The Empress had just departed from her husband's room with Yu Shisheng, when she heard loud footsteps approaching them. She raised her gaze and her lips parted. She had not expected to see him here. What was he doing here? He harbored too much hatred towards the Emperor to have come to the Emperor's estate willingly.
But then her attention shifted to his Wangfei. Dressed in simple colors and simple accessories, it was not difficult to tell what brought him here.
"Son," she instantly said upon his arrival. Then her attention shifted to the Crown Princess.
"Princess," she added on.
The Crown Princess presented her with a curt and polite smile. It was evident she was withdrawn to say or do anything more than needed. She was no longer trying her best to win the Empress's favor.
"Are both of you here to see our beloved Emperor?" the Empress asked in a low, sullen voice. Her eyes were rimmed red, and her face was bare of make-up. She was the epitome of a grieving wife.
The general public pitied and sympathized with her. How sad it was to lose a husband? But those closest to her saw through the facade. She was happy her husband was dying. That way, there would be one less person keeping her in control.
"Yes, we are, Your Grace," the Crown Princess answered. She lowered her head, her lips wobbling.
The Empress's hand twitched. The Crown Princess was quite the performer as well. There were so many eyes on them. From the ministers to the servants, there were many people gathered here, but only a handful could enter.
"Well, I won't block your way," the Empress gently said. She wanted to reach a hand out and grasp the Princess's attention, but it was too late. She had lost that right when she chose the wrong person to support.
She peered at her youngest son. His face was blank and aloof. It was difficult to read his expression. But she supposed everyone grieves differently—or so he was trying to portray.
"Let's go," Yu Zhen murmured to his wife.
Yu Zhen placed a warm hand on her back and ushered her inside. He noticed her making eye-contact with the First Prince, but did not comment on it. They seemed to have made a pact of some sort, for Shisheng subtly nodded, then left with the Empress.
"It's nothing you should worry about," she whispered to him.
Yu Zhen's lips curled into a slight smile. "I wasn't worried."
He had more confidence than that. Besides, he believed he was much more handsome than his older brother. What was the point of being worried? It was not like anyone in this entire palace dared to covet what belonged to him.
Yu Zhen's gaze darkened. The heartbreaking sobs of his younger sister, Xiao Ling, made it seem like the Emperor had already died. It was the sound of her cries that bothered him. He never liked to see her upset, or in pain. It was just part of his nature.
"Hush…" the Emperor coughed out. In his hands was a handkerchief stained with blood. His eyes were painfully squeezed shut.
"Princess Lingluo," Li Xueyue addressed. She noticed a girl kneeling by the bedside of the Emperor.
Princess Yu Lingluo had her face buried near his arms, as she desperately held onto his hand. It was as if she was wronged by the entire world. Her shoulders were trembling, and every few seconds, she'd sniffle and sob.
"S-sister-in-law," Yu Lingluo stumbled out. She raised her head and glanced over her shoulders, revealing her tear-streaked face and wobbling lips.
Li Xueyue's heart ached at the sight. In the entire palace, it seemed Yu Lingluo was the only one who truly wept for the Emperor. It was understandable, considering she was the only daughter that remained in the palace. The rest were married off and could never return.
"Go…" the Emperor softly whispered. "I…shall see you…soon."
Yu Lingluo's eyes watered even more. Tears fell freely, and her nose was red as an apple. She would not stop crying for months to come. The death of a loving father was too much for her to handle. How could she accept his demise? He had cherished her so dearly and given her the world. She would continue to love him, even beyond the years of his death.
"I'll escort you out, Princess," Li Xueyue said. She wanted to give Yu Zhen some privacy.
"Come now, Princess Lingluo," Li Xueyue gently beckoned. She approached the young Princess and brought her to her feet.
The Emperor's room was enormous. There were at least six rooms combined into one, with each room serving their own purpose.
Since Li Xueyue could not fully leave the Emperor's room just yet, she brought Yu Lingluo to the farthest room she could find. It was completed with a set of sliding doors and drawn curtains. Her eyebrows shot up at the realization it was a small private library.
"T-the Imperial P-physician said Father is not going to make it to tomorrow," Yu Lingluo stuttered out. The words she uttered hurt herself the most. She let out another sob and cried into her handkerchief. Unable to process what was happening at such a young age, she sank to her knees and continued crying.
Li Xueyue's gaze softened. She approached the window first and pushed it open to let in the fresh air that would help to clear one's thoughts. Then, she lowered herself onto the floor and sat with Yu Lingluo.
It was a violation of the rules of etiquette on so many levels. But neither woman seemed to care.
"He'll be in a better place, Princess," Li Xueyue reassured the young woman. She placed a caressing hand on Yu Lingluo's shoulders. In an instant, Yu Lingluo tossed herself onto the Crown Princess.
Li Xueyue's eyes widened. She nearly toppled over, but was able to steady them both. Yu Lingluo had buried her face into the Crown Princess's shoulders. She continued to wept, but this time, in silence, so that it did not disturb anyone.
"There, there," Li Xueyue softly comforted. She placed a hand on Princess Yu Lingluo's back, then gently patted her there.
"He will be put out of his misery, Princess Lingluo. Keeping him away from the doors of Heaven will only hurt himself and the people closest to him," she gently added on, knowing it was best for Yu Lingluo to see things from a different perspective.
"I-I know, but I just d-don't to lose him so quickly. It's unfair that all of my other siblings got to see him much longer than me!" Yu Lingluo stuttered out whilst pulling back from the hug.
With a small pout on her lips, she continued to wipe at her eyes. "Father is such a great man, why does he have to go so quickly?"
Li Xueyue bit her bottom lip. There were so many people who would argue differently. But the Princess was too young and naive to see that. "Sometimes, Heaven picks the prettiest flowers before they pick the ugly ones."
Yu Lingluo slowly nodded in understanding. With her lowered eyes and hunched shoulders, it was inevitable there was nothing that would cheer her up for long. Only time and acceptance would truly heal her.
"D-do you think Zhen-gege will be kind to Father?"
Li Xueyue felt like a mother stuck between telling the truth or telling a white lie to her child. Yu Lingluo was still a child, barely over the age of sixteen. It would be difficult to tell her the truth, especially when she was so depressed right now. The last thing Li Xueyue wanted to happen was to make Princess Yu Lingluo cry more.
Eventually, she settled with a short answer. "I believe you know that answer the best, Princess Lingluo."
Yu Lingluo plucked at the rug. She knew the answer by heart. Few people dared to whisper it, but she had heard the rumors. Her father was not that kind and pleasant to her older brothers. Supposedly, there were beatings that were severe and her Second Brother received the blunt end of the stick.
"D-do you think Zhen-gege will forgive Father then?"
"I'm afraid I do not know the answer, Princess Lingluo."
Somehow, Yu Lingluo preferred these curt, polite responses over the mock-sympathetic smiles. At least the Crown Princess was not bluffing or making up excuses for any of their actions.
In the end, a reassuring silence fell over them. And the two remained that way until Yu Zhen was finished with his conversation.
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