Chapter 2 Taoist Temple
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Over sixty years had passed since Great Wei had been established, a realm that enjoyed a bountiful period of territorial expansion, domestic peacekeeping, and social prosperity under the skilled guidance of the three previous Emperors – Gaozu, Taizong, and Gaozong.
Now, Li Jing Ye, the fourth Emperor and the rightful heir of Gaozong, had ruled for six full years, ascending the throne in his youth with the weighty burden of leadership on his shoulders.
Though he had yet to attain the literary and martial heights of his esteemed forefathers, he governed with utmost diligence and discipline, treating his subordinates with fairness and benevolence, and heeding the sincere counsel of his loyal ministers. As such, he had earned the respect and admiration of his people.
But just as his reign seemed to be on a steady course, in the sixth year, he acted in a manner that defied all social norms and sent shockwaves through the land.
In the early summer of May, the night was dark, and the air was fragrant with the scent of grass and trees.
Outside a secluded house in the west wing of Wangxian Temple of Daming Palace, the Chief Eunuch He Yuan Shi led two palace maids, carefully carrying a gilded copper basin and a white veil, as they entered the room with hushed steps.
As soon as they lit the candles in the outer room, they heard a few weak and sorrowful cries coming from behind the low birdwood and stone-encased folding screen, followed by a man’s soft and hoarse voice.
“Li-niang, Li-niang, wake up quickly!”
But the woman continued to sob softly.
Feeling increasingly worried, the man called out louder, summoning He Yuan Shi. The Chief Eunuch hurried over, took the veil from the maid’s hand, and went around the screen to lift the delicate chiffon canopy covering the spacious bed, revealing a small opening.
A picturesque scene unfolded before his eyes.
A young and beautiful woman lay horizontally inside the bed canopy, draped only in a thin veil that partially concealed the red marks on her body. Her well-proportioned figure, covered by a corner of the quilt, fell with every breath, leaving only a hint of her charming curves visible. She exuded a mysterious and enchanting aura.
Her face was as smooth and delicate as a polished jade, with a slight frown between her eyebrows. Her tightly closed eyes were covered with a thin layer of water droplets, and it was hard to tell whether they were tears or sweat.
She seemed trapped in a nightmare and couldn’t escape, her plump red lips slightly parted and emitting intermittent whimpering sounds that sent shivers down people’s spines.
The young and handsome Emperor’s hair was disheveled, and his clothes were in disarray. He leaned over the woman with a worried expression, propping himself up with one hand and gently caressing her cheek with the other, calling out to her from time to time.
He Yuan Shi handed the handkerchief over and quickly withdrew, not daring to look again.
The gauze curtain lost its support and fluttered back together, concealing the ambiguous scene once again.
He gazed at the lightly rippling gauze for a moment, then straightened up slowly, momentarily lost in thought.
The scene he had glimpsed earlier had made him blush, despite his many years of service as a eunuch in the palace. He was all too familiar with the luxuries and licentiousness that abounded in the royal court, yet this sight had affected him in a way he could not quite explain.
The Emperor himself had been captivated by the beauty before him, bringing her to the Wangxian Temple on the day of her wedding. The woman inside was none other than Third Miss Zhong, the woman who should have been Prince Rui’s Consort. Known for her stunning looks and grace, she was the envy of many.
Last year, Prince Rui Li Jing Hui, who was just about to choose a Consort to marry, immediately fell in love with the Third Miss of the Zhong family as he rode by the streets of Chang’an and caught a glimpse of the young lady.
After inquiring about her identity, he went straight to the palace and begged the Empress Dowager to grant him the marriage.
Despite her reservations about the humble background of the Zhong family, the Empress Dowager eventually relented after her son’s repeated entreaties. It was supposed to be a match made in heaven, one that would inspire envy in all who beheld it.
On the day of the wedding ceremony, the Emperor, to show his special favor to his younger brother, personally went to observe the proceedings.
It was on that very day that the Emperor issued an imperial decree, summoning the Princess Consort to the Wangxian Temple in the Daming Palace, under the pretext of “praying for the blessings of the northern soldiers.”
Although there were some minor frictions and conflicts with the Turks in the north at present, it was a mystery as to why they had to summon the new sister-in-law, who had just entered the royal family.
Initially, the people did not understand the Emperor’s intention. They thought that he was showing love for his younger brother and was displeased with the Zhong family’s low status, so he wanted to teach the Princess Consort Rui a lesson.
However, as time passed, their previous speculations slowly changed.
In the Great Wei dynasty, countless temples were built by imperial decree in Chang’an. Why did the Emperor chose the Wangxian Temple in the Daming Palace?
