Chapter 22 Night Banquet
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Pei Ji’s expression was usually one of unwavering fortitude, but as Li Ling Yue gazed upon him now, she saw a rare softness in his countenance. Her eyes sparkled and a misty haze enveloped her.
She cast a fleeting glance at the drained wine cup, her voice barely above a whisper as she said, “Thank you, cousin.” With that, she rose to her feet, head bowed low, and hastened away from the merriment, making her way to a secluded chamber in the Linde Hall that had been reserved for her.
The palace maid at her side discreetly murmured to the Empress Dowager and Emperor, apprising them of the Princess’s indisposition and need for respite.
Both the Empress Dowager and the Emperor were feeling somewhat unhappy, having just seen Li Ling Yue go towards Pei Ji’s direction earlier. Assuming that she had been rejected by Pei Ji again and feeling displeased, they didn’t pay much attention and only instructed the palace maid to take good care of her.
At this moment, a sudden cry of surprise came from the crowd.
It turned out that Li Zhi who had gone to change clothes earlier had now slowly stepped onto the stage with the group of musicians.
Compared to before, she had made a slight change to her appearance.
Her raven hair was twisted into a cloud-shaped bun, and a hairpin of gold featuring a bird carrying a pearl was placed askew within it. As she moved, the hairpin swayed delicately and elegantly, adding to her charm. A coral peony flower with a hint of gold dust was affixed between her eyebrows, sparkling brilliantly under the lights, setting off her exquisite features and bewitching eyes. Her flawless, fair skin and stunningly beautiful face were complemented by a long and slender neck. She had not applied any makeup other than her lip rouge, yet her skin was as clear and pure as snow. She wore a flowing skirt of fiery red pomegranate blossoms, which accentuated her alluring and captivating appearance, making her shine brighter than anything else in the room.
The grand hall was filled with a thousand guests, all of whom were mesmerized by her presence. Initially, there was a collective hush, but it was soon replaced by a chorus of admiration and praise. Many ladies were excitedly discussing the Noble Consort’s attire, never expecting that the trend of women’s makeup in Chang’an would change drastically in the coming half month.
At the highest platform, the Emperor and his entourage had each turned their attention to the stage, their thoughts veering off in different directions, and none of them noticed Li Ling Yue’s departure.
A moment later, Li Zhi gracefully inclined towards the audience, signaling the musicians to begin playing.
The melody of “Spring Orioles Chirping” immediately filled the air.
Like the gentle trill of a springtime bird, the music started out ethereal and delicate, then gradually grew lively and exuberant, and with it, Li Zhi’s dance transformed from supple and lithe to buoyant and impassioned.
Her slender waist swayed like a willow bough, her full skirt billowing out in wide arcs, and every now and then, she would bend and flex, revealing a startling gracefulness that elicited gasps and cheers from the enthralled audience.
Although it was a common soft dance, her performance was uniquely captivating, perhaps because her beauty surpassed that of the other dancers. Before long, many of the revelers in the audience were swept up in the infectious rhythm of the music, and joined in the dance.
The atmosphere of the night banquet was pushed to a climax.
Pei Ji was lost in thought as he gazed at the beautiful figure on stage.
Since her performance began, the tension in his heart had melted away, replaced by an overwhelming sense of restlessness that he couldn’t suppress.
That vivid red figure gradually merged with the silhouette from the pavilion by Taiye Pool on that day.
His mind was in disarray, and he suddenly remembered her promise outside Zichen Hall to dance for him again.
But today’s dance was a tribute to the Emperor’s birthday.
His eyes darkened as he struggled to contain the gloomy restlessness that resurfaced within him.
Yet, for reasons he couldn’t fathom, the entangled and complicated emotions showed no signs of dissipating. On the contrary, they swelled and continued to consume the most intimate corners of his heart.
He silently scowled, his hands on the desk tightly balled into fists.
