The next morning, everyone was gathered around the breakfast table. Li Chenyang's head dropped and raised with each passing second as he struggled to not sleep and finally facepalmed into his congee. Li Wenmin was busy stuffing his cheeks like a hamster whereas Li Xueyue and Duchess Wang Qixing were peacefully eating their breakfast without a single care in the world.
The only person in a sullen mood was the grumbling Duke, who had just made his way to the table. He sunk in his chair, shooting the Duchess a dirty look. "I still can't believe you did that to me!" he complained to his wife who took a pause from eating and turned her head to him.
"Oh, darling!" She exasperated, "You looked like you didn't sleep well the night before... How pitiful!"
Duke Li Shenyang scowled at her obvious taunts. "My beloved wife, how could you have guessed? Was it from my poor posture from sleeping on a couch, or was it my eye bags from lack of sleep?"
"Well, it's your ugly face overall, so…" Duchess Wang Qixing simply shrugged.
"How does it feel to be married to this ugly face for over twenty years?" he bit back, pouring a cup of tea for himself only to find the teapot empty.
"I feel like the most generous woman to have lived! I've been doing charity work for over two decades now," Duchess Wang Qixing bickered, waving her hand to Jinxia.
Duke Li Shenyang shot her a pointed look. "Oh really, now? Marrying me was charity work?" He snorted, rolling his eyes. "Then who was that lady begging to marry the high and mighty—"
"You speak too much nonsense early in the morning. This tea will wake you up!" Duchess Wang Qixing clasped her hands together, holding it near her face with a gigantic smile.
Duke Li Shenyang stiffened at her words. "I take back what I said, my precious, loving, beautiful wife! Please, let us drink this glorious tea together as a family and—"
"Oh no no, I specifically brewed this tea for you! All of our wonderful children who rise when told are enjoying your favorite chrysanthemum tea." Duchess Wang Qixing lightly laughed whilst Jinxia poured the bitter tea that had a dark and mysterious color.
"This is disgusting," Duke Li Shenyang groaned when he caught a whiff of the various herbs brewed into the tea.
"But it's beneficial for your health. Don't pout like a child and drink it all down! Or else you'll never sleep comfortably." Duchess Wang Qixing rested her chin on her entwined fingers of her propped up arms on the table.
When the Duke lifted the glass to her, shooting her a pleading look, her smile widened.
"For its full benefits, drink it while it's hot!" she beckoned.
Duke Li Shenyang died a bit on the inside. He lifted the handleless teacup with both hands and squeezed his eyes shut, forcing himself to drink the tea that might as well have been poison.
Li Xueyue couldn't help but giggle at the scene. Her laughter, pleasant like wind chimes on a splendid day, tickled the heart of the Duchess who turned to face her.
Duchess Wang Qixing's smile softened at the sight of Xueyue. "You're just so adorable, my dear." She sighed in content, watching as Xueyue happily ate.
"She's only cute when she stops stealing my braised eggs—hey!" Li Wenmin cried when she took the last one, purposely biting into half of it just to aggravate him. "You saw that, Mom! She's not cute at all!"
"Ow!" Li Wenmin cried out when he was struck on the back of the head, his head snapping to a grouchy Li Chenyang.
"Someone is trying to sleep here!" He hissed at his brother only for Li Wenmin to gesture to the table.
"Uh, hello?! You're supposed to be eating breakfast, not sleeping, dimwit! Who told you to sleep so late at night in the first place?" Li Wenmin taunted, snickering when Li Chenyang's irritated face scrunched into a displeased snarl.
"Maybe if you stopped snoring like a well-fed piglet, I'd have the best sleep ever." Li Chenyang rolled his eyes when Li Wenmin dramatically gasped.
"I am not a piglet!��
"I am a proud—"
"Yeah yeah, blah blah blah..." Li Chenyang snorted, picking up one of the mini steamed buns filled with pork.
"Chenyang, as your older brother by a couple of minutes, I'd like to demand some respect—mmph!" Li Chenyang had shoved the bun into Li Wenmin's mouth.
Li Wenmin didn't seem to mind as he nodded in appreciation, finishing the bun in two bites. "Wow, this tastes so good!"
"And you have the attention span of a piglet too." Li Chenyang rolled his eyes, finally digging into his food.
Li Xueyue smiled to herself, enjoying the mild bickering in the early morning. It was such a contrasting sight when compared to her life with the Bai Family. If she even got to eat at all, it was always in her dark and desolate room with the most curious of smells.
"After breakfast, would you like to join me in the gardens, Xueyue? We can trim the hydrangea flowers!" Duchess Wang Qixing offered. "I know you've been awfully bored from being 'bedridden.' So what do you say?"
"Actually…" Li Xueyue trailed off, "Is it alright if I join you after I return from the Imperial Palace?"
Everyone paused what they were doing.
Li Xueyue awkwardly looked around. "You see, when Yu Zhen took me to the merchant's market yesterday, I ran into Wen Jinkai."
Li Chenyang scowled at the mere mention of that name. "If he was a real man, he'd keep it a secret."
Li Xueyue bit her bottom lip. "He promises to keep it a secret if I join him for dinner."
"That's absurd!" Li Wenmin retorted, slamming his empty rice bowl onto the table.
"I know." Li Xueyue nodded. "That's why I would like to attend an audience with the Emperor and Empress. If I give in to Wen Jinkai's demand once, who's to say he won't hold the secret against me another time?"
Li Chenyang's eyes briefly widened a bit. He didn't expect her to come up with this plan all by herself. "There's still a possibility that he will say he saw you in the Capital on the day that you're supposed to be bedridden."
Li Xueyue nodded in agreement. "The Emperor will not miss an opportunity to tease me about my recovery. I will simply inform him I recovered yesterday afternoon, way past the time I���m supposed to see him. I was only in the Capital to get some fresh air before stumbling into Wen Jinkai."
Duke Li Shenyang nodded in approval. "That is a well thought out plan, Xueyue. How did you come up with your scenarios?"
"Oh, I just like to overthink and overanalyze every possible detail," Li Xueyue joked, even though it was half true.
Duke Li Shenyang blinked at yet another similarity she had to the Li Family. But then again, it was a common trait… Was he reading too much into this situation?
"In that case, Chenyang will accompany your audience with the Emperor," Duke Li Shenyang informed her. He could do it himself, but he was weighed down by the ridiculous amount of workload that should have been the Emperor's job to finish. Instead, the ruler in question was too busy wasting time on his personal interests.
Duke Li Shenyang cast a glance towards his wife. He thought back to Li Chenyang's question on loyalty. Indeed, whose side would she take? The Li Family with her beloved children, or the Wang Family with her beloved mother and siblings? He did not want to make his wife choose, but there are times where emotions must be stretched thin to see the fine lines…
"I'm fine with that." Li Chenyang nodded, turning to Li Xueyue who also nodded.
"If it's not too troubling," she pointed out.
"Of course not."
"You sure?" she asked.
"Now that you ask, maybe a bit troubling…" He snickered when she rolled her eyes, knowing full well, that he would never be too troubled to help her.
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