The next morning.
"Oh dear," Duchess Wang Qixing said when she glanced out the window, only to see the same depressing canvas of a stormy morning. "The rain hasn't stopped."
Li Xueyue turned to the Duchess. "Yes, as a result, I'll have to practice archery indoors. I hope it won't be a rough journey for the instructor."
Duchess Wang Qixing nodded in response. "It'll be difficult to get here since we're located outside of the Capital, but don't worry. We'll compensate them more for today's lesson."
Li Xueyue smiled at the idea, happy that there would at least be a reward for them. It had been a while since she had last seen her instructor.
"I do pity the men working in the forest. They will have to endure another night out there." Duchess Wang Qixing sighed. "Well, they're diligent people."
Li Xueyue was unsure of who the Duchess was referring to. She had a suspicion on who it might be but she didn't want to jump to conclusions.
As Li Xueyue stared out the window, she wondered if Yu Zhen was alright. Wouldn't the rain hinder his journey back to Hanjian? The thought of him facing any difficulties made her uncertain.
Li Xueyue didn't know that that would be the least of her worries.
- - - - -
Duke Li Shenyang stood in the rain with an umbrella. The palace grounds spanned before him. From the bright red pillars drenched in rain, turning a depressing shade of burgundy, to the golden rooftops, everything about this place felt like home. He had grown up accompanying his father to the Palace.
Duke Li Shenyang found it amusing that he spent more time in the Palace than he did at home. His workload as a Prime Minister was imbalanced when compared to other countries' Prime Ministers.
"What are you thinking about, old friend?" the Emperor asked as he watched the servants load the carriages.
Duke Li Shenyang turned to his long-term friend. Memories of their youth came flooding back. It was as if his body knew this would be the last time he'll ever look into the untroubled features of the Emperor.
"It's horrible weather to ride carriages," Duke Li Shenyang responded.
The Emperor chuckled and said, "You get bolder every day. How can you forget to address me with a title?"
"Your Majesty," Duke Li Shenyang sarcastically said. "I bid you a safe journey."
Emperor Fadong snorted at the Duke's tone. "You don't sound like you mean it."
"That's because I don't, Your Majesty. But for your sake, I will pray to a God that I don't believe in," Duke Li Shenyang mused, turning his head towards the direction of the Throne Room.
"Let's head inside. There's no need to wait outside in the rain." Duke Li Shenyang gestured to his umbrella that might give out on him anytime. The thick material was beginning to absorb the heavy rainfall.
Emperor Fadong nodded. He walked ahead of his friend and was the first to step inside. Once they were comfortably indoors, he finally spoke up. "Before I go, I want to request something."
Duke Li Shenyang raised a brow. "What is it?"
"I haven't seen your daughter in so long." Emperor Fadong let out a disappointed sigh. "You love to keep her away from me as if I would ever do anything to her."
"You already have done enough," Duke Li Shenyang calmly said. "Do I have to remind you of your methods? From selecting her as a candidate for Hanjian, then forcing her to use the gift of a wish, and mocking her in front of an entire court. On top of that, you threatened to marry her off."
Emperor Fadong frowned at the wording. "I didn't choose her for Hanjian, your brother did. Besides, I think her time in Hanjian would've played out well. She seemed quite fond of that Commander from Hanjian."
Duke Li Shenyang did his very best to not glare at the Emperor. Annoyance flashed in his eyes but he averted his gaze. "She would've suffered in Hanjian. The candidates are practically sacrificial lambs. Even now, the fathers of the candidates are still furious."
Emperor Fadong chuckled deeply. "Angry aristocrats and ministers aren't my problem. It's yours."
Duke Li Shenyang ground his teeth. "My job as the Prime Minister is to advise you and share a bit of the workload. I'm not supposed to take over your position."
"But isn't this what you wanted, my good friend?" Emperor Fadong said as he turned his head. "You wanted to be the ruler behind the curtain. I granted you that privilege. In return, I live a blissful life."
"I never wanted to be in such a position. There is a reason why I retired, but you decided otherwise," Duke Li Shenyang said in a controlled voice. He was supposed to be out of this Palace a long time ago.
"You just had to call me back two years ago," Duke Li Shenyang sighed.
Emperor Fadong laughed. "Yes, the months without you in court were so chaotic and tiring. I didn't have time for myself or my concubines. My children were so rowdy, demanding my time when I had a country to look after."
Duke Li Shenyang clenched his fingers into fists. He had a wife and children to look after as well. Because of the Emperor, the only time that the Duke had for his wife and children was during their brief breakfast together each morning. By the time the Duke returned home each day, it was always late, and he was too tired to entertain anyone.
"I'm glad to have such a supportive and useful friend such as yourself," Emperor Fadong wistfully said. He smiled at the fond memories of their youth. "Remember when you used to sneak me the answers through the window behind the teacher's back?"
Duke Li Shenyang let out a bark of laughter. He remembered those days very well, so much, that the back of his legs burned. "Yes, I would stand by the window, mouthing the answers to your idiotic self."
Emperor Fadong chuckled. He ignored the insult that was worthy of a beheading. "You were too obvious with your methods. You were always caught, and the late Emperor would always assign you a beating. Your father was so disappointed in you."
