The Empress lifted her hardened gaze towards the Crown Princess. What was such a delicate thing doing out of bed? Lady Ge Beining couldn't even walk on her own without feeling shaken up and in tears.
But the Crown Princess stood before her with defiant eyes and an aloof expression. Her guard was up, so were her shoulders and chin. Despite the troubles she went through, her confidence was not hurt. She was still the same Crown Princess—determined and strong.
Lady Ge Beining and the Crown Princess had suffered the same ordeal, yet their behaviors were worlds apart.
It was refreshing.
"You shouldn't be walking about, Princess," the Empress finally said. Her gaze softened when the Crown Princess wryly smiled.
"Yu Zhen would've said the same thing," the Crown Princess stated.
The Empress noted that the Crown Princess didn't even hesitate to call the Second Prince by his actual name. Everyone knew it, but no one dared to whisper it.
The Crown Princess had said it with such boldness that the Empress stifled a laugh. This girl was certainly a match for him. Despite the dangers that crossed her path, she walked through the fire with a smile.
"I heard you received a higher dosage of the drug, Princess. It is a miracle you were able to recover from it so well and without any injuries."
The Crown Princess chuckled a bit. She brushed away the short strands of hair that framed her face and tucked it behind her ears.
As she was doing so, her long sleeves slipped down her elbow a bit, revealing the horrible yellow and green bruises. Not a second later, she dropped her hand and interlocked her fingers together.
"It is because I do not support theatrics, Your Grace," the Crown Princess said.
The Empress's stare sharpened. The insult… she would let it slide just this once. It was because she shared the same thoughts. Lady Ge Beining's behavior was a bit suspicious yesterday. The latter was rarely this tender-hearted.
Lady Ge Beining had always been a well-behaved and well-bred girl. But nowadays, she has been rebelling a lot more. First, it was the threats, then the slyness, and now she had gotten herself into such a mess.
The Empress had watched Lady Ge Beining grow up. It was not difficult to read her.
"You always know the right things to say and do, don't you?" the Empress mused. She stepped closer to the Crown Princess.
The men in black did not move, but their eyes did. They were watching everything unravel. And when the time calls for it, weapons would be drawn. Except, it would never be pointed towards the Crown Princess, for she was the beloved wife of their stern Master.
"The palace life forces that out of us," the Crown Princess softly said.
The Empress pressed her lips together, concealing the twitch of her lips. She nearly broke out into an entertained smile. Poise yet petty, composed yet coy, it was everything that the Empress could ask of her successor.
Lady Ge Beining embodied these qualities, but in the end, she crossed the stars and sealed her fate.
"My daughter is behind those doors," the Empress slowly said with a jut of her chin. "But these men will not step aside. They are your husband's pets."
She glanced at the Shadow guards. "Won't you command them aside?"
Li Xueyue didn't even blink at the Empress's words. She had always known Lady Ge Beining held a special spot in the Empress's heart.
Once, when Xiao Hua was brushing her hair, the former had told the story of how well-loved Lady Ge Beining was by the Empress and all of the maidservants. She was gentle and kind to everyone in her life, but chose the wrong people to offend.
"As you said, Your Grace," Li Xueyue mused. "These are my husband's men. Not mine."
A stifling silence passed through them. Without warning, gentle laughter rang through the crowded corridor. The Empress wore a large smile on her face, her eyes crinkling with amusement.
"You are one of the lucky people who have disobeyed me and will walk scot-free from it, Princess," the Empress mused. She stepped forward and placed a warm hand upon the Crown Princess's shoulder.
"How many people know?" Li Xueyue suddenly said. She looked the Empress in the eye, seeking for the truth. Certainly, the Empress would have an answer.
"In terms of servants, not many. Your guards would keep their mouths shut, however, the maidservants that serve Lady Ge is a different story, Princess."
Li Xueyue turned her head away from the Empress. She glanced back at the close-knit line of shadow guards. She had seen the Empress's love and adoration, but it was directed over Li Xueyue's shoulders, and towards Lady Ge Beining's estate.
Li Xueyue did not blame the Empress. The love of a mother was powerful. Duchess Wang Qixing would've done the same and protected Li Xueyue until the very end, even if it was not good for her. She glanced down at her hands that shook at the memories of the Li Family.
She had set foot into the real world now, away from their sheltering hands. Reality was cruel, but she was crazy.
"You have to be aware, Crown Princess, that although rumors of your chastity being preserved have spread far and wide, there were conflicting rumors as well. You can imagine many people are torn at a crossroad."
Li Xueyue raised a brow. "And what do they say of our second victim, Lady Ge?"
The Empress's grip on Li Xueyue's shoulder tightened. "They had the same doubts."
Li Xueyue could sense the Empress's rage and anger. It was not directed at her, but it might as well have been.
Li Xueyue had tested the Empress's loyalty. It had not changed, despite all of the great achievements Li Xueyue had done. It was not easy for a mother to pick the side of anyone that was not her child. Now, the better question was, would she choose the side of her birth son or a fostered daughter?
"Would you like to know what happened to Lady Ge, Princess?"
Li Xueyue tilted her chin back to the Empress. This time, both women had each other's full, undivided attention.
"Of course, Your Grace. After all, she is your beloved daughter," Li Xueyue softly said. "However, only, if you would like to know the treachery of Lady Ge's actions."
The Empress's smile slipped, first from her eyes, then from her lips.
Li Xueyue had hit a nerve. She was aware of it. The wavering confidence in the Empress's eyes. The uncertainty of betraying her daughter. The fear of losing what she held dear. It was all coming to light, unlike her crimes.
Li Xueyue didn't even blink. She held the Empress's fierce gaze. The times had changed. She would no longer back down and bow her head in obedience.
"You are a wise woman who has survived the horrors of the palace," Li Xueyue softly whispered.
She clasped her palm over the Empress's hand. "When a young and foreign flower was planted in poisoned soil, instead of dying, it blossomed into the most beautiful flower of all."
Li Xueyue's smile slipped. "Her roots spread, and she gave birth to lovely seedlings, many of whom have drifted away with the wind, but the ones that stayed have forgotten their origins."
The Empress sucked in a breath. "You—"
"Sacrifices must be made to get what we want."
Li Xueyue slid the Empress's hand off of her shoulder. She wrapped her fingers around it. The ball was now in the Empress's court. It was her turn to make the decision.
To lose a daughter, or to lose a son and a daughter-in-law.
The decision was so clear. The scale was imbalanced. It was not fair. But nothing in life was fair.
The young Princess from a foreign land of savages knew that the best. The wounds in her heart, the bitter tears at midnight, and the intoxication of liquor was the evidence of her battle.
"I still remember the day I laid eyes on that baby," the Empress softly said. She looked at the Crown Princess in the eyes. "You would not know the feeling yet, but the first time you look into the eyes of a baby, it is an overwhelming emotion that warms your body from head to toe."
The Empress squeezed the Crown Princess's hand. "Especially when you are determined to not let that baby girl walk the same, painful steps as you."
Li Xueyue's face fell. It was the first time she had lost like this. It was the first time she touched the Empress's hands, and the first time the Empress pushed her hand away.
"You've yet to become a mother, Princess. You would not understand the love mothers have for their children… especially daughters who would experience the same hardship in life."
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