"For whom is the third teacup for?" Li Xueyue asked.
Lady Ge Beining brightened her smile. She briefly glanced at the maidservant that accompanied the Crown Princess.
"I prepared a cup for your maidservant to test the tea out, Princess. Before the Empress eats or drinks anything, she has her most loyal servant try out the food. I'd assume the same applied for the Crown Princess."
Li Xueyue slowly nodded her head. It seemed Lady Ge Beining was prepared. She glanced down at the silver spoon, as shiny as ever indicating the absence of any poison. Silver turned black from poison.
Suddenly, Lady Ge Beining sniffed the air, her eyes widening with delight. "Oh, I closed the lid, but the scent is so strong and sweet, it still came out!"
Lady Ge Beining calmly stood up and poured the tea from the large teapot into a smaller tea pitcher that was light and could be held with one hand.
"Look at how lovely this color is, Princess!" Lady Ge Beining said with delight. "Usually, raspberry leaf tea is a light yellow, but the orange peels turned it into a lovely amber color."
Lady Ge Beining poured the tea into the three teacups, filling them up in the exact amount.
Truthfully, Li Xueyue was slightly impressed. It was difficult to pour it all to the same amount. The tea smelled amazing as if she was stepping into an orchard.
Lady Ge Beining placed one cup in front of the Princess, then herself, and then the maidservant.
"I will understand if we can't become friends, Princess…" Lady Ge Beining lifted the teacup.
"But at the very least, I hope we can end on a better foot, Princess," Lady Ge Beining softly said. "For one day, the Crown Prince of Nanhui might be swayed by the decision of his wife… which in this case, would be me."
Li Xueyue refrained from making another snarky comment. Pillowtalk would work too well for Lady Ge Beining.
"I do not mind being acquaintances, nothing more, Lady Ge Beining," Li Xueyue finally said. She wrapped her fingers around the teacup, seemingly warming up her hands. Then, she lifted it briefly.
Xiao Hua picked up the teacup, lowered her gaze as she turned her head to the side, and drank it as politely as possible, like that of a poison tester.
Li Xueyue's stomach clenched at the sight. She did not want Xiao Hua to be a food tester. It was not her responsibility, but another handmaiden's. Alas, nothing happened to Xiao Hua.
"The tea is fine, Princess… You might enjoy it, for it has a hint of sweetness," Xiao Hua whispered.
Li Xueyue peered down at the amber color tea. The smell wafted into her nose, shrouding her in warmth. She was curious about the tea, thus, lifted the teacup and drank half of it before her eyes widened in surprise.
"Delicious, isn't it, Princess?" Lady Ge Beining commented in a cheerful voice, her smile widening, but it didn't reach her eyes.
"You first taste the raspberry and lemon, but then the orange lingers behind," Lady Ge Beining explained. "I was quite impressed by this blend of tea, Princess."
Li Xueyue slowly nodded her head. The tea filled her with a strange heat that spread throughout her body. It nearly made her tear up a bit for the Duchess's tea always brought a calming sense of warmth.
"Here, try it with sugar now, the taste will be completely different, Princess!" Lady Ge Beining eagerly said. She placed her teacup down and opened a small, short bowl covered with a wooden lid, with a small opening for the handle of the spoon.
Li Xueyue noticed how excited and passionate Lady Ge Beining was when it came to the conversation of tea.
Li Xueyue was always intrigued by the drink and all of its wonders. Duchess Wang would often go on excitedly about how amazing tea was—it can be made into a dessert, cold drink, added to the liquor, and even become medicine! The versatility of it was immense.
And it seemed Lady Ge Beining shared the same passion.
"Just a small amount and you can taste the difference, Princess," Lady Ge Beining explained. She opened the lid for the Princess and offered the bowl of sugar to her.
Li Xueyue lifted the teeny tiny spoon that was the size of her finger. She poured in a little bit of sugar into her teacup, then settled the utensil down. Then, she glanced around, confused as to how she was going to stir her tea.
