Imperial Palace, Wuyi
Li Xueyue didn't realize how lonely the Palace would be until the first morning that they didn't have breakfast together.
The Emperor was too preoccupied with paperwork. Her mother was whisked away to fulfill her Empress duties. The twins were also sent off for their duties as soon as they had awoken, leaving both of the daughters to eat in their respective rooms.
What she missed was not a meal together, but time that they should've spent chatting around the table. Much has changed. And she wasn't ready for loneliness.
Li Xueyue didn't want to be holed up in her room, all alone. Thus, she toured the garden with a stomach filled with nerves.
Yet again, she had only eaten small bites here and there. It just didn't feel the same. She didn't know why.
"What could be so interesting about this ripped up garden?"
Li Xueyue swiveled around in a heartbeat. She was astonished to see Wen Jinkai standing a few feet away from her. When did he get here?
"Your mother seemed to have busied herself with redecorating the tens of gardens in the Palace.The flowers that used to grow here were all snipped off."
Li Xueyue bit her bottom lip. "If anyone of them held meaning to you or to the late Empress, you can always tell my mother. She's kind enough to compromise."
"I've already informed her this morning. The ones by the late Empress's residence will be preserved."
Li Xueyue was taken aback by this. For a split second there, she saw remorse and melancholy flash upon his suave features. It left as quickly as it came. Her heart was heavy with sympathy for him.
"I'm sorry that you lost everyone," Li Xueyue slowly said. She didn't want him to think this emotion of hers suggested something she didn't intend. Did he have to carry himself like an abandoned puppy?
His shoulders were still raised and taut, but it slightly slouched. The confidence that he carried himself with had dimmed. He was everything that he had always been, yet he was different.
"I don't need your pity."
"I wasn't going to offer any," Li Xueyue responded with a small smile. "But you can think as you wish," she added on.
Li Xueyue settled herself onto one of the wooden benches. She liked this part of the gardens, since it allowed her to be under the shade, but within sight of the flowers.
Li Xueyue wished she could see the final product of the renovated gardens. Without a doubt, her mother's flowers would fill this palace with more life.
Wen Jinkai approached her bench but didn't sit down. He leaned against it and folded his arms across his chest. "Do you feel like a replacement for Minghua?"
"No, but you definitely viewed me like that," Li Xueyue calmly said.
Li Xueyue used to be offended by his intentions, but now, she couldn't bring herself to even care.
All of that was in the past.
She had learned to accept it and move on. There was no point in dwelling on the unchangeable. She refused to waste her time worrying over these things.
"It was never my intention to do so," Wen Jinkai explained.
He cast her a side glance and held back a sigh. What a fool he had been to the women in his life. "You certainly reminded me of Minghua, and at times when I stood up for you, the thought of her crossed my mind, but I never wanted to replace her. There is no one in this world who can fill her spot."
"Except her," Li Xueyue stated. She tore her gaze from a butterfly that had landed upon a flower. "You should go and beg her for forgiveness. What are you doing here in the first place?"
Wen Jinkai pressed his lips together. "You're departing for Hanjian soon. In the end, that man won, didn't he? I wanted to see you one last time. To make amends."
"He didn't win anything. You were never a competitor in his eyes," Li Xueyue remarked.
Wen Jinkai chuckled at her bitter words. Even in the end, she was still ruthless and cold.
How had he not seen it sooner? He always thought her frigid words were because of the irritation she felt for him. Who knew it was actually a part of her behavior?
"Besides," Li Xueyue said. "There are no amends to make."
"I've said it before, but I'm sorry for hurting you that day. I didn't realize I was so rough, or the fact that I was even—"
"You need to stop being so possessive and manipulative," Li Xueyue interrupted. "That is not the proper way to treat a woman. Even if you are in the wrong, and your temper gets the best of you. Neither of these are excuses for your behaviour."
Wen Jinkai was irked by the snipes she took at him. He didn't come prepared to be lectured by her, like an older sister. It felt weird, especially because he was much older than her, by at least three or four years.
"I'm not trying to offend you. I just want us to end on good terms since we started that way," Li Xueyue added on.
She turned her chin to peer up at him and his stormy expression. His brows were drawn together in concentration and he was watching the gardens.
Wen Jinkai was unable to accept her advice at the moment, but it had gotten through him.
"Let's talk about something else," he asserted.
Li Xueyue shook her head in amusement. The least he could do was be subtle about changing the subject.
Wen Jinkai was the first to speak. "As you're well aware of, the Second Prince is alive and locked away in the Palace."
She raised a brow.
