Wen Jinkai was not the only person who entered the Throne Room. He was accompanied by a sour-faced Duke Li Shenyang who glowered at the Emperor the second he walked in.
Duchess Wang Qixing saw the glint in her husband's eyes. He seemed out of breath as if he had rushed here. What was he planning?
Duke Li Shenyang stared up at the man he grew up with. The Emperor was the Duke's first friend. It would only be fair if Duke Li Shenyang was the one who would end everything.
Duke Li Shenyang found it ironic that the Emperor didn't realize history was repeating itself. Li Xueyue was taking the heat in place of Li Wenmin, it was just like when they were children and the Duke shouldered the Emperor's punishments. What a petty ruler. The Emperor must've been furious that his power and authority were challenged when he did nothing to deserve his position.
"What are you doing here, Prime Minister? You're supposed to oversee the packing of the carriages. Are you neglecting your duties?" Emperor Fadong snapped when he saw his friend enter.
Duke Li Shenyang forced a pleasant smile. So he was right. The Emperor was mad at him but was taking his frustration out on someone who couldn't argue back—Li Xueyue. The Emperor was deliberately targeting the Li Family's only weakness.
"You've summoned my wife and my daughter in such awful weather. The least I could do as their husband and father, respectively, is to ensure they're not bullied by you, Your Majesty," Duke Li Shenyang said in a humorous tone, despite the warning in his message.
"I was merely questioning your daughter about the heinous crime she committed against an innocent servant of the Second Prince. My son was furious to find out that his servant was mistreated. An offense towards his servants is an offense to the Crown," Emperor Fadong gritted out.
Li Xueyue found that the Emperor's words were a bunch of lies. Since when were the lives of servants cherished in the Palace? She thought that there were probably enough discarded servants to form a human mountain before the palace grounds. Her eyes flashed. There was so much she could retort to that but she'd rather not fall into his trap and speak out of turn.
"Really now?" Duke Li Shenyang said, turning to Li Xueyue. "How do you answer such charges, Xueyue?"
Li Xueyue bowed her head. "If the Emperor is implying that a servant's life could ever equate to the blood of a royal, then I have no choice but to accept this unjustified rule."
The court fell into another silence. A wise move, but bold and accusing. Her words were like a sword concealed by silk. She was deliberately targeting not only the Emperor for his words but his mentality. By suggesting the servant's life was that important, it only raised suspicions.
There was a murmur among the Court Ministers and eventually, one of them stepped forward.
Li Xueyue instantly recognized him. Marquis Ning, who was known to have a great influence over the opposing faction of the courts.
"Your Majesty, I hate to step in, but my faction would like to share their opinion. We believe it's audacious to think a servant's life would even be that important. I'm sure the Princess did not mean to offend the Crown or the Second Prince. Undisciplined servants shouldn't be walking around freely in the Palace," Marquis Ning commented.
Duchess Wang Qixing made a mental note to tell Li Chenyang that Ning Huabing's father defended Xueyue. Maybe that way, he wouldn't make such a grouchy face whenever Ning Huabing was invited for "tea" on the exact day he would be off from work…
Wen Jinkai raised a brow. He threw an irritable glance towards the Emperor. "Is this why Li Xueyue was summoned before a full court of Ministers as if she had committed an unspeakable crime? She bullied a servant? How laughable. We all know she wouldn't do such a thing."
Emperor Fadong narrowed his eyes at his son. He had caught wind of the commotion that happened in his wife's sleeping quarters. The details were vague, but he knew there was a reason she refused to see him. The Empress claimed she was bedridden and wanted to be left alone, but that sounded like mere excuses.
"You're also being accused of mistreating the same servant, Commander Wen," Emperor Fadong seethed. "You've gotten bold so as to forget to use a title before you address me."
Wen Jinkai revealed a cunning smile. "Your Majesty, let's be honest. This isn't the real reason you summoned Li Xueyue. I've witnessed countless abuse of servants before by the hands of the Empress. Let us cut to the chase. Why did you really summon her?"
Emperor Fadong angrily stood up and pointed a finger to his son. "You insolent imbecile. Who gave you the right to speak to me as such?! Do you think the Empress's protection will keep you away from punishments?!" he bellowed.
Wen Jinkai didn't even blink. "What's my crime? Answering the Emperor when he addressed me? Should I have ignored you? Or perhaps, the truth was a crime. I wouldn't be surprised if you punished me for this reason."
A vein popped out on Emperor Fadong's forehead. His skin had become a furious shade of red. His patience had snapped.
"If you want to charge anyone of servant abuse, especially that pesky and disrespectful one, I will gladly take the charges upon my name. But then, word will get out about the importance of this specific servant. A Commander is punished for what? Mistreating her? Bullying her?" Wen Jinkai let out a loud laughter.
"It'll truly make the public question this servant's identity. What makes her so important? Is the Second Prince having an illicit relationship with a peasant? Is this girl the illegitimate daughter of someone in the Royal family? Or perhaps…" Wen Jinkai trailed off, eyeing the Emperor.
Everyone knew what he was implying.
By now, Emperor Fadong had reached his last straw. "You preposterous brat, today is the day I've tolerated enough of you."
Wen Jinkai nearly rolled his eyes. Yeah, yeah, it would be some punishment in the Cold Palace. There wasn't a single thing that he wouldn't be able to handle. Bring it on then.
When he felt a pressing stare on the side of his head, he already knew who it was.
Li Xueyue didn't understand Wen Jinkai's rash words and actions. He had the courage to directly insult the Royal family. What pushed him to do it? He shifted his head and their eyes met. His lips curled into a tiny, sympathetic smile before he glanced away.
It was the first time that Li Xueyue actually felt safe with Wen Jinkai. What influenced that sudden change in him?
Li Xueyue wasn't sure she wanted the answer to that question. Instead, she averted her gaze, but it accidentally met an unwanted one. She had looked at the Emperor directly in the eyes.
Emperor Fadong was instantly reminded of the reason why he summoned Li Xueyue in the first place. He let out a humorless chuckle. What an intelligent son he had. Rude and bold, but a genius.
Emperor Fadong realized Wen Jinkai's plan. It was to distract and shift the blame onto him so that Li Xueyue would walk out of here a free woman.
Emperor Fadong's lips curled into a dark, twisted smile. "The servant is precious to the Second Prince because she was the only one not afraid of serving him when his illness was at its peak. She has earned a good place in many people's hearts."
He stared Li Xueyue directly in the eye as he issued his next words. "Before the High Courts of the Imperial Family, Li Xueyue is hereby charged for servant abuse and offense against the Crown. Her punishment shall be a public canning before the palace servants."
Just like that, chaos ensued.
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