"How strange of you to visit me at such odd hours," Second Prince Wang Jing lightly commented. He took a sip of his favorite Jasmine tea but cringed at the repulsive taste. Despite the aromatic and sweet scent, the tea was incredibly bitter and disgusting.
The Second Prince figured it was because this pot of tea wasn't brewed and served by his favorite servant. The veiled woman was nowhere to be found in this room. It was always like this when guests came around. Specifically, Wen Jinkai.
"You're adding too much sugar into your tea. It's repulsive and unhealthy for you," Wen Jinkai nagged as he took the sugar bowl away from his long-time friend. He swatted at the grabbing hands of the needy Prince.
"Ugh, just one more spoonful, please. This tea is so bitter and it was brewed incorrectly!" Second Prince Wang Jing whined.
The Second Prince couldn't stomach this tea without the help of the sugar! Usually, he didn't like sweet things, especially sugar in tea. On top of it, he hated teas that weren't brewed by his favorite servant. He couldn't complain. It was the risk he took to keep his servants safe from the wrath of the Commander.
"You should punish the servant for their incompetence." Wen Jinkai scowled. "Have your people always mistreated you with vulgar tea?" He took a whiff of the tea, deeming it was safe. There wasn't any lingering smell of poison.
"No, of course not. You know my servants will never bully me. They're paid more than the regular palace servants. Besides, Mother will kill them if they do." Wang Jing sighed. "And even if they did, I won't report it. Mother can be scary."
"The Empress is always protective of her sons. It's not a surprise," Wen Jinkai responded whilst taking a small gulp of the tea. He found nothing wrong with it. It was bitter like his heart. Just as he liked his teas to be.
Wang Jing's gaze softened. "You're considered her son too, you know. Sometimes I think she loves you more than she loves the rest of us."
"Her love is obsessive and overbearing." Wen Jinkai let out an agitated sigh. "It has progressed into something I've come to despise."
"What do you mean?" Wang Jing curiously asked.
Wen Jinkai surveyed the empty tea room. There was no one in here except for the two of them. The doors outside were heavily guarded by Wen Jinkai's men. No one would dare to eavesdrop.
It wasn't like Wang Jing had a big mouth either. He knew how to keep secrets. It was one of the reasons why Wen Jinkai hung out with the Second Prince so much. Wen Jinkai could vent in peace without judgment.
"I heard a nasty rumor," Wen Jinkai muttered.
"Why don't you call her Mother?" Wang Jing softly frowned. "She'd like that, you know. That's all she wants to hear from you."
Wen Jinkai was irked by the Second Prince's unwavering loyalty to their mother, Empress Huiyun. But what could be done? She was a great caretaker to all of her children, so much so, that none of them could find faults in her, just as she never saw a flaw in them.
The happiness of her children mattered more to her than her own life.
The Empress would do everything to keep her children safe by her side. No sin was too heavy, and no risk was too terrifying. Her children were her life, her only joy, her only treasure. Empress Huiyuin loved all of her children. Even if she showed it in different ways—some more repulsive than the other.
"As always, this conversation must be kept between us, and no one else," Wen Jinkai began.
"Of course." Wang Jing firmly nodded. "Besides, who would I tell this to?" he laughed, "You're the only brother who talks to me."
Wen Jinkai's expression dimmed. He sympathized with the Second Prince. It must be lonely in this part of the palace. No one ever came here unless it was to take care of Wang Jing—the neglected Prince of Wuyi.
"Mother trusts you with all of her secrets, doesn't she?" Wen Jinkai asked.
Wang Jing blinked. "I can't tell you that. My lips are sealed when it comes to other people's conversations with me."
"You're just a hypocrite." Wang Jing snickered. He settled the teacup onto the table. "So, what has been occupying your mind?"
"There's something disturbing that was brought up the other day."
"The morning I went to see Li Xueyue."
"Oh, yes I remember! You were so excited about the meeting. It was the first time in nearly three years since I've seen you ramble over something." Wang Jing left out the part that Wen Jinkai used to talk for hours about Li Minghua.
Everything that the Second Prince didn't know about Minghua, he learned from Wen Jinkai. The Commander never stopped babbling about her. The day she moved into the Palace was the happiest day of his life. Except, it was also because of her that his life took a turn for the worst.
Wen Jinkai was no longer the same after Li Minghua.
"Yes, anyway, Xueyue said something very particular. It hasn't left my mind. Not once."
"What is it? I know she gave you back your pendant, but you still kept hers. Which, by the way, was the stupidest thing you've ever done. How could you do that to a poor maiden?"
"That's not the important discussion at hand," Wen Jinkai snapped.
"Fine, fine, tell me what's been bothering you." Wang Jing sighed, shaking his head at his ill-tempered friend.
"Li Xueyue told me Minghua was suicidal."
"What?" Wang Jing whispered out of shock. "How would she know? I thought this Xueyue girl was naive and ignorant? You said she was."
"I don't know how Li Xueyue found out. She said she knew everything."
"Everything…? What does that even mean?" Wang Jing asked, his eyes nervously darting around the room. Did this Xueyue girl truly discover the events that took place in the Palace?
The Second Prince gulped. How much did this Li Xueyue know? Who told her? How did she find out? There were so many unanswered questions. It was beginning to stress him out. He knew he would be rambling to his favorite servant soon.
"I don't think she knows too much, except the fact that Li Minghua and I were once lovers." Wen Jinkai crossed his fingers together. "But I have such a bad feeling that she knows more than that."
"Well, why don't you directly ask her?"
"You know I can't." Wen Jinkai groaned. "The entire Li Family hates me. They guard Xueyue like she's the nation's treasure."
"I would too if my daughter had a suitor like you." Wang Jing snorted. "Your obsession and manipulative manners will obviously scare parents and daughters away."
"I'm only obsessive because it's hard to find someone who genuinely cares for me. I'm terrified of losing them. Terrified that the circle of acquaintances will grow smaller…" Wen Jinkai trailed off, "I find it difficult to trust someone."
"I know you do, but this behavior of yours isn't healthy. Minghua tolerated it because she loved you more than herself, even if it meant loving you was hating herself." Wang Jing slapped a hand over his mouth, horrified at how much he had spoken.
Wen Jinkai's his mood soured.
"W-wait, Jinkai, I didn't mean it like that. I just had my nightly medicine, so I'm not thinking properly right now."
For the sake of his rant, Wen Jinkai waved his hand to dismiss the Second Prince's insolence. "Anyways, we're not here to discuss my problematic attitude. We're here to discuss what the Empress did to my woman."
Wang Jing tensed. He was always defensive of his mother, but tonight, he couldn't. Because he knew his mother was in the wrong. And he had the physical evidence to prove it.
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