Inside Duke Li Shenyang's private study where only his closest friends and relatives were allowed to enter, the twins sat in pure silence. Books and scrolls of all sorts lined the shelves. The categories and titles changed from "To Lead a Nation" to "Herbology: The Different Plants of Wuyi."
Finally, Li Chenyang broke the silence. "Why can't Xueyue be in here?"
"She can, but not for this discussion," Duke Li Shenyang said.
"Why?" Li Wenmin asked while leaning his cheek on a propped up arm.
"I've found something in the Palace today," Duke Li Shenyang noted.
He headed towards his desk where he slid open a drawer and pulled out a single hairpin. Silver and gold were molded into thousands of petals as gems of all shades and colors were blended into a glistening hydrangea flower. Pearls dangled from the hairpin, swaying furiously when Duke Li Shenyang presented it to the twins.
Li Wenmin felt like buckets of cold water were emptied on him. He never thought he'd see it again.
"This hairpin belongs to Minghua!" He shot up from his chair so abruptly that it fell onto the floor but he did not care.
"How is that possible, Father?" Li Wenmin asked.
"If a hairpin is not properly cared for, it will rust," Duke Li Shenyang pointed out, twirling the polished accessory between his fingers.
"Someone in the Palace has been tending to it," Li Chenyang concluded, his brows knitted together in conclusion. "But who? And why?"
Li Wenmin felt his entire body begin to tremble, starting from his eyes. Rage coursed through him at the mere thought of Li Minghua. He was not frustrated by her, rather, he was infuriated by the people she was acquainted with before the fire. He'd recognize that hairpin anywhere.
Hydrangeas were Li Minghua's favorite flowers as well as the Duchess's. Duchess Wang Qixing had gifted this particular design to Li Minghua on her sixteenth birthday. She always adorned her hair with it wherever she went. A few weeks after Minghua's birthday, the hairpin went missing and subsequently a fire broke out and consumed their manor in Hechen.
"Who else could it be?" Duke Li Shenyang sighed, settling the hairpin onto his mahogany desk.
"Impossible. He has moved on from her, I know he has!" Li Chenyang shouted. He slammed his hand on the table, his blood boiling at the mere thought of the man. Li Minghua had given her heart to him but he was young and foolish. When her precious heart slipped through his fingers, it shattered into a million pieces.
"We can't be certain," Duke Li Shenyang said. "Just because he has expressed interest in our Xueyue does not mean his heart has moved on."
"Xueyue bears only a slight resemblance to Minghua," Li Wenmin said through gritted teeth. His eyes were ignited in a blazing fire.
"Crazy bastard!" Li Wenmin snarled, swiping his hand across the table, the teapot flew and shattered as it hit the bookshelf, the impact from it sent everything tumbling down in a loud crash that startled neither of the men.
Li Chenyang pressed his lips together and collected the scrolls from the ground. He could not fathom the idea of damaging these books. He picked up the books in no particular order, whether it was titled, "Geography of Hanjian" or "The Road to Success is Paved with Betrayal."
"You don't think he'd take an interest in Xiao Yue just because of this right?" Li Wenmin breathed out, clutching his hair in frustration. "She doesn't like him."
Duke Li Shenyang heaved a loud sigh and leaned back on his chair, resting his arms behind him. "Men are unpredictable."
"He can't have her," Li Chenyang snapped. "We can't allow it, Father. The last time one of our own was sent to the Palace—"
"I know," Duke Li Shenyang interjected.
The Duke was more mellow-tempered than his hot-headed sons. He placed business above his emotions and that was how it had always been. Despite his beliefs, his family meant everything to him. Keeping them safe was his priority, even if it meant the sacrifice of others.
"How did you find the hairpin, Father?" Li Chenyang inquired while Li Wenmin brooded at the innocent bookshelf.
"I had Ling look around the Palace. He came across this in one of the rooms."
Li Wenmin's ears twitched. Whose room? Only two names came to mind. "Well, what are we going to do?"
