The Empress thought she was still asleep and dreaming when she saw her second son standing in front of her estate. This unprecedented action caught her off-guard.
The last time he was anywhere near her estate was nearly a decade and a half ago.
Back then, Yu Zhen was just a small boy, eager for the love of his mother. She still remembered his desperate expression, the wobble of his split lips, and the pain in his eyes. He had reached out for a hug, but at that time, the Empress had been busy comforting the First Prince, who had also been beaten by the Emperor.
"Yu Zhen," the Empress breathed out in shock. He was much taller than her now, and the little boy of the past no longer existed. She might as well have believed he died that day.
The Empress could not recall why she had despised Yu Zhen as a child. But looking him in his dark, cruel eyes, she remembered exactly why. As a little boy, Yu Zhen was every bit his father. He had the features of the Empress, but the heartless eyes of his father.
"What are you doing here?" the Empress slowly asked.
The Empress should've been infuriated by her son's actions. For the past three days, he had given his men instructions to secure Lady Ge's estate. No one was allowed to enter. No one was allowed to leave.
The Empress had wondered if Lady Ge Beining was even alive. Three days with no food and water. Her poor daughter might as well have died from hunger and thirst!
"Where are you headed to?" Yu Zhen demanded.
The Empress's lips parted. Why did he want to know? As far as she could recall, her well-being had never been his priority. He refused to call her 'Mother', refused to care about her, refused to learn of her hobbies and interests.
What made him suddenly change his mind? It was all too suspicious. She could not fathom the thoughts running through his puzzle of a brain. No one could. And she wouldn't want to know either.
Everyone knows Heaven would never open its gates to him. But Hell would welcome him with open arms.
"Lady Ge's estate. You had banned everyone from entering that place, but the least I can do is check up on the condition of my lady-in-waiting," she sniped in an irritated voice.
The Empress's fingers twitched. She had suddenly recalled a rumor that was running amok in the palace. The day after the Crown Princess was poisoned with aphrodisiac, battered servants of Lady Ge were publicly hanged to death in the common grounds in the servants' quarters. It did not take a genius to figure out why.
"You were seen leaving Lady Ge's estate at the dead of the night. Care to explain?" the Empress daringly asked.
When his lifeless gaze met hers, the Empress shivered. She could not fathom the fact that he was her son. She didn't want to believe she had given birth to a monster. How could she fear her own son? The very thing she had given life to was the one thing that could take her life.
"If I tell you, then you will be bedridden for days."
The Empress narrowed her eyes. She hated the fact that he was so tall, just like his damn father. In order to look at her own son in the eyes, she had to crane her neck.
The sun shined upon him, but created haunting shadows on his sharp features. He had her beauty, but none of her grace.
The Empress refused to think he came out of her. This was no man in front of her. This was no monster either. He was worse than that. He was a demon. Hundreds, if not, thousands of lives had ended because of him.
"If you killed her," the Empress coldly muttered. "Then I will never, ever take the side of your Wangfei."
"I couldn't care less about whose side you take," Yu Zhen mused. His lips curled into a sadistic smirk.
The Empress scoffed. "Do not get so smug with me, Yu Zhen. Did you forget who controls the majority of the court? Have you forgotten who the ministers favor?"
Yu Zhen cocked his head. His smirk widened. Amusement flickered in his eyes. "Your favored ministers will drop dead before they dare to oppose me."
"Do you think your cruelty will not be met with punishments?" the Empress earnestly said. She glared at her son with hatred burning in her eyes. She loved him dearly, but he always jabbed her where it hurt.
The Empress still abhorred his coronation. She did not expect her least-favorite son would seize the throne with blood and iron smeared on his hands. The First Prince was too docile. If only he had fought more viciously when the Second Prince was in Wuyi courting his life away.
"Soon, there will be riots in the palace, demanding your eradication. Murdering people left and right, servants or ministers, you will never walk away scot-free. The citizens of this nation will turn their backs on you when they hear of your crimes."
The Empress took a threatening step closer to her son. She refused to give him the power to control her. For goodness' sake, she was his mother! The only reason that he was alive and well was because of her. He was only able to live this life, walk the earth, because of her.
"You might be a war hero, Yu Zhen, but you are still a bloodthirsty murderer. Son of mine or not, I will turn my back to you if you dare lay a finger on Lady Ge!"
Yu Zhen coldly chuckled. The sound lacked warmth and sent chills down her spine. He saw her eyes tremble at the sound, her body nearly flinching despite his lack of action.
