Chapter 16 Probing
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Li Jing Ye wasted no time after leaving Chang’an Hall. The very next day, he proclaimed Li Zhi as his Noble Consort.
At that time, Pure Consort Xiao and Worthy Consort Xu were watching a new musical performance in Qinghui Pavilion with several other low-ranking concubines.
With the Qixi Festival now behind them, the people were looking forward to the upcoming Zhongqiu Festival in the eight month of the lunar year.
The Zhongqiu Festival had been a time-honored tradition for centuries, but it was also the day when Li Jing Ye was born, making it a doubly special occasion.
Following Emperor Taizong’s decree, the Emperor’s birthday was known as the “Qianqiu Festival.” As a result, the fifteenth day of the eight lunar month had become known as “Chongqiu Day” among the populace since Li Jing Ye’s coronation.
The grand palace celebration on this day was attended not only by the concubines, but also by many members of the imperial family and court officials. The performers from the musical troupe had gone to great lengths to prepare for the occasion, ensuring that it would be a truly memorable event.
Pure Consort Xiao had always been in charge of the affairs of the palace, and was frequently invited to observe the rehearsals by the musicians. Any musical performance that was to be presented before the Emperor had to be given her approval beforehand.
Although Pure Consort Xiao took on the responsibilities of the Empress, she still held the status of a Consort. Thus, she always invited other concubines to accompany her on these occasions.
At this moment, everyone was gathered around, savoring their tea and fruit, while they talked about the events that had transpired outside the Chang’an Hall not long ago.
Lady Wang recounted, “I heard that the Princess of Wuyang not only used harsh words towards that lady, but also pushed her down in public, and ordered someone to send her to the Shangyi Bureau!”
Lady Wei lightly laughed, her lips slightly curved. “Only the Princess of Wuyang can speak so boldly within the palace walls.”
Naturally, they all harbored dislike towards Third Miss Zhong, but as imperial concubines, they could not contradict the Emperor’s wishes. They could only secretly indulge themselves by using the Princess’s boldness as a means of venting their frustration.
Seated in the center, Pure Consort Xiao’s lips briefly curved into a smile at the comment before returning to a serious expression. “The Princess’s affairs are not something we should discuss.”
Seeing the expression on her face, Lady Wang quickly flattered her. “You are right, Pure Consort Sister. It was my mistake. You are so considerate not only in calming the Princess down but also in sending medicine to the lady in the Chenghuan Palace. No wonder His Majesty favors you so much.”
Pure Consort Xiao smiled faintly and remained silent.
As an astute diplomat who never easily offended anyone, she immediately ordered people to appease both parties upon hearing of the incident.
The usually reticent Worthy Consort Xu spoke in a cold voice, “The Princess has been acting recklessly lately and should not be excessively indulged.”
Pure Consort Xiao remained unfazed and smiled at her, “Worthy Consort’s words are not wrong. However, it is the Empress Dowager’s responsibility to discipline the Princess. As the head of the concubines, I will take care of any disputes within the palace.”
Worthy Consort Xu’s expression was calm and collected as she took a sip of tea and kept her gaze lowered in silence.
The other low-ranking concubines praised the Pure Consort for her appropriate actions.
Suddenly, one of the Pure Consort’s palace attendants, Lan Zhao, arrived in a hurry with a troubled expression on her face.
Lan Zhao spoke, “Just now, the Zichen Hall announced that His Majesty has bestowed upon Lady Lian Zhen of Chenghuan Palace the title of Noble Consort.”
The room fell into an awkward silence as everyone looked at each other, at a loss for words.
Previously, they guessed that Third Miss Zhong was at most a Beautiful Lady or Talented Lady, but today’s decree revealed that she was actually a Noble Consort!
It was worth noting that among the four Consorts, the Noble Consort held the highest rank, surpassing even the Pure Consort herself.
The Pure Consort sat in her seat, her usually dignified and graceful expression finally shattered. Her face was icy and terrifying as her left hand tightly gripped the armrest, her knuckles turning white from trembling, barely containing the shock and jealousy in her heart.
A woman of lowly birth, snatched by the Emperor from the hands of his own younger brother, could ascend to the rank of a Noble Consort with ease, despite having done nothing to earn such a distinction!
