Chapter 21 Zhongqiu Festival
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Li Zhi had noticed the tension etched onto Pei Ji’s face and the rigidness of his posture. A playful smile slowly danced across her lips as he watched his figure receded into the distance.
She pivoted gracefully on her heel, deliberately avoiding the direction of the Chenghuan Palace.
“Miss, shouldn’t we be heading back?” Chun Yue inquired, tilting her head to the side.
Li Zhi smiled. “Let’s go to the Music House. During the Qianqiu Festival, I have to perform a dance for His Majesty.”
The Qianqiu Festival, the commemoration of Li Jing Ye’s birthday, called for the most extravagant of presents from the imperial concubines and courtiers alike.
Without any notable possessions to her name, Li Zhi had only her talents in song and dance to offer. Fortunately, in the bustling land of Great Wei, music and dance were an integral part of their culture. From the lowliest of peasants to the highest ranking of nobles, everyone was welcome to step up to the stage and perform.
Even during the grand court sessions that took place like clockwork, where the courtiers bowed and paid their respects to the Emperor with such gravity, they were also expected to perform an additional dance, twirling their hands and feet in a joyous display of celebration.
From what she had gathered, numerous concubines had taken to the stage during the grand banquets held within the palace walls. Even the poised and stately Pure Consort Xiao had once graced an Eastern Palace feast with a breathtaking dance for Li Jing Ye when he was still the Crown Prince.
For this very reason, she had made it a point to visit the Music House almost every single day for the past two weeks.
Although she didn’t yearn to leave the crowd awestruck like some sort of mystical dream, the Emperor’s birthday was not something to be taken lightly.
Furthermore, Pei Ji was expected to attend the festivities that day as well.
After a few days, Zhongqiu Festival arrived.
The night before, Li Jing Ye had stayed at the Chenghuan Palace with the intention of getting closer to Li Zhi, but he was persuaded by He Yuan Shi to go to bed early.
The next day, he was awakened before dawn and dressed in full ceremonial attire. He was to receive the congratulations of officials, accept gifts and greetings from envoys from various countries stationed in Chang’an, reward everyone, and make an announcement to the people of the world. He was going to be busy until evening before heading to the Linde Hall to entertain everyone.
It was his birthday, but he had to be occupied throughout the day.
Before leaving, he tenderly kissed Li Zhi’s sleepy eyes and warmly said, “Li-niang has not yet danced for me. I’ll be waiting for you tonight.”
Li Zhi forced a smile and pushed him out with her hand, still feeling drowsy.
Li Zhi slept for another half hour after Li Jing Ye left. When she woke up, the sun had already risen high in the sky. She dressed and groomed herself before starting her day. Chun Yue was busy in the room, putting dried coral peony petals in the incense burner and steaming Li Zhi’s dance dress. The fragrant smell filled the air, making Li Zhi feel a bit drowsy.
She had been practicing her dance diligently lately, and it was starting to take a toll on her energy. Just as she was about to lie down on the soft bed, several palace maids entered with a collection of items. One of them stood at the door, bowed, and said, “Your Highness, the Pure Consort ordered us to bring you some new perfumes, hairpins, and other items. She also reminded you to take good care of yourself during the day and not to overwork.”
Li Zhi rose to her feet and graciously thanked the palace maids for their kind gesture. She instructed them to place the gifts aside and relay her message to Pure Consort Xiao, reminding her not to overwork herself. After all, there was no need to personally attend to every single detail.
As soon as the maids were gone, Chun Yue hastily pushed the powders, hairpins, and ornaments to the side. “Miss, please do not use these. Who knows what treacherous schemes have been concocted? They could very well be laced with poison and ruin your unparalleled beauty!”
Li Zhi couldn’t help but chuckle when she saw Chun Yue’s guarded expression. She covered her lips and pinched her maid’s rosy cheeks affectionately. “What have you been up to, Chun Yue? Gathering all the secrets of the Music House from the other girls?”
During her rehearsals with the musicians, Li Zhi often caught glimpses of Chun Yue sitting with a group of girls, all around the same age. They would chat and giggle endlessly, forming a close bond through their shared interests and experiences.
Chun Yue’s eyes sparkled with excitement as she spoke of the palace’s hidden intrigues. “The elder sisters in the Music House told me stories about the previous dynasty’s concubines. It turns out that the harem was a hotbed of treachery and backstabbing, where every woman fought tooth and nail for her place in the sun!”
Li Zhi laughed and cast a glance at the hairpins and powders on the tray. “Those are but mere tales for amusement. Who would be foolish enough to add poison to the powders directly?”
