Li Chenyang wanted to personally take Li Xueyue back home, but his court duties didn't permit him to do so. Forced to bid her goodbye at the entrance of the throne room, he watched with uncertainty as Li Xueyue strolled down the enormous hallway.
When she turned a corner and disappeared from his sight, he pressed his lips into a thin line. Servants and guards accompanied Xueyue, but Li Chenyang still feared for her safety, especially in this dreadful Palace. For her, there were more foes than friends.
Li Xueyue didn't let her guard down even though she was far from the clutches of the Emperor and Empress. She couldn't help the unsettling sensation in her gut as if something went horribly wrong, and she didn't even know what it was.
When she saw who was ahead of her, hastily approaching the end of the hallway, she couldn't help but stiffen.
Duke Li Taojun seemed to be in a hurry, but he immediately halted at the sight of her. Baffled and disturbed, his face paled when she lifted her head, revealing shades of hazel that mirrored his rustic ones. The way her lips parted reminded him of a timid woman who should've been his, but wasn't fated to be; not with his previous status and limited wealth.
"Princess Li.��� He nodded his head in greeting while she slowly lowered into a small bow.
"Duke Li Taojun," she greeted, her eyes clouded with curiosity.
She had never gotten the chance to see him from up close. From up close, she could see his slight resemblance to Duke Li Shenyang but his personality distinguished him from the latter. She found it strange that she kind of resembled both of them.
Li Xueyue couldn't quite place a finger on the similarity. Her gut told her there was more to this than meets the eyes.
An awkward atmosphere hovered over them. Duke Li Taojun didn't know what else to say aside from commenting about the weather.
Well, what else could he say?
He had attempted to seal her fate in a foreign land with foreign people and she had publicly gone against his decision and the royal decree. The only candidate who talked her way out of her demise.
"Have a good day, Duke Li Taojun," Li Xueyue abruptly said, bowing again. She attempted to rush past him, but his next words stopped her in her path.
"Who are you, really?"
Slowly, Li Xueyue turned to him, her face as blank as a canvas. She was disgruntled by his words, her eyes tearing him apart when her words couldn't.
"What an odd question to ask a stranger."
"Well, you're supposed to be my niece." Duke Li Taojun cracked a dry smile. "Is it wrong for me to want to get to know you better?"
"Funny." Li Xueyue smiled. "You tried to marry off your supposed niece to a foreign land."
"Nepotism is never appreciated, Princess Li. I did what I thought was the best for this country."
"Even at the cost of your family?"
"Especially at the cost of my so-called 'family,'" Duke Li Taojun responded. "My family has abandoned me, why should I care for them? The only family I know is me, myself, and I."
"What a pitiful thing to say," Li Xueyue muttered, her eyes softened.
Duke Li Taojun tensed. Was she provoking him?
When Duke Li Taojun took a closer look at her, he felt his world begin to unpleasantly spin. Memories of the past threatened to resurface as a sense of nostalgia slammed through him.
Li Xueyue might've had the eyes of a Li, but she didn't use it like one. Her delicate features resembled someone he used to know, a bold and audacious woman who drugged him, then fled into the midnight.
"Are you really Duke Li Shenyang's daughter?" Duke Li Taojun abruptly asked. "The timeline doesn't make sense."
"My identity has nothing to do with you." Li Xueyue frowned. She jutted her chin in the air and stormed off.
His intruding questions rubbed her in the wrong way and despite their brief encounter, she couldn't help but be repulsed by him. Suddenly, she thought back to one entry she read in the diary.
Li Minghua had mentioned an uncle. What was it again that she mentioned about her uncle? Something about a rumor of Duke Li Shenyang backstabbing his own brother?
Li Xueyue swallowed deeply. Was this why Duke Li Taojun was so adamant about learning her identity? So that he could use it as a weapon against Duke Li Shenyang? She shivered at the thought of being used again.
She was so lost in her thoughts to hear the quick approaching footsteps behind her.
Duke Li Taojun reached out to grab her shoulder, "Wait, Princess Li, if I have offended you in any way, I don't mean to—"
Li Xueyue's eyes widened and before any of the guards could react, someone else had grabbed her. Her entire body tensed when she felt a muscular arm wrap around her stomach, her back colliding on a firm chest.
"Watch where you're touching, Duke," Yu Zhen warned in a chilling tone, his smile tense and tight-lipped.
