Li Xueyue could barely contain her smile. She didn't want to seem too arrogant by smiling so widely. This was one of her first victories without any external help.
At the previous Round Table Discussion, her proposal of lowering taxes upon commoners was approved partly because there was Representative Wu Shiming who supported her idea. Her success then wasn't entirely her own. However, today, she had won over everyone by her own merits.
Her eyes flashed with determination, as there were a lot more to changes she wished to make in Hanjian. But she was still young and her future here was bright.
'One step at a time,' she reminded herself as the corner of her lips lifted up a bit, brightening her expression.
When she made eye contact with a disgruntled Duke Han, Li Xueyue slowly nodded her head in acknowledgement. He narrowed his gaze, but nodded back. He was still a powerful man, and she knew it would be unwise of her to make an enemy out of him.
Quietly, the Empress turned to Li Xueyue. "You've been here for less than a year, yet you've made such an impact upon this country," she said and chuckled. "When I was your age, it took me a year just to get a few words in."
Li Xueyue widened her smile a bit. From the corner of her eyes, she saw one of the ministers preparing himself to speak. "It's because you've paved the way for me, Your Grace, to which I will be eternally grateful for."
The Empress's rogue painted lips parted in surprise. It was crimson red like that of blood.
"Such wisdom from such a young girl," the Empress murmured under her breath with an amused smile. "I remember being this witty when I was a young maiden, though, that fire had long died down…"
"Really?" Li Xueyue asked, her voice laced with disbelief. She covered her mouth with her hand to hide her smile, but her crinkled eyes gave it away.
"I still see it, Your Grace, a fire that burns bright enough to burn down the entire palace," she said.
The Empress raised a skeptical brow. To which Li Xueyue continued, "Perhaps it's because you've kept it so expertly hidden, that even you don't see it yourself."
The Empress saw the Crown Princess in a new light. Her words were always well-said, but sometimes they didn't seem genuine. Giving empty compliments was every aristocrat's speciality. The Empress had heard enough in her life that it was difficult for her to accept any compliments at all. Thus, she was initially dubious of the Crown Princess's words.
"How so?" she asked, highly intrigued by what Li Xueyue said.
"Don't you realize it, Your Grace?" the Crown Princess whispered, dropping her hands, as her face became even more serious.
The Empress tilted her head, urging her to continue.
"Your Grace, whenever you speak to the Emperor, I see an ember that can only burn from a fiery soul. The need to argue against prejudice, the will to disobey orders… Surely, they can't have come from nowhere."
It had been awhile since the Empress's heart was moved. So much time had passed that she was unfamiliar with the feeling in her heart swelling with joy. Yet, it happened twice today, and all because of the same person.
Without knowing it, a fond, gentle expression formed on her face. It was a tender look that only a mother could possess towards their children. Under the table, she patted the Crown Princess's hands.
"I see your best asset is not your face," the Empress whispered, "but your tongue, sharp as a sword, sly as a snake, much like the mask of deceit you wear."
And the Crown Princess took her by surprise again. Instead of frowning, she smirked. "Only a fool steps onto the battlefield without weapons."
The Empress laughed under her breath. "Indeed, Princess."
- - - - -
Suggestions came and went, but all of them were denied. Li Xueyue discovered from Yu Zhen that this was a normal occurrence. Usually, it was a miracle if one or two suggestions were approved during a discussion. And today, only her suggestion was approved.
Despite that, Li Xueyue's heart raced with excitement. Just this one was not enough…
"I can already see you're brainstorming more ideas," Yu Zhen mused from beside her.
Together, they strolled down the hallways, with their servants trailing a few feet behind them, as instructed. He preferred for them to have their privacy, and a distance where no one would be able to eavesdrop on his conversation with Li Xueyue.
"Is it that obvious?" Li Xueyue breathlessly laughed. Had her composure faded that quickly? It always happened around Yu Zhen. To others, she seemed kind and compassionate, nothing more than that. But only with Yu Zhen was she truly an open book.
"Very much so," he said.
"I'm just distracted, that's all," Li Xueyue explained.
Li Xueyue turned her head to him and flashed a small smile, happy that he was well-behaved and kept his hands to himself. He was touchy a few minutes ago, with his arms wrapped around her waist.
However she had warned him of the need to follow the rules of etiquette when they are in public, to which he rolled his eyes and scoffed. Nonetheless, he obliged without much protest.
"Don't forget, Sunshine," Yu Zhen suddenly said. "An eye for an eye."
Li Xueyue tilted her head. What was he talking about?
"I dutifully listened to your request to keep my hands away from you," Yu Zhen explained with mischief lacing his voice. "It's your turn to respect my wishes."
Li Xueyue's brows shot up. "I've always respected your wishes, but I just never obey them, that's all." Her lips twitched in amusement when his eyes narrowed.
"And each time you don't listen, all I can think of is punishing you."
Li Xueyue's cheeks burned red as her heart skipped a beat. She forced herself to look away, so that Yu Zhen wouldn't see the effect he had on her. But he knew, he always did, for he slithered an arm around her waist and pulled her close.
"What's wrong, darling?" Yu Zhen teased whilst leaning close to her, now all she could see was his face.
"I wonder…" he muttered, his fingers trailing down her cheek and towards her neck, his touch teasingly light. "If this blush traveled to your chest in the same flush as the night prior..."
Li Xueyue swallowed at his words, knowing exactly what he was talking about. Whenever her eyes rolled back, and her back arched up for him, a light pink blush would seep from her cheeks down to her chest.
"We're in public," she reminded him.
"We can do it against a tree and I would not mind," Yu Zhen teased.
"But someone could see us."
"All the more exciting."
Yu Zhen's lips curled into a smirk when her lips parted, interest flashing within the pool of her heated eyes. She was curious but hesitant. He glanced around them, his eyes briefly landed on the servants before he continued looking around. A sturdy tree was all he needed.
"Oh right," she breathed out. His groin tightened at the delectable sound. She didn't say or do much, but he was already provoked to do much more than stand here and talk.
"W-weren't we supposed to see the Imperial Physician?"
Yu Zhen narrowed his gaze, his jaw tightening. She always knew how to torture him, didn't she? She left him high and dry, hanging here whilst she seemed unfazed.
Li Xueyue batted her pretty little eyelashes at him. "Well? What are we waiting for?"
She placed a thinking finger on her lips. In a heartbeat, his eyes snapped towards her lips, pouty and soft as he always remembered.
Li Xueyue added, "I don't mind seeing him in our estate, to save us the trouble."
An idea instantly came to mind. "Yes," he readily agreed in a cunning whisper, his lips twisting into a smirk.
"Though, seeing him in our estate will certainly not save you from any trouble…"
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