Furthermore, she knew that Pure Consort Xiao sincerely revered Li Jing Ye and was a person who held reputation and status in high regard. Even if she held some grievances against Li Zhi as a Noble Consort, she would at most seek to assert her superiority in terms of status and background, but would not resort to actual harm.
Nonetheless, Chun Yue’s words had served as a timely reminder for Li Zhi to be more vigilant, even though she had no desire to involve herself in the palace’s political intrigues.
As dusk settled, Li Zhi and the others finally made their way towards Linde Hall.
The Linde Hall was a grand and resplendent structure, towering and majestic when viewed from beneath the dragon’s head. As they climbed up to the top, they found the halls and pavilions to be exquisitely crafted, and with a mere turn of their gaze, the shimmering Taiye Pool came into view.
This evening, a thousand lanterns were lit on the pool, reflecting the splendor of the Linde Hall, creating a magnificent display.
This year marked the sixth anniversary of Emperor Li Jing Ye’s ascension to the throne, and it was an occasion for great celebration. In attendance were not only the Empress Dowager, imperial concubines, princesses, and relatives, but also many ministers, generals, and even envoys from neighboring countries who had yet to depart the capital.
The total number of guests surpassed a thousand, with the only available space being the high platform of the pavilion, the hall, and the corridors in front.
As Li Zhi arrived, she found all the harem ladies already present, leaving only the seats in the front row for herself and Consorts Xiao and Xu.
As everyone saw her, they rose to their feet and paid their respects.
Soon enough, the eunuch outside the hall announced the arrival of His Majesty and the Empress Dowager.
Li Jing Ye strode into the open space outside the hall, flanked by the long-absent Empress Dowager, the Grand Princess, and Li Ling Yue. On the other side walked Li Jing Hui and Pei Ji.
Li Zhi’s gaze briefly flickered, scanning over the two men before naturally retracting as she joined in the gesture of bowing and paying respects, just like everyone else.
Li Jing Ye ordered his servants to help Pure Consort Xiao to stand up first, and then he walked with the Empress Dowager towards the high seats. Other people also went to their seats.
Concubines and female relatives sat on the Emperor’s right side, while other relatives and officials sat on the left.
Li Zhi raised her eyes and caught sight of Pei Ji sitting diagonally in front of her, only a few feet away.
His expression remained the same – calm, solemn, and unwavering. His eyes were fixed on the empty space in front of the table, while his hands were tightly clasped and placed on his knees. Even though he was surrounded by people, he seemed somewhat desolate.
Li Zhi only glanced at him briefly and was about to look away, but suddenly felt a scorching gaze from Pei Ji’s direction directed towards her.
She turned her eyes slightly and met Li Jing Hui’s frank and direct gaze, which he did not attempt to hide.
It had been a long time since they last met, and the handsome face of the young man had somehow lost its luster. Despite his luxurious attire of brocade and silk, with a jade crown and silk ribbon, it could not conceal the sense of decadence within.
But those once spirited eyes were fixedly gazing at her, as if reignited once more.
Li Zhi was taken aback for a moment, but soon recalled the warning that Pei Ji had given her earlier, and her heart twisted.
The relationships between the Emperor, Prince Rui, and Li Zhi were known to be intricate and complicated. As soon as the three appeared, many eyes kept glancing towards them.
Many people had also noticed the inadvertent exchange of glances between Li Zhi and Li Jing Hui just now, and couldn’t help but be curious about whether they still harbored feelings for each other.
Li Jing Ye naturally saw it too.
His calm gaze swept around, suppressing several prying eyes, then he reached out his hand towards Li Zhi and said, “Li-niang, come sit beside me.”
Li Zhi felt Li Jing Hui’s gaze turn cold almost instantly. Even the Empress Dowager, who was standing not far from Li Jing Ye, gave her a chilly look.
She lowered her eyes and stood up obediently, taking slow steps towards Li Jing Ye. He pulled her to sit beside him.
The music and dance below had already started, and many people’s eyes were gradually drawn to the spectacle.
Li Jing Ye paid no attention to them, only holding Li Zhi close and turning to ask her, “Li-niang, have you prepared your congratulatory gift?”
Li Zhi smiled at him and replied in a soft voice, “Of course, everything is ready. Later, I must ask Your Majesty to be patient and watch.”
Li Jing Ye playfully reached out and rubbed her cheek, showing his fondness towards her.
Li Zhi caught a glimpse of Pei Ji silently drinking a cup of wine.
