The Emperor peered down at the Crown Princess. She met all of his expectations, but more than that, he wanted to see exactly what she could offer.
"You've been standing for a while now. Why don't you take a seat?" It seemed like a suggestion, but it sounded more like a command.
"Thank you, Your Majesty," Li Xueyue warmly said.
Her eyes landed upon the empty seat beside Yu Zhen. It was then she noticed the First Prince and other Princesses weren't present.
Nonetheless, Li Xueyue made her way up the golden stairs. Guards were stationed at the first step, and another set of guards could be seen at the top of the stairs leading to the platform.
The Emperor's throne was right in the center of the platform and everyone else sat on either side of the throne. The seats were spaced out by about an arm's length away from each other.
"Here," Yu Zhen stated whilst offering her a hand when she approached him.
A loud silence ensued in the court but the couple didn't notice.
"Thank you," she warmly responded.
Li Xueyue smiled and slid her hand onto his open palm. She sat down with his help. Upon feeling the pressurizing stares upon the rest, she shifted her attention to the stunned Ministers who were watching her and Yu Zhen in silence.
Did something happen?
She blinked and in an instant, they were either looking at the ceiling or the floor. She turned her head and caught Yu Zhen sending the Ministers a scathing glare. And if looks could kill, they'd be dead.
"Ignore them," Yu Zhen solemnly said. Curiosity flashed in her eyes and he smiled.
Li Xueyue supposed nothing was wrong. She silently nodded, completely unaware that the Imperial Family had their eyes on them.
The Emperor had never witnessed this type of affection from his son. The brooding man rarely smiled unless it was with wicked intent. His glare was always fierce and dark.
But when the Crown Prince peered at the Princess, his gaze softened and adoration filled his expression.
"Hmmm…" the Emperor hummed.
It was a surprising turn of events, even to the Emperor. He continued to observe the pair. His stare shifted to his wife who was equally as surprised to see their son's gentleness. Even now, Yu Zhen hadn't released the Princess's hand.
"How interesting," the Emperor murmured before shifting in his throne.
It would be a long day ahead of him and he'd need to get comfortable. After all, this would be one of his last few moments on the throne.
The Emperor turned his chin to his side where a man of similar age stood. Chancellor Wu had grown up with the Emperor, just like their children had.
"Let the appointments begin," he stated to Chancellor Wu.
Chancellor Wu bowed his head, despite the years of familiarity between them.
In a quiet, but firm voice, he said, "As you wish, Your Majesty."
Chancellor Wu sharply turned to the Eunuch who announced the start of the court proceedings.
- - - - -
It was Li Xueyue's first experience in an official court setting. As she observed how the Emperor managed the court, she couldn't help but compare him to the late Emperor Fadong. Things were different around here. The workload wasn't pushed onto the Prime Minister.
"Is that so?" the Emperor said after listening to the problem. He rubbed his long beard and paused.
She watched in awe as the Emperor thoughtfully listened to the troubles presented to him. He would spend a few minutes to seriously ponder about the issue and come up with a solution for the problem. He laughed when needed and frowned when expected.
There was something else that Li Xueyue noticed. Sometimes, before the Emperor could come up with a solution, Yu Zhen would've already come up with a written solution and present it to his father. He was a lot faster than his father and worked rather efficiently.
When the Emperor had his reservations over certain issues, Yu Zhen would step in and offer his insights. The minute the Emperor struggled, Yu Zhen was there to offer his support.
"I saw a different side of you today," Li Xueyue stated when the day finally came to an end. Her shoulders were sore from sitting in court all day.
"Did you?" Yu Zhen mused.
He reached out and fondly stroked the back of her head. He frowned when his fingers grazed upon her hairpin. He preferred her in a simpler hairstyle.
"Is this heavy?" he asked, gesturing to her hair adorned with an assortment of hair accessories. Some hung from the top of her head, cascading down.
Li Xueyue slightly nodded. Her accessories swayed with the small movement.
"Next time, Sunshine, I'll make sure you wear something more comfortable," Yu Zhen said.
Li Xueyue found it amusing that he seemed bothered when it was just a few hairpins. Nonetheless, she nodded in agreement.
