Duchess Wang Qixing was at a loss for words. Seeing her daughter who was presumably dead was simply too much for her to handle.
"Mother!" Li Xueyue gasped as Duchess Wang Qixing took a single glance at Li Minghua and fainted.
"Mother?" Li Minghua sneered. "What gives you the right to say such a thing?"
Li Xueyue ignored the brat in front of her. She supported the Duchess's weight with her body as servants rushed forward to offer assistance.
Li Wenmin was too dumbstruck by the sight of Minghua to realize his mother had collapsed. Nor did he hear the rude words that came out of Minghua's mouth.
Li Chenyang came to Xueyue's aid. He held up his mother so that she wouldn't slide to the floor and dirty herself. "Dad, a little help here."
Duke Li Shenyang didn't even need to be told that. He was already approaching his wife and in a fell swoop, scooped her off her feet. He knew the abrupt appearance of Minghua had shocked everyone but he had a problem to address.
"You boys take her to the drawing room. In the meantime, I'm going to take your mother to the bedroom so that she can get some rest," Duke Li Shenyang instructed.
"No need, I want a bath," Li Minghua said as she handed her veil to a dumbstruck servant.
No one could believe their eyes. Not even the servants who had worked here for as long as they could remember.
"Well?" Li Minghua said as she caught the eyes of a familiar face standing near her mother. "Ah Jingxia!" she called out, upon seeing it was the Head Maidservant. "You remember how I enjoy my baths right? Prepare it as usual."
Jingxia found it incredibly difficult to believe this woman was Li Minghua, but the tone and attitude employed were the same as back then. In an instant, she bowed. "Right away, Young Miss."
Li Minghua offered her a sweet smile. "Great," she said with a clap. "At least someone is still competent enough to address me instead of standing there like a fool."
Li Xueyue knew Minghua had a questionable attitude, but this behavior was simply… She was speechless. But then, Xueyue knew it was how Aristocrats typically behaved. The only thing that stuck out about Minghua was the way she awkwardly walked with her shoulders slightly hunched as if she lacked all of the confidence in the world.
As Li Minghua passed by Wenmin, she gave him a pat on the shoulder. "It's been a while, dear brother—" She didn't get to finish her sentence before he grabbed her and tightly embraced her.
Li Minghua's shocked expression softened. She gently tapped his back and returned the hug. "I've missed you," she whispered.
"Is it really you, Minghua?" Li Wenmin asked, his eyes moistening. He was choked up with emotions as his chest swelled in disbelief and pure relief. "I-I'm not dreaming right, Xiao Hua?"
Li Xueyue glanced at the floor, realizing that the nickname he called her was similar to Minghua. She felt like she was intruding into a special moment, even though Chenyang was also left out of it.
Li Minghua revealed her lopsided smile that he was ever so fond of. "You're a dimwit, as usual, Wenmin. Of course, it's me. Who else would it be?"
"But the fire…" Li Wenmin trailed off. "I-I thought you died in it. Why are you wearing a veil if your face was perfectly fine? Why didn't you try to reach out to me and—"
"You talk too much," Li Minghua lightly laughed. She touched her shoulder and yanked down her clothes to reveal the burn marks. Then she rolled up the sleeves that were on the same side to show the burn mark ran all the way to her elbows.
"At least my money-making face wasn't burned," Li Minghua said. "But one side of my body wasn't spared."
"And the veil? Why did you wear it?" Li Wenmin desperately asked. "You knew it was me in the guest palace. You could've grabbed me, or did anything to get my attention. I would've whisked you home."
He glanced at Chenyang. "Everyone was in the Capital for two years. Dad and Chenyang were in court. This entire time, you could've told us you were alive—"
"I kept my identity hidden to protect you," Li Minghua said. "If I had disappeared from the Second Prince's side, the Empress would've revealed the secrets she had against us."
"The Second Prince?" Li Wenmin fumed. "You are a Li. How dare the Wangs degrade you into a servant? Those damn bastards, I knew I should've joined the battle. If only—"
"You're getting too riled up," Li Minghua said. "I'm tired and dirty. I want a bath. Then, maybe if I'm in the mood, I'll speak to you."
Li Wenmin was hesitant to part with her. He was terrified that this was all a cruel nightmare. He thought she would disappear again. If he let go of her now, what if she never came back again? Just the idea of that was enough for his heart to shatter again.
Li Minghua knew what he was thinking. "Don't worry," she said and gently smiled. "It's not a dream. It's really me."
"C-come to the drawing room afterwards, okay? There's so much we have to discuss," Li Wenmin finally said. "Please?"
Li Minghua let out a sigh. She shoved his arms off of her and threw him a pointed look. "Why can't we talk tomorrow? I'm exhausted and hungry. Obviously, I'm not in the mood to talk."
Li Wenmin was used to this temper tantrum of hers. "Fine fine, we can address the problem tomorrow—"
"No," Li Chenyang butted in. He angrily grabbed Minghua by her shoulder. "You little brat," he gritted out. "You haven't changed one bit huh?"
"And you're still the mean older brother I wished I never had!" Li Minghua shrugged off his hand. "Don't touch me."
Li Chenyang was initially relieved to see her, but now that she was in front of him, he couldn't find it in himself to be appreciative of her presence. "Do you know how happy I was to see you? Like Wenmin, I was worried about you. I missed you with every fiber of my heart, but how can you still be such a brat?"
"You try serving the Royal family for two years!" she screamed. "You try to dine with the enemies, bow to them, smile for them. If you didn't walk in my shoes, then don't you dare judge me, you damn hypocrite."
Li Xueyue pressed a hand to her mouth to prevent a gasp from coming out.
"You think you're better than me, Chenyang. Frankly, you're not. You're the biggest brat of this entire family, but you hide it better than me. Yet, there will always be moments you throw the worst of tantrums. You're worse than me," Li Minghua seethed.
"Let's go Jingxia," Li Minghua said as she stomped into the house.
The Head Maidservant was severely disappointed to see the Young Miss hadn't changed. But what could she expect? Holding back a sigh, she bowed to the rest of the Li family children.
"Jingxia,�� Li Chenyang quietly said as Li Minghua's figure disappeared down the hallway.
"Yes, Young Master?" Jingxia responded.
Li Chenyang approved the maidservant who was in her mid-forties. Bending down, he whispered, "Make sure she doesn't wander into any other parts of the house. Keep this command a secret from my parents."
Jingxia was torn by the last part but nonetheless bowed her head. "I will try my best, Young Master."
Li Chenyang nodded. He glanced up and met Xueyue's questioning stare. He leaned near Jingxia's ears again. "Also, I don't care what it takes, but make sure Minghua never approaches Xueyue's bedroom or her wing of the house. Is that clear?"
"Understood, Young Master," Jingxia said with a bow.
"Good," Li Chenyang sighed. He straightened up and nodded down the hallway. "You can go now."
Jingxia didn't need to be told twice. She hurried off.
Even though Jinxia wanted to tend to the Duchess, she knew this matter was more important. She was there when the Duchess had given birth to Li Minghua. Jinxia was there to witness the struggles of the Duchess who rejected every wetnurse and nanny just to breastfeed and raise her daughter by herself.
Jingxia personally witnessed all of the family's struggles when it came to Li Minghua. Out of everyone here, she knew of the tantrums the haughty Young Miss loved to throw for attention. The Young Master was right. Li Minghua needed to be kept under a close watch, especially with how mischievous she was.
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