Li Minghua contemptuously stared at the girl in front of her. She couldn't wipe the sneer off of her face. What did her family even see in this woman? Bai Xueyue looked exactly like her father.
Just the thought of that man made Li Minghua's blood boil. She hoped he had also died in the chaos that ensued in the Palace. She didn't expect to get out of the Palace so quickly but supposed it was a blessing in disguise. After all, the chaos created the perfect distraction for her to flee from the Second Prince's side.
"It seems you don't listen to commands very well," Li Minghua mocked. "How disappointing. Here I was thinking you're a trained dog eager to lap her tongue at every man—"
"I wonder what Wen Jinkai sees in you," Li Xueyue abruptly said.
Li Minghua began to falter. She rapidly blinked at the mention of him. Just his name was enough to create a pain in her chest. She rubbed the sore spot.
"You have no right to talk about him—"
"He didn't even recognize you," Li Xueyue declared, her lips curling into a slight smile. How amusing. Was this Minghua's weakness?
Initially, Li Xueyue wanted to be nice to Minghua, but there was no point anymore. Both of them had sunk their claws into each other.
"Even when Wen Jinkai insulted you and picked you up by the throat, he didn't recognize you. I guess he didn't love you that much if he couldn't distinguish it was you all along," Li Xueyue added on.
Li Xueyue watched in satisfaction as Li Minghua's confidence began to crumble. Hesitation and heartbreak flashed before her eyes. Just the mention of that man was enough for an unbearable ache to form in her chest.
Li Xueyue raised a brow. "It's funny that no one else knows of the Empress's status, yet you boldly declared she's dead."
Li Xueyue peered at Minghua.
Li Minghua was frozen with shock that such crucial information had slipped out.
Li Xueyue shook her head, almost like a disappointed parent disciplining her child. "I know the Empress had her last conversation with you before she died. I also know you had an accomplice. You tried to frame me for the murder but almost sabotaged your own family with that hairpin."
Li Minghua fumbled to say something. Her lips twitched. "Don't speak as if you know everything. You were at the scene of the crime. For all we know, it was you who did it."
"With what evidence?" Li Xueyue asked as she innocently tilted her head.
"You also have no evidence to accuse me of murdering the Empress," Li Minghua declared. "I'm not scared of you."
"Neither am I of you," Li Xueyue mused, despite her shaking fingers that she hid behind clenched fists. She hoped Li Minghua couldn't see past her bluff.
"Why don't we get along from now on?" Li Xueyue graciously said. "We share a common enemy."
Li Minghua's lips curled in disgust. "As if," she hissed before turning around and stomping off.
Li Xueyue's mask dropped just like that. Her pleasant expression curled into a scowl. What an unpleasant woman. She let out a sigh and twirled the hairpin between her fingers. It was beautiful. Too bad it was used as a weapon.
"I'm too nice," she scolded herself as she watched Minghua angrily storm down the hallway and turn a corner. "Or maybe I should do some charity work. What a pitiful woman. She grasps onto the last sanity she has."
Li Xueyue wondered how Minghua must've felt at this moment. She wondered why they had to be enemies. Why couldn't Minghua get along with her? She figured human nature was too complicated and that maybe, Minghua was dealing with problems of her own.
Li Xueyue examined the hairpin longer as she ran her hand over the simple, yet elegant design. Flipping it over, she was intrigued by the engraving of Li Minghua's name. It must've been a custom gift.
"Best to head back to my room," Li Xueyue said to herself. She bent down and picked up the lantern. Steadily, she began to head inside. She nodded in greeting to the guards who pushed the door open for her just as she left the lantern outside.
"Even after all of that, I'm still not tired," she angrily grumbled.
Li Xueyue decided a bedtime story might do the trick. She approached her bookshelf and pulled out a book. Her eyes landed on her bed, but her body craved the view from her window. Eventually, she gave in to her wishes and took a seat by the window.
Just like before, she was distracted by the scenery before her. For once, the moon actually looked decent. It was a sharp crescent whose beauty was enhanced by the starless night. Only the moon shone the brightest. Clouds danced upon the blank canvas, swaying against the wind.
Li Xueyue wondered if the moon looked the same in Hanjian. Was midnight in Hanjian as lovely as it was in Wuyi?
- - - - -
Royal Palace, Hanjian.
