"I don't know what to say," Li Chenyang finally said after the longest silence possible. "I'm torn on what to believe."
Li Xueyue's heart sank just a little bit more. She nervously glanced away whilst holding back a sigh.
"You don't have to believe me on the spot. J-just think about it," she said and shifted her eyes towards the hallway that Duchess Wang Qixing and Li Wenmin went down in.
"We should join them before they think something happened to us," Li Xueyue said as she pointed to the hallway.
Li Xueyue didn't give him the opportunity to give her a reply. She swiveled around and approached the hallway without another glance backwards. All the while, she cursed herself for being so stupid with her approach. She should've gently told him the truth instead of dumping the information onto him all at once.
Li Xueyue bit her bottom lip. She wished she had someone to talk to. Staring out of the open hallway, she realized it was already nighttime. The moon was hauntingly beautiful in the most eerie way. She was suddenly reminded of Yu Zhen and his cruel, yet bittersweet smile.
Li Xueyue had never missed his warm embrace until tonight. A chill ran through the air as the wind picked up. She shivered and hugged her arms. She wondered if he was doing alright. Perhaps it would be better to write him a letter.
"What are you doing?" Li Chenyang asked when he reached her frozen form in the hallway. She was intensely staring up at the dimmed moon, almost as if lost in thought.
"Spacing out like a fool," Li Xueyue mused with a slight smile. She could feel the distance between them, even if he had placed a beckoning hand upon her upper back.
"Well, if you read more books, it might train your ability to focus," Li Chenyang joked.
Li Xueyue let out a small laugh, but nothing could rid the awkward tension in the air. She bit her bottom lip and began walking again. Eventually, their footsteps fell in silent sync.
It didn't take long for them to reach the Duke's private study where Li Wenmin was already inhaling the second plate of lotus seed pastries. He happily munched away, completely unaware of the strain in the room.
Duchess Wang Qixing shot out of the couch upon seeing Li Xueyue. "There you two are," she huffed. "I was beginning to think if two of my smartest children got lost in their own house."
Li Xueyue chuckled at her mother's jokes. "Chenyang got lost. I had to guide the poor thing," she teased.
"More like I was trying to lead her to this place and she thought the study was in the opposite direction," Li Chenyang said and chortled. He hoped their jokes would hide the uncomfortable atmosphere between them.
It worked on Li Wenmin who nodded his head in agreement. "See, I told you, Mom. These two are only book smart, nothing else. That's why I'm actually the smartest child. I'm street smart, which is actually useful."
Duchess Wang Qixing could only smile at her oldest son. As their mother, she was easily able to read her children. Especially when they were upset with each other.
"Anyway, just sit down and try to swoop the last piece of pastry before Wenmin steals it from us." Duchess Wang Qixing chuckled as she gestured to the unoccupied couches.
"Hey, don't invite them to steal my food!" Li Wenmin huffed just as Xueyue reached over his shoulders and plucked up the small pastry. "Xiao Yue—mmph!" His eyes widened when she shoved the pastry into his mouth.
"You're so stingy, Little Piglet," Li Xueyue chuckled.
"Hmph, good to know you won't be stealing my food—hey! Who are you calling a Little Piglet?" Li Wenmin scowled as he pointed an accusing finger in her direction. "If I'm the Little Piglet, then you must be the Big Piglet."
Li Chenyang quirked a brow. "At least you're admitting you're a piglet," he said.
Li Wenmin gasped at the audacity of his younger brother. He placed a hand on his chest, almost as if he was offended by Chenyang's words. "You're lucky Mother is here or else I would've beaten you up."
"Only idiots fight with their fists. Gentlemen fight with their words," Li Chenyang said.
"That's just an excuse made up by weaklings like you who's scared of violence," Li Wenmin retorted as he stuck out his tongue.
Li Chenyang cringed at the unsettling sight of the chewed up lotus seed. "Gosh, no wonder why you'll be single for the rest of your life. You lack manners."
"At least I still have girls who are attracted to me, whereas you'll be single for the rest of your life," Li Wenmin said. He picked up the final piece of pastry off the plate and popped it into his mouth, happily chewing away.
He picked up the plate and showed it to his mother. "More please."
Duchess Wang Qixing rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Too much sugar before bedtime will give you nightmares."
Li Xueyue straightened up at the mention of nightmares. Was that old-wives tale actually true? She decided it would be in her best interest to cut down on sweets. But then her mouth watered at the thought of a good snack. She slumped into her chair, pouting at the idea of decreasing her intake of pastries.
Duchess Wang Qixing noticed the obvious distance between Xueyue and Chenyang. The two usually sat together. She tried to not pay too much attention to this issue. It would be addressed later. At least they were being civilized about it
"Well, speaking of nightmares," Duchess Wang Qixing began. "Today was pretty much a nightmare come true. The plan was advanced, but it was messy and chaotic. We should've just waited for when the Emperor traveled to the vacation palace."
"Yeah," Li Wenmin agreed. "I was in the fields getting ready to train the soldiers when one of our servants rushed to deliver the message. Next thing I knew, I was forced to head home."
"I was put in a rough predicament as well." Li Chenyang sighed. "I was in the palace court this morning, minding my own business when dad rushed into my office and demanded for me to go home. I didn't understand the issue until I saw rebel soldiers in the far distance."
"The best plan in mind is to pretend the attack was done by rebels," Duchess Wang Qixing said. "Any ally soldier that was caught for torture will be snuck out one way or the other. We can't have anyone snitching on us."
Li Chenyang pondered over the idea. "Where is Dad right now? You mentioned he was sorting the problems at court."
"Baron Han was suspicious of us. I've managed to throw the Ministers off our trail with my amazing acting, but nothing is finalized yet. Your father is at the Palace Courts tying any loose ends together," Duchess Wang Qixing said.
Duchess Wang Qixing tilted her head as she began to anxiously chew on her nails. "The Empress is dead."
"So is the Emperor," Li Xueyue added on.
"What?!" Li Chenyang hissed. He turned to his mother and then Xueyue. "How do either of you know—"
"I saw the Empress dead with my own two eyes," Li Xueyue said. "As for the Emperor, I was informed of this news by Wen Jinkai. I feel like he was testing my reaction to the information, but I kept my face neutral. I don't think he saw through me."
Duchess Wang Qixing knew this would happen. Even so, she couldn't help but tear up. She was emotional at the news of her beloved brother's death.
If only the Emperor didn't walk down the wrong path. If only he didn't marry the Empress. If only he listened to her advice decades ago. If only he cared about what Duchess Wang Qixing loved the most—her children.
There were so many "ifs" in this situation, but all of which were too late now.
The Emperor was dead. The stern older brother who locked her within the Palace had died within the walls he confined his beloved people in. She would never forget his smile and his scowl. At times, they resembled each other until they became nothing but the same image.
Li Xueyue gently patted her mother's back as Duchess Wang Qixing dropped her head. Silently, they allowed her to mourn over her loss.
Not a single sound could be heard in the private study. Respectfully, they gave the Emperor and Empress a moment of silence, even if the twins and Xueyue were reluctant to do so. Their eyes met with each other before it shifted to the weeping Duchess.
No matter what happened from here on out, they were family. All of them were in this together. And if one went down, so would the other. Tomorrow morning, when the sun rose in the east, and the birds soared through the sky, a new page in history would begin. Its title would be the start of the Li Dynasty.