"Commander." Duke Li Taojun's brows shot upwards. He couldn't register the scene in front of him.
First, Li Xueyue was offended by the idea of being married off to one of Hanjian's high-achieving soldiers, but now, she's wrapped in the arms of Hanjian's most outstanding Commander?
None of this made sense to him.
"I apologize, Princess Li. I didn't mean to startle you." Duke Li Taojun's eyes snapped to Li Xueyue, who was equally surprised to see Commander Yu Zhen.
"There was something else I wanted to ask you." Duke Li Taojun attempted to smile but it came out like a wince.
"You've already asked enough personal questions." Li Xueyue scowled. "I'm not going to answer anything."
"Yes, but this time, it's not something as sensitive as your identity. I-I was just curious about something…" he stuttered, "B-by any chance, are you acquainted with Viscountess Mu Yihua?"
Li Xueyue felt her heart drop to the pit of her stomach. Why… was he asking this? Did he know something that she didn't? Was he on to her? Did he dig into her background without her knowledge? How much did he know? Why was he doing this?
Thousands of questions swarmed her mind, clouding her judgment.
Yu Zhen immediately sensed her distress. He didn't have to look at her to realize this question disturbed her. His arm tightened around her, and in an instant, she was tucked behind his broad shoulders, shielding her from the probing eyes of Duke Li Taojun.
"Did I say something wrong, Princess Li…?" Duke Li Taojun awkwardly asked.
He didn't think Commander Yu Zhen was this… protective.
Duke Li Taojun had heard all sorts of rumors about which men were going to marry Wuyi's candidates. Out of every candidate, Yu Zhen was the least welcoming to people. In Hanjian, he was a merciless man with a heart of ice.
Second Prince Yu Zhen was never affiliated with any woman, despite the many that worshipped the ground he walked on.
On many occasions, people even wondered if he was capable of emotions beyond political smiles and blank eyes.
People had always complimented Yu Zhen's skills on the battlefield, his impeccable precision to slay his opponents. From the perfect footwork to the powerful command over his men, there wasn't a single flaw in his style. All he had to do was step into a battlefield and a river of blood would flow. He was, after all, the heartless Grim Reaper of War.
"I suggest you keep your eyes to yourself," Yu Zhen snapped.
Duke Li Taojun was taken aback by the Commander's reaction. "I was merely worried about the Princess's condition."
"You should worry about what happens after this," Yu Zhen calmly told him. His body went rigid when he felt something soft graze his wrist.
Li Xueyue had unknowingly grabbed onto his sleeves for reassurance. She didn't realize it until his fingers gently touched hers and in a blink of an eye, he was holding her hand. Oddly enough, she felt a sense of comfort from the small interaction, as if nothing could ever go wrong so long as they were together.
"Is… that a threat?" Duke Li Taojun's eyes narrowed into slits.
"What else could it be?" Yu Zhen raised a brow.
Duke Li Taojun pressed his lips together. He couldn't find the gut in him to have a stare-down with the Commander. He let out a disgruntled sound and was prepared to leave.
"If you ever want to discuss things further with me, Princess, my doors would always be open for you," Duke Li Taojun loudly announced to them.
"You should lock your doors from now on," Yu Zhen chillingly said, his lips curling into a menacing smile.
Duke Li Taojun didn't need to be told twice. With a visible shake of his head, he attempted to leave but was instantly blocked by soldiers dressed in a different attire.
"You weren't excused yet," the soldier said, his voice lifeless and cold. He would not permit people to disrespect his Commander--the second Prince--like this.
Duke Li Taojun's lips thinned, his eyes darting to the knife that was held to his throat. Reluctantly, he turned around and bowed to the Second Prince of Hanjian.
"Have a good day, Commander."
Yu Zhen didn't respond. He merely flicked his hand as if the Duke was an insignificant bug.
Duke Li Taojun scowled at the pure disrespect but decided he had better things to do than wager his life with someone as reputable as Yu Zhen. The entire time he headed in the direction of the throne room, he couldn't help but try to glance back at Li Xueyue but it was impossible.
Even if he tried to do so, Yu Zhen was hovering over Li Xueyue, and there was a thick layer of guards surrounding them, keeping her safe and well. Nothing could ever get past Yu Zhen and his men. No one could ever hurt his woman, so long as he was around.
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