Li Xueyue was eager to go home and soak in a bath with scented oils that would calm her nerves. She had enough of the royal family for now. It was tiring to be in their presence and even more exhausting to talk in circles with them.
She let out a quiet sigh. Why were they so keen on meddling in her life? Didn't they have better things to do?
Li Xueyue watched as her maidservants prepared the stepping stool for the tall carriage. Usually, a handmaiden or one of the twins would offer her a helping hand up the carriage, but Duchess Wang Qixing didn't bring any of them along.
The guards were not permitted to touch them, not that they'd dare to. Thus, stepping stools were always brought in advance. Usually, closed-carriages like theirs were built with a stepping pedal, but Duchess Wang Qixing said it ruins the aesthetic of the well-crafted ride.
"Having a little trouble there?"
Li Xueyue examined the flowy ribbons tied around her. She tightened a few of them and sighed to herself when they flew as they pleased.
"Are you ignoring me?"
She hummed a quiet song to herself, lightly swaying to the gentle breeze that combed through her hair and grabbed her pastel ribbons. It was such a shame that a great afternoon was ruined when she spent it with the royal family.
The wind was calm and soothing against the beating sun. Suddenly, a stronger force tugged at the ribbons that held her hanfu closed. One last tug and her waist belt would slip off. She gasped when her ribbons were harshly tugged again, her hands instantly flew to her waist.
"You brute!" she hissed, turning around to be met with his smiling face.
"It wasn't my fault." He showed her his fist. She noticed a metal ring resting on his middle finger made of white gold with a glistening emerald comfortably nested in the center. The workmanship was excellent—perfect metalwork that made the ring look fierce yet regal at the same time.
"Your ribbons were caught on my ring." Yu Zhen's smile widened when she glared at him.
"Why else would I tug at the ribbons?"
"Because you lack morals."
"Just like how I lack etiquette?"
Yu Zhen softly chuckled at her words. When will she stop stabbing him with words like knives? Did she realize how adorably feisty she was? It was in the way her eyes were set ablaze and how each word she uttered added more fuel to it. Under the magnificent sun, nothing shone brighter than her.
"What's so funny?"
"Your face," he deadpanned, earning a sharp gasp from her. She jabbed him in the chest, but when he didn't budge, she dusted her hands.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"Dusting off whatever germ I contracted from you."
"That's the wrong usage of the word 'contracted'," Yu Zhen snorted. "Besides, I should be the one cleaning myself. Who knows where your hands have been."
He one-upped her by dramatically taking out his handkerchief and flicking it open.
"Water," he said, and one of his peers who had finally caught up to him, unbottled the cap and poured water onto the handkerchief.
To Li Xueyue's aggravation, he cleaned his chest, not caring that there was now a wet spot. He struggled to maintain his calm composure when she crossed her arms, rolled her eyes, and scoffed.
"Was that necessary—" He sharply held up a hand to halt her complaint.
Turning towards Hu Dengxiao, Yu Zhen instructed, "I recommend you to wear a glove and then burn it."
Hu Dengxiao rapidly blinked, turning from the woman to his Commander. Awkwardly and hesitantly, he slipped on his gloves.
Yu Zhen was simply joking, but his idiot strategist took it farther by shrieking when the handkerchief was abruptly tossed in his direction.
"Ew!" Hu Dengxiao jumped in disgust.
"It has your germs on it, Commander," Hu Dengxiao bitterly said, which caused Yu Zhen to pause.
What did this fool just say?
"Pft!" Li Xueyue finally laughed, her eyes turning into little crescent moons.
She had unknowingly increased the heartbeat of Yu Zhen who was awestruck by the unfamiliar sound. He had never heard her laugh before, but then again, he hardly knew her.
"That's what you get for being a fool." Li Xueyue stuck out her tongue a bit and turned to face the stepping stool. She was prepared to walk up alone but found herself an aid by her side.
She paused when he offered her a hand. Skeptically, she peered at his hand, examining it. He wouldn't hide a needle between his fingers would he?
"It seems this proper lady doesn't know the etiquette she religiously reprimanded me for," Yu Zhen snorted, irked that she was so hesitant to touch him.
Li Xueyue's eyes narrowed as her competitive nature to retort him surfaced.
"To dispel your confusion, Princess, you're supposed to place your hand on mine as I guide you up the carriage."
"I know what to do!" Li Xueyue huffed.
"Doesn't seem like it," Yu Zhen provoked, shoving his hand towards her again. He smirked in satisfaction when she roughly slapped her hand down, accepting his offer. He surprised her by closing his fingers around her hand and pressing a kiss to her palm.
"I hope to see you again soon, Princess."
For a brief moment there, her stomach unwillingly fluttered nervously. "I hope to never see you again, Yu Zhen."
His smile grew for her, reaching his guarded eyes, softening it. "Let that wish never happen."
"I'll pray my hardest for it to happen," she teased before heading into the carriage just as Duchess Wang Qixing walked down the stairs and out of the main entrance. Her curious eyes wandered from the two Hanjian warriors to the Commander who had a mesmerized expression on his face.
Did she match Xueyue with the wrong man? Not even the frigid Wen Jinkai looked that smitten when he was with Xueyue, but then again, that man barely showed a hint of emotion on his face. He was always brooding into the distance as if everything annoyed him. The only time his aloof expression melted, even if it was slightly, was for Xueyue.
The only problem was, Duchess Wang Qixing had a hard time trusting him. Especially when he was once acquainted with Li Minghua.
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