Everyone was shocked at the crown prince’s sudden proclamation that Yun Ruoyan had been the masked girl, including Yun Ruoyan herself.
That was impossible! She was so far away that nobody could have seen her face clearly. How could the crown prince have recognized her?!
“Crown Prince, I must admit I don’t understand. What masked girl could you be referring to?”
Although Yun Ruoyan was shocked, she didn’t reveal any of her inner turmoil. A cleft appeared in the middle of her forehead as she looked curiously at the crown prince.
His hand was still in mid-air, but when he met Yun Ruoyan’s gaze, he couldn’t help but fall into a daze once more. He’d seen more than his fair share of beauties, thin and plump, old and young, and with all sorts of distinct personalities. But never had he seen one with such a limpid gaze, as if she were a fairy who had descended from the heavens.
“Crown Prince?” The servant behind Li Qianxiao slowly nudged him, allowing him to regain his senses and retract his finger.
“Crown Prince, what masked girl were you referring to?” Yun Lan asked him curiously. “And what do you mean by trespassing on imperial grounds?”
“Oh, I was hunting in the Minghuang mountain with Father yesterday, and I met a masked girl within the hunting grounds. For a moment, it seemed to me that your second daughter looked exactly like her.” Li Qianxiao turned to face Yun Lan when he answered his question, but he couldn’t help sneaking glances at Yun Ruoyan.
When their gaze met, Yun Ruoyan immediately made a shy expression as she lowered her head, strands of hair by her ear falling and covering the larger half of her face.
Ever since yesterday, the crown prince had been dreaming of the masked girl he’d seen, unable to forget her graceful, lithe image. He often wondered what sort of beauty the masked girl had been hiding beneath her veil.
And when he suddenly saw Yun Ruoyan’s beautiful smile, his mental image of the masked girl merged with the physical girl in front of him, causing him to make a baseless claim.
After the moment had passed, even Li Qianxiao himself found his claim ludicrous.
His closest bodyguard had said that that girl’s cultivation was peak seventh-rank, and the Yun family’s second daughter was widely rumored to be ugly and useless.
But… Li Qianxiao couldn’t help narrowing his eyes as he inspected Yun Ruoyan more closely. She knelt in front of him, her back straight and dignified, her head lowered. She was draped in finery, and looked every part the noble lady.
It seemed that the rumors of her ugliness had been baseless!
But it was true that, at her age, reaching peak seventh-rank cultivation was ludicrous.
The crowd didn’t know what Li Qianxiao was thinking, but the fact that his gaze had stayed on Yun Ruoyan this entire time made his interest in her obvious.
Yun Lan’s gaze shifted.
The Yun matriarch, on the other hand, looked uncomfortably at her granddaughter. She couldn’t really have gone into the imperial hunting grounds, could she?! But she quickly calmed down. No, no, of course not. With her current cultivation, she couldn’t have trespassed and found her way out safely.
“Crown Prince, you must be mistaken,” the Yun matriarch began. “Everyone in the Yun family is well aware that the imperial hunting grounds are off-limits to outsiders. None of us would dare to risk the emperor’s wrath.”
“Naturally.” Li Qianxiao’s gaze finally left Yun Ruoyan as he smiled. “That girl was amazing, able to overcome even twenty imperial guards at once.”
He leaned down and helped Yun Ruoyan up, gently murmuring, “Apologies for being rash. I hope I haven’t scared you too much, Miss Yun?”
Yun Ruoyan’s head was still lowered as she shook it gently. She didn’t speak, but the loose hairs by her temples fluttered as she moved, making her look even more appealing.
Li Qianxiao smiled even more deeply.
“Crown Prince, please enter.” Yun Lan smiled as he looked appraisingly at his daughter.
The procession headed toward the great hall.
The crown prince took the seat of honor, and Yun Lan and the Yun matriarch sat on either side of him. Madam An sat at the very edge of the table, and Yun Ruoyao, Yun Ruoyu, and Yi Qianying could only stand at the back.
The Yun matriarch pulled Yun Ruoyan to her side.
Yun Lan and Li Qianxiao chatted a little before a few servants entered bearing tea and snacks. Madam An quickly stood up and poured everyone a cup of tea.
“Crown Prince, it’s been too long since you were last here. Is this honey bayberry tea still to your liking?” Yun Lan asked the crown prince courteously.
A long time ago, when the Yun family had been hosting the crown prince, he’d heartily praised their honey bayberry tea when he’d unintentionally stumbled on it. From then on, Yun Lan had tasked his servants to prepare it daily, just in case another occasion like this one arose.
Li Qianxiao stood up and sipped his cup in a genteel fashion, praising, “It’s even better than before! Official Yun, your household still has the best tea and snacks, and if I ever want to quench my thirst in the future, it looks like I should frequent your place more often.”
“Of course, Crown Prince! During these last six months, Ruoyao and Ruoyu have always been asking about you, and now you’re finally here!” Madam An beamed.
“Mother,” Yun Ruoyu pouted, “We haven’t been doing that!”
Everyone laughed at her tone.
Yun Ruoyan noted that even the rambunctious Yun Ruoyu was behaving like an obedient little girl. It seemed as if her little sister really was besotted with the crown prince! Her gaze swept over Yun Ruoyu and Yun Ruoyao before she ended up locking eyes with Li Qianxiao. Her bountiful experience from her past life made it obvious that he was brimming with sexual desire.
