Chapter 20 Hindrance
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Li Zhi was a little surprise, but she quickly stood up and greeted Li Jing Ye at the door. She beckoned Mrs. Yang and Zhong Miao Yun to accompany her, and with grace and respect, they all bowed down in unison.
Pei Ji followed behind, but she still didn’t give him a second look.
Li Jing Ye had convened a meeting at the Yanying Hall, summoning the highest-ranking imperial ministers, military officials, and border generals who had come to Chang’an to report their duties.
For the past few years, the Turkic tribes have been plagued by internal strife and unrest. As a result, the northern border of the Great Wei had experienced a temporary lull in activity.
However, as the year dawned, the internal turmoil of the Turkic tribes gradually subsided. The new Khan, Ashina Duobi, who was only thirty years old and in his prime, with great strength and ambition, had been restless in recent months. By the fifth and sixth lunar month, he had dispatched hundreds of cavalry to harass the border of Youzhou.
With autumn already upon them, and winter soon to follow, it was a time when the Turkic people were most vulnerable due to shortages in food and supplies. It was highly likely that they would take advantage of this weakness and launch a massive invasion of the border.
The officials at court held differing opinions on this issue.
The veteran officials who possessed foresight, such as Du Heng and Pei Yan, believed that preparations for war should be made as soon as possible. Meanwhile, border generals, like Lulong’s Military Governor An Yikang, were adamant about being granted greater autonomy over their troops and had even made a formal request to the Emperor.
Li Jing Ye had always been extremely suspicious and did not trust the border generals to have full control over military and political affairs. Even though he was fully aware of the potential threat posed by the Turkic people, he was still hesitant to relinquish all authority to the various commanders stationed in the northern borderlands.
Prime Minister Xiao Lingfu, who was always attuned to the Emperor’s wishes, firmly believed that there was no need to grant greater autonomy to the border generals at this time. Instead, he argued that a decision should be made only when winter arrived and the situation had become clearer.
A heated dispute had erupted between the two sides in the Yanying Hall just moments ago.
Since Li Jing Ye could not make up his mind, he dismissed everyone else for the time being and only took Pei Ji with him to the Taiye Pool to seek his advice in private.
Despite being the son of the Duke of Yanguo, Pei Ji never interfered in state affairs to persuade Emperor Li Jing Ye. When he was between the ages of twelve and sixteen, he served with Pei Yan in Hedong and experienced real battles at a young age. As a result, Li Jing Ye highly valued his opinions.
As they walked and talked, they soon arrived at Qinghui Pavilion. Li Jing Ye remembered that the Zhong family had come to the palace today, so he brought Pei Ji along to take a look.
Li Jing Ye first went to help Li Zhi up, taking her hand and leading her to sit down before turning his gaze towards the Zhong mother and daughter sitting on the side.
Mrs. Yang trembled even more, her hands shaking uncontrollably. She kept her head down, too afraid to look at the Emperor’s face.
On the other side, Zhong Miao Yun did not conceal her curiosity and quietly raised her eyes to observe the young Emperor.
Just one glance, and she was a little stunned.
She had heard from others that the current Emperor was only twenty-six years old, which was the prime of his youth, but he was still over a decade older than her. Subconsciously, she had imagined the Emperor as a man of similar age to her uncle in her clan.
However, when she saw him today, she saw a handsome and gentle Emperor with a dignified bearing that was entirely different from the dissolute young men she had seen on the streets. Even Prince Rui whom she had met before could not compare to his poise and grace.
Moreover, the way he treated Li Zhi was also exceptional, no less than Prince Rui she had met before.
Zhong Miao Yun’s gaze slowly rose from their clasped hands until it met Li Jing Ye’s, and her face turned red. She lowered her eyes.
Li Jing Ye frowned, his gaze sweeping over Zhong Miao Yun’s face before turning to Li Zhi, who sat beside him.
The sisters in this family certainly resemble each other.
However, Li Zhi was just too different from Zhong Miao Yun in terms of temperament. The former was like a rare and exquisite pearl, shining brightly, while the other was just like a common pearl found in the market, although beautiful, somewhat vulgar.
He smiled and gestured for the two of them to sit aside without formality, then turned to Li Zhi and asked, “We came here with you in mind. What were you talking about just now?”
Before Li Zhi could speak, Zhong Miao Yun spoke first, “Your Majesty, just now A’zi said to me and my mother that Your Majesty treats A’zi very well, and that you would treat A’zi’s family just as well.”
The meaning of these words was already very clear, almost implying that the status of the Zhong family was too low to be matched with Li Zhi’s mother-in-law as a Noble Consort.
