Li Xueyue could not find Yu Zhen anywhere. She had searched through all of the places he could've been. She was perplexed. Did something happen?
Filled with worry, Li Xueyue paced about in her bedroom. She wondered if he had left the palace on an urgent notice? It would explain his sudden absence.
Pressing her lips together, Li Xueyue decided to do something rather than wasting her time pacing back and forth in her bedroom and she knew just what to do.
Li Xueyue turned to her maidservant. "Prepare me for horseback riding."
- - - - -
Sure enough, Li Xueyue's predictions were correct. The stables reserved specifically for the Imperial Family were missing a horse. Xiao Lizi's stall was empty.
"Princess!" the stable boy greeted in astonishment. He hurried forward and deeply bowed before her.
"My horse, how has he been doing?" Li Xueyue asked.
At her voice, a set of ears immediately perked up. Heiyue nervously paced in his stall, wondering if the wind was playing tricks on him. It had been a while since his beloved friend had ridden on his back and soared through the meadows together.
"As instructed, Princess, Heiyue is on a healthy diet with occasional treats. He is groomed regularly. And each time he is taken on a walk, his hoof shoes would be constantly cleaned for the dirt that gets stuck in them."
Li Xueyue vaguely nodded. It was exactly as she had told the servants to do. Heiyue was now living a life of luxury. He enjoyed balanced meals and daily attention.
"I see," she said.
Li Xueyue set foot into the stable. Instantly, she approached Heiyue's stall. He was poking a head out of the door, his head tilted. A smile graced her lips.
Just the sight of him alone was enough to fill her chest with joy. Heiyue reminded her of her life in Wuyi. Memories resurfaced—riding Heiyue and dashing through the fields behind the Li Manor, the wind in her hair, the freedom propelling her forward and the occasional races with the twins. So many joyous memories came with Heiyue.
"Heiyue," Li Xueyue whispered.
Immediately, Heiyue raised his head. He let out an impatient neigh in response and raised his front legs, kicking at the door. Irritably, he paced around, his tail swishing.
"I've missed you." Li Xueyue came forward and reached her hands out towards him.
Heiyue heard the shuffle of clothes and snorted. He took steps back, and far away from the sound.
"Aw," she cooed. "Don't be so angry with me, Heiyue."
Li Xueyue opened the stall doors. She saw the nervous gaze of the stable boy. He was holding the mattress and saddle in hand, but watching her with caution. Li Xueyue knew he must've been terrified of what Heiyue would do.
Everyone knew how ill-tempered of a horse Heiyue was. He was pampered with attention, but accepted no one's kindness.
"I was busy securing a life for both of us,�� Li Xueyue teased. She set foot into the stall and slowly approached her horse.
"I even brought you a treat, Heiyue." Li Xueyue stuck out her hand, revealing two sugar cubes.
Heiyue could not see, but he knew that it was his favorite treat. She always brought it for him. Even so, Heiyue swayed his head and looked away, angry that she had abandoned him here.
Li Xueyue's heart squeezed with guilt. She had been too busy dealing with the politics within the Imperial Palace. Li Xueyue had forgotten who it was that brought her to Hanjian.
"I won't do it again," Li Xueyue swore. She remained in her spot, knowing Heiyue preferred that she maintained a distance and gave him some time. If she intruded into his space now, he would be upset.
"I will try to visit you at least once a week or a fortnight, and always with treats. We can go out and ride like we've always done. How does that sound?"
Heiyue weighed the options a bit. He strutted a little bit before finally approaching her. Hesitatingly, he lowered his head and ate the sugar cubes. Instantly, he turned his head and ears in her direction, paying all of his attention to her.
Li Xueyue's smile brightened. She reached her hand out and affectionately caressed the side of his face. Heiyue pleasantly snorted, as he nudged his head into her palm. She let out a small laugh. It was ticklish, and his nose was wet.
"Alright, alright," she mused.
Li Xueyue pulled her hand back as Heiyue walked closer to her and nudged her again. She reached out and took his reins. Then, she gently guided Heiyue out of his stall.
"Do you know where your friend has gone too?" Li Xueyue vaguely asked.
The stable boy silently came forward. He hurriedly placed on the blanket first and smoothed it out. Then, he placed the saddle upon the horse, all the whilst keeping a close eye on the Crown Princess.
Everyone that worked in the stables knew Heiyue belonged to the Crown Princess. He was an energetic and intelligent horse, but his spirit was wild and untamed. There were times he'd rebel against the people handling him, but not to the extent of causing an injury.
