"Well, this is certainly unexpected," was the first thing Li Xueyue said when she entered a bamboo garden with Lady Ge Beining. Bamboo lined along the white walls, and short brown fences lined on either side of the pavement leading to the pavilion with a forest green tiled roof.
Li Xueyue hated to admit it, but Yu Zhen would love this place. Everything about the tranquil white pebbles lining the paths to the gentle sway of the bamboo leaves would have appealed to him. He enjoyed simplistic, yet graceful architecture.
"Unexpected, Princess?" Lady Ge Beining repeated in a light, airy voice. "What do you mean?"
Li Xueyue lifted her eyes from the circular entryway to Lady Ge Beining who took tiny, elegant steps.
"I didn't think you would enjoy my presence, Lady Ge Beining," Li Xueyue said with a slight smile on her peony pink lips.
Lady Ge Beining's attention centered upon the natural lip shade which was undoubtedly painted on. She wondered if the Crown Princess knows her husband was not a fan of makeup. As a kid, he had once told her he would hate it if something stained his lip or face, just because of a kiss.
"Anyone would be delighted to have you in their presence, Crown Princess," Lady Ge Beining said.
They paused to observe a short tree. Now that autumn was in full swing, the emerald green was nowhere to be seen. In its place was dazzling hues of sunset orange and crimson red.
Li Xueyue suddenly laughed. "That is a lie, and we both know it, Lady Ge."
Lady Ge Beining held back a sigh. She wasn't in the best of mood to praise the compliment-fishing Princess.
"So, why don't you tell me the real reason you've invited me?" Li Xueyue asked.
Lady Ge Beining touched the branches of the tree, frowning when the leaves dropped to the ground and onto her palm. The tree was dying, and it wasn't because of the change of seasons.
"Princess, when I was thirteen, I received this tree as a gift," Lady Ge Beining abruptly said.
She could sense the Crown Princess's confusion from her raised brows. "You see, Princess, I am fond of any pastry that contains nuts like chestnuts, walnuts, or even peanuts. So, I was given this tree that's not native to Hanjian and was known to produce a fragrant type of nut that's most suited for baking. The other part of the world calls it a hazelnut."
Lady Ge Beining let out a small sigh. "The tree was beautiful in its prime—colorful and vibrant, Princess."
She held out her palm, where the wilted, brown leaf had crumbled into pieces. "Alas, this gorgeous tree, praised and admired by many for her great beauty could not survive in foreign soil."
Lady Ge Beining pitifully shook her head. "Princess, no matter how much the servants tended to it, bringing it the best fertilizer in the land, watering it with mineral and nutrient-infused water, the tree never bore anything."
She frowned at the ground and turned her palm over, watching as pieces of the dead leaf slowly fell to the ground. "And it will be uprooted soon, for people have no use of a useless tree beyond its prime years, Princess."
Lady Ge Beining turned towards the Crown Princess with a bright, innocent smile. When she saw the Crown Princess's slight frown, her smile widened.
"The Crown Prince was a considerate man, even in his youth… No one knew I enjoyed pastries with nuts except for him. Which was why he gave me such a lovely present, Princess."
Li Xueyue's gaze sharpened. Her frown deepened.
"You are very lucky, Princess," Lady Ge Beining wistfully sighed. "You're with such an understanding man…"
Li Xueyue narrowed her eyes. She was well aware that Lady Ge Beining made it seem as if Yu Zhen and her had never gotten married in the first place.
'With an understanding man?' she thought to herself. 'It should be 'married to an understanding man,' this brat.'
"Princess, the Prince was such a lonely boy. He did not have many people on his side," Lady Ge Beining whispered.
Lady Ge Beining peered up at the barren tree with its tiny, dark buds that seemed hopeful to the eye, but would never bloom.
"Everyone expected him to have a large harem to meet his needs. It's difficult to believe just one woman could satisfy him, Princess."
"And I'm sure you believe you can satisfy him."
Lady Ge Beining was startled by the Crown Princess's brash words. She turned her chin, revealing an astonished expression. Her heart raced at the erotic thought that came to mind.