He continued, "I had a brief discussion with him. Who would've known the late Empress worried about her sick son so much that she created a passage in his bedroom that no one knew about, except the two of them?"
Li Xueyue tilted her head. She boredly played with the edges of her soft sleeves. "Why should that concern me? Dead or alive, it's not my problem."
Wen Jinkai steered his eyes towards her, staring her down. "Because he was an accomplice in his mother's murder. Minghua killed the Empress and he stood guard outside."
Li Xueyue slowly blinked. She was torn about what to say. If the Second Prince was standing guard… then it could only mean one thing. The person who had knocked her unconscious was Wang Jing.
"Why… are you telling me this?" Li Xueyue asked.
"I thought you should know what type of crazy son of a—" Wen Jinkai cleared his throat. "What type of maniac that man is. To murder his own mother in cold blood… I thought I was the only one capable of such atrocity."
Li Xueyue realized he must've had no one to talk to. The Commander of Wuyi, despite his accomplishment and fame, had no one left in this world. He was all alone.
"Why would Wang Jing kill his mother? It doesn't make sense," Li Xueyue questioned in a careful tone. She didn't want to trigger him.
"The Second Prince is a pitiful man. Ever since he was a child, he had a mother complex. There is no one he loved more than the Empress who tended to him, even when the doctors said his illness could be contagious."
Wen Jinkai's gaze softened. He, too, had found comfort within the Empress. She was a loving woman with a tainted heart.
He explained, "Wang Jing always took his mother's side. No matter what crime she committed, what sinister thought crossed her mind, Wang Jing always supported it. He needed nothing in this world except the love of the Empress."
Li Xueyue was unsure of where this conversation was going. But for his sake, she let him continue. He needed to get this off his chest.
"When your father and brother showed me Minghua's diary and hairpin… I lost it." Wen Jinkai dug his fingers into tight fists. The guilt ate him alive. His last encounter with his mother was the first and only time he turned his back to her. Now, she's gone from this world.
"Despite threatening to kill the Empress, she took my side. Despite strangling her, she still pleaded for me to stay by her side. In the Second Prince's twisted reality, he must've thought the Empress only loved me. Something inside of him must've snapped that night."
Li Xueyue's blood turned cold. The Second Prince had characteristics of a psychopath. Charming at first, but cunning and crazy.
"He must've thought 'if I can't have her love, no one else can.' As a result—" Wen Jinkai gritted his teeth. How had he not seen it sooner? He regretted his actions, but couldn't blame the Second Prince.
Wen Jinkai had also tried to kill the Empress. Both of them were crazy enough to bite the hand that fed them. The only problem? Wen Jinkai would live with this regret for the rest of his life. And the Second Prince? He got the last laugh. He didn't even feel remorse.
"I lied," Wen Jinkai said. "The Second Prince isn't locked away in a random part of the palace grounds. He's in the Cold Palace, losing his sanity. He was fed with a newly developed poison that attacks the vital organs. It'll be a slow, painful death."
Li Xueyue's spine went rigid at the horrible fate. "W-was it my family who—"
"It's best for you to not know which member of your family enforced the torture," Wen Jinkai said. "And do not think any more of this topic, except the fact that you will be safe."
Li Xueyue shook her head. "What do you mean?"
Wen Jinkai threw her a pointed look. "Don't you realize it, Xueyue? Exactly who was the puppet master? Who controlled Minghua? Who controlled Duke Li Taojun? Who was the hidden master in the palace? It was the one who possessed the most knowledge. He was the keeper of secrets."
Wen Jinkai frowned. "The man who wielded the most power wasn't your father, it was the Second Prince. He knew each and every secret of everyone in power."
"Then why would my family poison him? Why didn't they just kill him?" Li Xueyue asked.
"Because your family is sinister enough to let him die a painful death rather than a swift one," Wen Jinkai muttered. "Without a doubt, after my conversation with the Second Prince today… that man will lack the ability to spread such secrets."
Li Xueyue's lips trembled. "That's enough, I don't want to hear anymore."
Wen Jinkai wouldn't blame her. The entire Li Family had sheltered her from their cruelty.
It would be too difficult for her to accept everything all at once. He, too, couldn't accept anything. And that was exactly why he sought solace in ignorance was bliss. The less he knew, the less he'd feel.
"The reason why I haven't killed your family for what they did to mine," Wen Jinkai began. "Was because of Li Minghua."
"In the end," Li Xueyue said. "You still love her."
Wen Jinkai looked away. He had always loved Li Minghua. He should've known sooner that his heart was set on no one else but her.
Li Minghua was no longer the girl from two years ago. She was a woman now—one who had experienced the cruelty of reality.
Was he ready to embrace the change?
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