The musicians on stage played the final notes, and Li Zhi’s dance drew to a close. At the last moment, she released the tension in her body, and her delicate feet lighted upon the floor. With her arms gracefully stretched out, the ribbons and wide sleeves fluttered like butterflies. She lowered her body to the ground, as if a weary bird returning to its nest.
For a while, the room held its breath, captivated by the beauty before them. When they came back to themselves, they applauded and cheered, their hands ringing out in thunderous applause.
Li Zhi rose slowly, and with a slight bow to Li Jing Ye, she spoke softly, “This concubine has made a fool of herself in front of Your Majesty.”
Li Jing Ye, still lost in the wonder of the moment, revealed a genuine and joyful smile. The ease and gentleness that had marked his face all day were replaced by a newfound radiance.
Li Jing Ye had seen countless skilled and beautiful dancers perform “Spring Orioles Chirping”. But this was different. This was exceptional. He had never expected that this dance would be more stunning and unforgettable than any other he had ever seen when performed by Li Zhi.
He personally stepped down from the seat and walked to Li Zhi’s side on the stage. Under the gaze of everyone, he bent over to hold her elbows and lifted her up, saying loudly, “The dance of my Noble Consort outshines all other things. It is my great fortune to witness it today.”
The Emperor’s praise prompted everyone to chime in with their approval.
Li Zhi’s lips curled into a smile. “I am ashamed to receive Your Majesty’s kindness.”
Li Jing Ye held her hand and brought her back to his side, signaling for the performance to continue. Despite the Empress Dowager’s disapproving glare and the envious stares of the concubines, he turned to her and gently squeezed her hand, whispering, “Li-niang’s sincerity has not gone unnoticed. Among the thousands of congratulations received today, none compare to yours.”
“As long as it pleases Your Majesty.” She smiled, wiped the beads of sweat from her forehead with a handkerchief, rose to her feet, and said, “I must excuse myself to the side hall for a bath and a change of clothes. Please forgive me, Your Majesty.”
Li Jing Ye’s grasp on her hand slowly slackened, his eyes filled with affection as he nodded his agreement. He watched her retreating figure until it vanished from sight, then withdrew his gaze with reluctance.
The Empress Dowager had been watching coldly all along. At this moment, seeing him like this, she couldn’t help feeling a sense of helplessness.
Weariness etched across her features, she gestured towards Li Jing Ye with a wave of her hand. “I’m getting old and can’t hold up anymore. I need to go back to the Chang’an Hall and rest.”
Li Jing Ye recognized his mother’s discontent and allowed his smile to dim.
Rising to his feet, Li Jing Ye bowed respectfully to the Empress Dowager and declared, “My birthday falls on the day of my mother’s suffering. While I have been celebrating with everyone else, I have also caused my mother to be fatigued. I am at fault.”
Having personally raised the child, which was her own flesh and blood, to such a size, the Empress Dowager was struck with a sense of melancholy and reluctance. Ultimately, she sighed softly and relented, “It’s all right, Emperor. You need not worry about me. Have fun with the officials.”
As she spoke, the Empress Dowager exchanged a brief exchange with the Grand Princess and then, without bothering to wait for He Yuan Shi’s escort, allowed the palace attendants to help her make her way back to Chang’an Hall.
With the Empress Dowager’s departure, the normally restrained and poised concubines let down their guard and began to chat with the Emperor, taking advantage of the momentary relaxation in atmosphere.
The hall was now filled with laughter, the happy sound spreading contagiously and encompassing all who heard it.
However, Pei Ji remained silent, his eyes lowered, feeling an inexplicable restlessness stirring inside him like a smoldering fire that refused to ignite, scattering his thoughts.
Sensing the hour growing late, he made plans to rise from his seat and set out to survey various parts of the palace.
Ever since his appointment as General, it had become a routine for him to leave in the middle of grand palace feasts and embark on his customary patrol of the palace grounds, to ensure that no untoward incidents occurred.
However, just as he was about to get up and begin his patrol, he glanced at his surroundings and realized with surprise that Prince Rui, who had been seated next to him in silence and drinking all this while, had vanished without a trace.
