"Commander," Lu Tianbi addressed when he finally reached them. Her eyes snapped to the pale woman in his arms and her heart sank to her stomach.
Li Xueyue was blue and limp. She was paler than a ghost and her wet hair stuck to her forehead.
Lu Tianbi couldn't even meet the Commander's gaze. It wasn't that he terrified her, but he intimidated her. Everyone, but Yu Zhen, was willing to accept the fact—hypothermia had gotten to Xueyue. She was at death's doors by now.
It was too late.
Hu Dengxiao nudged Lu Tianbi. She shouldn't look so heartbroken. Her eyes were trembling with the truth as her lips twitched to say it out loud.
"Your Highness," Hu Dengxiao spoke up in an unwavering voice. "The Imperial Physician awaits in the Crown Princess's Palace. The servants have already made all the necessary arrangements beforehand."
Yu Zhen wordlessly nodded. He brushed past his advisor and right-hand woman.
Hu Dengxiao bowed his head when Yu Zhen strolled past him. No matter what Hu Dengxiao wanted to do, he couldn't lift his head. His hands shook at the realization that the Crown Prince was in denial.
"Let's go," Hu Dengxiao said to Lu Tianbi.
She pressed a quivering hand to her mouth. Her enlarged eyes trembled with unshed tears.
"T-the Princess, she—"
"Let's go," Hu Dengxiao repeated in a firmer voice. He shot her a warning look that forced her mouth to clamp shut. She was usually not this obedient, but the situation calls for it.
Lu Tianbi tore her gaze from the ground to the Commander's silhouette. He walked with a purpose.
His footsteps were heavy, like her heart. He was shirtless and his sunkissed skin was turning pale. His wet boots were leaving footprints on the ground. His breeches were soaked wet. His hair was limp.
The odds were against him. He was next in line to catch a fever.
But none of that mattered to him, did it?
The only thing that he'd ever care about, from now on, was that quiet woman. Or perhaps, he had always cared for her, even before their first encounter.
- - - - -
Lu Tianbi's eyes grew wide when she saw Yu Zhen wasn't heading in the direction of the Crown Princess's Palace which remained unoccupied. Instead, he was heading to the grandest palace in the center of the fortress.
She heard Hu Dengxiao let out a sigh.
"I knew he'd be like this," Hu Dengxiao muttered in defeat.
Of course, he wouldn't leave the Princess to reside alone in that palace. She already had a foot beyond death's doors. The Crown Prince must've wanted more time with her before she would pass on.
Hu Dengxiao grabbed Lu Tianbi's wrist and began to tug her towards the palace grounds. She reluctantly walked with him but she was out of it. She was like a walking puppet—numb and speechless. They stopped walking when they met a Eunuch.
"My lord," the Eunuch whispered. "Was that woman—"
"Inform the Imperial Physician of the change of plans. Rush him and the servants who were waiting with him to the Crown Prince's residence. Then, get the servants to prepare a hot bath as soon as possible," Hu Dengxiao instructed.
The Eunuch bowed his head. He excused himself in a hurry and quickly rushed off to fulfill the order. It must've been a serious issue if the gentle Advisor was so serious.
Hu Dengxiao glanced at the stupified Lu Tianbi beside him. His gaze softened and he placed a gentle hand upon her shoulder.
"We have to prepare ourselves," he said.
"For what?" she asked him, lifting her head.
"In the event that the Princess doesn't make it—"
"W-we should just head towards there now so we can provide him some form of comfort," Lu Tianbi stuttered out. She was still dumbfounded by the motionless body of Princess Li.
Death was a common thing. Lu Tianbi had witnessed it multiple times on the battlefield. Decapitated bodies, rotting bodies, injured bodies—she had seen it all.
When her soldiers died in front of her, she wept for them, but always recovered and moved on. Each and every life was precious; they all deserved a proper burial when they die—enemy or not.
Lu Tianbi was used to death. She was more familiar with it compared to regular women. But she was unable to accept it.
She never could. She understood the pain of losing someone important. Yu Zhen did too. But no one had ever impacted his life like the Princess.
