Li Xueyue tossed and turned on her bed, unable to sleep at all. The crickets chirped outside of her window as a mellow breeze drifted inside. Her curtains fluttered in the distance. There was a calm in the air that soothed her nerves.
Li Xueyue wondered if it was possible to be traumatized by nightmares so much that sleep was a terrifying thought.
"How irritating," she grumbled.
After the longest hour of lying in her bed, Li Xueyue jumped up and put on her shoes. She decided a midnight walk in the gardens should drain the energy from her system.
Li Xueyue opened her doors and wasn't surprised by the guards stationed outside. They were always there. Upon the sight of her in a nightgown, they straightened up.
"Good evening, Young Miss," one of the guards spoke up. "How may we help you?"
"I will be taking a walk in the gardens. I can't sleep," Li Xueyue said as she bent down to pick up one of the lanterns by her door.
The guards exchanged glances with each other. The house was highly secured but they weren't sure if Duke Li Shenyang allowed her to wander around so late.
"Don't worry, it won't be near the front entrance. I'll just take a stroll in Mother's garden," Li Xueyue told them.
"Would you like one of us to accompany you, Young Miss?"
"No, that's fine," Li Xueyue responded. She silently walked down the hallways that led directly to the Duchess's personal gardens.
She gently pushed the wooden fence open and approached the pavilion. She fondly remembered an encounter with Chenyang there. At that time, she was in tears, and he thought his bullying was the reason for it. She let out a quiet laugh at the idea.
Li Xueyue stiffened. She raised her lantern and saw a figure in the distance. It was thin and small, no doubt, the silhouette of a woman.
Li Xueyue recalled Chenyang's advice. She knew it was Li Minghua standing in the pavilion, probably struggling to sleep. Biting her bottom lip, she slowly took steps backward and began to retreat towards the gate.
"What are you running for? You're acting as if you've seen a ghost," Li Minghua said as she approached the edge of the pavilion.
Li Xueyue didn't respond. She slipped towards the wooden fence and pushed it open.
"You will be gone soon."
Li Xueyue paused. She turned her head and finally spared Li Minghua a glance. "What are you talking about?"
"You were just a replacement for me," Li Minghua said and chuckled. "Why else do you think they brought you into a life of luxury? All of the gifts that Mother and Father gave to you were what they wanted to give to me but I wasn't there to receive it."
So that was what this was all about. Li Xueyue's expression turned gentle. She couldn't find it in herself to hate someone like her. Li Minghua must've been too insecure with herself.
"I pity you," Li Xueyue said.
"What?" Li Minghua seethed. She stomped off the pavilion and approached the unflinching woman. "Repeat that."
"We don't have to do this, you know," Li Xueyue said as she swiveled around. "We can be normal sisters. I didn't have any intention of replacing you, and neither did your parents."
"Do you know how hard I worked in the Palace?" Li Minghua questioned. "I sacrificed my dignity and pride to keep my parents' secrets but they went to pick a crow off the streets to replace the swan."
Li Xueyue was so used to these types of insults. It didn't faze her. Not even one bit. Compared to the words of Viscount Bai Sheng, Li Minghua's taunts were child's play. At this point, there wasn't much that could hurt her. Her thick skin was a blessing and a curse.
"You're angered by your parents' actions," Li Xueyue pointed out. "I can understand where you're coming from."
"I don't need you to understand. I need the replacement to be gone from my life," Li Minghua deadpanned. "If you'd kindly scram to where you came from, I'd appreciate it."
Li Xueyue pressed her lips together. "If you feel that way, inform your parents." With that said, she turned her back and pushed the wooden fence open.
"Wen Jinkai also saw you as a replacement for me," Li Minghua added on.
Li Xueyue told herself she would never doubt Chenyang's words. He was right. She should've stayed far away from Minghua. Why did she even stop in the first place?