Duke Li Shenyang would never forget the sores. As a young boy, he was beaten so hard on the leg that it made walking difficult. Even now, Duke Li Shenyang could not enjoy the sports that many other patriarchs fancy. His legs were damaged ever since he was a child. Not from any accidents, but because he had sacrificed himself for the Emperor.
"And then," Duke Li Shenyang sighed. "You would blame me for helping you cheat, claiming you didn't want the help, but I still gave it to you anyways."
Emperor Fadong loudly laughed. "No one believed you when you said I forced you to help me."
Duke Li Shenyang was growing more and more infuriated by this conversation. He didn't want to be reminded of the horrible past. He was so foolish back then, thinking his position as the Prime Minister's son would bring him out of troubles.
"I was always beaten in your place," Duke Li Shenyang said in a light voice, even when it was a heavy discussion.
The warmth and joy fled from Emperor Fadong's features. He softly frowned. "Yes, my father would never lay a hand on me, but he would order servants to pummel you in front of me. You were beaten up so harshly that I could feel the pain."
Duke Li Shenyang stared ahead. He didn't want to see the Emperor's remorse that did nothing but remind him of how weak they were as children. "Even up to his last dying breath, my father never forgave the late Emperor."
"I wouldn't blame him," Emperor Fadong muttered. "If my son was beaten only because his friend was of a higher position and had immunity, I would be furious enough to commit the worst of crimes."
Duke Li Shenyang didn't respond. The late Emperor was tyrannical and cruel. He would not order the servants to stop unless blood was drawn.
"I pity you, my friend," Emperor Fadong sighed. "I know to this day, you can't ride a horse without wincing in pain. My father's methods have left you unable to do many things, except read and write."
Duke Li Shenyang continued to watch the rain cascade to the ground.
Emperor Fadong wished the Duke would say something, but the latter couldn't find it in him to say anything. "But I broke that tradition, didn't I? Your eldest son was never beaten in my son's place."
Duke Li Shenyang would've raised hell in the Palace if such a thing happened.
Emperor Fadong let out a sigh. "Your youngest son would be a great helper to the Crown Prince. I'm glad you raised such an intelligent fellow. Now, your oldest will protect the Crown Prince too."
Duke Li Shenyang frowned. "Li Wenmin wants to become a Commander, not a personal bodyguard for Crown Prince Wang Qianghao."
Emperor Fadong scowled at the idea. His friendly expression became malicious. He didn't like the idea of the Duke opposing his wishes. Duke Li Shenyang should be grateful with the positions bestowed upon him.
"Li Wenmin will protect Wang Qianghao with his life," the Emperor said in a serious tone.
"It's Li Wenmin's dream to become a Commander whose accomplishments would go down in history," Duke Li Shenyang responded. He didn't like where this conversation was going.
"I don't care what his dreams are," Emperor Fadong chillingly said. "He's a Li. You guys aren't meant to have dreams. You're supposed to have aspirations of keeping the Royal family safe."
Duke Li Shenyang's mood dampened. His blood boiled at the thought of Li Wenmin taking an arrow meant for the Crown Prince. He told himself he should endure all of it. Everything would be over soon.
"I refuse," Duke Li Shenyang said.
At this, the Emperor's mood greatly soured. He was no longer pleased by this conversation. Grounding his teeth, he pondered what type of punishment he should give the Duke. This disobedience would not be tolerated.
"Bah, you put me in a horrible mood." Emperor Fadong angrily turned to the Duke. "Now that we're on the topic of your children, bring your daughter to me right now."
Duke Li Shenyang stiffened. "What reason would you have to see her, Your Majesty? Because of the horrible weather, she had a heat stroke and is now bedridden—"
"Don't play that stupid trick with me!" Emperor Fadong yelled. "I know your daughter visited the Palace to see my second son! Now bring her to me. You're telling me she has the guts to defy me and not show her face?!"
Duke Li Shenyang angrily turned to the Emperor. "Is it because of what I said?"
"Shut your mouth and bring her to me. The Empress has been wanting to see her for a while as well. After the stunt Li Xueyue pulled on the Second Prince's servant, she has the audacity to hide?!"
Duke Li Shenyang was taken aback. What did Li Xueyue do?
"Your guards bullied one of my Second Prince's servants. As you know, abuse of a servant is a crime. If you don't bring Li Xueyue to me, I will determine a punishment for her and announce it in front of the entire court."
Duke Li Shenyang paled at the idea. Xueyue's reputation would be in scrambles if that ever happened. He could do nothing but oblige this final request from the soon-to-be-dead man.
"Very well, I will have her summoned to the Palace, Your Majesty," Duke Li Shenyang said.
"Good, now get out of my face. You ruined my good mood," Emperor Fadong snarled. He was furious at how selfish Duke Li Shenyang had become.
The Wang Family has always supported the Lis. The resources and gifts bestowed upon the Li Family were more generous than what any other family ever had. The least that the Li Family could do was to pay them back for the kindness they received.
Li Wenmin was bred to be a soldier. His skills would go to waste if it wasn't protecting the next ruler of this country, Crown Prince Wang Qianghao.
If Li Wenmin would be that useless, he might as well just fall onto his own sword!
Emperor Fadong was infuriated by the stubborn Duke. Even when his best friend's figure disappeared into the pouring rain, the Emperor was furious. "He has gotten too gutsy. He forgets who actually rules this country."
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