507 If Only I Kneq
Li Xueyue did not bat an eye when Lady Ge Beining was dragged to the Cold Palace, naked and all. Lady Ge Beining had kicked and screamed until eventually, she accepted the defeat that came her way.
Li Xueyue was more concerned about Yu Zhen's absence. When she was being dressed, he had informed her that he would distract the Empress from coming here. He had stalled enough time for her to have Lady Ge stripped. But where exactly was Yu Zhen?
"Are you satisfied now?"
Li Xueyue spun on her heels. She was met with the cold, stoic voice of the Empress. The Empress's lips thinned into a line, and she seemed disappointed with Xueyue.
"Satisfied that I've caused a ruckus, Your Grace?" Li Xueyue responded. She peered over her shoulders, in the direction where Lady Ge was dragged off to.
"Yes, not only have you caused trouble before the entire palace, I'm certain the townspeople waiting in the streets will be restless and confused."
Li Xueyue was well aware of the waiting townspeople. Originally, her plan was to force Lady Ge to do a walk of shame but that plan had gone haywire. However, the Empress did not know how much of an overthinker Li Xueyue was.
"How did you know there were people waiting, Your Grace?"
The Empress chuckled. "It does not take a genius to figure what your sadistic thoughts have conjured up, Princess."
Li Xueyue's brows drew together. Sadistic? It hit a nerve. "I—"
"You have caused civil unrest for the people of Hanjian. What will you present to them now that your original plan has been disrupted?"
The Empress did not think the quiet and well-mannered Crown Princess possessed such a cruel mindset. For some reason, the Empress did not know if she should laugh or cry at this. It was certainly a surprise, and if it was a different time, the Empress would've welcomed this twist of events.
"If I tell you, Your Grace, then it will ruin the surprise."
The Empress was intrigued. She raised her brows and turned to the Crown Princess. The Crown Princess had an aloof expression on her face. However, a slight smile had graced her lips, softening her hardened eyes.
"Really now?" the Empress mused. She wanted to know what other tricks the Crown Princess had up her sleeves.
Li Xueyue turned to her maidservants. She held out a hand to the nearest one.
Instantly, the maidservant tenderly placed a scroll on the Crown Princess's open palm.
Li Xueyue wrapped her fingers around the scroll. She was always prepared for her plan to fail. It was precisely what her brain was wired to do. Even now, she had not dropped the bad habit of thinking far into the unpredictable future, and planning for contingencies even if the likelihood of certain events happening was low.
"A scroll?" the Empress pointed out. She watched as the Crown Princess handed the scroll to the nearest Eunuch.
The Eunuch accepted it with a bow of his head and two extended hands.
"Announce this to the townspeople," Li Xueyue instructed.
The Empress's lips parted in astonishment. She had not expected the Crown Princess to even have an announcement ready in case of failure. Just who exactly was this daughter-in-law of hers?
The Eunuch bowed deeper at the Crown Princess's command. His navy robes fluttered against the wind, as he set foot upon the Imperial Stairs. Quietly and stealthy, he descended the stairs.
"What was inside of that scroll, Princess?" the Empress immediately asked. She was curious about what the Crown Princess had in store for the Capital.
"An announcement about the increased funding for orphanages and the creation of more schools across the country, Your Grace."
The Empress stiffened at the Crown Princess's words. She had nearly forgotten how charismatic the Crown Princess was when she single-handedly won against a table of men that ridiculed the opinion of a woman.
Before the Empress could say anything, a strong breeze drifted through the air. She squinted as her hairpins jingled like bells. Panicked gasps were heard behind her as the maidservants held down their dresses.
Amidst the storm, the Crown Princess remained calm. She peered up at the sky, watching as leaves fluttered. Softly, slowly, it danced in the air, a dance that no one appreciated.
"You—" the Empress could not bring it in herself to say anything else.
Her chest suddenly felt heavy with pain. It was not an illness. She recognized this emotion. It was guilt and regret for choosing the wrong side.
The Empress glanced away from the Crown Princess. The Empress didn't realize she had just been admiring the young maiden—not until her heart was squeezed, and she was reminded of her youth.
People had despised and ridiculed the Empress, for she was a foreign Princess on foreign soil. They did not believe in her potential to outshine every minister in the palace. They viewed her as nothing but a tool for heirs.
"How…" the Empress trailed off. She was not certain of what to say at a moment like this. Her shoulders had slightly dropped in discouragement.
The Empress struggled to find her next response. She was too overwhelmed with remorse to say anything else to the Crown Princess. The Crown Princess too, was from a foreign land. People underestimate her potential, again and again.
History was repeating itself.
The Empress had the ability to prevent the same tragic history from taking its toll. But she was blinded by the past and forsaken the future.
"How are you feeling, Princess?" the Empress hesitantly asked.
Was it too late?
The Empress shifted her attention to the Crown Princess. When her eyes landed on the Princess, the Empress got the answer. The Crown Princess looked disappointed—her gaze said it all.
It was, indeed, too late.
"I am feeling alright, Your Grace."
The Empress heard the dullness in the Crown Princess's voice. Li Xueyue was serene as ever, but she no longer sounded excited to speak to the Empress.
"I… see." The Empress could not find anything else to say or comment on. In one day, she had lost two daughters and a son—not physically, but emotionally. It took a toll on her fragile heart.
"If that is all, Your Grace, please excuse me."
"Yes, you're excused. I hope to see you around soon, Princess."
The Crown Princess shifted her hands to the right, dipped her legs, and elegantly curtsied. Without another word, she walked off.
The Empress's breath hitched. The Crown Princess was a thin and fragile woman, but suddenly, her shoulders seemed strong enough to lift a mountain.
History was repeating itself, but this time, the outcome would be much different.
"If only I knew…" the Empress quietly mumbled under her breath. "If only I had seen it sooner."
With a shake of her head and a heavy sigh, the Empress turned on her heels. One by one, the people closest to her were disappearing. And soon, she will have no one but herself.
The Empress knew it was too late to regret all of her life decisions. What was said and done was done. There was nothing she could do to turn back the clock and restart her life.