It should be noted that the Wangxian Temple was built on a hill by the Taiye Pool in the Daming Palace. Usually, only palace women would come here.
Even if Miss Zhong became the Princess Consort Rui and entered the imperial clan, there was no reason for her to cultivate in the palace.
The Emperor didn’t want to humiliate his younger brother’s wife. He clearly had his eye on this one-in-a-million beauty and wanted her for himself!
He only resorted to such a roundabout way because he couldn’t possibly rob her on the spot.
He Yuan Shi suppressed his sigh and glanced at the incense burning down in the censer, reminding the Emperor in a low voice, “Your Majesty, it’s time to go back.”
In the bed, Li Jing Ye fell silent and gazed at the sleeping beauty still troubled by nightmares.
It was now just past the hour of the rooster, the perfect time to enjoy the beautiful scenery, yet he had to bid farewell to the beauty and return alone to the palace courtyard.
Li Jing Ye leaned down and lightly kissed the still-flushed face of Li Zhi, feeling the smooth and creamy skin like that of fresh milk on his lips. He raised his voice slightly and said, “I understand. We’ll leave when Li-niang wakes up.”
With reluctance, He Yuan Shi refrained from urging any further and quietly withdrew behind the screen.
The still-sleeping beauty on the bed seemed to have sensed something and slowly opened her eyes. Upon seeing the young man before her, she instinctively asked, “Why has Your Majesty not yet departed?”
She had been living in seclusion in Wangxian Temple for three months.
A month ago, the Emperor could no longer restrain himself and began to visit here every few days, but never dared to stay overnight, always hurrying back to the palace before the end of the night watch.
Li Jing Ye’s hand wiping her sweat paused, his expression gradually darkening.
“Is this how much you want me to leave, Li-niang?”
Li Zhi’s thick eyelashes trembled slightly, and her eyes, filled with misty water, glanced at him before she turned her body and sat up with her soft, aching limbs. She then lifted the veil and sat with her back to him before softly saying, “This concubine would never dare.”
Her voice was soft and gentle, with a lingering tone that seemed to contain infinite grievances and complaints, piercing the hearts of all who listened.
Li Jing Ye had already been captivated by her earlier glance, and now that the lotus flower in his hand suddenly moved away, he felt a sense of loss and couldn’t help but follow her every movement.
The beauty sat against the light, with the soft glow of the yellow candle casting a halo around her exquisite form, making her curves look even more alluring.
He couldn’t help but recall the day three months ago when he first saw her at the wedding ceremony.
Her charm was so powerful that it made him, who was usually dignified and reserved, unable to move a step, almost causing him to make a fool of himself in front of the royal family and court officials.
That day, he paced back and forth alone in the Zichen Hall, unable to forget the beauty’s face. Feeling melancholic, he eventually ordered the Princess Consort to retire to a Taoist temple for spiritual practice.
Now, after taking such a roundabout approach, he finally held the beauty in his arms.
He felt uneasy and sorry for his younger brother, but he couldn’t bring himself to tell her.
“Li-niang!” Li Jing Ye called out to her, his heart softening. He wrapped his arms around Li Zhi again, pushing aside her black hair piled up at her neck to reveal a slender, delicate neck as white as jade.
His eyes dimmed as he leaned closer to kiss her. “Don’t be angry. I was just talking casually earlier. As long as you don’t think about leaving me again, everything will be fine.”
At first, she didn’t believe and refused to bow her head, constantly thinking about escape.
However, after catapulting into this world for three months, she had already witnessed the power of imperial authority.
Everyone around her all bowed down in submission to the power, leaving her with no choice but to conform to their expectations and bow to their whims.
Had it not been for the fact that the figure before her was the illustrious Emperor of Great Wei, she would have instinctively recoiled and kept a safe distance.
Fortunately, she was already accustomed to the warmth and coldness of human nature and knew how to yield when necessary.
Years of experience had taught her that one must learn to show weakness in order to gain sympathy from others.
Especially recently, her recurring nightmares had revealed not only every detail of the past sixteen years but also the tragic ending that awaited her in a few years’ time.
The man behind her, who was now whispering sweet nothings to her, would eventually betray her in order to save his own life and hand her over to the enemy, before finally ending her life with a white silk rope!
Thinking of this, Li Zhi couldn’t help but tremble slightly.
For the sake of her own survival, she knew she had to acquiesce to his advances for the time being.
She wanted to live, not just now, but also three years later.
She gently grip Li Jing Ye’s hand that was gradually creeping up her waist. She bit her lip and softly said, “This concubine dares not anger Your Majesty. However, as the hour of the Dog approaches, Your Majesty should consider returning to the inner palace.”