With a slight hesitation, he swiftly swept his gaze over the remaining half-cup of wine on the table, his brows furrowed in distaste.
Although the agitation brewing within him was gnawing at his patience, he did not dwell on it. After a courteous nod to the Emperor and his mother, he spun around and made his way out.
Upon exiting the main hall and the throngs of people, the dryness in his throat still lingered, even intensifying with each passing second. He quickened his steps.
Neglecting his routine tour of the Linde Hall’s side chambers, he marched past the palace servants and musicians by the main hall, descending the gentle slope without a moment’s pause.
Outside the hall, the crisp autumn breeze brushed past, clearing his mind momentarily.
The woman’s enchanting dance on the stage flickered across his mind once more, causing him to shake his head in a daze before recollecting Prince Rui’s empty seat.
The conversation at Yunlai Pavilion slowly reverberated in his ears.
His body jolted abruptly, and he came to a sudden halt.
The woman had departed to change, and Prince Rui had vanished…and it appeared that he wasn’t the only one who noticed. Upon his earlier departure, he had caught a glimpse of the Emperor’s gaze also locked on the vacant seat!
Cursing inwardly, the clamorous and restless thoughts that had cluttered his mind instantly dissipated. He pivoted on his heel and headed back towards Linde Hall.
In a secluded chamber on the west wing of the Linde Hall, Li Zhi emerged from her bath, her raven tresses still coiled atop her head. She draped a pale silk skirt from the nearby screen, re-adorning herself.
As a Consort of the highest rank, she could not share the same space for dressing and bathing with the thousands of performers present today. Thus, the palace had procured this adjacent chamber a little farther from the main hall for her privacy.
At this moment, there were continuous laughter, noise, and music in the main hall, but it was quiet here, which was particularly comfortable.
The dance earlier had left her limbs sore and her body weak. She decided to take a brief rest here instead of returning to the festivities.
However, just as she reclined on the bed, Chun Yue rushed in, whispering, “Miss, Prince Rui has indeed arrived!”
She immediately opened her eyes, her gaze sharpening.
She had felt uneasy during her time in the main hall. Therefore, when she was bathing and changing earlier, she remained vigilant and instructed Chun Yue to keep watch over the distant corridor from the open window in the outer chamber. As expected, Prince Rui had made his appearance.
She rose from the bed without hesitation, wrapping herself in a silk cloak before taking Chun Yue’s hand and swiftly slipping out of the room. They disappeared into the shadows of a secluded corner in the corridor, staying as silent as ghosts.
Li Jing Hui was the Prince Rui, a royal descendant. Despite any grave mistakes he might commit, he was protected by the Empress Dowager. Li Zhi, on the other hand, couldn’t afford to let her guard down.
If she dared to offend the Emperor during the Qianqiu Festival, she would be punished severely, likely even to the point of having her skin peeled off.
Soon, Li Jing Hui’s footsteps grew closer and he hesitated briefly before rapping his knuckles lightly against the door panel. “Li-niang, are you in there?”
Naturally, there was no answer from within.
From her hiding spot, Li Zhi could just make out Li Jing Hui’s anxious and urgent expression. His eyes flicked back and forth, as if he had something urgent to say.
Without a second thought, he sucked in a deep breath and pushed the door open. The sight that met his eyes, however, left him stunned.
The room was illuminated by softly burning lamps and candles, which lent a bright glow to both the inner and outer chambers. Incense smoke rose gently from the burner, imbuing the air with a delicate fragrance and the faint mist of recent bathwater.
Not a soul was in sight.
He stood by the door, his mind consumed with worries that left him unable to find release. Lost in thought, he was oblivious to the world around him.
Around the corner, Li Zhi held her breath and gazed intently, contemplating her next move. But before she could retreat, a figure approached quickly along the corridor not far away.
The man was clad in a bright yellow court dress and moved with purpose, trailed by two eunuchs who struggled to keep pace. As he drew nearer, she could see the gloom and anger etched on his face. It was Li Jing Ye.
