16 Never Forge
The next day, a modest carriage stopped in front of the main entrance of the Li Manor. A regal man stepped out, accompanied by men in black. Their faces were covered and when the Li guards searched them, they found no weapons — however, there were definitely inklings that they did not need weapons to take down grown men.
The man was dressed like a peasant. His robes were dirt brown and dirty, but the way he walked with his head held high and his hands tucked behind his back eluded a great air of elegance.
The servants stared at him in confusion. Who was this strange beggar that was able to afford a carriage?
But the butlers that took direct orders from the duke knew it was wiser to greet the man first.
"Honorable guest, you have arrived," one of the butlers said with a friendly smile that never reached his eyes. "Please, allow me to guide the way—"
"I can find the duke myself." The man brushed past the butler and dumbfounded servants.
Why was a man dressed in dirt-colored clothes and dusty shoes being treated like a respectable guest? To the plain eye, there wasn't anything special about him.
"Honorable guest, Duke Li has entrusted me the task of guiding you to his study—"
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"Hm, it seems the Li servants are incompetent and deaf. I already said, I didn't need a guide," the man commented when the butler dared to talk back. He walked into the Li Manor surrounded by his men whose eyes scanned every inch of their surroundings.
Everywhere he walked and turned, the servants would stop and stare. No one had bowed to him because of his dull colored clothes and dirty face. They wondered why a man like him was wandering the Li hallways. No one had the guts to ask him that as they were all too hesitant of the man's guards.
Upon noticing the confused glances and disrespectful servants, the man said to himself, "The duke needs to replace his servants." He strolled the expansive hallway with no particular sense of direction in mind. "Why must that fool have such confusing and decorative hallways? It must've been my sister's idea," he commented.
The hallways had a very open concept where you could see the beautiful garden and ponds that wrapped around the walkway. Interlocking wooden frames lined the top of the hallways and the half-fence was low, but extremely detailed. The structure of the house was designed by two master craftsmen who had spent two years working on the hallways. Because it would be one of the first things that a person noticed, Duke Li ensured the hallways were always in the best condition.
The man walked without a care in the world until something caught his attention. From the corner of his eyes, he saw a swift movement and upon closer inspection, his brows rose. It was a young woman no more than the age of sixteen.
Xueyue was feeding the Koi fishes in the gardens when she heard the shuffle of footsteps. She poured in the last drop of fish food and then stood up straighter. She was intrigued by the man in plain, commoner clothing. She saw his men and concluded he was not a simple beggar.
Although she was unsure of his status, she still kept her manners at bay. Cupping her fists, then moving it to her lower right torso, she dipped her legs and performed a very graceful and beautiful bow.
The man smiled at her. Out of everyone here, she was the first and only person to bow without fear and hesitation. She approached him and softly asked, "Sir, are you lost?"
He tilted his head and examined her features. She looked so similar to a man he knew. Who was it? She was not dressed as a servant, thus, he knew she was not a random maid. There should be no other young lady inside the house, except for Li Minghua and he knew of her unfortunate circumstances.
The man said, "I am indeed a little lost. Will you guide me to the duke's study?"
Xueyue immediately nodded her head. "Of course." She approached the steps leading into the hallway. Quickly, she changed her outdoor shoes for her indoor ones. "Duke Li's study is this way." She guided him in the opposite direction that he had planned on trekking down.
After turning a few corners and ignoring the stares of curious servants, Xueyue and the man finally reached Duke Li's study.
"This is the duke's study. If there's nothing else that I can help you with, I will be excusing myself now." Xueyue bowed before turning to leave.
He suddenly spoke up, "Child, I never got your name."
Though he had a very warm and friendly face, Xueyue couldn't help but feel cautious about him. He certainly seemed harmless, but there was a heavy strong air of authority around him.
She turned around and smiled. "My name is Xueyue."
"Just Xueyue...?" the man inquired. He wanted to know her surname and if she was of a suitable status for marriage. She seemed quite young, but the man had a grandson who was two years older than her. He had never met a child who didn't judge a person by their appearance. Throughout the entire walk, she was very attentive and respectful. Such a girl would make a very filial daughter-in-law.
A gruff voice answered the man, "It's Li Xueyue."
The two turned around to see Duke Li standing outside of his door. He had a very nonchalant expression, but there was slight irritation in his eyes. "Don't dwell at the door. Please, come in." He urged the man inside, but the man stood rooted to the ground.
"That name...It sounds awfully familiar," the man commented, feeling amused.
Xueyue tilted her head and stared at the man. Did she know him? Was he one of Viscount Bai's friends? Her throat tightened at the idea.
"She's my distant niece," Duke Li answered, but his response dodged the man's comments.
After an electrifying stare down between the duke and the man, the latter finally said, "Fine, fine. I'll leave this issue alone."
Duke Li let out a sigh he didn't know he was holding. Just as the man was about to stroll into the study, he took a fleeting glance at Xueyue's face.
In a low mummer, the man said, "Xueyue. I will not forget that name."