"I didn't think I'd see you again," Li Xueyue said the minute she set foot in Lady Ge Beining's estate.
She glanced around, slightly intrigued by the layout of her estate. It was large and spacious, with three more doors on the inside—one towards the left, and the two towards the right side of the room.
"Everyone is excused, excluding Xiao Hua," Li Xueyue informed her maidservants, knowing this was not going to be a conversation meant for their ears.
The guards glanced at each other and peered around the room, searching for visible weapons that could hurt the Princess. When Li Xueyue flicked her wrist, they took it as a sign to do a perimeter search of the area.
"Princess, what are you doing?" Lady Ge Beining curiously asked in a baffled voice. She watched as the guards walked around the room as if they owned it. Then, they went along and opened two of the doors on the right, revealing her closet, and the bathroom. As they made their way to the last door on the left, they were blocked by a maidservant.
"You're trespassing my mistress's bedroom, how insolent!" a maidservant cried out as she blocked the door with her body and frowned at the guards.
The guards glowered at the maidservant who stood her ground. She cowered back a bit when their hands went to the sword resting upon their hips.
"It's fine," Li Xueyue said. "Wait outside. If anything happens, you will know."
The guards bowed at her words. Everyone shuffled out of the room except for Xiao Hua who remained by the Princess's side. They knew as long as the maidservant was present, she could yell out for help if the need arises.
Besides, this estate was close to the Empress's estate. And the Imperial Palace was the Crown Prince's battlefield. Only a fool would dare to harm his Wangfei in a palace he knew like the back of his hand.
"Let's make this meeting short," Li Xueyue deadpanned. "What did you want to see me for?"
"It seems I have offended you the last time we spoke, Princess," Lady Ge Beining slowly said. She clasped her hands together and peered up at Li Xueyue with an earnest expression.
"Princess, I was hoping to resolve any bad-blood between us before I depart for Nanhui," she confessed.
Li Xueyue was surprised by her words. Nanhui? Why was Lady Ge Beining being sent there? She observed Lady Ge Beining's face whose face was an open book.
Lady Ge Beining seemed upset. She tried her best to hide it with a weak smile, but her eyes implied otherwise. There were sorrow and guilt swirling in it and she was unable to lift her chin.
"Princess, t-the Empress has given me the greatest of opportunities to marry the Crown Prince of Nanhui… However, I am to be his Imperial Consort and not his wife," Lady Ge Beining softly said.
Li Xueyue pressed her lips together. That was certainly a better bargain than what any of the candidates received. Marriage to the Crown Prince of Nanhui...it seemed as if the Empress still cherished this lady-in-waiting, despite all of her faults and mistakes.
She supposed the love of a mother was overpowering, even if the Empress never gave birth to Lady Ge Beining. Well, she was raised under the Empress's guidance and care.
"I see," Li Xueyue said emotionlessly.
"I am departing soon, Princess," Lady Ge Beining added on. "So before I leave, I was hoping to enjoy tea one last time with you, Princess. Let us part as friends, and not enemies."
Li Xueyue let out a small laugh. "Oh please, you weren't even considered worthy of an opponent for me to think of you as an enemy."
Lady Ge Beining's smile thinned. She gestured to the table where a tea brewing set was already prepared. "Please, take a seat, Princess."
Li Xueyue observed the room. The table was placed in the center of the room, directly beside an open window. When she approached the table, with Lady Ge Beining a step behind her, she was surprised by the lovely view from the table.
The yellow, muslin curtains softly swayed from the breeze that blew in. When she came closer to the window, she noticed the lotus pond was quite close, about three footsteps away.
"It is quite a lovely view when it rains, and the droplets dance across the pond, Princess," Lady Ge Beining said from beside her. "Look at how the lotus blooms for you, Princess."
Li Xueyue gazed at the thick layer of lotus and lily pads that covered the pond. She wondered if the koi fish would even be visible.
"When the wind blows, the lovely scent circulates through my room… I will miss it here, Princess."
Li Xueyue hummed in response. She watched as Lady Ge Beining generously pulled out the seat for her.
