After their morning conversation and meal, the two parted ways. Yu Zhen had some business to tend to, whereas Li Xueyue went for a run with Heiyue.
The sun rays were beating down on them, the winds were howling, and the ground trembled with force. But the scent of autumn was reassuring, the breeze refreshing, and the sun chased away the frigid cold. The grass was soft upon the hard hooves trampling upon it.
Li Xueyue let out a small, joyous laughter as Heiyue soared through the open meadow. She wanted to throw her hands up and feel the air rushing through her sprawled fingers. She wanted to lift her face towards the sun and bask in its light.
"That was fun, wasn't it?" Li Xueyue excitedly asked Heiyue once they were slowing down.
Heiyue snorted in response, nodding his head whilst she guided him back.
"It has been a while since we've experienced this much freedom," she added on.
Li Xueyue reminiscenced the days spent in the Li Manor. The days of her youth were quickly slipping by, and she was becoming more mature.
However, she would never forget all the wonderful times spent with the twins—racing them, having sword fights and archery battles with them. So many other thoughts about the Li Family raced through her mind.
A smile spread on her lips. She fondly remembered the fragrant teas and delicious pastries made by her mother and reading books with her father.The tea sessions and handmade dishes by her mother wafted through her nose, like the scent of old books read with her Father. So many precious memories, and none to share them with.
"It's funny how life works," she quietly said. "When you're having fun, you never realize this could be the last time you're ever playing together."
Suddenly, her smile slipped away. She would always cherish the moments spent with the Li family. She had just wished, at that moment, she had treasured it much more. The banter, the jokes, and the teasing, all of it was imprinted inside of her heart and mind.
Li Xueyue peered up towards the sky. The sun was high in the clouds in the afternoon. A large bird flew over her head. She closed her eyes and basked in the sunlight.
It was crazy how quickly the time had passed. Nearly three years ago, she was just a sparrow dreaming of the sky. Now, she was soaring through the clouds, and the ground was her domain.
The darkest nights reveal the brightest mornings.
- - - - -
Li Xueyue was in the process of bidding Heiyue goodbye when loud footsteps approached the stables. She turned her head in time to see Xiao Hua running up to her. It was a bizarre sight, considering Xiao Hua's personality. Xiao Hua was rarely flustered.
"P-Princess!" Xiao Hua hurriedly greeted. She lowered her body into a deep bow, her chest heaving as she took deep gasps of air.
"The Crown Prince has publicly announced all of Lady Ge Beining's crimes to the Imperial Palace and Lady Xu was brought out as the eye witness!"
Li Xueyue was absolutely floored. She knew this would happen sooner or later, but not this quickly!
Before she could even take another step, Xiao Hua instantly added on, "Princess, we didn't know how the Crown Prince did it, but he managed to reveal that Marquis Qin was the one who supplied the bath oils and aphrodisiac."
Li Xueyue quirked a brow.
XIao Hua continued, "These three had been in cahoots the whole time, and Lady Xu confessed to everything and even pinned the blame on Lady Ge!"
Li Xueyue was certainly not surprised. The coincidence had shaken her, but she figured as much. Only two merchants in the entire Kingdom should've been able to get their hands on something so expensive and rare.
"Princess, additionally, Lady Ge Beining was publicly whipped in the town center while her crimes were being announced over and over again."
"What?" Li Xueyue whispered.
Li Xueyue thought the punishment would be carried out in private, or at least, before the entire palace. But inthe public? It was a punishment she started, but could not finish.
The Empress had made sure of that, when she banished Lady Ge to the Cold Palace.
That was all Li Xueyue needed to hear before running off in an unfamiliar direction. She had to get there first. She had to explain herself for the sake of her husband. He was fine with not having either of his parents, but she was still worried about the woman who possessed great power in the palace courts.
- - - - -
Yu Zhen wondered why his Wangfei had so much compassion. Seated near a balcony that overlooked the town's capital, he could not fathom such an emotion. The townspeople were gathered for the public whipping, as they egged on the punisher.
After hearing the crimes of Lady Ge, people were so quick to turn on her. She was such a fool.
