137 Death By Beating
Li Chenyang was the first to break the unsettling silence. "If he asked about your birth mother, then it means he's aware of the similarity you two shared."
"Which means…" Li Xueyue gulped. "He's suspicious about my identity. He's close to finding out who I really am."
Li Chenyang stiffly nodded. "Precisely. This will be a problem for us."
Li Xueyue bent down to pick up the scroll he dropped, handing it back to him. He took it, his fingers tightening around the item.
"For now, we will lay low when it comes to Duke Li Taojun. Don't talk to him. Don't look at him. Pretend as if he doesn't exist. If you see him, walk in the opposite direction. We shouldn't give him any opportunity to think about you or talk with you."
Li Xueyue nodded her head. "He's mainly in the Palace."
"I know, which is why we'll have another reason to keep you out of there."
Li Chenyang didn't even want to think about what would happen to Li Xueyue if her identity was revealed. If people found out that not only was she an illegitimate child, but the product of rape, and that her birth father tried to send her to Hanjian, then she would be ruined. It was cruel that a child had to pay for their parents' sin, but society was never kind-hearted.
"What do you think he will do with that information?" Li Xueyue asked out loud, even though she was already speculating the worst outcome possible.
"Nothing good will come out of this," Li Chenyang pointed out. "He's not the kind of man to care about family. Especially this one. Right now, you're a liability to Father."
Li Xueyue gulped. The last thing she wanted to do was be the reason the Li Family's reputation tanked. "Duke Li Taojun can use me as leverage. If he finds out Mu Yihua is my mother and I'm the second daughter of Viscount Bai, then Li Taojun will forever hold it against us."
"Truths are terrifying. It never goes away." Li Chenyang sighed. "I will let Father know of this. You just stay put, okay? I know you're smart enough to keep this a secret, but we don't know if Duke Li Taojun will keep his mouth shut."
He cursed himself for what he said at Ning Huabing's banquet. Originally, he wanted to oust Viscount Bai's treatment towards his second daughter and make society question her identity. And when their curiosity got the best of them, Li Chenyang was planning on revealing that the Viscount ordered a death by beating of his supposed daughter.
Li Chenyang didn't think about the possibility of Xueyue being caught up in that reveal.
Li Chenyang had planned to keep Xueyue's identity a secret all along. Even if Viscount Bai revealed Li Xueyue was his daughter, who'd ever believe such foolish talks? She resembled nothing like him and only a speckle of resemblance to his wife. Li Xueyue looked too much like Duke Li Shenyang for people to even think she was a Bai.
Now, another problem has arised: Duke Li Taojun's speculations. Whether he knew about Li Xueyue's identity, or not, it would only be a matter of time before this problem would blow out of proportion.
"For now, don't think too much of this. I will speak to Father about this matter."
"I'm sorry for being a burden," Li Xueyue suddenly blurted out. She had been wanting to say this all along. She had so much baggage, she didn't realize how much it would encumber the family.
"I'm really sorry, I didn't think it would be like this."
Li Chenyang looked around him. Was… was she apologizing to him? For what?! This silly girl! He stomped to her and threw her a disapproving glare.
Li Xueyue shrank back in her chair, attempting to make herself as small as possible. Remorse weighed her shoulders down, guilt twisting its way to her heart.
Her eyes watered at the thought that she would harm those who helped her. She felt her face grow warm, her throat clogging.
The Li Family had been nothing but kind to her and now look at the troubles she was bringing upon them. She would be the reason they're going to be mocked by other aristocrats.
She jumped when Li Chenyang lifted his hand only for him to place it close to her forehead. She bit down on her tongue to prevent a sniffle or a sob. She didn't want to cry. Not here. Not now. She didn't want him to comfort her given everything was her fault.
"I.D.I.O.T," Li Chenyang bit out and in a fell swoop, flicked her hard on the forehead.
Li Xueyue yelped in pain, grabbing her head. She blinked once, and the waterworks started. Tears dripped onto her hanfu and soon, she was a crying mess.
