Chapter 113 Explanation
The following morning, while it was still dark, the soldiers in the army promptly rose from their beds and organized their belongings.
As planned, they were scheduled to leave for Pujin Crossing before the hour of the Dragon. With the reinforcement of forty thousand troops from Hedong, Huangfu Jing’s spirits lifted. Despite facing an adversary outnumbering them, the situation remained grave, demanding a fight with their backs against the wall.
The army had a reputation for its strict discipline. Although they were scheduled to depart at the Dragon hour, by the Rabbit quarter, everyone was already in full battle attire. Even Li Zhi, caught up in the prevailing atmosphere, rose early and packed her belongings, sitting inside the carriage and munching on dry rations.
Following his usual inspection, Pei Ji approached her carriage and noticed her laboring to bite into a large, tough bun that was bigger than her face. A twinge of concern washed over him, and he spoke gently, “Endure a little longer. I have already given the orders. Once we escape this place in two or three days, you will have the luxury of good food and proper rest.”
Li Zhi took a sip of water and struggled to swallow a mouthful of the bun. She wiped the crumbs from the corner of her mouth and smiled, saying, “I’m fine. As long as I think about leaving that place behind, even eating bran and swallowing vegetables feels like bliss.”
Speaking these words, she cast a careful glance at his face. She observed a hint of stubble beneath his cheeks, but overall, he still appeared spirited and unaffected by the exhaustion of recent days. Only then did she set her mind at ease and inquired further, “How is the Grand Princess? Have you already paid her a visit?”
As his mother was mentioned, Pei Ji shook his head, his eyes clouded with a hint of sorrow. “I have no news of my mother either. She hasn’t emerged yet, and I was about to go and see her.”
Li Zhi hastily encouraged him to go.
The camp was nearly deserted, with only the Grand Princess’s final tent left unattended. The soldiers, sympathetic to her feelings, dared not disturb her and waited from afar.
Pei Ji stood outside the tent, clutching the dry rations, contemplating how to broach the subject, when suddenly, a figure emerged from within.
The Grand Princess had donned her attire, but her face appeared wan, lacking the usual radiant and compassionate expression. However, her eyes exhibited a glimmer of vitality, surpassing the lifeless sorrow.
She looked around and saw that everyone was already waiting nearby. She instructed Shu-niang, “Take the water flask and buns to the carriage. I will have them there later.” Then, she turned to Pei Ji and said, “I apologize for being late and keeping you waiting.”
“Mother—is everything alright?” Pei Ji entrusted the dry rations to Shu-niang, his worry for his mother still lingering. He instinctively supported her and inquired with concern.
Amidst the chilly morning, a shimmer of tears glistened in the eyes of the Grand Princess, swiftly veiled. She pivoted, lightly patting the hand that Pei Ji offered, her voice gentle yet resolute.
“Third Son, please don’t worry about me. I understand that you have numerous responsibilities. Even your father—he would never want to witness my despair… It’s just a momentary struggle for me to navigate this curve. Things will get better in due course. I must await your father’s return. Regardless of his state, he will eventually come back. I must patiently await his arrival.”
As she spoke these words, her voice quivered with a touch of emotion, but Pei Ji comprehended her intentions. She wouldn’t allow herself to falter because of it.
“Very well,” he breathed in deeply, sensing a slight alleviation of the worries in his heart. “Mother is waiting, and Father will return without a doubt.”
The Grand Princess nodded, adjusting his garment, and whispered gently, “In the days to come, I will rest beside him… Third Son, you must prioritize your well-being and avoid unnecessary dangers.”
“Mm. I understand.” Pei Ji nodded sincerely in acknowledgment.
Being the sole heir, he had the responsibility to safeguard himself. Besides, his heart was now filled with affection for someone. How could he bear to recklessly cast aside his own life?
Within a short while, the Grand Princess ascended the carriage, and the final tent was also dismantled.
Shi Quan personally accompanied a group of individuals to escort the Grand Princess and Li Zhi on their southern journey. Moments before departure, Pei Ji ultimately gave in to his emotions. He urged his horse forward and followed alongside Li Zhi’s carriage, whispering gently, “I will send you letters, and matters on this side will be resolved swiftly.”
