27 Address the Emperor Yourself
The carriage ride back to the Li Manor was awkward and quiet.
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Chenyang's usual unhappy face was pulled into a dark scowl as he stared out the window the entire journey back home.
Wenmin was also quiet, but his face remained passive and nonchalant.
Wedged between two boys with dark clouds over their heads, Xueyue could only sit still and pray for peace.
After the suffocating carriage ride, the three was ushered into the house for lunch.
The lunch table was still very awkward and quiet.
Duchess Li tried to strike up a conversation, but the lack of replies made her frown.
Her eyes trailed from her moody sons to Xueyue who was playing with her food.
Releasing a sigh, she asked, "What happened?"
"Nothing happened. What makes you think that?" Wenmin immediately responded, his voice a pitch too high.
"Yeah, nothing happened. Right Xueyue?" Chenyang nudged the quiet girl besides him who nearly jumped at the contact.
"Uhm." She cleared her throat, unsure of what to say.
She didn't want to lie to Duchess Li who was always so kind and patient with her. Nor did she want to get Chenyang and Wenmin into trouble. Her eyes darted back and fourth at the conflict presented to her.
Luckily, Duchess Li came to her saving grace. "Are you sure nothing happened? Because Wenmin is usually not this quiet and Chenyang is too much of a picky-eater to finish all of his dishes." Duchess Li crossed her arms, her motherly tone coming out. It was the same tone she used to reprimand and interrogate her sons.
Sure, Chenyang and Wenmin were already 16 and were already quite mature. But that didn't stop Duchess Li from scolding them. Be it 16 or 66, she would still reprimand them as if they were children!
"I can always ask the servants what happened, but I'd prefer to hear your side of the story first." Duchess Li placed down her chopsticks.
Her eyes scanned the nervous trio in front of her who seemed to find the dinner table very interesting. Neither boys wanted to make eye contact, and Xueyue was too busy staring at her bowl of rice to respond.
Duchess Li clicked her finger onto the table, her hawk-eyes scanning the children in front of her.
After a few seconds of silence, she said, "Well boys?"
"We ran into that brat."
"We ran into the fourth Prince." Wenmin said, the same time Chenyang spoke.
"Chenyang! You can't call the fourth Prince a brat!" Duchess Li frowned.
"He's your cousin!" Duchess Li added on, clearly upset at the insult. Goodness gracious, I hope they didn't call him that in person!
"He's the Imperial Concubine's son, not the Empress! Why should we call him our cousin when he's not even Royal Aunt's son-ow!" Chenyang scowled when Duchess Li twisted his earlobe.
"Now, young man, I did not teach you such bad manners!" Duchess Li scolded, a dark scowl on her face.
What she didn't know was that Chenyang didn't feel pain from the punishment. But he loved his mother simply too much to let her know the truth. He knew she wanted something to leverage and control him, so he allowed her the satisfaction of hearing he was in "pain."
"Please tell me, you boys didn't offend him again?" She exasperatedly said, pinching the spot between her brows.
Wenmin and Chenyang exchanged glances.
Wenmin's gaze were filled with uneasy anxiety, whereas Chenyang seemed nonchalant.
Chenyang stubbornly crossed his arms. So what if we insulted the fourth Prince? The Emperor favors us more than he favors that Prince...
"But Mom! He started it!" Wenmin pouted, his eyes growing wide. His face resembled a wounded-puppy that was accused of tearing the couches apart.
"I don't care who started it! You can't just insult the fourth Prince! The Imperial Concubine may be lenient, but when it comes to her only son, she is as fierce as me!" Duchess Li exasperated with a frown, sitting back down.
Duchess Li picked up her chopsticks again and began to quietly debone the fish for her picky sons. "Besides, how did you run into him in the first place?"
Chenyang looked away. Wenmin stared at the table, adamant on keeping his mouth shut. Xueyue awkwardly shifted in her seat.
When she noticed the awkward silence, Duchess Li frowned again. "Well?" She pressed on, placing the fish into everyone's plates.
"It was my fault..." Xueyue quietly said.
Duchess Li was surprised at the confession, but kept her ears fully open.
Xueyue explained the story of what happen. By the time she finished, Duchess Li had a thoughtful expression on her face.
Xueyue deliberately left out the insults. She didn't want to get the boys in trouble.
"I see...You were doing an act of kindness towards a child." Duchess Li hummed to herself.
After a while of staring down the guilty children in front of her, she sighed.
Neither of them wanted to reveal the truth or accuse one another. Their lips were sealed in a deep bond of trust and loyalty.
Duchess Li didn't know if she wanted to laugh or cry at the realization.
"If the fourth Prince does not consult this issue with the Emperor, I will let it pass. But if he does and the Emperor catches wind of this issue, you will have to address him yourself. Is that clear?" Duchess Li finally relented.
"Yes, Ma'am." Wenmin grinned, teasingly saluting his lovely mother.
Chenyang and Xueyue agreed as well.
The three prayed that the next few days would be peaceful, but if only they knew, it would be the polar opposite of that.