"My lady, please, we must get you inside and cleaned up now," the same handmaiden said, her voice filled with urgency and worry. She didn't understand the haste of her Young Miss. She had never once seen the Young Miss run or behave this rashly.
Li Xueyue was always poised and graceful. Perfect etiquette and composure were what she prided herself to be; almost every maidservant in the house knew of this.
Li Xueyue breathed out in shock, running a hand through her hair, grabbing the top of it out of frustration. The simple touch was enough for her last remaining hair accessories to come tumbling out.
Her chest was rapidly rising, gasping for puffs of air that she struggled to intake. It was difficult to properly breathe, especially when her lungs felt like it was on fire and her throat was as parched as the southern desert.
She leaned against the pillars of the Li front entrance whilst she wiped away the sweat that had gathered on her forehead. She was doing everything to distract herself from the pain that had gripped her heart. It was as if a knife had pierced into her heart, twisting as it dug deeper into her, sending waves of pain that spread across her chest.
"Have I lost him?" she softly said to herself, painfully squeezing her eyes shut. Her hesitation earlier had pushed him away.
"You've lost your dignity, that's for sure," a disapproving voice said.
Li Xueyue's head snapped up, only to see the disappointed frown of Duchess Wang Qixing.
"Oh sweetie..." Duchess Wang Qixing released a heavy sigh. "You're a mess."
"I am…" Li Xueyue mumbled, dropping her head in shame. She couldn't bring herself to meet the Duchess's disapproving gaze. She felt remorse for abandoning the rules of etiquette taught by the Duchess when she could have hired a Governess or tutor.
Duchess Wang Qixing was kind enough to teach Li Xueyue the proper way that a lady should behave. For what her mother had done for her, Li Xueyue always tried to be grateful. She hoped to repay the Duchess's painstaking efforts by consistently carrying herself with elegance and poise. But now, look at how she was behaving.
"I'm not mad at you," said Duchess Wang Qixing. "I'm just disappointed."
Li Xueyue nodded in agreement. She didn't dare to respond. It was one thing for a mother to be mad and another for them to be disappointed… The latter was a lot worse than the former.
Duchess Wang Qixing sighed. "Get yourself cleaned up and then walk with me in the gardens," she sternly instructed, leaving no room for an argument.
- - - - -
It didn't take long for Li Xueyue to be properly bathed, cleaned, and her appearance to be tidied up again. The problem was with her scraped knee that wouldn't stop bleeding.
The doctor was immediately called for and the maidservants did their best to treat her knee by wrapping a bandage around it. She could walk fine but she would wince whenever she put too much weight on that leg.
"It's fine. I'll have the doctor look at it after the walk," Li Xueyue said, flattening her hanfu as she pushed the doors open to reveal the Duchess who was waiting outside her room.
"Ready?" Duchess Wang Qixing asked.
Li Xueyue wordlessly nodded.
"Everyone is excused," Duchess Wang Qixing instructed everyone in the room. They bowed and kept their distance from the pair.
"Including the guards lining the hallways leading to the Thousand Petal Gardens," she loudly announced down the hallway, knowing they'll pass the message along.
The guards soon dispersed. They would resume their position once the pair was out of sight.
Li Xueyue didn't want to anger the Duchess even further. She quickened her pace until she was half a step behind the Duchess.
"Do you know why I dismissed everyone?" the Duchess asked, shooting Li Xueyue a glance.
Li Xueyue slowly shook her head.
"I hate disciplining a child in front of a crowd. There's no need to embarrass a child like that," Duchess Wang Qixing said. "Especially a daughter."
Li Xueyue paused, finally raising her head. Even after the spectacle in the front entrance, the Duchess had still viewed her as a daughter.
"Why did you make a fool out of yourself?" Duchess Wang Qixing asked as they turned the corner. The small wooden gate leading to the Thousand Petals Garden became visible.
"I didn't mean to," Li Xueyue sullenly replied, staring at the ground as they walked. She truly didn't think about the social repercussions from chasing him like a lovesick fool. She was afraid of losing him and that was the only thing plaguing her mind, nothing else.
"I taught you better than this, Xueyue," Duchess Wang Qixing softly reprimanded. "Is this how a lady should behave?"