Despite her unwavering devotion to the Emperor over several years of marriage, her embodiment of the highest virtues of kindness and grace, her lack of jealousy or resentment towards her rivals in the imperial harem, her tireless efforts to manage the affairs of the court, and her influential family members who served as the Emperor’s trusted advisors, she was only bestowed the title of a Pure Consort.
She felt as if she had just been publicly humiliated, and the recent proclamation of being “the head of the concubines” only added insult to injury.
The entire room fell silent upon seeing the unhappy countenance of the Pure Consort. Only the musicians and dancers continued to play and rehearse their numbers.
Worthy Consort Xu remained calm and collected, devoid of any discernible emotions. She glanced at the Pure Consort and said, “I am tired. I shall retire to my Xianju Palace. You are all free to do as you please.”
With that, she rose from her seat and made her exit, accompanied by her entourage of palace attendants.
Following the departure of the Worthy Consort, the others in the room sensed the tension and quickly followed suit, leaving the hall eerily silent.
When there was only Pure Consort Xiao left on the seat, even the music and dance of the musicians stopped. The Director of the Music House approached her cautiously and asked, “Would Pure Consort like to come and watch the new performance another day?”
Pure Consort Xiao took a deep breath and surveyed the empty seats. Slowly, her composure returned.
She sat upright and spoke softly, “There’s no need. Let them continue.”
The Director waved his hand, signaling for the performance to continue.
Pure Consort Xiao watched the grand music and dance alone from beginning to end. Afterwards, she mustered the energy to provide some constructive criticism to the Director. In the evening, she departed from Qinghui Pavilion and made her way to Shicui Palace.
As she had not used a carriage when she arrived, Lan Zhao asked if she wanted one now.
Pure Consort Xiao simply waved her hand and walked ahead in silence, alone with her thoughts.
At first, she took slow steps, but then she started to walk faster and faster, as if she wanted to escape from something.
Lan Zhao was concerned and hastened to catch up, saying, “The sky is darkening and the path is rough. Please be careful, Your Highness. Allow me to assist you.”
Only then did Pure Consort Xiao turn around, and her beautiful eyes were filled with tears.
She looked at Lan Zhao and said in a choked voice, “Lan Zhao, how could His Majesty…”
Lan Zhao gently consoled her and secretly instructed the eunuchs behind her to fetch the sedan chair.
After walking quickly for some time, Pure Consort Xiao, who had been standing beside her, collapsed to the ground without a sound.
For a moment, everyone was too busy to think of anything else, and they hastily carried her back to Shicui Palace.
In the Chenghuan Palace, the maidservants were filled with joy upon receiving the Emperor’s decree.
They were all commoner girls who had recently entered the palace and had just finished learning etiquette in the Yeting Palace before being assigned to the Wangxian Temple.
At first, they thought that the lady they served would live in seclusion in the Wangxian Temple for a long time, but little did they know that she not only moved to the Chenghuan Palace but also became a Noble Consort.
That was currently the most prestigious position for a woman in the palace, second only to the Empress Dowager.
The young and inexperienced little maids were all delighted to follow their mistress to the top.
However, Li Zhi’s face was tinged with indifference.
This was expected. Although the Noble Consort position would bring her temporary status and honor, it also brought many hidden concerns for the future.
She carefully picked out several pieces of gold and jade from the Emperor’s bestowed treasures and distributed them to a few young maids in the palace. After advising them to be cautious in their words and actions, they were let go with beaming smiles.
As evening approached, Li Jing Ye finally left Xuanzheng Hall and made his way to Chenghuan Palace, having changed his attire.
At the moment, Li Zhi was busying herself with filling a new sachet made by Chun Yue with dried flowers. As he entered, she rose to greet him.
Though there was a touch of fatigue in Li Jing Ye’s eyes, he appeared to relax a bit as she drew nearer.
He held her elbow with one hand, stopping her from kneeling down. Instead, he pulled her close and lifted her chin to ask, “Is your knee still troubling you?”
Li Zhi shook her head and spoke softly, “The female official sent by Your Majesty has already applied medicine for me. The pain has subsided.”
“Let me take a look.” Li Jing Ye carried her up and placed her gently on the bed. With tender hands, he removed her silk slippers and lifted her dress, rolling up the pant legs to reveal her two slender, snow-white legs.
On the round knee, the original red mark had turned into two fist-sized bruises that were now purple.
