Duke Li Taojun didn't know how to react to the hug. His arms rested stiffly by his side.
He tilted his head downwards and saw how she had buried her head within his chest. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, wondering if he was just seeing things.
"I've always wondered what it would be like to experience this with my birth parents," Li Xueyue muttered against his clothes. She pulled back a bit and tilted her head.
"Don't you?" she asked.
Duke Li Taojun wished she didn't peer up at him with those eyes of hers. Her pupils were sharp and clear, like a reflective pond that seemed shallow at first, but held the most depth.
Duke Li Taojun shakily wrapped his arms around her, catching both of them by surprise. He placed a hand behind the back of her head and tightly hugged her, wishing this moment wasn't so abrupt.
Li Xueyue's expression softened. How strange. He hugged her as if his life depended on it.
She could feel the quiver of his fingertips when his upper body curved to meet her stature. It was such a shame that she had to do this.
"Xueyue, I want you to know that although your mother never loved you properly, I would've—argh!"
Duke Li Taojun choked when he felt a knee-buckling agony. He tried to fight against it, but she had tightly wrapped herself around him.
"W-w-what did you—!" He was interrupted by her twisting the knife deeper into his back.
Duke Li Taojun violently reacted, struggling in her arms and in a split second, was able to push her backward.
Li Xueyue didn't have time to waste. The only way she could ever overpower this man was to catch him off-guard.
The knife that was already wedged into his back created pain with each movement.
Li Xueyue slipped out the other knife strapped to her thigh and in a single flick of her wrist, attempted to slice it through Duke Li Taojun's neck.
But he was faster than her. Angrily, he gripped her wrist and then her throat.
"How fucking dare you!" Duke Li Taojun roared as he tightened his hold onto her feeble little wrist. He clenched it so tightly with the intention of shattering it on the spot.
Li Xueyue's eyes widened in fear when his fingers dug deep into her throat.
When he clenched her neck, she cried out in pain. To her sheer horror, he began to lift her up, much like what Wen Jinkai had done to Li Minghua.
"Your death will be the most satisfying one of them all!" Duke Li Taojun seethed as he attempted to push his daughter to the ground.
He regretted coming unarmed, but she certainly wasn't.
Duke Li Taojun watched in satisfaction as she writhed and struggled against his unbearable grip. He dropped his hold on her wrist and decided to grab her neck with both hands. It'd kill her faster.
If he was going to die from blood loss, at least they'd die together. "Let's go to Hell as father and daughter," he gritted out.
With both of his hands strangling her neck, Li Xueyue's vision began to swim with black dots. She fought against him, kicking and wriggling. She clawed at his arms, her fingers digging into it, but it was to no avail.
Duke Li Taojun was larger and stronger than her. Eventually, her body went limp and her head slumped forward.
"Brat," Duke Li Taojun growled as he pulled her a bit closer to make sure she was actually dead. Without warning, she flicked her wrist and something sharp flew from inside of her sleeves.
"My eyes!" he screamed in pain, dropping her to clutch his eye.
His hands trembled to identify the item that had lodged into his right eye. He was so distracted that he hadn't realized he had released her from his grip.
Li Xueyue fell to the ground and gasped for air as she watched him struggle. He attempted to soothe his eye, but it only made it worse. He had pushed the small needle deeper.
Seizing this distraction, Li Xueyue reached into her pockets and pulled out an indistinguishable vial of liquid.
"How dare you?!" Duke Li Taojun roared.
He staggered forward, only to gasp in pain. The knife had gone deeper into his back at his movement. Agony spread in his body. Just then, he felt the wind was knocked out of him.
Li Xueyue had kicked him in the groin. He let out a startled wheeze, almost as if he was strangled. His knees buckled for a brief moment as he clutched his precious jewels.
Now that he was distracted again, Li Xueyue knew this was her chance. She rushed forward and attempted to slice his throat open. But at the last moment, he grabbed her wrist.
"You're going to pay for this," Duke Li Taojun screamed as he attempted to crush her feeble wrist.
Li Xueyue cringed at the sight of blood running from his right eye. But he had just exposed a weak spot. Abruptly, she reached for the needle stuck in his right eye, yanking it out. He let out an animalistic scream and touched his eye, distracted yet again.
Li Xueyue didn't think it would go this far. But she did it anyway. She stabbed his other eye. Her body tensed when the needle pierced through the flesh. She let out a small squeal of disgust at the sensation.
"Say hello to the King of the Underworld for me," she growled before pouring the vial of liquid down his throat.
He gargled and choked at the unidentifiable liquid, but was forced to swallow it.
"Y-you…" he heaved, struggling to stand against his attacker who loved to play dirty.
Li Xueyue stumbled back as he staggered forward. He blindly reached for her but swayed in his footing.
"H-how?!" he coughed out before collapsing onto his knees.
Li Xueyue watched in horror as he dropped to the ground, facedown. The needle dug deeper into his eye, but he didn't even flinch.
Li Xueyue let out a shaky breath at the sight of him. It was a bloody mess. She flinched upon seeing the splattered blood on the ends of her white hanfu. She was tainted red.
