Yu Shisheng never requested much from his mother. She had given him the world, her attention, and love. There was nothing more he could possibly ask for. His childhood was unpleasant, but she made it meaningful. Whenever he was beaten, he would run to his mother's arms. She would hug him tight and comfort him.
"Mother," the word left his mouth without hesitation. It was customary to refer to the Empress as "Royal Mother," or by some other fancy title, but they were too close for such a thing.
"Shisheng," she muttered.
The Empress was nearly out the door when she was caught by his words. Familiarity washed over her. She had encountered Yu Zhen just like this recently. Except, this time, her first son was blocking the exit of the estate.
"What are you doing here?" she added on. "I heard you were in a painting frenzy and were occupied the entire day. I know you do not like to be interrupted when that happens."
The Empress glanced at him knowingly. "Or even leave your estate."
Yu Shisheng smiled. She knew him so well. "I wanted to have a discussion."
The Empress's eyes darted to the servant who had just informed her of the commotion in the Capital's center. She had rushed out, but her path was now being blocked by her first son.
It was a strange coincidence.
"We can have one later, sweet boy. I am currently occupied with—"
"It is about Second Brother."
The Empress's gentle expression hardened a bit. That rebellious child of hers! Must he inherit all of his father's bad traits? Including ones from that sadistic and crazy grandfather of his?
"Did someone put you up to this?" she sharply asked.
Yu Shisheng let out a small laugh. "Who would have the power to move the First Prince of Hanjian?"
The Empress narrowed her eyes. He was not answering her question, but dodging it. Only one person came to mind. Did Yu Zhen send his older brother out to convince her? It was cowardly.
"Mother, do you love Ah-Zhen?" Yu Shisheng finally asked, as his smile softened sympathetically.
The question took her by surprise. She glanced around their surroundings. Beautiful maidservants and handsome eunuchs surrounded them. Heads bowed, but ears perked, they were masterminds of deceit.
Holding back a small sigh, she gestured for her son to take a walk with her in the gardens. "I suppose there is truly someone powerful enough in the palace to move even the First Prince of Hanjian," she retorted.
Yu Shisheng was slightly relieved to see she was not going to leave her estate. But he needed to make sure she did not secretly mobilize any of her servants. Thus, he flicked his wrist and excused them all.
"Why are you forcing my people to leave?" the Empress softly demanded, but allowed him to do so. She could not find it in her patient heart to be aggravated by his actions.
Tea-time and leisure walks were not rare when it came to the First Prince. But he rarely excused all of the servants, for she was always the one doing it. Seeing him command the servants and eunuchs, she could not help but wish he had won the throne.
"Be honest with me, Mother," Yu Shisheng stated.
They were now standing in a large garden with exotic flowers blooming in every corner. The path was lined with small pebbles and soft, white sand. It was a lovely place. He had fond childhood memories of running here to cry, just so he could be discovered by her. The servants would rush to the Empress at the sound of the First Prince's cries, in return, she would run to him.
"You love Ah-Zhen less than you love me, is that right?" he instantly asked.
The Empress's ruby red lips parted. Her makeup slightly creased when she deeply frowned. "How could you insinuate such a thing?" she sharply asked. "I love both of my sons."
"I didn't ask whether or not you loved him. I asked whether it was equal or not."
The Empress had never seen him behave like this. He was rarely this cold and blunt with his questions. She raised him better than that. She was certain of it.
"Of course, I love both of my sons e—" She could not say it. The words died in her throat, especially when she looked into his clear, honest eyes. He resembled her so much that it was amusing.
"I love all of my children," she finally said.
"But a little bit less for Ah-Zhen?"
The Empress loudly sighed. She threw him an incredulous look. "I hope you did not leave your painting frenzy just to ask silly questions. Your art is precious and will be regarded as the nation's treasure."
"You're avoiding my question," Yu Shisheng complained. He softly scowled and took a step away from her.
The Empress finally gave in. "Ah-Zhen and I have our ups and downs. He is still my son and a responsibility of mine. I clothed him in wealth, just as I had done for you. I fed him the best of food and gave him a warm place to sleep in, as I have ensured for all of my children. I did everything a mother should."
Yu Shisheng could not find much fault in her words. It was true. His younger brother grew up in the finest of luxury. But he was all alone. There were many times Yu Shisheng had shared a morning or afternoon meal with his mother and siblings, but Yu Zhen was never present.
Whether it was intentional or not, Yu Shisheng knew how lonely his younger brother must've felt. But he had failed his duties as an older brother. He failed to protect his siblings—especially the young boy who took the harshest of beatings from their father.
"You did the bare minimum required of a parent. Yes, Ah-Zhen lived comfortably, but he was without love. And such a thing has a detrimental effect on children growing up," he said.
The Empress lowered her gaze towards a flower. It was a chrysanthemum, as radiant as the sun. Their petals glistened like molten gold, dazzling and highly regarded in her home country. But the flower was always wilting in her garden. She neglected it, for she believed the plant was strong enough to survive on their own.
"Ah-Zhen is similar to his father in every way, and perhaps, even the late Emperor. Since birth, he has been different," she admitted. "It was difficult dealing with a stony-face child, no matter how much I loved him."
"His nonchalance only began after you—" He cut himself off.
Yu Shisheng did not have the guts to reprimand her for a love that he received. A decade and a half later, and he was still wallowing with guilt. The image of a sullen and heartbroken little boy could not leave his mind.
Yu Shisheng had been dearly embraced by his mother after a scolding. And when Yu Zhen ran up to the Empress for the same treatment, she said she was too occupied with the First Prince to hug him as well. But that day, Yu Zhen was beaten the harshest.
"What is the purpose of this conversation?" the Empress asked in a light and airy voice, her patience slowly being tested. "Is it to insult your mother for the love she has shown you?"
"No!" he instantly said. "Mother I—"
The Empress gently touched his face, watching as his eyes widened and his mouth clamped shut. She smiled up at him, with love and warmth in her eyes. "You resemble me so much, do you know that?"
Yu Shisheng was bewildered by her question. "Yes, everyone tells me that. I have your eyes."
The Empress's smile widened. She slowly nodded her head. "And you have inherited all the good traits from your father and I. How wonderful of a son you are. You would never do or say anything to hurt me, right?"
Yu Shisheng wondered if that was even a question. "Of course not."
"Then why are you deliberately trying to make a villain out of me?" the Empress softly asked. "I have given you everything you could possibly want, Xiao Sheng. I love you so dearly, do you not understand?"
Yu Shisheng instantly saw past this guilt-trip. He was used to her manipulative nature, but this time, it irked him, more than it confused him.
"Mother," he sharply said. "I will tell you the truth, but you have to promise me not to get angry."
The Empress quirked a brow. What a bizarre thing he wanted her to promise. There were not many things in this world that angered her. Did he not know that?
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