The moment they returned to the palace, Li Xueyue was rushed back to the Crown Princess's estate as if they didn't want anyone to see her. She knew it was because of her unexpected arrival in Hanjian's Imperial Palace. Yu Zhen must've already planned for the day she would be officially announced to the courts.
"Tomorrow," Yu Zhen told her on their way to her estate. "You will be presented before the Ministers."
Li Xueyue was taken aback. That soon? She turned her head and noticed there was an abundance of maidservants waiting for her. Usually, it would just be Yanxi and a handful of handmaidens. Were the additional maidservants sent to help her get ready for tomorrow?
"And two days after that, we will wed." Yu Zhen grasped her hands, forcing her attention back to him.
Li Xueyue's eyes widened. "But the dress my mother had tailored for me—"
"I had a new one made for you," Yu Zhen informed. "Everything inside of the carriage was stolen."
Li Xueyue slowly nodded. She bit her bottom lip, wondering if the news of her mishap reached her parents. It was then she suddenly remembered the messenger dove that her father had given her. Where was the bird now? Had it escaped?
"Please use your messenger dove and inform my parents that I've arrived safely. They must be worried," Li Xueyue said.
"I've sent the message early this morning," Yu Zhen reassured her. "You'll be fine."
Li Xueyue let out a small sigh of relief. She was a bit stressed that they had been worried sick. Especially the twins. She shuddered at the thought of their expressions. Hearing the news of Xueyue being attacked by bandits must've given everyone a fright.
"How will the procedure go tomorrow?" Li Xueyue asked.
"Well, you'll be dressed in proper attire. The royal carpets will be laid out before you. The Ministers will be gathered in the Throne Room and it will be similar to a coronation."
Li Xueyue nodded at this. She had gone through one coronation before. It should be easy going through another one. Or so, she thought.
"I will be heading back now," Yu Zhen softly told her. He squeezed her hands and presented a small smile to her.
"I'll see you tomorrow," he said.
"Have a safe walk back," Li Xueyue said whilst dropping his hands. He bent down and kissed her upon the forehead, surprising many of the onlookers.
The maidservants exchanged surprised glances with each other. They had never seen their Crown Prince so affectionate with anyone.
It was rare for the Crown Prince to even touch a woman, much less kiss her. Was this truly a political marriage? Or had the Crown Prince already fallen for the Crown Princess prior to her arrival?
They took another secretive peek at the Crown Prince. They were floored by their discovery. His permanent frown had softened into a smile. There was so much adoration in his dark eyes. It was difficult to believe this was the same ruthless ruler of Hanjian.
- - - - -
Li Xueyue thought everything would go smoothly, just like it did on the night before her father's coronation. But it was even more hectic. The night before, she had to go through an intensive beauty routine.
"Is it almost done yet?" she groaned when Yanxi washed off the current mask, only to put another type on.
Li Xueyue had lost count of how many times she was pampered with skincare. It started with a milk bath, then a clay mask, and then she was finally cleaned off. Next came the hair care routine.
Her hair was thoroughly washed, combed, and sprinkled with some sort of aromatic oil. Her lips were rubbed with sugar crystals and lemon. The beauty steps went on and on.
"Almost done, Princess," Yanxi patiently said whilst braiding the Princess's hair to keep it in place.
After an incense stick had burned to the end, Yanxi proceeded to wash the face mask off of the Princess. Next, she placed a hot towel over the Princess's face and the beauty routine continued onwards.
By the time everything was finished, Li Xueyue was exhausted. Her skin was soft and dewy, much like the hazy moon on a quiet night. She let out a small sigh of relief when everyone finally left her room, except for Yanxi.
"I just don't understand how anyone can endure all of that," Li Xueyue mumbled to Yanxi who prepared the bed.
Yanxi softly smiled at the Princess's words. "The Crown Prince had ordered for us to prepare you to the best of our abilities, Princess."
Li Xueyue blinked. She didn't mean to complain so much. Yu Zhen must've done it for her own good. He was always worried about her. It was strange.
Why was everyone so concerned with her wellbeing? It wasn't like she couldn't take care of herself.
She shook the thoughts out of her head and approached the freshly made bed. Li Xueyue slid in and a small sigh of pleasure escaped her. She sank into her bed, tired from such a long day.
"Good night, Princess," Yanxi murmured.
