Chapter 120 Ambition
Li Zhi struggled to comprehend the meaning behind his words. In that moment, she gazed up at him, her face filled with confusion.
Pei Ji’s gaze lingered upon her rarely seen expression of innocence and confusion. In that instant, his heart melted, and he couldn’t resist lowering himself to plant a gentle kiss upon her lips. However, instead of directly addressing her doubts, he merely smiled and spoke, “Throughout the annals of time, rulers have governed their realms with benevolence and devotion. This profound virtue of filial piety is expected from all, from the mightiest ruler to the humblest citizen. Yet, the expectations and customs differ according to one’s status and circumstances. As the successor to Hedong’s Military Governor, I must dutifully observe the three-year mourning period for my father. However, not all individuals are bound by such stringent obligations.”
He halted his speech, his grip on her hand tightening, as they pressed on.
With graceful steps, she followed closely in his wake, her mind meticulously dissecting his every word.
The three-year period of mourning usually imposes mandatory constraints on officials who serve in the government. When they suffer the loss of a parent, regardless of their rank, they must return to their hometown to fulfill their filial duties, unless extraordinary circumstances arise and the court insists on their presence. However, such rigorous obligations are seldom imposed on common people.
But Pei Ji clearly wouldn’t give up his prospects and become an ordinary citizen. His gaze was set on reaching even greater heights.
And it appeared that only one exceptional position awaited him in those elevated realms.
Li Zhi’s steps came to a sudden pause, her hand clasped tightly in his grip.
“Darling Third, do you want… to become the Emperor?”
She gazed at him with astonishment, confronting him with the conjecture that had taken shape in her heart.
Although the Emperor also upheld the virtue of filial piety, he was not obliged to observe the entire three-year mourning period like common officials. Usually, a mere three months would be sufficient.
Pei Ji nodded and guided her to the side of the corridor that overlooked the peach grove, where the sun had previously bathed. Concealing the smile on his face, he spoke with solemnity, “I won’t keep it from you. The state of affairs in the world has shifted, and I indeed hold such intentions.”
Li Zhi attentively listened to his hushed words.
“Before my father embarked on his journey northward, he shared some words with me. He said that if conflicts were to erupt throughout the realm, it would be due to several powerful forces locked in a perpetual stalemate. And it is the common peoplr who bear the brunt of the suffering. The Emperor’s role is to subdue all these forces and maintain peace and stability in the world. He spoke those words when the court was still intact, albeit facing internal and external challenges. But now, His Majesty… has already passed away.” He paused, his hands tightly clenched, and continued in a solemn tone, “That frail little court in Shu no longer possesses the strength to restrain others.”
Li Zhi nodded and said, “You’re right. That’s why An Yi Kang, even after suffering defeat, dared to return to Ye City and hastily declare himself Emperor. He understands that his real adversary is you, as the Little Emperor of Shu can no longer keep him in check.”
“Yes, An Yi Kang knows it, and others are aware as well.” Pei Ji’s eyes flickered with worry. “If no one can restrain the multitude of forces, before long, even the disorganized rabble will dare to take advantage and grab a share. I have such thoughts for two reasons: first, because I do have ambitions and aspirations—that much cannot be denied. Second, it’s also because I don’t want to witness the empire descending into chaos again.”
He spoke with a gentle yet firm tone, neither hiding his ambitions nor holding back his worries. Despite Li Zhi’s initial astonishment, she gradually composed herself, attentively contemplating his words.
Suddenly, a memory flashed through her mind—back to the time when they resided in Daming Palace. She had once asked him a question: given the choice, would he prefer to be born in a peaceful and prosperous era or amidst a time of war and turmoil?
At that moment, his answer had already unveiled the aspirations that had long been concealed in his heart.
He was never merely a privileged son seeking comfort and lacking ambition.
However, having such thoughts required thorough consideration of how to make them a reality. If one hastily declared oneself Emperor, it may end up in a situation where people refused to accept it, just like what happened to An Yi Kang. After all, An Yi Kang originated in the Western Region and only grasped the surface of the people’s traditions in the Central Plains. The people of Central Plains emphasizes both strategic retreats and the importance of legitimacy. Being too radical would result in losing the support of the people.
Pei Ji must have already prepared his next move in his mind.
“So, how do you intend to proceed?”
Pei Ji smiled with assurance as expected and said, “Actually, there’s only one last piece missing in this puzzle, but the more crucial it is, the more urgency we must avoid. Tomorrow, you should write a letter to Zhang Jian. Keep it brief, mentioning that I haven’t spoken much, merely emphasizing the significance of upholding traditions. Once a few more days have passed and the timing is ripe, I will inform you. Then, you can share the words I initially mentioned with your elder sister and have her discreetly relay them to Wei Peng. They will know what actions to take.”
Li Zhi nodded in agreement, having already surmised that the “timing” he mentioned was about waiting for more people to come and seek affiliation. Simultaneously, there were other forces stirring, aside from An Yi Kang, that would require his personal intervention to quell.
“Darling Third,” she suddenly smiled, her eyes forming gentle crescents as they reflected the moon in the sky. “You’re usually not one for many words, but it seems you have many schemes concealed in your heart. Each step you take appears as if you have already perceived the hundred steps behind it.”
She thought to herself that his attentiveness and meticulousness were perhaps a rare gift.
Even when he was a high-ranking general of the Imperial Guards in Chang’an, he always had a profound understanding of everything and could swiftly capture even the smallest details.
She used to think of him as a quiet and stubborn young man. It was his unwavering determination that set him apart from others, making people naturally trust and depend on him. Now, it seemed that his steadfastness and traditional values hid a subtle edge.