“Fourth Daughter!” Mrs. Yang was startled and quickly admonished her.
Li Zhi glanced coldly at Zhong Miao Yun.
Li Zhi knew that this girl had a tendency towards haughtiness and bravery, but she was surprised to see her speak so fearlessly in front of the Emperor during her first visit to the palace. Despite her boldness, her cousin managed to maintain a facade of innocence and purity, leaving others wondering if she had simply spoken the truth.
“Is that true?” Li Jing Ye hesitated briefly before turning his attention towards Li Zhi.
Li Zhi lowered her gaze and gently pulled at his sleeve, nodding in agreement. “Your Majesty, I’m worried about my elder sister. We’ve been inseparable since childhood, but now that she’s fallen ill and has no one to keep her company, I’m afraid she’ll become heartbroken.”
In just a few words, Li Zhi managed to completely reverse the meaning behind Zhong Miao Yun’s earlier comments.
Having some knowledge of Li Zhi’s family affairs, Li Jing Ye assured her, “Do not worry. If you miss her, you may ask your aunt to bring her to the palace. Since she cannot travel on her own, you can use your own sedan chair to pick her up. You are a Noble Consort, so nobody will dare to criticize you.”
Li Zhi smiled gratefully in response.
Mrs. Yang and Miao Yun exchanged a worried glance on the side.
However, Li Zhi did not give them any more room to speak. “Aunt and Little Sister have been here for a while. It’s getting late, and Uncle should be going home soon. Aunt and Little Sister should also return earlier. I have prepared some food. Please take it back to Uncle to show my filial respect. There are also some clothes and jewelry. Please also take some for Elder Sister.”
Mrs. Yang’s face looked a little awkward, and she didn’t want to stay any longer after hearing this. She had to get up and bid farewell, leaving with the palace people.
After they left, Li Zhi commented, “Li-niang, your uncle and cousin’s status is indeed lower than yours.”
Li Zhi did not want to discuss this topic further, so Li Zhi replied, “I am already blessed to have your favor, Your Majesty. Although my uncle has a low official position, our family is well-fed and clothed. I do not dare to ask for anything more. Moreover, Your Majesty is the Emperor of the world. How can I allow you to be partial to me?”
Li Jing Ye was taken aback by her use of the argument that a ruler must not show favoritism to persuade him, and couldn’t help but give her a second look.
He used to think of her as a delicate little beauty who knew nothing of the affairs of state, and could be satisfied with just tenderness and love, but these past few days he realized that her vision and knowledge were far from being shallow.
He smiled and draped his arm around her shoulder, saying, “It’s not favoritism if he doesn’t give him a real position.” He then pointed to Pei Ji, who stood nearby. “I heard your cousin has just come of age. Why not let him follow Zi Hui to the Imperial Guards and seek a position there?”
Pei Ji had remained silent all along and was about to excuse himself, but at this sudden pointing, he had to pause.
When he watched Li Zhi and the mother and daughter just now, he thought of what Prince Rui had said to him before.
After their marriage had been settled, Prince Rui had sent people to inquire about the Zhong family’s situation and learned that Zhong Cheng Ping did not treat Li Zhi and her sister well.
At that time, he deeply disagreed with the rashness of Prince Rui in arranging his marriage solely based on their first encounter, but he did not dwell much on the matter.
Now, he couldn’t explain why, but he felt a sudden pang of empathy for the woman sitting beside him when he saw the mother and daughter’s expression during their talk.
He knew her situation all too well.
He knew that she was in a vulnerable position in the palace, isolated and disliked by the Empress Dowager and the Princess. The other concubines looked down on her lowly background, and her family was only interested in benefiting from her.
His rational mind kept telling him that this was not his concern and that the Emperor would take care of her.
Li Jing Ye sat next to Li Zhi, and for the first time, she turned her eyes towards Pei Ji.
“But the Imperial Guards are in charge of defending Chang’an, and my cousin is just an average young man who has yet to prove himself. How could he bear such a heavy responsibility? Your Majesty need not worry about my family, or else even General Pei might mock us.”
Pei Ji lifted his eyelids and cast a quick glance at her, the muscles in his back slightly tense.
She had done nothing more than mention him in passing, yet it caused his heart to beat inexplicably.
Li Jing Ye chuckled and caressed her cheek. “Don’t worry about this matter. In the past, the noble sons of Chang’an could all join the Imperial Guards. However, now that Zi Hui is in charge, the screening process has become very strict. No matter which family’s son wants to join, they must go through a month of evaluation and rotation before they can officially join the Imperial Guards. Whether or not your cousin can get in depends on Zi Hui.”