Li Chenyang instantly panicked. Did he use too much force and had hurt her? He didn't know what to do. He had never comforted a crying girl before, much less a sister. "X-xueyue?" he stuttered out, bending to her height, but she was hunched over and covering her face.
"Did it hurt?" He reached out, awkwardly grabbing her shoulders.
"I'm sorry…" she sobbed, struggling to speak properly or breathe.
"What?" Li Chenyang frowned. "I should be apologizing for flicking you this hard. Why are you crying like this?"
He shook her, but she remained firm with her position. She refused to show him her crying face, continuing to hide behind her hands. He felt his heart break when he felt the tremble of her body, heard her hiccups and gasps for air.
"I-I…didn't mean to be a b-burden…" Li Xueyue choked out, harshly wiping away her tears. Damn it! Damn it! She wanted to scream at herself for being such a crybaby. Now, he would be forced to forgive her. She didn't want that. She didn't want him to feel guilty over her problem.
Li Chenyang rapidly blinked in understanding. Did this brat cry because she thought she was a burden?! His perplexed expression became more serious. He firmly grabbed her shoulders, forcing her to look up at him.
"Don't blame yourself for this." He scowled. "None of this is your fault. You're not going to pay for the sins of your parents. You didn't ask to be born under those circumstances. You didn't cause what happened between Li Taojun and Mu Yihua. You didn't deserve anything that happened in that household."
Li Xueyue stared at his shoulder, unable to meet his pressuring gaze.
Li Chenyang gently shook her again. "Silly, silly girl. How can you ever blame yourself for this?"
"Because I am a mistake."
Li Chenyang's expression softened. He dried her wet cheeks and flicked her forehead again, earning a loud yelp from her.
"Even if you weren't a planned child, it's not your fault. You didn't play any part in what happened that night."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to self-pity—"
"Don't apologize." Li Chenyang ruffled her hair. "Is this why you cried?"
Li Xueyue quietly nodded, her eyes lingered on the floor. She couldn't find the confidence to face him after what he had drilled into her head.
Li Chenyang let out a laugh, shaking his head. "I seriously don't understand how your brain works. You're always afraid of being a burden to us. Have we ever said you were?"
Li Xueyue bit her bottom lip and shook her head. They had never told her that, but she was raised to believe she was nothing but a burden on others. A mistake that caused a rift between Viscountess Mu Yihua and Viscount Bai Sheng. She had heard it so many times, she might as well have accepted it as a fact.
"Exactly. We never said such a thing." Li Chenyang placed both hands on his hips, staring down at her like a disappointed mother. "Don't ever think you encumber us, Xueyue. We have never thought of such a thing."
He used a forefinger and pressed it into her forehead, forcing her to look up at him. His serious expression cracked when he saw her tiny pout. Gently, he smiled.
"You're so silly." He shook his head. "Next time you think you are a burden, I want you to tell your demons to go to hell because that's exactly where they came from. Understood?"
When he gave her a pointed look, she nodded again. "Understood…" she said in a quiet voice.
"Now, let's enjoy the rest of the afternoon shall we?" Li Chenyang's smile widened in satisfaction. "Our tea and snacks are getting cold."
"Okay," she mumbled.
"And don't worry, I won't call you out for being a glutton." Li Chenyang snickered, bringing the trays of snacks to her.
Li Xueyue reached for the plate and offered it to him first. He chuckled at her antics. The oldest had to eat first, which was a tradition that he found irritable and rarely observed in this household. He didn't know why she followed it. Thus, he picked up a cookie and stuffed it into her mouth.
"We're family. You don't have to follow etiquette at home."
Li Xueyue slowly chewed the cookie. "Almost forgot."
"Well, start remembering it," Li Chenyang teased, heading back to his seat. He called for a maidservant to change their cold pot of tea for another freshly brewed one. Then, they entered a comfortable silence while waiting for everyone to come home for dinner.