103 A Prince and a Commander
After a peaceful dinner, Li Xueyue retreated into her room. She wanted to continue reading the contents of the diary but eventually decided against it. She felt guilty for invading someone else's privacy, so she promised her dying curiosity she would read it tomorrow.
When she walked past the bookshelf, she retrieved the diary with the intention of hiding it somewhere else. The only problem was where? She didn't have a secret spot that only she knew about. Reluctantly, she slipped it into her nightstand—where servants would never snoop around or open.
After everything was set, she climbed into bed and expected a restful night—as if that was ever possible for her. The only thing she dreamed about were unforgivable days of abuse that she swore she'd pay back tenfold.
- - - - -
In Duke Li Shenyang's public study, he poured tea for himself and Commander Yu Zhen.
"What a pleasant surprise," Duke Li Shenyang commented. He swirled the teacup in his hand, catching the aromatic whiff of spices and lavender. It was an interesting blend concocted by his wife but it tasted delightful so he did not mind having it.
"I'm grateful you walked through the door instead of scaling the walls." Duke Li Shenyang chuckled to himself.
Because of Wen Jinkai's actions that night, he had increased the number of guards stationed around Li Xueyue's bedroom and smoothen out the ridges of the walls until it was practically unclimbable in every angle.
Yu Zhen quirked an interested brow at Duke Li Shenyang's words. "What an odd thing to say."
"Perhaps. But when you have a daughter under your roof, many odd things could happen. Like trespassing men who are full of themselves. Don't you agree, Commander?"
Yu Zhen chose to ignore the jab sent his way. "Have you taken into consideration that I might've been worried about her condition?"
"You could've just asked me." Duke Li Shenyang hummed. He took a pleasant sip of his tea, breathing in the relaxing scent of the lavender and other spices that tingled his senses.
"What is the purpose of your late visit?" he added on.
Yu Zhen simply raised the teacup to his lips and took a sip, his eyes briefly widened at the unique taste.
"I simply wanted to chat," Yu Zhen replied.
"I see." Duke Li Shenyang nodded. "About who? Xueyue?"
"Yes, your daughter."
"Right. My daughter," Duke Li Shenyang murmured. "I hope it's not what I'm thinking about."
"Of course, not." Yu Zhen smiled. It accentuated his features, turning his flaws into perfection. Sadly for him, he looked like a wolf in sheep's clothing, and to some extent, he was exactly that.
"I find it awfully embarrassing when men come to request my daughter's hand in marriage before consulting her first. Don't you agree?" Duke Li Shenyang laughed.
He did not forget what Li Chenyang told him the night he returned from Ning Huabing's birthday soiree. Wen Jinkai had come in the afternoon to talk about courting Li Xueyue and even had the audacity to ask for Li Chenyang's blessing. Needless to say, it ended in the worst dispute possible.
Yu Zhen's cunning smile widened, his eyes flashed with mirth. "Which cowardly man came to mind?"
Duke Li Shenyang deeply chuckled. "Does it matter?"
Yu Zhen merely shrugged. "I'd like to know my competition."
"How about the Fourth Prince of this Empire or the Commander who seized the towns surrounding the Capital of Yijian?" Duke Li Shenyang smiled against his teacup lid when Yu Zhen simply laughed. The sound was frigid, but highly entertaining.
"Pity for them, I am both a Prince and a Commander." Yu Zhen tilted his head and declared, "Xueyue will not lack the luxury of a Prince's wife nor will she lack the protection of a Commander's woman."
"Unluckily for you, she doesn't care about either of those things," Duke Li Shenyang teased.
"I figured she was that type." Yu Zhen's smile finally became genuine. His hardened eyes softened at the memory of her sly smirk and twinkling eyes.
Mischievous and playful, she was everything he liked. The question was, did she show him the same interest? She behaved like a troublemaker who enjoyed seeing him flustered but would turn a deaf ear to his quickened heartbeats.
"If you're here to forcefully ask for her hand in marriage, I will have to deny you of such luxury."
