Yu Zhen was thrown off by her question. His childhood? Where shall he even begin? He knew hers was equally as horrible, if not worse.
The problem was, he liked to forget what had happened in the past. There wasn't a reason for him to continue thinking about it, or keeping it in mind. Such grim experiences shouldn't be kept in his memories.
Nonetheless, Yu Zhen thought it was only fair for him to share some snippets of his childhood. He wasn't fazed by what he had gone through, for the same thing happened to his older brother too. Except, the First Prince was lucky enough to be the Empress's favorite child.
"What would you like to know?" he calmly asked her, curious as to what could've inspired such a question out of the blue.
Yu Zhen was just surprised that she didn't beat around the bush. It was a direct question that resulted in a direct response.
"Well, I don't really know," she admitted.
Li Xueyue nibbled her bottom lip and tried to think of what she was curious about. She unconsciously tapped her chin. A few seconds later, an idea came to mind.
"Perhaps, the dynamic of your relationship with your parents?" she asked.
Yu Zhen chuckled. He caressed the side of her face, a smile hanging from his lips. "You're using complex words today, I am impressed," he teased.
Li Xueyue scoffed in response. She smacked at his chest, knowing it was a joke meant to distract from the question.
"I'm serious," she deadpanned.
Yu Zhen grasped the hand that had hit him. She had gotten stronger, despite the things that have been happening lately. Her smack had finally felt a bit heavy.
"Well?" she eagerly said.
His smile widened upon seeing she was peering up at him, like an intrigued little pet.
"My parents, as you can tell, didn't have the best of relationships. I don't remember when their relationship started breaking down."
Li Xueyue nodded. It was interesting to hear this, especially when she took into account that he had a handful of siblings. Though, she had only met one in the form of Yu Lingluo.
"Perhaps it began when the Empress took the First Prince's side during beatings, protecting no one else but him, and not me."
Li Xueyue's heart was squeezed at his words. She had lived the same childhood as him, where favoritism was too blatant to ignore. The thought of a young Yu Zhen, wide-eyed and terrified, with no one to protect him made her feel distressed.
"The Emperor favored his daughters, the Empress favored her first son. They didn't give me any attention or time of the day. Of course, with such a grim childhood, I was bound to grow up hating them. And I did."
Yu Zhen decided the word "hate" was too kind to describe the emotion he felt for his parents. It was resentment.
All of his life, he would never forget the beatings that toughened his skin, the scoldings that belittled him. It was funny that these were the very things that made him the accomplished man today.
"There was certainly a handful of abuse, maybe enough to equate to yours. The Emperor enjoyed tormenting his sons, believing it would turn boys into men, but in reality, it only turned his sons into villains."
Li Xueyue didn't know where to begin. She had figured the Emperor must've done something cruel to produce such hatred...but abuse never crossed her mind.
He continued onwards, speaking with a calmness that worried her. It was as if he had moved on from the traumatic experiences, or simply didn't care for it.
Maybe it was a combination of both, or this was his coping mechanism—not to pay a mind to all of the troubles that burdened his shoulders.
"There was not a day that either I or the First Prince did not get the short end of the stick. But the First Prince had the protection of the Empress who believed he would become the Crown Prince. She placed all of her hopes and aspirations on him."
Yu Zhen paused. Now that he thought about it... "Or simply put, the First Prince resembled her the most. In every aspect, whether it was his personality, or his small habits. His eyes were exactly like that of the Empress."
Yu Zhen wryly smiled. "Meanwhile, everything about me resembled the Emperor. She must've thought that looking at me was like looking at the man she despised."
Li Xueyue was confused. "I thought...at a certain point in time, Her Grace loved the Emperor? If not, how do you have so many siblings?"
Yu Zhen let out a laugh. "They loved each other at the start of their meeting. It was an arranged marriage, they had no choice but to get along. However, when the Empress gave him what he wanted, the neglect began."
Li Xueyue slowly nodded her head.
"The Empress was fine with that. She knew her responsibility in the palace was to give him as many children as possible, but she had also expected his protection."
"Protection?" Li Xueyue asked without thinking too much about it. An Empress was the Mother of a Country. There should've been many guards in her life, much like the ones Yu Zhen placed around her.
"Yes, palace life during my parent's generation was a lot worse. They weren't so welcoming towards foreigners, which was exactly what the Empress was at the time—the favored Princess of an enemy nation, sent off as a sacrifice to build an alliance."
Li Xueyue was astounded by the similarities she had to the Empress. It was as if she was hearing her love story with Yu Zhen play out.
"In some sort of way, the Empress paved a path for you. Because of her accomplishments and tight reign upon the women of the palace, she was able to slowly dispel the stigma around foreigners."
Yu Zhen didn't want Li Xueyue to think she was like his mother, heartless and crude. But the similarities were too difficult to ignore.
"Unfortunately, she eventually became power-hungry. It happened around the time she failed to give birth to what could've become my older brother."
Li Xueyue's lips parted. A miscarriage.
"As well as another older brother, then maybe even an older sister or two..."
Li Xueyue's eyes widened with horror. She looked up at Yu Zhen, astonishment was written all over her face. She didn't think the Empress had suffered that many miscarriages after the birth of the First Prince.
"The loss of something so tremendous, again and again, must've felt as if her life was spiraling out of control. As a result, she had to control something else. The palace. The servants. Eventually, it became every little thing that the Emperor was in charge of."
Li Xueyue's breath hitched. "By lack of protection…did the Emperor not shield her from the malicious gossip? Was she thrown into the lion's den, forced to survive?"
Yu Zhen solemnly nodded. "Yes. I've heard tales of how tenderhearted she was, until my father failed to fulfill the responsibilities of a husband."
Li Xueyue could not imagine how difficult the Empress's life must've been. A young maiden forced to live on foreign lands, with a husband she barely got to spend time with, in a palace filled with people who were bent on putting her down.
Yet, the Empress did not succumb to the obstacles. She triumphed through, but lost touch with her children.
"It would explain her favoritism," Li Xueyue blurted out only to slap a hand over her mouth. "No, wait I don't mean it like that—"
"I do not mind." Yu Zhen laughed. "Favoritism is exactly what she had for the First Prince. To her, the First Prince was perfection personified. Every time a miscarriage happens, she would hug him dearly, claiming he was a gift from Heaven."
Li Xueyue couldn't wrap her head around it. After so many failed attempts, Yu Zhen was born… If she was the Empress, she would've embraced Yu Zhen just as much as the First Prince. After so many losses, there was finally the light at the end of a dark cave.
"The Empress resented me, not only because my eyes were like that of my father, but because she didn't know what to do with me. She had given the First Prince so much love, there was no room in her heart for someone else, for she believed there would be no other children."
Li Xueyue's heart ached for him. She could do nothing but lean close and hug him tightly. Growing up without love whilst watching someone else receive it… The prickling pain of jealousy and self-doubt. All of it was too familiar.
"Don't cry for me," Yu Zhen muttered. He had forgotten she didn't know anything about her childhood. It was strange for someone to cry over it. He thought it was normal to grow up without loving parents.
Li Xueyue responded by hugging him tighter than before. "You had no one."
"It made me more independent," he whispered, affectionately caressing the back of her head.
"Children do not need to be independent. They need to be loved."
Yu Zhen could only gently laugh at her words. She was too compassionate. It didn't hurt him, truly. He had gotten over that stage of his life. Now, the only emotion that remained was resentment.
"You have me now."
He smiled at her words. He didn't think it was possible to fall even more in love with her. "And you're all I need, Sunshine."
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