Even so, the stable boy was worried that the Crown Princess would get hurt. It would be disastrous if that were to happen. The horse would be put down.
"Out there?" Li Xueyue asked when Heiyue did not respond. She realized he did not know which direction she meant, but that was fine with her.
Li Xuyue stroked Heiyue's mane. It was silky smooth and free from tangles. His midnight coat of hair shone like polished obsidian.
"Where did Xiao Lizi go?" Li Xueyue asked the stable boy once he was done setting up the saddle.
Li Xueyue approached the side of her horse.
"Ah, Princess please let us help—"
The stable boy's voice died off. With ease, the Crown Princess had hoisted herself on top of Heiyue. He was in awe, but not surprised.
Everyone knew the Crown Princess was a woman of many talents. Many people had seen her single-handedly dominate the archery ring and win against Nanhui's unruly Princess.
It was a sight witnessed by a few, but gossiped by many. The servants would not stop talking about it, even to this day.
"Answer my question," Li Xueyue instructed. She took Heiyue's reins and guided him out of the stable.
"I-I apologize, Princess," the stable boy hurriedly stuttered out. "But in response to your inquiry, Xiao Lizi was led out of the stable by His Highness, the Crown Prince."
Li Xueyue's brows raised. She had guessed correctly. "Does the Crown Prince usually ride Xiao Lizi at this hour?"
"No, Princess. His Highness usually takes Xiao Lizi for a morning walk, just as the sun is rising."
Li Xueyue nodded. The sun was setting in the sky, and nightfall was approaching soon. It was odd for Yu Zhen to take Xiao Lizi out for a run.
"In what direction did the Crown Prince guide Xiao Lizi?" Li Xueyue needed to check if she should bring Heiyue to the Capital, or the fields.
"The large field leading to the forests far ahead, Princess."
Li Xueyue nodded. She guided Heiyue out of the stable. He energetically strutted towards the doors. It was a slow walk at first, until his foot sensed a familiar sensation.
"Go on," Li Xueyue whispered.
Heiyue immediately broke out in a small run. With the wind upon his spine, and the sun caressing him, he picked up speed.
The world was a blur with Heiyue for he dashed with a speed faster than lightning. But she saw the guards that lined the palace walls, and beyond, where the fields begin.
Li Xueyue realized the soldiers near the fields were not always there. When she had run out of the palace a week ago, it was not this protected. Yu Zhen must've placed them there to protect her in case she needed another run.
"I hope I'm not intruding…"
Li Xueyue was suddenly hesitant to search for Yu Zhen. What if he wanted to be left alone? And she was interrupting that time?
But it was too late for her to say anything. Heiyue was thundering through the fields. He dominated every blade of grass, the world trembling under his hooves.
Li Xueyue allowed Heiyue to run for as long as his heart desired. Soon, nightfall approached, and the stars twinkled in the distance. Her shoulders dropped in disappointment.
Yu Zhen was nowhere to be found. Li Xueyue wondered if he had already begun to head back, and she missed him in the fields. But it was hard to miss the figure of his brilliant horse, Xiao Lizi.
"W-wait, where are you going?" Li Xueyue panicked when Heiyue changed his direction and ran towards the guards. They were lining the border of the fields and stood near the trees that broke into a forest.
"The forest?" Li Xueyue wondered why Heiyue was heading there. It would not be a fun trail for him. Nonetheless, she allowed Heiyue to guide her towards the thick forest.
"Careful!" Li Xueyue scolded as Heiyue to jump over a grown man. She had nearly forgotten how powerful and versatile Heiyue was.
Heiyue did not let the jump stop him but he did slow down so that she would not fall off of him. However, the possibility of that happening was slim. He would never throw her off.
Li Xueyue curiously glanced around their surroundings. Where exactly was Heiyue taking the both of them? She relaxed her grip on the reins and allowed him to walk freely.
Her ears twitched. There was the sound of running water somewhere but she did not know in which direction it came from.
"You must be thirsty," Li Xueyue muttered. She allowed Heiyue to walk them towards the sound of the water.
"I'm sure there are snacks in this pouch…" Li Xueyue reached towards the side of the saddle, where a leather pouch was strapped. Just as she clicked the top open, Heiyue walked over a bush, and directly towards a stream of water.
There, Li Xueyue saw a familiar horse. Xiao Lizi was drinking water from the river, but her owner was nowhere to be found.
Xiao Lizi was all alone.
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