After a long day of practicing archery with Wenmin, then an awkward dinner, and one jasmine-scented bath later, Xueyue tiredly collapsed onto her bed. During dinner, the duchess was very attentive. She would constantly place food into Xueyue's bowl of rice, but when Wenmin joined in to do the same, Li Chenyang abruptly stood up. The lively chatter died down after his sudden exit.
Xueyue groaned into her pillow at the memory of Li Chenyang's chilly face. 'What did I do wrong?' she grumbled to herself. Not wanting to dwell on the issue any longer, she slid into her bed. Peacefully relaxing her body and closing her eyes, she fell into a gruesome nightmare of an unforgivable beating filled with pleas, screams, and a man whose hand had roamed too close to her body...
- - - - -
"No… stop, I-I didn't do it!" Xueyue mumbled in her sleep, "Let go of me, who are you?!"
Gasping for air, Xueyue abruptly sat up in her bed. She panted for air as her heart raced faster than a horse in an open field. She believed the gods were playing a very cruel trick on her. First, she experienced abuse for all of her life, and now she was forced to replay it every night? What kind of sick and twisted joke was this?
"I need fresh air," she said to no one in particular. Climbing out of the bed, she grabbed a random shawl from the closet. It was made of the finest cotton and embroidery, but she was never the type to understand expensive articles of clothing. To her, they were all the same, including this shawl.
Exchanging her indoor slippers for outdoor ones, Xueyue left her room and headed straight for the garden. It was a delightful sight that brought a sense of tranquility over her thumping heart. The overwhelming scent of lavender soothed her anxiety. Pushing open the creaky garden doors, she decided to head towards the gazebo in the center.
With her fingertips brushing every flower she saw, she slowly headed towards her destination. Sitting on the cold, hard surface of the bench, her body curled into a small ball. Leaning her head onto one of the sturdy posts holding up the rooftop of the gazebo, she marveled at the night sky.
Tonight, the sky was starless. Even the moon hid from her. The blank and gloomy canvas mirrored her conflicted emotions. Her eyes went out of focus when her mind wandered to the viscount. Not knowing a single thing about her stained birth, she questioned his cruelty and abuse. He always treated Tianai with the uttermost love and affection but spared none for Xueyue. Thinking about Tianai also led to thoughts about Zheng Leiyu… the first man to break her heart. She thought about how gentle and kind he was to her, in a world where everyone seemed adamant on destroying her happiness.
Zheng Leiyu adored her. There was even a time where he stole her first kiss. But naive little Xueyue didn't understand the emotions within his eyes. She didn't understand the lust and desires. When he tried to make a move on her, and she pushed him away, it was the first time he had ever lashed back at her. She remembered the night she discovered Leiyu and Tianai together.
Wandering the dark halls, Xueyue was confused by the soft whimpering from the other side of the hallways. She acted upon her curiosity and had witnessed Leiyu and Tianai's passionate bodies entangled in bed.
Bai Tianai was a very wise girl, who was good with her words, unlike the silent and clumsy Xueyue. She had convinced the viscount to convince the Zheng of a unification. It did not take long for a marriage to be proposed.
Xueyue thought about the docile and kind Leiyu. She realized how self-conscious of a man he was. He lacked any hint of talent in sports that she enjoyed. When she excelled in archery, horseback riding, and swords fighting, he excelled in poetry, writing, and literature. Anything he deemed "unsuitable for a woman", he'd forced her to stop practicing. Wanting to please the older boy who's beauty was so blindingly radiant, she immediately obliged. The sparrow snipped off her wings to join the swan, and in the process, she drowned.
Xueyue's heart skipped in terror at the unexpected voice behind her. She turned around and was puzzled to see Li Chenyang holding a lantern. Dressed in his night robes, his long hair was tied up by a single thread. There was a tired and disheveled expression on his face… as if he had also experienced a nightmare.
"I'm crying...?" Xueyue confusedly repeated his words while pressing a hand to her face. Her cheek was indeed stained with tears. She dropped her head and turned her body away from him. She didn't want him to see her in such a weak state.
