521 We“re Alone
After Yu Zhen departed the estate, an unfamiliar servant knocked on the estate doors. Xiao Hua walked outside first to survey the situation.
Li Xueyue was getting ready for horseback riding. Her pretty dresses were set aside for regal robes that hugged her frame, but provided perfect mobility. She was adjusting the leather waist pouch containing some snacks.
Shortly after, Xiao Hua returned to the bedroom with hesitation written all over her features. She tucked her hands in front of her and bowed.
"Princess," Xiao Hua addressed.
Li Xueyue closed the pouch and turned around. It was late in the afternoon, and the sun was close to setting. It was strange to get a visitor so late in her day, much less, an unexpected one.
"His Majesty, the Emperor, is requesting your presence."
Li Xueyue stiffened. She had not seen Yu Zhen's father for a while now. She couldn't even remember the last time they had met. Rumors had it the Emperor had been bedridden for weeks now. No one dared to speak of it for they knew the inevitable outcome.
When the Emperor would draw his last breath, Yu Zhen would be crowned as the next Emperor. After a month of mourning, the coronation for the new Emperor would take place. The Empress would have to resign from her position. She would be the Empress Dowager and her power would either increase or decrease.
"I should change," Li Xueyue muttered. But there would not be enough time.
No one kept the Emperor waiting. Not even the Crown Princess.
Li Xueyue decided it would be best to see him right away. Besides, he had seen her in this attire before, when she rode on Heiyue and crossed swords with the Princess of Nanhui—winning Wuyi an alliance like no other.
"Very well, Xiao Hua. Let's pay His Majesty a visit," Li Xueyue concluded.
- - - - -
The Emperor's estate was eerily calm. It was the brightest spot in the palace, one that received the most sun in the day. When the sunlight danced on the golden roofs, the Emperor's estate would glow brilliantly. Spews of yellow would reflect in the distance, like a chest of coins.
Even so, the energy here was lackluster. Guards lined the walls, the servants were quiet and respectful and there was not even a hum in the air. It was peaceful here, with splashes of red, orange, and yellow due to the changing season.
The Emperor's estate was the epitome of autumn, but lacked the warmth and joy.
"Crown Princess," an unfamiliar man politely addressed the woman in front of him. He was middle-aged and dressed in ivory and ocean blue.
Li Xueyue immediately put the pieces back together. This was not an Eunuch before her. He was more important than that, judging from his clothes.
He was the spitting image of Wu Xiang.
"Chancellor Wu," Li Xueyue stated.
Chancellor Wu's aloof stare widened a bit. He did not expect the foreign Princess to be acquainted with his face. Nowadays, Chancellor Wu rarely showed his face in court, or anywhere for that matter.
Chancellor Wu was glued to the Emperor's side. He never wandered far or left the Emperor's side except to go home. His duty was to His Majesty, his loyal friend from childhood. His stone heart was beginning to show cracks and wear, from all the years of being emotionless.
The looming death of his friend was impacting him too much.
"The Emperor will see you now," Chancellor Wu finally managed to say. His voice slightly trembled as if he could not accept the dreary future.
Without another word, Chancellor Wu reached behind him and pushed the doors open. He stepped aside politely, and graciously, for a girl half his age, if not, even younger.
Certainly, the Crown Princess was as the rumors said—she was beautiful, elegant, and poise. It was all that they could ask of her. But there was more than what meets the eye. He saw it in hers—a heightened sense of urgency and hesitation of the situation.
"Thank you," the Crown Princess quietly muttered whilst setting foot inside.
Chancellor Wu was caught off-guard. Not even Princess Yu Lingluo thanked him, and he had been by her side for a while now. But he did not let this affect him.
Chancellor Wu merely bowed his head in respect. This young woman would soon become the Empress of this nation. He needed to make sure his family remained on her good side.
"Your Majesty, the rising sun of the Kingdom," Li Xueyue formally addressed. She lowered her legs, and tucked her hands to the side, dipping into a curtsy.
"Third Princess Yu," Li Xueyue greeted in a humble voice.
"Hnn…." the Emperor groaned out. He turned his head to the side. With crinkled eyes, he saw a blurry figure. With the stealth of a sloth, he rubbed at his eyes until his vision finally cleared.