It was precisely why Lu Tianbi was so scared for him. Princess Li was his entire world. If she dies, his world would crumble. What shall happen to their Crown Prince when that happens?
"W-we need to be there for him," Lu Tianbi added on. She was choked up with emotions. Just imaging the heartbreak of her closest friend was enough for her to be in tears. She wanted to shoulder his pain in hopes of alleviating it.
"And we will," Hu Dengxiao said. He pressed his hand into her shoulder and began to guide her towards the Crown Prince's residence.
"Let's not waste anymore time," he added. "We should try and be optimistic for Yu Zhen."
Hu Dengxiao reached out and wiped his tears before it fell. Seeing her so upset hurt him. He would've spent more time comforting her, but Yu Zhen's sanity was at stake. He had to get there soon, to shelter the blow.
Lu Tianbi shakily nodded her head. She held back a sniffle and lifted her head.
Together, they walked towards the Crown Prince's residence, knowing that nothing would ever be the same after today. Once they stepped through the entrance and beyond those doors, there would be no going back. Not that it mattered.
- - - - -
An ominous silence fell over the Crown Prince's bedroom. No one dared to speak. No one dared to breathe the wrong way. The tension was thick.
The Imperial Physician's brows furrowed together as he examined the woman. With his fingers pressed on her wrist, he checked for a pulse. His gaze landed on her soaked figure that wetted the sacred bed.
"Well?" Yu Zhen demanded in a dangerous voice.
The Imperial Physician slowly shook his head. He rose to his feet and peered at the woman. Heavy blankets were draped over her body, providing her with the much needed warmth.
"Your Highness," the Imperial Physician addressed whilst bowing his head.
The Crown Prince was decades younger than him, but his title was far beyond the Physician's dreams.
The Imperial Physician had been serving the Imperial Family for years but the Crown Prince rarely called for him.
Despite hearing rumors of the Crown Prince's injuries due to his perilous training, the doctor was rarely called for him. It was so strange. The Imperial Physician has always wondered about the reason behind this.
The Imperial Physician slipped his spectacles off as he composed himself to face the Crown Prince who was known to be ruthless.
He, then, carefully contemplated his response. He feared for his life, but told himself that he had already lived a long and fulfilling one. It was precisely why he had sacrificed it all to come here tonight, knowing the outcome would be dangerous. And it truly was.
"Your Highness, this woman is—"
Suddenly, loud commotions were heard coming from outside which interrupted him.
Yu Zhen's stormy expression darkened. Who dared to cause a ruckus at such a moment? He stomped towards the doors, ignoring the fact that someone else was supposed to open it for him.
He was furious.
He swung the doors open. Someone was going to beheaded tonight. He let out a growl of irritation upon seeing the scene outside.
"Your Highness," Hu Dengxiao addressed at the same time as Lu Tianbi.
Yu Zhen ground his teeth. He would deal with these two later.
Hu Dengxiao let out a shaky sigh of relief when Yu Zhen ignored them and sauntered back into the room, beyond the folded screen.
In the meantime, Lu Tianbi shot the woman a dirty glower. How dare this weasel try to keep them out?
"What are you doing here?" she demanded.
Who the hell did this woman think she was? What gave her the right to follow the Crown Prince? How did she even get in here?
Lu Tianbi's eyes flare. Just because the Crown Prince kept this woman by his side, did she think she was special?
"Let's just go. We'll deal with her later," Hu Dengxiao muttered whilst tugging at Lu Tianbi's wrist. He didn't want an altercation to break out here. She looked like she was going to murder that woman.
"You better watch yourself," Lu Tianbi seethed. "The next time you offend me, I'll have you beheaded."
The woman didn't even flinch. She merely bowed her head in silence.
Lu Tianbi's lips curled in disgust. "She's lucky the Commander is here," she muttered to Hu Dengxiao.
He slowly nodded whilst pulling her inside the room. The doors were closed behind them. The two exchanged a meaningful glance.
Judging by Yu Zhen's temper, it only meant one thing: the physician hadn't informed him of the Princess's condition yet.
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