Duchess Wang Qixing was the first to break the news to Li Xueyue when she returned home.
"What?" Li Xueyue said, after hearing the story for the second time. "He just left?"
"Yes, he did." Duchess Wang Qixing sighed at the unpleasant exchange. Hu Dengxiao was very respectful but the news irked her to no avail.
Li Xueyue wasn't sure if she wanted to chase Yu Zhen down and murder him like a crazy woman or just stay put and read the letter. The former seemed like the most appealing option but she chose the latter with a scowl.
Opening the letter, she read the contents out loud to Duchess Wang Qixing.
"To my dearest Sunshine,
I pray the next time you see me, there isn't a sharpened dagger calling my name. There is an urgent business that requires my attention in Hanjian. The problem couldn't be ignored any longer. It's either now or never.
It's just as you said, perhaps time apart will do us good. If you will grant me the greatest wish and patiently wait at home, I will come for you. I will, no matter how long it takes.
I'm unable to disclose much, but please remember, each step I take from now on is to lead me closer to you. I keep you in the dark not because I want to, but there are outside forces silencing me.
I will be safe.
Everything will be fine. All you have to do is put your trust in me, Sunshine. There won't be a day that goes by where I do not dream or think of you.
Please remember to remain a glutton. Don't skip any meals or wallow by the window. May I recommend reading a few vocabulary books?
Li Xueyue felt her cheeks heat up at his last comment. She folded the letter closed and slipped it into her sleeve. Embarrassed that this letter was even read out loud, she could do nothing but clear her throat.
"One thing is for sure," Duchess Wang Qixing said and drew out with a teasing smile. "It's that Yu Zhen is a lot better at writing letters than Wen Jinkai."
"Mom!" Li Xueyue groaned, hiding her face behind her hands.
Duchess Wang Qixing grinned and said, "There is nothing wrong with being inexperienced at writing letters, though, Wen Jinkai's handwriting is surprisingly neat for a soldier."
Li Xueyue nodded.
"Since neither the soldier nor this letter disclosed the day that he shall return, I suppose we can do nothing but wait for him," Duchess Wang Qixing murmured.
Li Xueyue smiled a bit. "Perhaps it will truly be a trial of time. At least, this time, it started off on a good foot."
"So many wrong turns and now, we finally see the light at the end of the cave." Duchess Wang Qixing shook her head.
"It'll be fine," Li Xueyue mused. "I'll spend my time doing archery and sword fighting, or horseback riding with Heiyue."
"It's time for you to begin your rigorous training again," Duchess Wang Qixing said.
Li Xueyue let out an amused laughter. "It's as if you're training me to become a soldier or something, but it'll be fun. I've missed wielding a sword and firing arrows at least six times a week."
Duchess Wang Qixing smiled at the fond memory. Life was so simple back then. Before the Spring Tournament, before the truth was revealed. Where did it all go wrong?
Duchess Wang Qixing stared ahead as they walked. Her garden was coming to view. The first thing she saw were the hydrangeas that stood tall and proud, overshadowing all of those around her.
Maybe, everything that seemed to be falling apart was actually falling in place. The buried sins were beginning to wash ashore, drowning the sinners.
"I hope this will be a period of growth for both of us," Duchess Wang Qixing said with a ghost of a smile lingering on her lips.
Li Xueyue knew there was an underlying message to her mother's words, but chose to not comment. The Li Family was always filled with secrets, and she learned, ignorance is bliss. If there was something she should know, they would tell her.
- - - - -
The next morning.
The dreadful meeting with Wen Jinkai came earlier than expected, especially when Li Chenyang and Duchess Wang Qixing discussed the Emperor's hidden motives with Duke Li Shenyang. The inevitable had crept upon them, and everyone was forced to rush the plan.
If the Li Family was to oust the Wangs, they'd have to do it now before Wuyi was ostracized by everyone.
Duchess Wang Qixing would have informed Hu Dengxiao about their plan so that he could report to Yu Zhen, but she didn't want to do anything until her husband was consulted.
