Marquis Qin narrowed his eyes. He did not believe her words. But he took a shaky step forward and stretched a hand out. "I didn't have the opportunity to carefully read the scroll the first time you showed it to me, Princess. May I have the liberty to look through it better?"
The Crown Princess tilted her head as if contemplating his words.
"Hmm…" Li Xueyue hummed. She studied the material of the scroll. The bottom layer was made of linen, the middle layer was the parchment, with the final layer being a border of sturdy cloth to hold down the parchment. No matter how hard he'd rip the scroll, it would never tear.
Li Xueyue looked down at the silver box. It would be the only item he had that could rip this scroll. Well, aside from the sword of her soldiers, but he'd never have the confidence to steal that.
"Of course, Marquis Qin," she finally said. "After all, your name and handprint are on this scroll."
Marquis Qin's hands trembled when he took the scroll from her hands. His eyes haphazardly read through the contract he had signed.
The handwriting was messy, but legible. He was not surprised. Women were often uneducated, and it would be a miracle if they could read, much less, write.
"T-this…" he breathed out, horrified. "P-Princess, I was not aware—"
"That you would be disemboweling yourself should a failure occur?" she finished for him. Her lips twisted into a smile, as she innocently batted her lashes.
"I'd say that is a light punishment." Then, she laughed. "Well, only if you have the guts to do it."
Marquis Qin swallowed. He did not appreciate her joke. At such a serious moment, she still had the ability to laugh? What a crazy woman she was. If he was her husband, he would've sent her to the Cold Palace, where she would live out her entire life in a freezing cold room with nothing but a single blanket that'd keep her alive, but not long enough to kill herself with.
"So," she said and clasped her hands together. "Will I get my dagger or not?"
Marquis Qin tightly gripped the scroll. If he could, he would run away with it. No wonder she had soldiers surround the entire pavilion. There was no way in, no way out. He was completely trapped in the lion's den. And a woman held the key to his freedom.
"Princess, carrying out this request of yours will cost me my entire fleet and possibly all my servants!" Marquis Qin cried out.
The Crown Princess tilted her head. "How is that my problem?"
Marquis Qin gaped at her. How many times was she going to give him a heart attack? How could she lack so much compassion? For someone who would rule this country someday, the least she could do was show some empathy!
This…this heartless wench!
"Princess, I come from humble beginnings. My father and mother were nothing but pitiful peasants with nothing but soil to their name! I have risen from the dirt, and worked through blood and sweat to get to where I am today," he whispered.
Marquis Qin swallowed. "Please, Princess, if my resources all dwindle to nothing, t-then, all of my hard work—"
"Like I asked," she slowly said each word, as if speaking to a child. "How is that my problem?"
"Princess!" he emphasized, desperation dripping from his eyes. "As the future Mother of our nation, you must be the exemplar of kindness and sincerity. This is not how a future Empress should act!"
The Crown Princess's light-hearted expression turned viciously cold. The warmth fled from her face. "For someone who has disappointed me time and again, you sure have the guts to reprimand me."
"That's alright," she suddenly said. "Soon, you won't have those guts anymore."
The Crown Princess rose to her feet. "Literally, of course."
- - - - -
Li Xueyue set foot into her shared estate and glanced around, searching for Xiao Hua. After walking for a few minutes, she finally saw the familiar silhouette, standing by the doors of the bedroom.
Her lips twitched. It seemed Xiao Hua had finished her task much earlier than expected. Li Xueyue wasn't sure if this was a good or bad thing. It's nice that Xiao Hua was efficient with her work, but what if she wasn't able to get it done properly?
"There you are," Li Xueyue mused. "I was beginning to wonder if you had lost your way to the pavilion."
Xiao Hua was initially confused, her brows tugging together. Suddenly, it dawned on her. 'Oh right, I said I was off to fetch or do something…' she thought to herself.
Xiao Hua tucked her hands in front of her and remorsefully bowed her head. "I am deeply sorry, Princess. This mistake will never happen again."
The Crown Princess hummed at this. She approached the doors, and a servant quickly came forward to open it. Once she set foot into the room, she said, "Everyone is excused. Except for Xiao Hua."
The maidservants deeply bowed in response. They took dainty steps backward, careful of their postures.
Once the doors were shut, and Li Xueyue was seated on the other side of the room, she turned to Xiao Hua. "Did you find out anything?" she asked with a tilt of her head.
Xiao Hua rapidly nodded. She kept her head low and spoke, "Princess, the guards shared valuable information with us, but it wasn't sufficient enough because Marquis Qin and Lady Ge Beining spoke in hushed whispers, and were standing near the pillars, a distance away from them."
Li Xueyue quirked a brow. It seemed she had guessed incorrectly. Xiao Hua was actually quite thorough, and a lot chattier than she initially thought.
"What did the guards say?" she asked.
"The guards barely caught snippets of the conversation, Princess, but it seems they were arguing about acquiring something… Though, it was difficult to say, because they continuously repeated 'goods' or 'product,' instead of the actual item."
Li Xueyue inquisitively tilted her head to the right, as she thought about what item Lady Ge Beining wanted to acquire so badly. It couldn't have been accessories or dresses, since Lady Ge Beining had plenty of those.
"Princess, the guards said Lady Ge Beining desperately wanted it as soon as possible. But Marquis Qin repeatedly told her that it would take a week's worth of travel, additionally, it is difficult to acquire which would take even more time."
Li Xueyue's brows shot up. A week's worth of travel and difficult to acquire? But then, an abrupt, and strange idea came to mind. What if…the argument was fake? As in, Lady Ge Beining purposely seemed disgruntled, so that suspicion would not be raised that they were in cahoots?
"Then, Lady Ge Beining stormed off in a fit, and the Marquis let out a sigh before walking to meet you," Xiao Hua concluded. "I'm really sorry, Princess, I was unable to capture the most essential piece of information."
Li Xueyue pressed her lips together. Was she overthinking it again? It was just so bizarre…
"Xiao Hua, you've grown up in the palace, right?" she suddenly asked.
Xiao Hua rapidly bobbed her head. "Yes, Princess."
"Have you frequently seen Lady Ge Beining around?"
"Usually not, Princess, since Lady Ge Beining stuck close to the Empress's estate, whereas I served the Emperor."
Li Xueyue was not surprised by this piece of information, except for the last part. She didn't know Xiao Hua served the Emperor previously. "In the few times that you've seen her, what do you think of Lady Ge Beining?"
Xiao Hua hummed a bit. She pressed a finger on her lips and looked towards the ground, lost in thought. A minute later, she spoke up.
"Every servant speaks highly of her. They always compliment her beauty, grace, and elegance. There is never a moment where her face is marred with displeasure or irritation. She is either calm or happy and never in between, Princess."
Li Xueyue bit her bottom lip. "Isn't it strange then, that she suddenly loses her calm in public?"
Xiao Hua hesitated. Her brows came together in concentration. She always thought over her responses carefully when it came to the Princess. But she was extra careful when it came to answering a question, since she did not want to say the wrong things.
"Princess, perhaps the incident with Xu Jiaqi is still lingering on Lady Ge Beining's mind. Many people say Lady Ge Beining shared a close tie with almost all of the ladies-in-waiting, so witnessing her friend's mutilated state might've traumatized Lady Ge Beining."
Li Xueyue slowly nodded. She had nearly forgotten about this possibility. "I see," she calmly said with a warm smile.
She leisurely sat there, contemplating, planning, and deciding her next plans. But completely unbeknownst to her, her enemies were always one step ahead than her.
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