At the Noble Consort’s Feet Chapter 117

Chapter 117 Yangzhou

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The task completed, the team took a momentary break on the road. They rested for a brief period, and approximately thirty minutes later, Huangfu Jing returned with the men who continued the pursuit.

“General, that cunning criminal was extremely clever. He was aware of our pursuit and led us on a diversionary path. Leaving behind traces of his horse’s hooves, he then doubled back and entered a narrow trail hidden within the mountains and forests. As we observed the terrain there, we realized it was intricate and hard to breach. Acting rashly would have made us easy targets for others, so we made the wise choice to retreat.”

Upon hearing this, the group collectively clenched their fists in regret and sighed, cursing An Yi Kang for his cunning and treacherous behavior. However, Pei Ji did not seem to share the same remorse. He simply nodded in approval and said, “You did the right thing. He is now left with only a scattered and defeated group of soldiers, hardly a threat. Without the support of Ashina Doubi, once the news spreads that he has suffered a defeat, he will have to start from scratch, reorganize his troops, and gather provisions. It won’t be an easy task for him to rise again. Let’s return to our camp for now.”

The group raced back to the camp outside the city with great speed.

Accompanied by several commanders, Pei Ji hurriedly entered the tent and gathered around the map suspended on the wall, engaging in animated discussions.

Pei Ji gestured towards the situation in the areas of Hedong and Hebei and stated, “He has no alternative destination. This time, he is likely to retreat towards the direction of Youzhou. However, his ability to retreat extensively is limited. The most favorable location for him would be in the vicinity of the cities of Ye and Handan.”

Upon hearing this, the group meticulously assessed the information and nodded in consensus, signifying their agreement to proceed and eliminate the enemy.

Pei Ji observed the group and, rather than nodding immediately, he chose a valiant commander and another who had spent two years in Hebei. He instructed them to take a month’s rest and prepare themselves before marching with the troops.

As a result of the recent widespread turmoil, numerous local factions had gathered scattered refugees and remnants of soldiers, showing signs of restlessness. Tibet and Western Regions countries were probably considering taking advantage of the situation. There was an immediate requirement for a formidable force to establish control and restrain them. The troops in Hedong should not continue to tire themselves by incessantly rushing around; rather, they should take a proper rest and project a deterrent presence.

On the other hand, Pei Ji ensured that the matters concerning Yiwu’s army left by Cao Si Liang were properly settled.

With these arrangements in place, they could finally experience a semblance of relief.

Zhang Jian inquired, “General, what is our next move? Shall we return to Taiyuan, or…”

By asking this question, he effectively expressed what was on everyone’s minds. Taiyuan Prefecture served as the base of the Hedong’s military governor. If they were to go back directly, it would suggest a desire for autonomy. Otherwise, they should head to Shu to meet the Emperor.

Although they were aware of Pei Ji’s prior rift with the Emperor, he had not explicitly stated his intentions.

Being loyal to the Emperor was undoubtedly a duty. However, the Hedong Army had been stationed in the northern regions for many years. Among them were numerous soldiers from long-standing military families. The Pei family of Hedong had held the position of Hedong’s military governor for generations, establishing a strong connection with the Hedong Army. The soldiers were well aware of Pei Yan’s hardships in the imperial court. Though they concealed it on the surface, they empathized with him. Now, with his passing on the battlefield and the Emperor he wholeheartedly served fleeing to Shu, accompanied by unscrupulous individuals, seeking refuge from the war, it stirred up a sense of discontent in their hearts.

Pei Ji gazed at the diverse expressions on the faces beside him and solemnly said to Zhang Jian, “You and your men go back to Taiyuan first. I will travel south to Yangzhou and reunite with my mother.”

It was already the second month of the lunar year, and the city of Yangzhou was gradually embracing the essence of spring. The continuous spring rain had given way to the gentle sunlight, causing the grass to grow luxuriantly and birds to fill the air with their melodies.

Li Zhi had resided in this place for nearly three months, experiencing the transition from winter to spring, and had gradually grown accustomed to the local climate. Even the Grand Princess appeared to be recovering from her previous sorrows and unease.

Since the Lantern Festival, the distinct boundaries between the two individuals had gradually become less defined.

