Chapter 18 Pomegranate
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As Li Ling Yue rushed back to the palace that night, she found the gate locked and the guards newly changed. Despite her high rank, the guards were unfamiliar with her and subjected her to a thorough inspection before allowing her inside.
Naturally, this unexpected turn of events caused great concern for Li Jing Ye, who had planned to spend the night in Shicui Palace.
Due Pure Consort Xiao being pregnant, he did not fly into a rage immediately, but suppressed his anger and ordered He Yuan Shi to send a eunuch from Zichen Hall to keep a close eye on her, not allowing her to leave the palace. He also ordered her to copy the “Book of Women” daily as a punishment until she had copied three volumes, with no possibility of release.
Despite Pure Consort Xiao’s continued attempts to plead with him, Li Jing Ye remained firm. “Unless Ling Yue is disciplined properly,” he declared, “no noble offspring, be they in Chang’an or beyond, will consider marrying her.”
The Empress Dowager was distressed by the news, but knew that she could not continue to indulge Li Ling Yue’s behavior. She had no choice but to endure the situation for the time being.
To everyone’s surprise, Li Ling Yue did not react to the punishment with her usual tears and tantrums. Instead, she retreated to her room and devoted herself to copying books.
At first, both the Empress Dowager and Li Jing Ye were understandably wary of Li Ling Yue’s sudden change in behavior. However, after checking on her every day and seeing no more signs of misbehavior, they slowly began to let go of their concerns.
After resting for several days, Li Zhi’s wounds on her hands and bruises on her knees had finally healed.
Ever since her promotion to Noble Consort, various concubines in the palace had been eager to come and pay their respects at the Chenghuan Palace. However, she had declined their invitations, citing her injury recovery. Now that she had fully recuperated, she agreed to Pure Consort Xiao’s invitation to attend the Pomegranate Banquet with other concubines by the Taiye Pool.
The pomegranates were in season, and the heat of summer was slowly fading away. The Wenquan Resort in Lishan had sent an abundance of pomegranates, which Li Jing Ye had personally delivered to the Empress Dowager, saved some for Li Zhi, and distributed the rest to Pure Consort Xiao and Worthy Consort Xu for them to share among the other concubines in the palace.
With a talent for charming people, Pure Consort Xiao had stabilized her pregnancy and continued to manage various affairs, including organizing the traditional Pomegranate Banquet.
Li Zhi refused to use people as slaves, and therefore, she had a distaste for riding in a sedan chair. Instead, when she set off to attend the banquet at Taiye Pool, she chose to walk there.
Aware that all eyes were on her, the newly-appointed Noble Consort who had not yet been seen, Li Zhi arrived fashionably late to make an entrance.
As she strolled along the path, not a soul crossed her path. However, when she passed Linde Hall, she noticed a familiar silhouette approaching from the north.
The imposing figure, clad in a purple robe and a jade clasp, was none other than Pei Ji, who had been absent for several days.
The direction in which he came suggested he had just returned from training with the Imperial Guards stationed outside the Jiuxian Gate and was now heading towards Yanying Hall.
With the Qianqiu Festival fast approaching, the security measures in the Daming Palace, and indeed throughout the city of Chang’an, had heightened significantly. Consequently, the Imperial Guards were undoubtedly working tirelessly to ensure safety.
Clearly, Pei Ji had also caught sight of Li Zhi.
With a few dozen feet between them, their eyes met briefly and then looked away at the same time.
Chun Yue whispered, “Miss, shall I stand guard nearby?”
She thought that Li Zhi would stop by as she had done on several previous occasions.
However, Li Zhi just smiled slightly and said, without turning her head, “No need. Let’s go to the pool.”
As a Noble Consort of first-class rank, Li Zhi did not need to salute Pei Ji, who was the General of the Imperial Guards with a third-class rank.
She had taken the initiative several times before, so it was time for a change.
With a smile on her face and a steady pace, Li Zhi walked with Chun Yue, showing no intention of stopping.
As they were about to pass each other, a familiar, deep voice said, “I greet the Noble Consort.”
Li Zhi paused for a moment, then looked at Pei Ji, who was bowing his head respectfully to the side.
Pei Ji had already seen her earlier, and his heart was pounding with tension and nervousness even before she came closer.
In the past, every time they had chance encounters in the palace, she would almost always call out to him and intentionally tease him.
He thought it would be the same today.
However, as they got closer and were about to pass each other, she kept looking straight ahead and continued walking as if she hadn’t seen him.
For some inexplicable reason, a tinge of disappointment washed over him, prompting him to greet her with his usual respect.
She couldn’t just ignore him like that, right?
