Li Xueyue didn't believe the twist of fate until she turned the corner and was forced to stop walking. She lowered her legs and tucked her hands to the side for a bow.
"Greetings, Your Grace," she stated, keeping her eyes to the ground until the Empress pardoned her.
Li Xueyue was well aware of the prying stares. They were scrutinizing her, from her head to toe, even her clothes.
They were searching for visible flaws to latch onto and tear her down. She could see their eagerness to gossip and predict how tongues would wag after this encounter. Rumors would spread like wildfire at the expense of a woman's reputation; once tarnished, could never be restored.
"Hmm, you may rise," the Empress finally said. Her voice was light and airy, like a patient mother.
Li Xueyue felt like something was off, but she lifted her chin.
The giggles finally had died down. The hallway settled into a tense silence.
She observed the group of girls that accompanied the Empress, all of whom were young and beautiful. By physical appearance alone, none of these women had flaws. Subconsciously, they were filled with jealousy.
Li Xueyue didn't need to confirm it to know. She could just feel it in the way they masked their hatred with large smiles. They hid their true emotions behind wooden fans crafted from colored parchment.
"Oh my, the Crown Princess is very different from the other candidates," a voice commented.
"Pft…" Another suppressed their laugh and hid behind their fan.
Li Xueyue's gaze sharpened upon realizing none of them bowed to her in greeting. They revealed bright smiles—so sweet, they could give you cavities.
"Yes, the other candidates were… questionable," someone added on.
Small laughter chimed in agreement. The Empress made no moves to control her ladies-in-waiting . Neither did she bother to put leashes on them. Of course, none that were visible.
Amongst the small crowd, Li Xueyue saw Xu Jiaqi who stood the closest to the Empress.
"Well, not very different if you consider how fragile girls from Wuyi are," Xu Jiaqi added on, her lips curled into a concerned smile.
Li Xueyue already knew where this was going. She hadn't forgotten Xu Jiaqi's audacious comments from this morning.
"Your Grace, as a result, many women struggle during childbirth. Their mortality rates are much higher… Children without mothers are pitiful," she whispered.
The Empress nodded in response. She carefully watched Li Xueyue's reactions to these provocative comments. And to her disappointment, the Crown Princess neither smiled nor frowned.
Li Xueyue's face was blank and apathetic. It was like she didn't hear these comments. She continued standing there, with her chin raised and shoulders back. Her eyes were filled with boredom as if she couldn't be fazed by anything.
"Didn't you hear, Your Grace?" another lady spoke up. "One of Wuyi's candidates that was pregnant… supposedly she's bedridden. The physician is warning the servants that the Madam might not live to hold her baby."
Li Xueyue wondered what else these women did aside from spreading gossip like this. They were all women. Why tear each other down to build themselves up?
Her attention shifted to the Empress. On the surface, she seemed to be attentively listening to the comments. But Li Xueyue knew better. The Empress was watching her, carefully observing every reaction.
"Oh no," Xu Jiaqi whispered, covering her mouth in horror. "That poor General… He will have to live with a firstborn child who killed their mother at childbirth."
Li Xueyue knew these comments were directed at her. Replace the General with the Commander, and everyone would understand the message. They were publicly attempting to convince the Empress to reconsider having Li Xueyue as the Crown Princess.
If the Crown Princess died at childbirth, what shall happen to the Crown Prince? Would he go through the difficulties of remarrying?
How pitiful would it be if his first wife died at childbirth? A child without a mother is a pitiful one. What if the Crown Prince's son ended up motherless?
It was easy for these types of doubts to harbor in the Empress' heart.
"We shouldn't generalize. Everyone is different," the Empress finally said.
The Empress was severely disappointed by Li Xueyue's lack of response to these insults. Was the girl deaf? Or just stupid?
"Of course, Your Grace," a woman gently said. Agreement buzzed through the crowd, as more people murmured their support.
"It would be a shame if the Crown Princess's name was dragged through the mud just because of the other candidates. They might come from the same country, but maybe they're different?" another one said.
Li Xueyue blocked out these comments. She hadn't finished analyzing the situation yet. Slow and steady wins the race.
Something about the Empress stood out. It wasn't her layered clothing of deep purple, pure white, and glistening gold. Her dress was elegant and suitable for her age.
However, Li Xueyue wasn't focused on silk and embroidery. What mattered the most was the Empress's accessories.
'What is that…?' she thought to herself. Then, it suddenly clicked.
Her necklace wasn't crafted from fragile gems. It was made of steel. The edges coiled downwards, forming a sharp arrow that pointed to her collarbone. The jaggard rings on the Empress's folded hands didn't seem like any ordinary piece of jewelry.
"Please pardon my impudence for speaking out of turn, Your Grace," Xu Jiaqi whispered. She took a pause, waiting for the Empress's approval.
"You may continue, Lady Xu," the Empress stated.
Xu Jiaqi bowed her head, concealing her excitement. She didn't want to seem too eager to speak. She shuffled her feet and slowly lifted her chin.
"From my previous encounters as a lowly servant before the generous help of the Crown Princess, there were a lot of unsettling rumors that I believe should be brought to light," she said.
The Empress hummed in response, encouraging the suddenly-talkative lady to continue speaking.
The Empress had rarely heard the sweet voice of Xu Jiaqi as the woman was shy and timid.
But when the Empress did hear Xu Jiaqi speak, there was always a sense of tranquility she felt from the soft, soothing voice.
"It's just…" Xu Jiaqi trailed off, fear flashing in her eyes when she snuck a glance at Li Xueyue before quickly looking away.
Everyone noticed her hesitation, as many came forward to encourage her.
"Oh Lady Xu, is something wrong? You're trembling…" A lady dressed in chiffon pink stepped forward, wrapping a comforting arm around Lady Xu Jiaqi. She looked down with worry written all over her face.
"It's alright, Lady Xu, you don't have to force yourself to remember such an unsettling experience," someone encouraged. She reached a hand out and grasped Lady Xu Jiaqi's palms, squeezing it in reassurance.
A woman in yellow quickly nodded her head. She glanced towards the Empress whose gaze was upon Xu Jiaqi.
"That is right, even Her Grace would prefer it if you don't strain yourself," she said.
The same lady in pink added on, "I've never seen you so terrified before, especially when you're with us, Lady Xu. Who is instilling such fear upon you?"
The Empress shifted her attention to Li Xueyue again. What would the Crown Princess do now? The insults were becoming more prevalent. Li Xueyue had to say something. It was either now or never.
Would the Crown Princess remain still as a tree, quiet as a leaf? Or would her true nature unearth before them?
Well, Li Xueyue? What shall you do now?
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