From several yards away, he halted abruptly, staring at his younger brother who stood transfixed by the open door. After holding his tongue for what seemed like an eternity, he finally spoke in a cold, measured tone, “Sixth Prince.”
Standing by the door, Li Jing Hui’s entire body stiffened as he slowly turned around.
The two eunuchs quietly backed away, giving the two brothers some privacy.
After a moment of silence, Li Jing Hui addressed his brother, “Your Majesty.”
Li Jing Ye approached step by step, his eyes scanning the empty room before settling on his brother, “What brings you here?”
Ever since the wedding ceremony several months ago, the two brothers had hardly spent any time together. Now, as they faced each other, there was no longer the same closeness they used to have.
Li Jing Hui gritted his teeth and spoke his mind, “I came to see Li-niang.”
“How dare you!” Li Jing Ye’s voice was cold and commanding as he glared at his younger brother, “Do you think Li-niang’s name is something you can just casually call out?”
Li Jing Hui sneered coldly, “Why can’t I? Your Majesty, have you forgotten that she is my Princess Consort, the one I married? I have not divorced her, nor have I written a letter of separation. Therefore, she is still my wife.”
“She is not your Princess Consort,” Li Jing Ye’s expression turned dark, and his tone lacked the warmth of an older brother. “You can go to the genealogy record in the Zongzheng Temple and see for yourself whether she is your Princess Consort or my Noble Consort.”
“You!” Li Jing Hui’s fury erupted, his youthful and impetuous temper taking over. He began to speak recklessly, “You are just relying on being the Emperor. If not for that, do you think Li-niang would have willingly entered the palace? You forcibly separated us. The officials and common people of the entire country have witnessed it. If you were not the Emperor, you would have been spat on and despised, unable to hold your head up! In this world, which older brother snatches their younger brother’s woman?”
He spoke with great emotion, each word cutting to the heart, yet instead of igniting the anger that had been boiling up in Li Jing Ye, it gradually extinguished it.
Li Jing Ye regarded his brother expressionlessly, his eyes as icy and unfeeling as if he were staring down at an ant.
“Yes, I am the Emperor, and I am relying on my imperial status. But what about you? What do you rely on? Your mother’s favoritism? Unfortunately, I am the ruler of all the land, and everything within it belongs to me. I not only have the power to take your woman, I can also strip you of your title and even your life. That is the extent of my power.”
With a light sigh, Li Jing Ye’s expression softened, and in just an instant, he had become a caring older brother once again.
“Sixth Brother, you are now a grown man, so why are you still so naive? Perhaps Mother’s indulgences in the past have spoiled you. Next spring, I will select talented scholars for Ling Yue in the new imperial examinations, and at that time, I will also select a princess who is worthy of you. Although Great Wei is now in a period of peace and prosperity, as a member of the royal family, you should not be consumed by your own desires but instead focus on more pressing matters.”
Li Jing Hui looked at him in astonishment, as if seeing his elder brother, whom he had respected since childhood, for the first time.
As a prince, he had been raised in luxury and indulged by his parents, but he knew all too well that throughout history, it was not uncommon for fathers and sons to become enemies and brothers to fight against each other within the royal family.
He had always accepted that his elder brother was the Crown Prince and would one day ascend the throne, while he himself could live a carefree life as a member of the royal family.
Despite his outwardly flamboyant and wild behavior, he had a clear sense of what was his and what wasn’t. He believed that he and his elder brother had an unspoken understanding, that as long as he did not covet the throne, his elder brother would treat him fairly.
He was not naive or inexperienced, he was simply expressing his opinion on the matter.
As brothers from the same mother and members of the royal family, they should show mutual respect and honor the bonds of kinship.
However, it was not until this moment that he realized that his elder brother may not share his sentiments.
In the eyes of his elder brother, he, the younger one, was nothing but a mere blade of grass.
