Li Xueyue began to doubt whether she should provoke him or not. The last time it happened, she struggled to climb out of bed. Thinking about her wobbly legs, she decided to behave.
"Are you finished with your work?" she asked, knowing he must've been occupied prior to coming here.
Xiao Juzi obviously didn't seem to mind as he climbed off the unconscious man. He approached Yu Zhen and obediently sat down. He rubbed his head upon Yu Zhen's leg.
Xiao Juzi's only intentions were to get snacks in the form of animal bones.
"Not quite, but it's fine," Yu Zhen reassured her.
He was already weeks ahead when it came to his work. There was plenty of time for him to take breaks, but it made him uncomfortable to be idle.
His body always craved for something to do. Sitting idly in a pavilion and enjoying the finer things in life wasn't something he preferred.
"Are you certain?" she asked.
Li Xueyue was worried about Xiao Juzi being a distraction. Yu Zhen responded by resting a hand behind her head, stroking it.
"You worry too much." He smoothed out the creases between her brows. "If there is something that bothers me, I will inform you."
Li Xueyue reluctantly nodded her head, knowing he was right.
"But there is something you need to know."
"What is it?" she asked.
Li Xueyue noticed he seemed upset by something. His brows came together, irritation flashing in his eyes.
"How good are you with geography?" he began.
Li Xueyue nodded. She had read many geography books back at the Li Manor. They were quite helpful, and she knew of the kingdoms bordering Hanjian.
"Pretty decent, if I do say so myself. Why do you ask?"
Li Xueyue wondered if something had happened. It must've been dire, judging from his irritable glare. His face was colder than usual.
Yu Zhen nodded. "There is a neighboring kingdom to the east of Hanjian. We've been on neutral terms with them."
Li Xueyue nodded again. If she remembered correctly, it was the Kingdom of Nanhui. Their territory was smaller than Hanjian, but their physical geography was great. The country was surrounded by mountainous terrains that made ambush difficult.
"What about them?" she questioned. Did something happen to Nanhui?
Yu Zhen glared at the ground. "Nanhui wants to strengthen their relationship with Hanjian."
Li Xueyue figured as much. It would be beneficial to both countries to be on friendlier terms.
Hanjian and Nanhui were located right next to each other. It would create too much conflict if they went to war. Besides, if there was an alliance built, then they would become the fastest aid for each other.
"That sounds like a great plan, but you seem upset. What's wrong?" Li Xueyue asked.
"Nanhui has sent their favored Prince and Princesses to bring forth gifts, whilst a few of my siblings are doing the same."
Li Xueyue raised a brow. Wouldn't that mean both countries were already on great terms? She figured there must've been talks of an alliance long before she arrived in Hanjian.
"I'd assume the Emperor will greet them," she said.
Yu Zhen wryly smiled. "If it was just him, I couldn't care less."
"Then what's the issue?"
Yu Zhen narrowed his eyes. He hated the idea of having her burdened by something.
"We will be present as well."
Li Xueyue blinked. She didn't see the harm in that. "Oh, that should be fine, isn't it? We're just accepting gifts, that's all."
Yu Zhen shook his head. "If it was just that, it'd be fine. But it's not."
"I don't understand…?"
"There is a reason Nanhui has sent their favored daughters and only one son."
Li Xueyue's lips parted, fully realizing what he meant. Nanhui wasn't just sending jewels and silk, they were also giving away royalty, in particular, Princesses.
It seemed Nanhui was hoping their Princesses would catch the attention of royalty, or perhaps, the other way around.
All of a sudden, Li Xueyue feared the life of her future daughters. Would they suffer the same fate?
"But Hanjian doesn't support harems. Neither does the Emperor seem to want more." Li Xueyue didn't have to question Yu Zhen's opinion on this.
He had already reassured her he wouldn't create a harem. She believed he wouldn't go back on his word. After all, Yu Zhen was a man of his word.
"The Empress thinks otherwise."
Li Xueyue pressed her lips together. She thought the Empress would've been appeased by now. What more did the Empress want to see?
"But do not fret."