Li Zhi would visit the Grand Princess’s residence every few days to pay her respects. Occasionally, they would venture out together and stroll around the shops that lined the busy streets.

The weather was ideal on that day, prompting them to embark on a joint visit to the city’s largest clothing store. They both acquired several outfits suitable for the upcoming spring and summer seasons.

Initially, they had brought few clothes with them, mainly winter attire. However, as the temperature gradually rose, they frequently had to purchase new clothes. Sometimes they visited the ready-to-wear clothing store, while other times they selected fabrics to be tailored according to their measurements.

After spending two hours outside, they finally made their way back home, greeted by the arrival of evening.

As soon as Li Zhi stepped off the carriage with the Grand Princess, she caught sight of a group of more than ten people riding horses and swiftly approaching from the other end of the bustling street. Among them, a man stood out with his towering and muscular stature. Despite his young age, his dignified presence commanded attention and evoked a sense of admiration. It was none other than Pei Ji.

“Third Son!” The Grand Princess paused in her tracks and swiftly altered her course to warmly welcome him.

Pei Ji reached the outer grounds of the residence, dismounted his horse, and strode forward to meet her. He firmly grasped her arm and spoke in a deep tone, “Mother, I have returned.”

“Good, good, finally, I can see that you have returned safely,” the Grand Princess carefully examined him from top to bottom, finding solace in her heart.

A few days ago, she and Li Zhi had received his letter, conveying the news that the situation had somewhat calmed down and he would soon travel south to bring them back to Taiyuan. They would jointly mourn for Pei Yan.

Despite holding the position of a senior military officer married to a Royal Princess, Pei Yan was not interred in the Imperial Mausoleum. Instead, following a mourning period of forty-nine days, he would be laid to rest in the ancestral tomb of the Pei family in Taiyuan. Due to the urgency of the ongoing war, the funeral rites had already been meticulously arranged by the Pei family.

In accordance with tradition, a son mourns for his father, and a wife mourns for her husband, both enduring a sorrowful period lasting three years.

“Yes, Mother, I have returned. Everything went smoothly, and there is no need for concern,” Pei Ji assisted his mother as they made their way towards the residence. He also stole a few glances at Li Zhi by his side, finding her expression unperturbed, which allowed him to completely let go of his worries.

“Ah, besides you, there is no one else left for me to care about,” the Grand Princess sighed and, as if struck by a realization, motioned for Li Zhi to approach. “Fortunately, Third Miss is here. She converses with me occasionally, alleviating the hardship of these days.”

Pei Ji’s eyes swept between the two women, and he astutely sensed the delicate shift in the atmosphere. A slight smile appeared on his face, releasing the tension that had gripped him for months. At last, he experienced a moment of genuine relief and pleasure.

After escorting the Grand Princess back to her chambers and sharing an evening meal together, they discussed recent events in detail. As the mother and son exchanged thoughts, their emotions gradually settled.

Just before their imminent separation, the Grand Princess halted Pei Ji, who was about to rise and depart. Her expression grew complicated as she inquired, “Third Son, speak truthfully. How do you intend to provide for Third Miss Zhong?”

Pei Ji paused in his actions, settling back into his seat and attentively studying his mother’s demeanor. He spoke, “It is my desire to marry her.”

Witnessing his earnest expression tinged with a hint of nervousness, the Grand Princess couldn’t suppress a sigh. “Just as I suspected. You, ever since you were young, appeared obedient but possessed a strong will. Among your cousins, you are the most resolute.

“If it were in the past,” the Grand Princess furrowed her brows under the lamplight, holding a cup of hot tea. She spoke slowly and thoughtfully, while Pei Ji across from her maintained a stoic expression, his back straighter than usual, and his hands clenched tightly on his lap, his gaze unwavering.

“But now, ah—” the Grand Princess paused, her tone filled with a complex mixture of resignation and understanding. She beckoned for Pei Ji to approach, her gaze searching his face. “You insisted on bringing her here, and she has lived with me for so long. You keep saying that you have wronged her. I find myself without any other options. I cannot discern the veracity of your words. If you are resolute in assuming the responsibility, then I am naturally unable to obstruct you. She is your own wife, and your happiness depends on your own judgment to carry on with the days.”

