7 Gentle Touch
Lost in thought, Xueyue didn't hear the approaching footsteps down the hallways. The footsteps were loud and rapidly thumping upon the mahogany wood floorboards. Impatience eluded from the rushing woman whereas patience drifted from the sensible duke.
Xueyue was caught off guard when an older woman pushed the door open without warning. She was out of breath, but very beautiful. From rushing out of bed, her hair wasn't fixed in the usual manner.
Duchess Li Qixing was the type of woman whose beauty ripened with age. Wrinkles were slightly prominent on her face, but could only be seen when she smiled. Her warm eyes were always soft with understanding. Every part of her shined with gentle affection, the same type of adoration that only a mother could give off.
Nervously and awkwardly, Xueyue greeted the woman with a small, "Hello." Her voice was still hoarse.
Upon hearing how hoarse the girl sounded, Duchess Li Qixing immediately waved her hand towards the guards to fetch her some water. The older guard bowed his head and excused himself to execute her command.
Duke Li Shenyang breathed in deeply as he reprimanded his wife yet again. "Sweetheart, what did I tell you about running?" She ignored his question yet again. This prompted him to stare at what she was staring at. He was surprised to see Xueyue sitting on her bed. It had been a week and a half since she was brought to the manor, but Doctor Yu had reported she was healing very well. He was, of course, happy by the news, but not as happy as his wife who was already ordering clothes and jewelry for this child. It was almost as if the duchess already foresaw the future outcomes.
Now that the girl was awake, both the duke and duchess saw the girl wasn't as similar to their daughter as they had initially believed. With her eyes open and more animated, she didn't resemble Li Minghua as closely as they had hoped. Li Minghua had monolid eyes that curved into beautiful crescent moons when she smiled. The girl's eyes were wide, naive, and filled with caution — almost like a tiny fawn  who didn't understand how the world worked.
Xueyue fidgeted under the intense gazes of the people in front of her. She was confused as to why she was here and not rotting away in the forest. "May I inquire if you're the Duke and Duchess?"
Her eyes surveyed the expensive exterior of her highly decorated room. Intricately carved wooden frames, exquisitely painted pillars of support, burgundy rugs made of gold and silk, this was a room customized for the rich and wealthy. The design of the room was something her parents dreamed of imitating in their own home, but could not. The viscount and viscountess were wealthy by all means, but it was in a comfortable nature that didn't allow them to spend too ravishingly — unlike the duke and duchess whose wealth knew no limits.
Duke Li Shenyang was suspicious of her knowledge. How did she know she was resting inside the house of the only Duke and Duchess of Hechen? He cleared his throat and replied, "You're residing within the Li Manor. Indeed, we are the Duke and Duchess." He glanced at his wife and saw she was too shaken to speak.
Xueyue didn't know how to respond to his words. Awkwardly and nervously, she bent her body in an attempt to bow and show respect. "I apologize. If I could move, I would've gotten onto the floor and—"
"Nonsense. You're injured." Duchess Li Qixing frowned as she walked toward Xueyue. "Your right leg was severely injured. It hasn't healed yet, but the doctor said you're making good progress. Does it still hurt when you move it?"
Xueyue raised her head and flinched when the duchess attempted to brush away some stray hairs from her face. "My arms and legs are a bit sore, but it doesn't hurt as much. It's itchy, but I think it's healing."
Duchess Li Qixing wanted to question Xueyue about the flinch she saw earlier, but she held her tongue. Patiently, she said, "Yes, that's correct, but for safety measures, the doctor will be summoned again tomorrow morning."
Xueyue slowly nodded her head and glanced down at her fingers. She could wiggle it, but couldn't sharply move her arms. She didn't know how to react or behave around highly-ranked officials. The only thing she knew was to drop her head and never make eye contact.
The room fell into an awkward silence, until the older guard finally came back with a pitcher of warm water. He passed it to Duchess Li Qixing with both hands, and she poured it into a glass cup before handing it to Xueyue who immediately thanked her.
Xueyue drank the water and felt her shoulders sag with relief when the water washed away the dryness of her throat. She was so thirsty, she had drunk the entire cup of water in one gulp.
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"There, that should be better now," Duchess Li Qixing said with a small smile while refilling the cup and handing it back to the girl.
Duchess Li Qixing gently sat down on the edge of the bed and brushed away a few strands of Xueyue's bangs. Her side bangs were slightly messy and covering her eyes. When Duchess Li Qixing swept it away, it revealed the full glory of her eyes: so wide and frightened, it worried the duchess.
Xueyue sat frozen on the bed with a stiff shoulder. She had never been touched so gently. In the Bai Manor, there was not a single person who treated her with pure adoration. The viscountess was never harsh to her, but she was also not very loving. The viscountess ensured she was fed and clothed, but that was the extent of her kindness.
Duchess Li Qixing noticed the rigid expression on Xueyue's face, and she immediately pulled her hands back. In an apologetic voice, she whispered, "Oh my, it seems I've frightened you."
Xueyue blinked at her words and quickly shook her head to clear up the misunderstanding. "No no, it's completely fine… I was just surprised, that's all." Now that Xueyue had finally quenched her thirsty throat, it was no longer rough and hoarse.
Duchess Li Qixing was so awestruck by the girl in front of her. Her voice was as sweet as freshly harvested honey and soft as the gentle breeze on a hot summer day.
"I didn't properly introduce myself..." Xueyue trailed off, unsure of what else to say.
Duchess Li Qixing blinked at her words and waited patiently for her to go on.
"My name is B-...it's Xueyue." Xueyue decided it was better to leave her surname out of the introduction. She wasn't sure if the duke and duchess had heard about the royal decree at court. If they were truly the duke and duchess, it meant they were very, very close to the royal family. This meant they might've caught a whiff of the decree that sentenced the youngest Bai daughter to her treacherous death.
Xueyue's hand trembled at the memory of being framed and falsely accused of murder. The nanny that raised her father was brutally stabbed to death. The only source of weapon found was the sharpened hairpin Xueyue always wore. Needless to say, her father made a judgment right on the spot and demanded for her to be punished. She knew she was framed by Bai Tianai. The reason was unclear to her, but she could make a few educated guesses as to why.
"Xueyue is a very lovely name," Duchess Li Qixing said with a smile. It hid her curiosity and confusion. The name sounded a bit familiar, but where had she heard it before?