Yu Zhen felt a confession resting on the tip of his tongue. He couldn't look away from the depths of her eyes. They were the color of the ripe Earth, filled with life and soul. Delicate and expressive, her eyes hid a wealth of emotion he wished to decipher.
His thumb stroked the unrecognizable shapes upon her skin, a motion that he didn't think was comforting until now. She didn't seem to mind and leaned closer to him, patient and understanding of his confusion.
Yu Zhen didn't want to part from her. He couldn't bring himself to. He had found the greatest joy of his life. How could he lose it? She was his hope and future, someone he was too attached to let go.
He wanted to treasure and watch over her, keeping her from harm's way. And the only way to do so was by whisking her to Hanjian. Yu Zhen knew he was selfish to pull her from familiar lands to foreign ones, but he vowed to keep her safe for the rest of her life.
"Xueyue," he coaxed, "Come with me to Hanjian."
Li Xueyue was tongue-tied. She wanted to go with him, but also didn't want to leave Wuyi. There was so much to be done, so many more memories to make with the Li Family, and so many things she would have to leave behind. He was everything she wanted, but couldn't have.
She felt her throat contract, her nose burning as tears filled her eyes. She couldn't go with him. Not now.
Li Xueyue would have to part with him. The thought of that was daunting. Everything within her screamed to go with him, to never lose something as promising as him. She feared… she would never like a man as much as she liked Yu Zhen. Pain welted her chest for she knew she could never have him in this lifetime.
Before any of them could continue their conversation, a desperate voice called out for the Commander. It was barely audible, yet both of them had heard it over the roaring of their racing hearts.
Li Xueyue pulled away, averting her gaze to the pavilion grounds, forcing herself to keep her tears at bay. She shouldn't cry, it wouldn't change anything. She pressed her lips together, agony prickling through her body at the revelation that she'd have to abandon him. She couldn't go with him to Hanjian.
Yu Zhen's gaze softened. "Are you alright?"
"Your people are looking for you. Go," she murmured.
Yu Zhen gently smiled down at her. "Will you wait for me?"
"Where else would I be?" She cracked a smile.
Yu Zhen felt his heart clench at the sight of her, ever so reassuring when she should be more worried about her own wellbeing.
"You don't have to give me a response right now," he slowly said, hoping she'd listen to his words very closely. "I am a patient man. I'm willing to wait."
Li Xueyue nodded at his words despite the certainty of her response. She already knew her answer, but couldn't find it within herself to say it. "Will you stay a little longer in Wuyi?"
Yu Zhen's lips tugged into a pleasant smile. "Of course." He tugged her cheeks. "Stay here. I'll come back for you."
- - - - -
"Let me through," Lu Tianbi seethed at the rows of Hanjian men guarding the entrance of the garden. She figured Yu Zhen would be here if these soldiers were so unrelenting.
"The Commander is currently occupied," one of the soldiers answered in a monotone voice.
"Well, tell him this is urgent."
"He doesn't want anyone to disturb him," the same soldier said.
Lu Tianbi pressed her lips together, turning to Hu Dengxiao, who narrowed his eyes at the guard.
Hu Dengxiao's lips dipped into a scowl. "Listen here, we don't have time for this. It's either you let us in or we force our way."
"Let them through." Yu Zhen frowned, his voice frosty and rigid.
The soldiers didn't have to be told twice. They stepped aside, parting to form a path for Lu Tianbi and Hu Dengxiao to easily glide through.
"What is it?" Yu Zhen demanded, walking to a secluded corner behind thick rows of flowers. He leaned against a tree, crossing his arms.
Lu Tianbi handed him a letter sealed with wax that bore the unmistakable crest of Hanjian. "We received this from one of our messengers who rushed here to see you. I think this is a letter from the Emperor."
Yu Zhen's lips thinned. Impossible. What could his father want from him at a time like this? Did the Emperor catch wind of what happened to one of their candidates? He gritted his teeth. Right now was not the time for his father to throw a hissy fit.
Yu Zhen took the letter from Lu Tianbi and broke the seal. The apparent handwriting of the Emperor greeted him. He inwardly cursed. It really was from his father.
He read through the contents of the letter, his mood souring with each line until he got to the last part. His eyes briefly widened. In an instant, he crumpled the paper and tossed it to the ground, his lips curling into a snarl.
"God damn it!" he seethed, his fingers curled and uncurled with pure rage. He ground his teeth, his jaw ticked with each passing second. How the hell was he going to respond to a letter as absurd as that?
Hu Dengxiao bent down to pick up the paper and uncrumpled it. "What's wrong?" he asked, sharing the letter with Lu Tianbi.
In a quiet voice, they read it out loud.
"After viewing your accomplishments and everything you've done for the country, you have garnered a lot of support from the ministers. Many of our citizens are praising you as a hero, risking your life to escort the candidates and keeping them safe on the journey. You're also viewed as a diplomat, but I question the legitimacy of that. However, I didn't waste parchment today to boast of your achievements.
I've written to you to present you with good news. My will and inheritance were altered yesterday, but you don't care for that, do you? You never cared for grandeur and wealth, it was always above you. You care more about your duties to your country over family, which, to a certain extent, I've influenced and instilled into you.
I hope you understand what it means for me to change my will and inheritance. As you already know, the position for Crown Prince was never decided, but it was implied to have been your older brother, the First Prince. Luckily for you, many ministers and supporters have advocated on your behalf to stall my decision on selecting a Crown Prince.
I'll leave it to you to decide what this letter implies."
The letter slipped out of Hu Dengxiao's fingers as all three of them were plunged into a prolonged silence. No one knew what to say. No one knew what to do. With something as major as this dropped over them, what could they say?
As Yu Zhen's comrades, Lu Tianbi and Hu Dengxiao were supposed to congratulate him. But being his best friend, they knew better than that.
Yu Zhen was never appreciative of the Emperor and he wouldn't start being grateful now out of all times.
The position of a Crown Prince was a dream for many, but to Yu Zhen, it was a tiresome position. It was irritating to maintain. So many people would be watching him, speculating his next moves. Nothing would go unnoticed, from the clothes he wore to the people he associated himself with. All of that hard work just to become the Emperor.
Hu Dengxiao awkwardly stared at the quiet Yu Zhen who hadn't simmered down yet.
"W-what will we do now?" he asked.
Lu Tianbi wanted to say the same, but still hadn't recovered from the shock. Yu Zhen as the Crown Prince…? It was something she had never thought of. She knew he despised the position and would rather become the Emperor as it is, without the prolonged period of waiting.
"Well, for starters, we can wait it out," Lu Tianbi spoke up. "The letter never mentioned for Yu Zhen to return home."
"Neither did it mention for him to stay in Wuyi," Hu Dengxiao pointed out, nibbling on nails, out of habit.
Both of their gaze snapped to Yu Zhen who had maintained his silence the entire time, simmering in rage. Then they realized he wasn't even looking at them, or the letter. His attention was focused on someone else, Li Xueyue.
Yu Zhen was more worried about her than his position in Hanjian. He was worried about what he had told her. He said he'd stay in Wuyi a little longer, but now, he couldn't guarantee anything.
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