The Empress always knew her second son was considered one of the cruelest men in the palace, if not, his generation.
It was a miracle that his horrid deeds garnered so many followers. Many praised his strength, others complimented his intelligence. He had the presence of a leader and the aura of a ruler.
"So early in the morning and you're causing this ruckus," the Empress chastised. She took a step into the courtyard, but immediately wished she didn't.
From the corner of her eyes, she saw the mangled body of her lady-in-waiting. The Empress's lips dipped into a frown. She observed the courtyard, where maidservants were kneeling in fear, heads bent in greeting.
"You said the punishment would be lenient," the Empress deadpanned. She knew it was unwise to trust her son's words.
"This," Yu Zhen said and gestured to the unconscious Xu Jiaqi. "Is mercy."
"This is an immoral punishment!" she snapped, all the whilst standing by the entryway of the courtyard.
The Empress was not able to stomach the horrid sight. It was a wonder how the Crown Princess could remain standing. She was safely tucked in the Second Prince's arms. Safe and protected. But nowhere to run.
"I did not raise you to be a tyrant," the Emperor heaved out. He shifted his entire weight upon a cane forged of oak and gold. His eyes were squinting, the bags underneath it were darker than usual. His skin resembled aged leather, wrinkled, and lacking luster.
"Yet, here I stand." Yu Zhen shrugged. He adjusted the cloak around Li Xueyue's shoulder, fastening it correctly.
"That cloak…" the Emperor frowned. It swallowed her alive. The Crown Princess seemed incredibly tiny in his son's clothes. The sight was amusing, but he couldn't ignore the rules of etiquette.
"It suits her," Yu Zhen answered for his father. He arranged it carefully upon her shoulders, making sure she was warm underneath the heavy item.
"The cloak was specifically made for the Crown Prince," the Empress hissed.
She could not wrap her head around her son's doting ways. He was never like this before.
Possessiveness was a trait that she didn't think he had. But it was publicly displayed before the entire court when the Prince of Nanhui extended an invitation to the Crown Princess to visit Nanhui.
"It's just a piece of clothing." Yu Zhen frowned when Li Xueyue hesitated. Not a second went by before she began to unbutton the top strap that held the cloak together.
Yu Zhen grabbed her wrist, forcing her to stop. "I like it on you." He lightly pushed her hand away and continued to button the strap close.
"I rarely wear this anyways," Yu Zhen said. "I discarded it in the closet because it's of no use. So, stop worrying."
"Discard it in the closet? My son, that cloak possesses the sigil of the Yu family!" The Empress advanced in her stubborn son's direction. Her frown had deepened, much like her displeasure.
"First, you brutally torture my lady-in-waiting, and now you're insulting the Yu family name." If she could punish him, she would.
Unfortunately, her hands were tied. Not because she was a mother unwilling to harm her children, but because no one possessed the strength to hold him down for a beating. Men would drop dead even before the wooden paddle was brought out.
However…there was one way to get through this man, and it was through his wife.
The Crown Princess seemed like she was fragile, but everyone here knew better. She stepped forward, placed her hands upon her side, and dipped into an elegant curtsy.
"Your Grace," she murmured, before turning to the Emperor. "Your Majesty."
"Now, now…" The Emperor mused, "I was supposed to be greeted first."
For the first time, the Crown Princess lost her composure. Her chin abruptly lifted, surprise written on her face. Her eyes gently widened a bit before she lowered her head again.
The Emperor smiled at the tiny action. It reached his eyes, softening at the sight of her. Her clumsiness reminded him of Yu Lingluo who energetically ran through the palace, only to trip on thin air.
"You shouldn't be out of bed," the Emperor reprimanded her in a stern, but kind voice. He had heard the upsetting news. Almost everyone had.
"But it seems my son's unwarranted actions…" he said and patted his chest, "...dragged you out here, to witness a disturbing sight."
"He's doing this for me, your Majesty. I should be here to witness the hard work," Li Xueyue explained.
The Emperor's parched lips parted. He let out a small sigh and folded his hands upon the cane. She always knew how to catch him off-guard. He had expected her to agree with him, but she took her husband's side instead. It was the right thing to do, but often, everyone agreed with the Emperor before the Crown Prince.
"Well, you've seen it," the Emperor muttered. "It is time to return. There is no need to sully your eyes any further."
Li Xueyue was touched by the Emperor's words. He was wise and respectful. What more could someone ask for in a father-in-law? She was just perplexed by Yu Zhen's dark glower. Even with his father's affectionate words, Yu Zhen was disgruntled by the mere sight of the Emperor.
What exactly went wrong in their relationship?
"Do not glare at me as such," the Emperor scoffed. A second later, he patted his chest again. The small action caused an unwanted ache.
"I came out of my death bed to see you, and you're already unhappy," he snapped.
"No one asked you to crawl out of the grave," Yu Zhen retorted.
The Emperor narrowed his eyes. "After all these years…" He continued rubbing his sore chest. "You still hold a grudge, like a spoiled child."
Li Xueyue slipped her hand around Yu Zhen's hand. She entwined their fingers, hoping to distract him. Everyone knew he would say something disheartening.
"If you had treated me properly like any normal father would, then perhaps, I wouldn't feel this resentment."
"I raised you…" He breathed in deeply, but it stung him. "To become strong…a man that can protect his family."
"Don't humor yourself, no one raised me but the ever-changing caretakers." Yu Zhen could not tolerate the sight of his father anymore. As much as he enjoyed his father's sickly state, he could not tolerate the contrast.
What happened to that stern, intimidating man of his youth? The one who would lock him in the cold palace, rumored to be haunted with ghosts and spirits? The man who had his son beaten to a pulp for talking back? The father with wide, powerful shoulders and a vicious glare?
All of it seemed like a distant memory. Before Yu Zhen was a man that was half a head shorter. The Emperor had lost a tremendous amount of weight, no matter how much he tried to hide it underneath his padded clothing.
"Hah," the Emperor laughed. "Who do you think hired those people?"
Yu Zhen ground his teeth. If only this damn old man could drop dead right here.
"Do not pity yourself, it is revolting," the Emperor sneered. He turned his head in the direction of the woman slumped on the floor. With her chopped off hair, and brutalized skin, would she even be considered a human?
The Emperor was not repulsed. He felt a strange sense of pride, that the little demon had finally grown into a monster. His lips twitched, threatening to smile in satisfaction. The Crown Prince could despise him all he wants, the Emperor would not care. Sons never bothered him.
"Do not take pity on that thing," the Emperor told his wife. "The runt deserved it."
The Empress silently stared at her husband. Was he out of his mind?!
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