At the Noble Consort’s Feet Chapter 19

Chapter 19 The Zhong Family

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As the sun began to set, Li Ling Yue sat alone at her desk, letting out a deep sigh as she set down her pen.

The table was piled high with stacks of paper, each sheet bearing the fruits of her laborious efforts over the past fortnight – three volumes of the “Book of Women” painstakingly copied by her hand.

Eyes weary and head heavy, she pushed the papers away from her and turned to the waiting maid, her voice weak and strained. “Take these to the Zichen Hall and present them to His Majesty.”

The maid nodded and deftly gathered the precious documents, cradling them in her arms before slipping out of the hall.

Outside, the watchful eyes of dozens of eunuchs from the Zichen Hall remained fixed on the door, making it impossible for Li Ling Yue to leave the room until she had completed the monumental task of copying every single word of the three volumes.

Day after day, officials from Shangyi Bureau came to inspect her work, scrutinizing every stroke of her pen. Any imperfection or error meant a whole page had to be redone, and so it continued for more than two weeks.

She had a premonition that this time the emperor had made up his mind to properly restrain and discipline her younger sister.

The eunuchs stationed outside the hall received the objects presented by the female official. Two of them proceeded towards Zichen Hall with their loads, while the others remained immobile.

Li Ling Yue felt a surge of irritation and got up to pace around the room, illuminating it with multiple lamps.

“Princess, it’s time to take some food,” the palace maid beside her spoke cautiously.

Once a lively spirit, the princess couldn’t bear being imprisoned for such a lengthy period. Her restlessness grew with each passing day.

As if deaf to the maid’s words, Li Ling Yue abruptly halted and scowled at the servant, motioning for her to approach. In a hushed voice, she inquired, “Did you manage to acquire what I sent you to find?”

The palace maid’s face went pale and she instinctively looked around before walking a few steps closer and hesitantly saying, “This servant asked a fellow villager in the Medicine Bureau a few days ago and indeed there is such a medicine. It’s called the ‘Zhuqing Flower,’ a secret medicine that has been passed down since the previous dynasty. Many Emperors in the past who were old and confused often took it. Nowadays, no one in the palace uses it because some noblemen used it for an Emperor in the previous dynasty, so it is kept strictly guarded.  This servant dare not say it is for the Princess’s request, but rather for an Elder Brother at home who has no children. After a lot of persuasion, this servant finally obtained a small bottle.”

As she spoke, she took out a small porcelain bottle that had been hidden in the cupboard for several days and handed it to Li Ling Yue.

Li Ling Yue’s eyes widened slightly as she received it and carefully examined the semi-transparent brown liquid in the small bottle under the candlelight, but she could not detect any scent.

She remembered the whispered conversation of the two women in Yunlai Pavilion that day, and her face inexplicably flushed.

In fact, at that time, she did not know what medicine they were going to use on Imperial Censor-in-Chief An, but she vaguely felt that it was not a good thing. Later, when she asked her sixth brother, he also spoke vaguely and was unwilling to explain further.

She couldn’t focus on anything and felt restless for days, even when she was locked in the palace to copy books.

Eventually, she turned to her trusted maids for answers and learned the meaning behind the conversation of those two women.

It was incredible to discover that such a drug existed, capable of poisoning a man’s mind and body, inflaming his desires and causing him to lose control, but only a woman could be the antidote.

The maid also revealed a story of a princess in the previous dynasty who had loved a man and ordered him to be drugged when he entered the palace. When the plan succeeded, he was appointed as a high-ranking military officer.

Li Ling Yue felt a strange trembling in her hands as she absorbed this information.

She covered the porcelain bottle again and asked hesitantly, “Does this medicine truly work? Will it cause harm to the human body?”

The palace maid spoke hesitantly, “This medicine was used by the previous dynasty and could take effect within two hours. As long as it is relieved in time, there will be no harm.” Then, she carefully asked, “Princess… are you planning to use it on General Pei? General Pei is not an ordinary person, but your cousin. He is the son of the Grand Princess and the Deputy Prime Minister. His status is not lower than yours. I’m afraid…”

Li Ling Yue didn’t reply, but her eyes betrayed her hesitation.

She understood that Pei Ji was not an ordinary nobleman, but a true member of the royal family. In terms of status, he was not inferior to her as a princess. If she used such a method against him, no one from the Empress Dowager to the Emperor and her aunt would tolerate it. And given her cousin’s temperament, he would never forgive her easily.

