Despite the urgency and gentleness in Yu Zhen's words, Li Xueyue refused to yield. She was stubborn, and it was a dominant trait in her. She wanted to change for his sake, but couldn't.
Li Xueyue didn't want people to pity Yu Zhen for having an "incompetent" wife who was too weak to stand by his side. She didn't want to tarnish his reputation by having a public image of someone who was weak.
"The crowd is only slightly impressed," Li Xueyue responded. She took his hand and held it tightly. "I'm sorry."
Yu Zhen's eyes hardened. He was well-aware of her disobedience. She was free-spirited and had a strong will that refuses to yield to anyone. She was like a sparrow meant to fly higher than a phoenix.
But this was who he had fallen in love with. This was who he would bargain his life for. If Heaven granted him immortality, he would not accept it unless she, too, gained it.
"Winning the sword fighting match will solidify our standing." Li Xueyue tenderly held his hand with two of her own.
"I do not want them to belittle you in any way," she whispered. "I will show them that I am worthy enough to stand by your side as your wife."
Yu Zhen was taken aback by her words. It almost felt like a wake-up slap. How was it possible for her words to affect him this much? He felt a thrill in his heart, ever so subtle.
When she was doing it for his sake, how could he deny her? How could he not love her even more? It was inevitable that he fell under her spell.
When he saw the red dust of the clay plates settling, he snapped back to reality.
"It's dangerous." Yu Zhen glanced down her hands. In comparison to his, hers were tiny and delicate. He didn't feel a single callous, despite the weapons she had gripped during her training.
Yu Zhen didn't want her to compete with a random bow and arrow. He wanted her to use the one crafted specifically for her. But people would've pointed out the unfairness or biasness. He would silence them all. However, she was the type to listen to the voices of others, even if they shouldn't matter.
That was how Li Xueyue behaved. It was a trait that made her compassionate and sympathetic. This quality was a double-edged sword, for she was sensitive to criticism when it came in masses.
"Choosing this path is dangerous," she whispered. "Yet, here I stand before you."
Li Xueyue saw his lips curling downwards. His brows came together, forming creases on his forehead. This was a sight she did not enjoy seeing.
"Have faith in me." Li Xueyue squeezed his hand. "I will not disappoint you."
"It's not the disappointment I care about, it's you." His delivery was harsh and firm. Almost as if he was angered by her stubbornness.
Li Xueyue wanted to say more, but she noticed the foreign Prince and Princess coming forward. She was forced to face them.
The foreign Prince pushed his sister forward, surprising her. He had a stern look on his face, like that of a disapproving parent.
"What do you have to say for yourself, Xiao Mengjie?" the foreign Prince coldly said.
Princess Mengjie gritted her teeth. She abhorred this public humiliation. Everyone was watching her. How could her own brother do this to her? She could not wait to complain to her father.
"I was wrong."
Li Xueyue raised a brow. "For?"
Princess Mengjie's eyes sharpened. This wench was provoking her! "I shouldn't have released my arrow without a proper prediction of where it would land."
"Xiao Mengjie!" The foreign Prince turned her around, glaring down at her but she refused to acknowledge his frustration. This was not what they discussed!
"Wait until Father hears about this!" she bickered. "You're forcing me to lower my head—"
"I am teaching you manners that you seemingly lack!"
Li Xueyue's eyes widened. She didn't think he would take her side.
Princess Mengjie ignored her brother. Sometimes, he liked to play the father figure, just because he was older than her. Prince Zhaoyuan was always controlling of his younger sisters, for no apparent reason. It was unfair.
"Look here," Princess Mengjie said. She turned to the Crown Princess. "I will only apologize if I acknowledge you as a proper opponent. You have only won one of the two challenges."
Li Xueyue narrowed her eyes. This little girl was much more spoiled than everyone initially thought. When Yu Zhen took a threatening step forward, Li Xueyue grasped his hand. She knew of his temperament.
If Yu Zhen wanted to, he could burn Princess Mengjie to ashes. The weapon of choice? Words. For that was how aristocrats fought with grace.
"If you manage to beat me in the sport that Nanhui's women are most known for, then I will even hang my head in shame and apologize wholeheartedly, for you are truly an impressive foe."
"Do you truly think such meager prizes interest me?" Li Xueyue mused with a cunning smile.