The noble sons often joined the Imperial Guards for a two-year trial period and sought opportunities for advancement. After that, they would often rely on their noble status to be appointed to various official positions. As a result, over the past few decades, the once-respected Imperial Guards, responsible for defending the capital, has seen a decline in its combat effectiveness, and they have become vulnerable to a single blow.
Pei Ji joined the Imperial Guards the previous year, skipping the rank of ordinary soldier due to his experience accompanying his father to the Hedong battlefield in his early years. With more than a year of relentless effort, he managed to transform the once extravagant and negligent atmosphere of the Imperial Guards .
Despite facing the disapproval of many noble families in Chang’an, Pei Ji remained steadfast and unaffected, unafraid of offending anyone. His way of doing things was as swift and effective as when he was killing enemies on the battlefield as a young soldier.
It was this unwavering attitude that caught the attention of Li Jing Ye, who began to trust Pei Ji even more.
The Left and Right Imperial Guards were no longer the starting point for ambitious noble sons seeking to climb the official ladder.
Li Zhi’s lustrous, watery eyes pleaded with Pei Ji, “Please, General Pei, do not hesitate to discipline my brother.”
Pei Ji’s countenance was grave as he cast his eyes downwards and made a slight movement in his throat. Bowing with respect, he replied, “I never show favoritism.”
Three days later, Li Jing Ye issued an edict making Zhong Cheng Ping the Duke of Qinguo, and his wife Mrs. Yang the Duchess of Qinguo. Meanwhile, Zhong Hao was admitted to the Imperial Guards and began training with the newly recruited soldiers.
As such, the family had finally entered the ranks of nobility. However, Zhong Cheng Ping’s official position remained that of a seventh-rank junior official in Jingzhao Prefecture, making him quite an anomaly among the high-ranking nobles.
One afternoon, Li Zhi was returning from Zichen Hall to Chenghuan Palace when she saw Pei Ji and several court officials dressed in purple or scarlet robes passing by and heading towards the Yanying Hall.
Seeing her from a distance, the crowd made way and bowed in salute.
Li Zhi’s heart fluttered, and her eyes glimmered as she stopped and smiled, calling out in a natural tone, “General Pei, please stay for a moment.”
The crowd was surprised, looked at each other in confusion, and wondered why the Noble Consort would stop a court official.
Pei Ji’s heart skipped a beat, and his body tensed up immediately. Under the watchful eyes of the court officials, he walked towards Li Zhi, looking at her with caution and severity. “What brings the Noble Consort to call me out in public?”
Li Zhi observed his guarded demeanor and couldn’t help but smile softly, her eyes shining with charm that stirred Pei Ji’s long-suppressed irritation towards her.
“I simply wished to inquire about my brother. I heard he had recently joined the Imperial Guard.”
Pei Ji’s expression tightened, and he deliberately raised his voice so that those around could hear. “Military discipline is strict, and it requires daily and diligent training. The Noble Consort’s brother is still adapting.”
This meant that Zhong Hao’s performance was subpar.
His words were infused with a hint of unexplained anger.
Li Zhi had already heard the news before.
With a slight smile on her lips, she said, “Thank you, General, for your assistance. I appreciate it.”
Pei Ji’s expression grew darker by the moment.
He felt as if his thoughts had been exposed.
Initially, training in the Imperial Guards was not too challenging, as half of the new recruits came from noble families. However, after a few days, the training gradually became more rigorous and demanding.
Despite Zhong Hao being the cousin of the Noble Consort and favored by the Emperor, Pei Ji made it clear to his deputy general that no special treatment should be given. Zhong Hao was to be trained like any other recruit, and after just a few days, he was already struggling and unlikely to last much longer.
Pei Ji believed that he was acting impartially, but deep down, he knew he was feeling indignant for that woman.
He kept a stern expression and looked away.
Li Zhi leaned in, her head tilted back as she spoke softly, “Perhaps in the future, I could dance a number for you, General, to express my gratitude?”
Pei Ji’s mind was blown with a deafening bang, suddenly recalling the bewitching dance in the pavilion. The ardor that had been kindled within him just a moment ago now flared up uncontrollably, engulfing his entire being.
He gawked at her, dumbfounded, his mind racing as he struggled to reject her offer. But as soon as he opened his mouth to refuse, his tongue seemed to have been tied by her charm.
He was probably already under her spell and unable to break free.
He shuddered all over, feeling hopeless, and had no choice but to turn around and leave in a hurry under the scrutiny of everyone.
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