A look of distress flashed across Li Jing Ye’s face as he stroked the bruise with his hand.
“I’ve already spoken to the Empress Dowager. From now on, unless necessary, you need not go to Chang’an Hall. I have instructed the Princess to reflect upon her actions for three days in solitude,” he explained.
His touch was gentle and light, his fingers drawing out a delicate shiver, causing Li Zhi to let out a small, uncontrollable giggle.
“It looks worse than it is. I don’t feel any pain anymore. Your Majesty need not scold the Princess for me, and it’s best not to disobey the Empress Dowager,” Li Zhi reassured him, smiling sweetly.
Li Jing Ye let out a soft sigh as he held her in his arms and took her injured right hand. “I’m not just doing this for you, but also because of Ling Yue’s temperament. Even though Zi Hui has never spoken to me about it, I can sense that Ling Yue’s persistent pursuit is truly putting him in a difficult position.”
Li Zhi leaned against his shoulder gently and smiled at the thought of Pei Ji. “General Pei may seem distant and indifferent, but it’s surprising to think that he would even dare to refuse the hand of a Princess.”
“Zi Hui has always been that way. Sometimes I even wonder if he dislikes women,” he chuckled softly, as if he had remembered something.
Li Zhi glanced at him.
With her soft waist in his grasp, Li Jing Ye was beginning to feel a bit moved. He brought her soft fingers to his lips and traced the edges of the wound as he kissed them. “You smell nice, Li-niang. What were you doing just now?”
“I was making sachets,” Li Zhi said softly.
She recoiled from the intense heat in his gaze and turned her face away, but he caught her by the chin and turned her back to face him.
“Your Majesty hasn’t eaten dinner yet,” she reminded him.
Li Jing Ye held her waist and brought his lips down on hers. “My dinner is here.”
Li Zhi couldn’t resist him and allowed him to lay her down on the couch.
The two of them were entangled when a soft voice interrupted them from beyond the screen. “Your Majesty, a messenger from Shicui Palace has arrived. He requests your presence.”
“Tell him to leave. I will visit the Pure Consort tomorrow,” Li Jing Ye said without looking up, his eyes fixed on the beautiful woman before him. His voice was tinged with impatience.
Pure Consort Xiao had always been gentle and sensible, and wouldn’t come to see him for no reason. If it were an ordinary day, he would have gone to see her. But now, with Li Zhi before him, he had a somewhat indifferent attitude towards everything else.
He Yuan Shi hesitated before delivering the news, “Your Majesty, the people from Shicui Palace reported that the Pure Consort had fainted on her way back from Qinghui Pavilion. She is currently being examined by a female official from the Medicine Bureau, who has confirmed that she is two months pregnant.”
Li Jing Ye’s movements slowed as his gaze shifted from his Noble Consort to the far wall. The intensity of his eyes dwindled as he became lost in deep thought.
Li Zhi was lying on her back, her cheeks still flushed and her breathing heavy. She looked up at him with pleading eyes and whispered, “Your Majesty, please go and see her.”
Six years into his reign, Li Jing Ye had kept his distance from the imperial concubines. Only Pure Consort and one other had been blessed with a pregnancy.
However, Pure Consort had miscarried at three months due to an ailment from her youth, while the other died in childbirth, resulting in a double tragedy.
After such a long time, news finally came, and Li Jing Ye naturally felt happy.
However, he suddenly remembered the words the Empress Dowager had said when he left Chang’an Hall in broad daylight.
“I wonder how much sincerity that woman has for the Emperor?”
He gazed deeply at her and asked in a soft voice, “Li-niang, do you want me to visit the Pure Consort’s palace?”
Li Zhi’s eyes flickered, and she smiled sweetly, “The Pure Consort’s pregnancy is a great cause for celebration. She eagerly awaits Your Majesty’s visit. I will be fine here.”
Li Jing Ye said nothing, only gazed at the beautiful face for a long time. He slowly rose from the bed, got dressed again, and headed towards the Shicui Palace.
Li Zhi calmly sat up on the bed, her expression devoid of any emotion as she meticulously adjusted her clothing.
She had a vague sense of what Li Jing Ye was trying to do, but she deliberately did not comply with his wishes.
She had only declared her disassociation with Prince Rui after spending more than three months with the Emperor. If she was to start competing with the Emperor’s other concubines, it would only make him more suspicious.
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