Wang Jing anxiously rubbed his fingers together. "I was only curious about who could have such a good eye."
Li Chenyang narrowed his eyes. He sneered, "I know what you're insinuating and I would advise you to shut your trap."
Li Xueyue only thought Wang Jing was hinting about a suitor, but she felt like there was a hidden meaning behind both of these men's words. They spoke as if she wasn't there.
'I might as well have stayed home,' she thought to herself.
"Yueyue," Li Chenyang began. "The gardens are lovely at this time of the year. Take a walk. Bring your servants and guards."
Li Xueyue blinked in surprise. She thought the purpose of having him accompany her was so that she didn't run into certain people.
Li Chenyang leaned close and whispered, "The irritating people are occupied as of right now. You will be safe."
Nonetheless, Li Xueyue didn't feel secure. Her gaze wandered towards the Second Prince whose nervous eyes met hers. He pleasantly smiled, tilting his head.
Li Xueyue felt uneasy around him. He held all of the palace secrets. What a scary man she had encountered.
"Very well then," Li Xueyue muttered, standing up.
"Actually, take all of the guards with you. I want no one to see you except for the reflection of the pond." Li Chenyang gestured for the servants and guards to accompany her.
Li Xueyue felt like she was intentionally excluded from this conversation. Something was amiss but she couldn't pinpoint it.
Li Chenyang watched as she got up and walked out of the door, heavily surrounded on all sides. No one would even know it's her. Once she was gone, his aura turned chilly. There was no need to feign amicability.
Li Chenyang wanted her to leave, so the conversation couldn't hurt her.
"You were implying my mother had replaced Li Minghua," Li Chenyang pointed out. "Li Minghua's signature flower was always hydrangeas. Did you truly think that sort of comment would slip past me?"
Wang Jing held up his hands in defense. His palms felt sweaty and he rubbed it against his thighs. Whenever he spoke to any of the ministers, they never seemed welcoming of him. He assumed it was because he was of no use to any of them.
Wang Jing glanced at the table, wishing the tea would come by now. What had taken her so long? He wondered if she was caught up by something.
The tea today would be chamomile and it would help calm his nerves and relive his tense shoulders.
Biting his bottom lip, Wang Jing finally nodded his head. "I just think the coincidence is too much to not notice."
Li Chenyang truthfully didn't know who gave Li Xueyue the hairpin. He did, however, recall the day that he allowed Yu Zhen to take her out to the market stalls. Perhaps it was a gift from Yu Zhen.
Li Chenyang did notice the similarity of Li Minghua's hydrangea hairpin and the one that Li Xueyue had worn today. "I don't know how many times I have to tell you, but Duchess Wang Qixing would never replace any of her children."
Wang Jing cringed. "It just seems that way and—"
"Why do you even care in the first place?" Li Chenyang suddenly said, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. "Besides, how would you know Li Minghua wore a hydrangea hairpin?"
Wang Jing's heart pummeled. He had spoken too quickly. "I was always close to Wen Jinkai. Of course, I'd be acquainted with his lover at the time."
Li Chenyang raised a brow. "The protective Empress would let her most despicable niece-in-law near one of her favorite sons? I find that hard to believe."
"My mother didn't know I was acquainted with her."
Li Chenyang was beginning to realize the Second Prince was more than a listening ear for the Royal Family. Exactly how much did the Second Prince know?
"What is the purpose for requesting to see me today?" Li Chenyang finally asked. He had better things to do than entertain royalty. There was a stack of paperwork awaiting him.
"Are you busy?" Wang Jing asked. "I'm sorry, I only wanted to chat and—"
"I work for your father. Every minister is busy because the work is passed around," Li Chenyang gritted out.
Wang Jing instantly nodded his head. "Yes, I heard Father has not been attending to his duties recently."
"Recently, huh?" Li Chenyang mused. He shook his head and stood up. "Well, it was a pleasure seeing you today, Second Prince."
Wang Jing instantly panicked. "No, don't leave!" He rushed out, grabbing his cousin's hand. 'Li Chenyang can't leave yet, absolutely not!' he thought. His cousin hadn't met the intended woman.
"Please stay a little while, my servant will be back with the tea and snacks too. I can't possibly finish them all."
