Li Chenyang knew his next destination. He headed straight to his father's private study. Knocking upon the door, he heard a faint "come in," before opening it.
"Dad," Li Chenyang greeted in a hard voice. Creases formed on his forehead upon seeing his father's exhausted facial features.
Duke Li Shenyang gestured for his son to take a seat in one of the couches. "I'm sure we have a lot to discuss," he said.
Li Chenyang's eyes lingered on the items on his father's cluttered desk. For a split second, Chenyang thought he saw letters. It was too late to take a second glance.
Duke Li Shenyang stood in front of his desk to face his son, conveniently blocking the latter's view of the contents on the desk.
"Father," Li Chenyang formally addressed. "We never got to finish our discussion last time about the Emperor's private funds. It's extremely secretive and no one should have access to it, not even the Prime Minister."
Duke Li Shenyang nodded. "You're right. I wouldn't have access to such things, but it was randomly discovered."
"What?" Li Chenyang said. "Where? Why would something as important as that be discovered in the open?"
Duke Li Shenyang sighed. "I was hoping you'd leave it at that, but I guess I'll have to be truthful."
"You guess?" Li Chenyang snorted. "Since when were you a fan of lying to me?"
"Since never, but I guess a few white lies never hurt anyone," Duke Li Shenyang said. He rested his arms on the desk behind him. He could really use some stress-relief teas at this moment… or the one brewed by his wife.
"This was actually secretly handed to me," Duke Li Shenyang said. "I was in my office in the Palace when I heard a knock outside. A guard opened the door, claiming a servant delivered a letter to me."
Li Chenyang was taken back by this. "A servant? How can anyone just have their hands on something as important as this?!"
��That's exactly what I was wondering. I thoroughly questioned the guard about that servant but he couldn't give a clear description of her. She came and left quickly like a ghost."
"None of the guards were able to identify her?" Li Chenyang asked. "But that's impossible. The palace guards keep a track of each and every palace servant. You could've lined everyone up and the guard should be able to identify the correct one."
"If the person who delivered this to me was also the same one who obtained it, it means that person was no ordinary servant," Duke Li Shenyang said.
Li Chenyang's lips dipped into a frown. "That means the information isn't credible. What if it was forged?"
"I thought the same thing when I opened it in my office, but then I saw it—the Emperor's signature on the document. The writing was exactly like the Emperor's as well, especially the strokes on specific characters. There's no mistaking it."
Li Chenyang chewed on his nails. He paced the private study. "That means someone else besides us knows of the Emperor's private funds. Who would deliver this to us?"
"I want to know the same thing," Duke Li Shenyang sighed. "Besides, it's getting late. You should head to bed. We'll discuss everything in the morning when the entire family is present."
"Dad…" Li Chenyang trailed off. "You still haven't told us how you found Minghua. Can you imagine our shock when we all saw her with you?"
"Quite frankly," Duke Li Shenyang began. "I was just as surprised as the rest of you. Minghua had came running up to me as if she was chased by a ghost."
"You'll have to tell me exactly what happened," Li Chenyang requested.
"I was out in the palace grounds, directing everyone to their rightful places. The palace hallways were a mess, the aftermath of the havoc that was wrecked. Servants were ordered to clean up whereas guards were instructed to search for surviving members of the royal family."
Duke Li Shenyang's chest felt heavy. He was slightly overcome with emotions at the miracle that was bestowed upon him.
"Everywhere I looked was grim and depressing. No one had the spirits to do anything, but they trudged onwards," he said.
Duke Li Shenyang raised his head towards the ceiling. He needed something to distract himself.
"Minghua was like a fairy descending from the heavens at a time of calamity. When every meter of the palace grounds was covered with somber melancholy, she had burst forward."
The corner of Duke Li Shenyang's lips curled downwards when he recalled the next memory. It was unpleasant and he nearly collapsed like his wife.
"Wide-eyed and frantic, she had rushed to me. The guards stepped forward. They thought she was just a crazy servant after the Prime Minister's life," Duke Li Shenyang mused.
He shifted his gaze towards the couch where Chenyang stood. "I took one glance at her and I knew it was Minghua. I didn't even have to see her face up close. Even from a distance, I knew it was her."
