The Emperor's scrutinizing gaze followed Wen Jinkai's disappearing form. He didn't expect the Commander to continue behaving so rashly. It was time to put a stop to his disgusting attitude, and the Emperor had the exact lessons in mind. Soon, Wen Jinkai would understand the consequences of biting the hand that fed him.
Wen Jinkai made a sharp turn when he exited the throne room, only for a loud "Watch it!" to stop him in his path.
Wen Jinkai's mood soured further. People nowadays had too much audacity. "What the hell did you just say to me—" he paused upon seeing who it was.
Li Chenyang had a protective hand in front of Xueyue, shielding her from the near-collision with the Commander.
Neither men seemed pleased by each other's presence. Visible disgust and irritation were written on their faces. The atmosphere took a turn for the worst.
"You ought to watch your tone with me, Li Chenyang," Wen Jinkai snapped. "I command over your older brother."
Li Chenyang opened his mouth, but Li Xueyue interrupted both of them.
"First of all, don't talk to my brother like that," she said and stepped around Li Chenyang's arm. Jabbing the Commander in the chest, she spat out, "Second, you don't command over Li Wenmin. You belong to a different division."
Wen Jinkai was caught off-guard by her air of authority. He had to do a double-take to make sure this was the same Xueyue he was talking to. When he opened his mouth in protest, she pushed him back with her finger, causing him to stumble.
"Xueyue," he warned. "You need to pick your allegiance wisely," he bit out, grabbing her finger, and pulling her towards him, but she shoved him back.
"Don't grab me. Don't touch me," she snarled, yanking her hand back before he had another chance to tug her closer to him. She would not allow him to taint her reputation. He called her a loose woman, but kept crossing the line with his behavior.
"Are you going to continue being this stubborn?" Wen Jinkai seethed. "Occasional tantrums are allowed, but you've been spoiled rotten by my patience."
"If you think my disagreements are tantrums, then I hate to see what yours are called."
Li Xueyue narrowed her eyes. He had guts to call her stubborn when he was equally hard-headed.
Li Chenyang stepped forward. "Let's head inside now, Xueyue." He didn't wait for either of them to respond and placed an ushering hand on her upper back, guiding her towards the enormous entrance.
The Eunuch standing outside bowed at their presence. Clearing his throat, he loudly announced, "Welcoming Minister Li Chenyang and third-rank Princess Li Xueyue!"
Emperor Fadong's lips tugged upwards. Finally. He could relax now. "There you are, Little Lady. I was beginning to wonder if you're even alive after so many days of being bedridden."
Li Xueyue strained her smile and bowed for him. "Thank you for your concern, Your Majesty."
"Pft, right. My concern." He lightly chuckled, pleased by her patience and response. It was time to make her a tool of influence over the reckless Wen Jinkai.
"You might be wondering what could be the reason for my persistence to see you. I wanted to invite you to the marriage banquet of the Commander and Princess Yu Xiyan of Hanjian."
Li Xueyue's lips twitched. Marriage banquet? Finally. She hoped Princess Yu Xiyan would keep the Commander occupied enough that he would stop bothering her, but this was one wish of hers that was least likely to happen.
"Unfortunately, during your bedridden days, there was a conflict that resulted in a change of plans." The Emperor carefully watched her reaction over his next words. "They won't be getting married."
And just like that, Li Xueyue felt utterly hopeless. She didn't know how to react or respond to something like that. What was she supposed to say? Why did the Commander's matters have anything to do with her in the first place?
When she didn't react to the announcement, the Emperor finally concluded something. Li Xueyue didn't wear her heart on her sleeve.
She seemed the least affected by this announcement as if she didn't care about it at all. Her apathetic eyes and the blank canvas of her face were enough for the Emperor to understand she wouldn't care if Wen Jinkai dropped dead right in front of her. One of the most eligible bachelors of the country was free and she couldn't care less.
Finally, Li Xueyue spoke up. "I express my sadness for both parties and I pray this would not lead to bad blood between us and Hanjian." It was impossible for her to sound anymore bland.
The Emperor raised his brows. What a boring response. She wasn't affected by the news. Was this her new plan? To appear as boring as possible so that he would lose interest in her? Poor Xueyue. She was too deep in the game to leave now. She had proved herself to be too useful.
The Emperor sighed. "I couldn't agree with you any less, Little Lady, but we're not here to discuss Princess Yu Xiyan's marriage."
Li Xueyue quirked a brow.
"We're here to discuss yours."
Li Chenyang stiffened, his eyes widened. "Your Majesty, I apologize for speaking out of turn, but Xueyue is only eighteen years old and has a magnificent future ahead of her—"
"Minister Li, it's so good to see you early this morning. I'm afraid I didn't request your presence." The Emperor pressed his lips together. All of the children he liked had grown up to be irritable little things. He had spoiled them for too long.
"I believe your position is with your fellow Ministers." He nodded to his right where rows of ministers sat with low tables in front of them.
His large array of ministers were supposed to be his voice of reasons, but they had stopped caring about the Emperor's approval a long time ago. To those men, the person they should accommodate was the Prime Minister, who actually makes decisions for the country.
Li Chenyang's gaze sharpened. This was the first time the Emperor had ever spoken to him like this. Usually, his uncle was delighted by his presence and would welcome him to speak as he pleased.
"Besides, your younger sister isn't mute. She can speak for herself," Empress Huiyun said.
She turned her head in the direction of Li Xueyue and asked, "What do you think about marriage?"
Li Xueyue internally sighed. The royal family would cause a scene again. "With all due respect, I agree with my older brother. I'm not ready to be married yet."
Empress Huiyun let out a dramatic sigh, showing her visible disappointment in Xueyue's response.
"Right now, it's a trend for ripe young ladies your age to get married as soon as possible. Or else, the fruit will sour into leftovers. I'm sure you don't want that to apply to you, right?" the Empress said.
"Then it's a shame I am not a fruit to be sold to the highest bidder…" The Empress's face darkened. "Your Grace." Li Xueyue finished with a smile, purposely taking a pause to utter the title.
"Do you not care about your wellbeing at all? As your aunt, I believe it is my duty to see you properly married off." Empress Huiyun scowled. "It's unfilial of you to deny my generous help."
"Oh my…" Li Xueyue rapidly blinked, placing a chaste hand upon her chest. Abruptly, she lowered her upper body into a graceful curtsy. "I truly appreciate your desire to offer a helping hand, Your Grace."
The Empress smiled in satisfaction, believing she had won this round.
"However…" Li Xueyue's voice softened, almost as if she was too scared to voice her opinion. "My precarious mistake last time has forced the royal family to retract their helping hand. Isn't that correct?"
Li Xueyue bit her bottom lip, glancing at the floor. "Or perhaps, the medicine has caused me to be befuddled and I remembered wrongly?"
Empress Huiyun was left speechless by Li Xueyue's words. She had truly underestimated the capabilities of this quick-witted woman. Li Xueyue might've been as beautiful and dazzling as Li Minghua, but both girls were worlds apart. Despite that, the Empress couldn't help but loathe Li Xueyue to the core. Both women thought they were capable of outsmarting the royal family.
The Empress grounded her teeth. No one gets to make a fool out of the royal family like this.
Li Xueyue would burn to the ground.
The Empress would make sure of it.
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