Chapter 118 Light and Shadow
The sensation of warmth touched her fingertips, making Li Zhi quiver involuntarily. She withdrew her hand, unable to resist the feeling.
Pei Ji made no attempt to stop her actions and sat nearby, fixing his gaze upon her face. Despite his efforts to control himself, he proceeded to crawl forward, embracing her in his arms and placing tender kisses upon her flowing locks.
“Darling Third, please don’t—” Li Zhi uttered his name, her voice laden with worry, desperately trying to halt his advances.
“I know, I truly do,” he said, clasping her tightly, his hand tenderly gliding across her back. Despite the heat coursing through his veins, he managed to restrain himself from any further actions. “I simply wanted to embrace you, nothing more.”
Li Zhi’s face flushed, and she quickly turned her head slightly, discreetly tightening her collar, fearing to make him more uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, the sight of her radiant and flushed cheeks overwhelmed Pei Ji. Her stunning appearance resembled oil dancing in a fiery inferno, causing an unbearable yearning within him.
From the side, he enveloped her slender waist, burying his face within the pale expanse of her neck, where her silky, black hair cascaded. Tenderly, he bestowed gentle nibbles, unable to resist. Until he reached his limit, he shut his eyes tightly, gritted his teeth, relinquished his embrace, and retreated.
Li Zhi rushed down from the bed and quickly moved behind the folding screen, concealing herself and refusing to emerge.
“Darling Third, it would be best if you left.”
Not only was he a young man in his early twenties, even she, moments ago, found herself wavering. Asking him to stay would undoubtedly risk crossing boundaries.
Aside from the hasty rhythm of their breaths, silence enveloped the room. He neither replied nor departed. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead as he sought to steady himself. After some time, he gently opened his eyes, emptied the cup of warm tea, and uttered in a strained voice, “I’m better now. I won’t lay a finger on you again.”
Li Zhi did not reappear. She cautiously extended her head from behind the folding screen, casting a wary gaze.
Pei Ji met her doubtful gaze and let out an involuntary sigh. He shifted backward, allowing more room, and spoke, “Honestly, I have something important to discuss with you.”
Previously, he possessed unmatched self-control and firmness. No one dared to doubt his words. However, today, his mother’s cautionary words followed by Li Zhi’s suspicion left him feeling utterly powerless. Even he, himself, felt ashamed of his struggle to maintain composure in Li Zhi’s presence.
Li Zhi cast a fleeting glance at the spacious gap on the bed and recollected his past exemplary conduct. With that in mind, she emerged from behind the folding screen and settled herself once again beside the bed’s edge.
Pei Ji averted his gaze, trying his best to avoid direct contact with her. “In another two days, my mother and I will be going to Taiyuan together. I would like you to come along with me. It’s what my mother desires as well. Are you willing?”
“Me?” Li Zhi was aware of their upcoming journey to Taiyuan for a funeral, but she hadn’t anticipated being invited to accompany them. Reflecting on the soldiers’ previous behavior towards her, she felt uncertain.
Pei Ji noticed her silence and once again observed her expression, deducing the cause of her hesitation. “Rest assured, I have already made arrangements within the army. After Zhang Jian returned to Taiyuan, he spread the word about what I had previously said. No one will gossip about you anymore.”
Li Zhi abruptly raised her head, gazing at him with a mix of astonishment. She hadn’t anticipated that he would not only rescue her but also bear the weight of the rumors that circulated outside, diligently handling them on her behalf.
“You need not trouble yourself in such a way. By rescuing me, you have already faced repercussions. If you advocate for me any further, it’s possible that others will direct their blame towards you as well.”
“I have been speaking nothing but the truth, and they have mostly taken it to heart. If we continue to avoid explaining ourselves, misunderstandings will only escalate,” he said, casting a swift glance at her, and added, “Moreover, we should plan for the future.”
The mention of “planning for the future” caused Li Zhi to hesitate abruptly.
She could feel that Pei Ji was genuinely invested in her and was contemplating something important. However, she couldn’t quite discern the true nature of his “long-term plan”. Did he genuinely intend to marry her?
She had long acknowledged her affection and trust towards him. Yet, when it came to the subject of marriage, he hadn’t expressed it directly, and she had refrained from loosening her tongue.
She had never harbored any dreams about her own marriage, especially after arriving in this world. She had become even more disillusioned. In this world, women were always subordinate to men. Any man with influence and wealth refused to be content with just one wife in his home, even if the status of the primary wife was exalted. Such women couldn’t exert control over their husbands in this matter. Even princesses, at times, had to yield and permit their husbands to take concubines.
As for her, there was no place for compromise.