The trio decided on one thing: Hanjian must know.
"Absolutely not," Li Chenyang gritted out. Wen Jinkai would arrive any moment now, and their father chose this time to say something as crazy as this?
"We will not use Xueyue," Li Chenyang added on. "What kind of atrocious idea is that?"
Duke Li Shenyang threw his son a disappointed look. "No one said anything about using Xueyue."
"You just proposed to utilize Xueyue's connection with Hanjian's Second Prince!" Li Chenyang exasperated. "All for what? Ensuring Hanjian is on board with our plan? For all that we know, Yu Zhen hasn't made it clear to the Emperor of Hanjian his intentions with Xueyue."
Duke Li Shenyang pressed his lisp together. "If Xueyue is going to marry someone prominent, why can't we use the benefits that come with it?"
"Father." Li Chenyang scowled. "Xueyue had only just established her relationship with Yu Zhen last time. Yu Zhen had already massacred the Bai family and handed the royal decree to us without asking for anything in return."
"You think we're asking too much," Duke Li Shenyang concluded.
Duke Li Shenyang raised a brow. "I didn't mention anything about using the Second Prince of Hanjian so quickly. It's only a suggestion. Besides, I've already sent word to Hanjian yesterday night. Ling is rushing there as we speak."
Li Chenyang narrowed his gaze. "And why would the Emperor of Hanjian accept the letter from a random servant?"
"It bore the mark of the Li family and the Imperial stamp. The Emperor of Hanjian will be wise to read it as soon as he receives it."
Li Chenyang anxiously chewed on his nails. "Things are escalating too fast."
"It is," Duke Li Shenyang said. "But better now than ever. Our tension with Hanjian has just simmered down, but they're still skeptical about us. On top of that, trading routes are being tightened. If we don't utilize this opportunity to seize Hanjian's trust, then we might never have another chance as good as this one."
Li Chenyang knew his father was correct. "Why didn't you tell me of this earlier? That the Emperor was giving funds to Jiangsu?"
"I didn't know," Duke Li Shenyang responded. "I had only received the report this morning, but was in a hurry to head to the courts for an urgent meeting."
"An urgent meeting? Why?"
"The Ministers are getting anxious. They're scared that, one by one, people are going to get hanged and tortured for treason."
Li Chenyang quirked a brow. "If they want big rewards, they'd have to take larger risks."
"Precisely," Duke Li Shenyang said. "The People's Representatives will be on board as long as the peasants and commoners wouldn't be forgotten during the country's reforms after our military takeover."
Li Chenyang didn't know why but he suddenly recalled an unpleasant memory where Li Xueyue was nearly struck by some baker. That event in her first week in the Capital was hard to forget. Especially Li Xueyue's courage to risk herself for a mere child.
Li Chenyang knew without a doubt that there were more starving children than the one Xueyue saved.
"And will we give the People's Representative what they want?" Li Chenyang asked, though, it was a test. As much as he supported this military coup, he wanted to make sure it was for a good cause.
Duke Li Shenyang stared at his son in disbelief. "Have all these years of ethics and moral lessons taught you nothing, Son?"
"I was just checking," Li Chenyang muttered. His attention shifted to his mother who had been silent throughout this entire conversation. He thought it was because she was pondering over something, but who would've known that all this discussion of politics had bored her to sleep!
Duke Li Shenyang finally saw his wife who was deep in slumber. His hardened expression became mellow and soft upon seeing her defenseless form. Staring at her was like staring at Li Minghua. Their resemblance was too uncanny.
"Father…" Li Chenyang trailed off, his eyes widening in disbelief. All these years and his father still had the strength to lift the Duchess?
Duke Li Shenyang gestured to the door. "Don't be useless."
Li Chenyang opened the door for his father, careful to not get in his way.
Duke Li Shenyang carried his wife out of the study room with the intent of making sure she was comfortably napping elsewhere.
Li Chenyang watched his father's figure disappear down the hallways. "Romance isn't your expertise?" He snorted. "As if!"
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