime.
\"We should stop trifling with our Commander's life,\" Emperor Fadong wistfully said, his eyes twinkled when he grinned.
Li Xueyue didn't sigh in relief at his words. It was too early to let her guard down. There must be something else if he let the discussion end so quickly.
Empress Huiyun clearly didn't think the same. Her head snapped to her husband in disbelief. He was not sticking to the plan, but he simply shrugged in response and gave her a pointed look that said, 'We shouldn't meddle in his life yet.'
\"Why don't we move to the real topic of discussion today?\" Emperor Fadong pressed his fingers together. He leaned forward to get a better look at the defiant Li Xueyue and opened his mouth, ready to speak, until someone interrupted him.
A Eunuch spoke, \"My lord, you can't enter like this—\"
\"Your Majesty,\" Duke Li Shenyang greeted and bravely strolled in with his hands behind his back in a leisure stance. \"I have urgent news to report.\"
\"Such perfect timing.\" The Emperor grinned and continued, \"But this isn't like you, Duke. You usually follow protocol.\"
\"Well, the news can't wait.\"
\"I'm sure it can.\"
\"No. It can't.\" Duke Li Shenyang's gaze darkened. He had stopped in front of his daughter, shielding her from the calculative stares of the royal family.
Li Xueyue blinked. If the Duke was here, then that meant a servant must've ran off in search of him. Had the situation escalated to the point where she needed his help? She wasn't aware. Nonetheless, she was grateful for this intrusion.
Emperor Fadong heaved an excessively loud sigh before finally rising from his throne. \"You always like to ruin my fun.\"
Duke Li Shenyang smiled and said, \"For the sake of our country, I do not mind.\"
\"I'm sure you don't,\" Emperor Fadong grumbled under his breath before turning to the Empress. \"We'll continue this matter after I've dealt with this issue.\"
He turned to Li Xueyue and suggested, \"Why don't you take a stroll in the gardens?\"
Duke Li Shenyang instantly shook his head. \"I'm afraid my daughter has to return home.\"
\"Her lessons are starting soon.\"
What lessons? Li Xueyue asked herself, but kept her face blank. When the Emperor raised a brow, she automatically nodded her head.
The Emperor let out another loud sigh. \"Very well.\"
The Empress smiled and said, \"I guess we'll see you tomorrow, Lady Li.\"
Damn it. Duke Li Shenyang pressed his lips together to prevent himself from scowling out of irritation. What was so important that Li Xueyue had to be present in two consecutive days? He supposed it's better to deal with this problem today.
\"On second thought, why don't you take a stroll in the Chrysanthemum Gardens?\" Duke Li Shenyang turned to Xueyue. In a quiet voice, he whispered, \"Try to wander off until you find the Duchess. She's there with the Dowager.\"
Li Xueyue slowly nodded her head.
\"What about the lessons?\" Emperor Fadong haughtily asked, his eyes flashing with satisfaction.
\"It'll have to wait.\" Duke Li Shenyang slyly smiled.
\"Splendid,\" the Emperor remarked as he exited the throne room with Duke Li Shenyang at his side. Once they were out of earshot, he fired, \"Did my sister send for you?\"
\"My wife is here?\" Duke Li Shenyang feigned ignorance.
\"Pft.\" Emperor Fadong laughed, \"Always the strategist aren't you?\"
Duke Li Shenyang kept his mouth shut. As they turned a corner, he felt a gnawing feeling in his stomach. Something didn't feel quite right, but he didn't know what. Little did he know, he had guided Xueyue right into the Emperor's trap.
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