Despite Pei Ji’s reliability, she didn’t dare hope that he would consent to her request. Even if he did, there was no guarantee he would uphold it.
After all, she wasn’t a princess and lacked powerful backing. Furthermore, her reputation was extremely tarnished. What he would face wasn’t only his own inner turmoil but also the pressures from his family and the scrutiny of society. These factors could potentially be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
She had no clue if she was willing to shoulder such risks or if he would remain by her side steadfastly.
Thankfully, Pei Ji didn’t seem eager to divulge everything at this moment and force an immediate answer from her. After uttering those words, he went on, “Your elder sister is also in Taiyuan. Before I headed south, Colonel Wei informed me that she had planned to travel south to meet you. However, due to the disorderly conditions on the road, her journey didn’t materialize. Now that the situation has gradually settled, it’s a perfect opportunity for you to reunite with her.”
These words resonated deeply within Li Zhi’s heart.
Lan Ying had mentioned in her previous letter her intention to come and visit her. Now that the road was open for travel, how could she bear to let Lan Ying and her husband part ways and make the arduous journey to her?
After pondering for a moment, she nodded and said, “Very well, I shall go visit my sister.”
Pei Ji’s heart lightened, and a smile crept onto his face. After a brief conversation while mindful of the time, he prepared to rise and take his leave.
He had to bear in mind his present status during the mourning period and couldn’t linger in her room for an extended duration.
However, a hint of lingering reluctance remained in his heart. After taking a few steps forward, he abruptly turned back, reached out to support her waist, bent down, and planted a momentary kiss on her lips. Then, he swiftly raised his head, strode out of the room.
The trio didn’t delay and spent a day organizing their luggage. At the crack of dawn on the third day, they commenced their journey from Yangzhou, heading north towards Taiyuan.
The long-awaited news finally arrived— the Turk forces had withdrawn from Shu, and the military governor of Hedong had successfully repelled the rebel army beneath the walls of Puzhou. They had even seized the leader’s head, forcing An Yi Kang to flee in disarray.
Initially, everyone rejoiced, but soon they fell back into a state of worry.
The reason for joy was the retreat of the Turks and the successful repulsion of the rebels, temporarily calming the internal and external turmoil. The reason for concern was that General Pei Ji, the military governor of Hedong, had indeed failed to return with his troops to welcome the Emperor’s return to the capital.
This signified that Pei Ji had broken away from the imperial court.
At present, not only were there restless disturbances among the refugees near the city of Chang’an, but the Hedong region, fortified with mighty troops, resembled a menacing tiger lurking at the bedside, discouraging any thoughtless action.
No one dared to bring up the topic of welcoming the Emperor’s return to Chang’an.
The landscape in the Shu was intricate and formidable, making it hard to penetrate. The only path to a modicum of tranquility lay in staying put and refraining from unnecessary movement.
After pondering over various possibilities, Xiao Ling Fu and the rest determined to employ the Emperor’s power by issuing an imperial decree, bestowing upon Pei Ji the title of Prince of Taiyuan, which was initially intended for him as the Duke of Yanguo, as a gesture of appeasement.
One must understand that in the Great Wei Dynasty, only those belonging to the Li clan could be Princes. If he were to accept, he would become the first outsider to hold the position of prince in the Great Wei Dynasty. He had always been diligent in his duties and was still young. At this time, his departure was probably driven by anger related to the Noble Consort and Duke Pei Yan. By providing appropriate reassurance, he should not engage in any improper actions.
In the Qingshe Hall, within the Emperor’s sleeping chambers, Pure Consort Xiao sat at the edge of the bed, holding her young son in her arms as he wobbled while walking, her gaze brimming with love and gentleness.
Exhausted and feeble, Emperor Li Jing Ye reclined on the bed, his eyes fixed on the mother and son before him. His previously anxious and troubled heart finally experienced a fleeting sense of peace.
Fortunately, Pure Consort Xiao had been constantly by his side, accompanied by his heir, offering him constant companionship. He was not entirely alone in this world.
In the three months since his arrival in Shu, his body had noticeably weakened. Then, half a month ago, a sudden bout of fainting rendered him confined to his bed.
Without the presence of imperial physicians, he had to rely on his men to search for local reputable physicians to diagnose and treat him within the Qingshe Hall. Unfortunately, none of them could offer a clear explanation for his illness. The successive doses of medicine he ingested resembled a few drops of water seeping into cracked earth, devoid of any effect.
The matters within the court had completely escaped his vigor and focus. Every day, he lay on the bed in a daze, occasionally experiencing stiffness in his limbs and excruciating headaches. The pain seemed sentient as it wandered from his scalp, traversing his entire body, before finally circling back to his scalp, tormenting him throughout the restless nights and haunting his dreams.