"Here, use this," he muttered, thrusting a handkerchief in front of which she glanced at with confusion. Her eyes trailed from the handkerchief to his frosty face.
"Thank you..." Xueyue gratefully said while accepting the handkerchief with both hands.
Li Chenyang watched her wipe the tears away before turning his head away from her and strolling to the opposite side of the pavilion. He sat down on the cold bench and stared at her conflicted expression. He asked himself, 'Was I too harsh towards her during dinner?' He thought about his mother's lecture after she cornered him in his study. She had accused him of being rude and mean.
Li Chenyang had asked if it was because Xueyue had complained to the duchess to which she revealed Xueyue did not utter a single thing about him.
Instead of crying to the duchess, Xueyue kept her mouth shut about the way the younger twin treated her.
He was grateful for her silence. Even so, Duchess Li was quick with her thinking when she pinpointed his stand-offish behavior. The duchess knew her younger son treated girls harshly, but she had hoped he'd treat Xueyue with respect.
In a very low and quiet voice, Li Chenyang hesitantly asked, "Were you crying because of me?"
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Xueyue lifted her head to stare at him in confusion. Tilting her head to the side, she had had a puzzled expression. "Huh?"
Li Chenyang awkwardly cleared his throat. "Nevermind," he muttered.
"I'm sorry, I didn't hear you the first time."
"Just forget what I said," Li Chenyang grumbled, crossing his arms.
Quietly thinking to herself, a thought popped into Xueyue's mind. She reassured, "If you asked why I was crying, don't worry, it wasn't because of you."
Li Chenyang's head snapped to her. For once, he didn't know how to respond. Silently, he stared at her as she stared at the sky. He wondered why she wasn't eager to pay attention to her appearance. Her hair was a mess and her shawl didn't match her nightgown. Her lack of awareness made her appear even more enthralling and he knew this would be a problem in the future. Once suitors caught sight of her, the Li Manor will be quite busy. He sighed. How tiring.
The longer he looked at her, the more he disliked how little attention she paid towards him.
Amongst the nobles, the twins were very popular. For Li Wenmin, it was his carefree smile, the twinkle in his eyes, and his flirtatious nature. For Li Chenyang, it was how silent and mysterious he was. He was always quiet and would rarely talk to people aside from his older brother and parents. Many mothers wanted their daughters to marry into the Li Family because of their good fortune and notably favorable reputation.
Li Wenmin was the type of man who rarely got irritated. Even if he did, he'd always try his best to conceal it with a welcoming smile. Li Chenyang was the opposite with his brooding stare and disapproving frown. For odd reasons, many women didn't mind his distant behavior. As a matter of fact, they seemed more drawn to him because of it.
When Li Chenyang gave others the cold shoulders and disdained eyes, the girls would flock to him even more. He hated pestering and chatty women who cared too much for him — except the duchess. However, Xueyue was different… it was like she didn't care for him at all. She didn't talk to him unless he talked to her first, and the thought bothered him. For him, the girls would always be the first to strike up a conversation, not the other way around...
While Li Chenyang silently glowered to himself, Xueyue was completely oblivious to the battle inside his head.
Xueyue was too focused on her own battles.
Hating how she wasn't looking at him, or sparring him any of her time, Li Chenyang rattled his brain for something to say. He suddenly thought about the stupid nickname that Wenmin had told Xueyue to call him. Just when he opened his mouth, he closed it.
He didn't want to force her into saying things she didn't want to.
Li Chenyang was startled when Xueyue suddenly stood up. He watched her pat off the dust from her nightgown.
"Where are you going?" he instantly asked when she headed towards the pavilion's entrance. Not once had she glanced at him, until he spoke to her.
Xueyue turned around. In a confused voice, she said, "To my room...?"
"Oh," he responded. "Good night." He nodded his head, almost as if he was satisfied by his own behavior.
"Good night, Young Master Li," she softly whispered, before walking off.
He frowned at her disappearing back. Just Young Master Li...? Not Chen-ge? Or even Li Chenyang? Suddenly, he was irked and he didn't know why. 'I didn't care about her before, why am I starting to care now?' he grumbled inside of his head. He shook his head and sighed. Perhaps a good night's sleep would make him more rational.
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