“I was foolish,” he said, his tone suddenly calm. He lowered his head in silent contemplation, and his already thin figure took on an air of melancholy. “Your Majesty has the weight of the world upon your shoulders. This marriage is of no concern to you. On the day of Your Majesty’s birth, may you live as long as the Southern Mountains, steadfast and unyielding, and may your reign be as prosperous as the evergreen pines and cypress trees.”
With those words, he turned and left quickly.
Li Jing Ye stood motionless in the empty room for a moment before turning and leaving with his hands behind his back.
The long corridor once again became deserted, leaving only the grand music and laughter from the crowds beyond the high walls to fill the silence.
Li Zhi lurked in the shadows, her face growing colder by the moment. Only when Chun Yue tugged at her sleeve did she snap out of her trance.
The brothers’ dispute seemed to be about her, but neither of them had bothered to ask for her opinion. It was obvious that they were acting out of their own selfish interests.
The autumn air had a chill to it, and she pulled her cloak tightly around her shoulders. She had no desire to return to the palace and turned to say, “Let’s go back to the Chenghuan Palace—”
Her words were cut short as her eyes met a familiar, angry stare.
She stopped in her tracks when she saw him from several yards away and locked eyes with him. After a moment, she smiled faintly and said, “General, what brings you here?”
It all came flooding back to her. It was during Qianqiu Festival when Li Ling Yue had drugged Pei Ji and forced him to marry her.
Pei Ji stared at her carefree smile, his hand clenched tightly at his side.
He had turned back halfway, walking briskly. However, even before he got close, he spotted He Yuan Shi standing guard in the corridor.
It appeared that the Emperor had arrived. He was on high alert and quickly avoided the area, circling around the back of the side hall to assess the situation.
As he approached, he caught sight of the woman and her maidservant hiding in the shadows, calmly watching the heated argument between the Emperor and the Prince.
His emotions were a jumbled mess— anger, confusion, disdain, and even a hint of relief and disappointment.
Despite it all, she greeted him with a smile that made it seem like she was unaware of everything happening around them.
He inhaled deeply and closed his eyes, before questioning her in a stern voice, “Do you have no heart? How can you remain so indifferent to it all?”
Li Zhi didn’t respond, only turning to her maid Chun Yue and instructing her, “Go inform His Majesty that I am weary and will be resting in the Chenghuan Palace.”
Chun Yue cast a wary glance at Pei Ji before departing, cautioning her to be careful.
Li Zhi approached Pei Ji with a soft smile, stopping just a step away and tilting her head up to meet his gaze. “Don’t you know that my heart belongs to you, General? There’s no need for these pointless questions.”
Her voice was a soft, honeyed melody that flowed over him like warm silk, and the tantalizing brush of her breath against his neck set his skin ablaze with electric tingles.
Though he knew he should step back, his legs refused to comply, rooted to the ground by some inexplicable force.
The woman was still enveloped in a cloud of steam from her bath, and it clung to her like a fragrant shroud, carrying the delicate perfume of coral peonies that mingled with the cool autumn air.
The floral scent invaded his nostrils, tangling around his senses like a barbed wire, stealing his breath and quickening his pulse.
He lowered his eyes to the woman before him, taking in the fluidity of her raven hair, the alluring almond shape of her eyes, and the subtle curve of her nose, but his gaze inevitably found its way to her full, plush lips, the color of a ripe, red berry.
Her lips were devoid of any cosmetic enhancement, yet they appeared even more luscious and ripe in their natural state, full and inviting, like two ripe cherries waiting to be plucked.
It was dark here, with only the moonlight shining down, hazy and quiet.
Pei Ji cursed his hawk-like vision that refused to miss a thing.
The scarce light failed to conceal the minute details of her pliant lips, that he could perceive vividly.
Those lips, he had kissed them once.
Like a hidden match, it lit a fire that consumed his heart, setting off a conflagration that devoured his senses.
The heat spread across his body from his chest to his lower abdomen, relentlessly tormenting his crumbling control.
