Li Xueyue tried to ignore their intertwined hands but found her eyes wandering to it every few seconds. Finally, she spoke up. "What are you doing here? And why are we holding hands?"
Yu Zhen studied her expression, and when he deemed she was fine, his shoulders relaxed a bit. He released her hand, and in an instant, disappointment flooded her eyes. Before he could react and grab her hand back, she averted it, pulling her hand closer to her chest.
Yu Zhen took off his gloves and passed it to a servant. Without wasting a second, he grabbed her hand again, giving it a small squeeze. "Well, what about? What did you come to the Palace for?" he asked, tugging her towards him, but she nervously glanced around, pulling her hand back yet again.
Yu Zhen understood her fear. He nodded towards his men and their formation shifted until they formed a barrier around them, spacious, with their backs facing the couple.
"Let's take a walk in one of the many and unnecessarily vast gardens," Yu Zhen suggested, pulling her in a direction.
"You didn't answer my question," Li Xueyue muttered, her eyes lingered on their entwined hands. She marveled in the warmth he provided her, the safety she felt from the simple action. Perhaps being guided by someone wasn't so bad after all.
"I'm forced to live in the Palace as a guest," Yu Zhen responded, glancing down at her with a pleasant smile resting on his face. "Now, it's your turn to answer."
"I came because of the Emperor's persistence to see me." Li Xueyue sighed, staring up at him. She immediately wished she didn't. He was staring intently at her the entire time, memorizing her features. All she saw was her reflection in his eyes. Suddenly, she thought of the phrase, 'The eyes are windows to the soul.'
"Why did he want to see you?" Yu Zhen asked, reaching to brush her baby hairs aside. To his amusement, her baby hairs sprang back in place, framing her face.
"To speak about my marriage."
Yu Zhen halted. Li Xueyue didn't realize until she felt a pressure on their entwined hands and saw he was two steps behind.
"What's wrong?" she questioned, noticing the storm cloud that rolled over his features. Like a violent hurricane, his eyes were riddled with all sorts of emotions, ranging from indignation to frustration.
"And what did he say?" Yu Zhen cooly asked, his voice nothing like the fury in his eyes.
"Not much. The conversation was averted," Li Xueyue answered, confused as to why he was reacting like this. He behaved as if she was already promised to another man.
Yu Zhen's lips thinned as he began walking again, this time, stepping closer to her until Xueyue's shoulder brushed against his upper arm.
Li Xueyue wondered if he knew how much he was clenching her hand as if terrified she'd suddenly disappear. As if… he was terrified of losing her. She shook her head at the foolish thought. Why would he be scared of such things? It wasn't like… She paused, deciding to not dwell on such silly thoughts.
"How long will you stay in Wuyi?" she abruptly asked him, staring directly into his eyes.
"How long do you want me to stay?"
Her lips parted, a definite answer rested on the tip of her tongue, but she knew that would be an impossible dream. He was the Second Prince of Hanjian, his place was with his family and country.
She was suddenly aware that if she chose him, she'd have to go with him. Far away from Wuyi, far away from her plans of revenge, and the Li Family, but also far enough that the Emperor and Empress would have no influence over her.
Li Xueyue nervously stared at the ground, unable to form an answer. She was selfish, but not to the extent where she'd force him to stay.
"That's up to you," she said. "Not me."
Yu Zhen didn��t know what to tell her. With his fate looming over his head, he was unable to promise her something that he couldn't prove. Finally, they reached the gardens where he abandoned his guards by the entrance.
He led her deep into the gardens until flowers of all variety and color surrounded them, offering them a pleasant scent and a protective layer against wandering eyes. Proud trees stood tall, adding further protection, but he knew she wouldn't be satisfied by this alone. Thus, he took her to the pavilion in a secluded part of the garden. She was too wary of what the public thought of her, and it wasn't a surprise.
It takes one rumor to ruin a woman and a thousand to ruin a man.
"If I leave for Hanjian, will you come with me?" Yu Zhen patiently asked, offering her a choice that she couldn't decide upon.
Li Xueyue bit her bottom lip, unaware that his eyes snapped downwards. It was a tiny action but he was instantly lulled by it.
"The social norms expect me to."
They sat down on the stone chairs of the pavilion. The dome ceiling offered them shade from the sun whilst taking away the shadows. A pleasant breeze blew past them, carrying with it the scent of roses and lilies.
Upon noticing her uncertainty, Yu Zhen could do nothing but smile for her. He understood this was a tough decision, but he wanted her to go with him. Her place was by his side—not in Wuyi, where too many dangerous things could grab her, in particular, the shameless Commander Wen.
Yu Zhen suddenly remembered something. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the topaz, the amber gem shimmering despite the lack of sunlight.
"What's this?" she curiously asked, peering at it.
"A volcanic opal for me and golden topaz for you," Yu Zhen mused, handing the brilliant jewel to her.
"But my eyes aren't this bright," she mused, holding the stone in between her fingers.
Li Xueyue held it outside of the pavilion where light pierced directly through it. Holding the topaz was like holding the sun in her hand. She had never seen color as lovely as this, a blend of molten gold and warm sunlight streaming through a window on a summer afternoon.
"Neither are my eyes as beautiful as the opal." Yu Zhen chuckled, watching the stone reflect in her eyes, turning the hazel into glistening shades of autumn leaves. He watched her roll the jewel in her hand, curious about the different hues it offered.
Yu Zhen never thought he'd be this content with watching her, but he was, from the tiny smile on her face to the squint of her eyes. The mellow breeze softly swayed her hair and hanfu as the sunlight bathed her arms.
Li Xueyue was the epitome of a painting that came to life and she wasn't even aware of it. He let out a soft laugh at the realization, the sound easily captured her attention.
She offered him a shy smile that reached her eyes. "Sorry, it was simply too mesmerizing."
"Now you know how I feel." He grinned when her brows knitted together, befuddled by his words.
"It'd make a great pair of earrings to frame your face and bring out the beauty in your eyes," he said.
"Or a ring," she muttered.
"Nothing." Her smile widened when his eyes narrowed in suspicion. He obviously didn't believe her.
She handed the jewel back to him, a tiny laugh bubbling out of her. He had grabbed her fingers, not the gem.
"I'd rather have you," Yu Zhen mumbled whilst she slipped her hand back, the gem resting upon his palm. He closed his hand around it, placing it back into his pocket. He'd return it to her after having it forged into something suitable for her.
"Who says you can't?" she teased, unaware that it was provoking him in more ways than one.
Yu Zhen's eyes darkened and in a blink of an eye, he was in front of her. She resisted a gasp and fumbled to keep her racing heart at bay.
He gently cupped her face, careful to not hurt her in any way. "I can if I want to," he muttered, bending too low for comfort.
Her eyes fluttered shut, her shoulders tense up. She held her breath and anticipated his next moves.
Li Xueyue felt her heart abruptly skip a beat when he placed a chaste kiss on her forehead, light as a feather, but left a heavy impression upon her. She could still feel the weight of it even when he pulled away. Her stomach churned, her heart thundering in her ears.
"What's stopping you?"
"My respect for you."
Her eyes flew open in surprise, only to suck in a gasp of air upon realizing their proximity. He had kneeled to her height now, his face just inches away from her. His lips curled into a tiny, lopsided smile while he brushed her hairs away from her eyes.
She was lost in the abyss of his eyes, brilliant and fierce, but dark and limitless. His smile, her favorite sight, his laughter, her favorite sound, and above all, his eyes her favorite art.
Li Xueyue didn't understand her overwhelming emotions for him, and neither did he.
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