286 Lack of Protection
Li Xueyue heard nothing about an envoy or diplomat coming from Hanjian to Wuyi. She could safely assume Yu Zhen had truly given her more time. She was grateful of his response. It gave her more time to spend with the twins, even if it was only for a short while.
"The house used to be filled with so much screams and laughter," Li Xueyue wondered out loud.
Li Xueyue missed the days when the twins didn't have to work. Before they moved to the Capital, the twins were always at home to accompany her.
Whether it was swordfighting with Wenmin or reading books with Chenyang, everything they did with her, she enjoyed. There were also days dedicated to archery training, where all three of them would enjoy the sport with smiles and laughter.
"Those were the days…" she trailed off.
Li Xueyue let out a quiet sigh whilst taking a sip of her tea. It was raining today, and she should've stayed in her room. But the gentle rain fall was calming and she wanted to experience it in person.
Li Xueyue especially enjoyed it in the pavilion where the air was humid but soft and gentle. Rain trickled down from the round rooftop of the pavilion as flowers dropped from the weight of the collecting raindrops.
"Why did you avoid me?"
Li Xueyue frowned. Well, there goes her peaceful afternoon. She raised her head and shifted her attention from the book on her lap to the woman who stood by the pillars of the stone pavilion. Vines climbed around the large column that held up the dome.
"I was told to stay away from you," Li Xueyue responded as she flipped a page of her book. "I supposed I've been doing a sorry job at it."
Li Minghua wondered if Li Xueyue was putting up an act for everyone to see how diligent she was. Why else would the young woman read in the open pavilion? Wasn't Li Xueyue worried the book would get wet?
"You're awfully quiet today," Li Xueyue added on. She took a nibble of the rice cake and another sip of tea. The snack and tea were prepared by the Duchess which left her no choice but to finish it all.
Li Xueyue didn't realize how weird the tea tasted until it mixed with the rice cake in her mouth. The flavors clashed when consumed together. The tea was tangy and spicy, yet sweet at the same time. She wondered what was in it.
"I heard what you said about Father's materialistic love," Li Minghua began. She continued to stare at Li Xueyue whose nimble fingers turned a page once again. Everything that Li Xueyue did was simply too graceful.
Li Minghua found this behavior of hers to be bizarre. Wasn't Bai Xueyue abused in her household? Where did she learn etiquette like this from?
Li Minghua's gaze wandered to the flowers behind Li Xueyue. Had the Second Prince lied? Everything that Minghua knew about Xueyue came from the Second Prince.
Li Minghua felt a sense of fear and dread. He was an unpredictable man. It has been days.
Wang Jing should've been alerted of her absence on the day she ran off, yet he didn't contact her. Was he unable to? Or did he not care for her anymore? She shuddered at the thought of his silent rage.
The Second Prince was a possessive man, especially when it came to his friends. Once they were acquainted, he would do everything in his power to keep them close—even if they didn't want to be friends anymore.
"What are you looking at?" Li Xueyue calmly asked. She didn't feel the need to be terrified of Li Minghua. This girl lost every single argument she started. 'I hope she learned her lesson.'
"Why are you so nice to me?" Li Minghua demanded. "It's creepy and suspicious. I hear you're kind to everyone you know, even the servants. Do you think that makes you a saint?"
Li Xueyue raised a brow. She kept her eyes trained on the book. It was about the different herbs found in Hanjian. Some could be poisonous, others could be medicinal.
"In High Society, words are our weapons. The thicker our masks, the stronger we are. Not all of us can afford to wear our emotions on our sleeves," Li Xueyue responded.
"I learned that the hard way," she said and glanced up at Minghua. "You should too."
Li Minghua was stunned by her words. She had never thought of it that way. She was born in such an influential family that everything she said could be pardoned. There will always be people willing to protect her from harm.
Li Minghua could never curb her tongue. She always spoke whatever came to mind. She prided herself on the lack of filters. It was better to be truthful than blatantly lie.
