Chapter 13 Imperial Dowager
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As the sun began to rise on the second day, the Grand Princess rose from her bed, following her regular routine. She saw off her husband and son as they departed for the palace to attend the morning court, and then proceeded to adorn herself with care. With everything in place, she set off from the mansion in a carriage towards the palace around the time of the hour of the Dragon.
Near the Guangshun Gate, she unexpectedly crossed paths with Pei Ji, who was making his way back from the morning court. The mother and son duo then entered Chang’an Hall of the Empress Dowager together.
The Empress Dowager was gracefully lounging on the main dais, supported by a delicate porcelain pillow, as she delicately trimmed the branches of freshly plucked osmanthus with a pair of scissors.
The bright sunlight outside was scorching, but the resourceful palace attendants had erected a folding screen at the entrance to shield the interior from the harsh rays. In the shaded corner, a gentle breeze rustled, creating a refreshing oasis in the midst of the summer heat.
After a courteous exchange of pleasantries, the Empress Dowager warmly gestured for her to take a seat on a raised dais by her side.
The Empress Dowager seemed to be in a languid state, her mind weighed down by weariness. Her face brightened slightly as she saw the Grand Princess and her son entering. “Finally, you’ve arrived,” she said. “I just picked some early osmanthus flowers and made them into chilled sugar water, waiting for you to taste it.”
A palace maid brought forth several bowls of chilled sugar water from the ice basin and set them delicately on the table in front of the Grand Princess and her son.
Pei Ji cast a glance at the Empress Dowager and inquired, “Given the sweltering weather, why isn’t Your Highness drinking?”
The Empress Dowager gently inserted the flower branch she held into the vase, released a wistful sigh, and spoke, “I’m getting old, and lately I haven’t been sleeping well. I can’t eat cold things.”
With a kind smile, she looked at Pei Ji and said, “Third Son, you’re still young and busy with official duties. Drink more here, your aunt has prepared ample for you!”
Having nurtured the child under her wing for two years and witnessed his growth, the Empress Dowager held a deep fondness for Pei Ji, treating him as if he were her own third son.
Pei Ji smiled and replied, “I appreciate your concern, Aunt. However, have you made sure that the female officials have checked on your well-being? It is important to take care of your health and not take it for granted. Even if the medicine is bitter, please endure it and don’t refuse to take it.”
The Empress Dowager couldn’t help but laugh and waved her hand repeatedly, saying, “You little brat, you know I hate drinking those dark and bitter medicinal soups, but you still use words to argue with me.” After speaking, she looked at the Grand Princess and sighed, “You are lucky to have given birth to such a filial son who cares about me more than the Emperor.”
The Grand Princess’s eyes flickered, and she picked up on the Empress Dowager’s discontent with the Emperor from her words. She placed her porcelain bowl down and inquired, “Is there something troubling you, Your Highness? Has something unpleasant happened between you and His Majesty?”
The matter concerning Prince Rui had caused a rift between the Empress Dowager and the Emperor for quite some time. While there had been a brief respite earlier, it appeared that their relationship was not completely mended, as evidenced by the events of the day.
When the Grand Princess questioned her, the Empress Dowager’s countenance grew dim once again. “It’s the same old issue,” she said. “During our war with Tibet, he insisted on using people from the Xiao clan, which I had no say in since it was a political matter. But then he had to bring that woman from the Taoist temple to the Chenghuan Palace. As a mother, where should I put my dignity? And how will the Sixth Prince ever face his elder brother?”
Pei Ji’s brows furrowed involuntarily as he listened.
Battling with Tibet was nothing new, and this time the scale of the conflict was minor. The local forces led by the Western Region Protector could easily quell it.
However, the court was abuzz with exaggerated reports, courtesy of Prime Minister Xiao Ling Fu, who had blown the situation out of proportion. His son, Xiao Chong, who held the position of county magistrate in Chang’an, had even eagerly volunteered to lead the troops to battle the enemy.
The common people thought that the Prime Minister’s family was full of loyal martyrs, so much so that he was willing to let his own son go to the harsh battlefield of Tibet to fight and kill the enemies.
However, the court officials found it preposterous.
Those astute enough could see through Xiao Ling Fu’s ploy – he was simply paving the way for his son Xiao Chong’s future career by earning military merits in an inconsequential and sure-win war.