"Don't worry, Duke Li, I will never disrespect her in that regard." Yu Zhen grinned. "I came to learn of your nature, not hers."
"Well, did you learn anything?" Duke Li Shenyang asked.
"I only received confirmations of my initial suspicion," Yu Zhen commented, peering down on the aromatic tea. "But there is something I've yet to pinpoint."
"And what is that?"
Yu Zhen glanced up at the Duke with a knowing smile. For a brief second there, something untold flashed in his dark eyes.
"Are you the one ruling behind the curtains?" Yu Zhen brazenly asked.
Duke Li Shenyang's expression was composed and calm. He did not seem fazed or shocked by Yu Zhen's audacious words.
"What makes you think there is a man behind the curtains?"
'When did I ever say anything about a man?' Yu Zhen did not miss that slip-up.
Originally, he had suspicions it might've been the competent Empress Dowager of Wuyi, but now that he thought about it, it would be too cliche—the pampering mother who worked hard to ensure her son would succeed.
There had to be someone else. Thus, he had done his research and noticed it was far too much of a coincidence. Wuyi was struggling two years ago, but with the return of their Prime Minister, the country's economy began to improve and the country started to prosper and flourish. They were slowly and surely becoming the best this nation had ever seen.
"Did Hanjian's Emperor ask you to look into this?" Duke Li Shenyang decided to humor the man. On the surface, he was a patient fox, but beneath it, he was growing suspicious of Yu Zhen's intentions with Li Xueyue.
What if Yu Zhen was using Xueyue to get to the Duke? Once she was in his clutches, it would be impossible for the Duke to ever get her back. She could be Hanjian's puppet and would suffer the same fate as Li Minghua who was whisked into the Palace a blossoming flower and left a wilting one.
"You've yet to answer my question, Duke."
"I'll answer it when you answer mine."
"Then I suppose this conversation will go nowhere." Yu Zhen shrugged, standing up.
"Is that all you came to me for? Just for that simple question?"
Yu Zhen paused before continuing to straighten himself. He slid the sword he had placed on the chair beside him into his waist belt.
Duke Li Shenyang did not miss the perfect and skilled craftsmanship of the weapon. Nor did he miss the large dragon slithering up the hilt, racing to snarl into a roaring dragon. The unmistakable crest of Hanjian.
"I came to have a discussion," Yu Zhen responded.
Duke Li Shenyang also stood up to bid the guest goodbye. He had enjoyed this conversation despite the controversies and sly exchange of words. He had learned a great deal about Yu Zhen from the short discussion. For example, this man was a lot more composed than one would have imagined.
All of Yu Zhen's moves were calculated and there wasn't a single flaw that gave away through his emotions. It was interesting to see a young man like him behave so wise and calm. Like a predator waiting to pounce on its prey.
Duke Li Shenyang was unsure if he could trust Li Xueyue in this man's hands. That is until a terrifying shrill pierced through the air.
Yu Zhen's tranquil features instantly darkened. He did not wait for Duke Li Shenyang's response before slamming the door open, his head scanning the premises.
"Where is her room?" Yu Zhen snarled, turning around in time for Duke Li Shenyang to walk out with a worried expression.
"Another nightmare," Duke Li Shenyang mumbled under his breath. If there was one thing for sure, it was that Li Xueyue had a great set of lungs in her body. Her screams never failed to reach far beyond her room.
"You had no trouble finding it last time—" Duke Li Shenyang did not finish his sentence before Yu Zhen dashed off, sword in hand, ready to be unsheathed.
"Oh my." Duke Li Shenyang threw his head back, laughing loudly. "I have underestimated you, Commander." His laughter settled into small chuckles. Instead of checking on her condition, he simply retreated back into his study to finish his pot of tea.
"This reminds me so much of my younger days," Duke Li Shenyang said to one in particular. "The question is, Commander Yu Zhen, will you bring her out of that Palace successfully? Or will you walk out of Wuyi a dead man?"