His muscles tightened, his complexion darkened, and his dark eyes seemed to become more profound.
Li Zhi’s pretty lips curved deeper as she extended her dainty hand and trailed it over his face.
“Why does the General wear such a gloomy expression?”
Her hand was incredibly soft, with slender and fair fingertips that roamed over his cheeks and ears. Each touch elicited a shiver from him.
At this moment, Pei Ji finally understood— he was drugged!
But there was no time to ponder on when he had been poisoned. His reason was teetering on the edge, and his whole body was consumed with an uncontrollable desire.
He closed his eyes and covered her hand with his, keeping it pressed against his face without movement.
“I have been drugged and cannot control myself. Please leave quickly, Your Highness.”
Pei Ji had almost used up all his mental strength to restrain himself, hoping that she would leave soon.
However, Li Zhi seemed not to have understood, tilting her almond eyes and moving closer by a fraction, “What kind of drug was used on General Pei? Is there anything I can do?”
The two of them were only an inch apart, their breaths gradually intertwining.
A hint of annoyance flashed in Pei Ji’s eyes.
His current appearance couldn’t be any more obvious. Li Zhi was not an inexperienced young girl, yet she kept asking knowingly.
The hot-blooded man, intoxicated by the powerful aphrodisiacs, was unable to resist the continuous teasing.
In that moment, his mind snapped like a taut bowstring, and his repressed desire erupted like an unstoppable force. He disregarded everything else and seized her hand, pulling her towards a nearby pillar. He pressed her against it and passionately kissed her soft, fragrant lips.
Despite her anticipation, Li Zhi was taken aback by his sudden movement, causing her to widen her eyes and release a soft gasp.
Nevertheless, she soon surrendered to his ardent kiss and closed her eyes. Her sleeves slipped down, revealing her smooth and delicate skin, and she wrapped her arms around his neck with a gentle embrace.
In a secluded corner on the eastern side of the palace, a young eunuch of sixteen or seventeen years old was trembling and hiding among the foliage, his heart beating wildly.
As the hour of the Pig drew near, he couldn’t help but feel increasingly anxious, constantly scanning his surroundings like a frightened rabbit. It was as if he was waiting for someone, and yet dreading their arrival at the same time.
Before long, another young eunuch of similar age dashed over from the direction of the main hall, his face etched with worry.
The hidden eunuch’s heart leaped with joy, but it quickly sank when he heard his companion’s words. They crouched down together in the bushes, and he listened with growing apprehension as the other eunuch explained how he had lost track of their target.
“How could you lose someone as big as General Pei?” he exclaimed, his voice a mix of disbelief and frustration.
The other eunuch’s expression was one of deep regret. “I don’t know,” he replied, his voice tinged with desperation. “There were so many people in the main hall, and I couldn’t get close to General Pei. I saw him start to leave, and I rushed through the crowd to catch up with him. But then, in the blink of an eye, he was gone.”
“Ah, what should we do? If the Princess finds out, we’re done for!”
“Don’t report to the Princess just yet, let’s wait. I heard from the Imperial Guards that Young General Pei is meticulous and responsible, and during big events like this, he personally inspects every corner of the palace, especially the secluded areas. He should be here soon.”
The hidden eunuch was reminded of something the palace maids and eunuchs had mentioned before. They dared not loiter near Linde Hall during big events like this, lest they be caught.
About half an hour ago, the Imperial Guards had already made a sweep around Linde Hall. The Young General had left his seat and was bound to come inspect this area soon.
The pair struggled to keep their wits about them, hiding among the foliage and waiting anxiously.
Time crept on until their legs went numb, yet there was still no sign of anyone.
One of them couldn’t bear it anymore and decided to go to the hall with a mournful face to apologize to the Princess, but was grabbed by the other, who covered his mouth and quietly pointed to a figure walking quickly not far away.
In the darkness, they could only make out the person’s tall and imposing figure, crowned with a jade headdress and draped in an unknown-colored robe. Their eyes were drawn to the black armor glinting under the moonlight.
