Li Xueyue let out a shaky breath of disbelief. Even so, she did not dare to question the decision of the Empress. For, she too, was a fostered daughter who had the guidance from a loving family. Her fingers curled inwards, digging into her palm. This defeat was not what she had expected.
She dug her fingers into her palms until crescent moons formed on it. She clenched her teeth.
At the worst of times, the sun decided to escape the gloomy clouds. Ever so slowly, rays of sunlight shone upon the Empress's shoulder blades. Taller than the Princess, she cast a shadow over her.
"Empress…" Li Xueyue trailed off, an edge to her voice. It wasn't threatening, nor was it filled with warning. Dread filled her, for she knew the Empress had made the wrong decision.
But in the eyes of the Empress who had gone through so much trouble in her youth, and sought the comfort of a single woman, this was the right decision. In her eyes, there was no other choice aside from this one.
She loved Lady Ge Beining despite all of her flaws. Just like how she loved Yu Zhen, despite all of his insanity. She loved all of her children, some more than the rest, but in the end, it was still love.
"It is best for you to return to your estate. Your body is strong, and you are a woman of many talents, but the heavens will still find a way to trick you, Princess."
Li Xueyue breathed out through her nose. Her sigh was a mixture of pain and of uncertainty. She could not read the Empress's face. She could not guess what was on the bewildering woman's mind.
The Empress's gaze landed on Li Xueyue for a brief second. It softened, almost as if pained by her choices. Then, she turned her back to Li Xueyue and sauntered off.
Li Xueyue watched as the Empress slipped out of the sunlight, and into the darkness of the hallways. Soon, she felt the warmth of an undeniable glow. She was shrouded with the gentle rays of sunlight, and she was reminded of the nickname that Yu Zhen loved to call her, but she did not think it suited her.
In her eyes, Yu Zhen was the sun. And she was the lonely moon.
"When did I start to think like this?" she murmured under her breath.
Li Xueyue remembered just a few months ago, she was just a tiny, blue flower on the ground, dreaming of the day she would flutter to the sky. Now, she was in a position higher than any woman could possibly dream for.
Now, she was the moon looking down on the flowers that eagerly waited their turn. So much so, they released poisonous fumes, hoping to conceal the pale, glistening moonlight that guided wanderers.
- - - - -
Li Xueyue left Lady Ge Beining's estate with an aching heart. Her chest burned with uncertainty of the future. Now that the Empress had made her alliance clear as day, she was forced to think of a new plan. But where would she even begin?
She decided to think of that later.
Li Xueyue walked down an unfamiliar hallway. Trailing after her were maidservants carrying trays of things ranging from medicine to food.
Li Xueyue did not need to ask where Xiao Hua's room was. Since Xiao Hua was the Crown Princess's Head Maidservant, her room would certainly be one of the larger rooms with the best view. Soon enough, a door unlike the rest came to view.
This was the servants' quarters, where all of the palace servants resided, regardless of whom they served. Well, unless their Master or Mistress was inside of the Cold Palace, a place where even ghosts would not set foot in. Then, the servants would share the same cruelty.
The Cold Palace was dark and dreary there and meant to resemble the bleak underworld. Light rarely entered that part of the palace, shrouding it in eternal coldness, regardless of the weather.
"Big sister, big sister!"
Li Xueyue jolted at the familiar voice. Without warning, she pushed the doors open and stepped inside, just as one of the servants loudly announced her presence. But she ignored her eunuch and hurriedly walked in.
Xiao Hua's room was decent-sized. It was airy, especially from the open windows. She had a comfortable bed, and ample furniture that met the standards of a Head Maidservant. This bedroom was the dream of every maidservant, who'd stop to gape in awe, and wish the same thing for themselves.
"Look at what Ah-Hao made you, look look!" Bai Yihao giddily bounced towards the edge of his Xiao Hua, big sister's bed.
He excitedly presented her a piece of parchment with crumbled edges due to his strong grip. He bore a wide smile on his chubby little face, his eyes brightened with an eagerness to make her happy.
Li Xueyue did not know what to say. Her eyes were glued on Bai Yihao. He was nothing like the little boy from months ago. There was finally meat to his bones, and a lovely glow to his cheeks.
Despite the bundle of joy beside her, Xiao Hua's attention was glued to the door. She was seated on the bed, but hurriedly scrambled to climb out of it.
"Princess!" Xiao Hua urgently greeted. She attempted to lower herself into a bow, but Li Xueyue hurriedly came forward.