Li Xueyue wiped the sweat that gathered from her brows.
Finally, the realization of her actions settled into her adrenaline-rushed body.
She collapsed onto the ground.
A quivered sigh escaped from her. She glanced down at her hands. There was grass and blood on it. Bruises were evident on her wrist. And no doubt, she looked like a mess.
"I couldn't have you blabbering," Li Xueyue said through her chattering teeth.
She had done it. She had killed someone with her bare hands. Her eyes landed upon his motionless body.
"This had to be done," Li Xueyue muttered. "I've worked far too hard for you to ruin it out of spite."
Li Xueyue nervously licked her bottom lip. She glanced around their surroundings, wondering if anyone had seen the fight.
She noticed they were too far out for anyone to have heard or seen anything.
When she finally calmed down, the festive music could be heard in the distance. Loud and unrivaled. It was almost as if the song was celebrating his death.
Li Xueyue glanced down at her soiled dress. The innocent white was no match for her. She was meant to embody the Heavens and Spring, but behaved the opposite of that.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she reached for the ends of her clothing.
"To survive in this world, I need to have more than brains," she reminded herself.
Without hesitation, Li Xueyue tore the bottom parts of her dress. Her hands reached for the intricate hairstyle. She shoved her fingers into her hair and fumbled about.
It was showtime.
- - - - -
Li Chenyang thought he saw something glisten in the distance. He squinted his eyes, blinking in confusion when something blinded him.
'What the hell was going on?'
He glanced to his left and then his right. Everyone was distracted by the music, dancer, or other people.
Li Chenyang studied the crowd and there wasn't a single suspicious person.
Far into the darkness, he saw it again. A glimmer of light, so small, it was barely noticeable. He thought he had imagined it.
Perhaps the glow of the lantern made it seem that way? But then the burst of light surged forward again. Was someone signaling to him?
His stomach uncomfortably churned.
He had finally noticed the empty seat next to Minghua. Where did Xueyue go?
Li Chenyang shot out of his chair which caught the attention of his father.
"Where are you going, Chenyang?" his father asked in a solemn voice.
"Xueyue… she's not here," Li Chenyang responded.
"She mentioned taking a walk near the gazebo over there," his mother said whilst jutting her chin in the direction that Xueyue had walked towards.
"Perfect," Li Chenyang said. "I'll join her and catch some fresh air. It's so stuffy after having talked to so many people."
"Bring her back without anyone noticing. The banquet is coming to an end anyway," Empress Wang Qixing stated.
Li Chenyang stiffly nodded his head. The place his mother had told him about was the exact spot he had seen the light. Was it a coincidence?
Li Chenyang excused himself and began to walk out of the banquet.
Stares followed him with each step he took, but once they were distracted by the musicians and performers, Chenyang picked up his pace. He practically speed-walked his way to the gazebo.
Picking up a lantern that hung from a small pole, he took it with him. Unexpectedly, the source of light slipped through his fingertips.
Blood. There was so much of it. It was everywhere.
"Xueyue…?" Li Chenyang gasped out.
He rushed forward, long abandoning the lantern. Through the small glow, he spotted a figure on the ground. Her feeble shoulders, small and trembling, was hard to ignore.
Li Xueyue resembled an injured swan unable to fly anymore. Her sleeves were torn in more than one place and strands of her hair stuck out in odd directions.
"C-Chen-ge?" Li Xueyue stuttered out, not expecting for him to see her like this.
She thought her signal would have reached the other members of her family who would be horrified to see her in this state.
Seeing as it was Chenyang, she knew there was no need to put on an act anymore. But then he rushed forward and tightly hugged her.
"Are you hurt?" Li Chenyang worriedly asked whilst pulling her up in the process. "Why are you on the ground? Is the blood yours? Where did you get injured? Did your time of the month come, is that why—"
"I-I didn't mean to…" Li Xueyue whispered in a broken voice. Her eyes grew wide as she desperately held onto him. "I swear, I didn't! H-he threatened to ruin me and—"
"Goodness gracious," Li Chenyang muttered at the sight before him.
But that wasn't the issue at hand. Her terrified behavior was. He was too busy concentrating on her to even care about what she had done.
Li Chenyang pulled her closer and patted the top of her head. "Calm down, Xueyue. It's okay, none of this is your fault, I believe you. I won't make the same mistake as mistrusting you again."
Li Chenyang's heart was being torn to pieces at the sight of her frightened facial features. There was so much panic in her eyes that he could do nothing but try to comfort her. She wasn't crying but was on the verge of shedding tears.
"Shhh, it's okay," Li Chenyang comforted.
Li Chenyang pulled her into his arms as she buried herself into his chest. He had finally seen the lifeless body beside him.
Whoever this man was, he didn't care. Xueyue was the victim. Not the perpetrator. And even if she had killed him, he was the one who started the fight.
Li Chenyang tightened his grip. That was right. His Xueyue simply performed self-defense. That is all. Nothing more. Nothing less. She would never take the blame for this crime. Never ever. Not unless he had something to say about it.
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