Princess Mengjie's eyes flashed. What a greedy little thing! She could not believe her older brother, Prince Zhaoyuan was defending Hanjian's Princess! She angrily turned to her brother, expecting him to respond.
Instead of doing so, Prince Zhaoyuan watched her with admiration. He was impressed with the Crown Princess's personality—righteous as an unwavering tree in the face of a storm.
"Well, what would you like, Crown Princess?" Prince Zhaoyuan questioned in a luring voice.
Li Xueyue was surprised by how smooth his tone was. He spoke slowly, in a lower octave. For odd reasons, it almost sounded…seductive? But it must've been a figment of her imagination.
"If I win this match," she loudly said. "I want the alliance to be set in stone. No more neutrality, no more bad blood. I expect Nanhui to be a trustworthy ally of Hanjian."
At this, the Emperor straightened up. His tired eyes widened a bit, filled with interest at her words. He didn't think the Crown Princess, so tiny and feeble, would make such bold and courageous demands.
Her intentions touched his tainted heart. The Crown Princess was not competing for personal gains. She was risking her reputation for the sake of Hanjian. It was truly admirable.
And for once, his wife was on the same page.
The Empress's lips parted in delightful shock. She was pleasantly surprised by Li Xueyue's statement.
"How thoughtful…" she whispered to her husband who nodded at her words.
"Like I've said…" he heaved, taking a quick sip of the tea. "For once, that useless son of mine did something correctly."
"And that is?" the Empress muttered. She tried her hardest to mask the irritation in her eyes.
"Picking the right Crown Princess."
At his words, whispers surfaced amongst the Ministers and aristocrats. The Emperor was a loudspeaker, despite his deteriorating health. His lungs were in horrible condition, but there was still an air of authority in his voice. It was very clear that the Emperor favored this foreign Princess.
The Ministers and aristocrats conversed amongst themselves.
"Did you hear that?"
"Of course… Who could've guessed?"
"I knew I saw something good in the Crown Princess when she was introduced to the entire court and the primary members of the Imperial Family."
"The Emperor is the son of Heaven, he must've received word from the Gods. It seems this Crown Princess will truly bring prosperity to us all!"
Agreements chimed through the air, like bells amidst a strong breeze. Even the Empress was slowly being convinced, more than she usually was.
It seems for once, Lady Ge Beining had lied to her. The Empress was informed that Li Xueyue was horrible at archery. But the skills demonstrated today, in front of the entire court, were not childsplay.
The Crown Princess of Hanjian was skilled in archery. So much so that her skills could surpass the Empress herself. In her youthful days, the Empress of Hanjian managed to acquire the Emperor's heart not because of her beauty, but because of her strength.
The Empress was one of the first female Commanders of Hanjian. She favored strength above beauty. To her pleasant surprise, Li Xueyue possessed both of these qualities.
"It seems your eyes have betrayed you, Lady Ge Beining." The Empress turned to her beloved lady-in-waiting.
Lady Ge Beining glanced at her hands. "Yes, I should get my eyes checked by the Imperial Physician. How could I have been so blind to the Crown Princess's talent?"
The Empress hummed in response.
"It's my fault," Lady Ge Beining declared. She kept her voice low and pitiful, for she had wronged the most powerful woman of this country.
"I am worthy of punishment."
The Empress laughed at this. How could she ever punish this beloved girl of hers?
The only consequence of Lady Ge Beining's actions was not something physical. It was a loss of trust. Bit by bit… the Empress would slowly question everything Lady Ge Beining had said to her.
A small lie could topple a mountain of truth.
"Rest assured, Lady Ge Beining. No one shall lay hands upon your delicate features," the Empress softly said.
It seemed like a compliment, and even the maidservants thought so too. They fawned amongst themselves, ready to praise their master, Lady Ge Beining. But the woman in question was pale with worry.
It was not a compliment. It was far from it. Lady Ge Beining was well aware of the underlying message. A delicate face… raw from wearing a mask of deceit.
"I'm deeply sorry, your Grace."
But before Lady Ge Beining could hear a response from the Empress, the foreign Princess had made her decision.
"Fine then!" Princess Mengjie finally declared. "If you manage to beat me, the greatest female fighter amongst my siblings, then I shall do everything in my power to deliver your wish!"
Li Xueyue raised a brow. There was more to this.
"However!" Princess Mengjie stated. "For your defeat, I want something."
"What is it?" Li Xueyue patiently asked.
"I want you exiled from Hanjian."
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