Li Minghua didn't know what to say to Li Xueyue. There was so much that should be said, but she couldn't properly piece her jumbled thoughts into words. How could she?
Li Minghua was overwhelmed with emotions. She didn't want to accept the truth, but knew she had to. Truths are hard to swallow. That was why it weighed more than a simple lie.
"I'm sorry," Li Minghua finally said.
"I don't forgive you. Your words didn't hurt me, but your actions did."
Li Minghua was surprised. She thought the good-hearted Xueyue would yield. "That's fine. I didn't expect you to forgive me."
Li Xueyue nodded. "You should reflect on your behavior and actions. Feeling remorse is the first step."
"...I will," Li Minghua reluctantly said.
Li Xueyue closed the book and stood up. The tea had gone cold, and the snacks had hardened. It was no longer enjoyable reading in the pavilion. She supposed it was time to head back into her room. Besides, the wind was picking up and blowing rain into the pavilion.
It would be a waste if the book was damaged in the process. The book was also a gift from Yu Zhen, purchased on the day they went to the merchant fair.
"Where are you going?" Li Minghua asked in panic. "Aren't we going to talk more?"
"What is there to talk about?" Li Xueyue questioned. "Did you expect that this simple encounter to fix everything?"
"I was hoping it would," Li Minghua muttered.
Li Xueyue's expression softened into a wry smile. "This isn't how an apology works."
"Why can't we use this encounter as a way of restarting our relationship?" Li Minghua asked. "I'm sure Mother and Father would appreciate it if we didn't argue so much."
"I wanted to get along with you right from the start, but your behavior towards me has changed my mind," Li Xueyue said.
Li Xueyue tucked the book into the crook of her elbow and picked up the plate of snacks.
"So you're saying there is absolutely no way we can be friends? Or even acquaintances?" Li Minghua asked.
Li Minghua was hurt by this. What could make things better between them? There was no point in crying over spilled milk! What has happened has already happened.
What more did Li Xueyue want? Li Minghua had already apologized.
"I'm not a saint," Li Xueyue answered. "Just because you apologized, it doesn't automatically make everything sunshine and rainbows. Everything takes time."
Li Minghua thinned her lips together. It was a fair point. She couldn't argue with that.
"Then at the least, can we get along? As acquaintances I mean," Li Minghua said. "I won't purposely try to make you look bad."
"Your attempts have all failed anyways," Li Xueyue responded. "I suppose we could be acquaintances, but no more than that."
Li Xueyue was suspicious of Li Minghua's intentions, but so far, there wasn't a fault in her suggestion. Maybe deep down, Minghua was just a lost and scared little girl who didn't know what to believe anymore.
Li Xueyue wouldn't be surprised if Minghua's time in the Palace resulted in manipulation and gaslighting from outside influences. Whoever had been controlling her must've wiped her mind clean. Who was powerful enough to turn Minghua against her own family?
"If that is all," Li Xueyue said. "I will be leaving now."
Li Minghua stepped aside. "Go as you wish."
"Just so you know, I'm still suspicious of you," Li Xueyue said. "If your action speaks louder than words, then I will have faith that we can be more than acquaintances."
With that said, she left without turning back. Li Xueyue wouldn't benefit from this friendship in the first place. Once she was gone, there would be no more awkward atmosphere during mealtime. The family wouldn't have to be split in two.
- - - - -
When nightfall approached, Li Chenyang and Duke Li Shenyang were surprised to see the first person to greet them. Usually, it was either the Duchess or Xueyue standing by the front entrance. This time, it was Li Minghua.
Li Minghua stood inside of the manor, where she was sheltered by the rain, but could still see outside.
"Father, I have to confess something," Li Minghua said the minute her father entered the house.
"Hah, that's a surprise," Li Chenyang commented when his foot touched crossed over the threshold. He crossed his arms. "What do you want to say?"
Li Minghua shot him a dirty look. "Maybe if you weren't so rude, I wouldn't be so reluctant to tell you."
"Maybe if you weren't such a brat, I would adore you a lot more," Li Chenyang spat out.
"I can't change what I grew up with!" Li Minghua exasperated. "Xueyue said you missed me, but that must be an exaggeration."
"You don't know anything about me, Minghua," Li Chenyang seethed. "I regretted the fact that I couldn't protect you from harm's way. I regretted failing my duties as your older brother, but those feelings harbored guilt. I only missed you when I was remorseful of my actions."
"How cruel of you," Li Minghua stated. "I missed everyone here, even though I believed you found a replacement for me."
"For the last time, Li Xueyue is not your replacement! You two are worlds apart. If we truly wanted a substitute, we would've found another brat!"
"Chenyang," Duke Li Shenyang warned. "Both of you, enough."
