Li Minghua didn't want to believe it but her father had never lied to her before. However, some things were simply too hard to accept.
The Second Prince was manipulative and loved to gaslight her, she knew that much, but like a butterfly caught in a spider's web, the more she struggled, the faster she died.
Duke Li Shenyang reached out and fondly patted the back of her head, surprising her.
"You've endured many hardships in the Imperial Palace. I was unable to save you in time, forgive me, dear girl," he said.
Li Minghua blinked back the tears, her vision grew blurry. Her father had never caressed her like this. He was always cold towards her. She didn't know what to say. Was this a coercion technique?
Duke Li Shenyang opened his mouth and spoke again. "Whether you choose to believe my words or not, you must understand one thing: I always have your best interest in mind. Every sane parent would want their child to succeed."
She dropped her head to hide her eyes.
He continued. "You might think your mother and I have been too protective, but that's because you were not yet ready to face the harsh world outside. We dote on you and want to protect you until the day you are strong enough to spread your wings, fly away from the nest, and explore the world."
Duke Li Shenyang's frowned a bit. "We never meant to keep you caged forever."
Tears pricked her eyes and she could no longer hold them back. They fell freely as she dropped her head, covered her face with her hands, and sobbed.
Duke Li Shenyang's expression softened. He had never seen his daughter cry. Comforting people was never his specialty, but for his precious daughter, he was willing to try.
- - - - -
"I hope you got more answers out of her," Li Chenyang said upon seeing his father approach the doors of his private study.
Li Chenyang had been waiting outside for a while now. He initially wanted to snoop around inside the private study, but it was locked. He also didn't want to bother his mother with this task because she'd ask too many questions.
"I comforted a crying child for the first time in my life," Duke Li Shenyang muttered. "Even when you three were kids, I've never lent a shoulder to any of you to cry on."
Li Chenyang curtly nodded. "Yes, I still remember the days I fell to the ground, scraped my knees, and cried my eyes out. Instead of comforting me, you reprimanded me and told me to stand on my own."
Duke Li Shenyang smiled at the memories of his parenting. What a handful his sons and daughter were…
"Your mother used to scold me until my ears almost fell off, declaring my style of parenting was horrid."
Li Chenyang's lips twitched. He distinctively recalled the moments his mother picked him up, soothed the pain, and then reprimanded the Duke. It was one of his best memories of his childhood.
"On a different note," Li Chenyang said. "Did you get the location of the incriminating scroll? I knew I shouldn't have trusted that brat the first time. She always enjoyed being a compulsive liar."
Duke Li Shenyang shot his son a warning glare. "You shouldn't insult your sister by calling her names, even if it's true at times. But yes, she has given me a new location."
"Siblings who are too sweet with each other are cringy," Li Chenyang retorted. He watched as his father raised a knowing brow.
"Your sister complex says otherwise," Duke Li Shenyang said in a humorous voice.
Li Chenyang chose to ignore his father's comment. Sister complex? Impossible.
Duke Li Shenyang slipped the key from his wrist and opened the door to his private study, allowing his son to enter.
Li Chenyang shook his head. "Not today. I don't have much to discuss, except the coronation, but the details are being handled by you, isn't it?"
"Yes, the preparations are almost complete. At the end of this week, by the first break of dawn, the Li Dynasty will begin."
"And just like that," Li Chenyang began. "We've put an end to the oppression faced by the Li family."
Duke Li Shenyang's expression sharpened. "Let us ensure there will never be a family who suffers the same fate as us."
Li Chenyang didn't respond, because he knew, the possibility of that happening would be unlikely. Someone else would become the sword and pen of this country, except, the burden won't fall on a single-family.
- - - - -
For the first time in a while, Li Chenyang struggled to sleep.
Have Xueyue's bad habits rubbed off on him? He let out a frustrated sigh and sat up from his bed. Struggling in his bedroom was futile. The only thing that he could do this late at night to drain his energy was taking an extensive walk in the gardens. Thus, he did exactly that.
