Li Chenyang knew that once the military takeover began, there would be no more looking back. It was now or never. The future of this country was his for the taking. The only thing that stood in their way of massacring the entire Royal family was Wen Jinkai. The man in question sat by the couch of the Duke's private study.
Wen Jinkai was uncertain about the purpose of this meeting. He had caught wind of an unsettling rumor that was most likely false. But when Wen Jinkai saw the expressions on Li Chenyang and Duke Li Shenyang's face, he knew things weren't looking good.
"Is anyone going to talk?" Wen Jinkai finally said, "Or are we going to sit around this table like it's a tea party?"
Li Chenyang pressed his lips together. The last time he had a thorough discussion with Wen Jinkai, things didn't turn out favorably. The mess he created that day would continue to remain unforgiven.
Duke Li Shenyang knew he was treading on thin ice. The wrong word could cause a domino effect of problems. "Did you love my daughter, Wen Jinkai?"
Wen Jinkai tensed at the unexpected question. Which daughter? Li Minghua or Li Xueyue? Both women had an impact in his life—one had turned it for the worst.
"Sometimes I wonder about your motive for taking my daughter out of this household and returning her without warning," Duke Li Shenyang began. "Was it because you offered her freedom like no other? A freedom that was disguised as a cage?"
Wen Jinkai's expression darkened. "You speak as if I was the only one who took part in that plan. Are you going to guilt-trip Wang Longhe as well?
"He doesn't need to be guilt-tripped. Wang Longhe understands the consequences of what he has done. As a result, the Emperor favors him less than all of the Princes," Duke Li Shenyang mused.
Wen Jinkai scowled in response. He knew what the Duke was implying. Why was Wen Jinkai the only one who walked away as a free man? The Emperor still adored him and the Empress still loved him.
Wen Jinkai didn't need to get punished. A life without Li Minghua was the consequence. A life without genuine love and affection. He had lost the only woman who loved him without qualms. The only one who prayed for his happiness and wished for his peace.
Wen Jinkai shifted his attention to the window. "Is that why you called me? So I can drown in guilt for what I've done to your daughter?"
"You can save yourself with redemption by what you can do for my daughter," Duke Li Shenyang mused.
"And how can I possibly do that? It's not like I can turn back time and bring her from the dead," Wen Jinkai bitterly said. "What? Do you want me to get on my knees and beg you for forgiveness? Will that be redemption?"
Duke Li Shenyang slowly shook his head. Seated on his desk, he fiddled with a key. "Seeing you on your knees is the least of my concern. I know you suffer day and night for what you did to her."
Wen Jinkai didn't respond. He continued to watch the sway of the trees outside of the window. There was a faint aroma in the air that he knew all too well. It was her favorite flower's prime blooming time. He would know. She used to pester him to guide her through a walk in the gardens.
Li Chenyang narrowed his eyes. "When was the last time you properly slept knowing Minghua was safe and sound in her grave?"
Wen Jinkai's gaze snapped to Li Chenyang. "Are you mocking me?" he seethed.
Li Chenyang shook his head. "I really want to, but for the sake of this conversation, I won't. I'm just asking you the obvious."
"Minghua's body wasn't found," Wen Jinkai gritted out. "How do you expect her to be in her grave? None of you would even tell me where you set up her worship grounds."
Duke Li Shenyang was glad his wife had fallen asleep before this conversation. It would be too much for her to handle. "Exactly, her body wasn't found. Do you want to know why?"
Wen Jinkai narrowed his eyes. "Because it was burned down. In that fire."
"Has it ever occurred to you why a fire would break out in the first place?" Duke Li Shenyang asked.
"How am I supposed to know?" Wen Jinkai sighed. "I wasn't there."
"But someone else was." Duke Li Shenyang smiled, knowing he had Wen Jinkai's full attention now.
Duke Li Shenyang slipped the key into the drawer, pulling out an unmistakable hairpin. The large flower shimmered under the sunlight that peered through the windows. Rosy pink, lavender, pastel blue with strings of pearl trickling from the leaves, it was hard to not stare at the hydrangea crafted from crystals and gemstones.
Wen Jinkai's expression darkened. He recognized that hairpin. He had seen it before in the Empress's room. Why did the Duke have Empress Huiyun's hairpin?
