The Empress quietly sat in the garden. It had been a while since she was truly alone. The air was chillier than usual, but never enough to match her icy heart. She lifted the hot cup of tea to her lips and drank it, even when it burned her tongue.
"I never wanted this to happen." The Empress glanced towards the side, where an exotic species of flower was recently planted. It used to bloom so brightly that everyone would compliment it. But now, the flower was wilting, its petals turning brown.
"I should've protected you better." The Empress settled the teacup down as she let out a quiet sigh. No one had protected her when she was freshly planted in this palace. Everyone did their best, hoping she would wither off somewhere and die. But look at where she stood now.
"Then again, it would be unfair, wouldn't it?"
Tired of doing nothing but sitting there, she finally rose to her feet. The Empress approached the flower, reaching a hand out to pull away the dying petal.
"Though, you're already living a much better life than the one I had." She plucked the petal, crushing it in her hand.
Holding back a sigh, the Empress peered down at the exotic flowers. The ones surrounding it were beautiful, but never enough to match the glow of its foe. "The palace is not a place for flowers like us to bloom without troubles."
She touched the stem. "Foreign soil, foreign waters…"
The Empress plucked the stem. She glanced down at the flower, remorse in her eyes. "It is best that you bloom elsewhere."
- - - - -
Lady Ge Beining irritably stormed through the hallways. She grumbled insults and complaints under her breath. Those hateful women! All of them had scrambled away, doing nothing but creating excuses for how busy their day was. In reality, the majority of the ladies-in-waiting didn't have anything on their schedule.
"Useless, all of them are useless!" she harshly whispered to herself, grounding her teeth.
Lady Ge Beining thought Xu Jiaqi would be a lot wiser than this. "How did she even gain the Crown Prince favor before when she is that stupid? Was it just pure luck?"
The more she thought about this issue, the more her blood boiled. "I always put my trust in the wrong people."
Lady Ge Beining blew out a frustrated sigh. She squeezed her eyes shut, and tried to calm herself down.
"This isn't like you," she reprimanded herself.
Lady Ge Beining lifted her gaze from the ground. She was a lady-in-waiting, a favorite of the Empress, and one of the most beautiful women in the country. She refused to lower her head just for a small incident like this. If so, how can she ever wear a crown? How would she ever take the throne in the future?
The odds had been in her favor most of the time. "This must be a test from Heaven," she thought to herself.
"It would be too boring if everything always went my way… This must be why I am being tested by that subpar Crown Princess."
Lady Ge Beining crossed her arms. She had seen the Crown Princess's capabilities but so what? "Not only can I do archery, but I am also a Master in embroidery and other feminine skills."
Lady Ge Beining continued comforting herself with such words. It reminded her of who exactly she was—a woman made to succeed.
Why else was she born under such favorable circumstances and with a beautiful face? Women like her were meant to get everything they wanted.
"Now, no more self pity," she sternly told herself. "It is time to face the Empress…"
She took a step forward but all of her previous resolve came tumbling down. The confidence she had shattered without hesitation. In the far distance, a man caught her attention. And not just any man, but someone who could end her reputation with just a few words.
"Out of all times, I have to run into him now!" Lady Ge Beining cried out in frustration.
Lady Ge Beining quickly looked around, hoping to find a spot to dodge and hide from him. She was not in the best of mood to entertain such a cunning pervert.
He was old with many grandchildren, but that did not stop his frivolous eyes from greedily taking in everything a woman had to offer. They could be clothed, but with his gaze, it felt like they were naked.
"What horrid luck I have today," she complained upon realizing there was nowhere to run. It was an open hallway, and the only way out of here was to turn on her heels and turn the corner.
Lady Ge Beining didn't waste any more time. She hurriedly lifted her heavy skirts and turned around, but it was too late. He had already caught sight of her beautiful figure, which could be admired even from a distance.
His voice, stern yet cherry, drifted from one end of the hallway to the other.
"My, if it isn't Lady Ge!" he loudly greeted, forcing her to halt.
"What luck I have today!" he added on, quickly advancing towards the beautiful, ripe maiden with a face and body sweeter than any fruit he had ever tasted. It was such a shame that he was never able to sink his teeth into her.
But with the amount of favors he was giving out, it would only be a matter of time.
"Where are you heading to, this fine evening, Lady Ge?" he asked, stopping directly in front of her.
Lady Ge Beining slowly turned around, forcing her eyes to widen briefly in surprise. She was repulsed at the sight of him, her lips almost curling in disgust. Just being near him was a lot worse than witnessing what had happened to Xu Jiaqi.
Even now, he was undressing her with his slimy eyes. His attention drifted to her ample breasts, wrapped nicely by her high-quality clothes. How could such a lovely creature not have a suitor?
His breathing grew heavy, as a familiar feeling stirred in his groin. But then, she distracted him, as her lovely lips moved to say something.
"I was on my way to greet Her Grace," she answered him in a bold, confident voice.
Lady Ge Beining nearly squirmed in disgust. She pitied all of the women under him. Even though they were in public, he didn't hesitate to eye her like a piece of fresh meat. She was suddenly repulsed by these clothes she's wearing. Now that he had shown approval for it, Lady Ge Beining had an urge to burn the hanfu on her.
"Yes, yes, Her Grace must be so eager to see you, as anyone would be." He let out a boisterous laugh, as if his own words amused him.
"Oh please, if you say these words, it'll get to my head." Lady Ge Beining didn't even want to breathe around him. The air was now contaminated by him.
"Hah! I'm sure you get these compliments everyday, Lady Ge. No need to play so coy. We are good friends, aren't we?"
Lady Ge Beining would rather fling herself off a cliff than become friends with him. Especially when he eyed her with a look that meant more than that. For heaven's sake, this man was just a few years older than her father if he was still alive.
"Of course we are," Lady Ge Beining mused.
"Ah, but you don't even address me with a title, Lady Ge," he snickered. "Does that mean we are so acquainted, that titles are uncalled for?"
Lady Ge Beining dug her fingers into her palms. She almost slapped him. This delusional buffoon!
"I apologize…" she whispered, forcing a smile. "An unfavorable event had occurred, so I was too distraught to address you… Marquis Qin."
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