Yu Zhen was finally done with the documents in his office. He was accompanied by Lu Tianbi and Hu Dengxiao as they prepared to take a routine tour of the Capital. They would periodically meet up with the Capital leader for a discussion after completing a round of analysis of the city's activities.
"Your Highness," Xu Jiaqi addressed the second she saw him.
She dipped her upper body into a steady bow that highlighted the length of her slender neck. When he pardoned her, she raised her head and gently smiled.
"What is it?" Yu Zhen demanded in a frosty tone. He had places to be, people to see.
"W-well you see—"
Lu Tianbi narrowed her gaze.
"Your Highness, we should get going," she spoke up. It would stir up unnecessary rumors for them to be seen together like this.
There were already small talks of the Crown Prince's favored treatment towards Xu Jiaqi. The man rarely interacted with women unless they were outstanding members of the court such as the only female Commander of Hanjian.
Yu Zhen nodded at her words.
He brushed past Xu Jiaqi but was forced to stop when he felt a small tug at his sleeves. He stiffened at the touch and glanced down to see who had grabbed him like a fool.
"I didn't mean to grab you, Your Highness," Xu Jiaqi rushed out. "I merely wanted to obtain your attention. You see, the Empress has sent me out to request your audience."
Yu Zhen's brow etched together in discontentment. His mother? She had some guts to demand his audience.
The last time they chatted was a few weeks ago, when he had stormed out after she attempted to swindle him into accepting an outrageous proposal to lower the tax imposed on aristocrats.
"However, Your Highness, I don't think you should see the Empress," Xu Jiaqi added on.
Xu Jiaqi didn't want to seem like she was taking the Empress's side—especially when she knew how much the Crown Prince despised his own mother.
"I was just caught in a fix. I was walking by her palace and one of her handmaidens waved me down to deliver this message, Your Highness. I apologize if it has inconvenienced you," Xu Jiaqi stated.
Xu Jiaqi peered up at him through her lashes. She wondered if he was looking at her. She hoped so. Her hand remained on his sleeves. She wasn't sure if he was aware of that fact.
But he hadn't shaken her off. This only meant he didn't mind her touch—which was a rare thing. Not many people got to touch the Crown Prince. Muchless, be this close to him.
"Don't waste my time with stupid requests like this," Yu Zhen sniped.
Yu Zhen frowned down at her. He had given her a new opportunity in life. He thought she was a lot smarter than this.
She dared to have the guts to take the Empress's side? Her excuses were laughable.
"I'm so sorry, Your Highness!" Xu Jiaqi exasperated.
Her eyes widened in fear for her life. She resisted the tears that threatened to spill. He was just too intimidating when angered. What will it take for him to smile in her way?
"Pick your side wisely," Yu Zhen growled. He turned to his friends and nodded. "Let's go," he stated.
"A-as an apology, Your Highness," Xu Jiaqi rushed out. "M-may I cook you a meal? Perhaps lunch? I promise it will make up for my incompetency today."
Lu Tianbi had never frowned so fast. What a brazen woman. It was no wonder why the fallen Xu Family had despised their eldest daughter. She wasn't as smart as they expected her to be.
If the Crown Prince was seen walking into Xu Jiaqi's residence for lunch, gossip would spread like wildfire.
Yu Zhen would be unscathed. But what about Princess Li? How would she react to this?
It was then Lu Tianbi sensed something off. She hadn't noticed it before, but now it was evident. Someone was watching them. Her head instantly snapped in that direction.
It was just as Lu Tianbi had feared. A woman in the far distance had turned her back and was walking away in the opposite direction. Her figure was distinctive, and next to her was unmistakably the Head Maidservant.
Princess Li Xueyue had seen everything unfold.
From the start of the conversation to Xu Jiaqi's hand upon the Crown Prince's sleeves. From her perspective, Yu Zhen hadn't rejected Xu Jiaqi's advances.
"Your Highness," Lu Tianbi spoke up. "Pardon my intrusion," she apologized. She quickly glanced towards the spot that the Princess had walked off from.
Yu Zhen was quick to catch on but he wasn't able to see everything. The only thing he caught was half a body disappearing around a corner.
"What is it?" Yu Zhen questioned.
"For a split second there, I think I saw someone. She was watching us," Lu Tianbi stated. She purposely left her message vague, hoping he'd catch on to her hint.
"Oh, I noticed it too. Usually I'd scare eavesdroppers away, but since it was her, I didn't say anything. She's allowed to watch you, isn't she?" Hu Dengxiao added on.
Yu Zhen raised a brow. She? Her? Only two people came to mind. The Empress. Or Xueyue.
He hoped it was the latter.
Yu Zhen wanted to see Li Xueyue once again. It would be nice to take her on a personal tour of the Capital since he had time today. It would give them some much-needed time alone. And she would get a change of scenery.
Xu Jiaqi's eyes widened when she saw the ghost of a smile rest on his face. He had smiled. At her. For the first time since their encounter. It was a tiny one, barely noticeable, but a genuine smile nonetheless. Her heart had never soared so high.
What influenced this reaction?
"Let's head to her place first," Yu Zhen said. He took a step forward and finally registered the hand that was still gripping onto his sleeves.
His lips curled in disgust. He shook off Xu Jiaqi's hand without warning. "Do not touch me," he seethed.
Her happiness was short-lived.
Xu Jiaqi flinched at his harsh words. His tone was vicious. His dark glower threatened to tear her apart. He was furious by her action.
Fearful of losing his favor, Xu Jiaqi immediately dropped to her knees.
"I apologize, Your Highness, it won't happen again!" she pleaded. She had bowed, hoping it would appease him.
Yu Zhen glared down at her. What an irritating pet he had unknowingly gained. He left her kneeling on the pavement. And never once did he look back nor did he excuse her.
"Also, Your Highness, I think Xiao Juzi has been growing restless," Lu Tianbi whispered as they began heading in the direction of the Crown Princess's palace.
"Oh gosh, I agree, Tiantian!" Hu Dengxiao exclaimed. "Last time, he almost bit my hand off when I was trying to feed him!"
"You're just dramatic," Yu Zhen retorted. "But I'll visit him later."
Lu Tianbi pressed her lips together. "Your Highness, he can't roam around the palace grounds," she reminded him.
"I know," Yu Zhen stated.
Nonetheless, he would still give Xiao Juzi the privilege. Besides, the tiger rarely went anywhere without his Master. The most that Xiao Juzi had traveled in the palace was near the entrance of the Crown Prince's estate.
Yu Zhen didn't have to worry about his pet biting people. And even if it did, that person probably deserved it.
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