Xiao Hua quietly slipped into the large room and closed the door. She glanced around and placed the satin box on the table where the hydrangeas were.
"Did the Crown Princess not like hydrangeas?" Xiao Hua wondered out loud whilst tilting her head. It was a beautiful flower, full of colors and life. "I think it was a gift too, but I'd have to ask the other maidservants who sent these."
Xiao Hua decided to save that task for later. She departed from the table and walked to the other side of the room. Lifting her wrist, she knocked upon the bedroom door.
"Crown Princess, are you alright?"
Xiao Hua heard a faint response that sounded similar to "Come in." Without wasting any more time, she wrapped her hand on the door handle and opened it.
Stepping into the room, her eyes did a quick sweep, in case something needed to be addressed. Alas, nothing was out of place, except the Crown Princess who sat by the vanity with an open book.
���What are you doing in here, Xiao Hua?" Li Xueyue asked without lifting her eyes from the book page. She ran a finger on the thin paper, memories of the main house coming back to her.
"You should be showing off the earrings to your friends, to let them praise you in awe," she added on whilst flipping to the next page.
"It's out of my place to do so, but I was worried… Princess," Xiao Hua whispered. She closed the doors behind her, but stayed by it.
"Come closer," Li Xueyue said. She didn't have to turn her head to know Xiao Hua was too obedient to approach without a command. However, sometimes, the maidservant would act on her own, much like now, where she entered the estate even though Li Xueyue didn't call for her.
"Everytime I look at you, your brows are knitted together…" Li Xueyue muttered whilst glancing at Xiao Hua for a brief second. "You're young, but if you keep stressing your body like this, you will get wrinkles."
Xiao Hua touched her forehead, almost as if she was surprised to feel the soft ridges of her knitted brows forming a crease on her head.
"Have you ever read a book about war, Xiao Hua?" Li Xueyue asked. She returned her attention back to the book in her hand. She hid the amusement in her eyes. For a moment there, Xiao Hua had the appearance of a puzzled lamb tilting her head.
"No, Princess… Servants are not allowed to own such violent books."
Li Xueyue hummed in response. It was understandable, since these books could give them unwanted ideas. "Well, this isn't just a book about killing people," she said with a laugh.
From the corner of her eyes, she saw Xiao Hua blush in embarrassment whilst she anxiously pressed her thumbs together.
"It's called The Art of War," Li Xueyue said whilst showing the open book to the handmaiden. "My father had recommended for me to read it a few years ago. I've finished it within the first week, but it's nice to reread it again."
Visible curiosity was on Xiao Hua's face, but she nodded her head nonetheless. She pressed her lips together, seemingly wanting to say something, but the rules of the palace held her back.
"When you're with me, speak freely. But only you are allowed that privilege," Li Xueyue said.
She could see Xiao Hua's body jump in surprise, her head snapping to her. Li Xueyue continued reading. Her fingers flipped to the next page, but her attention wasn't focused on the words.
Li Xueyue hadn't read this book in a while, but pulled it out for old time's sake. The hydrangeas had reminded her of the Li Family, and this book was one of the few connections she had to them. That, and her pendant, which was safely tucked inside the vanity.
Li Xueyue let out a quiet sigh. If only the bandits hadn't attacked her…then she would have a bit more items from the Li Family. But she'd like to believe the bandit and their families had suffered too much cruelty from war, which influenced their actions.
Of course, she always exchanged letters with the Li Family, with the bird that her father had gifted her, but no amount of writing would beat physical connection.
"I-I will try too, Princess," Xiao Hua said in a voice soft and calming.
Li Xueyue was intrigued by how quiet this maidservant was. All of the servants rarely spoke to her, but this one seemed very different. It was like Xiao Hua wasn't forcing herself to be demure and quiet, thus, everything always came off as more genuine.
"You must find it so strange that I am reading this book," Li Xueyue mused.
"Not at all Princess, you are one of the cleverest women in the palace, it's normal for you to enjoy this book," Xiao Hua stated.