"Do you know who this belonged to?" Duke Li Shenyang asked.
"The Empress," Wen Jinkai gritted out. "Why the hell do you have that in your possession? I suppose the rumors of the past were true."
Duke Li Shenyang ignored the obvious jab. The past was in the past, this man out of everyone here should know that. "Do you truly think the Empress would wear such a youthful hairpin of a flower she despises?"
Wen Jinkai was puzzled. Where was this conversation leading to? "Who knows. Maybe the Emperor gifted it to her not knowing she hated hydrangeas. What does a hairpin have to do with anything?"
"You used to woo my daughter in the middle of the night," Duke Li Shenyang suddenly said. "And present her with all sorts of gifts. Has it ever occurred to you what Minghua's favorite flower is?"
Wen Jinkai snorted. "What a stupid question. Everyone who's acquainted with Li Minghua will remember her favorite flower is the one her mother tends to."
"And which flower is that?"
"The hydrangea," Wen Jinkai deadpanned. "What are you—" he paused, the answer was clear as day. His face morphed from confusion to realization then to pure horror. The truth was just a step away but he suddenly wished for ignorance. Everything was beginning to unravel before him.
"You said it yourself, Wen Jinkai," Duke Li Shenyang muttered. "This hairpin supposedly belonged to the Empress. Why do you think that?"
"It was in her room…" Wen Jinkai trailed off.
"You're a smart man, I'm sure you can piece things together," Duke Li Shenyang mused, twirling the hairpin until the crystal reflected light directly onto Wen Jinkai.
Duke Li Shenyang felt the engraving before he saw it. Nonetheless, he approached Wen Jinkai and placed the hairpin onto the table.
"Would you like to take a look?" Duke Li Shenyang asked, but he already knew the answer to that.
Wen Jinkai didn't even touch the hairpin. He didn't have to. "What are you implying?"
"I hope you know the owner of this hairpin," Duke Li Shenyang said. "The true owner, that is."
Wen Jinkai gritted his teeth. He knew. It didn't have to be said. This hairpin belonged to none other than Li Minghua. The biggest question was, why the hell did the Empress have it in her possession?
"When my daughter left the Palace and headed straight to our house in Hechen, she took everything with her. I believe she visited this house in the Capital to seek refuge whilst my men rushed to fetch her home. She left something here, but that's not important right now."
"What you're implying will result in a public execution," Wen Jinkai gritted out. "Are you sure you want to continue?"
"A public execution of who?" Duke Li Shenyang let out a chuckle.
Wen Jinkai narrowed his eyes. He had respected the Prime Minister of this country, not because of who he was, but because they were both the Wang Family's tools.
"Minghua took nearly everything with her to Hechen. Including this hairpin that her mother gifted her. I do hope you can pick it up and look at it closely. It's a very beautiful accessory, don't you think so?"
Wen Jinkai read between the lines. He picked up the hairpin and began to examine it. He felt his heart begin to sink the more he looked.
Wen Jinkai wished it wasn't true. He had seen this hairpin in the Empress's room shortly after she finally allowed guests into her Palace. There was a period of time where she nearly went crazy and refused to see anyone.
The servants said she was sick, but Wen Jinkai knew better. The Empress was hiding something.
On the handle of the hairpin was a single message engraved. "To my Minghua, may your future bloom like that of hydrangeas."
Wen Jinkai swallowed. The truth was so close. All he had to do was grab it.
Duke Li Shenyang let out a sigh. "This hairpin was supposed to be amongst the remains in Hechen, but it wasn't. So strange. The accessory should've been burned down with Minghua, but it wasn't. I wonder why?"
Wen Jinkai shot out of his chair. "I've had enough of this treasonous conversation."
Duke Li Shenyang shot him a disappointed stare like that of a father. "Is it treason because the truth is too hard to swallow?"
"You're implying the Empress murdered the Prime Minister's daughter!" Wen Jinkai roared, "Li Minghua was her niece-in-law and the Emperor's favorite niece! There's no way my mother would've laid a hand on my wife!"
Duke Li Shenyang was unfazed by the thunderous screams. He didn't even blink. "You don't believe that."
It was these four words that sent Wen Jinkai storming out of the private study, hairpin in hand. Except, this hairpin would never slide through hair. The hairpin will pierce through a heart.
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