Duke Li Shenyang had an unsettling feeling about the events that would unfold before him. He had predicted the inevitable outcome from that scream. If it truly belonged to the Empress, it could only mean one thing…
"We shouldn't crowd the Empress's bedroom and storm in all at once," Duke Li Shenyang spoke up. "It will be a violation of courtesy and a disturbance to the Empress."
Duchess Wang Qixing was quick to catch on to the plan. In case anything went wrong in the Empress's bedroom, Duke Li Shenyang could be the first to access the situation.
"I agree," Duchess Wang Qixing spoke up. "It's impolite for so many men to trample into the Empress's bedroom…"
The Ministers hesitated at the words of the Li Family. They were undoubtedly right.
"Since I am a woman, I will enter first. It will preserve the Empress's reputation and protect her privacy. If anything was to go wrong, I'll scream and alert everyone," Duchess Wang Qixing said. Her firm tone and serious expression didn't allow them to object to the suggestion.
Duke Li Shenyang slowly nodded. "Please be cautious," he responded as the Ministers reached the doors.
Marquis Ning made eye contact with the Duke just as Duchess Wang Qixing knocked on the door.
"Empress, is everything alright in there?"
There was no response.
Duchess Wang Qixing knew it was time to face the music. She cracked open the door by the slightest bit and slipped inside. She closed the door shut behind her.
Duchess Wang Qixing was met with the hand-carved folded wooden panels that created partitions in the room. Hesitantly, she peeled it back and assessed the situation. But never in her wildest dreams would she predict the outcome before her.
"X-Xueyue?" she whispered, noticing her daughter unconscious on the floor. But what was even more startling was the pool of blood just a few feet away.
To Duchess Wang Qixing's pure horror, she saw the Empress's limp body. A shiny hairpin was stabbed right through the Empress. To be exact, a brightly colored hydrangea flower hairpin had pierced the Empress's heart.
Duchess Wang Qixing's face paled. Did… Li Xueyue killed the Empress? She stumbled back a little, unable to wrap her head around the fact that Xueyue was capable of murder.
Duchess Wang Qixing knew she had to act quickly. She rushed towards Li Xueyue's motionless body on the ground and began to hurriedly shake her awake. "Sweetheart, there's no time for this!" she hissed as she violently shook her daughter's body.
"Mm… Mother?" Li Xueyue mumbled in response as she slowly opened her eyes.
Li Xueyue touched her forehead. Her head was throbbing from a terrible ache. "Where… am I?" she whispered, confused, and in a daze.
"Hurry, jump out of the window!" Duchess Wang Qixing pointed to the window.
"Do as I say," Duchess Wang Qixing whispered as she forced Xueyue onto her feet. "You can ask questions later! For now, I need you to run as far as you can. Rush home on foot if you have to. No matter what, make sure no one sees you!"
Li Xueyue had so much she wanted to tell and ask, but she knew it was not the proper time for it. Immediately, she rushed to her feet but swayed. Her world was still blurry and she felt dizzy. Nonetheless, she trudged onwards and headed towards the window.
Duchess Wang Qixing watched in fear as her daughter climbed out of the window. Less than a second later, Li Xueyue was gone.
Now, it was only the Duchess, and the Empress's corpse left in the room. Duchess Wang Qixing approached the limp body, her nose crinkled at the scent. With shaky hands, she reached for the hydrangea hairpin. It had been so long since she had last seen the beautiful accessory.
Duchess Wang Qixing's thoughts were a jumbled mess, but she couldn't afford to blank out. She jumped when she pulled out the hairpin and more blood gushed out.
Duchess Wang Qixing couldn't fathom the sight of so much blood. However, she had more pressing issues at hand. She hastily wrapped a handkerchief over the hairpin that was still dripping with blood. Reluctantly, she slipped the hairpin into her pocket for safekeeping.
This hydrangea hairpin could frame the Li Family if the right people knew about their association with it.
"Here goes nothing…" she whispered to herself.
The next step of the plan had to be executed.
Duchess Wang Qixing breathed in deeply and squeezed her eyes shut, letting out the loudest scream she could fathom.
Without warning, the doors slammed open and poured into the Ministers.
Baron Han was the first to speak up, "Duchess, what seems to be the problem—" he trailed off. It was as if the rug was yanked from underneath him.
No one had expected the horrific events before them. Duchess Wang Qixing was on her knees, trembling and visibly shaken by the scene in front of her.
"T-the folded screens took forever to o-open, but when I finally got it to w-work..." she trailed off, unable to finish her conversation before breaking into tears. She sobbed and hid her face behind her hands.
Duke Li Shenyang was the first to react. He approached his wife and helped her to her feet. "It'll be alright, darling…" he soothed whilst offering comforting pats on her back.
"W-who could've done this?!" Baron Han exasperated. The lines on his face deepened at the disturbing sight before him. He couldn't look on any longer. Turning his face away from the lifeless body, he covered his nose at the smell of death.
"Duchess!" Baron Han loudly called out, pointing a finger in her direction. "You were the only one in here. Did you see anyone escaping out the window? Perhaps the killer is still in this palace."
Duke Li Shenyang's worried expression darkened. His usually mellow smile was twisted into a disapproving scowl. Tightening his arms around his wife, he threw a dissatisfied stare in the Baron's direction.
"You're asking my traumatized wife such daring questions at a time like this?" he seethed. "Do you truly lack that much manners, Baron Han?"
"I was simply asking the most important questions here. We have no time for whimpering women!" Baron Han exclaimed. "Your wife must've seen something, why else would she scream—"
"Women are fragile beings. If they see a dead body, of course, they would scream," Duke Li Shenyang interjected.
Baron Han opened his mouth to retort but stiffened. He broke out in a cold sweat at the threatening glare of the Prime Minister. Never had he felt such a terrifying aura from the calm man. In front of him was a vicious husband who'd go at any lengths to protect his wife.
Baron Han gulped. He knew this was a losing fight. The majority of the people here would support Duke Li Shenyang, especially when he was behaving as any husband would.
"I-I was only asking for the sake of the—"
"We don't have time for this," Marquis Ning spoke up. "People must be notified of this crime immediately! Whoever did this to her will pay for it with their head and a seven-generation family extermination."
"I agree," Duke Li Shenyang confidently said. "We need to get out of here as soon as possible. I'm sure the mayhem has died down by now. We must seek out the Emperor as quickly as we can."
Duke Li Shenyang had to act as if he wasn't a part of the bigger plan, even though Marquis Ning knew he was. If Marquis Ning knew what was for his own good, he'd keep his mouth shut.
Duke Li Shenyang knew the best way to pretend was by acting as if the Emperor was still alive. If everything was going according to plan, the entire Royal family should be dead by the rise of dawn.
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