"What are you doing out here in the dead of night, in nothing but your nightgown?" Li Chenyang demanded when he saw the distinctive figure of his younger sister.
On normal occasions, Li Xueyue would've resembled a ghost, with long hair cascading down her back, and a pale, white sleeping dress.
Li Xueyue was curled up by the pavilion. She leaned against the edge and peered up at the night sky. The moon was pale and beautiful. It reflected upon her skin instead of lighting up a path for wandering souls.
"I'm sorry Chen-ge, I never listen, do I?" Li Xueyue said.
Li Chenyang paused at her words. What was she talking about?
Li Chenyang closed the distance between them and angrily took off his night shawl and put it on her. The thick clothing was slung over her shoulders, but her attention remained in the sky.
What was her intention for sitting out here? Did she want to catch a cold so desperately? If so, he'd toss her into the pond a few meters away from here. In such thin clothing, did she plan to lure death?
"What are you even babbling about? Do you know how little clothing you're wearing? What if you get sick and never recover?" he nagged.
"You told me to stay away from Minghua, but I keep having encounters with her."
"Only because she keeps on showing up everywhere you go. By now, I'd think Minghua is an obsessive stalker. But Mother and Father said I shouldn't call her bad names, even if she deserves it," Li Chenyang bit out.
She let out a small peal of laughter that tickled his heart.
Just like that, his rage went away. Her shoulders shook when she laughed, but the joy never reached her eyes.
He wondered if she had a nightmare.
"Were you crying?" Li Chenyang asked. Even the moon was attracted to Li Xueyue who was bathed in the pale moonlight. He noticed there were streaks of dried tears clinging to her cheeks.
"What happened?" Li Chenyang questioned. He took a seat beside her curled up feet and leaned against the railings. What was so mesmerizing in the sky that she couldn't even spare him a glance?
"I had a nightmare… It's one of the worst ones."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Li Xueyue immediately shook her head. She was disgusted with herself for allowing it to happen. No matter how much time has passed, the grimy touch of Earl Qin would never leave her alone.
"Well, do you want to tell me about your latest encounter with Minghua? A servant had spotted you two by the pavilion, but noticed there was a visible distance between you two."
"Where was that servant when Minghua attempted to disfigure my face?"
WHAT?!" Li Chenyang exclaimed. He instantly got to his feet and grabbed her shoulders, forcing her to look at him. "What did she do?"
"It happened a while ago, but I kept it to myself because no one will take my side. Not even you."
Li Chenyang scowled at her words. Without warning, he flickered her on the forehead, earning a loud yelp of pain.
"How stupid are you?" Li Chenyang demanded. "Something as serious as that, and you only mention it to me now?"
Li Xueyue bit her bottom lips. "I think she did it in a fit of rage. She swiped a hairpin at my face but I snatched it out of her hand before it could touch me."
Li Chenyang's deeply scowled. He had tolerated enough of Minghua's devious antics.
"That's it," he deadpanned. "I'm going to have her punished. I don't care what Mother and Father say. She needs to learn the harsh way that her brute actions will always have consequences."
Li Xueyue grabbed onto his sleeves. "Don't do anything. I don't want this family to be even more torn. She has apologized, but I didn't accept it. Today, I reprimanded her words and actions. I provided insights of her wrongdoings."
"Stop being a pushover!" Li Chenyang scolded. "Do you truly think Minghua won't lay a hand on you again? As long as we continue to pardon her behavior, things will never change. She will continue to go after you and—"
"I will give her a final chance. If she truly does something to me again, I will drag her to hell and back. It won't be just one side of her body that gets burned."
Li Chenyang was baffled to pure silence. He had never heard such sinister words come out of her mouth. He didn't even think about the extent of the punishment when he mentioned it earlier. But she had. And it made him realize there was more than one monster living inside of this house.
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