This was precisely why she had been at a loss for what to do.

At the age of twelve, Li Ling Yue had learned about the meaning of “marriage” and “husband and wife” for the first time from the palace servants, and she had been preoccupied with the matter ever since.

At that time, she was just starting to fall in love, and the first person she thought of was her cousin. She thought that her cousin was so steady and reliable, and had been so good to her, that if she married him in this lifetime, she could also have a happy marriage like her aunt and uncle, who had been harmoniously together for decades.

Even her mother had expressed envy for her aunt’s marriage and had hoped that her only daughter could find such happiness as well.

She had set her heart on her cousin, dressed in her finest clothes and had the palace ladies style her hair in the latest fashion of Chang’an. Blushing, she went to find Pei Ji who was practicing archery with her sixth brother at the riding tower.

She remembered that it was midsummer at the time, and that her cousin’s fair face had red marks from the sun, while his slightly roughened hand bore the marks of the bowstring from practicing martial arts.

He listened to her girlish fantasies in silence. Despite her sixth brother’s teasing laughter, he remained unchanged. He just took a step back and bowed respectfully to her with the etiquette of a subject, addressing her as “Princess.”

Four years had passed, and he had hardly exchanged a word with her since then, unless it was absolutely necessary…

As she hesitated, the eunuch who had just left for Zichen Hall returned and stood outside, addressing those inside, “Your Highness, His Majesty has read the ‘Book of Women’ that you copied. The house arrest order can be lifted. Please take good care of yourself and focus on self-cultivation. After the spring, His Majesty will select a talented young man from the new scholars for you.”

With that, the man retreated, followed by the other eunuchs who had been standing outside the hall, and returned to Zichen Hall.

With the porcelain bottle in her hand, Li Ling Yue remained silent for a while, then suddenly stood up and whispered, “No need to say more. Let’s talk about the Zhongqiu Festival banquet.”

A few days later, the Zhong family did come to the palace.

Li Zhi had intended only to meet briefly in the Chenghuan Palace, but to her surprise, Li Jingye had already arranged a small feast for her family in Qinghui Pavilion, allowing them to admire the palace scenery.

As soon as Li Zhi arrived, her Aunt Yang and cousin Zhong Miao Yun were already present.

Mrs. Yang sat with composed posture, allowing the maids to pour tea for her. Though she appeared collected, her trembling hand while holding the cup betrayed her inner anxiety.

In contrast, the young Zhong Miao Yun, aged only fifteen, exuded a sense of curiosity and admiration. Fearlessly conversing with the palace maids, she revealed no sign of apprehension or worry.

While Zhong Miao Yun possessed striking beauty similar to Li Zhi, a harshness inherited from her mother prevented her from being as graceful or charming.

As the palace maids respectfully bowed to Li Zhi, the mother and daughter followed suit and addressed her as “Noble Consort”.

After the palace maids left, Zhong Miao Yun disregarded formalities and went straight to Li Zhi, who had not yet sat down. “I never expected that after just a few months, Sister has become a Noble Consort. Just this palace alone is more spacious than our entire home.”

In Chang’an, where the powerful and influential were abundant, Uncle Zhong Cheng Ping was only a seventh-rank official in the court of the Jingzhao Prefecture, in charge of matters such as marriage, land, and brawls. His family had only a small fortune, and he could not compare to true royal kin. His usual dealings were mainly with peasants and commoners in the countryside. In the eyes of the powerful, he was considered a truly small household.

Mrs. Yang still looked around cautiously, seeing that there were no palace maids around, she breathed a sigh of relief and took a sip of fresh pomegranate juice from the table, smiling, “Exactly, when we passed by Prince Rui’s mansion earlier, I already felt that it was grand, and now that we’ve entered this Daming Palace, I’ve realized that there are still such vast and magnificent places in the world! Third Daughter, you have indeed made progress, and your aunt did not misjudge you back then!”

Li Zhi tugged at the corners of her mouth, but the smile did not reach her eyes.

From childhood, both she and her elder sister Lan Ying had been left orphaned by their parents and had come to reside in the home of their uncle. Although their uncle had taken over their family’s land, he had not been kind to the two sisters. Worse still, he had gone so far as to interfere with the childhood betrothals their parents had arranged for them, all with the aim of sending the two of them off to powerful families as concubines, in order to help further his own career and secure a promising future for her cousin, Zhong Hao.