"Was it interesting?" a voice asked from behind them.
Yu Zhen held back the frown on his face. He wanted to whisk Li Xueyue out of here as soon as possible but it seemed like they'd be delayed by the damn elders.
He turned around and stood in front of Li Xueyue.
"I see you've finally found something to protect," the Emperor stated.
Yu Zhen felt a small tug at his sleeve. And before he knew it, Li Xueyue took the initiative to step out of his protective shadow.
Li Xueyue was surprised to see the warm gaze of the Emperor settle upon her. He seemed like a stern man with a wrinkled face, but his eyes said otherwise.
She wondered why there were so many rumors circulating about his horrid treatment towards the two Princes.
"She's my Wangfei. If I don't protect her, who else should I protect?" Yu Zhen coldly said, grabbing her wrist before she could dip in a greeting curtsey.
Li Xueyue's heart dropped. The rumors must be true. The second the Emperor glanced at his son, his stare became stoic. It was then she realized the Emperor must've pampered his daughters, and disciplined his sons.
"Your tone is as disrespectful as ever," the Emperor hissed.
"I'd prefer not to put a mask around you."
The Emperor pressed his lips together and narrowed his eyes. His second son had a point.
The Emperor supposed this was one of Yu Zhen's redeemable traits. His son never faltered for anyone. Never yielded. Never submitted. Not even to the Emperor of Hanjian.
The Emperor decided to ignore his son for now. He shifted his attention to the Princess. He had noticed how inquisitive she appeared the entire time.
Instead of boredly staring into space, daydreaming of a place beyond the Throne Room, she was attentive and observant.
"Did you enjoy today's audience, Little Princess?" the Emperor questioned.
"It's my first time witnessing it," Li Xueyue responded. "It was thought-provoking, Your Majesty."
The Emperor raised a brow at her words. She could've given him a bland response and called it a day. But she didn't.
He was entertained. The Little Princess sure knew how to spin things to her favor. Finishing the blow, her lips curved into a hesitant smile that softened her eyes.
He wondered exactly who trained her to be like this. Li Xueyue was the daughter of a Prime Minister and a Princess.
The world must've been her sandbox. It was strange. She was neither spoiled or haughty. It was a contrast to his daughters who were loud and demanding.
"Really now? What did you learn from this experience, Little Princess?" the Emperor asked.
"How to be a strict ruler."
It was the first time the Emperor had seen a flaw in her. She had forgotten to address him with the correct title, but he brushed it off. Especially because of the looming tiger near her.
The Crown Prince hovered near her, protective and possessive. Anyone that hurt his lover would be mauled.
The Emperor almost found it laughable. He had never seen his son like this. It was a new experience for him.
"Your words sound like bland compliments," the Emperor deadpanned.
Oh ho, ho, his son had glowered at him. Despite being so young, the Crown Prince's presence was overwhelming. He could practically see the black wisps circling around his son.
"It wasn't meant to be a compliment, Your Majesty," Li Xueyue mused.
The Emperor raised a brow. She was finally showing this side of her, bold and audacious. Instead of being offended, he wanted to hear more—to see the extent of her wits.
Instead of continuing, her lips pulled into a serene smile. She innocently blinked her eyes. It softened the blow of her words, soothing any ill-feelings the other person might have.
The Emperor's tired eyes widened a bit. He had just seen a different side to her. If the Palace had a harem, Li Xueyue would surely rule it.
She reminded him of a type of plant called belladonna—beautiful on the outside, but deadly on the inside.
"Now, I know why you are the favored Princess of Wuyi," the Emperor said with a loud laugh.
The Ministers were spooked by the sound. Their Emperor's laugh was warm and he sounded highly amused. It was one of the rare moments the Ministers saw the Emperor so happy over something. And the majority of them had worked with the Emperor for more than half of their lives.
Their gazes traveled to who he was conversing with. Everyone was surprised to see it was the Crown Princess.
The Ministers exchanged glances with each other as whispers began to erupt amongst themselves. Not only had the Crown Princess just gained the Emperor's favor, but she was beginning to garner the respect of the Ministers as well.
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