"We'll have to wait until your father returns," Duchess Wang Qixing finally said. Her voice was a bit choked up with emotions but she continued on. "He'll inform us of the status of the remaining Royal family."
"The concubines can be set free," Li Chenyang said. "We only need to get rid of the heirs like the Princes or Princesses."
All the while, Li Wenmin sulked in his chair. It wasn't his place to speak up. He felt like a fool for taking so long to choose a side. There wasn't anything he could contribute to the conversation.
Li Xueyue was also lost in thought. She wanted to tell the Duchess about Li Minghua, but at this point, it felt like it was no use. It wasn't like Li Xueyue had physical evidence of Li Minghua's presence. Chenyang's reaction was enough to silence her.
Holding back a sigh, she could only stare out the window and try her best to listen to the discussion between Chenyang and Duchess Wang Qixing.
"Xueyue?" Duchess Wang Qixing said. "What are you thinking about?"
Li Xueyue shifted her attention from the night sky. "Uhm…" she trailed off, glancing at Chenyang who firmly shook his head. The action was small and was only noticed by her.
"I-it's just weird," she said. "Who was the one that killed the Empress? Why would someone knock me unconscious and put me in her bedroom? It was almost as if someone tried to frame me for her death."
Duchess Wang Qixing nodded in agreement. "Yes, it's peculiar and suspicious. This is what I found on the Empress's body." She reached into her sleeves and pulled out the bloodied handkerchief.
At the sight of blood, Li Wenmin finally straightened up. His eyes grew as large as the moon outside.
Li Chenyang sucked in a deep breath. "This hydrangea hairpin, didn't it belong to Minghua—"
"It's the murder weapon that finished off the Empress," Duchess Wang Qixing grimly said.
"Mother, do you recall that meeting you were supposed to be a part of? The one with Wen Jinkai in it?" Li Chenyang brought up. "Well, Father presented this hairpin to Wen Jinkai and informed him that the hairpin was initially in Hechen since Minghua brought it with her there… it should've disappeared in the fire."
Li Chenyang took a peek at Xueyue as regret filled him. No matter how much he wanted to believe her, he couldn't. "But then the hairpin was found in the Capital. To be specific, it was discovered in the Empress's bedroom. I think Wen Jinkai knows that as well."
"What?" Duchess Wang Qixing breathed out, shocked at the news. Didn't this mean the Empress was near the fire? Or her servants were? How else would the Empress acquire the hairpin?
"Wen Jinkai stormed out of Dad's private study after realizing what we were hinting. He took the hairpin and diary with him," Li Chenyang explained. "Do you think…" he trailed off, unable to utter his conclusion.
Everyone shared the same thought. If the hairpin was supposed to be in the hands of Wen Jinkai, but then it was found to be a murder weapon…
"Wen Jinkai killed the Empress?" Li Wenmin hesitatingly said.
"But that doesn't make sense," Li Xueyue said. "Wen Jinkai was the one who escorted me home. I heard of how close he was with the Empress. If he was the one who killed her, how could he look so sane today—"
"The idea of murder and death does not faze Wen Jinkai," Li Wenmin calmly said. "As a seasoned soldier, he wouldn't have even reacted to her death."
"No," Li Xueyue disagreed. "I know for a fact that Wen Jinkai didn't kill her. It wouldn't make sense. He should've at least been heartbroken. When he told me the Emperor died, it was almost as if he was testing me to see if I was the killer."
Duchess Wang Qixing pressed her lips together and she showed the hairpin to everyone. "There was someone trying to frame the entire Li Family. The engraving on the hairpin would've given our identity away."
Li Xueyue curiously peered at the engraving. 'To my Minghua, may your future bloom like that of hydrangeas.'
Li Xueyue glanced at the beautiful flowers clustered at the top of the hairpin. This hairpin was easily one of the most stunning accessories her eyes had ever laid on, but what caught her attention was the type of flower it was shaped after.
Hydrangeas… Li Xueyue didn't think this flower held so much significance until now. Each and every day, the Duchess always tended to her flowers. She paid the most attention to hydrangeas.
Now, Li Xueyue knew why.
"If Wen Jinkai is the killer," Li Chenyang began. "It'd mean he was trying to frame us by leaving this hairpin inside of the Empress. That way, when the Empress's dead body was found, the examiner could trace the hairpin back to us."
"Exactly," Duchess Wang Qixing bit out. "It seems this man is trying to bring us all down."
Li Xueyue knew it was either now or never. "Mother, there's something I should tell you."
Li Chenyang threw her a warning glare.
Li Xueyue pretended he didn't exist. She turned to face the Duchess and decided the most important detail shouldn't be left out. "Before I was knocked out outside the Empress's bedroom, I overheard a conversation she was having with someone inside."
Li Xueyue bit her bottom lip. She saw Chenyang clench his fingers into fists. He was furious that she was disobeying his wishes. But she had to say it. The Duchess herself said she never wanted to be kept in the dark. It wouldn't be fair to not share this information.
"The murderer definitely has an accomplice since I was grabbed from behind," Li Xueyue pointed out. "But the most crucial detail is the person that the Empress was last talking to before her death."
