The carriage ride back to the Li Manor was awkward and quiet.
Li Chenyang's usual unhappy face was pulled into a dark scowl as he stared out the window the entire journey back home. Li Wenmin was also quiet while he stared out the other window.
Wedged between two boys with dark clouds over their heads, Xueyue could only sit still and pray for peace.
They survived the suffocating carriage ride back home and were ushered into the house and straight into the dining hall upon their arrival. The dining table was filled with delectable dishes that were a feast to the eyes but the mood was not as lively; they were shrouded in silence that's broken only by the occasional clinking of spoons.
"How was your day out today?" Duchess Li Qixing tried to strike up a conversation, but only received plain replies of "It's okay" and "Meh".
Her eyes bounced from the unresponsive twins and then to the quiet Xueyue who obediently ate her food in silence.
Releasing a sigh, Duchess Li Qixing asked, "What happened?"
"Nothing happened. What makes you think that?" Li Wenmin immediately responded, his voice a pitch too high.
"Yeah, nothing happened. Right Xueyue?" Li Chenyang nudged the quiet girl beside him who nearly jumped at the unexpected push.
"Uhm…" Xueyue cleared her throat, unsure of what to say. She didn't want to lie to Duchess Li who was always so kind and patient with her. She also didn't want to get the twins in trouble. Her eyes darted back and forth in nervousness.
Fortunately, the duchess came to her saving grace. "Are you sure nothing happened? Because Wenmin usually rambles on during dinner and Chenyang is too picky to eat the lotus root." She gave all three children a scalthy glance that only mothers could muster.
Sure, Li Chenyang and Li Wenmin were already eighteen years old and too mature for a scolding, but that never stopped the duchess. Be it sixteen or sixty-six, she would still reprimand them because they would always be little boys to her.
"I can always ask the servants what happened, but I'd prefer to hear your side of the story first," Duchess Li Qixing pointed out.
Her eyes scanned the nervous trio in front of her who seemed to find the dinner table very interesting. Neither boys wanted to make eye contact, and Xueyue was too busy staring at her bowl of rice to respond.
Duchess Li Qixing tapped her finger onto the table, her hawk-eyes scanning the children in front of her. After a few seconds of silence, she said, "Well boys?"
"We ran into that brat."
"We ran into the fourth prince."
The twins simultaneously responded.
"Li Wenmin, you can't call the fourth prince a brat!" Duchess Li Qixingchided and frowned. "He's your cousin!" she reminded him. Exasperated, she thought to herself, 'Goodness gracious, I hope they didn't call him that in person!'
Li Wenmin spoke up, "He's the imperial concubine's son, not the son of the empress! Why should we call him our cousin when he's not even Royal Aunt's son—ow!" He groaned in pain when his mother twisted his earlobe.
"Young man, I taught you better manners than this!" she reprimanded before tugging his ears again. "Please tell me, you boys didn't offend him again?"
Li Wenmin and Li Chenyang exchanged glances before both of them folded their arms in defiance.
The duchess lost her patience. "Li Chenyang, Li Wenmin—"
"But Mom! The prince started it!" Li Wenmin pouted, his eyes growing wide. He behaved like a wounded puppy that was accused of tearing the couches apart.
"I don't care who started it! You can't just insult the fourth prince! Imperial Concubine Gu Feiying may be lenient, but when it comes to her only son, she is as fierce as me!" Duchess Li Qixing exasperated with a frown as she began to place side dishes into her children's bowl — breaking all sorts of social rules. "Besides, how did you run into him in the first place?"
Li Chenyang looked away. Li Wenmin stared at the table, adamant on keeping his mouth shut. Xueyue awkwardly shifted in her seat.
When she noticed the awkward silence, Duchess Li Qixing frowned again. "Well?" she pressed on, placing pieces of fish onto everyone's plates.
"It was my fault..." Xueyue quietly said.
Duchess Li Qixing was surprised at the confession but kept her ears fully open.
Xueyue explained the story of what happened. By the time she finished, the Duchess had a thoughtful expression on her face.
Xueyue deliberately left out the insults that were thrown at the fourth prince. She didn't want to get the boys in trouble.
"I see...You were doing an act of kindness towards a child," Duchess Li Qixing hummed to herself. After a while of staring down the guilty children in front of her, she sighed.
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Neither of them wanted to reveal the truth or accuse one another. Their lips were sealed in a deep bond of trust and loyalty.
Duchess Li didn't know if she wanted to laugh or cry at the realization. "If the fourth prince does not consult this issue with the emperor, I will let it pass. But if he does and the emperor catches wind of this issue, you will have to address him yourself. Is that clear?" she finally relented.
"Yes, Ma'am." Li Wenmin grinned, teasingly saluting his lovely mother. Li Chenyang muttered a lethargic "Okay" while Xueyue readily nodded her head. The three prayed that the next few days would be peaceful, but if only they knew, it would be the polar opposite of that.
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