When Li Xueyue entered the dining room, she was surprised to see Duke Li Shenyang and Wenmin were already home. Everyone was already seated at the table except for Chenyang and her.
"Did I take too long?" Li Xueyue nervously asked as she stepped into the room.
"No, I'm the last person," Li Chenyang commented from behind her.
Li Xueyue was startled by his unexpected arrival as she swiveled around to see him standing right beside the door she had just stepped into. When did he get here?
"Don't just stand there," Li Chenyang said. "Sit down, Xueyue."
Li Xueyue nodded as she joined everyone at the table. She felt her appetite shrivel and die. It was to her luck that Minghua sat directly across from her. Their eyes met and simultaneously, they averted their gaze and glared at the floor.
Duke Li Shenyang raised a brow. It seemed as if the house would be divided. He supposed it might be a good time to intervene in this problem. Perhaps waiting for them to deal with it would take too long.
"Minghua," he spoke up. "Something interesting has come to my attention. Would you like to know?"
Li Minghua glanced up from the steamed cauliflower she was playing with. She swallowed at the thought of what he would reveal to her. Did her father already find out the truth? He was a smart man. She didn't have a single doubt he would always get to the bottom of things. But she was slowly losing faith in him.
Li Minghua was directly under his nose the entire time in the Palace, yet he wasn't able to save her in time. Li Minghua had to save herself.
"What did you find out, Father?" Li Minghua responded. Her attention was no longer on the food. It was tasty, of course, and was much better than the bland food they served in the Palace, but she lacked the will to eat.
"Did you think you were replaced by Xueyue?" Duke Li Shenyang directly asked. He had no time to beat around the bush, especially with his family.
Duke Li Shenyang knew it was the truth when grievance flashed in her eyes. There was pain and heartbreak. Why was that? Did she feel betrayed by her own family?
Suddenly, her shoulders seemed so small and feeble. He realized she had lost so much weight over the past two years. Her cheeks were hollow and she no longer had a glimmer in her eyes.
His sheltered daughter had experienced the cruelty of this world—something he had done everything in his power to prevent. He never wanted her to look this unhappy. Her joy was his greatest wish. Why couldn't she understand that?
"Well, isn't that the truth?" Li Minghua said. "Mother was undoubtedly upset by the idea of my death. Thus, you needed someone to fill that void in her heart, so you brought in a cheap replacement."
Li Chenyang instantly slammed his chopsticks onto the table. It caught everyone's attention. "Take that back right now," he demanded in a harsh voice.
"Now, now," Duke Li Shenyang reassured. "There is no need to get so riled up by this discussion."
"Father, she insulted Xueyue yet again. If you let her get away with it, Minghua will always think it's okay to do it," Li Chenyang argued. "You and Mother spoiled her so much, she's still a brat even after all these years."
"You have the audacity to think that?" Li Minghua shot back. "Because Mother and Father placed you on a high pedestal, you always think you're better than everyone! You think my spoiled attitude looks bad? You should take a good look at yourself!"
"What did you just say?" Li Chenyang hissed. His blood boiled at her provocation.
What has gotten into Li Minghua? Li Chenyang was familiar with her tantrums and always forgave her for it. After all, she was a caged canary. He had pitied her more than he loved her. He sympathized with the lonely girl trapped in a large house. She had all the luxury in the world but did not have a single companion to enjoy it with.
Times had changed. They were all adults now. Her present behavior was inexcusable. It was time for Li Minghua to grow up and face the real world. Her current attitude would only expose her weaknesses.
"You heard me," Li Minghua demanded.
"Minghua," Duchess Wang Qixing chided with a gentle voice. She placed a hand over her daughter hoping to calm her down.
"Let's not raise our voices," Duchess Wang Qixing added on. "And you too, Chenyang. Don't attack your sister so quickly. Whilst Minghua is also in the wrong for insulting Xueyue, fighting fire with fire will only create a bigger blaze."
Li Chenyang narrowed his eyes. Of course, his mother would baby Minghua. She was the favorite child, after all. For every one hundred tantrums that Li Minghua threw, she would get scolded for one. But Chenyang only had to step out of line one time, and his mother already had the lecture ready.
"You're upsetting our son," Duke Li Shenyang mused. "You're taking a side, sweetheart."
"I wasn't," Duchess Wang Qixing defended. "I was merely stating a point. We're diverging from the actual topic at hand."
Duchess Wang Qixing's gaze flickered to Xueyue. "Have you ever felt like Minghua's replacement, dear child?"
Li Xueyue slowly shook her head. "No, never. I lived my life as Xueyue and no one else."
"Lies!" Li Minghua yelled. She shot out of her chair and pointed an angry finger at Xueyue who was taken aback by Minghua's outburst.
"You came into the picture shortly after I disappeared in Hechen. You tried to seduce my Jinkai and—"
"Wen Jinkai only liked me because he thought I resemble you!" Li Xueyue retorted. "Get that through your head, Li Minghua. I might've shown interest in him, but I didn't know about your relationship with him."
"He's in love with you now!"
"That's a lie," Li Xueyue said. "And you know it."
Li Minghua narrowed her pretty little eyes. "No, he loves no one but you. I've heard the stories. Many people have whispered about you and him. He risked his honor and reputation to defend you. I heard about what happened at the Spring Tournament. He opposed the Royal family all for you!"
Li Xueyue firmly shook her head in disagreement. "He acted on his own accord. He doesn't love me, he's only infatuated with my resemblance to you."
"Wen Jinkai has never defended me before," Li Minghua mocked. She held herself to the highest regard, but everyone heard the crack in her voice. She was hurt and broken.
"Not even in front of his friends or family. But for you, he did it so effortlessly. I know what he has done for you. I'm not stupid," Li Minghua whispered. "No request is too big in his eyes if he can obtain you."
Li Xueyue stood up. "Do you want to know why he did these things for me? Do you want to know what I have that you didn't?"
"Shut up, you overly confident—"
"I didn't realize it at first," Li Xueyue began. "Why exactly was the accomplished Commander of Wuyi risking everything for me? Why did he like me, out of every other woman that came his way? Why was he willing to do so much for me?"
Her eyes landed on Li Minghua. "There were always so many questions I had when it came to him. But do you want to know what I found out?"
"Shut the hell up—"
"Wen Jinkai went against the Fourth Prince for me, he insulted the Emperor for me, he went against the Empress for me. He betrayed his back to his family, all for me!" Li Xueyue seethed. "And do you want to know why the hell he did that?"
"Shut up, shut up, shut up—"
"All because he saw you within me!" Li Xueyue yelled. "Wen Jinkai did these things with YOU in mind. It was his way of paying you back for all that you've endured. Wen Jinkai did so much in hopes he could be with you through me."
"That's not true and—"
"Wen Jinkai did everything for me that he wanted to do for you. He went against his friends and family because it was what he should've done for you. It was what he wanted to do for so long but couldn't. All the mistakes which he made when he was with you, he wanted to fix them through me. And do you want to know why?"
"No, I don't want to hear this—"
"Even to this day, Wen Jinkai loves no one but you. In every girl that he meets, he searches for your qualities within them. And he treats them well because he sees you in them all. Don't you understand what this means?!"
Li Minghua refused to listen any longer. It felt like thousands of needles were being pricked into her chest. The pain was unbearable. The agony of the truth was too much for her to accept.
Li Minghua didn't want to believe the fact that all of her hatred and wrath were misplaced. She couldn't come to terms that Wen Jinkai still loved her. How could he? She didn't even love herself.
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