Yanxi approached the lit candles in the room and blew them out one by one, leaving only two lit lanterns at each door which would provide enough light in the darkness, but not enough to disrupt Xueyue's sleep.
Yanxi took a final glance in the Princess's direction. Upon seeing the young woman was sound asleep, she quietly slipped out of the room.
- - - - -
In the dead of the night, a silhouette breezed through the Crown Princess's estate. His footsteps were light, yet powerful.
He moved with determined stealth. Not a single sound could be heard in the silent night. Not even the crickets chirped, or the trees swayed.
Moonlight seeped through the open hallway, creating a path for the man to stalk through. The only thing that could be seen was his shadow. Not a single lantern was in hand.
"Y-your Highness," the guards greeted in an astonished voice. They quickly bowed their head and dropped to their knees.
"You didn't see me tonight," Yu Zhen commanded.
The guards rapidly nodded their heads.
"We understand, Your Highness," they replied in unison.
The guards were wise enough not to gossip, especially about the Crown Prince. Everyone knew he wouldn't hesitate to cut off useless tongues.
The guards opened the door for Yu Zhen who stepped inside and closed it. Through the darkness of her bedroom, he advanced forward, passing through one door after the other until he finally found her bed.
A chilly breeze drifted through her open window. It wasn't as cold as his frigid soul, that was for sure. But it was enough to make him frown.
"You'll catch a cold," he muttered under his breath.
The pale moonlight shined upon Li Xueyue. She glowed like an ethereal being not meant for this world.
Upon seeing she was peacefully asleep, Yu Zhen let out a sigh. He didn't realize he had been holding his anxiety in. His intention for visiting her was no more than a simple check-up.
"You're sleeping well tonight," Yu Zhen said to no one in particular. His voice was barely above a whisper—like the spirits that wandered the halls during midnight.
Yu Zhen was tired from the afternoon's work but seeing her safe and sound was enough for him. He approached her bed and sat by the edge. The moonlight revealed her soft features perfectly.
Then Yu Zhen frowned. She was crying.
He reached down and brushed the hair out of her face, revealing her soft cheeks. It was moistened with tears. He thought she was peacefully asleep, but it seemed not. Her brows were pulled together, forming creases on her forehead. She didn't sob or sniff.
It was a silent pain reserved for the dead of the night.
Yu Zhen wiped her tears away and adjusted her blankets.
"Don't…" she mumbled, pushing at the suffocating material.
Yu Zhen grabbed her wrists before she did anything else. What was she dreaming about? Who dared to haunt her nightmares? He placed her hands into the blanket and continued to tuck her in.
"... touch me…"
Yu Zhen's expression darkened. Don't touch me? Who the hell was in her dream? She struggled against the blankets, kicking and writhing.
Yu Zhen didn't know what to do. He could only watch as her face became more angst.
"I'll kill them," he seethed.
Did that work? Yu Zhen peered down at her face. It had softened into confusion.
"That's right, my Little Hamster," Yu Zhen softly muttered. "Anyone who dares to touch you will be killed."
Her brows knitted together at his words. Was she awake? Or was she slipping in and out of consciousness? None of that mattered to him.
Yu Zhen slipped his thumb in between her clenched fingers. He grasped her hand between his. Bending low, he quietly whispered, "So tell me Sunshine, who exactly touched you?"
Silence ensued. She didn't utter another word.
Yu Zhen pressed his lips together. Was it a simple nightmare? Or a recollection of a memory? He didn't know. But she was much calmer now. Her tense shoulders had relaxed, much like her facial features.
He let out a small sigh of relief. The nightmare had passed. She didn't wake up in tears this time. Nor did she scream herself awake. He was fearful she would wake up all alone, in this dark, sullen room.
"Everything will be okay, Sunshine," Yu Zhen comforted. He lifted the blanket up to her chin and patted her again and again until he was certain the nightmare would become a blissful dream.
That night, he remained in her room, watching over her, making sure nothing went amiss. His sleep didn't matter if she couldn't have a peaceful one.
Yu Zhen remained by her side, a silent silhouette in the darkness. He sat there until his shoulders were numb from peering down. The only time he moved was to readjust her blanket.
Only when the night dispelled into the morning, by the pale blue of the rising sun, did he finally slip out of her room—unseen.
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