“Mm,” Li Zhi raised the carriage curtain, gazing into his tender eyes brimming with trust. “I will wait.”
The horses gradually accelerated, propelling the carriage as they distanced themselves.
Nevertheless, before his hand could complete its motion, a senior military officer couldn’t restrain himself from asking, “Isn’t Noble Consort Zhong an ill-fated star, a bringer of misfortune? Why does the General protect her?”
His voice carried, reaching the ears of the nearby soldiers. They couldn’t help but glance around, their eyes shifting. If it weren’t for the constraints of military regulations, they would have already engaged in animated conversations.
The officer clenched his teeth and decided to directly express the doubts that had been festering within everyone, “Could it be that, similar to His Majesty and the treacherous Prince, the General has also been ensnared by her spells?”
Pei Ji approached with a composed expression, his steely gaze calmly sweeping over the faces filled with confusion and even anger before him, one after another.
He had long known about such murmurs within the army. Li Zhi’s past as a Noble Consort was something he couldn’t erase no matter how hard he tried. And now, among the rumors circulating among the common people, there was indeed considerable dissatisfaction and even slander aimed at her due to Prince Rui’s proclamation.
He had initially intended to wait until they joined the main army at Pujin Crossing before addressing these concerns within the ranks. However, it appeared that he could no longer afford to wait.
So be it. It was a perfect opportunity to reinvigorate the soldiers’ spirits, which would prove beneficial in the battles to come.
“Since you mentioned this matter, today I will inquire of all of you,” he sat upright on his towering horse, his voice projecting for everyone to hear. “Do you all believe that the current turmoil in the world and the hardships of the people are solely caused by Miss Zhong?”
The soldiers exchanged glances, and a few hesitant “yes” responses echoed from all directions. The officer who had raised the question noticed this and gritted his teeth, speaking firmly, “Though we dare not claim it’s all her fault, the edict clearly states that the war began because of her. We risk our lives on the battlefield, simultaneously cutting down the enemy and hastening to confront the rebels. Must we still spare our attention to protect this disastrous woman?”
As his words trailed off, a surge of anger rippled through the army. The sparse “yes” responses from earlier now swelled into an increasingly loud buzz of conversation.
Pei Ji remained silent, patiently awaiting the moment when the crowd began to subside. Then he spoke again, “In that case, I must ask further: Did Miss Zhong incite the rebels to revolt? Did she conspire with the nomadic tribes to harm the people of Great Wei?”
The crowd exchanged glances, their anger simmering, yet confronted with his question, they could only shake their heads and respond, “No.”
Pei Ji pressed on, “Did Miss Zhong manipulate His Majesty into demoting loyal ministers?”
The restlessness in the army eased slightly. “No,” came the reply.
“In the past, I pleaded with His Majesty several times not to underestimate the iron mine case, in case there were ulterior motives at play. However, His Majesty entrusted the matter to Xiao Ling Fu, who, in his pursuit of securing the position of Governor of Youzhou for his trusted subordinate, stubbornly refused to conduct a thorough investigation. Were all these occurrences also due to Miss Zhong?”
Once again, the crowd looked at one another, their previous fury subsiding as each subsequent question was raised.
Pei Ji nodded, and even the spirited horses beneath him seemed to sense the shifting mood, unable to resist trotting restlessly from side to side.
“During my time in Chang’an for over a year, I have never witnessed Miss Zhong uttering malicious words against His Majesty. Moreover, there has never been an example of a consort interfering in court affairs. Even when His Majesty wanted to bestow the title of Duke upon her uncle and marry the Princess to someone from her Zhong family, she politely declined right then and there. Such a woman, could she truly be a heinous criminal, someone who fears nothing more than a stable world? Yet, why is it that now, amidst the chaos in the world, everyone is quick to lay blame on her? Have any of you ever pondered this?”
Upon hearing his words, the soldiers couldn’t help but engage in deep thought.
Yes, other than her previous role as the rebel Prince’s Consort, Miss Zhong has little connection to this rebellion. It was just that after hearing the content of that proclamation, everyone assumed that the rebels rose up solely because of her, the infamous femme fatale. However, the proclamation clearly outlined various other reasons for the uprising.
