"You've looked long enough," Yu Zhen harshly said.
Wu Xiang quirked a brow and closed his fan. He folded his arms and smiled. "As if I'd dare to take the Crown Princess from you."
Yu Zhen narrowed his eyes. He had faith Wu Xiang wouldn't commit a crime worthy of death by torture. The two had been friends for as long as he could remember. Their days of mischief certainly hadn't died off in Wu Xiang.
"Why are all of you gathered here in the first place?" Yu Zhen demanded, turning to his younger sister and Hu Dengxiao.
"Well…" Hu Dengxiao trailed off. "This place seemed lively, and I was bored—" He paused upon noticing the Crown Prince's dagger glare.
"And… I didn't want to be buried under a mountain of responsibilities just because Tiantian is occupied by her father," Hu Dengxiao admitted.
Yu Zhen pressed his lips together. Lu Tianbi was conversing with her father? This certainly wasn't good news.
"Go and get Lu Tianbi," he instructed.
Hu Dengxiao's shoulders dropped and he pouted to the ground. "The Prime Minister will never allow me to take his daughter away."
"I'm telling you to bring her here, not ask for her hand in marriage," Yu Zhen snapped.
Hu Dengxiao awkwardly laughed and scratched the back of his neck. "Haha… y-yeah, I knew you meant that."
Yu Zhen shook his head, knowing his intelligent advisor was equivalent to the town's fool when it came to matters involving Lu Tianbi. He tightened his hold on Xueyue, fearing she would feel neglected. He snuck a glance at her and noticed she was watching the conversation unfold.
"She's probably with a suitor right now…" Hu Dengxiao trailed off, his wagging tail lowered and bottom lip jutted out.
"I heard the Prime Minister wants her to get married soon, now that she is the only unwed daughter of the Lu Household," he added on.
"That old man wouldn't dare to question my authority. So go," Yu Zhen retorted.
Hu Dengxiao perked up in an instant. "I can use your name?"
Yu Zhen stared at Hu Dengxiao with a look that said, 'Are you deaf?'
"Thank you, Zhenzhen, you're the best!" Hu Dengxiao exclaimed, turning around so quickly, he swept up a gust of air.
"Wait, where are you going?" Yu Lingluo demanded, stomping her foot and glaring up at him.
"To fulfill your brother's command, Princess!" Hu Dengxiao eagerly said as he opened the door, only to feel a rough tug on his sleeve.
"No, you're staying here," Yu Lingluo harshly said.
"What? Why?!" Hu Dengxiao argued.
Li Xueyue watched as the two began to bicker. She turned to Yu Zhen who watched them with an irritated stare.
"I think…" she whispered to him.
Yu Zhen bent down a bit to hear her properly. She muttered her discovery into his ears, cupping her mouth with her hand. He smiled at the small action, his fingers lazily playing with the hem of her clothes.
"Is that so?" Yu Zhen said.
She eagerly nodded her head, her gaze wandering back to the argument.
"I already know that," Yu Zhen informed her.
"Aren't you going to stop them?" Li Xueyue asked, confused by his lack of action. He simply shook his head.
"They should figure it out themselves," Yu Zhen reassured.
Yu Zhen knew better than anyone else how foolish this love triangle was. An orphan boy in love with the Prime Minister's daughter, and a Princess in love with the orphan. What a mess it was.
"Why did you call for me?" Li Xueyue said, ignoring the dispute beside her.
"I wanted to make sure you ate well. I was informed that you've eaten more than usual."
Li Xueyue shook her head in amusement. "I think I'm beginning to return to my normal weight."
Yu Zhen hummed in response, touching her cheeks. Her brows came together in confusion. Without warning, he pulled on both of them. He chuckled when she kicked his shin. For once, it finally hurt. He blamed it on her pointed shoes.
"Doesn't feel like steamed buns yet," he said.
Li Xueyue frowned. What was that supposed to mean?
"That hurts," she grumbled out.
Yu Zhen smiled at her words, tugging her cheeks farther apart, earning another harsh kick.
"So violent," he chuckled.
Yu Zhen was highly entertained by the sight of her pulled cheeks. They were malleable, like rice cakes. But seeing her pale skin turn pink, he dropped his hand. Slowly and softly, he massaged the pain away.
"I remember seeing you stuff two steamed buns into each cheek like hamsters do with their food," Yu Zhen said.
Li Xueyue was lulled by his gentle tone. For odd reasons, it sounded gentle, despite his husky voice.
"I don't understand why you're comparing me to a rat," Li Xueyue deadpanned.