Li Chenyang glanced down at the Second Prince's hands. In one fell swoop, he shoved him off. "Do you want to know what amuses me?"
"Yes, please tell!" Wang Jing said, eager to do anything to get Li Chenyang to stay. It had been so long since a guest that wasn't the Empress, Wen Jinkai, or Duke Li Shenyang came to this part of the palace.
"I remember you used to be so sickly." Li Chenyang slyly smiled. "It's so good to see you're well and healthy."
Wang Jing felt as if cold water was poured over him. He retracted his hand, almost as if he was burned by it.
Li Chenyang's smile widened, his eyes as friendly as a predator. "I pray your recovery will continue to be smooth from here on out."
Li Chenyang didn't wait for the Second Prince to respond. He simply headed out the door in search of his younger sister. Knowing her horrible luck, he predicted she had gotten herself in some sort of trouble.
There was a reason he was so eager to leave. And it wasn't because of Wang Jing's irritable nature.
- - - - -
Li Xueyue let out a sigh. If she had to take another leisure stroll by the gardens, she would just fling herself off the bridge. Peering over the bridge railings and staring down at the large lotus pads, she couldn't help but scowl. What's the point of coming to the Palace today?
"Gardens are boring," she mumbled. "Especially after walking through it a hundred times or so."
Li Xueyue only liked the gardens at home—the ones tended to by Duchess Wang Qixing. The flowers there actually seemed alive and happy, unlike the ones in the Palace that bloomed for no one to see. The fate of Palace flowers was wilting and dying after their prime years.
Li Xueyue pushed off the bridge's railings. She decided to head in the direction of the Second Prince's palace. Enough time had passed and their conversation would've come to an end by now.
Humming to herself, Li Xueyue was glad to see she hadn't gotten lost again. The Palace could be confusing. It was too complex for her. It was easy to grasp the layout of the Li Manor, but this Palace was at least five times the size of their house.
"Careful!" one of her guards said when one of the maidservants nearly collided into him. Except, he realized, it wasn't a Li servant.
Li Xueyue turned and saw it was the same veiled servant from last time. The servant was carrying a tray with a tea pot and a small plate of snacks on top, almost as if the servant was serving one person and not three.
"Oh, you're the Second Prince's servant," Li Xueyue said.
The servant paused. Her eyes met with Li Xueyue.
Li Xueyue blinked. For a second there, she thought this woman had glared at her. Perhaps it was her imagination. Besides, this servant's face was covered by a veil.
"Why are you wearing a veil?" Li Xueyue curiously asked. She approached the servant.
Li Xueyue found it interesting that this woman had not bowed to her. Servants always bowed.
Li Xueyue recalled something that Li Wenmin had said. It was hard to believe there was a palace servant who wasn't scolded. This one should've been thoroughly disciplined if she was this bold to raise her chin that high towards a third-rank Princess.
"Where are your manners?" the same Li guard from earlier spoke up.
The woman stiffened. She turned to face the guard, her eyes filled with irritation. "I serve the Second Prince. I do not bow to anyone but him—" she didn't get to finish her sentence when a servant snatched the tray from her and another guard forced her to kneel.
Li Xueyue gasped. "No, that's enough."
Li Xueyuedidn't realize that her disappearance that night had made her servants more protective of her.
The woman ground her teeth. "How dare you, this crime will not go unpunished by the Second Prince! Is it fun to bully a servant?!"
Li Xueyue was taken back by the audacity of this woman. She blinked, wondering if her ears were playing tricks on her.
"You look familiar, Princess," the woman said. "I've seen you before, haven't I? Your eyes are very distinctive and beautiful, it's hard to not notice."
"How bold," Li Xueyue murmured.
The woman cringed back. "I was just—"
Li Xueyue didn't want to be caught with false rumors that she was bullying a servant. "Get up."
The Li guard took a step back, allowing the woman to stand.
Li Xueyue softly shook her head. "Your actions today won't go unpunished."
"And what gives you the right to hurt me?" the woman snapped, "You who took—" she paused.
The woman abruptly bowed her head and apologized, "I was wrong."
Li Xueyue narrowed her eyes. Why did the servant seem so terrified all of the sudden? It's not like a ghost was standing behind her. And if only she knew there was indeed a malicious presence not far off from where she stood.
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