The Crown Princess was as lovely as he had remembered her to be. She brought a smile to his face. Dressed in fine robes of white, leather, and green, she wore clothes suitable for fighting, running, and horseback riding. She never failed to impress him.
"Rise," he breathed out.
Li Xueyue did so with ease. She lifted her eyes and held back a gasp. The Emperor's health was deteriorating. His skin was like aged leather, but tinted with grey like fresh ash.
"How…" he heaved out. "Do you feel?"
Li Xueyue's voice was stuck in her throat. Yu Zhen needed to see his father immediately. The Emperor truly looked like he was lying near death's door. Any minute now, the doors would open, and the grim reaper would step out.
"Blessed by your presence, Your Majesty," she responded.
At this, the Emperor's chest rattled like a cage of bones. His laugh was empty, yet warm. He was highly humored by her words.
"My presence is that of a…ghost," he gasped out. "There is nothing…to be blessed by."
"You're mistaken, Your Majesty," Li Xueyue slowly said. She briefly glanced at Yu Lingluo, who sat by the Emperor's side. There was an open book in her hands, but her head was lowered. Wet spots could be seen on the pages.
"I felt blessed to receive the opportunity to be granted a rare audience with Your Majesty," she explained.
The Emperor smiled. She had a way of words. He vividly remembered that part about her. Her words had gotten sweeter, but still unexpected. It reassured his heart that someone as reliable as her would be ruling beside his unstable son.
"If only Yu Zhen, that ungrateful son of mine…feels the same as you," the Emperor coldly said.
Li Xueyue glanced away. He was sick, and tired, but had the energy to be disappointed. It was a strange revelation, one that squeezed her heart. She wished they would at least talk to each other.
Li Xueyue's heart ached. What if Yu Zhen lived with regret for the rest of his life? Regret that he was not able to have a final word with his father before the opportunity would no longer be presented to him.
"Bah, but we're not here to discuss him," he gently laughed. Suddenly, he broke out into a violent cough.
"Father!" Yu Lingluo gasped out. She rushed out of her chair and tossed the book away. "Father, shall I call for the Imperial Physician?"
The Emperor instantly shook his head. He reached a hand out and immediately, a newly poured cup of tea was placed into his hand. Infused with lavender and chamomile, the white tea immediately calmed him down.
He let out a relieved sigh and laid back down. The tea soothed his aching lungs. "Much better," he muttered.
"Please try not to laugh so much," Yu Lingluo pleaded. There were even more unshed tears in her eyes.
"What is life without laughter?" the Emperor mused with a tired smile.
The Emperor reached his hand up and gently caressed the side of his daughter's face. "It's alright. Leave me with the Princess. A thorough discussion must take place."
Yu Lingluo was hesitant to leave. But she knew how responsible the Crown Princess was. Even so, her heart was heavy, like her foot. It was always difficult to leave his room when it was time to depart.
"Go," he gently reassured her.
"Continue the story tomorrow," he said whilst patting the book that was now beside him.
Yu Lingluo bit her bottom lip. She lowered her eyes and sullenly nodded. "I will have the servants brew a new batch of tea and have them watch over you at night, Father."
The Emperor's smile widened at her words. This was why he appreciated having daughters. They were more filial and cared about their parents. Unlike those petty sons of his…who rarely visit.
"I will be leaving now, Father." Yu Lingluo rose from her chair. She cast him a final look, then turned around and approached the door.
On her way out, she nodded her head in acknowledgment of Xueyue, but kept her eyes low. She did not want anyone to see her red-rimmed eyes and the way it glistened with tears.
Yu Lingluo closed the doors behind her.
"Now, it is just us," the Emperor heaved out. He wanted to sit up and properly talk to her, but could not do so without appearing weak. Well, he already felt weak from lying down and craning his neck to see her.
"Come closer and let me get a good look at you," the Emperor said.
The Crown Princess showed no hesitation to approach him and it pleased him. Some would hesitate to approach him, they were either worried of offending him or wary of his disease. But he was not as fragile as glass nor was his illness contagious.
"You've somehow matured…" the Emperor murmured.
Li Xueyue was not sure what he meant by that. She was startled when he suddenly grasped her hands and squeezed them. His skin was rough and textured with lines.
"Now that we're alone, I must tell you something dire."