Li Xueyue did not believe she had it in her to be this evil. But there were some things that could never be forgiven. This time, Lady Ge Beining had crossed all the lines. There was no going back now.
Tongues wagged and news about what happened to Lady Ge Beining spread far and wide in the palace. Servants passing by would stop and stare in sheer horror and anticipation. It was such a bewildering scene that they could hardly believe their eyes. They blinked and rubbed their eyes and doubted their vision.
Lady Ge Beining was in tears. It was the first time anyone had ever seen her shed tears which glistened like crystals. They witnessed her choked sobs, her trembling shoulders, it was an unbelievable sight.
Their eyes roamed to the Crown Princess, who was now viewed in a different light.
"Did you hear?" someone whispered. "The Crown Princess believes Lady Ge Beining should be punished for running away from the intruders."
"Well, if I was in the Crown Princess's shoes, I would want her punished too. She ran away when they needed help."
"Even so, don't you think this punishment is too cruel?"
Chimes of agreement rang among the servants. "Yeah, I suppose you're right. I heard Lady Ge was also poisoned with the aphrodisiac drug as she was fleeing…that means she's also a victim, right?"
Another round of consensus echoed in the crowd.
"But who knows? Maybe she drank the aphrodisiac to look innocent. Why did she have to run, when the guards were just outside?"
Every pair of eyes snapped to a lone servant who stood by the pillars. She wore a veil, and no one could distinguish who she was. They wondered if it was Xiao Hua, but upon closer inspection, noted her eyes didn't resemble the former's.
Every pair of eyes snapped to Lady Ge. She was on her knees, as maidservants yanked at her clothes. The servants pitied Lady Ge, who had incurred the wrath of the Crown Princess.
Many servants could not believe the Crown Princess to be this cruel. People have whispered of her kindness towards Xiao Hua, and her surprise visit to the servants' quarters to check on the latter. Others have mentioned how well-tempered she was, and that she'd rarely raised her voice or punish someone.
It was strange to see the kind-hearted Princess be so cruel. Was this going to be just a one-time thing? Or had the incident hardened her heart? The people feared the Crown Princess had let her power get to her head.
"It is not too late to stop this, Princess!" Lady Ge Beining demanded as she shoved and dodged the hands that grabbed at her clothes. She felt the first layer being yanked to her waist, as another rushed for the other layer.
Li Xueyue simply watched as Lady Ge was stripped bare, from her waist up. Even when Lady Ge's pale skin was revealed, Li Xueyue did not tear her eyes away from the woman.
Her eyes were cold and emotionless. She wore an aloof expression that revealed nothing. Was she upset by this sight? Was she pleased by the punishment? No one could tell.
The maidservants yanked Lady Ge Beining to her feet, as the men gawked and the women admired her perfect body. Even so, people uncomfortably shifted in anticipation.
Lady Ge Beining squeezed her eyes shut as she sobbed out in fear. She hung her head low. Her cheeks burned with humiliation. She could literally see her reputation trampled into dust.
There was no coming back from this. Now that the entire palace had seen her naked, their perspective of her would change. This embarrassment would be etched into her mind, for the rest of her life.
Even though her chastity was not violated, it might as well have been. Her body was exposed for everyone to see.
"Don't you have compassion?!" Lady Ge demanded as she felt a servant tug at the belt that held her clothes together. Initially, she was only naked from the waist up, but now, she was completely unclothed.
Soon, her legs trembled from the cold, and her knees gave out.
Lady Ge was as naked as the day she was born.
"I will not kill you, nor have men rape you, because I will not stoop to your level," the Crown Princess softly uttered.
Lady Ge was suddenly reminded of the Crown Prince's words. Except, this time, it was delivered in a feminine tone.
"But I will make you wish you were dead."
Lady Ge's blood chilled. Did…the Crown Prince put his wife up to this? Did he want her publicly humiliated to this extent? Was the poison not enough?!
Lady Ge Beining hasn't lost faith in the Crown Prince. She willingly accepted the punishment of being poisoned by him, for he was the one who delivered it to her. He could've had a servant do it, but didn't. He personally came to see her, and that thought alone had reassured her.
She was still plaguing his thoughts, whether he liked it or not.
But the reality was cruel. And soon, she was brought back to it.
Lady Ge Beining's cheeks burned all the way to her ears. She was shivering in the cold, as goosebumps marked her perfect skin. She heard the low whistle of the servants, the wandering eyes of the soldiers, and the burning gazes of the townspeople below.
Lady Ge Beining had been killed twice in one week. But she refused to die a third time by walking down the stairs.
For the first time in her life, Lady Ge Beining lowered onto her knees for a woman other than the Empress.
Li Xueyue's body did not sway, even when Lady Ge desperately clung onto her shins.
"Princess, please, I beg of you, have compassion!" Lady Ge Beining sobbed out, as she hung her head in shame. Her hair flowed like curtains that shielded her face. But everyone knew, she was crying. The tremble of her shoulders and her occasional sobs were a constant reminder that she had been wronged.
"I was wrong, Princess. I was wrong for running away, for being a coward, for choosing myself over you. I was wrong, and I shall admit that!"
Li Xueyue stood there, rooted as a tree, unmoving as a mountain. She remained still and looked ahead. Whispers erupted in the background. A few chastised her, others admired her, and some questioned her action.
"I will not do it again, I swear to you, Princess. I s-swear that I will pledge allegiance to you, and to use my life to shield you from harm! I swear on it!"
Li Xueyue realized Lady Ge had reached her breaking point. For a prideful woman like her to beg in public, and in front of the entire palace, it was not an easy feat.
But for the loss of her unborn child, for triggering her trauma, Li Xueyue did not bat an eye.
"So please, Princess, I beg of you, do not kill me like this, please!" Lady Ge Beining wailed out, as her entire body began to shake from her hiccuping cries.
Lady Ge Beining was desperately gripping onto the skirts of the Crown Princess. Her pail, thin wrists were on display for everyone to see, much like her rib cage. She had the silhouette of a graceful swan, nimble and beautiful.
Even so, no amount of poise and elegance could shield her embarrassment. Everyone had seen what a pitiful creature she had become. Everyone had seen her naked body. There was no recovering from this.
Indeed, the Crown Princess was right. For a woman, this punishment was worse than death.
"Please…" Lady Ge Beining whimpered. "Please show me mercy."
Li Xueyue's heart completely froze over.
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