Satisfying his needs…she would do it well. At least, exceptionally better than the Crown Princess who had wed the Crown Prince for nearly half a year now, but yet to carry his child. Everyone knew the Crown Prince was healthy and fertile, so the problem must be with the Crown Princess. What exactly was wrong with her womb?
"It is not what I believe, Princess," Lady Ge Beining whispered. "But what the Kingdom is whispering about."
Li Xueyue chuckled at her words. She turned towards the lifeless tree. "By all means," she mused. "I welcome you to satisfy my husband."
Again, Lady Ge Beining was mortified by how blunt the Crown Princess was. She gaped at her with parted lips before quickly regaining her composure. She was used to dealing with shameless women, but never one who was shameless to this extent.
"That is, if you can even capture his attention."
Lady Ge Beining glowered at the tree. Suddenly, she wished it could be uprooted from its spot, directly in front of her—both the tree and the Princess
"That shouldn't be too hard, considering the childhood we've spent together, Princess," Lady Ge Beining fearlessly said with determination fueling her heart.
"And despite the childhood you've spent together, you know nothing about him."
Lady Ge Beining angrily snapped her head to the Crown Princess before she quickly regained her composure and reminded herself that it's not worth it.
"What do you mean, Princess?" Lady Ge Beining asked. She knew everything about the Crown Prince, whether it was his favorite color or his favorite food. She even knew the place he went to cry like a boy, before his eyes suddenly dried up and he never showed up in that corner again.
"Surely, if you knew him, you'd be able to hold his attention long enough for affection to grow." Li Xueyue turned to her. "Yet, here you stand, lamenting a dying tree as your last connection to him."
Lady Ge Beining might as well have been slapped. Her fingers trembled with controlled rage. She shakily clasped her hands in front of her to prevent it from clenching into a fist.
"Poor thing," Li Xueyue sighed. She gingerly touched the branches and slowly shook her head in disappointment. "If this was a gift from the Crown Prince, you should've cherished it."
Lady Ge Beining saw red. She ground her teeth, her eyes burning with pure hatred. She rarely hated people, but this woman, she despised with her entire being.
"You bore me."
Lady Ge Beining rapidly blinked. Was the Crown Princess drunk or plain stupid? Saying things like this without thinking it through was foolish.
"This type of behavior is strictly against the rules of etiquette, Princess," Lady Ge Beining slowly said. She wondered if the Crown Princess was even educated on the rules of etiquette. It would not be a surprise if she wasn't.
Lady Ge Beining mentally jotted down today's conversation. She was planning on sharing it to the Empress, to once again remind her that the Crown Princess was acting ranks above what she actually was.
That is until something caught her attention out of the corner of her eyes. A familiar silhouette yet again, but this time, it was someone she didn't want to see. He repulsed her physically and mentally, but she needed him one way or another. And there he stood, with the box that she wanted, but he had told her was too difficult to acquire.
Nothing in this world was too difficult to acquire, as long as one had money.
"If I bore you to this extent, Princess, then I apologize," Lady Ge Beining said with an edge to her tone. She bowed her head and decided to just leave. "If you may excuse me—"
"Off you go," the Crown Princess said with a shoo of her hand, as if telling a fly to leave.
Lady Ge Beining swallowed her pride and did her little curtsy. Then, she walked off, even though this was her garden, and the Crown Princess was supposed to be the one leaving. But she did not mind.
Lady Ge Beining took slow, hesitant steps forward, pretending to admire the rest of her garden when in reality, she did not want to draw attention to herself. She turned her head, watching her shadow, long and slim, reflect on the walls.
Only when she saw the shadows of the Crown Princess disappear did Lady Ge Beining finally rush forward. She had felt slight remorse prior to their encounter, but now that she saw how horrible and spoiled the Princess was, Lady Ge Beining made up her mind.
"I will have no regrets," she said to herself. "Not for before, not for today, and especially not for tomorrow."
Lady Ge Beining jutted her chin in the air. To climb the steps of this palace, she would step on the backs of anyone she had to—be it friends, family, and so forth. She did not care anymore.
Anything to maintain her status in the palace, anything to bring her closer to him, anything to remain in this country. She was willing to take every measure, even if it meant turning her back to the light and welcoming the darkness with open arms.
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