He had a knack for patience and observation, always able to assess the situation and make critical decisions at the opportune time. It was this quality that set him apart from individuals like Du Heng and Xiao Ling Fu, who had spent years navigating the court. Even his own father might not match his capabilities.
A person like him possessed an innate ability to subtly gather followers and wield influence over those around them.
Hearing her half-playful reproach, Pei Ji couldn’t suppress his laughter. He pulled her close and planted a gentle kiss on her eyes. “Yes, I am cunning, and I always have been since I was little. Just like you, when you were placed under someone else’s care as a child, I experienced something similar. At that time, my father and mother were in Hedong, while I resided within the palace. Despite receiving favor, I understood that my position differed from that of the prince and princesses. Naturally, I had to ponder over matters more than others, and I grew accustomed to it. However, I am still more fortunate than you. My parents were simply far away. Deep down, I always knew they cared for and cherished me wholeheartedly.”
Li Zhi leaned against his shoulder and nodded. “Hmm, I can see it now. They have raised you well. I haven’t encountered a better husband than you here.”
“I want to treat you well.” Her straightforward compliment made Pei Ji’s heart feel both sweet and tender. In that moment, he held her tighter, leaning in closer to plant a kiss on her ear.
Although the spring night was not as harsh as the winter, it still possessed a noticeable coolness compared to the warmth of the day.
Li Zhi sat on the corridor, initially feeling somewhat timid and huddled, but as he held her and kissed her, she gradually felt warmth enveloping her body. Particularly around her ears, it felt like flickering flames igniting softly, and even the scent emanating from him, as it wafted into her nostrils, seemed to transform into an ignited fragrance.
Her body grew weak, and her hands, clutching onto his shoulders, lost all strength to hold herself up. Luckily, a hint of reason remained in her mind, and she hastily murmured, “Please, stop, Darling Third…”
Since their reunion, Pei Ji had always maintained a sense of propriety and refrained from touching her. However, the more he held back, the more each day became increasingly unbearable. For him, visiting her daily yet not being able to touch her felt like enduring torture. But he couldn’t bring himself to let go, so he could only watch himself struggle like an impoverished scholar bound by an enchantress, desperately striving to break free but unable to surpass that boundary.
Holding her in his arms at that moment, he couldn’t resist the temptation and ignored her voice. He showered her with affectionate kisses, only reluctantly letting go and supporting himself against the nearby corridor pillar, pressing his forehead against it to regain control of his breath.
Li Zhi’s face, devoid of any cosmetics, blushed as if she had adorned it with rouge. She lowered her head and meticulously adjusted her slightly disheveled clothing. As she lifted her head, she discovered that he had redirected his gaze toward her, his eyes fixed on her with a deep, brooding intensity.
The intense gaze, as if he desired to dismantle her directly, startled her to the core.
“Let’s go back.” She looked away, stood up, and kept a distance between them.
Pei Ji was well aware that he couldn’t withstand even the slightest temptation, so he refrained from approaching her. He merely accompanied her as they made their way back.
Once they arrived outside the house, Li Zhi didn’t invite him in for tea and conversation. She halted at the doorstep, turned around to face him, and said, “I’ve remembered everything you said earlier. Tomorrow morning, I’ll instruct the steward to send a letter to General Zhang. It’s getting late, so you should return and rest.”
Pei Ji stood still without making a move. Instead, he gestured for Chun Yue and Qing Zi, who were stationed by the door, to retire first. He then encircled his arms around Li Zhi from behind and closed the previously opened door.
“I still have something to discuss with you.”
For some inexplicable reason, Li Zhi felt her heart thumping against her chest when facing him, as if she had a sense of anticipation.
“Li-niang, I have already revealed my future plans to you. What about you? Are you willing to be with me and become my wife?”
He stood beneath the lamp, lowering his head, and stared at her intently. The towering figure cast a shadow in the glow of the candle, shrouding her within it.
Li Zhi stood still, not uttering a word in response.
This was a matter she had pondered over for a long time, but she still hadn’t made up her mind. It was almost as if she had never experienced such wavering before. Now, he had openly addressed it, bringing it to the forefront of their minds.
Having finally left the palace and regained her freedom, she already had some uncertainties. However, upon learning about his even grander aspirations, she couldn’t help but feel even more hesitant.
“Darling Third, I may need some more time to think,” she hesitated for a moment and then raised her head to face him.
A hint of disappointment flickered in Pei Ji’s heart. But deep down, he had already anticipated this. He extended his hand and gently touched her cheek, planting a tender kiss on the tip of her nose. His voice was warm, “Alright, take your time to think. I know you’ve recently left the palace, and it’s too soon for you to consider marrying again. I also understand your dislike for restrictions and coercion, so I won’t push you. However, I want you to know that you can always share your concerns with me, and I’ll do everything I can to support you. If you agree to be with me, I will love and cherish you wholeheartedly, just like my parents did in the past.”
Li Zhi gazed at his earnest expression and, for some inexplicable reason, she recalled the time when they were in the secluded chamber of Linde Hall, and he had uttered those resolute words without a hint of hesitation.
Suddenly, her eyes grew slightly damp.
During that time, she was selfish and ignored his desires, pulling him into a dark quagmire. However, he firmly grasped her hand, washing away the dirt that clung to her, and guiding her into the brightness.
“I understand,” she turned her eyes away, unable to meet his gaze.
Pei Ji wiped away the tears that lingered at the corners of her eyes, gently pushed open the door, watched as she entered the room, and only then turned around and departed.
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