Li Xueyue hummed in response. Now, it was no longer part of her nature to reject compliments just to humble herself. It was just Xiao Hua and her, no one else.
Eventually, a comfortable silence passed over them. Xiao Hua stood beside the vanity with her hands tucked in front of her.
Li Xueyue continued reading, with one finger resting on the next page. She didn't mean to engage so deeply in the materials written here, but they were too helpful and she wanted to absorb more knowledge. A few of the tactics listed in the book could prove useful to the Round Table Discussion.
"I should ask Yu Zhen when the next one is going to be…the earlier we act on my suggestions, the better," she mumbled to herself.
Li Xueyue glanced at Xiao Hua for a brief moment and decided standing there would be too tiring.
"Prepare the tea and afternoon snacks," Li Xueyue instructed Xiao Hua who bowed her head in response.
Li Xueyue read onwards, even when she heard the quiet click of the doors being shut behind her. Yet again, she was alone in this bedroom, with the only source of noise being the occasional turn of pages.
Consumed by the words and details, she didn't realize how much time had passed. Until, eventually, the doors opened again, and someone stealthily entered.
"Place everything over there," Li Xueyue mindlessly said whilst pointing to the small, round table that faced the bed, but was near the window.
Li Xueyue decided it was better to enjoy tea and pastries by the open window, where a refreshing breeze would blow upon her. Though, she wasn't sure if the unruly wind would be appreciated, since it often flipped the pages.
Li Xueyue heard a heavy thud. She frowned a bit. That didn't sound like a tray with tea and pastries being placed down. But she flipped the leaf to the other page, her eyes glued to the book.
"Is everything alright?"
Li Xueyue settled the book onto the vanity. She turned around, her eyes filled with uncertainty. But then she saw him, and the corner of her lips lifted.
"What are you doing here?" she asked in a voice more cheery than anticipated.
"Do I need a reason to see my wife?" Yu Zhen teased whilst approaching her.
"What's in the box?" Li Xueyue inquired. She pointed to the spot near the table, where two large chests could be found.
Yu Zhen quirked a brow. "Your husband is here and that's the first thing you care about?"
She rolled her eyes at him. "Are you going to return all of my questions with another question?"
"Would you like that?"
Li Xueyue resisted the urge to chuck the book at his head. She usually enjoyed their playful banter, but in the spur of the moment, she wanted to hit him.
"Just answer my questions," she sighed.
Yu Zhen placed both of his hands on her shoulders. His touch was warm and she leaned into it.
"You seem disgruntled," he murmured whilst bending his upper body for her. His lips brushed against her ears.
"Why is that?" he asked whilst kissing the side of her head.
Li Xueyue played with the edges of the book. She was mindful of his heated gaze that watched her fingers.
Li Xueyue shivered at his voice, deep and velvety. She could never get enough of him, could she?
"I don't know," she admitted in a tiny voice, her lips pulling into a pout.
Li Xueyue could not understand how quickly she shifted from irritation to begrudgement.
"You've learned to whine more," Yu Zhen pointed out with a slight smile. His fingers grazed her jawline, skimming it carefully.
"I know," she sighed. "I used to not whine at all… I've changed too much since meeting you."
Yu Zhen widened his smile. How was it possible that he was entertained by her complaints? "It's because you've grown more comfortable with me, enough to cry and whine."
"Is that a bad thing?"
"In normal circumstances yes," Yu Zhen said. "But you're far from normal, so I'd say no."
Li Xueyue scoffed in response, but could not hide the smile on her face. She found it was strange that even with the Li Family, she rarely complained… It wasn't because they didn't allow her to do so. She was just worried about burdening them. Her fear of disappointing them also didn't help.
But in Yu Zhen's presence, she felt too comfortable and secured to hold back her thoughts. Li Xueyue would never believe, not even in her wildest dreams, that there would be a life like this…
And without knowing it, she whispered out, "I'm so glad to have you in my life."
Yu Zhen let out a small laugh. "And the rest of this palace is grateful to have you in mine."
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