Upon hearing this, Pei Ji’s eyes immediately lit up, and he exclaimed, “Thank you, Mother.”

The Grand Princess cast a quick glance at him, shaking her head. “It’s not solely for your sake. During these past few months, I have been in constant company with her and have come to learn of her pitiful background and her truly virtuous nature. That’s why I softened my stance.”

A smile involuntarily lifted the corners of Pei Ji’s lips, and he struggled to suppress it. Hastily, he performed a bow and said, “Yes, I understand. Mother, I am aware that you have always held personal character in high regard.”

The Grand Princess chuckled and narrowed her eyes at him, adjusting the folds of her clothing. Slowly, she suppressed her smile and said, “However, your father’s mourning period is still in effect, and we cannot proceed with the marriage just yet. We must exercise patience. On this occasion, it wouldn’t hurt to have Miss Zhong accompany us. We can depart earlier. I wish to pay him a visit sooner…”

“Yes, I understand.”

Pei Ji observed the reddening of her eyes and hastened to offer further comfort. After pondering the situation, he spoke before their departure, “I haven’t discussed this matter with her yet. She has only recently escaped from her previous confinement, and I don’t want to impose too many constraints on her. Let’s wait for an opportune moment before addressing it. I request your understanding, Mother.”

“Very well, I see through you. You have your heart set solely on her. If you intend to wait, you must keep your distance from her. During mourning periods, such matters must be handled with extreme caution. Regardless of gender, we must avoid any reputation of being disrespectful and frivolous!”

Pei Ji noticed the subtle warning hidden within his mother’s expression, and he couldn’t help but be momentarily taken aback. Gradually, he pieced it together. She was likely still apprehensive about his earlier statement, “I offended her,” and was no longer willing to readily trust in his self-restraint.

Feeling helpless within, Pei Ji nodded repeatedly and reluctantly consented before departing.

Meanwhile, Li Zhi had just finished bathing and grooming. When she saw Chun Yue bringing the delicate chiffon garment she usually favored, she reached out to accept it but abruptly halted, shaking her head. “Let’s pick a different one,” she said.

Chun Yue was perplexed and couldn’t comprehend the reason behind Li Zhi’s decision.

With a decisive action, Li Zhi wrapped herself in a towel and walked around the folding screen. She chose a broader and slightly thicker garment to wear.

The chiffon garments were made of thin material and slightly transparent. They were her preferred choice for daily wear around the house, and she would have had no reservations if it were Pei Ji who was coming. However, the realization that he had recently lost his father and the prevalent customs of mourning compelled her to maintain a certain distance.

She knew he had always been dutiful to his parents and would never violate the rules during this period. Therefore, she felt it was only appropriate for her to show understanding and maintain some distance from him.

After getting dressed and drying her hair, Qing Zi spoke up, saying, “Miss, General Pei has arrived.”

Li Zhi carefully placed the towel on the rack and adjusted her attire. Only then did she open the door and say, “Darling Third.”

Pei Ji walked in and took a thorough glance at her appearance before speaking. “You haven’t lost weight. I was worried about you and Mother adjusting to the damp climate here.”

Li Zhi smiled and poured two cups of tea. She then offered one to him, saying, “It was a bit challenging at first, but it got better once spring arrived.”

After taking a sip of hot tea, she gently touched her face and continued, “I’ve been faithfully drinking the herbal soup for three months, following the prescription provided by Physician Zhang you recommended. I believe I’ve actually improved a bit compared to when I first arrived. There’s no chance of losing weight.”

Pei Ji’s eyes settled on her rosy and tender face, and he scrutinized her once more in the soft glow of the lamplight.

Whether it was due to their extended separation or the alleged effectiveness of the herbal soup, he couldn’t tell. However, he sensed that she had gained an extra touch of beauty, as if the soft light from the few flickering orange candles had bestowed upon her a luminous and delicate aura.

After being apart for almost three months, he carried a multitude of indistinct emotions within him. There was a mix of sorrow and anguish, along with gratitude and a sense of relaxation. It was only in this moment, when they were alone together, that he finally found a place of tranquility.

Unable to contain himself, he extended his hand and delicately touched her fingertips concealed within her sleeve. Gradually, he tightened his hold and drew her nearer, leaning in to plant a gentle and intimate kiss.

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