The two eunuchs were overjoyed to see the person coming towards them, thinking of following the princess’s orders. They had a drug prepared, and they would knock the person out and take him to the side hall. As the figure approached the hall door, they waited for the perfect moment. However, just as they were about to take action, the person opened the door and walked in.
The door of the room quickly closed, and the two little eunuchs looked at each other in confusion.
“Did General Pei and the Princess… have already agreed on this?”
The other person shook his head in bewilderment.
Sitting alone in the winding and quiet corridor, Li Jing Hui stared up at the full and bright moon in the sky, lost in thought.
From the main hall just a wall away, there came exclamations of surprise from both men and women, likely due to the new entertainers from the troupe who had brought some novel and unprecedented acts.
The noisy and clamorous atmosphere of the hall only served to make Li Jing Hui feel even more lonely.
It wasn’t until he reached twenty years old that he realized his elder brother, who had been Emperor for six years, was no longer the same person who had always taken care of him and been close to him since childhood.
Holding the most powerful authority in the world had indeed made people gradually become unrecognizable and lose touch with human sentiment, hadn’t it?
He thought of the Emperors of previous dynasties, feeling lost in his heart and uncertain of what the future held.
Ever since he was young, his mother had told him that his life was predetermined, and besides the throne, he could have anything he wanted. In the past, whatever he wanted, the former Emperor would give it to him, and going forward, his elder brother would do the same.
As long as he didn’t have ambition, his elder brother would give him a lifetime of wealth, comfort, and freedom, as promised.
But his mother was wrong. Even if it wasn’t the throne, his elder brother could still take away whatever he wanted. Under the rule of power, he was just an insignificant ant like the common people.
Without power, how could he act as he pleased?
But where did power come from?
They were all endowed by that position in Hanyuan Hall. Over the past thousand years, with the dynasties changing and hundreds of Emperors, whoever sat in that position could command the world and truly act as they pleased.
He looked at his empty hands and silently clenched them into fists.
At the end of the corridor, near the main hall, a pair of eyes had been secretly watching him for a long time, and finally approached him quietly.
“Your Highness, Prince Rui.”
The person’s voice broke Li Jing Hui’s reverie and brought him back to reality.
Li Jing Hui raised his head and looked at the approaching figure, his brows furrowing slightly as he pondered the man’s identity. After a moment, he spoke, “Master An, what brings you here?”
The man who had stepped closer towered over Li Jing Hui, his robust physique and thick hair exuding a commanding presence. He had a prominent nose and deep-set eyes, the irises tinted with a hint of brown that hinted at a depth of character and strength. This was none other than An Yi Kang, the Military Governor of Lulong who hailed from the far-flung Western Regions.
An Yi Kang’s smile broadened as Li Jing Hui accurately recognized him and returned the greeting with a respectful nod. “Your Highness has a remarkable memory. I, a mere border general, also hold your name in high regard.”
Li Jing Hui stood up, a forced smile on his lips. “Master An, you are a meritorious official of our Great Wei. It is only right that I remember your name and deeds.”
An Yi Kang was born into the lowest rung of society, a mere horse slave on the windswept grasslands of the border. But when he was just eighteen, he made a daring escape from his tribe and enlisted in the army. There, his courage and combat skills quickly caught the eye of Zhang Gui, the formidable Military Governor of Youzhou. Recognizing An Yi Kang’s potential, Zhang Gui promoted him to the rank of deputy general.
Years passed, and Zhang Gui eventually passed away. The imperial court saw fit to rename Youzhou to Lulong, and An Yi Kang was soon thrust into the midst of a bitter conflict with the Turks. Time and again, An Yi Kang proved himself on the battlefield, driving the enemy back from the border and earning the coveted post of Lulong’s Military Governor.