Duke Li Shenyang brought his chin back to a neutral level. His gaze shifted to Chenyang. "Minghua resembled your mother. Looking at her was like staring at your mother in her youth. I'm rarely choked up by emotions, but the second I saw her, I thought I was going to burst in tears."
"And did you?" Li Chenyang asked. "Did you cry?"
"In public? Surrounded by so many people?" Duke Li Shenyang scoffed. "Of course not. Do you really want me to lose face so quickly?"
"I figured you wouldn't," Li Chenyang muttered. "In the twenty-one years of my time on Earth, I've never seen you shed a single tear. Not even at Minghua's burial."
"In order to ensure our family doesn't crumble, I will never show weakness," Duke Li Shenyang said with determination. Tears were for the weak. He had no need for them. What could they provide for the family? It wasn��t like tears would keep the family wealthy.
"And what did Minghua tell you?" Li Chenyang asked. "Surely, she would have explained what happened to her?"
Duke Li Shenyang instantly nodded. "Yes, she explained everything to me on the carriage ride home. It was dreadful. I should've known that damn vixen was behind all of this."
"Vixen?" Li Chenyang repeated. "Do you mean the Empress? I have worser nicknames for her, but go on."
Duke Li Shenyang's lips twitched in amusement. Leave it to his son to say it with such a straight face.
"The Empress was behind the fire in our house. She had snuck from the Capital to Hechen just to confront Minghua. One thing escalated to the other and the Empress set the room on fire."
"That doesn't make sense," Li Chenyang said. "Our house was supposed to be Minghua's territory. How did the Empress win?"
"I don't know the exact details of that, but I'm sure there's more to what we were led to believe," Duke Li Shenyang muttered. He hated the idea that his own daughter would lie to him, but it wouldn't have been the first time.
Even though Duke Li Shenyang was filled with joy at the return of his daughter, there was still a sense of dread. He was grateful to have her back, and he was the happiest he had been in a long time.
Seeing how his mischievous daughter hadn't changed one bit, Duke Li Shenyang was hesitant of her presence. It felt like he was walking on eggshells in his own house, worrying over the exact moment he would wake up from this dream.
"Minghua was at the mercy of the Empress. She was severely burned from her shoulder to her arms. She had passed out from the fumes and smoke. By the time Minghua woke up, she was already kidnapped, hands and legs bound, in a carriage headed straight to the Palace."
Duke Li Shenyang's face became stormy. His blood boiled. "My own daughter was right under my nose in the Palace all this time, yet I didn't even know."
Li Chenyang slowly nodded. "I heard the Empress threatened Minghua in order to make her stay. She mentioned something about secrets dark enough to ruin our family. What was Minghua talking about?"
Duke Li Shenyang's fury was replaced with anxiety. There were simply too many secrets in the Li Family. He couldn't predict which ones the Empress knew about.
"Let's not talk about this anymore," Duke Li Shenyang said. "You should eat dinner in your room and then get ready for bed. Once you have energy tomorrow morning, we'll have a discussion with Minghua."
"Dad," Li Chenyang sternly said. "What is the secret?"
"You will know soon enough," Duke Li Shenyang pushed off of his desk. He placed a hand on his son's shoulder and pushed him towards the door. "Off you go."
"If I stay in my private study for too long and your mother is awake, she might lock me out of the bedroom again. The couches in here are so stiff on the shoulders."
Li Chenyang scowled at the blatant excuse. Reluctantly, he gave in to his father's wishes. "Fine, but you have to tell me about the secret eventually. Or else I won't know what's coming."
Duke Li Shenyang chuckled a bit. "Ever the worrywart aren't you?" he said whilst opening the door.
"I got it from Mother," Li Chenyang mumbled. "Well, I also got all of your bad traits. What can I say?"
"You can say they're all from your mother and not me," Duke Li Shenyang said as he let out a laugh. "You only inherited the best traits from me."
Li Chenyang raised a brow. "Doesn't seem like it."
"You rascal." Duke Li Shenyang slapped his son upside the head. "I can't believe I have to force you to go to bed again as if you're five years old."
"Yeah yeah," Li Chenyang said. "Fine. I'm going back to my room now. Good night."
Duke Li Shenyang gently smiled. "Good night, Son. Sleep well."
"I will," Li Chenyang muttered. He opened the door and closed it behind him.
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