364 Already Occupied
Li Xueyue left the room without another glance back. But she stood outside for a brief second and turned to a maidservant.
"Watch over her," she instructed, purposely keeping it vague.
The maidservant bowed her head in response, understanding the meaning of the Crown Princess's instruction.
Li Xueyue nodded in acknowledgment. Without a word, she walked off. She was heading in the direction of Yu Zhen's private study but then paused. A plan suddenly came to mind…
She retracted her steps and began heading towards a pavilion.
Li Xueyue was certain that the woman would be there. She didn't forget their encounter in Yu Zhen's hallways.
"Bring parchment and ink to the Thousand Lotus Pavilion," she told a maidservant. The servant nodded her head and quickly rushed off to fulfill the request.
Li Xueyue continued her way to the pavilion. Sure enough, it was empty. Upon seeing the blooming lotuses, she understood why this place was named as such. It certainly was a mesmerizing sight to behold. There was a sweet fragrance in the air that wasn't overpowering.
"It's beautiful," she murmured, reaching towards the pond.
Li Xueyue gently touched the petal of a lotus, her lips curling into a smile. She saw a small koi fish in the pond, swimming with ease.
"But the sun is too bright, don't you think so?" she said to her maidservants who nodded in agreement.
"Indeed, Crown Princess. Your fair skin might be harmed."
Li Xueyue hummed. With this much powder on her face, she wondered if the sunlight would even graze her actual skin. Regardless, she stepped onto the bridge that led to the green and red pavilion.
"What a nice breeze," she commented upon sitting down.
Li Xueyue sat with poise. She lightly rested her chin upon a propped up arm and observed the view.
Lotuses could be seen as far as the eyes could see. For some reason, this many flowers brought a sense of dread. There were more white lotuses than pink.
"Crown Princess," a voice addressed from the side.
Li Xueyue turned her head to see the maidservant from earlier. In her hand was a crafted wooden tray filled with parchment, brushes, and ink.
Li Xueyue's smile widened in satisfaction. The maidservant bowed her head and stepped forward to set up the table. She neatly arranged a smooth mat underneath the parchment. Then, another servant began to grind the ink.
"You've also brought tea, how thoughtful," Li Xueyue warmly said.
The maidservant was caught off guard by the compliment. She had served in the palace for all of her life but had never heard such praises from a higher-up. She shyly smiled to the ground.
"And it smells delightful," Li Xueyue commented.
"T-thank you, Crown Princess," the maidservant whispered. She was evidently touched by the Crown Princess's generosity.
All of the maidservants glanced at each other. They too, wanted to hear such praises. It was rare.
Li Xueyue watched as everyone quickly worked harder to please her. From diligently grinding the ink till it was perfectly smooth to twisting the ends of the brush for neater writing, they worked hard.
Everything was going according to plan. She would slowly win over these maidservants until they were fully on her side, serving as her eyes and ears around the palace.
"This should be fine," Li Xueyue said.
The maidservants quickly stepped back and allowed her to write in peace. They stood to the side and patiently waited for the next command.
Li Xueyue held the brush with one hand, then pulled back the sleeve with the other. She breathed through her nose and cleared her thoughts. It was time to get to work.
She began to write down all of the things that needed to be brought up during the Round Table discussions. From her observations in the town to some general ideas, all of it was written.
Li Xueyue was halfway into writing down her ideas when the pitter-patter of footsteps could be heard. She hid her satisfied smile. They had come just in time.
"Oh my, it seems this place is already occupied."
Li Xueyue lifted her head at the familiar voice of the Empress. She pretended to be shocked, her eyes widening the slightest bit. She lowered herself into a graceful curtsy.
"Good afternoon, Your Grace," she said.
The Empress nodded. "You may rise, Princess Li."
Li Xueyue lifted her head, her eyes wandering to the ladies-in-waiting that trailed behind the Empress.
"Greetings to the Crown Princess," the ladies-in-waiting reluctantly said with a small curtsy.
Li Xueyue ignored them. Instead, she shifted her body a bit so that her face would be brightened up by the sunlight, revealing her cakey makeup. Murmurs arose in the background like bustling bees.
"Oh dear…" the Empress trailed off, her lips curled into a frown. What a horrid sight!
Li Xueyue feigned ignorance. Her brows came together. "Is there a problem, Your Grace?"
"Yes, your face."
Li Xueyue didn't think the Empress would be so blunt. But it was something new she learned about her.
"Is there a problem with my makeup?" Li Xueyue asked, her voice filled with confusion. She touched her cheek just as the ladies-in-waiting began to speak up.
"Crown Princess, it seems you've been using expired powder. Goodness… to think your maidservants would be so horrible to use it on you."
"Yes, it is quite a pity. Right now, your wrinkle lines are deeper than the lotus pond."
"Well… you know what they say about Wuyi women. They're too self-conscious, so they always cover all of their flaws with many layers of powder."
Li Xueyue let out a wistful sigh. "It seems my lady-in-waiting has failed me."
The Empress quirked a brow. "Oh?"
"Yes, Xu Jiaqi has been recently assigned to me," Li Xueyue muttered. Another sigh escaped her.
"Lady Xu insisted on being in-charge of dressing me, and since she mentioned Your Grace, I trusted her judgment," Li Xueyue explained in a light, airy voice. Concern filled her eyes as she glanced at the Empress.
The Empress was offended. Not because of Li Xueyue, but of Xu Jiaqi. She had told Lady Xu to be careful with her words. On top of that, Xu Jiaqi had misused the Empress's name without permission.
"Is that so?" the Empress sharply said. Disappointment was written all over her face, overpowering the dissatisfaction in her eyes.
The ladies-in-waiting quickly exchanged horrified glances. They had unknowingly fallen into the Crown Princess's trap. Their mouths were suddenly sealed shut. In an instant, their eyes were averted to the ground.
Suddenly, the polished stone tiles were far more interesting than ever.
"Oh no," Li Xueyue whispered, covering her mouth. "I didn't mean to complain, Your Grace."
The Empress slowly shook her head. "That's alright, Princess Li. You were merely sharing your opinion."
Li Xueyue offered a timid smile. She wrung her fingers together and stepped to the side, seemingly hiding something.
"What brings you here, Princess Li?" the Empress asked with suspicion in her voice.
"Well… it's just," Li Xueyue trailed off.
The Empress was even more curious. It was rare for the headstrong woman to be so timid. She had never seen this side of the Crown Princess. But her acting needed a few adjustments. It might've fooled the ladies-in-waiting, but the Empress was unfazed.
"I wanted a quiet, peaceful place to write my ideas, Your Grace. I didn't mean to intrude here."
"I'm sure you didn't," the Empress chuckled. She glanced to the side. "What are the ideas for?"
"The Round Table discussion, Your Grace," Li Xueyue said. Suddenly, sharp gasps could be heard. The ladies-in-waiting quickly whispered amongst themselves.
Li Xueyue was puzzled. What's wrong?