After their dinner was over, Li Chenyang asked Li Xueyue for the parchment of their plans. Once obtained, he joined his father in the private study where tea was served. And because Li Chenyang was present, it was not one of the Duchess's special concoctions. She didn't want to put her son through all of the trouble that only the father should shoulder.
"What is it?" Duke Li Shenyang curiously asked.
He took a sip of the pleasantly scented black tea, letting out a contented sigh. The strong and woody aroma did wonders to his tiredness, instantly waking him up.
Duke Li Shenyang was exhausted after practically managing the country on his own; from checking over the agriculture reports in preparation for fall, to the regulation of trade with other countries on this continent and beyond. So far, everything with Hajian has been going smoothly.
Li Chenyang unfolded the parchment and placed it on his father's desk. "A business opportunity at the expense of riding an arrogant family."
"Killing two birds with one stone?" Duke Li Shenyang mused, setting the teacup down on his desk. He picked up the piece of parchment, easily recognizing Li Xueyue's messy handwriting.
"We should teach her to perfect her handwriting," he joked.
Li Chenyang let out a small bark of laughter. "Yes, it would do her wonders."
Duke Li Shenyang hummed in response, his eyes flashed with interest. A minute or two passed and soon, he settled the parchment onto the table. "This is a unique plan."
Li Chenyang nodded in agreement. "Xueyue came up with it. I promised you there would be benefits in causing their downfall."
"Yes, I read the part about profiting from their fallen business, but it will not be an easy task to manage a sea port in a town that takes a week of travel by carriage to reach," Duke Li Shenyang pointed out.
"We don't have to manage the business forever. Once it's able to stand on its own, we can sell it off at an even higher price, or we can have delegates to manage it for us," Li Chenyang said.
Duke Li Shenyang hummed again, scratching his chin, contemplating their next steps. "Yes, but you're talking about something too far ahead into the future. First we need to address your immediate plans after you've acquired their business. How will you keep it in order? Will you head to Hechen and stay there until the business improves? Or will Xueyue be there to manage the business?"
Li Chenyang certainly saw the problem with this. He would need to hire someone extremely trustworthy to manage it on their behalf. "Must this problem be addressed now?"
"Yes. We always have to think about ways to resolve any obvious or potential failures of a plan before you even carry it out," Duke Li Shenyang advised.
Li Chenyang let out a quiet sigh as he sat on one of the couches in the study. He crossed his legs and tried to come up with a solution to this issue. Of course, he couldn't stay too long in Hechen, he had ministerial duties to tend to and one day, a position to take over from his father.
"We will need to find someone trustworthy enough to manage it in our stead," Duke Li Shenyang explained. "It's not like our Xueyue can stay in a city that would take three days by horse or a week by carriage. She would have to travel, all by herself as an unwed woman. It wouldn't be safe for her."
Li Chenyang slowly nodded. "Yes, we will need someone who won't turn their backs against us if we hand them the management right."
Li Chenyang sighed at his lack of ideas. "Each step will take a while to complete. Let's proceed with the plan first and think of a solution along the way."
Duke Li Shenyang raised his brows. "I didn't raise you to be impatient, Chenyang."
"I know, Dad, it's just—"
"Think of a solution first. And then I will help you acquire the agreement stamped by the Emperor," Duke Li Shenyang wagered.
Li Chenyang calmly turned to his father. "You mean it?"
"Of course." Duke Li Shenyang smiled. "Any opportunity to earn money is a welcomed one."
"Alright then. I'll speak to Xueyue about the management," Li Chenyang commented, standing up.
"I recommend asking about it during breakfast tomorrow. We can each chime in our opinion." Duke Li Shenyang folded the parchment in half and handed it back to Li Chenyang who accepted it.
"I understand." Li Chenyang placed the parchment into his pocket and headed for the door. "Have a good night, Dad."
"I hope you get to sleep in the master bedroom tonight, and not the guest room." Li Chenyang snickered, running out of the door before his father could reprimand him.
Duke Li Shenyang straightened his clothes and rolled his eyes. "I can't wait for the day you get married and she does the same to you."
When the sound of Li Chenyang's footsteps disappeared, Duke Li Shenyang called out for his right-hand man.
A man dropped down from the tall ceiling, landing softly on the ground. As usual, he was dressed in full black with a mask covering half his face. The two men grew up together, and for as long as the Duke could remember, Ling's family had always served the Lis.
Whenever Duke Li Shenyang needed a secretive task to be done, it was always Ling who carried out the responsibility. He used to have a longer name beyond a simple character, but after failing to guard Li Minghua in the Palace, Ling renounced his name as punishment. The Duke was against the punishment, but Ling insisted on it for his failure.
Ling slipped his black mask down his chin and bowed his head. "My lord, you've called?"
"Yes. Did you look around the Palace and discover whose room the hairpin was found in?" Duke Li Shenyang asked, referring to the hydrangea hairpin that once belonged to Li Minghua.
Ling swiftly nodded his head. "Yes, it was found in the Empress's room."
Duke Li Shenyang's brows shot upwards. Out of everyone in the royal family, he most certainly did not expect this. "Are you certain of this?"
Duke Li Shenyang pressed his lips together. "You used to guard Li Minghua. Do you recall her wearing this hairpin when she left the Capital and returned to Hechen?"
Ling rapidly blinked, his face darkened with uncertainty. Guilt swarmed him at the thought of another failure.
"I-I don't remember…" he regretfully said, lowering his eyes.
Duke Li Shenyang nodded, disappointed with the response, but didn't show it. He knew Ling was already punishing himself for his failure in the past despite the time that had passed.
"I want you to seek out all of the maidservants who used to serve Li Minghua. Especially the ones who used to dress her. Find out if they remember placing a hydrangea hairpin into her hair when she returned from the Capital to Hechen."
If she was indeed wearing this in Hechen when she left the Palace, then it only meant one thing: The Empress might've been involved in the fire.
It would be a difficult task, but nothing was ever too challenging for Ling. "Very well, my lord."
Duke Li Shenyang nodded in satisfaction. "And make sure, they don't realize who's asking these questions."
"That will be all for now, you're dismissed."
Ling cupped his hands, bowed again, and then disappeared out the door without a sound.
Duke Li Shenyang took out the key hidden under his clothes and unlocked a drawer. He didn't understand his actions when he pulled out the hairpin and twirled it around, a disheartened expression on his face. Squeezing his eyes shut, he was met with the horrifying revelation that she was slowly becoming a blurry figure in his mind. Of course, there were paintings that were supposed to resemble her, but none came that close to her actual appearance.
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