"So…" Duchess Wang Qixing chirpily said, "The Commander, huh?" She winked when Li Xueyue glanced out the window, preferring the scenery of passing greenery. The Li Manor was located far out of the Capital, in the safe confines of a well-guarded plot of land.
"Which one?" Li Xueyue replied with a slight smile, earning an excited squeal from the Duchess.
"Which one did you think I was referring to?" Duchess Wang Qixing laughed, her face eager and impatient. She was excited that her two years of tending to a flower had paid off.
Li Xueyue shrugged. "I can't read minds."
"Oh, but you can read yours," Duchess Wang Qixing replied.
"But I'm curious about which Commander you had in mind."
Duchess Wang Qixing grinned, pinching Li Xueyue's cheek. "Quite a clever girl you are."
Li Xueyue beamed in response, her large smile reached her eyes. "I learned it from you."
Duchess Wang Qixing pleasantly laughed again. "Are you sure?" She squeezed Li Xueyue's cheek again, amused that it was as soft as the rice cakes she loved to gobble down.
"So, who was on your mind?" Li Xueyue asked whilst sitting still for the Duchess. She didn't mind when it was the Duchess pinching her. She did mind when the twins or anyone else did it because hair ruffling always came next.
"Well…" Duchess Wang Qixing thoughtfully pondered her next response.
Both men came to mind, but she was hesitant about Yu Zhen. If he would woo Xueyue and she responded favorably to his courtship, then Xueyue would have to move to Hanjian and stay there indefinitely. It would be her new home with new acquaintances to call family. She would be far from the protection of the Duke and Duchess, but she would also be far from the Emperor and Empress if they chose to be as annoying as earlier.
The fastest way to Hanjian, by horse, was at least a three-day ride, and by carriage, it would take a week. If anything happened to Xueyue there, the Lis would always respond late due to the constraints of travel time.
The problems with Wen Jinkai were equally troublesome. He would live in the Capital, of course, unless he preferred to live elsewhere. The Emperor and Empress would surely meddle in their relationship with the ability to enter and leave as they pleased.
Wen Jinkai was also a debatable option. He was raised and surrounded by people who had harems of women who didn't know, nor had to, stop.
Suddenly, both men had too much baggage for Duchess Wang Qixing to favor either one. She could only helplessly stare at Li Xueyue.
"Both came in mind… but the final decision is up to you," Duchess Wang Qixing honestly said.
Li Xueyue blinked. Why did she have a feeling that Duchess Wang Qixing already thought far too ahead into the future with a house of rowdy grandchildren?
Slowly, she turned her gaze to her hands because she hadn't thought about either men. For someone who had been hurt before, she sure loved to wear her heart on her sleeves. The only thing she could do was let nature take its course.
"I'm not sure," Li Xueyue finally responded.
"Well, who tickled your heart the most?"
Li Xueyue blinked. Instantly, a name came to mind, her face turning the same color as the setting sun. "W-why don't we talk about something else?"
Duchess Wang Qixing pouted in disappointment before nudging her. "But this is the most interesting topic."
Li Xueyue chuckled, "Really? What can be so interesting about my love life?"
"Everything!" Duchess Wang Qixing huffed.
"I think it's a bore. Just like politics." Li Xueyue wrinkled her nose, unaware that many people were interested to know who exactly came to her mind.
- - - - -
In the palace.
Within a quiet hallway, there was nothing but the sound of footsteps. The air was tense, awkward and thick. Imperial guards quietly trailed behind the Emperor and Prime Minister.
Duke Li Shenyang's fingers curled into a fist consistently before he forced himself to unravel it. When they turned a dark corner, he abruptly grabbed the Emperor by his collar and slammed him against a wall.
The clink of metal could be heard, but none of the guards came forward to strike the Prime Minister. This was, after all, a daily occurrence.
"What the hell was that back there?!" Duke Li Shenyang snarled, his eyes a raging storm, but his face frighteningly passive. "Your meddling already ruined the lives of my family once, don't let it happen again."
"It's not my fault you couldn't protect her."
Duke Li Shenyang grinded his teeth. Who was the 'her' this Emperor was referring to? Li Xueyue, Li Minghua, or his wife?
"Have you lost your mind? Or have you simply gone senile?!"
The Emperor was not fazed by this explosion. He was already anticipating it. "Do you realize who you're grabbing?"
"As if I give a damn!"
"You're grabbing your leader by the throat right now. Are you threatening to kill the monarch?"
"The leader?" Duke Li Shenyang let out a bark of laughter. "Are you referring to yourself or are you referring to me?"
The Emperor's face darkened. "Why are you letting a mere child get in between our friendship? All these years of hard work for what? For you to throw it away like you did two years ago?!"
"Don't fucking start with me," Duke Li Shenyang seethed, shoving the Emperor into the wall while taking steps back to create distance between them.
"You let your feelings get the best of you."
"You shouldn't be talking about feelings." Duke Li Shenyang shook his head in disgust. "Not after yours drove you to—" he paused, deciding to not stoop as low as the Emperor.
"You've already harmed my wife in more ways than one. Do you want to do it again? Do you want to see her in that desolate, depressing state again?!"
The Emperor could do nothing but look away, his eyes intense with unspeakable emotions. Remorse, regret, and guilt swallowed him alive, weighing his shoulders down. His chest was prickling with so much pain, it was numb. The image of his younger sister's wailing face came to mind, the wretched screams during the funeral when she didn't have a body to cry over.
"That is enough." Emperor Fadong could barely compose his trembling voice.
"You were the one who ruined your own sister with your irrational emotions," Duke Li Shenyang snarled, storming to the Emperor. "Provoke what my wife holds dear again and I can swear to you, this Empire will be run to the ground.
"The glory restored in the two years that I've resumed my position as the Prime Minister will be trampled over in less than two seconds. You better watch yourself." Duke Li Shenyang hissed.
"Mark my words."
He turned his back to the Emperor, a blatant form of disrespect before flicking his sleeves and storming off. The darkness consumed him alive, starting from his heart to his body. Slowly, he disappeared until no one could hear his silent footsteps.
The Emperor let out a shaky breath as the memories of that day flashed in his head. The night of her heartbroken cries, the morning of her blank expression before she lost a grip on herself. Everything was coming back to him and he could do nothing but face the music that he had created this mess, all because he loved his sons too much.
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