"I'm tired of sitting," Li Xueyue said after a while.
"I can't even feel my bottom…" Li Minghua complained. She had taken enough dainty bites of the pastries. Eating in front of an audience was so aggravating. She felt like every movement she made was being heavily scrutinized.
Li Xueyue turned her head to their mother who was now distracted by something their father had said. "Mother," she quietly whispered.
Empress Wang Qixing paused. She turned to her daughter and gently smiled. "The banquet will be over very soon."
"Can I take a walk?" Li Xueyue asked. "Sitting for so long is making me uncomfortable."
Empress Wang Qixing slowly shook her head. "No, there are too many people present today. If you slip off, something might happen to you in this enormous palace."
Li Xueyue reluctantly nodded, even though she wanted to argue. "Then can I at least take a short stroll near the parameters of this palace? I won't wander too far. The furthest I will go will be the gazebos near the ponds over there."
Li Xueyue pointed to the near distance. There was a small bridge that led to the center of a man-made pond. The path was well lit, except for half of the gazebo.
"Please?" Li Xueyue asked. "You can see me from here. Besides, there are also guards near that place."
Empress Wang Qixing pressed her lips together. "Only if you promise not to be gone for so long."
Li Xueyue's eyes lit up. She happily nodded. "It'll only be a short stroll."
Her mother smiled and placed a tender hand upon her cheek. "Don't wander too far."
- - - - -
Li Xueyue managed to slip her way through the crowd with polite smiles and dry responses. A few people stopped her to engage in small talk, but she brushed them off to the best of her abilities.
Eventually, she was able to reach the small bridge. It was just as she had predicted, the other half of the gazebo was pretty dark. Not even the light from the nearby lanterns reached this far, nor did the moonlight peer through the openings.
"Finally," Li Xueyue sighed. She slipped into the darkness and sat down. "Far away from prying eyes."
From afar, Li Xueyue saw Minghua was now engaging their mother in a conversation. No doubt, Minghua also wanted to walk off.
"How tiring," she said whilst swinging her feet and rotating her shoulder in circles.
Li Xueyue stretched her neck from side to side and hoped to slip off a hairpin or two. If she took some out of her hair, no one would notice, right?
"Well, I'm alone, so it should be fine," Li Xueyue said as she began to take off a few of the smaller hairpins. No one would even notice they were missing, since the larger accessories in her head were the main focus.
"Not quite," a voice spoke up in the shadows.
Li Xueyue shot out of her seat. She stepped closer into the light in case she needed to run back. Her eyes inched towards the guards who were just a small cry away.
"Don't be so frightened, Princess Li," the voice said.
Li Xueyue recognized it and instantly wished she didn't. It was time to finally heed Chenyang's advice. She turned her back to him and stepped foot onto the small bridge leading back to land.
"I won't hurt you, Princess Li. I would never lay a hand on my only daughter."
Li Xueyue was forced to stop. Not because she wanted to, but because curiosity got the best of her. How did Duke Li Taojun find out she was his daughter? Who told him?
"I didn't believe my mentee at first. After all, what are the possibilities that my own daughter was so close, yet so far away?" he said.
"I don't know what you're blabbering about," Li Xueyue calmly responded. She turned around in time to see Duke Li Taojun had also stepped out of the shadows.
"Why didn't you want to see me, Little Princess?" Duke Li Taojun softly questioned. "I didn't mean to neglect you when the Bai family had treated you horribly. If only you hadn't pushed me away, I would've whisked you into a life of luxury."
Li Xueyue's eyes flashed with indignation. What the hell was he talking about? "I didn't even know of your existence when I lived with them."
She narrowed her eyes. "But you can continue living in that delusional world of yours."
"I never raped your mother," Duke Li Taojun said. "We had too much to drink. She was unhappy in her marriage with Viscount Bai Sheng because her firstborn was not a son. You have to understand—"
"What are your intentions for telling me this?" Li Xueyue demanded.
It was difficult to maintain her composure, especially when such an unexpected bomb was dropped on top of her. All of her life, she had lived as the unwanted offspring of a rapist, and now, he's telling her it was consensual?
Duke Li Taojun's gaze softened. "She was lonely. She was neglected by your father and was frustrated. Women rely on love to survive. I believe she drugged my drink. As a result, you were born."
Duke Li Taojun searched her face, wondering if she believed him. "I didn't want to touch her. I swear. She was a married woman, and I do not go for those types. But it happened. Nothing can be done to change the past. I believe she told Viscount Bai Sheng that it was rape to save herself, not knowing how much it would affect you."
Li Xueyue glowered at him. He was trying to save himself by sacrificing Viscountess Mu Yihua. Did Duke Li Taojun even know he was insulting the dead?
"Your birth mother must've fed you with so much lies to turn you against me," Duke Li Taojun said. "And if only my damn brother didn't tangle my sinful secrets against me, I would've come for you so much earlier. Even if I had to drag you out of that house I—"
"But you didn't," Li Xueyue softly said.