Li Jing Ye listened to her soft words and immediately felt much better. He glanced at the burnt incense in the censer and saw that it was already late, so he had to let go of her hand, get up, and let the eunuchs come in to serve him in dressing and grooming.
After tidying up and about to leave, he held Li Zhi’s hand and walked with her all the way to the entrance of the Taoist temple.
Li Zhi just hoped he would leave quickly, so she hurriedly put on her clothes and followed him.
Although Wangxian Temple was an imperial palace, it was not strictly regulated. Nowadays, Li Zhi lived in the west side of the temple, and the other female Taoists who practiced there had moved to the east wing. Therefore, on this way, besides the eunuchs and palace maids accompanying the Emperor, there was no one else around.
As they approached the entrance of the Taoist temple, several burly and imposing imperial guards dressed in narrow-sleeved robes with round collars and pointed leather boots stood on either side, forming a protective barrier.
Although they were within the confines of Daming Palace, this area did not belong to the living quarters of concubines and consorts. And as the Emperor was staying in the palace, it was only natural for guards to be stationed nearby.
Especially since Li Zhi moved into the temple, there have been frequent patrols of guards in the area.
She walked two steps behind Li Jing Ye with her head lowered, but suddenly felt a pair of unreserved eyes staring at her from among the nearby guards, making her feel uneasy.
Only one person would dare to blatantly stare at her like this in front of the Emperor.
She quietly raised her head, and saw a young gentleman in purple robe and jade belt standing among the guards on the side of the road. He was tall and handsome with a noble bearing, exuding an air of self-assurance and refinement.
With a closer look, one could easily perceive the young man’s handsome face brimming with solemnity and indifference, as if he could easily disregard most people and things in this world.
It was indeed him, with his cold expression and upright demeanor, just like in her dream.
Li Zhi felt no reaction to him and even cast a contemptuous and disdainful glance at him, silently reciting his name in her mind.
By now, rumors about her must have spread throughout Chang’an, with people discussing her behind her back, probably enough to circle Daming Palace ten times over.
However, those who dared to openly scrutinize and abhor her were probably few and far between.
With a slight hesitation in her steps, Li Zhi stopped and lowered her gaze, reaching out to tug gently at Li Jing Ye’s sleeve. Biting her lip, she raised her misty eyes to meet his.
Her voice was extremely soft, but with just enough hint of vulnerability to tug at Li Jing Ye’s heartstrings, her words winding their way into his ear.
He glanced sideways and naturally saw that Pei Ji was not only not converging his gaze, but also coldly scrutinizing this place.
If it were someone else, Li Jing Ye would have been furious.
However, in the face of Pei Ji, he only slightly frowned, shielded Li Zhi behind him, and admonished in a low voice, “Zi Hui, Li-niang is timid, don’t scare her.”
As he spoke, he turned around and hugged Li Zhi, pinching her chin and lifting it up, saying softly, “Don’t be afraid, Li-niang. Zi Hui is the General of the Imperial Guard, guarding the palace every day. He has always been direct and straightforward without pretense. I have already scolded him, and he will not dare to do it again.”
Li Zhi looked up to meet Li Jing Ye’s gaze, but out of the corner of her eyes, she caught a glimpse of Pei Ji raising his eyebrows slightly before slowly looking away from her.
She lowered her eyes, already aware of the Emperor’s trust in the young General, and said, “With Your Majesty here, I will not be afraid.”
Li Jing Ye was delighted to hear these words. He couldn’t help but lift her chin higher, leaned down and kissed her twice.
Li Zhi caught a glimpse of the palace maids and eunuchs bowing their heads in deference, even the stoic Imperial Guards subtly turning their gazes away.
Her cheeks blushed, and she quickly turned her face and pushed him away with her hand, her breath becoming more and more rapid.
Li Zhi was lightly sweating and panting, her plump, red lips were so attractive that they seemed like dew-covered coral peonies, waiting to be picked by someone.
Li Jing Ye finally tore himself away with reluctance, giving Li Zhi a few more instructions before turning to leave, taking with him all the courtiers and guards in attendance.
As soon as the Emperor departed, the palace attendants dispersed, leaving only Li Zhi standing alone at the entrance of the Taoist temple, gazing off into the distance at the tranquil Taiye Pool.
After a brief moment of vulnerability, Li Zhi’s expression turned to one of calm detachment as she watched the clear water reflect the full moon hanging in the sky, stirred only by the occasional gust of wind.
In the stillness, she stood like a solitary statue, a vision of serene beauty amidst the tranquil beauty of nature.
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