Li Xueyue didn't expect the foreign envoys from Nanhui to arrive so quickly. Less than a week after her discussion with Yu Zhen, they presented themselves.
The Emperor held a private gathering in a large space near the palace. Behind the gathering was an enormous field of well-kept grass. Beyond it was a heavily-guarded forest.
"This feels familiar," Li Xueyue mumbled to herself.
The layout was very similar to the Spring Tournament, in that the Imperial Family was seated on a raised platform that overlooked two rows of tables and chairs.
Large umbrellas suspended over the table provided ample shelter from the sunlight.
There was a large gap between the two rows of tables, enough for a line of five people walking side by side to pass through. Many people were invited, ranging from the Ministers of the Courts, to highly influential aristocrats.
The atmosphere was lively as excited chattering filled the air. Conversations flowed like water, and everyone's spirits were high, despite the heat.
Yu Zhen seemed far from pleased. He sat underneath the scorching sun with a deeper scowl than usual. He despised the heat and frivolous giggling from the Princesses.
"I want to make him mine."
Yu Zhen's expression didn't change. He lifted the cup of baijiu to his lips and drank from it. His frigid eyes shifted to Li Xueyue, mindful of what she ate.
"Hush, little sister, you can't just say those kinds of things around here," a Princess whispered to a younger woman.
The Little Princess pouted. She turned to her older brother and tugged on his sleeves. She liked his height and wide build that shielded the sun from her face.
"Father said if I fancied a man here, I can marry him…" she trailed off.
The Prince of Nanhui laughed at her words. She was the youngest Princess, barely over the age of sixteen, yet she was so bold already. He patted her head affectionately.
"Indeed, Father promised such a thing."
The Little Princess perked up. She pointed a finger to the handsome man who caught her eye.
"I want him."
The man's emotionless gaze intrigued her. His eyes were vicious—like a storm ready to tear people into pieces.
Despite that, it was difficult to deny his prominent features. He was handsome, even from afar. Whether it was his long fingers holding the baijiu or the narrowing of his dark eyes, everything about him was perfect.
His dark clothing did nothing to hide his masculine body. The black clothing he wore was lined with gold, enhancing the air of mystery around him.
"Do you think he is the First Prince? The one who isn't as important, despite his status as a firstborn?" The Little Princess turned to her older sister with eager eyes.
"If so, then I want him," she added on.
At this, her older brother couldn't help but laugh again. She was so confident, despite being on foreign soil. His gaze met the Emperor's.
"My younger sister has spoken, Your Majesty," the foreign Prince said, amusement laced his words. "May I inquire about your son?"
The Emperor held back a cough. He patted his chest and allowed the Empress to speak in his place. Except, her words were the polar opposite of his thoughts.
"Of course you may, Prince of Nanhui,," she said and chuckled. "My firstborn is not present here, but I can bring him."
"That man isn't the First Prince?" the foreign Prince questioned with a raise of his brows. He was disgruntled at the fact. He would only accept the best for his precious little sister—and that would be the First Prince who would naturally be the Crown Prince.
"Which one?" the Empress asked, highly entertained by the crudeness of Nanhui's women. She had never heard such a bold declaration from a Princess, much less, the youngest one.
She supposed it was normal in Nanhui. In her eyes, Nanhui was a country of savages. But they were great fighters, and this was something she liked about them.
"That one," the foreign Prince said with a jut of his chin.
Silence ensued. The servants held their breath and the Ministers looked away. No one wanted to make a single sound.
"Well, this is quite complicated." The Empress lightly laughed.
"I would not accept the marriage," Princess Yu Yingluo quickly said. She nervously glanced at her older brother, noticing his composed face. Despite that, the air around him was cold and tense.
The Empress was surprised her younger daughter would voice her opinion on this matter. She turned to her left, where Princess Yu Yingluo was seated. Beside Princess Yu Yingluo was Lady Ge Beining who calmly sipped her tea.
"Why not?" the foreign Princess demanded. "I am the most favored Princess of Nanhui. Marriage with me will guarantee an alliance between Hanjian and Nanhui."
"Xiao Mengjie," the foreign Prince said whilst placing a hand upon her lower back, hoping to calm her down. But she was already aggravated.