"Your Highness, what are you looking at?" a voice spoke up from behind a tall pillar that held up the golden ceiling.
Hu Dengxiao stepped out from the shadows and casually leaned against the pole. He quietly yawned and stretched a bit, like a cat who just woke up from a nap. He was sleepy from using his brain so much but his duty was to stay beside the Crown Prince of Hanjian.
Yu Zhen peered up at the sky. He was awestruck by the moon, but not its beauty. When Xueyue smiled, her eyes would crinkle like that of a half-moon. He wished to see that smile again.
"Zhenzhen," Hu Dengxiao whined upon seeing he was being ignored. He angrily pouted and crossed his arms like a neglected lover. "Stop standing there like a man from a painting and come inside."
"You sound like a concubine begging for my attention," Yu Zhen muttered with a slight frown. The idea of his strategist dressed in flowery gowns left a bad taste in his mouth and an unsettling image in his mind.
Hu Dengxiao shyly beckoned the Crown Prince like a maiden hiding behind a corner. "But Zhenzhen~"
Yu Zhen didn't bother to look at his strategist. "Go bother Lu Tianbi."
"She's asleep," Hu Dengxiao huffed. "If only you didn't keep me up so late discussing plans about Jiangsu's political situation, I would've snuck into her room."
"You should just court her already," Yu Zhen said. He finally tore his eyes away from the night sky to focus it on Hu Dengxiao. He scowled at what he saw.
"What is it?" Hu Dengxiao whined. "You always look disgusted to see me."
Yu Zhen suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. This man was so needy. He pitied Lu Tianbi. "Don't ignore my suggestion."
Hu Dengxiao pouted. He pressed his forefingers together and glanced to the ground. "Tiantian doesn't like me. I just know it. Ever since we got back, she's been talking to that stupid Chancellor's son."
Yu Zhen raised a brow at this. Hu Dengxiao was book smart but he was socially awkward. "You realize the Chancellor's son is her cousin right?"
"A-affairs are a thing…" Hu Dengxiao trailed off, unable to find another excuse. "I don't even know what to do at this point. I get so riled with anger when she's talking with someone else. The possessiveness is killing me, but I can't have her."
Yu Zhen knew what Hu Dengxiao was implying. The man was, after all, an orphan.
Lu Tianbi was the precious daughter of a prestigious aristocrat. Her future was set and she was bound to be wealthy for generations to come. Hu Dengxiao's legacy began with him. Lu Tianbi would be continuing a legacy.
"You two are stupid," Yu Zhen deadpanned. "You want each other so evidently, but both of you are cowards."
"Hey!" Hu Dengxiao pointed an accusing finger at him and said, "Your Highness, you have no right to call me that when you couldn't even man up to bring Xueyue with you to Hanjian."
"She's eighteen, what the hell was I supposed to do?" Yu Zhen scowled. "I'm five years older than her."
Hu Dengxiao rolled his eyes. "What are you? Some saint hailing from heaven? Zhenzhen, since when did you care about age?"
Hu Dengxiao crossed his arms. "I hear the marriageable age in Wuyi is alarmingly low. On average, girls as young as thirteen can get married. The second they bleed, they become an eligible bride."
Yu Zhen frowned. "You realize we're in Hanjian right?"
Hu Dengxiao threw him a pointed look. "Eighteen is a perfectly acceptable age here. It's unfair of you to not bring her here. There's such things as 'leftover women' in Wuyi."
"She wanted a test of time. So I gave it to her."
Hu Dengxiao frowned a bit. "If you let the fruit continue to ripe, it'll become rotten."
"I don't need you to advise my love life when you can't even confess your love for Lu Tianbi," Yu Zhen mused. He approached his strategist and gave him a pat on the shoulder.
"Go to sleep, we have another long day of politics ahead," Yu Zhen said.
Hu Dengxiao straightened up. "I still think you should get married to the Princess as soon as possible. She doesn't have a future in that country, but here," he said and gestured to the large palace. "She can become the concubine of a Crown Prince."
"Li Xueyue will not become a concubine," Yu Zhen responded in a hard voice.
Hu Dengxiao shivered at the dark tone. Goosebumps rose on his skin. Perhaps that was a touchy subject…
"Fine, Your Highness. I suppose she could have the honor of becoming your second wife or a consort, but—"
"I intend to make Li Xueyue my Empress."
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