After Yu Zhen left, Li Xueyue finally decided to sleep. His words had put her at ease, but she'd trust his actions more.
Unfortunately for Li Xueyue, sleep eluded her once again, and she tossed and turned all night. She let out an aggravated sigh with an arm slung over her eyes. The ransacked carriage contained the herbs she needed for her sleep-inducing tonic.
"I should ask for the Imperial Physician when I have the chance to," Li Xueyue grumbled.
She recalled the last time she had fallen asleep, which took a great deal of effort by lying still like a corpse.
Li Xueyue had no choice but to do the same. She tried to push out the nagging thoughts in her head. Falling asleep was a chore in itself, but the nightmares accompanying it were much worse.
- - - - -
"Oh, Princess…" Yanxi murmured the next morning.
Yanxi worriedly touched up the Princess's haggard eyebags with powder. It had lightened the dark circles but didn't help her exhausted expression. She continued to focus on applying the makeup whilst another handmaiden thoroughly combed the Princess's hair.
"I have horrible insomnia," Li Xueyue grumbled. "Get the Imperial Physician to prescribe herbs for a sleep-inducing tonic."
"As you wish, Princess," Yanxi said. There was a tinge of concern in her voice. She debated whether to inform the Crown Prince about this request or not.
The morning went by in a whirl—of changing clothes, hair styling, makeup, and so on. By the time breakfast came around, Li Xueyue was lazily lifting her chopsticks to pick up the food. She felt more tired than usual, but it wasn't a surprise to her.
Li Xueyue ate in silence and boredom. Yu Zhen hadn't come to join her for a meal. She didn't know why, so she decided to ask him later when she'd disguise her "morning walk" as a beeline straight to the Crown Prince's private study.
Li Xueyue had memorized the path leading to that place from yesterday's walk.
"You've eaten well today, Princess," Yanxi warmly stated when the maidservants came to collect the half-touched food. It was a lot better than usual—a progress.
Li Xueyue hummed in response as she walked purposefully towards the doors. It didn't take long for the Crown Prince's enormous estate to appear before them. No one saw it as a surprise that the Crown Princess's estate was so near it.
Along the way, Li Xueyue saw an irritating woman. The woman's gaze was fixated upon a chrysanthemum flower, bright as the sun. The chrysanthemums were in full bloom, its glorious yellow a sight to behold.
Xu Jiaqi touched the petals of the chrysanthemum flower, her eyes filled with longing.
Li Xueyue pressed her lips together. She understood the indirect message behind Xu Jiaqi's actions. It irked her, but to many outsiders' perspective, Xu Jiaqi's actions were beautiful—like a scene out of a painting.
"What a horrible way to start my morning," Li Xueyue grumbled under her breath.
She decided to ignore Xu Jiaqi even though she wanted to give the woman a piece of her mind.
"Shall we have her removed from your line of sight, Princess?" Yanxi whispered, knowing it would be possible with the Crown Princess's status.
"No need to waste our time," Li Xueyue replied.
She advanced forward, treading down the hallways without a care in the world.
Xu Jiaqi, however, seemed to have all the time in the world. She instantly spotted the eloquent Princess. Her steps were light and airy but filled with a purpose.
It made Xu Jiaqi frown. What was the Princess showing off for? Was that why the Crown Prince chose her? Because she was elegant to look at from afar?
Xu Jiaqi wondered if the Crown Princess preferred a plain woman like Li Xueyue. Her accessories kept to a minimum that always complemented her outfits. Shouldn't the Crown Princess wear more hairpins and jewelry to show off the wealth of her husband?
Nonetheless, Xu Jiaqi walked forward, stopping directly in front of the Crown Princess. She tucked her hands in opposite sleeves and politely bowed in greeting.
"It is always a good morning to lay eyes upon you, Crown Princess," Xu Jiaqi stated.
Li Xueyue was appalled by the sudden greeting. It was suspiciously sweet. She questioned the purpose of Xu Jiaqi's words that could've been shortened to a simple 'Good morning.'
"Princess, I didn't mean to offend you…" Xu Jiaqi trailed off when she was met with silence.