The Capital was enamored by the Crown Princess. The citizens had heard of her accomplishments and great feats. From forming anthe alliance with Nanhui, to her impressive sword fighting, horseback riding, and archery skills, she had earned their respect. But she occupied a permanent spot in their hearts when it was revealed that she fought for the people's rights.
She fought for lower taxes on the commoners, more funding for orphanages, building of more schools, and so much more. All of theseis wereas championeddone by the Crown Princess, to whom the people of Hanjian loved.
"Are you certain this is alright?" Lu Tianbi whispered.
Always the voice of reason, her eyes never strayed from the Crown Prince. She and Hu Dengxiao were on either side of the ruthless monarch. They blocked the citizen's' sight of the Crown Prince, which protected his identity.
Though, everyone was too distracted by cheering on the whippings.
"Hit her harder! What kind of woman will try to get another raped?!"
"She killed a baby and framed her friend for it, how disgraceful!"
"Does she not have shame? Causing so much harm on someone so innocent, people like her deserve to burn in the worst hell of the Eighteen Levels of Diyu!"
Yu Zhen remained aloof. He sat there, motionless and nonchalant, with his legs crossed and hands resting on his knees. No one knew the thoughts running through his mind.
"Your Highness?" Lu Tianbi whispered. But Hu Dengxiao placed a hand on her back and solemnly shook his head.
There was nothing they could possibly do to lessen the punishment, or try to convince him or otherwise. Thus, Lu Tianbi wanted to at least save the Crown Prince's reputation. If he was found to be the one behind this, what wouldill the nation say?
But before Lu Tianbi could say anything, her thoughts were sharply interrupted by loud wails.
Lady Ge Beining's cries filled the town's center. She screamed and sobbed, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. Even with half the town surrounding her, throwing stones, rotten eggs, and anything dirty, there was no one who cared for her.
Her decency was preserved from her clothes, but it was covered with blood and stuck to her like a second skin. She might as well have been naked.
"That child could've been a daughter that looked like my Wangfei."
Lu Tianbi stiffened. Hu Dengxiao glanced away.
"Or perhaps, a son with the same brooding stare as his father."
No one dared to speak after the Crown Prince's bittersweet words. He had never expressed his pain in public, nor did he have the time to mourn over what was lost. For Xueyue's sake, he remained strong. He shouldered her pain and concealed his agony.
Because of Lady Ge's meddling, an innocent child was killed. Because of Lady Ge's actions, his Wangfei was nearly raped. It would've shattered Li Xueyue, heart and soul. The memories of Marquis Qin's assault would've resurfaced and drowned her. Li Xueyue would be a shell. Nothing more, nothing less.
Yu Zhen did not say anything else. He didn't have to. In the eyes of his beloved friend, everything was justified. Even if others believed it was not.
"Y-Your Highness, I think the woman is dead," Lu Tianbi breathed out.
Lady Ge was motionless. The whipping had halted. Her arms were suspended in the air, forcing her to kneel before the people.
A woman of high birth, of blue blood and wealth was on her knees before the citizens that bowed to her. It was a sight that humiliated the entire Ge family name. It was a sight that humiliated her very being, body, and soul.
"She's breathing," Hu Dengxiao pointed out. "Her chest is rising, barely, but rising for air."
The wooden platform was littered with tossed food. But nothing was more prominent than the ruby red blood that dripped from her body. It glistened like the jewels she used to adorn.
Hu Dengxiao turned his gaze back to the Crown Prince. And he swore his heart nearly stopped. The Crown Prince was smiling. In the face of the storm, the chaotic screams, the cheers, he was enjoying it. He had never smiled for Lady Ge, until she was at her lowest.
"Your Highness, you're so mean," Hu Dengxiao whispered to his good friend.
To which, the Crown Prince raised a brow. "Some like to hide it, I don't."
Hu Dengxiao's attention drifted back to Lady Ge. He was certain she would not see another dawn. Or perhaps the Crown Prince would keep her alive, to face her own father and suffer the consequences of humiliating him. That man would surely faint upon the realization that his only child failed him to this extent.
"The Empress will rage," Lu Tianbi whispered. "Even if Lady Ge has lost her grace, the Empress will not stand for this commotion."
Yu Zhen wordlessly shrugged. She could rage all she wants. Her husband was dying. Soon, the palace would be under Yu Zhen's control. What could the Empress do?
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