"We misheard," Yu Zhen informed Xiao Lizi. He approached his horse and reached for the reins but she snorted in protest.
"What is it?" Yu Zhen demanded in an impatient tone. He needed to find Xueyue as soon as possible. Even a minute in this rain was dangerous for her.
Xiao Lizi cocked her head and approached the small cave a bit. Lowering her head, she began to nudge her face towards the entrance.
"No, we can't take shelter," Yu Zhen responded. With his gloved hands, he grabbed her reins and began to guide her away, but then he heard something. There was the slightest clink of metal, similar to the sound made by the pedals of a saddle.
Yu Zhen felt like something was off. He was hesitant at first, but then decided to explore the small cave a bit more. The opening might be small, but he had ventured inside before.
Holding onto the reins of his horse, he began to guide Xiao Lizi towards the entrance. Together, they climbed over the small step that led into the dark abyss.
Yu Zhen rapidly blinked his eyes, hoping to adjust it to the darkness which didn't take long to do so. He squinted his eyes. Suddenly, he smelled something. The scent of burnt wood and soot. Someone had set up camp inside of this cave.
"Xueyue?" Yu Zhen called out when he saw a lump like that of a body in a close distance. Without wasting time, he instantly ran forward. His footsteps were loud and it thudded against the wet stone.
"Sunshine?" he muttered upon touching an ice-cold skin. He couldn't see the features of the person clearly.
When something shifted beside him, he drew his sword. Who the hell was in the cave with her?
He was surprised upon hearing a faint neigh. The animal sniffed the ground, turning his head in search of the noise.
"Heiyue?" Yu Zhen addressed whilst slowly lowering his sword. The horse in question snorted in recognition.
Yu Zhen reached a hand out until he felt the familiar wet sensation of a horse's muzzle. The horse neighed at the foreign touch, shaking his head away from the contact.
Yu Zhen appreciated that the horse was lying near Xueyue. At least she was a bit warmer. He reached out to grab her shoulders but with his quick reflexes, he yanked his hand back when Heiyue chomped the air—almost as if he was guarding her.
"Don't be stupid," Yu Zhen growled.
Yu Zhen leaned forward and scooped Xueyue into his arms. He was alarmed to discover she was much, much lighter than the last time she had placed her weight upon him.
Li Xueyue wasn't moving. Her body was as limp as a corpse.
Yu Zhen had never felt more fear than at this moment. "Xueyue?!" he demanded. Her lack of response terrorized him further. He needed her to respond. He needed to hear her voice.
"Sunshine, don't do this to me," he urgently whispered whilst settling her onto his lap. He adjusted her body so that she was comfortably resting against his chest.
Yu Zhen touched her face. She was colder than ice. He let out a string of curses too foul for her ears. She was soaked from the rain. He could feel it from the water that dripped from her clothes. It would be a waste of time to start a fire and warm her up right now.
"You're going to be okay," Yu Zhen murmured despite the fear that gnawed at his heart. She's going to be okay. She had to. He would accept no other conclusion. For the first time in his life, his fingers trembled with terror.
Yu Zhen yanked off the leather cloak that was draped over his shoulders. It was wet, but at least it would provide her another layer of protection. He continued to take off his clothes and slip it onto her.
Yu Zhen then picked her up with ease, ignoring the wet materials that touched his bare chest. He didn't care about himself. All he cared about was sheltering her from the rain. He didn't mind standing in nothing but his breeches.
"Come," Yu Zhen muttered to her horse. He approached Xiao Lizi who cranked her head and observed her Master.
Heiyue reluctantly trailed after the source of noise that had taken his friend. He galloped outside and shivered from the cold.
Yu Zhen slid onto Xiao Lizi with slight difficulty, but he managed. With his woman comfortably nestled between his arms, there was nothing he couldn't do. He reached over and adjusted her position so that his head blocked the rain from hitting her hair.
Yu Zhen tied Heiyue's reins onto Xiao Lizi's saddle. He urged Xiao Lizi forward into a small trot at first. Heiyue followed suit and eventually, they broke out into a run more thunderous than the lightning that loomed in the stormy clouds.
It was time to bring his wife home.
- - - - -
Lu Tianbi paced back and forth at the back end of the Imperial Palace. It was where the stables were, and the closest shortcut to the forest. She was told the Crown Prince had run through here.