Every passing moment of those days seemed like an agonizing ordeal.
Beyond the hall, a palace eunuch carried in a steaming bowl of medicinal soup. Pure Consort Xiao briefly handed her child to the wet nurse and personally accepted the medicinal soup from the eunuch. She scooped a spoonful and offered it to Li Jing Ye’s lips, speaking in a gentle voice, “Your Majesty, please drink the medicine.”
Li Jingye’s withered lips quivered as he struggled to open them, ingesting the liquid in the spoon. Two droplets escaped his lips, tracing a path down to settle within the creases of his collar.
Pure Consort Xiao cast her eyes downward, studying his worn-out and disheveled appearance. Within the gentle depths of her gaze, a hint of compassion and sorrow glided past.
This was the husband she had held dear in her heart for countless years, but now he had descended into such a woeful state.
“Your Majesty,” she took a handkerchief and gently dabbed away the stains of medicine from his lips, then presented him with another dose, “General Pei has won a decisive battle and publicly executed the rebel prince.”
Upon hearing the words “General Pei” and “rebel prince,” a glimmer emerged in Li Jingye’s clouded and flushed eyes, slowly stirring a surge of intricate anger.
“The situation has considerably stabilized now, and I wonder about his relationship with Noble Consort Zhong,” Pure Consort Xiao meticulously administered the medicine, her voice remarkably composed. “Speaking of which, I hold great admiration for Noble Consort Zhong—no, I should refer to her as Miss Zhong now. I must admit, I even harbor a trace of envy towards her.”
Li Jing Ye was startled by her words, his eyes instantly widening in astonishment, leading him to choke on the medicine in his mouth and erupt into a fit of coughing.
Pure Consort Xiao simultaneously tapped his chest while persisting, “If it weren’t for her and Worthy Consort Xu—no, I should address her as Empress Xu now—if it weren’t for them, I would have never had my awakening at that time…”
“Pure Consort…” Li Jingye’s severe coughing gradually abated, and he struggled to catch his breath, unable to muster the strength to confront Pure Consort Xiao.
Pure Consort Xiao bestowed a soft smile upon him and uttered, “If it weren’t for them, I suspect I would have forever remained oblivious. Your Majesty, my cherished husband, he loves no one and spares no thought for anyone. He only cherishes himself. Regardless of how much devotion I offered or how much of my own self I sacrificed, I would never gain even a trace of reciprocation. Hence, I chose to relinquish.”
She extended the empty bowl to the attendant beside her, rose to her feet while cradling her son, and gazed upon He Yuan Shi as he approached, clutching a medicinal pill and a cup of water, which he then offered to Li Jing Ye’s lips.
Li Jing Ye’s heart filled with both surprise and anger as he gazed at the medicine before him, his intuition urging him not to consume it.
Pure Consort Xiao caressed her smiling son and whispered, “Please, take it. Consuming it will ease Your Majesty’s suffering.”
Li Jing Ye clenched his teeth, his surprise and anger simmering within, yet he recognized the truth in her words.
He had become dependent on these pills. The suffering and constant pain he endured each day would briefly relax only after ingesting the medicine. However, it appeared that the potency of the pills gradually waned with frequent usage—from half a day initially, then to an hour, and now, it barely extended for half an hour.
Nevertheless, to him, that mere half-hour was as precious as dewdrops in a desert.
After contemplating for some time, he decided to take the medicine through the assistance of He Yuan Shi.
The young Si Zhi, who was babbling nearby, happily clapped his pudgy hands while being held by his mother, exclaiming, “Good, good!”
Pure Consort Xiao smiled and her gentle face inexplicably revealed a hint of indifference and pity. “Your Majesty still doesn’t know, right? This medicine was carefully sought by Father. After Your Majesty has taken it for so long, you are only one step away from ‘ascending to immortality’. We cannot let our efforts go to waste.”
Disregarding Li Jing Ye’s abrupt bulging eyes, she passed over his weakened form and retrieved the Emperor’s Jade Seal that was kept beside the bed. Carrying her son with her, she approached the desk, dipped the seal in crimson ink, and pressed it forcefully onto the paper.
Li Jing Ye, overwhelmed by the sight in front of him, trembled uncontrollably and finally reached his breaking point. He forcefully expelled a mouthful of blood and fell backward beside the bed, gazing at the ceiling.
Right before collapsing, he perceived a multitude of figures flashing before his eyes—his mother, Sixth Brother, Ling Yue, Li Zhi and Pei Ji, along with the Worthy Consort and Du Heng…
Interlaced lights and shadows intertwined, and pairs of eyes, some shedding tears while others smiling, gazed upon him. Ultimately, one by one, they turned and walked away.
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