"Truthfully, I don't understand you," Li Minghua said. "You have the protection of Mother and Father, as well as the twins. Why do you have to be so careful all the time?"
"I don't want to suffer the same fate as you," Li Xueyue simply said.
Li Minghua was immediately offended by her words. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"Your behavior and attitude earned the hatred of a powerful enemy—the Empress. As a result, you were burned and demoted to the ranks of a servant. Such a fate is heartbreaking, especially when you could've soared higher."
Li Minghua frowned. "You love to talk all high and mighty. It's hilarious, coming from someone who lived a life worse than that of a servant."
Li Xueyue shook her head. "It's exactly because I lived such a life that I'm grateful for all that I have today."
"Oh, you mean the life with the Bai family?"
Li Xueyue nodded. "My past shaped my future. Every mistake is a lesson."
She peered at her half-empty tea cup. She saw a clear reflection of herself. "I used to be exactly like you. I said everything that came to mind, especially if it was the truth, but look at what it had earned me. I was beaten severely even if I never told a lie."
Li Minghua was deeply touched by her words. They lived such polar opposite lives. One lived a life of luxury while the other lived a life full of hardships, yet Li Xueyue prevailed over her obstacles.
Li Minghua realized she had no excuses in life. Everything was handed to her but she didn't know how to use it to her advantage. She had so much but misused it.
Guilt threatened to consume her alive. It nibbled at her conscience. She averted her gaze and dropped her shoulders. Why exactly did she hate Li Xueyue again? Was it because she was told that Li Xueyue was her replacement?
Was it because Li Xueyue was dearly loved by the Li Family at a time that Li Minghua was paying for her mistakes?
Was it because the Li Family's attention was divided?
Was it because Wen Jinkai had fallen for her?
Was it because the pieces that seemed to be falling out of place were actually forming a full picture?
Li Minghua couldn't place a finger on the exact question, but deep down… she knew the answer.
"Mother made a lot of snacks," Li Xueyue finally said. She decided the prolonged silence between them was too stifling. It made it difficult for her to read the book.
"I can't finish it, why don't you join me?" Li Xueyue offered.
Li Minghua hugged the pillar with her body. There was too much remorse for her to sit down with Li Xueyue. 'I'm older than her, but why is she so much more mature than me? She could've continued tearing me down…'
Li Xueyue raised a brow. "This doesn't mean I forgive you for everything you've said and done to me. One day I'll get you back for it, or maybe I won't. It all depends on our relationship from here on out."
"I…" Li Minghua trailed off. "I only…"
Li Xueyue lifted her head from the book and took a small gulp of tea. What was so hard to say? She had never seen this timid side of Minghua. It reminded her of a child struggling to admit to their mistakes.
"It's just… uhm, the Second Prince…" Li Minghua stumbled over her words.
Li Xueyue raised a brow.
Li Minghua stared at the floor. "I-I'm still bitter about my family's lack of protection towards me. When I was slaving away in the Palace, I was angry that they found someone else. I was working so hard to keep them safe, but they continued to live a life of bliss."
"I don't think that's necessarily true," Li Xueyue murmured. "I heard Mother was depressed for days on end when you disappeared."
Li Xueyue nodded. "When mother wasn't crying, she was mindlessly staring out the window. Her body was physically there, but her soul and heart weren't."
"But why would she—"
"Your disappearance absolutely shattered her. Everyone copes differently. Father he held it all in so that it wouldn't make the family even more depressed."
Li Xueyue shifted her attention to Li Minghua. "The twins must've been hurt too. They reacted differently. Even Chenyang missed you. There were moments he'd abruptly hug me, begging for me to never leave his side. He was terrified of losing me because he had already lost a sister."
Li Xueyue's lips parted when she saw the rain trickling down Li Minghua's face. She nearly offered her to come inside again but paused. Those weren't droplets of rain. They were tears.