Bending at the waist and cupping his hands in salute, Pei Ji remembered her past behavior and couldn’t help but feel a hint of wariness. He didn’t want to be taken in by her charm again.
To his surprise, Li Zhi’s response was devoid of any emotion. She simply nodded at him and walked on, as if their exchange was nothing more than a perfunctory acknowledgement between a concubine and a general.
Their relationship, it seemed, was reduced to a mere nod.
Frowning, Pei Ji watched as Li Zhi’s figure gradually receded into the distance, the sense of disappointment from earlier only growing more pronounced.
This woman was far too heartless. She had already taken the initiative to stay away from him without his repeated warnings.
Yes, she had ascended to the position of a Noble Consort and was now backed by the Emperor himself, the supreme ruler of the world. She had already shown she could easily abandon even Prince Rui, let alone a mere general like him.
The thought of Prince Rui sent shivers down Pei Ji’s spine. He tried to suppress his complicated emotions and said in a low, steady voice, “Noble Consort, please allow me to speak.”
Pei Ji scanned his surroundings and saw some palace servants walking by, oblivious to their presence. He took a few quick strides forward and bowed respectfully, saying in a hushed voice, “Your Highness, Prince Rui has been disheartened lately. I fear he might seek another opportunity to visit you.”
Pei Ji maintained his calm and dignified demeanor, waiting patiently for her response.
However, she simply replied in a composed tone, “General Pei is very considerate.”
There was no hint of any other emotions in her voice.
Pei Ji was taken aback, his eyebrows furrowed in a mix of surprise and irritation. Had he overstepped his bounds?
“Please take care of yourself, Your Highness,” he said curtly before turning on his heels to leave.
Seeing the sudden change in his demeanor, the smile on her lips deepened.
As they arrived at Taiye Pool, the noblewomen were already gathered, sipping tea and exchanging gossip. Pure Consort Xiao and Worthy Consort Xu had saved seats for the Noble Consort, which remained empty until she arrived.
Someone announced, “The Noble Consort is here,” and everyone turned to look.
Among the dozens of gazes, the Noble Consort walked towards them with a smile.
The concubines were all stunned for a moment.
It had long been rumored that the Noble Consort was exceptionally beautiful, but the Emperor had kept her closely guarded, and for months, no one in the palace had seen her true face.
Until today, they still secretly wondered if the Noble Consort’s beauty was not as stunning as the rumors had claimed. With so many beauties in the palace, perhaps she would soon be overshadowed and gradually fade from notice.
Only upon seeing her now did they realize that the rumors were not exaggerating in the slightest.
She was merely dressed in a very ordinary scarlet flower skirt, paired with simple golden hairpins and jade bracelets. Her face was not adorned with powder and rouge, only a touch of vermillion on her lips, yet she still stood out among the crowd, her elegance impossible to conceal.
It was as if she was born to be the center of attention.
No wonder at that time, the Crown Prince insisted on marrying her with just one glance. No wonder on the day of the wedding ceremony, the Emperor was also entranced and lost his composure…
While the people envied and were jealous of her, they were also busy bowing to show their respect.
The two Consorts were naturally no exception.
Pure Consort Xiao instinctively looked at Wortht Consort Xu and saw that she remained calm, without a trace of jealousy on her face. She couldn’t help but frown slightly.
Because Worthy Consort Xu hailed from a prominent family and boasted several illustrious statesmen as her kin, she was swiftly bestowed with the title of Consort upon entering the palace, and the Emperor held her in high regard.
At first, she had regarded Worthy Consort Xu as a fierce competitor, determined to outdo her in every way possible. Yet as time went on, she gradually realized that Worthy Consort Xu was as poised and refined as her education had promised, always calm and unruffled, even in the Emperor’s presence.
Despite residing in the imperial harem, she refused to conform to the norms of the masses.
Were there truly women in the world who cared so little about everything around them?
Pure Consort Xiao was momentarily dazed, and by the time she remembered to bow, she had already fallen behind her peers.
The breathtaking beauty stepped forward, offering her support and a gentle smile as she said, “Sister Pure Consort and I share the same rank, and you are also with child. There’s no need to pay your respects.”
Pure Consort Xiao smiled at Li Zhi, her gaze flickering slightly. Suppressing the bitterness in her heart, she didn’t decline and replied, “Thank you for your kind consideration, Noble Consort.”
Li Zhi nodded respectfully towards Worthy Consort Xu at her side, then took a seat with the others.
With everyone gathered, and after paying respects to Li Zhi one by one, Pure Consort Xiao motioned to the palace servants who soon appeared with platters of peeled pomegranates, setting them down on the table.
The pomegranates from Wenquan Resort had been renowned since the Han Dynasty and had always been supplied to the imperial court. Through the changing dynasties, the fruit’s quality never wavered, a testament to their exceptional taste.
