The stench of blood was heavy in the air. Birds chirped in the background, its notes were eerie and grim. Occasionally, a maidservant would whimper, and another would sob. All of them were kneeling, but some were sprawled on the ground for their legs had given out.
"What is the meaning of this?" Li Xueyue breathed out, her eyes taking in the dreary atmosphere.
In the center of the open courtyard was a wooden platform. Blood dripped off the sides, as a brutalized body was bound to a wooden pole.
Li Xueyue hadn't had breakfast but felt the urge to vomit. She didn't need to ask who was on the podium. Especially, when the color of the discarded clothes on the podium was exactly what Xu Jiaqi wore yesterday.
There was so much blood that Li Xueyue almost did not see the rags worn by Xu Jiaqi. It seemed Xu Jiaqi had been stripped in public and forced to wear humiliating rags...
"Yu Zhen?" she softly demanded, upon laying eyes on him. He was just a few feet away, his chair positioned away from her. It faced the wooden platform, and she wasn't able to see his expression.
At the sound of her voice, he slowly turned around. A slow, sinister smile spread on his lips.
"You're up early. Did the screaming wake you up?" He reached a hand out, beckoning for her to come forward.
Li Xueyue took a step in his direction but paused. At the far end of the courtyard, she could see a group of people approaching.
"Your mother…" she shakily said, knowing the outcome of this event would be far from favorable.
"You're trembling." Yu Zhen stood up. He approached her and looked down, admiring the sight of her.
"My robes and cloak look divine on you." She flinched when his icy fingers brushed her cheek.
Yu Zhen's mood dimmed. He had prepared a present for her. Did she not like it? He narrowed his eyes. Even if she didn't, the deed was done.
Xu Jiaqi had been whipped and beaten until she was nothing but a bloody mess. Her elegant clothes were stripped, and she was made to wear dirty rags.
Li Xueyue's maidservants were made to watch the punishment take place. They would probably have nightmares of this event for a long time. It was difficult to ignore the howls, shrieks, and pleas of Lady Xu Jiaqi. They thought she was the most dignified of servants, despite her haughty demeanor. But the consequences of her actions changed everyone's perspectives of her.
"Your hands are so cold," Li Xueyue shakily said. She touched his large, calloused hands, pale and purple.
"How long have you been out here for?" she gently asked, breathing hot air upon his palm. Without warning, he grabbed her nape, yanking her close.
Yu Zhen peered into her eyes, viciously searching for fear. He once believed her eyes were forged of stars and dusk, brilliant hues of hazelnut brown. His judgment was not wrong. He saw his reflection in her clear, autumn orbs.
"You didn't have to do all of this," she whispered, referring to the public torture that took place. When she made eye contact with one of her maidservants, Li Xueyue's heart ached. These poor things…they had to witness the pure brutality of their Crown Prince.
"Hanging a big fish like this… It will cause a ruckus," Li Xueyue added on. She wasn't sure what he was looking at but his glare seemed so irritated, his lips were thinning by the second.
"Why are you trembling?" he demanded, grabbing her hand before it touched his chest.
"Because I'm cold."
Yu Zhen's thumb touched her fingers. She wasn't lying. "Are you scared of me?"
"I've seen what you did to the Viscount and Viscountess. If I were terrified of you, I would have ran for the hills."
Yu Zhen's uncertain heart was soothed by her words. Everyone in this palace was terrified of him. They quivered at the sight of him, their gazes glued to the ground. People flinched at his presence, and no one dared to oppose him.
Yu Zhen didn't need his wife to do the same. He blinked back to reality when she reached up and caressed his jawline. He naturally leaned into her hand. Her touch, hesitant, and soft.
"Is she alive?" she murmured.
"On the inside or outside?"
Li Xueyue's throat dried. She tilted her head to the side. Xu Jiaqi's body was so mangled, it truly was nothing but flesh and skin. Her head was hung low, blood dripping from her wounds. There was something on the ground…it rolled when a strong gust of wind roared through the courtyard. It was severed fingers—missing nails.
"Lovely sight, isn't it?"
"I sometimes forget you are crazy." Li Xueyue placed a hand upon her mouth, suppressing the need to gag. Instead of chastising her for looking, he wrapped a hand behind her head and pressed his body closer to hers.
"Who did this?" she asked, wanting to look around, but his chest blocked her view.
"You said you'd let me handle it," she said.
"You must've dreamed of such words."
Li Xueyue frowned. He had dirtied his hands for her, yet again. What was with peoples' tendency to help her? It wasn't the fact that she didn't appreciate the help, but more of, she wanted to do things on her own.
"All of your maidservants watched with wide, open eyes. They know to never harm you, for they will suffer the same fate, if not, worse."
Li Xueyue didn't even know where to begin. There was so much to be said, so much to be felt, that she was overwhelmed. Her hands tightly gripped upon his clothes.
"This wasn't what I had in mind."
"I'm certain it is."
Li Xueyue's head snapped upwards. She opened her mouth, but he gripped her chin and pressed a thumb to her lips.
"Do not lie to me. I saw the bloodlust in your eyes when the wench was slapped silly by you."
Yu Zhen revealed a crude smile. "Your hands are already covered in blood, but no need to dip it in some more."
"Isn't this satisfactory?" he added on, turning her head in the direction of the wooden platform.
Xu Jiaqi couldn't even stand on her own. Her body had slumped forward, only held up by the ropes tied around her body.
Li Xueyue finally noticed the men in black clothes standing beside her. They held whips in their hands. In the far corner, there was a burner with hot burning coals and metal rods beside it. A branding had taken place—in more than one spot on her body.
Her legs nearly gave out, but he caught her.
Li Xueyue didn't hear Xu Jiaqi's screams, but surely, it would've sounded animalistic and high-pitched. The torture endured was not for the faint of heart.
"She loved you." The words came out before she could control it.
"Many people love me. Does that mean I should love all of them back?"
Yu Zhen did figure it was strange that Xu Jiaqi had pleaded with him with eyes more hollow than any women he had met. Who would've known it was heartbreak? He certainly didn't. Nor, did he care.
Thinking back to it, Xu Jiaqi only showed him those eyes after he had her clothes stripped in front of everyone. And when she begged, "Your Highness, please spare me some mercy!" he had laughed. Right in her face.
The darkest glower was shown to her. She wasn't crying when her clothes were yanked off. But she was crying when he watched her with eyes of pure hatred. And maybe, her heart shattered then.
Perhaps the best torture for Xu Jiaqi was to break her heart. Xu Jiaqi was beaten until she became unconscious. Up until the last moment, she had faith in him.
That is, until he yawned at the sight of her desperate screams for mercy. Just like that, the light had fleeted from her eyes, as more and more tears gushed out.
"I should have known it was a bad idea to fall asleep so quickly," Li Xueyue muttered.
Yu Zhen merely smiled. He cupped her face and pressed a kiss upon her forehead. "I've said it before, Li Xueyue. I will slay all of your monsters until there is no one left to haunt you. I will not take back such words."
Li Xueyue could do nothing but squeeze her eyes shut. She had fallen in love with a monster. But that never bothered her in the first place, did it? She willingly walked into his arms, willingly set foot in his territory.
When a loud silence consumed the courtyard, Li Xueyue knew who had finally arrived. But she was surprised, for the Mother of Hanjian did not come alone. She was accompanied by His Majesty, the Emperor of Hanjian.
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