"Is that all you heard, Sunshine?" Yu Zhen chuckled.
Li Xueyue's heart flipped at the sound. He was even more handsome when he laughed. It was deep and comforting, like sinking into the tall grass on a summer day.
"Obviously," she said. "It is."
Yu Zhen shook his head at her.
"And besides, I didn't put two buns into my mouth, it was one at a time. I ate in moderate amounts."
Yu Zhen stared at her with a pointed look. He didn't believe it. "I don't believe that, Sunshine."
"That's because you're delusional," Li Xueyue deadpanned. "Like someone else we know."
Her eyes widened at the last part that slipped out. She bit her tongue and restrained her sigh.
Li Xueyue didn't want to bring up Xu Jiaqi but involuntarily did so. She couldn't help it. Didn't Yu Zhen state he would punish Xu Jiaqi for trespassing? Or something along those lines?
"Who are you talking about?" Yu Zhen gently asked.
Li Xueyue pressed her lips together and averted her eyes. She concentrated on the plains of his shoulder—straight and broad.
"Sunshine," he warned.
Would it be petty if she brought it up? She didn't want to deliberately target Xu Jiaqi, but that girl had to be taught a lesson.
"Li Xueyue," he stated.
She let out a puff of air. "I was just thinking about Xu Jiaqi."
Yu Zhen raised a brow. "Why worry about someone so insignificant when you have someone of importance right here?"
Li Xueyue weakly smiled at his words. "I just—" She fell silent. Did he forget to punish Xu Jiaqi?
Li Xueyue faltered a bit. He was never the type to forget something. She knew that much. Was Xu Jiaqi pardoned? Did Xu Jiaqi hold that much weight on Yu Zhen's conscience?
Dubious questions ran through her hesitant mind, all of which soured her mood.
Li Xueyue pulled away from him, creating visible distance. She didn't want to look up at him; to see the disappointment in his frown, and the confusion in his knitted brows. She'd spill out all of her concerns at that sight and then he would be thrown off guard by her complaints.
"Enough, you little brat!" Hu Dengxiao exasperated. He grabbed the fingers that were firmly grabbing onto his sleeves. With great care not to hurt her, he pushed her away.
"No, someone else can do this task for you!" Third Princess Yu Lingluo shouted. She angrily turned to Wu Xiang and pointed a finger at him.
"You have nothing to do, Xiang-gege. Why can't you go get Lu Tianbi?" she hissed.
Wu Xiang glanced around in confusion. He pointed a finger at himself with a perplexed look on his face. Why was the third Princess trying to drag him into the conversation? He was just an innocent bystander!
How interesting it was, that there were two groups of people having their arguments in front of him.
Wu Xiang only wanted to sip a cup of tea and watch the mess unfold. But the Third Princess just had to ruin the fun, didn't she?
Wu Xiang offered her a warm smile. "Princess Lingluo, the task wasn't assigned to me."
"Yeah, you heard your Xiang-gege. Now let me go!" Hu Dengxiao demanded in a harsh voice. His patience had reached its limits.
What if he was late to the tea party and Lu Tianbi was already taken by another man? What if Lu Tianbi's hand in marriage was already promised to a random bastard?
Noticing the prolonged silence, Hu Dengxiao let out a small gasp. His attention snapped to Yu Lingluo who had flinched at his loud voice. He had rarely raised his voice at her.
"Luoluo…" Hu Dengxiao trailed off, guilt filling him. He didn't like to yell at her. Despite the drastic difference in their ranks, he had viewed the Third Princess as a younger sister.
Even to this day, he recalled the little girl who chased after him with a wooden sword.
"Hmph!" Yu Lingluo threw his arm to the side, finally letting go. She angrily crossed her arms and glared to the ground.
Hu Dengxiao let out a small sigh. He didn't have the time to comfort her, but he did. Putting a hand upon her shoulder, he tried to explain.
"I've been very busy ever since your brother gave me this high position. But I'll play with you next time, okay? This task is important and—"
"Whatever," Yu Lingluo seethed. She turned around and blindly grabbed someone, thinking it was her brother.
Except, a hand had gripped hers instead. Quite painfully, at that. She winced and glanced up with wide eyes. The concept of physical pain was foreign to her.
Yu Lingluo sucked in a sharp breath. Her brother seemed furious and he was tightly clenching her hand. She had never seen him so possessive before. His arm had come around the Crown Princess's body, enveloping her against him.
"What are you doing?" he demanded in a frigid voice.
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