Each pomegranate was arranged in a shining crystal plate, their plump, jewel-like seeds reflecting the sunlight. Just their mere appearance was a feast for the eyes, and with the fruit’s sweet fragrance filling the air, it offered a refreshing respite from the heat.
Immediately afterwards, the eunuchs presented a beverage made from pomegranate and several types of pastries.
The drink was tangy, sweet, and refreshing, while the pastries were intricately crafted and mouth-watering with vivid colors and heavenly scents.
Lady Wang admired, “The Pure Consort has always been thoughtful in everything she does. Even now that she’s pregnant, she manages palace affairs effortlessly. I truly admire her.”
With a gentle smile, Pure Consort replied, “His Majesty is concerned about the Noble Consort and doesn’t want her to be bothered by these trivial tasks. Hence, the Worthy Consort and I will take care of them. Since it’s the Noble Consort’s first meeting with us sisters, I must put in extra effort.”
Although Pure Consort’s words seemed humble, they carried a hint that she still holds the power to manage the palace affairs despite the Noble Consort’s presence.
Li Zhi merely smiled, but said nothing.
Pure Consort Xiao turned to Li Zhi and asked with a gentle smile, “Noble Consort, are you pleased with today’s banquet?”
Li Zhi glanced at her, then nodded and said, “Yes, I am very satisfied. Even this pomegranate, I have never seen such a beautiful appearance before.”
In the past, before she traveled back in time, Li Zhi would not have found this pomegranate, as magnificent as a ruby, to be so rare.
However, now that she was in Great Wei, such opulence was only available to the privileged families, even in the palace. Her uncle was only a seventh-ranked minor official, and therefore he had never seen such luxury.
It was clear that Pure Consort Xiao was attempting to embarrass Li Zhi by inquiring if she was satisfied.
If she expressed surprise, it would undoubtedly cause others to ridicule her. Conversely, if she pretended to be accustomed to such luxuries, it would give the impression of being proud and haughty.
After all, her family background was well-known, and it was better for her to be frank.
She thought that the conversation would soon turn to her family.
Sure enough, Lady Wei below said, “You’ve been in the palace for a while now, I suppose you haven’t seen your family yet?”
Before Li Zhi could respond, Pure Consort Xiao already said, “It’s my fault. When a Consort enters the palace, they can meet their family once a month. I’ll make arrangements for you tomorrow.”
Logically speaking, it was the Empress’s responsibility to arrange meetings between the imperial concubines and their families, but now it was all controlled by Pure Consort Xiao.
Li Zhi thought to herself that it was time to see her family from the Zhong clan, so she said, “Thank you.”
Lady Wei continued, “Usually, the mothers and sisters of the concubines would personally deliver a letter of greeting to the palace, but your family didn’t, so it’s no wonder that the Pure Consort didn’t think of it.”
The other concubines were born into high-ranking families, their female relatives holding the honorable title of “Madam”, which granted them the right to send invitations to the palace. However, Li Zhi’s uncle was only a lowly seventh-rank official, devoid of such privilege. Lady Wei’s words were clearly laced with malicious intent.
Others immediately jumped in, “It’s true, His Majesty holds the Noble Consort in high esteem, so why not request for her female relatives to be granted the title of Madam? This would make their entry into the palace much easier in the future.”
Pure Consort Xiao remained silent, lifting the jade green wine glass to her lips and taking a sip, her lips curling into a barely discernible smile.
However, Worthy Consort Xu couldn’t bear to watch it any longer, her brows furrowing as she interjected coldly, “That’s enough. His Majesty shall be the one to decide on this matter. There’s no need for others to meddle.”
Lady Wei and her cohorts were silenced, embarrassed by the rebuke.
At the Pomegranate Banquet, everyone had their own motives and schemes.
Li Zhi quietly scanned her surroundings, her heart already aware of the insidious plot.
So this was their strategy.
Despite his gentle demeanor, Li Jing Ye was suspicious by nature and disliked being prompted to reward people for their achievements. The imperial concubines had been in the palace for many years and knew his temper well. By urging her to request Li Jing Ye to grant noble titles to her female relatives, they hoped to provoke his anger.
But they were all mistaken.
Li Jing Ye’s rules were created for others, yet he would likely make an exception for her.
In her dreams, she clearly remembered that Li Jing Ye had granted the title of Madam to her uncle’s wife shortly after she entered the palace, despite their lack of closeness. Even her uncle and cousin were granted noble titles.
As time went on, however, all of these actions would become evidence used to accuse her of causing the Emperor’s incompetence and bringing about the “downfall of the country”, leading to harsh criticism from the public.
She had to avoid all of this from happening.
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