Yu Zhen made his way to his desk. He heard her tiny footsteps following after him. Her steps were light and airy, but she walked with a purpose. He always loved that about her.
Even when Li Xueyue did not know where she was going, she strutted with determination. Even when Li Xueyue was losing a fight, she'd jut her chin higher up. She did the opposite of what others expected her to do.
"A desk?" she deadpanned.
Li Xueyue tilted her head out of sheer curiosity. Was this where he kept his poison? But where could it be stored in?
Li Xueyue peered at the mahogany drawers, but they were slim and thin. Nothing about this desk could hold a collection of potions, as he had told her in their bedroom.
"A pretty desk," she corrected herself.
Li Xueyue touched the surface of it and curiously lifted one of the paperweights. She studied it, her fingers trailing over the carvings—a golden tree with large roots and branches and bountiful leaves. She always knew he loved nature.
"Not just any desk," Yu Zhen mused. He gently guided her to the side, and moved the chair away from the table.
"What are you doing?" Li Xueyue asked. He kneeled on the ground and touched the floorboard. She tilted her head in confusion when he reached a hand out to her.
Puzzled by his action, Li Xueyue placed her palm in his hand. Suddenly, he let out a loud laughter. His eyes crinkled, and he smiled up at her with a shake of his head.
"No, Little Hamster, give me the paperweight."
Li Xueyue's cheeks flushed in response. She yanked her hand back, highly embarrassed by her foolishness. But it was too late. He had already captured her fingers and held it tightly.
"Stop smiling at me like that. Just take your paperweight!" she whined whilst holding it out for him.
Yu Zhen wiped away a fake tear from his eyes. His lips were pulled into a Cheshire grin. If she continued behaving like this, he'd want to do more than talk. But there were things to do, people to kill, and lives to ruin.
Yu Zhen took the paperweight from her hands and showed her the flat surface. "It's a key."
Li Xueyue wondered what he meant by that. The floorboard was smooth and looked like any other floorboard. There wasn't a small hole where a key could be inserted, much less, by a large paperweight.
Then he surprised her.
Yu Zhen placed the paperweight on the ground. He moved it around a bit until there was a soft click. Slowly, he shifted his wrist, turning the paperweight in a circle.
There was a pattern to this.
Yu Zhen made a full circle with the paperweight, then a strange shape that looked like a semi-circle. Next, he slid the paperweight towards his desk, with the bottom firmly planted on the ground.
"I don't get it?" Li Xueyue said. She expected to hear another click indicating that they had done the pattern correctly. Just then, he caught her by surprise by firmly pressing the paperweight on the floor.
Li Xueyue jumped when the floorboard lowered itself, revealing the finely cut-out door. She was surprised by the design of this mechanism and she wondered how long it took to research and engineer this system.
"It's a technique I learned from a traveling merchant who used to visit the palace in my youth. Though, he died on his journey back to the foreign land he came from."
Li Xueyue slowly nodded her head. She took a few steps backward as Yu Zhen pulled the floorboards up. They were glued together and didn't look any different from the other wooden floorboards.
"Don't just stand there," Yu Zhen teased. "Didn't you want poison?"
Li Xueyue stared down at the pitch-dark cellar. She couldn't see anything down there. It was terrifying. The darkness scared her, especially random rooms hidden underneath floorboards.
Yu Zhen struck a hand out towards her. His palms were marred with small cuts, his skin hardened by the swords he always wielded. Even so, it was reassuring to look at. His fingers were significantly larger than hers. When he held her hand, it was difficult to see where her fingers began.
"Don't you trust me?" Yu Zhen teased her.
"Always," she mumbled.
Li Xueyue shakily placed her hand on his. He wrapped his fingers over her hand and pulled her close. "It looks too dark down there, and I'm scared of seeing the pitch-black shadows."
"Then stick close to me."
"Yu Zhen…" she trailed off, feeling uneasy about this.
Li Xueyue was so wrapped up in her fear that she did not hear his teasing tone. He curled his finger under her chin and forced her to look up at him. It was to no avail. Her eyes were glued to the cellar below. It was ominous and dark, warning of the hidden dangers.
"I didn't forget your fear of the dark," Yu Zhen said.
Yu Zhen softly kissed her on the lips and walked towards one of his bookshelves. There were decorative pieces placed on the shelves, ranging from small bonsai trees to books and vases, but a single lantern sat on it. It was unused and seemed like a mere decoration.
Li Xueyue tightly squeezed his hand. "Light it," she demanded.
Yu Zhen suppressed an amused laughter. No one had commanded him like this. He wasn't sure if he should feel infuriated or entertained. Even so, he released her hand, grabbed a match from the lower shelves, and lit the lantern for her.
"There, all better now?" Yu Zhen murmured whilst giving her the lantern to hold.
Li Xueyue slowly nodded her head. "Don't you need it to guide the way?"
Yu Zhen debated if he should tell her the truth. He knew the layout of this private study like the back of his hand. He had walked every inch of the cellar, and memorized the layout of everything down there.
"No, Sunshine. I will be fine."
Yu Zhen tugged her back to the cellar before she could start asking him even more questions. She trudged behind him, wary of her footing.
"We will be heading down now," Yu Zhen informed her. "There is a small set of stairs leading down."
Yu Zhen glanced back at her. She was tightly gripping the lantern, her eyes darting from him to the cellar. She nervously licked her bottom lip and shakily held the lantern in front of him. Did she want to guide him with the light?
"Stick close to me."
"I-I already am." Li Xueyue was literally a step behind him. When he took one step forward, she quickly followed after him.
"Stick even closer. There are ghosts down there."
"What?!" Li Xueyue shrieked, just as he began to descend down the stairs, pulling her along.
"I was hoping to lighten the mood, Sunshine," Yu Zhen softly comforted her. He turned his back to the darkness, and peered up at her. She was standing at the top of the stairs, refusing to walk down the three steps that he had taken.
"Come now, don't be scared." Yu Zhen reached his other arm out for her, as if offering her a hug. "I will be here, every step of the way."
Li Xueyue warily looked at him with a small pout. She reminded him of a little child shaken by a haunting nightmare, and hovering near her parents' bedroom, debating whether or not she should join them.
"I will hurt them before anyone dares to harm you."
Li Xueyue's chest warmed at his words. She felt strange and fuzzy, her body humming. He always made her feel safe. Whenever he was around, nothing dared to hurt her.
So, she swallowed her fears and placed her trust in him.
"That's my girl," Yu Zhen reassured.
Li Xueyue descended the stairs and into the darkness.
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