"Go ahead," Yu Zhen muttered. "Tell your men to revolt against me. Command them to point their pitchforks, and tell their servants to bring the torches. I'd love to see them burn down the palace you despise so dearly, yet desperately clung onto."
The Empress's gaze burned vehemently. She wished a fire would start right before her, so she could burn him just as his words had harmed her. Who did he think he was?! This heartless son of hers!
Sometimes she forgot that he was even her son. He certainly did not treat her as a mother. And at some point, she stopped treating him as a son.
"And the citizens?" the Empress shrilled. Her voice began to rise with each word. Her patience for him had dwindled. Suddenly, she did not regret her treatment towards him as a kid. Perhaps, even if she had thoroughly loved him as a mother, he would still turn out to be the same monster.
"Do you think they will stand to have a murderer ruling their country? When they witness the blood that flows from the Imperial Staircase, do you truly believe they will thank the high heavens to have you sitting on the throne?"
Yu Zhen didn't even blink. The words of the Empress would never faze him. He had stopped caring about her opinion for years. He would not start now.
"If you continue to be like this, killing people who oppose you, torturing innocent people who state the truth, and hurting anyone that dare to gossip, the citizens will turn their back on you, just like the entire palace."
The Empress was certain she had cornered him with her words. She wanted to see him falter, and fear for his position. She was waiting patiently for the day he would plead for her help, plead for her guidance.
But none of that happened.
His lips had curled into a slight smile. The atmosphere thickened. His presence darkened. He was not fazed at all.
"The citizens will not have time to start a rebellion," he remarked.
The Empress feared she would die early. Her blood pressure was rising with every passing second she spoke to him. It took everything inside of her to not slap the smugness out of his face. He was her son, the least he could do was show some decency and respect.
"And what makes you think they're not planning a rebellion as we speak?" the Empress bit out.
What makes this heartless son of hers so confident? He had not done a single good deed for the citizens. He had never done any charity work, never shown them compassion. What makes him think the country did not despise him?
So what if he had made Hanjian flourish in the short time of his regime? The First Prince could've done the same. The Crown Prince might've been a Commander, but it was a title achieved through manslaughter.
Yu Zhen darkly chuckled. "The citizens would be too busy celebrating over their lowered taxes, the increased funding towards orphanages, and schools being built for their sake."
The Empress's smile slipped. In her haughtiness, she had forgotten the kind-hearted woman standing by his son. She had forgotten the one person in this entire palace who said his name with ease.
The pieces were settling into place now.
The Empress had always wondered why Yu Zhen was enamored by the Crown Princess. She was compassionate for the wrong things. Even if the palace frowned upon the Crown Prince, the country will smile for his Wangfei.
"You…. you…" the Empress struggled to say something. The rug was just yanked from underneath her. She was not prepared for this.
In her moment of rage, she had forgotten about the Round Table Discussions. She had nearly forgotten the Crown Princess's inspiring victory, the determined glint in her eyes, and her confident smiles.
"Did you…" the Empress narrowed her eyes. "Did you plan this from the very beginning? To marry a charitable woman who would balance out your barbaric regime?"
Instead of responding, the Crown Prince merely shrugged his shoulders.
The Empress opened her mouth to say something, but changed her mind at the last minute. Reprimanding him was of no use. It was time to change her tactics.
Unfortunately, before she could utter another word, his attention was already elsewhere. A servant was rushing down the corridor.
At the sight of the Crown Prince, the maidservant held back a shriek. She dropped to her knees and instantly kowtowed before the powerhouses of the Imperial Palace.
"Your Grace, Your Highness!" the maidservant hurriedly greeted them.
The Empress narrowed her eyes. Her servants were all trained to be composed and flawless. For them to rush like this, yet again, must've meant Lady Ge was involved. She took a tenacious step outside of her estate, but was blocked by her son.
"What are you doing?" the Empress demanded.
"And you!" the Empress glared down at the maidservant. "Hurry up and speak. What is the issue?"
The maidservant violently shook in her shoes. She was terrified of lifting her gaze, and coming eye-to-eye with the Crown Prince. The images of the headless servants haunted her too much.
She was frightened that he would kill her for delivering this message. The Crown Prince was the type to kill the messenger.
Even so, the maidservant couldn't disobey the orders of the Empress. The maidservant was stuck between a rock and a hard place.
"Your Highness, Your Grace… L-Lady Ge, she is b-being forced to strip naked in front of the entire country!"