"Oh, I almost forgot to give you another spoon. I'm so sorry, Princess!" Lady Ge Beining exasperated in a worried voice. She hurriedly handed a small white porcelain spoon to the Princess.
Li Xueyue took the porcelain spoon and stirred the sugar, watching as the white particles slowly melted from the heat and got mixed into the tea.
Lady Ge Beining held her breath in excitement, her eyes widening. "Do you smell it, Princess? The scent of the lemon weakens, it brings out the notes of the raspberry more. It will have a different taste this time."
Li Xueyue lifted the teacup to her lips again. She sipped from it, and was yet again, surprised. So much so, that she finished the entire cup. A stronger warmth settled within her as she let out a small, contented sigh.
"This time, you should have tasted the raspberry and orange, instead of raspberry and lemon! Thus, instead of orange lingering on your tongue, it should be the slight sourness of the lemon, Princess."
Li Xueyue nodded. "You are right yet again, Lady Ge," she pleasantly said with a slight, fond smile on her face.
Li Xueyue was only in a good mood because Lady Ge Beining's love for tea reminded her so much of Duchess Wang Qixing. She could still recall her mother eagerly urging her to try out her newest blend of tea, no matter how strange it was, for example, cinnamon and roses.
Distracted by her thoughts, Li Xueyue suppressed a small laugh. She had the blunt end of the stick, whereas Duke Li Shenyang and the twins had the worst end. They were often forced to taste the most bizarre creations, like eucalyptus tea mixed with bitter oolong and eight-point anise.
She could still remember their scrunched up faces and deep scowl as they tried to lie to the Duchess that the disgusting tea was the best that they'd ever tasted. Their compliments would be great-lengths of exaggeration, and the Duchess would roll her eyes in response, but a large, amused smile would be on her lips.
Li Xueyue was so lost in her daydream that she suddenly saw Duchess Wang Qixing in front of her.
"Huh…?" she breathed out, as her vision became hazy.
Li Xueyue tried to rub her eyes but found her limbs were heavy and slow. Her hands trembled just to reach her face.
"W-what…?" Li Xueyue thanked the heavens that she was seated, or else her legs would've given out from underneath her. Her body was warm and hot, so much so, that she weakly pulled at her collar line.
"What's wrong, Princess?" Lady Ge Beining calmly asked as she remained seated.
Li Xueyue's hazy vision was growing blurry with moisture in her eyes. It was hot. So much so, that her eyes stung. But she could still see Lady Ge Beining.
Lady Ge Beining's soft smile was now eerily still as she innocently tilted her head. Her hands were tucked on her lap, and for once, her smile reached her eyes.
"Princess, are you alright?" she gently asked, almost puzzled by the Crown Princess's reaction.
"You…" Li Xueyue breathed out. "What did you do to—"
Before she could finish her sentence, Xiao Hua collapsed onto the ground. But her body never slumped onto the floor, nor was there a loud thud, for a pair of grimy, muscular hands caught her body.
And it was only then that Li Xueyue realized the last room that her guards did not check was the one that was most dangerous. It might've been Lady Ge Beining's bedroom, but it was where five muscular men strolled out of.
"O-oh no, who might you be?" Lady Ge Beining breathed out, almost in shock. She rapidly stood up, her eyes trembling. She took a hesitant step back and glanced at the Princess.
"P-Princess, what are you waiting for? We must try to escape," Lady Ge Beining squeaked out.
Li Xueyue reached out, attempting to stop Lady Ge Beining, and ask for help. But it was too late. Lady Ge Beining had rushed towards the window and jumped out of it, disappearing into the distance.
"No…" Li Xueyue choked out as she attempted to move her limbs, but found that they were as heavy as a boulder. It was as if her body was not her own. It burned with an unquenchable heat that desired the cooling touch of another.
"My, my, what do we have here?" a voice snickered from beside her.
Li Xueyue's heart sank to her stomach. She knew what was to come. When she'd had the chance to leave the room, she would no longer have her dignity and pride intact. Her heart and soul would be ripped to pieces. And she would be violated in every way possible.
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