Li Helan might not have been born a princess, but her family had always highly treasured her and doted on her immensely.
Especially once Li Qitian conquered the world and possessed the economic support of all main Northern Ji aristocracy, as well as the wealth he’d plundered from war, life for Li Helan had been pretty much the same as being a princess.
Since her youth, to want was to receive. Not to mention that from her point of view, Pang Xiao was hers to begin with!
Her parents and brother had said a million times that she would marry Pang Xiao when she grew up. Li Helan had long since nurtured an admiration for Pang Xiao. She liked his arrogant dominance and relished his acumen in both strategy and valor.
Now that she was sixteen years old, she’d been waiting eight years to marry him.
Starting from her first glimpse of Pang Xiao at age eight, she’d treated as gospel her mother’s compliments of the prince, and the notion of being promised to him. Since then, marrying Pang Xiao had become the cherished dream of half a lifetime.
Why had a reality set in stone suddenly changed?
Why had her doting brother stopped backing her up once he owned the world and wielded utmost authority?
He was even suddenly telling her that Pang Xiao loved another. Then what of her many years of hopes and yearning?
Fat teardrops trickled down Li Helan’s delicate face, collecting on her chin and wetting a patch of her clothing. Her bright pink cotton jacket was dyed a deep burgundy.
Li Qitian looked at his little sister, who seemed like she’d been struck by lightning. He rose with a sigh and slowly walked up to her, helping her up with both hands.
“Don’t cry, Helan. We only have this singular little sister, We would never harm you. Although Ji Lan is an aloof sort, he’s a true gentleman. He’s not any worse than Pang Zhixi. You’ll have a good life with him. Besides, I’ll be here. He wouldn’t dare treat you poorly. Just prepare for your wedding with peace of mind, mm?”
Li Helan sniffled and raised teary eyes to look at Li Qitian.
“Royal brother, Lan’er doesn’t want to marry Ji Lan. Can Lan’er not marry him?”
The emperor’s expression darkened with impatience. With a frown, he rebuked, “Helan, you must be a good girl. You’re not a country bumpkin, you should know the rules and manners. Women need to follow the three obediences and four virtues.  Do you intend on disobeying Us?”
Though Li Qitian hadn’t lost his temper, someone as smart as Li Helan understood his meaning very well.
The marriage had been finalized.
Whether it was out of obedience to her brother or the Son of Heaven, she had to marry Ji Lan. There was no way out of it.
Wait, no, perhaps there was still something to be done.
What if Pang Zhixi was willing to marry her? If he brought up the subject with her royal brother, things may take a turn yet.
When her thoughts travelled here, Helan wisely argued no further with Li Qitian.
She knew her brother very well and understood that he was no longer the same brother of yesteryear. As the ruler of the nation, his words were precious and sacred. No one could argue against them.
If she wanted to live on happily, her greatest bulwark was her brother’s love and protection. Appearing to agree with him for now would earn his pity. If she kept being stubborn, that would only make him lose patience.
Li Helan wiped at her eyes and smiled faintly at Li Qitian. She responded hoarsely, “Lan’er will listen to her royal brother.”
She was the aggrieved party, but here she was, smiling through her tears and softly declaring that she would listen to him. This poked at the softest parts of Li Qitian’s heart and increased his pity for his docile, considerate little sister.
He patted her shoulder and comforted her for a long while, gifting much gold, silver, and precious jewels before sending her back to rest at the Palace of Serene Piety.
Li Helan lived at the Palace of Serenity Piety with the empress dowager.
After leaving the imperial study, the princess hurried along with a blank expression, her head maid Hexiang at her side. The moment they reached the side hall of the Palace of Serenity Piety, Li Helan furiously yanked out a golden hairpin and threw it to the ground, stomping on it a few times for good measure.
Hexiang quickly dismissed all of the servants and carefully closed the main doors.
Vicious thuds of pillows marked the grand princess’ charge inside. Her face twisted in a grimace, she shrieked soundlessly. In fact, her expression was so contorted that she looked like a madwoman throwing a fit.
Her wild exertions didn’t still until she panted with tiredness, tears springing forth once more to answer emotion’s call.
The head maid strode up with heartache, offering some soft words of consolation. “Your Highness should take care of your health. Don’t be like this on yourself.”
Li Helan hiccuped in her crying fit and covered her face with her hands, wailing for a few more minutes. “No. This matter won’t be over like this. I’m going to find Pang Zhixi. I don’t have the ability to make my royal brother change his mind, but Pang Zhixi will!”
“But what if the Faithful Prince of the First Rank is unwilling?”
“Unwilling? Will he be?” Li Helan blinked through teary eyes, the look in them slowly sharpening. “Go investigate just who it was the prince carried off that day from the inns. I want to know all the rumors about them, no matter how small!”
“Understood, this servant will go do so immediately.” Hexiang took her leave with a solemn expression.
Meanwhile, an average-looking young eunuch who’d been keeping watch outside the Palace of Serene Piety quietly scuttled off to the imperial study.
Qin Yining had passed the previous two days in extreme leisure. Although née Yao’s words had been filled with thorns at their initial meeting, the Qin fourth miss felt that, after spending more time with the madame, née Yao bore her no hostility. In fact, the madame might even like her a lot.
Née Yao was the smart, genteel sort. The tenderness in her words gave one the feeling of bathing in the spring wind—placid and refreshing. There wasn’t the slightest hint of pressure in her company. She seemed to possess the ability to set one’s body and soul completely at ease, as if immersed in a warm spring.
Née Ma was an absolutely straightforward type. She would have the maids fetch Qin Yining whenever she was bored, and née Yao would often join in their conversation.
Having adventured through the jianghu in her youth, née Ma had seen much of the world and regaled Qin Yining with stories of the outside. The girl would volunteer unique insights and pertinent questions, further increasing the Yao matriarch’s affection for her. Née Ma often chatted with the girl until dinner, and didn’t want her to go back even afterwards.
“Mom, you’ve forgotten again. Yining needs to go back to Snowtrace Garden or it’ll give rise to unseemly gossip.” Née Yao took the cape from the maid’s hands and fastened it for the girl.
Qin Yining hastily thanked the madame and lifted her chin appropriately so that née Yao could tie the silk ribbons for her.
“What a bummer,” née Ma sighed. “Our house is too big now. It’s not like when we all bunked together under the same roof. That made for easy conversation and time with each other. We didn’t have all these rules before either.”
Née Yao smiled at this. “Our Dafu didn’t have such a lofty position before either. Yining’s in the capital now, are you still afraid there won’t be a time when she comes to make her morning and evening greetings?”
The question sent née Ma roaring with laughter.
Her cheeks burning, Qin Yining quickly bid her farewell and left.
Watching the girl flee all helter-skelter, née Ma and née Yao looked at each other, finding it funny.
“I like this child the more I spend time with her.”
“Isn’t that right? It’d be Dafu’s fortunes if she can marry into our family.”
As mother and daughter chatted, Qin Yining called out to Lian Xiaozhou, who was playing in the yard. The two lifted lanterns together to return to Snowtrace Garden.
However, they ran into a group of people just as they rounded the corner. In the lead were two young women wearing resplendent clothing.
Aw, it's so lovely she's getting along with her soon-to-be inlaws!