“I cannot accept such praise, Your Highness,” An Yi Kang demurred with a deep, humble smile. “On the contrary, I must express my profound gratitude to you. That day at Yunlai Pavilion, I would have fallen prey to someone else’s treacherous scheme if it weren’t for your timely intervention. Without your help, I fear that I would have lost everything I had worked so hard for.”
Li Jing Hui was momentarily stunned, then he recalled the day when he, Pei Ji, and Ling Yue were at Yunlai Pavilion and had accidentally discovered the two women conspiring to drug An Yi Kang.
However, it wasn’t him who had been sent to warn An Yi Kang that day, but rather Pei Ji.
He shook his head slowly and said, “Master An, there’s no need to thank me. General Pei’s men were the ones who apprehended the culprits that day, and I merely played a small part.” He furrowed his brow in contemplation and added, “But I’m curious, why would someone want to frame you?”
An Yi Kang’s face darkened as he let out a deep sigh. “To be frank with you, Your Highness, I later sent someone to investigate the incident. It turns out that the woman who tried to drug me wasn’t a courtesan from Pingkang District, but a respectable lady. I believe that it was due to my disagreement with one of the chief advisors over military affairs that I was put in this predicament.”
While officials in the Great Wei Dynasty commonly kept concubines, forcing oneself upon innocent women was a heinous crime. If those two women had succeeded in drugging him, he would have been ruined beyond repair.
And the “one of the chief advisors” he referred to were none other than the head of the officials, Xiao Ling Fu.
Among the chief advisors, Pei Yan and Du Heng, although not entirely in favor of granting military and political power to the border areas too early, didn’t actively oppose it either. It was only Xiao Ling Fu, who, after deducing the Emperor’s thoughts, repeatedly confronted him on this matter.
Moreover, as individuals, both Ministers Pei and Du had broad minds, and they wouldn’t resort to despicable means because of differing political views. But Xiao Ling Fu might be a different story.
Li Jing Hui pondered for a moment before chuckling, “It’s most likely his doing. If Master An feels aggrieved, why not report it to the Emperor and ask him to investigate thoroughly?”
An Yi Kang shook his head and responded, “He is the Prime Minister, and I am just a military governor of the border area. Naturally, the Emperor won’t believe me. I have self-awareness and will not do such a futile thing. I can only wait to make achievements in the future, become someone great, and then dare to have the intention of revenge.”
Li Jing Hui raised his eyebrows, not understanding why Master An was saying that to him. He merely responded, “Master An has great ambitions.”
An Yi Kang smiled faintly, his gaze deep and enigmatic. “Your Highness may be mocking me secretly in your heart,” he said. “I do not indulge in poetry or the intricacies of court etiquette. As a man, my ambition lies on the battlefield, where real power and glory are forged through the clashing of swords and spears. Emperor Taizong, in his time as a prince, had already led a few fearless generals to conquer the land, winning great victories and laying the foundation for his own legendary reign. I ask myself whether I have the same courage to face the world, but my only shortcoming is the lack of a wise and capable ruler to serve under.”
Li Jing Hui’s voice dropped to a low growl. “How dare you!” he chided. “Your wise and capable ruler is none other than the Emperor himself. How could you possibly lack one?”
He understood what An Yi Kang was implying.
When Emperor Taizong was still a prince, there was already a Crown Prince in the court who was firmly seated in the Eastern Palace and was highly regarded by the court officials. However, Emperor Taizong relied on his outstanding military achievements and gradually overshadowed the Crown Prince, eventually leading to conflict between the brothers and the Crown Prince being assassinated by Emperor Taizong’s own followers. This was how Emperor Taizong achieved his later dominance.
Even though he was scolded, An Yi Kang did not show any signs of fear. He just bowed and said, “The moon is particularly beautiful tonight, and I, who am accustomed to the winds and sands of the border, rarely have the opportunity to enjoy the fine wine of the palace. I spoke out of turn after drinking. Please forgive me, Your Highness.”
With a final bow, An Yi Kang turned and left without another word. Li Jing Hui remained under the long corridor, watching him disappear into the shadows, lost in thought.
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