To outsiders, Zhong Cheng Ping appeared to be a man of great loyalty and kindness, having taken in his brother’s two orphaned daughters. But in reality, he and his wife had raised the two girls like they were mere horses, without providing them with much in the way of care.

As for the talented Li Zhi, her skills in singing and dancing had been honed thanks to Mrs. Yang, who had secretly arranged for her to be trained by a professional singer and dancer from the outer districts.

She paid no attention to the mother and daughter’s words, and simply asked, “How has Elder Sister been doing these past few months?”

When the day of her coming-of-age ceremony arrived, she was extremely fortunate to have met Prince Rui, thereby sparing herself from being treated like a commodity by her uncle’s family, who had intended to send her off to the homes of the powerful.

But the eldest sister Lan Ying did not have such luck.

Lan Ying was three years older than her. In the year she turned seventeen, her childhood fiance Wei Peng traveled a long distance from Shu to Chang’an to marry her.

But Zhong Cheng Ping refused to acknowledge the engagement. He had already found a suitable match for Lan Ying and, having control over the marriage arrangements, he denied the engagement and secretly drove Wei Peng out of Chang’an.

In despair, Lan Ying went to the stable in the backyard one night and had the carriage wheels roll over her left leg.

Her left leg was fractured and she was in excruciating pain. Zhong Cheng Ping, furious and unwilling to call for a physician, delayed treatment for a whole day before reluctantly sending for one, afraid of the consequences of her death.

The injury left Lan Ying with a limp. The once beautiful young woman now moved awkwardly, losing all grace and charm. This spared her from being given away as a concubine by Zhong Cheng Ping.

However, this only made Zhong Cheng Ping and Mrs. Yang even harsher toward Lan Ying. Had it not been for her younger sister, Lan Ying would have been cast out of the household long ago.

She was a wandering ghost, having crossed over into this world, and held no particular fondness or resentment towards the Zhong family. However, she greatly admired Lan Ying’s courage and knew that Lan Ying sincerely cared for her. Consequently, she felt compelled to repay that kindness by offering Lan Ying greater care.

Mrs. Yang expected that she would inquire about Lan Ying, yet her eyes flickered and she forced a smile, responding, “Your sister remains much the same as before, rarely venturing outside the house…”

Li Zhi arched her brows, a smile lingering on her lips, while her gaze grew frosty. “Aunt, please tell me the truth.”

Yang Shi was taken aback by the sudden air of authority that had overtaken Li Zhi’s once-docile disposition. She instinctively stammered, “It’s nothing significant, just that she caught a cold a few days ago…but she’s already on the mend and it’s nothing to worry about.”

To cover up something as trifling as a cold, it must not have been an ordinary “cold”. Perhaps, it was because Uncle did not want to call for a doctor to tend to Lan Ying once more.

Li Zhi sneered coldly, “It’s good that Elder Sister is fine. Now that I’m not at home, please take good care of her for me, Aunt. If she doesn’t fare well, I’m afraid Aunt won’t either.”

Mrs. Yang was inexplicably chilled by her niece’s words and nodded repeatedly. At last, she caught the look in Li Zhi’s eyes and remembered her husband and son’s repeated instructions before they left. She put on a smile and said, “Third Daughter, now that you’ve grown up, shouldn’t you help your Uncle and cousin more? If our family does well, Lan Ying can have a better life too…”

Li Zhi sneered again, cold and cutting.

As expected, they wanted her to help the Zhong family find official positions.

Zhong Cheng Ping was doing all right, as he was already a seventh-rank official. Zhong Hao, on the other hand, was nothing more than a lump of rotten mud that couldn’t stick to the wall.

He had no ambition and associated with the privileged children of others, but because his family was not prominent, the privileged children he could meet were mostly from inferior families. They spent their days gambling and reveling in pleasures, without doing any real work.

Zhong Cheng Ping did his utmost to send Zhong Hao to study at the official school, hoping he could participate in the imperial examinations in the future and obtain some official positions. However, after half a year, he was expelled from the school because he repeatedly failed the examinations. He was now twenty two years old and still hadn’t made any progress. But he wanted to use his cousin to find an official position.

Li Zhi was about to refuse, but she saw a palace maid waiting outside come in and say, “Your Highness, His Majesty and General Pei have arrived.”

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