Li Chenyang ground his teeth and glowered at the ground. He was also angry at himself for wanting to keep his mother oblivious. He couldn't help it. The melancholy she experienced after Minghua's death was haunting. The Duchess had never been so depressed in her life.
Li Chenyang didn't want his mother to be hurt by the truth or this speculation. There could be hundreds of other girls named Minghua. Xueyue also didn't have solid evidence to back her claim that it was actually Li Minghua.
"The Empress was angrily arguing with someone in her bedroom," Li Xueyue said. "She uhm… called the other woman Minghua. And then she talked about some sort of fire and—"
"Are you implying my Minghua is alive?" Duchess Wang Qixing asked as her voice cracked towards the end. The thought of such a miracle was enough for her eyes to tear up. "M-My darling Minghua didn't perish in that fire?"
"We can't be too sure," Li Xueyue said. "But that's what I heard in the bedroom. When I tried to sneak a peek, it was too late, I was grabbed from the behind. It's just strange that Wen Jinkai would've killed the Empress."
"What do you mean?" Duchess Wang Qixing asked.
Li Xueyue bit her bottom lip. "Well, I told Wen Jinkai the same speculation—that Li Minghua might be alive. He was absolutely shocked by the news."
She rubbed her chin. "This only meant Wen Jinkai didn't come across the woman who was in the Empress's room. Since a woman was conversing with the Empress prior to her death, wouldn't Wen Jinkai have seen or heard something if he had also been near the Empress's corridors when I was there?"
She tilted her head. "If he did, and I was right that the woman in the Empress's room was Li Minghua, he wouldn't have been so surprised when I told him Minghua might be alive. At least, this means Wen Jinkai wasn't the one who knocked me out and then frame me for the Empress's murder."
Duchess Wang Qixing slowly nodded her head. "I can see where you're coming from, but this hairpin was given to Wen Jinkai. And then it was stabbed through the Empress. Who else would've held this hairpin in possession?"
Li Xueyue supposed her mother was right. She bit her bottom lip and sunk down in her chair, not sure of what to do.
Duchess Wang Qixing let out a sigh. "I suppose we can't come to a proper conclusion without Wen Jinkai's presence. For now, we need to be careful. There is someone against us who might have a motive to bring down the Li Family."
"We always have enemies," Li Chenyang said. "But none were bold enough to try to drag us down like this."
Duchess Wang Qixing nodded. "Yes, this one is more serious than the rest."
Suddenly, a loud knock resonated in the room.
"Come in," Duchess Wang Qixing said, only to realize she had locked the door from the inside.
"I'll get it," Li Wenmin said. He stood up and opened the door to reveal the family Eunuch.
Li Wenmin was puzzled when he saw the Eunuch's pale expression. It was almost as if he had seen a ghost.
"Young Master," the Eunuch addressed with a bow. He gulped and said, "The Master has returned home."
Duchess Wang Qixing perked up. "Let's go greet your father, shall we? He had a tiring day at work," she said as everyone got out of the chair.
"T-there is a woman with him," the Eunuch suddenly said.
"Who? A mistress?" Li Wenmin joked, only for him to get angry at the thought of his father with another woman.
"A guest?" Duchess Wang Qixing said. "Well, let's not keep them waiting then."
It didn't take long for the entire family to leave the private study.
Duchess Wang Qixing made sure the door was locked before she hurried and joined the rest of the family. Now that Duke Li Shenyang was finally home, they could get to the bottom of this problem.
- - - - -
"Mother," Li Wenmin spoke up. "Don't worry, if the woman that Dad brought home is a mistress, I will vehemently object to their marriage.���
Li Chenyang rolled his eyes. What a kiss-up. "You think at a crucial time like this, Dad would be bringing home a new concubine? Are you stupid?"
"You're the stupid one," Li Wenmin huffed.
"You boys argue too much," Duchess Wang Qixing sighed. "I suppose it keeps this household lively."
"Lively? It seems like they create the most ruckus in this household," Li Xueyue mused as she glanced at the bickering twins who were too engrossed in the argument to even realize what the ladies said.
Li Xueyue was relieved the twins were the ones who broke the tension or else the walk to the front of the house would've been filled with an awkward silence.
Li Xueyue wondered if she should've just kept her mouth shut about Minghua. No one seemed to believe her, but she couldn't blame them. If someone told her that a woman who was supposedly dead for two and a half years was suddenly found in the Palace, she wouldn't believe it either.
But it wasn't as if Xueyue would purposely lie to the Li Family… She held back a sigh.
The twins finally stopped arguing when they saw their father at the front of Li Manor. It wasn't the sight of their father that silenced them, but the presence of an unfamiliar woman wearing a veil over her face.
Li Xueyue knew who this servant was, and so did Li Wenmin. "Dad," she said. "That's the Second Prince's servant."
"Yeah," Li Wenmin agreed. "She was a rude little thing who didn't bow to me the last time I was near the guest palace. What the hell is she doing here?"
"Well, I see you haven't changed a bit in the past two years," the woman spoke up.
Li Wenmin's heart dropped all the way to his stomach. That voice…! He'd known it was her even if the sound was drowned inside of a crowd.
The servant slipped the veil off of her face, revealing her true identity.
There was no mistaking it.
Standing before the entire Li family, well and alive, was none other than Li Minghua.
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