Li Minghua glowered at her older brother. "You don't love me at all, do you?"
"You're my younger sister," Li Chenyang angrily said. "If I don't love you, who the hell am I supposed to love?"
"Then why don't you act like it?!" Li Minghua demanded. "I am your blood sister, am I not? Why are you so cold to me? Why are you—"
"Not everyone in this family wants to baby you. Just because I don't spoil you with my time and attention, it doesn't mean I don't care for you," Li Chenyang deadpanned. "Someone has to be the voice of reason in your life. Someone has to not spoil you. Someone has to toughen you up for the real world."
Li Minghua rapidly blinked. She glanced away in shock whilst hugging her stomach. Yet again, she was slapped by the cold-hard facts. Everyone was looking out for her, but she never realized it until everything was too late.
"Now if you'll excuse me," Li Chenyang seethed. "I'm tired from work."
Li Chenyang stomped past his younger sister, never once sparing her a second glance. What a damn brat she was. Yet, he loved that irritable woman. Siblings were supposed to look out for each other. Somehow, it felt like a one-sided behavior.
"Chen-ge, wait," Li Minghua said as she grabbed onto his sleeves.
Li Chenyang released a loud and exasperated sigh through his nose. Furiously, he turned around. "What do you want?" he demanded.
"I'm sorry," Li Minghua blurted out.
"I'll believe that when I see it," Li Chenyang said. He shook her hand off of him and walked off.
"Give him time, Minghua," Duke Li Shenyang stated. "Chenyang heals best when he's alone."
Li Minghua slowly nodded her head. She clasped her fingers together and stared towards the ground. She wanted to fix things, but it only seemed to worsen everything. A silence fell over them.
"What did you want to tell me, Minghua?" Duke Li Shenyang questioned her.
Duke Li Shenyang examined the falling rain and the droplets that gathered upon the rooftops. The horrid weather matched the stressful preparation that took place to secure the Li Family's reign on the throne.
"I-it's about the scroll that could incriminate Xueyue," Li Minghua started. "The truth is… the scroll used to be under my pillow, but then I moved it because I was scared someone might find it."
Duke Li Shenyang didn't appreciate that she had initially lied to him. "You shouldn't trick family like this. Especially your father."
Li Minghua hung her head in shame. "I'm sorry, Father. I was too scared of not having an advantage over Xueyue. What if she did something to hurt me and I wouldn't have the ability to retaliate? I'm scared."
Duke Li Shenyang was unable to view things from her perspective. When has Xueyue ever lashed out on someone unworthy? She hated confrontations unless it was necessary. Xueyue only revealed her weapons when someone else struck first.
"Darling, you should know Xueyue is not a backstabbing schemer. She doesn't enjoy creating unwanted conflicts. It's not in her nature to do so," Duke Li Shenyang said. "She will never hurt our family. Have faith in her."
"I just started to… a few hours ago when I spoke to her in the pavilion," Li Minghua mumbled. She was still unable to raise her head.
Duke Li Shenyang allowed her to drown in guilt. It would teach her a lesson. "Have you finally realized she's not as bad as the Second Prince made her seem to be?"
"Well, yes, but—" Li Minghua paused. "Wait, how did you know?"
"I had my suspicions, but you confirmed it," Duke Li Shenyang responded. "It will be difficult for you to accept the truth, but I will still say it: the Second Prince manipulated the truth in his favor."
"Oh but, darling, he would," Duke Li Shenyang said. "I've met many men like him. They pretend to be kind, but deep down, they're scum. They hide their sinister intentions behind an understanding smile."
"No, Father, Wang Jing wouldn't—"
"Isn't he the reason why you couldn't run to me for help? On the surface, it seemed he was protecting you from the Empress, but in reality, he was the danger all along."
Li Minghua shook her head. "No, please, Father, you have to hear me out. The Second Prince is my friend, my accomplice, my helper. He wouldn't do anything to hurt me—"
"Let me guess, he gave you the opportunity to kill the Empress didn't he?"
"How did you—"
"It's exactly as I predicted," Duke Li Shenyang responded. "He must've told you how much the Empress meant to him. That the Empress gave birth to him and protected him from the harsh reality of life. But the truth is, she was raising a monster all along."
"..." Li Minghua was stunned to utter silence.
"Think about it," Duke Li Shenyang said.
"If the Empress meant the world to the Second Prince, why would he help you kill her? Why would the Second Prince allow you to shatter the very thing his world was built upon? Why would the Second Prince, the son of the Empress give you the opportunity to kill his own mother?"
Li Minghua's knees gave out from underneath her. She sank to the floor in utter disbelief. Her world trembled and quaked. Was everything that she believed in… a lie all along? Was everything that he told her a lie?
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