For such unabashedly wielding of power for personal gain, it was only natural for the other two chief advisors, Vice Minister Du Heng and Deputy Minister Pei Yan, to oppose it.
Despite the Emperor being warned against it, he stubbornly insisted on agreeing to the matter.
It dawned on everyone that perhaps this whole affair was the Emperor’s own idea.
After all, Primi Minister Xiao Ling Fu had been handpicked and promoted by him.
In the previous reign, Xiao Ling Fu had suffered demotion and exile due to his involvement in a corruption case, languishing in obscurity for years. However, this man was skilled in sweet talk and flattery, and after navigating the treacherous waters of the imperial court for so long, he managed to make his way back to Chang’an by seizing an opportunity.
In the past two years, thanks to winning favor from the new Emperor, he had been steadily climbing the ladder of promotion, finally becoming the Prime Minister.
Now that Xiao Ling Fu had gained unwavering trust and his daughter had become a favored concubine in the palace, it was only natural for him to be concerned about the future of his son.
Pei Ji listened intently as his father Pei Yan recounted the matter. Both father and son were clearly dissatisfied with the Emperor’s actions. However, they also understood that as a newly crowned ruler, the Emperor’s desire to consolidate his power was understandable, and they did not insist on opposing it.
On the other hand, Du Heng was the elder brother of the Empress Dowager. Afterwards, the Empress Dowager expressed her discontent with the Emperor’s decision, and the mother and son had a disagreement. However, they eventually let it go.
Now, the Emperor had actually brought Third Miss Zhong to the Chenghuan Palace. No wonder the Empress Dowager was annoyed.
Pei Ji’s mind was in a whirlwind, torn between thoughts of the mysterious woman and his two cousins. His heart was in turmoil, as conflicting emotions surged within him, leaving him utterly bewildered.
The Grand Princess, who had been the Empress Dowager’s confidante since their youth, had been her sister-in-law for over two decades. Speaking candidly, she said, “I’ve always known that His Majesty may appear obedient, but deep down, he has a strong will. Your Highness, as an elder, the more you try to counsel him, the more he’ll resist.”
The Empress Dowager didn’t want to dwell on the matter and waved her hand, dismissing it with a sigh. “You’re right. I’m getting older, and he’s growing more and more into the role of an Emperor. He won’t heed my advice anymore.”
The Grand Princess skillfully changed the topic and cast a sidelong glance at Pei Ji, smiling slyly. “Children grow up and develop their own ideas. Your Highness, do you happen to know what I witnessed at Third Son’s place yesterday?”
Pei Ji’s heart sank as soon as he heard his own name brought up.
The Grand Princess went on, “To my surprise, Third Son had a small porcelain box with medicinal powder hidden on him. He had never used such things before as a young nobleman. When I saw it yesterday, he was visibly anxious and refused to show it to me, clutching it tightly in his hand.”
The Empress Dowager, her interest piqued, leaned in and inquired, “Really? Could it be a present from a young lady?”
The Grand Princess chuckled softly, “That’s exactly what I suspected as well.”
Pei Ji frowned as he interjected, “Mother!”
The two older women found Pei Ji’s reaction amusing and burst into laughter. However, before they could probe further, a palace maid interrupted, “Your Highness, Lady Lian Zhen has arrived and seeks an audience with the Empress Dowager.”
The smile on the Empress Dowager’s face faded slightly, but she didn’t say anything.
The palace maid saw her like this and led the person into the hall.
Graceful and poised, Li Zhi followed the palace maid’s lead and entered the room. Her eyes flickered over the three figures before her, briefly lingering on Pei Ji’s composed form. She then lowered her gaze, adhering to the formalities she had just learned, and knelt in reverence.
The Empress gave her a cool glance before looking away, neither acknowledging nor dismissing her presence.
The Grand Princess held her tongue, not daring to intrude.
Silence settled in the room, thick and heavy, as if time had come to a standstill.
Pei Ji sat on the couch, unmoving, but his hand tightened into a fist on his knee.
He couldn’t fathom why, but the sight of the woman kneeling on the ground caught his eye. Devoid of her usual coquettishness, she appeared fragile and pitiable, stirring a subtle ripple in his heart.