"No!" Li Xueyue shouted. "Stay in bed."
Xiao Hua was already on her feet. Unable to ignore the orders of the Crown Princess, she hesitantly lowered herself back onto the bed. She remained in a demure, seated position. Nervously, she glanced at Ah-Hao beside her.
For some reason, Ah-Hao resembled...
"Princess," a mature voice spoke up.
Yanxi stood in front of Bai Yihao, blocking the maidservants' view of him. They had already seen glimpses of him, for he always freely ran about in the palace corridors, with other boys of his age. The maidservants loved Little Yihao and would always sneak him snacks and pastries, after finding out that he was the distant nephew of Yanxi. Or so, everyone was told.
Everyone was familiar with the face of Yihao. When he was standing alone, he was just like any other little boy.
The Crown Princess's maidservants had seen him before, when she guided him to the Crown Prince's study. When that had happened, he was a skinny little boy with no joy or happiness in his sunken cheeks.
But now that he was well-fed and taken care of, the resemblance between him and the Crown Princess was difficult to ignore. Yanxi was certain of that, thus, had hid Little Yihao behind her body. That way, the maidservants would not look from Yihao to the Crown Princess and put the pieces together.
"Princess, it is not in your best interests to visit the servants' quarters," Yanxi gently scolded. She bowed her head in greeting, even when Li Xueyue was evidently shaking her head.
"Place the trays onto the table," Li Xueyue instructed her maidservants. Once they did so, she smiled and nodded her head. When all was done, the maidservants slipped outside the door and closed it shut.
Once it was only the four of them in the room, Li Xueyue's shoulders dropped in relief.
"Some traditions are meant to be broken," Li Xueyue responded to Yanxi. She turned to Xiao Hua with a worried look on her face.
"Xiao Hua, how are you feeling?" she asked.
Xiao Hua's jaw dropped open a bit, but she quickly closed it. With a bow of her head, and a warmed heart, she demurely smiled to the floor. She was touched by the Princess's actions, but was too shy to show it.
"Much better now upon seeing your safe recovery, Princess," she whispered.
Xiao Hua heard approaching footsteps. Then, a gentle finger lifted her chin and examined her face from side to side. Next, the Crown Princess grabbed a hold of her hand and pulled up the sleeves.
"Just as I thought," Li Xueyue murmured. She saw the tender flesh of Xiao Hua's bruises. "The same as mine."
"W-what?!" Xiao Hua shrieked, terrified that the Princess's beautiful skin would be marred. "Oh dear, Princess!"
"W-we have to inform the Imperial Physician. Your hands are much more precious—"
"Xiao Hua," Li Xueyue sternly said. "I am fine."
"And what about you, Xiao Hua?" Li Xueyue gently asked. She released Xiao Hua's wrist and took a step back.
"How are you feeling?"
"Much better after resting, Princess… But I miss combing your lovely hair in the morning, and making you the brightest flower in the palace."
Li Xueyue laughed at this. Even after going through an ordeal, Xiao Hua was still positive and her compliments were plenty and kind.
"Are you certain, Xiao Hua?" Li Xueyue pressed on.
Xiao Hua rapidly nodded her head. She squared her tiny shoulders and widened her innocent smile.
"Yes, Princess, I am as fine. It is because of your guards that I was able to escape with my chastity intact."
Li Xueyue let out a small sigh of relief. Yu Zhen had said that Xiao Hua was fine. But she was still worried. Now that Xiao Hua herself had said it, Li Xueyue's heavy heart became a bit lighter.
"That is great to hear," Li Xueyue said. She turned to the table, and gestured to the trays. "Even so, I have come with medicine and nutritious food to strengthen your body."
Xiao Hua gaped at the wooden trays, polished and shiny, with an abundance of gifts. Touched at the action, tears filled her eyes as she placed a hesitant hand upon her chest.
"It's alright, you do not have to tell me," Li Xueyue softly said. She pulled Xiao Hua out of the bed and toward the table.
Li Xueyue knew the incident must've been hard on an innocent, young woman like Xiao Hua who had never experienced such a terrifying event before.
Li Xueyue hoped to alleviate the pain with these gifts, wishing that it would cheer up Xiao Hua. But it seems Xiao Hua had recovered quite well, with her usual smiles and lowered eyes.
It was more than Li Xueyue could ask for, as a small sigh of relief escaped her. But her relief was short-lived, for Bai Yihao stared directly up at her.
Suddenly, he blurted out, "Why do you look like me?"
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