Beyond the palace walls and through the gates was a path that led into the forest. This would be a favored spot for ambushes, no doubt, which was why guards always patrolled around here. Each and every inch of the grounds was covered. Except, no one was foolish enough to fight Hanjian soldiers head-on. They were the most violent people. Honor didn't matter to them, victory did.
"Get back inside," Hu Dengxiao sternly said from beside her. They stood beside the back entrance, but the enormous doors were flung open to give her a perfect view of the forest path.
"All of this pacing will not bring Yu Zhen back," Hu Dengxiao informed her in a rough voice. He planned on accepting no other answer except an obedient "yes."
Hu Dengxiao grabbed her upper arm when she refused to listen. By now, the rain was splashing onto them as the winds blew towards them. Her clothes were beginning to get soaked. He worried she would catch a cold.
"Why didn't you chase after him?" Lu Tianbi whispered with large, frantic eyes. "Our Commander is out there, in the middle of the god forsaken forest while we're safe within the palace walls!"
"If you're too cowardly to go," Lu Tianbi angrily said whilst flinging his hand off of her. "Then you shouldn't have held me back!"
"Are you crazy?!" Hu Dengxiao roared. She was startled by his raised voice, which rarely happened. "This rain will kill you!"
"Then it will also kill our Commander!" Lu Tianbi screamed back. "We're his closest friends. He risked his life for us on the battlefield. The least we can do is have his back and ride out with him!"
"Lu Tianbi, you forget exactly who I am," Hu Dengxiao snarled. "I dare to say the Crown Prince is like a brother to me, but before I am his loyal ally, I am your father's servant."
Lu Tianbi flinched at his words. She didn't want to hear the truth about their situation. She couldn't come to terms that the Prime Minister, her father, owned the man who possessed her heart.
"Your safety comes first," Hu Dengxiao seethed. "I am your personal bodyguard before I am anything else. And I'll be damned if your life is risked before mine."
Lu Tianbi pushed him away from her. She took a couple of steps back, angered at his badgering. "Then you should've gone after the Commander."
Hu Dengxiao squeezed his eyes shut at her words. "I couldn't go. Because I knew you'd chase after us."
Lu Tianbi glowered at him. "I don't have time to argue with you about this," she hissed.
"Where are you going?!" Hu Dengxiao demanded when she placed a foot out of the door. One more step and she could run out of here.
"—A doctor," she concluded.
Hu Dengxiao didn't believe her. She was the type of woman to lie through her teeth. "The royal physician is already summoned. He will be here any moment now."
Lu Tianbi didn't tear her eyes from the palace gates in the near distance. The cement pavement leading to it was soaked with rain, the color darker than the ash gray it used to be.
"But our Commander won't be here any moment now," she spat out.
Hu Dengxiao gritted his teeth together. She could be so stubborn and vicious at times like this. "Give me your word," he seethed.
"Swear to me you won't leave the palace if I search for Yu Zhen," Hu Dengxiao demanded.
In all honesty, Hu Dengxiao wanted to hop onto his horse the second he saw Xiao Lizi rush down the pavement and out the gates. He had never wanted to chase after his Commander more than today.
But his duty held him back.
His obligations to the Prime Minister was like a leash upon his neck. He couldn't leave this place without making sure Lu Tianbi wouldn't do anything rash.
Hu Dengxiao's gaze sharpened. Her lips had trembled. She was going to present him with unfavorable words.
Lu Tianbi dropped her chin. She couldn't promise him such a thing. Not when her best friend was out there somewhere. It killed her on the inside that she couldn't' do anything for him.
"The Crown Prince is the glory of Hanjian. He is the sun that brings prosperity to us all," Lu Tianbi coldly said. "His life matters more than mine."
Hu Dengxiao opened his mouth but stopped. He felt it before he saw it. In the far distance, the metal gates were beginning to draw up. The ground might as well have been shaking. Xiao Lizi was just that powerful. But she wasn't alone. And neither was the man who stormed through the palace entrance.
Lu Tianbi's lips parted in shock. Her eyes grew wide upon seeing him. Xiao Lizi was being guided off to the stables.
The Commander was back. His walk was determined and powerful. She felt the power ooze from him, even from the daunting distance.
In his arms was the Empress of Hanjian.
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