"I remember our first encounter, Princess… You were so beautiful then, that I could not believe my eyes," Lady Ge Beining spoke as Li Xueyue took her seat. Lady Ge Beining remained standing and briefly glanced at the dainty maidservant standing behind the Crown Princess.
"That time, I was bringing tea for Her Grace, but unfortunately, Princess, I did not have enough cups for you…"
Lady Ge Beining slowly lifted her hand and elegantly pulled back her sleeves, revealing her thin, pale wrist. Then, she opened a gorgeous tea box stored in a golden tin, with a familiar flower carved into all four sides.
Li Xueyue glanced at the yellow box and admired it for a brief second. She wondered what made Lady Ge Beining so amiable all of a sudden, but supposed the departure was affecting her mood.
'I'd be upset too if I was sent away against my will,' she thought to herself.
Li Xueyue glanced towards the entrance a distance away. She reassured herself that her guards had a great hearing. All it took was a little noise for them to burst through the doors.
"But today, Princess, I hope you can enjoy my tea to the fullest," Lady Ge Beining said. She revealed a small, silver spoon and dipped it into the tea box, then pulled out a spoonful of fragrant tea.
"This is raspberry leaf tea, Princess, with dried lemon and orange peels. I hear it's great for pregnancies," Lady Ge Beining spoke up.
Li Xueyue stiffened. Her face paled as the memories came rushing back to her. She glanced at Xiao Hua whose eyes were thinned into slits. Finally, a second later, Xiao Hua gave a subtle nod that Li Xueyue nearly missed.
The tea was safe.
Li Xueyue was also aware that silver could detect poison. Thus, she carefully watched as Lady Ge Beining poured the tea leaves into the teapot. Then, she dipped the silver spoon into the water and pulled it out, revealing the same shiny color.
"Do you see the steam coming off of this, Princess?" she asked, only to earn a faint nod from the Crown Princess.
Li Xueyue's shoulders slightly dropped in relief. The tea was not poisoned, neither was the water. But she could not let her guard down just yet. After all, she was in the enemy's lair.
"It shows the water is boiling hot to thoroughly cleanse the tea. You will know what I mean in my next step, Princess."
Lady Ge Beining lifted the porcelain jug of boiling water. She poured the boiling hot water into the teapot but did not close the lid.
"Now, this is the part that makes everyone think I brew the best teas, Princess." Lady Ge Beining gently laughed. She settled the lid directly beside the teapot with a soft thud.
"Every Kingdom prepares their tea differently, and my method is a slight variation from the one practiced in Hanjian," Lady Ge Beining said.
Li Xueyue had seen her mother prepare tea many times. The Duchess would wait for the tea to steep a bit before stirring the pot and pouring the tea into the teacup. Then she would dump the tea in the cup which supposedly got rid of the bitter part. Finally, the tea would rest for another minute in the teapot, before it's served.
"Indeed, it's different," Li Xueyue said when Lady Ge Beining followed none of these steps. The tea wasn't even steeped.
Lady Ge Beining poured the tea into the teacups. Then, she gently swished the tea in the cups and poured it out into a small basin near her.
"This way, the teacup is kept warm, and there is a lingering scent of the raspberry in it," Lady Ge Beining said.
Next, Lady Ge Beining swished the larger teapot and poured all the tea out into the basin. Her maidservant came forward and brought the basin away whilst pouring more water into the porcelain jug.
"The first round removes the bitterness from the tea, lemon peels, and orange peels, Princess, as well as any unpleasant woody taste," Lady Ge Beining explained. "Only then, will we finally taste the delicate notes of raspberry, lemon, and orange."
Lady Ge Beining lifted the porcelain jug and poured more water into the teapot. This time, she closed the lid, trapping in the sweet scent, only to be released when the tea was poured.
"Now, we wait a little while, Princess," Lady Ge Beining said.
Li Xueyue noticed there were three teacups. If one was for her and one was for Lady Ge Beining, for whom was the third teacup for? Was there a third guest?
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