Princess Mengjie turned to the handsome man and presented him with a beautiful smile.
"I want you. So, be mine."
Lady Ge Beining nearly choked on her tea. She quickly composed herself. Luckily, no one saw the elegant woman make a mistake. She drank from the cup again, hoping to hide an entertained smile.
What a foolish Princess.
The Crown Prince turned a deaf ear to her. Instead, he glanced at Li Xueyue's empty plate. He frowned at this, his attention drifting to the assortment of pastries presented in front of him.
Why wasn't she eating? He knew she was fond of sweets. Thus, he grabbed a cookie shaped like a rose and placed it onto her plate.
Li Xueyue stared up at him, surprised by his action—so was everyone else.
It was rare to see the Crown Prince show any affection. However, for the handmaidens serving the Crown Princess, this was nothing new.
"Thank you," Li Xueyue muttered. She picked up the cookie, not noticing the ghost of a smile on his face.
Just then, someone stormed up to them. Before she could take a bite, the cookie was snatched from her fingers. She stared at her empty hand, blinking to make sure that it wasn't just her imagination.
But then she heard a hand slam on the table. Li Xueyue jumped at the noise, raising her head to see Yu Zhen had shot up from his chair.
"Do you have a death wish?" he hissed, glowering at the foreign Princess.
It was then Li Xueyue realized the cookie had been stolen by the foreign Princess. Additionally, it had crumbled onto the ground. A perfectly good pastry had gone to waste. Some servant must've spent the entire morning carving the mold to make it...
"I asked you a question, don't ignore me," the Little Princess mumbled, cowering back a bit. She didn't expect his presence to be so intimidating. From afar, he was so suave… Why was he so intimidating in person?
"How dare you?" the foreign Prince demanded, standing to his feet. "A threat towards my sister is a threat against Nanhui!"
Yu Zhen's sharp gaze snapped to the foreign Prince. "So be it."
The Empress gasped at this. She turned to the Crown Princess, severely disappointed that the latter was the cause of this disaster.
Li Xueyue didn't think a piece of pastry would result in a conflict. She stole a quick glance at the Empress. To her surprise, Lady Ge Beining had leaned close to the Empress, whispering something.
"It's fine," Li Xueyue finally said.
Li Xueyue wrapped her hand around Yu Zhen's sleeve. "It's just a pastry. There are many more."
Princess Mengjie glared at the woman touching her future husband. She hoped that hand would be chopped off. Who was daring enough to touch what belonged to her?
"Why are you like this?" Princess Mengjie asked the man. "I came here to help with the peace treaty so that Hanjian will prosper alongside Nanhui. Why are you so cruel to me?"
Princess Mengjie ignored his glare and looked straight at him. She felt the rug being pulled from under her feet. He was gorgeous up close, so much so, that she nearly forgot to think.
"Why won't you accept my hand in marriage? Don't you want to bring prosperity to your country?"
"I already have a wife."
Princess Mengjie blinked. Oh. Was that the problem? "So?"
"Have some decency," he snapped.
Princess Mengjie flinched at his cold words. His features became vicious, like the storm in his eyes. But gosh, why was he even more handsome when irked? She pressed her lips together and turned to her brother.
"If you accept my younger sister as your first wife, then your threat against Nanhui will be forgotten," the foreign Prince stated with a smile.
Li Xueyue's brows shot up. Were these people not aware of who the Crown Prince was? As in, they didn't know anything about Hanjian at all? Surely, they would be more informed than this?
Everything was happening too quickly for Li Xueyue. She was perplexed by this conversation but began to backtrack to how it all began. The Empress entertained this mindless talk, but…she had a suspicion that someone else was enjoying it more than anyone.
True to Li Xueyue's predictions, Lady Ge Beining was watching everything unfold. Her keen eyes didn't miss a single detail whilst sipping her tea.
When Lady Ge Beining was caught by Li Xueyue, she quickly averted her eyes, leaning away from the Empress.
What was going on?
"My threat still stands."
Li Xueyue's head snapped back to Yu Zhen. She was horrified he'd say such a thing. But so was everyone else. They intently stared at her, believing she was the cause of this problem. After all, she was his wife—the one preventing the Crown Prince from having a harem.
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