78 Help in Succeeding
Empress Huiyun stiffened when she felt the pressing stares behind her. The irritating Fourth Prince was watching each and every one of her moves as if he could read her thoughts.
Duke Li Shenyang tore his curious stare from her when she cleared her throat. She lowered her head to examine her fingers and the faux nails, sharp like a lioness's claws. The same claws that dug into pure flesh, watching it bleed to the ground before allowing the elements to take them.
She found it amusing that she was surrounded by people who all loved someone who'd never loved them back. That girl, so heartless and cunning… she reaped what she sowed.
Empress Huiyun only came back to reality when her husband spoke up again. She had loved the Emperor ever since she laid eyes on him when he was a Crown Prince and she was a newly titled Crown Princess. He was so majestic then. What happened? She could see the wrinkles were more prominent on his face, the bags under his eyes, and the way his lids droop early at night. He was growing old. Or sick. She couldn't care less.
\"Little Lady,\" Emperor Fadong began, \"I know you've talked your way out of the candidate selection, but words of your brave actions have traveled far and wide.\"
His eyes landed on Yu Zhen. \"This here is Commander Yu Zhen, a Prince by blood, and one of the leading men of Hanjian. He has expressed interest in the intelligent and skilled woman who talked her way into becoming a third-ranked Princess.\"
Li Xueyue's brows knitted together. Commander Yu Zhen came here for her? Then… Her eyes widened. Was their entire interaction in his room orchestrated by the Emperor and Empress? Was everything a well-planned and timed scheme?
She was grateful for her long sleeves that hid her fingers tightening into a fist. She dug her nails into her palm until crescent moons formed. The Imperial Family was so keen on sending her to Hanjian, one way or another. But why? What made her so important that they had to get rid of her as soon as possible?
It was a shame the blame was not on her, but the people interested in her. She couldn't prevent someone else's feelings towards her, nor could she control it. Despite that, the royal family still took prejudice against her.
Noticing her wary expression, the Empress smiled. \"Don't worry, young lady, he's not here to wed you, but there's always a possibility he'd court you. There's nothing wrong in becoming acquainted with another powerful man.\"
Wen Jinkai stiffened at the Empress's words. He glared her down, his eyes piercing daggers through her. He didn't expect her to betray him like that.
Yu Zhen, on the other hand, raised a brow. The Empress was too bold with her suggestion. The least she could've done was make her motives less apparent.
Men who make history rarely make good husbands.
Li Xueyue glanced at the Emperor of Wuyi, a man who'd surely go down in history books. Then her gaze wandered to the smiling Empress, youthful and glamorous, but pitiful and lonely.
Li Xueyue wondered how it feels to play god. To have the ability to determine someone else's life. How nice it must've been to roll a die before birth. Imagine the awe and happiness of a person when they've rolled the ultimate number that determined their position in life. If one had the ability to alter another person's life, why not alter it for the good of humanity? Why meddle at all?
Empress Huiyun's smile widened as she continued, \"Of course, it won't be an arranged marriage like the other candidates in Hanjian are currently experiencing, but wouldn't it be nice if you were to wed him? Hanjian is known for taking no more than two wives.\"
'Wouldn't you like that?' Li Xueyue bitterly thought to herself.
\"What do you think, Xueyue?\" Emperor Fadong asked when he saw her blank expression. For a brief moment there, he thought he saw contempt dance in her eyes before it was quickly replaced by appreciation.
\"I'm grateful that you thought about me with good will enough to welcome another country's Commander here.\" Li Xueyue graciously smiled. \"But I must apologize for not appreciating this gift.\"
She bowed her head and carefully said, \"I've only turned eighteen for a few months. It's just as you said last week, at the tournament, Your Grace. I am too young to wed.\"
Empress Huiyun's smile slipped. She disliked people who used her own words against her. How she wished she could wrap her sharp nails around Li Xueyue's fleshy throat, the same way she had done so in the past to another unfortunate girl who thought too highly of herself.
\"'You're not getting any younger, darling. Contemplating marriage is a normal thing to do for young ladies of your age and status.\"
\"Please forgive my bluntness, but what is your plan for me, Your Grace?\"
Empress Huiyun blinked. She had never met a woman like Li Xueyue who spoke so freely. Her face turned a dark shade of red, infuriated that this little girl, years her junior, had the audacity to talk back to her.
\"How rude of you.\"
Li Xueyue blinked, shrinking back, her eyes wandered to the floor. She was careful of her performance. It was better to pretend to be remorseful and apologetic, even if she didn't feel like it. If the Empress liked to scheme against her, then Xueyue would scheme in her own ways.
Empress Huiyun was even more offended by Li Xueyue's reaction. Did this girl think she was some saint? Some innocent thing that needed protection? Did she think this plan of hers would work? For some reason, Li Xueyue's innocuous reaction reminded the Empress of Gu Feiying's confused expression.
\"Little girls should not talk back.\"
Li Xueyue pressed her lips together, her brows crinkled. She was the perfect embodiment of an apologetic and frightful young lady, just like how she planned it to be.
\"Here I am presenting you with another opportunity to achieve greatness in life, but you're disrespecting me and—\"
\"Empress,\" Duke Li Shenyang said with a dark edge to his voice. He was barely holding back his anger.
\"It is the duty of a father to reprimand his daughter. Please forgive my failure at such a task.\" His words were calm and objective. Controlled and tamed was his exterior, but enraged and irked was his interior.
\"But I must speak out of turn that it's my duty alone. The Duchess and I do not welcome outside interference.\"
Nothing was more shameful than reprimanding someone in front of an entire crowd. The Empress should know herself that the reputation of little girls was easy to create but even easier to destroy.
Empress Huiyun struggled to remain calm while she glowered daggers into Xueyue.
Empress Huiyin opened her mouth to retort, but Duke Li Shenyang tilted his head in warning. 'Do not cross me,' was his sole message.
She nearly laughed. What a foolish man. Did he not realize she had crossed his boundary line before? That she had the ability to destroy what he held dear, and she would not hesitate to do it again?
\"I am merely advising Xueyue.\" Empress Huiyun smiled. \"I am forgiving, but there are not many higher-ups as kind as I am. If I was as cruel as you paint me to be, she would've lost a tongue for her improper words.
\"Yet here she stands, unharmed and untouched. I would even offer her another opportunity to succeed.\"
Duke Li Shenyang smiled and said sarcastically, \"She does not need help to succeed. She can do that on her own. It's more meaningful that way, don't you think so?\"
Empress Huiyun's fingers curled into a fist. She loathed the Duke, loathed the way he cared so much about his family. His family that was supposed to be hers, had he not fallen for the wrong Princess.