Yu Zhen grabbed both of her hands, squeezing it with reassurance. "You will not see them. I'll have them dismissed the second they set foot in the palace."
Yu Zhen raised a brow. He thought this was what she wanted. What was going wrong? Her reaction wasn't what he had expected.
"The Empress and the Courts would have expected us to react this way," Li Xueyue stated. "This is another test."
Yu Zhen's expression became grim. He knew this was the truth, but he didn't want her to find out. She was the type to tire herself out without care. He was worried about her body and the state of her mental health.
Li Xueyue was witty and intelligent, but not by default. Yu Zhen knew she would stress herself in search of a perfect response.
"I will deal with my mother, do not worry," he reassured.
"I don't want to solely rely on you," she whispered. "I can handle my own battles."
"That's not what I meant."
"Have some faith in me."
Yu Zhen was displeased by her refusal. He offered her the easy way out, but she refused to accept it. Why not?
"Everyone thinks I'm weak," she muttered, so that only he could hear her. "We don't need another reason for them to nitpick on me."
"Who are the people stupid enough to believe that?" he asked in a calm and composed voice.
Li Xueyue shivered at his tone. His silent rage did not go undetected. The air around them became frigid.
Even the servants cowered back in fear. Everyone was well-aware of the Crown Prince's horrid temper. Once enraged, there was no going back. Nothing would soothe him except the sight of spilled blood.
"I won't tell you."
"Why not?" he demanded, his lips curling into a snarl.
"You'll kill them."
Li Xueyue's head shot up. Hope filled her. "Really?"
She smiled, only for it to drop a second later.
"I'll tear off their tongues."
"Yu Zhen!" she exasperated, knowing it was the truth. If he could get his hands on them, anything was possible.
He smiled down at her, his hand resting on the side of her face. "No harm will come to you."
"That isn't what I'm worried about," Li Xueyue exasperated in an urgent voice. She rested her palm upon the hand touching her.
"What if people call you a tyrant? What if there is an uproar and people demand for your disposal? I'm terrified of the day you get hurt," she whispered. Her voice cracked towards the end as dread filled her.
Li Xueyue could not imagine a world without him. It would be so bleak and depressing… She could already picture how lonesome it would be. Her heart would crumble into dust, carried away by the wind, much like the ashes of their love.
"I don't want to lose you," she confessed.
Li Xueyue glanced at the ground. She knew he was a strong fighter. The tales of his battlefield achievements weren't fables to scare children into obedience. It was true. He was a vicious soldier and a bloodthirsty Commander.
But what if all of his sins came back to haunt him? What if karma demanded its due? There were so many things that could go wrong if he took the wrong turn.
Li Xueyue jolted when he cupped her face. He tilted her head up, forcing her to look at him.
She felt her heart being squeezed by him. There was a tender look in his eyes. Yet, he seemed so upset, as if nothing was going right for him. Why did he appear so melancholic?
"Why do you worry about others, more than yourself?"
Was that the cause of his displeasure? Li Xueyue didn't like to see him burdened by her. "Because you matter more than myself."
Yu Zhen's frown deepened. He firmly shook his head. "We need to change that trait of yours."
Li Xueyue didn't want to argue with him. There was plenty of that already. "I just like to overthink, that is all, Yu Zhen."
"You're putting too much stress upon yourself."
Li Xueyue wryly smiled. "It's a bad habit of mine."
"I'll help you change it."
Her eyes widened in surprise. "No, you're already busy with work, and I don't want you to be weighed down by my problems."
Yu Zhen let out a cold laugh. Was that how he thought of their relationship? "I am not weak, Little Hamster. I can handle everything you throw my way."
"But Yu Zhen—"
He responded by pushing her cheeks together until her lips were puckered like a fish. She looked up at him, wide eyes and shocked.
Yu Zhen chuckled at her morphed features. "Like I said, Sunshine, it's fine."
She glared up at him, obviously disagreeing. He responded with a smile.
"We'll go through this together, Sunshine."
He could see the reluctance in her eyes. Nonetheless, she complied, showing it with a nod of her head.