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Though her title said so, she was not favored by the Emperor. Her family were deemed traitors and hanged for everyone to see. Him-who was a Crown Prince then-decided to spare her life and marry her, as there was no way she could have been a part of it and had done it out of a vow he made with his close friend-her older brother-to protect her at all cost.

He never visited, never paid her special attention, and she never participated in the Inner Palace, never cried and made a scene for her husband to notice her. Their marriage was practically null.

Except her name is Li Hua. The same name that was uttered from her husband's lips last night.

A woman sat outside her courtyard, staring at the sky in silence. There were no servants to aid her, and she wore plain clothes, her face bare. She didn't look like what a woman with a royal title like hers would look like. Her expression was blank, as was her stare. Onlookers would think this scene looked peaceful. Tranquil. Lifeless.

She felt like she was being dumped with cold water.

The Empress and her...are similar. Though there were specific distinct differences, they had similar features, not to mention similar names...

She felt a knot form in her stomach.

Just then, she heard footsteps approaching and hid in the corner. It was the Emperor, except there was no one with him but a single servant. He stood, right behind the tall bamboo stalks lining the entrance of the courtyard. The woman inside didn't notice him, just like how she didn't see anything around her. The expression on the Emperor's face made her want to vomit.

The same soft gaze, the same gentle smile, although this time it was intensified, as he also stared at her with intense longing.

Then, the cherry blossoms slowly started to shed their petals.

One of them rode with the wind's currents before landing on the woman's nose. She blinked as if finally waking up from a trance and picked the petal from her face, staring at it in wonder before bursting into giggles.

This was the first time she showed emotion.

The Emperor chuckled with her before releasing a sigh of exhaustion and deep sadness.

"Your Majesty," the servant piped in from behind him. "Should we start heading back?"

"No," he replied, his eyes never leaving her. "I want to stay longer."

She didn't. She couldn't stand it any longer. Like a coward, she turned around and fled, as bile rose from her throat and she vomited on the ground. Her servants were frantic but didn't dare go near her, as their mistress was currently in a volatile state. They had also seen what happened earlier.

She felt like her heart was torn into pieces before it was picked up and stabbed again. She was filled with intense pain. Tears fell from the corners of her eye as realization hit her.

She had thought that she had successfully entered the Emperor's heart.

But this was a lie all along.

She was merely a replacement.