Li Minghua thought her words were sharper than a knife. She wished it would stab right through Xueyue and twist itself a nice, comfortable spot of doubt and fear. She smirked. This Xueyue was nothing but a small fry she could easily get rid of.
"It's pathetic that's how you view yourself," Li Xueyue spoke up without turning to face Minghua. "Do you truly think you're that easily replaced? Do you hate yourself that much?"
Li Minghua was stunned silent. Such a thought had never occurred to her. She loved herself. She loved how pretty she was, how dazzling her smile was. She loved the wealth and privilege she was born into.
Li Minghua swore she loved herself, but the more she thought of it, the less she believed it.
Li Xueyue didn't wait for the young woman to respond. She simply slipped out of the gardens and headed straight for her bedroom, but then she paused. She heard it, the tiny sounds of feet paddling down the hallway.
Letting out a reluctant sigh, she turned around. Sure enough, Li Minghua was heading her way.
Li Xueyue irritably settled the lantern onto the ground and folded her arms. When will this girl ever learn? Why can't Minghua just move on from this event? They could live in peace and quiet. It wasn't like the Duke and Duchess played favorites!
Li Xueyue was beginning to see the exact reason the Empress despised Minghua so much. That haughtiness, that persistence, it was irritating.
"What do you want—" she let out a gasp and stumbled backwards when Minghua lunged forward and swung her arms.
"Are you crazy?!" Li Xueyue hissed.
Li Minghua didn't respond. She swung her hand again, this time, aiming directly for Xueyue's face.
In the blink of an eye, Li Xueyue grabbed Minghua by the wrist.
"Let go of me!" Li Minghua demanded as she attempted to yank her hand back. "You're despicable, Li Xueyue. How dare you come into my house, my life, and my room? What gave you the right?! And to reprimand me, who do you think you are?"
Li Xueyue snatched the weapon out of Minghua's hand. She glanced down and noticed it was a lethally sharp hairpin. Horror dawned onto Xueyue when she realized something.
Li Minghua wasn't trying to kill her. She was trying to injure her face.
"You tried to ruin my face," Li Xueyue said. "You won't go unpunished for this."
"Oh yeah? Who's going to punish me?" Li Minghua hissed. "My brothers? My parents? Wen Jinkai? The dead Empress? Who exactly would have the audacity to lay a hand on me?"
Li Xueyue was left speechless. She truly had no one to turn too. This house wasn't her battlefield. It was Minghua's.
"You better get the hell out of here while I'm still nice, Bai Xueyue," Li Minghua hissed. "Leave or your crimes would be revealed before the High Court."
It was as if cold water was poured over Xueyue. She didn't even fathom the fact that Li Minghua knew about her previous identity.
"You don't know a single thing about me," Li Xueyue seethed.
Li Minghua's lips curled into a taunting smile. She took a threatening step closer. "Oh but I do, darling. You were sentenced to death by beating in Viscount Bai Sheng's house for the brutal murder of a caretaker."
Li Xueyue wanted to run, but couldn't. It was as if she was rooted to the ground. The confidence and upper hand she had over Minghua seemed like a mere delusion. This girl knew more than what she was letting on.
"And that's the least of your worries," Li Minghua chuckled. "Poor thing, you don't even know who your birth father is. An illegitimate child and a murderer. Who would marry you now?"
"I don't have the slightest inkling to what you're talking about," Li Xueyue gritted out.
Li Minghua let out a laugh devoid of warmth. There was a sense of mania in her eyes. It was as if she was out for blood. "Your little Prince might've silenced the Bai family, but I have evidence that can ruin you for good."
Li Xueyue was terrified at whatever game Li Minghua was playing. Her fingertips had gone cold from the fear.
"Now scurry along," Li Minghua said and motioned with her fingers as if she was shooing off a stray animal. "The sight of you disgust me."
Li Xueyue ground her teeth. She dug her fingers into her palms. If she left now, it would be Minghua's victory. If she headed back to her room, then Minghua would always have the upper hand. This wasn't a battle she could afford to lose.
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