"No." Li Xueyue shook her head as her mother quietly sighed. She pushed open the garden gates and they walked through it. The air was sweet from the blooming flowers.
"You must remember something." The Duchess came to a halt, turning to face Li Xueyue
Li Xueyue raised her head, revealing her remorse-filled eyes.
"Does the egg chase the sperm?"
Li Xueyue's mouth fell open in shock at her mother's brazen words. She mutely shook her head. "No." She felt like she heard this phrase before.
"Exactly," Duchess Wang Qixing deadpanned. "So why were you chasing the Commander?"
"When I left him in the market squares, he chased after me. I thought it was time for me to return the favor."
"How adorable." Duchess Wang Qixing humorlessly chuckled. "That's not how it works. For every ten steps they take, you only have to take one. If they want you, they will have to prove it to you."
Li Xueyue quietly listened to the Duchess. Whether Xueyue agreed or disagreed with the Duchess's words, she kept her mouth shut and didn't air her opinion.
"You fell into his push and pull game. Don't fall for it again." It sounded like a suggestion but the serious expression on Duchess Wang Qixing's face said otherwise.
"Is that clear?"
Li Xueyue bit her bottom lip and tore her gaze away from the Duchess. "Wouldn't that be unfair? A relationship is not one-sided, it's two."
"If he wants you, nothing is unfair." Duchess Wang Qixing sighed. "I remember when I was in your shoes. I made the same foolish mistake as you demonstrated today."
"What do you mean?" Li Xueyue curiously asked, tilting her head.
Duchess Wang Qixing began walking again and this time, Li Xueyue was by her side. "When the Duke was young, he was a very handsome and charismatic man. Many mothers wanted their daughters to marry him and many women viewed him as the most eligible bachelor."
Li Xueyue thought back to the quiet Duke and his simple smiles. Just like the Duchess, he had aged perfectly.
"What's there to not like about him?" Duchess Wang Qixing lightly laughed, but her face was cold and her eyes desolate. An unpleasant memory came to mind.
"He showed interest in me, showered me with gifts and attention that I couldn't have fathomed." Duchess Wang Qixing smiled at the memory of her younger days. An adored Princess trapped in her room like a pretty bird, longing only for the shining knight in armor who was destined to be a Prime Minister.
"But then I lowered my guard. I became desperate for him, I relied on him to leave the palace grounds. When I showed my dependence on him, he was suddenly cold to me."
Duchess Wang Qixing cringed at the memories of her younger self: A pitiful Princess dressed in all the wealth in the world. The one thing she lacked was freedom.
The only time she could leave the suffocating palace was whenever the Duke came to visit with plans on taking her to the Capital. Gentle, loving, honest, there was nothing more the Duchess wanted.
"It was a push and pull game. The more he pushed, the more I pulled. I was completely and utterly in love with him, but that was when he lost respect for me. Do you want to know why?"
Li Xueyue shook her head.
"I gave him the exact reaction he wanted. I chased him. I lowered myself for him. Once a man learns he has the upper hand on you, he will lose respect for you." Duchess Wang Qixing sharply turned to Li Xueyue.
"You must never repeat the same mistakes I have made. You must not give in to this push and pull. When Yu Zhen pushes, you don't pull. You yank him to the ground."
Li Xueyue blinked in surprise. Wasn't that unfair…? But the Duchess was speaking from experience.
She swallowed. Not everyone's experiences were the same.
"Is that understood?" Duchess Wang Qixing asked.
Li Xueyue quietly nodded.
"Good." Duchess Wang Qixing smiled. "Of course, I don't mean literally drag him to the ground, but I'm sure you understand what I meant. You're a smart girl."
Li Xueyue didn't respond.
"Yu Zhen is a great catch. I couldn't possibly ask for a better suitor for you, but I'm sure you see the problem with him?"
Li Xueyue softly sighed. "He's a Second Prince and a Commander. I'm sure there are vicious women in Hanjian vying for his attention."
"I expect the same. Every mother with a suitable daughter in Hanjian will try to grab that man." Duchess Wang Qixing scowled. "Just like how every mother wanted the Duke."
Her lips tug downwards into a scowl at the unpleasant memories that came to mind. It centered on a despicable and shameless woman who wanted it all, even when she had the best bachelor in this entire country.
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