She couldn’t help but sigh before quickly turning away, resolutely staring at the ground instead. To her side, Li Qianxiao opened his mouth. “As a guest, I’ve always been playing with Ruoyao and Ruoyu, but I’ve rarely seen Ruoyan. That was partly why I made that baseless claim at the front door when I first saw you, Ruoyan, and I apologize for the accusation.”
Yun Ruoyan was still inspecting the ground earnestly, as if she hadn’t heard a word of what the crown prince had said.
“Ruoyan,” the Yun matriarch pulled on her wrist and murmured, “The Crown Prince is talking to you!”
“Hm? Oh!” Only then did Yun Ruoyan raise her head. “It’s quite alright.” She lowered her head once more.
What was wrong with this child today? Why was she keeping her head down, as if she didn’t dare look anyone in the eye? What a waste of her effort in dressing her up!
“Haha.” Li Qianxiao misunderstood her reluctance to look at him, only thinking her shy. “Ruoyan’s magnanimous and willing to forgive me, but as the crown prince, I surely can’t just paper over this affair. In the future, I’ll be sure to bring a gift with me to properly apologize.”
Yun Lan laughed heartily. “It’s quite alright, Crown Prince. My daughter’s long been bedridden by illness, and she rarely has a chance to meet with visitors. This is why she’s been rather reserved; please don’t think badly of her.”
“Of course not!” Li Qianxiao immediately replied before looking considerately at Yun Ruoyan once more. “I’ve heard rumors about your ill health, Ruoyan, but are you doing better now?”
“She’s quite alright,” the Yun matriarch replied. “Not only has her body recovered, her cultivation’s also greatly improved. She’s been accepted into Kongming Academy and is simply waiting for her admissions letter.”
“Oh…” Li Qianxiao’s eyes gleamed. He hadn’t expected that, despite her frail, weak appearance, that Yun Ruoyan had actually passed such a grueling trial.
He too had experienced Kongming Academy’s recruitment trials; even the royal families of the four kingdoms had to take part to be granted admission.
Of course, they only had to take part in name: Li Qianxiao had simply brought a few higher-ranked blademasters, pillmasters, and summoners along with him for a ten-day excursion in the secret territory.
But he did know how powerful the beasts that prowled about the realm were. On the tenth night of his trial, his party had suddenly encountered a saber-toothed tiger, and only with the entire party’s combined strength had he managed to take it down. For this feat, half the warriors he’d brought with him had perished.
“Ruoyan’s truly both beautiful and capable,” Li Qianxiao praised.
Yun Lan smiled again. “Excellent in all respects, save her personality in front of guests. Crown Prince, if you don’t mind, please come visit more often and help instruct my daughter.”
‘Help instruct my daughter.’ These words were simply an open invitation for him! He looked once more at Yun Ruoyan’s dark, glossy hair, rosy lips, and elegant bearing, unable to help the smile creeping onto his face.
“Ruoyan’s certainly not great with guests,” Li Qianxiao murmured, “Or there wouldn’t be so many deceitful rumors about her in the capital.”
He looked as though he’d suddenly thought of something and quickly continued, “In a few days, it’ll be the start of summer. My mother always organizes a flower-viewing party during this transitory period, and we’ll have the scions of the aristocracy gathering over at the palace. I’ve never seen Ruoyan there before, so, on behalf of my mother, I’d like to invite Ruoyan now.”
When the crown prince brought up the flower-viewing party, everyone’s gaze—besides Yun Ruoyan’s—lit up.
The so-called flower-viewing party was really an arena for the scions of the younger generation to compete: in cultivation, martial skill, scholarship, beauty, speech, and clothing.
Anything that could be compared was, and all of this would take place in front of the empress herself.
The imperial family consisted of eight princes and five princesses, none of which had yet been betrothed. The object of their attention would be chosen from one of these scions.
Members of the nobility would do their utmost to secure an invitation to this illustrious flower-viewing party. Even if they ultimately lost out in terms of whatever competition they chose to partake in, it was still an opportunity to shine and learn about their competitors.
“What a wonderful opportunity!” The Yun matriarch smiled broadly, as did Yun Lan.
This actually did get Yun Ruoyan’s interest.
In the past, she had been curious about this flower-viewing party. However, even though she was the sole wife-born daughter of the Yun family, she had never been able to attend. That had been a source of constant frustration.
But now that she had a chance to resolve this regret, why wouldn’t she?
“Ruoyan thanks the crown prince.” Yun Ruoyan finally looked Li Qianxiao in the eye and smiled.
“Sister Ruoyao, can I attend this flower-viewing party too?” Yun Ruoyu whispered, and Yi Qianying also leaned over.
The spots at the party were limited: one couldn’t be too young, too ugly, or too weak, and preference was given to those with higher status.
Last year, Yun Ruoyao had gone on Yun Ruoyan’s behalf. When she returned, she recounted the experience to Yun Ruoyu and Yi Qianying, making them dream so much about the opportunity that they began to salivate.
This was why they’d become so earnest as soon as Li Qianxiao brought the party up.
“It’s hard to say,” Yun Ruoyao whispered back. “Didn’t you hear the crown prince? He gave our family’s slot to Ruoyan directly. I performed well enough last year that I’ll be invited back, but in general, there are only at most two scions from each family in attendance.”
“Does that mean we have no chance, then?” Yi Qianying sighed.
Yun Ruoyu began to pout, her eyes glaring daggers at Yun Ruoyan. The slot that was destined to go to her had been stolen by Yun Ruoyan, just like that! She refused to accept this harsh reality, and she would snatch that rightful slot of hers back!Previous Chapter Next Chapter