Li Xueyue hadn't spoken a word, but her eyes told a different story. The Crown Princess was the least fazed by Xu Jiaqi's presence. It was almost as if Xu Jiaqi wasn't even standing there.
"Please pardon my shameless words, but I was hoping we'd get along, Princess," Xu Jiaqi stated.
"And why's that?"
Xu Jiaqi tried not to be irked by the Princess's nonchalance. She wasn't just a simple woman now. Her rank was at least that of a Lady. The Princess should have the correct etiquette to acknowledge her properly.
"You see," Xu Jiaqi started, placing a hand upon her chest and smiled.
"We might become the Crown Prince's lovers. Isn't it better for both of us if we were friends? That way the Crown Prince wouldn't be burdened by our disagreements. A happy husband equates a happy—"
The Princess laughed.
Xu Jiaqi paused. She blinked in confusion. What was so funny? She watched as the humorless laughter died down. The Crown Princess's expression morphed into an apathetic stare.
"Are you alright, Princess?" Xu Jiaqi said with obvious confusion on her face.
Li Xueyue couldn't believe how crazy this woman was. She shook her head in disappointment and continued onwards. But to her surprise, Xu Jiaqi was bold.
Xu Jiaqi grabbed onto her sleeves.
Li Xueyue glanced down at the hand on her sleeves. Her lips curled in dissatisfaction. She flicked the hand away as if disgusted by the touch.
"Don't touch what you can't afford," Li Xueyue coldly said.
She watched as Xu Jiaqi's eyes widened in shock.
"Princess, that is very impolite!" Xu Jiaqi exclaimed in a low voice, almost as if she was reprimanding her.
Li Xueyue raised a brow. "Are you scolding me?"
Xu Jiaqi hesitated on how to respond. She was beyond annoyed by how bratty the Princess was. Had no one raised her right?
Xu Jiaqi ground her teeth and resisted the urge to glare. Her lack of filter had gotten her in trouble before. She could still remember the irritable stares her father gave her.
But he was dead now. Buried six feet under just like her mother. She didn't feel an ounce of guilt towards them. They were more useful dead than alive. Because of their demise, Xu Jiaqi was able to gain the Crown Prince's attention.
"Of course not, Princess. I was simply reminding you of the common etiquette. The future Empress of Hanjian should have a compassionate heart, one that is able to understand the principles of how to treat people with love," she said.
Xu Jiaqi lifted her gaze without being told to do so. "The Empress is the mother of our country. If our mother doesn't treat us well, how else can we respect them? Respect is earned, not given."
Li Xueyue's lips curled in amusement. She had finally seen Xu Jiaqi's true nature. Xu Jiaqi was an intelligent opponent, albeit delusional.
Xu Jiaqi purposely masked her words with intentions that benefit others, when in reality, she only wanted it to help herself.
"And do you criticize your mother?" Li Xueyue retorted.
Xu Jiaqi's mind went blank. "What?"
"You had the audacity to ignore the rules of hierarchy, and now, you try to criticize the position of an Empress. I hope you understand the consequences of your actions."
Xu Jiaqi's eyes went wide. Had she insulted the Empress?
"No, Princess, I didn't mean to judge the Empress. I was just—"
"Your opinions have been heard loud and clear by me, and my servants," Li Xueyue mused.
Li Xueyue reached a hand out and patted Xu Jiaqi's shoulder. "Don't worry, little one, your stupidity today will be ignored."
Xu Jiaqi's head shot up. Dismay filled her eyes that moistened with unshed tears. If one was to look from the outside, they'd think she was bullied.
"But not forgotten," Li Xueyue finished. "There are many people who would be interested in your opinions. Why don't we share it with them?"
Xu Jiaqi's throat went dry. She rapidly shook her head in response, knowing the threat behind the Crown Princess's words. Even if the opinions of a normal servant didn't matter, the ones of a Head Maidservant would—especially the respectable Yanxi.
Li Xueyue tilted her head. She revealed an innocent smile that softened her eyes.
"It wouldn't be wise to make an enemy of me," she whispered.
With that said, Li Xueyue walked off.
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