The Empress let out a disdainful hum, then disregarded her as if she were invisible, turning her attention back to the Grand Princess with a smile. “Could it be that the Third Son has taken a liking to some young lady? Do you know who she is? If he truly intends to marry, he should put an end to Ling Yue’s infatuation sooner rather than later.”
The Grand Princess shook her head. “I’m not sure. All I saw was a delicate porcelain box in a shade of emerald, exquisitely crafted and clearly a girl’s possession. The child concealed it carefully, as if afraid of being discovered.”
As soon as these words were spoken, Pei Ji inexplicably felt that the woman kneeling on the ground was looking at him with a smile that was not quite a smile.
He casually stole a glance at her, pretending indifference, and saw that she remained unmoving, not even glancing in his direction.
“Mother, it’s a jar of spring water that Shi Quan bought for me from the Eastern Market when I injured my hand during military drills a few days ago,” he explained calmly, though his tightly clenched fist betrayed his inner tension.
The Empress Dowager made a few more teasing remarks, then finally noticed the graceful figure still kneeling immaculately. Her expression turned cold as she spoke slowly, “Raise your face, let me have a look.”
The condescending tone and undisguised disdain from above made Li Zhi exert a slight force with her hands.
She stayed on her knees, docilely lifting her head and avoiding direct eye contact as the Empress Dowager inspected her closely.
The Empress Dowager had seen a portrait of the woman before, but in person, her beauty was even more mesmerizing. The Empress Dowager found herself entranced by her exquisite features.
The woman’s flawless complexion, curvaceous figure, and delicate limbs exuded an otherworldly beauty. Her face was a work of art, with a combination of alluring features and a pure innocence that captivated all who beheld her. Among the beauties in the imperial court, she was a vision of unparalleled grace and beauty.
Who would have thought that someone from such a humble background could possess such captivating beauty? No wonder her two sons were enchanted by her.
“You are indeed a beauty, but sadly, we are not destined to be in-laws.” She sneered with a sense of disgust, waving her hand dismissively. “I have seen you today, now you may leave. Remember to conduct yourself appropriately in the future, and don’t let success go to your head. Also, refrain from visiting me frequently. My palace is not spacious enough for someone like you.”
“Yes, Your Highness.” Li Zhi lowered her gaze and responded with utmost respect. She then gracefully rose to her feet and exited the hall without uttering another word.
Having knelt for nearly a quarter of an hour, Li Zhi’s knees were numb and tingling. As she crossed the threshold, she lost her balance and stumbled forward, nearly falling.
“Miss!” Chun Yue, who was waiting outside, moved quickly and caught Li Zhi just as she stumbled. The two of them steadied themselves. “Miss, are your legs alright?”
Li Zhi glanced at the palace maids standing around with lowered brows and heads, as if she hadn’t seen them nearly stumble just now, and a chill spread in her heart.
Clearly, it wasn’t her choice to marry Prince Rui or enter the imperial harem, yet these women, who were also females like her, made no distinctions and laid all the blame on her without discrimination.
It was indeed a world dominated by men.
Li Zhi remained silent, her eyes glinting with coldness as she reassured Chun Yue with a gentle squeeze of her hand. Leaning on her for support, she walked slowly until they reached a dense grove of trees, where she finally stopped and said, “I’m fine. My knees just feel a bit numb from kneeling for a while. It will pass after resting.”
Li Zhi found a secluded spot under the shade of the trees and settled herself on a large stone. Peering through the dense foliage and lush grass, she caught sight of a tall figure dressed in regal purple robes passing by with an air of nobility.
A flicker of emotion crossed her heart, and a knowing smile curved her lips.
As she was about to call out, she noticed a young woman in luxurious garments being accompanied by a retinue of palace maids, approaching her with an air of arrogance.
“So, you are the infamous Third Miss Zhong from Wangxian Temple?” The young woman walked briskly towards her, looking down on her from a higher position with a scornful tone. “Such a shameless woman, daring to reside in Chenghuan Palace!”
Li Zhi’s expression turned frosty.
Li Zhi observed the young woman in front of her, noting the resemblance in facial features to Emperor Li Jing Ye. She had already deduced her identity – Princess Li Ling Yue of Wuyang, the younger sister of the current Emperor.
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