Duke Li Taojun didn't think three simple words could hurt so much. There was so much he wanted to know.
What was she thinking? How was she feeling? He studied her face and immediately regretted it. He got his answer in her eyes—so calm and aloof. She wasn't fazed by him. She would never be.
"Are you mad at me for picking you as a candidate? Is that what this is all about?" Duke Li Shenyang questioned in a louder voice. "I didn't mean to, little princess. If I had known much earlier that you were my daughter, I would've—"
"But what's done was done," Li Xueyue said. She didn't know why, but she felt nothing for him. Initially, she was surprised to see him, but now, she was numb. Not from pain. Not from acceptance. She simply… didn't care that he was her birth father.
Li Xueyue had given up on her birth father a long time ago. The first time she was beaten by Viscount Bai Sheng, the first time Viscountess Mu Yihua turned a blind eye, all hope was lost.
Li Xueyue didn't care about the sinful events that took place before her birth. She didn't care that the grown-ups had their own stories.
What mattered the most was that, no one came to her aid. Her birth mother had ignored the abuse. Viscountess Mu Yihua only pleaded for mercy when Xueyue's face would get damaged.
Her birth father was a coward. For not saving her and for caring about his reputation above her life, he had lost a spot in her heart.
Everyone was too late. Li Xueyue had already lost hope in her birth parents. What had they done for her? Nothing. So, what did she feel for them? Nothing. Except rage and disgust.
Li Xueyue abhorred Duke Li Taojun. She despised him with a fiery passion. Words couldn't describe the disgust she felt for Viscountess Mu Yihua. That woman tried to use Xueyue, even until her last dying breath.
"Xueyue, if only I could have a little bit more time with you," Duke Li Taojun said. "If only my own brother didn't threaten to ruin my reputation by using you against me!"
"What are you talking about?" Li Xueyue asked. His brother? Wasn't that Emperor Li Shenyang?
Duke Li Taojun instantly saw his opportunity. She was confused. Good. Those who were perplexed by something were easier to convince. All he had to do was spin the truth to his favor.
"The man that you currently call father, the tyrant on the throne, do you know he is the exact reason why I couldn't get to you in time?" Duke Li Taojun demanded.
His eyes flared. "Do you know he threatened to ruin everything I've built by using my darkest secrets against me? Why else do you think I despised him so much?"
Li Xueyue simply tilted her head.
"I despise your father, not because he took the title of 'Duke,' away from me, but because he was the sole reason I couldn't see you!" he lied.
"Li Shenyang knew about you all along. He knew I had an illegitimate daughter and that I had an affair with your mother. He threatened to ruin your birth mother and I whilst dragging you down with us all!"
Li Xueyue blinked. Oh. Was that it? She had expected a much better excuse than this. Emperor Li Shenyang knew of her existence?
Li Xueyue knew Chenyang hadn't told the Emperor about her birth father. Wouldn't that mean her father wouldn't have known the illegitimate daughter was Bai Xueyue? She would have to speak to him about this.
But right now, she was willing to defend the Emperor. After all, he was more of a father-figure than any of the men in her life.
Li Xueyue narrowed her eyes onto Duke Li Taojun. "So you're blaming the abuse on your younger brother. If he hadn't stopped you, then I wouldn't have been abused all my life?"
"I knew you'd inherit my intelligence. That is exactly what I was trying to say," Duke Li Shenyang argued. "I love you, my little Princess. I've always had, ever since I heard about you—"
Li Xueyue let out a small yawn. "You bore me."
Duke Li Taojun felt like he was struck by lightning. Why was she so nonchalant about this entire ordeal?! He had expected her to shed a tear, throw a tantrum, and curse Li Shenyang to hell and back, but she was eerily serene.
Li Xueyue revealed a slight smile. "Sure, my father had secrets against you, but you also had secrets against him. At the end of the day, you should've placed your only child first. Not your reputation or status. But you chose that over me, didn't you?"
"You're a coward. One who couldn't go against his younger brother, it's quite pitiful," Li Xueyue muttered.
"I stopped caring about my birth father a long time ago. Sure, there was a time I questioned who he was, but when he had failed me so many times before we even met, why should I waste my time worrying about him?"
Duke Li Taojun's heart was being torn to pieces by her cold words. They were jaded, much like her smiles.
"And besides," Li Xueyue chuckled. "What did you expect from telling me all of this? Did you think I would run into your arms and thank the Heavens for meeting you?"
"Well yes, but I—"
"I lived eighteen years without you, I can continue living without meeting you," Li Xueyue said.
Li Xueyue meant each and every word. In all honesty, the only thing she cared about was her curiosity. It would be nice to see her birth father at least once in her life. At least, the unresolved questions she had about her origin was answered. She wasn't the lowly daughter of a random man, after all.
The Li Family wasn't just for show. It was true. She had the blood of the Li coursing through her. And that was Li Xueyue's solace.
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