"We will have to keep this a secret for now. Your mother can't find out about this hairpin or else she will go into a shock. We do not want that to happen," Duke Li Shenyang proposed.
He walked to the other side of his desk and slipped the hairpin underneath the stacks of parchment. Next, he locked the drawer and slipped the key necklace back around his neck, hiding it underneath his layers of clothes.
"That's not what I meant," Li Wenmin scowled. "What about Xueyue? What are we going to do about this situation? We can't let her be dragged into the Palace, not like Minghua!"
"Minghua was not dragged into the palace. She left on her own accord," Li Chenyang snarled. "Don't you dare forget that, dear brother. She was the one who walked into the lion's den, expecting to tame them and come out as the ringmaster!"
"Stop it, you know she was just in love!"
"That was not love!" Li Chenyang roared. "If she had just stayed put instead of sneaking out every damn night, we wouldn't have this issue!"
"What?" Duke Li Shenyang hissed. He turned around in time to see the twins simmering down into their seats. Li Wenmin glanced away and Li Chenyang stared at the ceiling. Neither of them wanted to speak.
"What did you just say?! She snuck out?" Duke Li Shenyang snapped.
Li Chenyang silently cursed inside his head for letting the cat out of the bag. Li Wenmin simply averted his gaze from his furious father.
"Is that true?" Duke Li Shenyang demanded.
Neither of the twins answered. Suddenly, the books were interesting to Li Wenmin and the carpet was fascinating to Li Chenyang.
"Is it?!" Duke Li Shenyang repeated, his eyes widened in disbelief. When they continued to remain silent, he let out a frustrated sigh. He was not mad at the boys, he was disappointed.
"What happened in the past can't be undone, but I need to know if she snuck out or not," Duke Li Shenyang explained.
"Why does it matter now, Father? So what if she snuck out?" Li Chenyang groaned.
"Because we need to know who else she came across," Duke Li Shenyang answered, his eyes flashed with calculations.
Li Chenyang blinked. "What do you mean?"
"Aside from him, who else did she expose herself to?" Duke Li Shenyang bit out. "How many people did she meet? How many did she think were her friends, but were actually foes? Who tricked her?"
Li Chenyang's befuddled expression instantly cleared into understanding. Perhaps, there was more than what meets the eye.
"Do you mean… there was someone else involved in convincing her to enter the Palace?" Li Chenyang asked.
"Yes. Minghua didn't have friends. Any stranger she came across could've tricked her into leaving us and entering the Palace." Duke Li Shenyang frowned.
Even after the two years that passed, he could not wipe away the guilt of keeping her in the house and restricting her movements. He did it for her protection, but inevitably it made her feel like a caged bird put on display. There were troubling nights where the guilt turned into nightmares that shook him awake, drenched in sweat.
Li Minghua's life in the Palace was supposed to be blissfully sweet, for she was the daughter of the Prime Minister and the niece of the Emperor, but it was not. And she never told him any of her troubles.
"I never went with her on her adventures," Li Chenyang concluded. "I wouldn't have known who else she talked to."
"Why are we bringing this up again?" Li Wenmin scowled. "Can we focus on something else, please? What has happened has happened. There's nothing we can do now but—"
"No. We have so much to do," Duke Li Shenyang said, his eyes lingered on his bookshelf. "Starting with the Imperial Family who ruined her."
Li Chenyang's spine stiffened at the underlying message of the Duke's words. Li Wenmin must've felt the same emotions as his twin, for his expression shifted from disbelief to pure understanding.
"It will be difficult to deal with them," Li Wenmin slowly said. "They're protected by the best of the best soldiers this country has ever witnessed."
"Yes, and who's in charge of them?" Duke Li Shenyang mused.
Li Wenmin swallowed. "Father, you don't mean to—"
"No, of course not." Duke Li Shenyang laughed, though it sounded heartless and awkward. "Do not worry, Son. She will be safe."
Li Chenyang nodded. "Then how are we going to keep her protected? It's not like we can lock her in the house."
"No, we can't." Duke Li Shenyang shook his head. "But we can finally open the doors to her suitors."
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