Among the other women, Lady Wang spoke with a sour tone, “His Majesty treats the Noble Consort with such favor that not even the Empress Dowager can interfere.”
Worthy Consort Xu spoke with a cold and clear voice, glancing at Lady Wang and saying, “Do not speak recklessly about His Majesty’s affairs.”
Lady Wang was left with no room for argument and could only fall silent, shifting her gaze to Pure Consort Xiao with hope that she might intercede on her behalf.
But Pure Consort Xiao paid her no mind, instead habitually placing a hand on her belly and casting a sidelong glance at the Princess of Wuyang, Li Ling Yue, who had been sitting in a trance-like state since taking her seat.
On any other day, Li Ling Yue would have changed her expression at the current situation, but today she seemed preoccupied, gazing blankly at the wine jug on the table, lost in thought.
Pure Consort Xiao furrowed her brows and tentatively called out, “Princess, are you feeling unwell?”
Li Ling Yue snapped out of her reverie, mustered a weak smile, shook her head and replied, “No, I’m fine,” before turning her attention to the music and dance below, seemingly engrossed, while her hand, concealed within her voluminous sleeve, clutched tightly.
Despite having everything in place, Li Ling Yue remained anxious about what was to come, fearing even the slightest misstep and experiencing a growing sense of trepidation.
She squeezed her fingers tightly, feeling her delicate nails piercing into the flesh of her palms, but the slight pain that followed seemed to calm her down gradually.
If she didn’t do this, she was afraid that she would never catch up to her cousin’s footsteps in this lifetime.
It was a last resort, but she had to do it.
She kept reminding herself of this, finally strengthening her resolve to carry out her plan.
As time passed, the performers on stage changed several times, and the atmosphere around her became more lively and animated.
Li Ling Yue turned her head and finally saw Li Zhi standing next to Li Jing Ye rise up, giving a slight bow to the crowd before heading to the side hall to change clothes.
Everyone’s attention was drawn to her, eagerly anticipating the dance of the Noble Consort.
Taking advantage of the moment when no one was paying attention, Li Ling Yue quietly grasped the wine pot, pouring all the medicine she had hidden in her sleeve into it. She then picked up the wine cup, stood up, and made her way towards Pei Ji’s side.
Li Ling Yue knelt before her cousin’s desk and spoke in a soft voice, “Cousin, I have caused you a lot of trouble with my mistakes. I just want to apologize to you…”
Pei Ji was in a daze.
As the usually talkative Prince Rui was lost in his own thoughts, he finally got a break from his usual chatter.
No one knew that the palace was filled with melancholy because of that woman, not only Prince Rui, but also him, the General of the Imperial Guards, who had nothing to do with the matter.
After he ran away from her that day, he couldn’t concentrate for several days. He felt a constant heaviness in his chest and dreamt of surreal moments with her in the pavilion, both real and imagined, occupying his thoughts.
It took him several days to realize that the strange emotions hidden in his heart could no longer be controlled, and he had to admit——
He had fallen for that woman, without realizing when he lost his heart to her.
Just like his two cousins, he couldn’t resist the allure that radiated from every inch of her body.
Unlike the Emperor and Prince Rui, who never suppressed their desires and affections, he fought relentlessly to break free from the spell she had cast on him but to no avail.
This realization left him with a barren and hopeless heart, and he struggled to keep it hidden.
He had to conceal his inner turmoil, so he resorted to drinking silently, hoping that no one would notice his peculiar behavior.
As Li Ling Yue approached, he pulled himself together, looked at her, and said, “I don’t hold any resentment towards you, Princess. You don’t need to apologize.”
Li Ling Yue gazed at him intently and shook her head, “No, cousin. I was foolish before. Because we grew up together since childhood, and you treated me better than anyone else, I thought you could always hold my hand and take me to different places… These past two days, I have pondered on my mistakes, and I realize now that I was wrong. I sincerely apologize to you, cousin…”
With that, she raised the wine jug in her hand and poured the slightly murky liquid into his cup, then picked up her own cup and said, “If cousin is willing to forgive me, please drink this cup of wine so that I can be at ease.”
Upon hearing her words, Pei Ji also recalled his childhood.
When he was born, his parents had to go to Hedong to take up a post, and his mother entrusted him to the Late Emperor for temporary care. He was as close as brothers with His Majesty and Prince Rui, and naturally treated the princess as a sister.
Now, seeing her say this, he also felt a little moved.
His face was unusually gentle, and he said, “I am very pleased that the Princess thinks this way. There are many good young men in the world, and I am not worthy of the princess.”
With that, he raised his cup and drank it all.
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