Pei Ji calmly observed the crowd’s faces, aware that many of them had started to understand his intention. He continued, “Do you really think that returning Miss Zhong to the rebel Prince at this moment would bring an end to the rebellion?”
As his words came to an end, the soldiers were all startled.
One of them contemplated for a moment, speaking with hesitation, “I’m afraid… it wouldn’t cease… rebellions and uprisings have always been about seizing power and taking the throne. It can’t be as straightforward as just one woman.”
Upon hearing this, the others found it sensible.
Pei Ji pulled at the corner of his lips and spoke with a cold tone, “In the ancient conflict between the states of Wu and Yue, King Goujian of Yue endured hardships and tasted bitterness, using the honey trap to deceive King Fuchai of Wu, which ultimately led Fuchai to become a ruler of a ruined country. In later times, many blamed the beautiful woman as the cause for the state’s demise. But upon closer examination, if Fuchai had been wise, how could he have engaged in wars year after year, depleting the treasury? How could he have released the tiger back to the mountain, turning a blind eye to Yue’s growing strength? The root of the problem lies with Fuchai.
“What kind of person would shift all the blame onto others? Only an incompetent person. Individuals with ambitious and wolf-like aspirations, well aware that rebellion and treason would not be tolerated by the world, use innocent women as mere excuses!”
His words were clear and powerful, deeply resonating within the hearts of the soldiers.
The commander who posed the question furrowed his brow, thinking for a while, then suddenly slapped his thigh and exclaimed, “The General is right, they are all just excuses! We were foolish, easily misled!”
“Hmm, it’s good that you’ve realized it now. Don’t let others manipulate you. In this world, countless innocent people are affected by the turmoil of war.” Pei Ji glanced at the soldiers whose faces had transformed and said, “If you have all understood, take a brief moment to rest. Half a moment later, we will set off to support Pujin Crossing!”
On the other side, accompanied by Shi Quan and other guards, Li Zhi and the Grand Princess rode their horses swiftly towards the southeast. They continued without stopping, except for two brief rests, until they reached their lodging by evening.
To avoid exposing their location, they decided not to stay at the post station but instead chose a modest inn in the city as their temporary abode.
The inn, operated by local people, couldn’t match the spaciousness and comfort of the relay stations. Despite selecting the best lodging option, it was merely a slightly larger room adjacent to the usual sleeping quarters they were familiar with.
Li Zhi wasn’t particular. She simply asked the innkeeper to tidy up the place and then turned to assist Qing Zi, whose fingers couldn’t move, by draping a warm coat over her.
The Grand Princess silently observed her movements.
Throughout the day, they barely spoke a few sentences. She still held reservations toward Third Miss Zhong, but yesterday was too overwhelming, leaving little room for reflection. Today, as they sat in the carriage, she gradually recollected the way her son looked at this lady.
A mother understands her child better than anyone else. It wasn’t just guilt and sympathy that filled his heart and eyes. Clearly, he was captivated by that lady! Who would have thought that her usually composed son would be moved by a married woman?
However, when she remembered his words, “I offended her”, the Grand Princess couldn’t determine whether to fault the lady for being too captivating or her son for overstepping boundaries.
They lingered only briefly in the courtyard before each retreating to their rooms for meals and grooming.
Because they left in a hurry, the Grand Princess could only grab a few warm garments and a hand warmer. They had left behind many of their usual daily essentials, and she was particularly concerned about not having any bath beans for a thorough cleansing.
Yesterday, in the military camp, the conditions were basic, and she had no interest in anything beyond. She endured it without much thought. However, today it was proving to be quite challenging.
However, the sky had darkened, and this small town was different from Chang’an. Before nightfall, the merchants had already departed, leaving no place to buy anything. Besides, she hadn’t brought much money with her.
Just as Shu-niang was about to step out of the room to inquire with the innkeeper, she noticed Chun Yue coming over with something in her hands, wearing a beaming smile. She said, “My mistress requested me to bring some bath beans, face powder, and healing ointment. We were in a hurry during the journey, and the conditions were basic. I hope Your Highness can understand.”
“You can set them down,” the Grand Princess said, glancing at the items Chun Yue held in her hands. She couldn’t help but hesitate for a moment. Just as Chun Yue was about to depart, she added, “Thank you.”
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