79 Precious Niece
\"My dear Empress, there is no need to waste your breath scolding little girls.\" Emperor Fadong shook his head whilst heaving a sigh. \"Let us move on to the important topic of discussion.\"
\"There will be no more discussions about the life of Li Xueyue,\" an authoritative voice spoke from the right side of the throne room. Every pair of eyes shifted to the Empress Dowager who held her head high. Accompanying her was Duchess Li Qixing who had a supportive hand under the Empress Dowager's elbows.
Emperor Fadong slightly laughed. \"Mother, we were merely joking.\"
\"Your jokes are terrible,\" Empress Dowager Meichun deadpanned. \"A human life is not something to joke about.\"
\"Every life is precious.\" She glanced at Li Xueyue with a mixture of uncertainty and hesitation. This girl's rash and outstanding behavior will one day lead her down the same painful path that Li Minghua once walked down.
\"Leave the girl be.\"
Empress Huiyun's lips thinned into a tight smile. She could do nothing but nod for the Empress Dowager who was as ancient as a tree, but with roots deep in the Palace. Irreplaceable and influential, she was the ideal ally but a fearful enemy.
Li Xueyue kept her head down to mask her flawed performance. She was not offended by the Empress's reprimanding words, nor did she feel guilty for speaking out of turn.
Commander Yu Zhen, who stood the closest to her, was the first to realize she was faking shame all along. She didn't even seem bothered. His lips twitched as he found her highly entertaining.
He wondered how many more faces she had. So far, he had seen enough to be interested by her words and actions. She knew how to play her cards right, but not well enough to survive on her own.
\"If we leave her be, then how will she prosper?\" Emperor Fadong placed a tender hand over his chest. \"She's my precious 'niece.' As her uncle, I have to watch over her.\"
\"She has gotten this far on her own. I believe she can survive.\" Empress Dowager raised her brows. \"Since when were you a caring uncle?\"
Duchess Li Qixing tried her hardest to not sneer at her brother. Where was he when Li Minghua's body could not be found? Where was he when Li Minghua faced hardships at home? Where was he when Li Minghua was introduced to the Imperial Family and then torn down by them? Where was he when Li Minghua needed his protection in the Palace?
He was on his throne, toying with the lives of his people out of boredom. Everyone was a chess piece in his cruel game and he was the useless King who could only move one step.
\"I've always been caring.\"
\"I'm sure you have.\" Empress Dowager's voice was strained with doubt while she scrutinized her son. There were moments in time she regretted placing him on his throne, but he was her eldest and every mother wanted to see their first-born succeed in life. Even if blood had to be shed along the way and after it. Blood of relatives, kin, and maybe a granddaughter or two.
Emperor Fadong dramatically sighed. \"Since my mother never takes her commands back,\" he turned to Li Xueyue, \"I will stop helping you.\"
Helping? Was that another word for harming? Li Xueyue bowed her head and said, \"I appreciate all that you've done for me.\"
Empress Huiyun scoffed under her breath. This girl reminded her of Li Minghua more and more. A wretched girl she was.
Duke Li Taojun's brows wrung together in worry. His eyes trailed from her feeble shoulders to her thin frame; small and easily breakable. He believed she was a girl who needed someone to rely on, someone strong to shield her from the dangers of this world.
He had hoped she would find herself someone like that in Hanjian. A dependable man like a General or a Commander who's used to keep their people safe. His decision to send her to Hanjian might've been influenced by her impact on the Fourth Prince and Wen Jinkai, but it was also affected by his fear of what would happen to her.
Li Xueyue resembled a woman he'd like to never think about. A woman that was forced to wed a man a decade older than her as the only means of escape.
\"One day you will regret not accepting my proposal, little lady.\" Emperor Fadong's eyes lingered on Yu Zhen who had not stopped staring at Li Xueyue the entire time she tried to be invisible. \"But I am a generous man. Apologies are always welcomed in my court.\"
Just like a murder decree was welcomed? Li Xueyue bit down on her tongue. She had so many questions to ask, but they shall be saved for another time. Her provocations towards the Bai Family had barely begun.
Li Xueyue understood the Emperor's words perfectly. If she wanted his help from now on, she'd have to beg and grovel at his feet. She'd have to become one of his chess pieces, seemingly leading her to victory, only to have her disposed afterwards.
Li Xueyue curtsied for him, waiting for her to be excused.
\"That reminds me, little lady. Princesses are supposed to live in the Palaces.\" Emperor Fadong inwardly grinned. How would she reject his demands now?
Would she ask for her position to be taken back and risk the benefits that came with her rank? What would the public deem her? Nothing was more toxic than the opinions of the upper-class. They would surely tear her to pieces and ruin what's left of her.
Li Xueyue inwardly groaned. When will she ever have a break from this scheming man? Didn't he have better things to do than trifle with her life? What did she do to deserve his unwanted attention?
\"Of course, the rule doesn't apply if the Princess is wed off.\"
\"I thought Your Majesty will not offer Li Xueyue any guidance unless it's begged for?\" Duke Li Shenyang instantly sniped. \"If Your Majesty goes back on your own word, how will the people treat you seriously?\"
Emperor Fadong snarled on the inside. Sometimes he wished he did not have such an intelligent Prime Minister who saw the flaws in every promise and solution. Flaws. That was all that he saw. Never perfection. A man who knew how to separate emotions and business, unlike the Emperor who chased for momentary distractions.
\"I was merely referring to the rules.\"
Duke Li Shenyang grinned, \"If you've thought of the rules for the sake of Li Xueyue, then it means you've wanted to be her saving grace yet again. That is quite alright with me, but this bias will not go unnoticed today, Your Majesty.\"
Duke Li Shenyang peered down at the ministers who had not spoken a single word ever since Li Xueyue walked into the throne room. \"Everyone is watching you, Your Majesty. Some might comment this is favoritism.\"
The Emperor retorted, \"You're well aware that you're accusing me of favoritism over your own daughter? The people will think you've influenced my decision. After all, you're my advisor.\"
\"Your Majesty, when I offer advice, I've always kept our nation's goodwill in mind.\" Duke Li Shenyang cruelly smiled. \"Your Majesty, have I ever acted on my interest?\"
\"To protect your family, you have,\" Emperor Fadong snarled.
\"Every man's duty is to protect their family. You've done the same, Your Majesty. Does that mean you've acted on your own interest as a ruler?\"
A hasty and displeased shadow crossed over Emperor Fadong's face. Suddenly, this game was no longer fun to him. He had lost interest for now. \"You've grown guts to freely talk to me now?\"
Duke Li Shenyang slowly bowed and countered, \"Your Majesty, have I ever dishonored you by addressing you without a proper title throughout this entire conversation? As the Prime Minister, you've assigned me the duty to advise you. I'm merely performing my duties as you've instructed me to.\"
Emperor Fadong's hand twitched to slam onto something. He had brought a fox into his house. A wise and great companion, but a deceitful and crafty man.
\"Very well,\" he scowled.
\"This will be a discussion for another day.\" Emperor Fadong waved his hands, \"You're excused, Li Xueyue.\"
Li Xueyue instantly rose from her curtsy as she took slow steps backwards, careful to not disrespect the Emperor by showing her back. Only when she was within a safe zone did she rush out of the throne room as if a demon chased her. And she might as well have been chased by one because Wen Jinkai stalked after her the second she left.