Yu Zhen could not help but wonder if he had chosen the wrong subordinates. They were both his most trusted people, the wisest and strongest of his squadron, but at this moment, they were the dumbest people he had laid eyes on.
Where should he even begin on the wrongdoings of this situation? Was it the grimy grounds that the Prime Minister's daughter was seated on, or the orphan who was reaching for someone beyond his ranks?
Perhaps, it was how a marriage proposal took place in a place where people were sent to die a gruesome death. Restless spirits crept through these hallways at the dead of the night, where echoes of their haunting lingered into the morning.
"Hah," he sighed, pinching a spot in between his brows, not believing both of them had failed him at the same time.
"We can run away," Hu Dengxiao urgently said as he stared down at her with pure earnestness. He continued to blame himself for accepting and carrying out the mission alone. He knew it would've been better if she was dragged along, even if his heart would be dragged through the fire, and his sanity tested.
"Oh my goodness, when you woke up this morning, you must've forgotten to bring your brain out the doors!" Lu Tianbi cried out in disbelief.
"Zhenzhen is someone that I consider my closest friend, and this betrayal will ruin us both. But he will understand. For us, I do not mind kneeling before the palace grounds for weeks just to receive his forgiveness."
"Well, I'm glad you're already kneeling then."
Hu Dengxiao could've sworn he saw his entire life dance by. From the days in the slums, dipping moldy bread hard as rocks in dirty water to soften it, to the mornings he trained his life away, to the nights where he saw glimpses of Lu Tianbi's sleeping face in the tent.
The Crown Prince's aggravating voice was that terrifying. He could not for the life of him bring his gaze to the man he had nearly betrayed. The man who placed him in his shiny new position, with an income more than anyone of his rank could've asked.
"Both of you are worse than the town fools," Yu Zhen snapped.
Hu Dengxiao bowed his head in shame, the ring still in his hand. Despite the reprimand, Hu Dengxiao heard empathy in his tone, an emotion that no one thought the Crown Prince was capable of.
"Get up, you lovesick puppy," Yu Zhen demanded of his advisor.
"And you," he angrily turned to Lu Tianbi. "Who the hell gave you permission to sit here pitifully?"
Lu Tianbi rapidly blinked her eyes. She glanced away, unable to voice the petty crime that got her in the situation in the first place. She didn't mean to flip the furniture, shatter the teacups, and yank bookshelves to the ground, but that was how the Lu Family talked—with violence and insults.
Yu Zhen could not believe his good morning was ruined so quickly. It went by so well, with his beloved Wangfei, albeit she had also irritated him just as the sun peeked from the horizon. But she was dealt with…well, they were both dealt with.
Seeing as Lu Tianbi did not plan to respond, Yu Zhen turned towards the person who would. He nudged Hu Dengxiao with his foot. A disapproving scowl was on his face, his lips thinned.
"Explain," he commanded the puppy.
Hu Dengxiao nearly pouted. He clenched the ring, wrapping it between his fingers. What was he supposed to even say? That he had threatened the soldiers to let him pass, that he planned to elope with the Prime Minister's daughter, that he planned on ruining two decades of friendship for one week of bliss?
"I'm sorry," were the only words that came out.
"You're not a child anymore. Get up," Yu Zhen growled.
Hu Dengxiao slowly rose to his feet, his eyes trained to the ground. If he had a tail, it would droop, like his lips, and if he had floppy ears, it would be tucked in like a neglected little pet.
"I don't even know what to do with you two," Yu Zhen sighed. When had the situation escalated to this extent? He could've sworn Hu Dengxiao was sent off on an important mission yesterday. Who would've thought he had sidetracked and wandered into a jewelry store?
"Firstly," Yu Zhen said and waved his hand towards the jail doors. "Open it."
The closest soldier to the cell quickly rushed forward, the keys jangling off his belt. He didn't even question the command, even when the Prime Minister said to keep her there until the first sunrise of the next week.
"I threw a tantrum."
Yu Zhen threw Lu Tianbi a distasteful look. She did what?
"I didn't mean to, but…" Lu Tianbi picked up some straw from the ground and plucked at it, hoping to distract her from fidgeting.
"He kept on saying he'd marry me off."
Yu Zhen's brows crinkled. The Prime Minister had always used that as a threat, at least once a day. He had already lost count of how many times these threats were uttered.
��But this time, he meant it, Your Highness," Lu Tianbi muttered. "He brought in the man that I was forced to drink tea and go on an outing with before."
Lu Tianbi pressed her lips together. She still recalled that man's face, gentle and filled with understanding. Everyone could see she was not in love with him, but with the little orphan boy who used to follow her around. Almost everyone in this palace knew of her close relationship with the advisor.
"I refused, and well, the next thing I knew, Father threw a teacup at me. So I tossed the teapot."
Yu Zhen did not need to know what else happened. He had personally witnessed the chaos of Lu Family arguments. It was as if they had a superstition in the family, that during disputes, if there was not one porcelain item smashed, then the family was doomed to an eternity of shame.
"And well, I might've…knocked the suitor unconscious because it smacked him right on the head."
Yu Zhen dully nodded his head in doubt. She could fool anyone but him.
He knew of her excellent aim, for her hobby during training and in the battlefield was tossing small daggers. And it'd land on the target with perfect precision. Who was she kidding? Lu Tianbi had meant to injure that man, hoping he would be scared away.
"But I did not realize. I continued my rampage, yanking the bookshelves to the ground, flipping over tables, as Father screamed he would just marry me off to the farmer's son."
Lu Tianbi let out a sigh. He always said those kinds of things to her. The Prime Minister would consider the farmer's son as a choice, but not Hu Dengxiao, who had enough prestige to overlook his less than ideal childhood.
"Eventually, the man dropped to the ground, blood trickling down his face. And well, Father had his men drag me here."
"You knew how to fend them off," Yu Zhen deadpanned. He had witnessed her single handedly fighting her way out of a circle of enemy soldiers that ganged up on her.
"Yet you let them capture you."
Lu Tianbi plucked at the straw. "Because Father threatened to hurt Hu Dengxiao if I did not willingly come here and take my punishment."
"You did what?!" Hu Dengxiao hollered. And here he was, hoping, praying that she had killed a man. At least, that way, the punishment might've been worthwhile.
"It is far too early in the morning for this," Yu Zhen shook his head. "Get up."
Lu Tianbi did so with heavy reluctance. The door was unlocked for her and all she had to do was step outside. But this would be another act of disobedience towards a father who loved her with all of his heart. His intentions were in the right place, but his mind was not.
"Both of you," Yu Zhen coldly said. "Go and speak to the Prime Minister again. Present the ring if you must. Threaten with elopement if it fancies you. Just don't pull this kind of foolish stunt in front of my face again."
Yu Zhen glanced at Hu Dengxiao and for a split second, his heart faltered. What was he going to tell Yu Lingluo now, his precious little sister whose eyes followed no one but this man?
Yu Zhen shooed them off, knowing this approach would be the only one that would lead to somewhere. The Prime Minister had always privately discussed their relationship with just one of them, and never with both of them together. This time, their ambush should yield something.
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