Chapter 23 Side Hall
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Since joining the Imperial Guards, Zhong Hao’s life had become a miserable existence.
Although his family background wasn’t prominent, Zhong Hao was the cherished and doted-upon only son of his parents from the time he was a boy. Even his little sister Miao Yun couldn’t compare to him.
With the rise of his cousin from being Princess Consort Rui to His Majesty’s Noble Consort, Zhong Hao’s father and mother were also granted the titles of Duke and Duchess of Qinguo. He himself was transformed from a mere seventh-ranked official’s son into a distinguished young lord of the Duke of Qinguo’s household!
Once upon a time, those haughty and well-connected acquaintances from privileged backgrounds would order Zhong Hao about, but now they found themselves kowtowing and flattering him at every turn, which provided him with a delicious sense of satisfaction.
Despite having joined the Imperial Guards, Zhong Hao couldn’t shake off his reluctance to embrace this new path.
Day after day, he honed his skills with sword and spear, with not even a moment to spare. Without the luxury of servants to wait on him, he was denied the simple pleasures of life such as going to Pingkang District to drink and enjoy the company of courtesans, which left him feeling hollow and discontent.
But this was a decree from the Emperor himself, and his parents assured him that the Imperial Guards was composed of privileged sons who were only putting on a show. It wouldn’t be too strenuous, and after a year or so, he could pursue an official career.
With no other choice, he packed his belongings and headed to the army camp outside the city.
He had thought that with his cousin being appointed as a Noble Consort, it was the perfect time to flaunt his status. Surely, everyone would give face to this newly appointed little lord. However, when he entered the military camp, he was met with the impartial and strict professionalism of the generals, who treated even the nephew of the Minister of War with the same rigidness.
After barely surviving the initial ten days of training, he was finally assigned to various posts. On his first day, he was sent to the Daming Palace, where he found himself attending a Zhongqiu Festival banquet.
Finally! A rest from practicing day and night. But then he realized he had to stand guard at night and couldn’t sleep for a whole night.
He had been sleep deprived for over ten days, and tonight, he just couldn’t take it anymore. While patrolling with the other guards, he noticed a secluded and unoccupied side hall. After completing one round of patrol, he quietly sneaked over under the pretext of relieving himself.
Making sure no one was around, he pushed open the door and entered the pitch-black room, hoping to find a place to rest in secret.
Suddenly, he heard a woman’s voice softly calling, “Cousin, you’re here. I’ve been waiting for so long.” He froze, recalling the stories of female demons and ghosts from the legendary picture books he had read as a child.
Chills ran down his spine as he stood still, afraid to look back. In the darkness, he heard footsteps approaching him from behind.
Suddenly, a warm body attached against his back, and two slender arms wrapped around his waist.
As he felt the temperature, Zhong Hao’s initial terror began to dissipate. He tentatively reached down to touch the arms wrapped around his waist and abdomen— soft, smooth, and utterly bare!
Having spent many a night in the taverns and brothels of Pingkang District, Zhong Hao knew exactly what this woman wanted from him.
The woman was likely a palace maid, who had seized the opportunity to meet her lover in secret while the palace was in chaos. Unfortunately for her, her lover had failed to show up, and she had bumped into Zhong Hao.
What man in his right mind would turn down a willing woman?
In the darkness, Zhong Hao’s heart pounded in his chest. He cautiously turned around, his hands slowly creeping up her arms until he had her wrapped tightly in his embrace.
The western end of the side hall was a mirror of the eastern end, where Pei Ji held Li Zhi tightly against a pillar.
As they pulled away, one end of the cloak wrapped around her body had fallen off amidst the grass and trees from their movements. She barely held on to the other end in her hand, revealing a glimpse of her rounded shoulder.
Pei Ji leaned in to kiss the woman in his arms, following his instincts. He couldn’t bear even a moment of separation.
Whether it was the effect of drugs or not, he felt like he was drowning and could only be saved by holding onto her.
Li Zhi’s body weakened, and she couldn’t help but start to tremble.
With a layer of mist in her eyes, she lightly gasped and placed her hand on his that was holding her shoulder, pulling him closer and whispering, “General, take it slow. Let’s go inside…”
But Pei Ji’s brain was boiling. As if not understanding her words, he only hugged and kissed her, his lips occasionally touching her white and delicate earlobe.
Li Zhi let out a soft gasp as her body softened, but she retained her rationality and grasped at his shoulder, pushing him away with a gentle urgency. “We cannot,” she breathed. “Someone will come…”
Pei Ji paused for a moment, and only then did he somewhat understand her meaning. While exhaling heavily, he supported her lower back with his hand and lifted her up in front of him.
Li Zhi clung to him as he held her like a precious child, his strength supporting her completely. She had never felt so safe.
The drug had had caused Pei Ji to act on his desires. He hugged her securely and refused to separate, quickly heading towards the still-lit room.
Li Zhi tried to resist his embrace, but her resolve was quickly weakening. “Not here,” she murmured, her voice barely audible. “That room…”
She pointed weakly toward the end of the corridor, where a more private room awaited them.
Pei Ji’s eyes turned red. Dissatisfied, he bit her fingertips and turned obediently towards the room.
With great difficulty, he managed to close the door at her repeated requests. But he couldn’t wait any longer and lay her down onto the nearest short couch.
Like a clumsy youth, he struggled with her clothes, unsure of how to proceed, and resorted to brute strength.
“General!” Li Zhi giggled, despite her weak state. “Let me show you.”
She gently held his hand, and pushed him back. Then, she sat up slightly and removed her own dress.
The delicate silk fell away, revealing her smooth, milky-white skin in the darkness.
Li Zhi’s hazy, moist eyes looked towards Pei Ji, taking his hand as an invitation.
Suddenly, the man’s eyes brightened and he seemed to come to his senses.
He abruptly withdrew his hand, his muscles tightening to the extreme, barely suppressing the overwhelming impulse.
“I can’t,” he whispered in agony, sweat beading on his forehead. “This is wrong.”
Li Zhi was surprised that he could stop halfway at this moment.
“General, someone has drugged you. Don’t you want to relieve yourself of it?”
She assumed he was going to use their disparate identities as an excuse, as she was the Emperor’s woman.
However, he simply shook his head, his voice thick with suppressed emotion, “I cannot harm you.”
Li Zhi was stunned.
“In your heart, am I not a woman with a cunning and wicked heart?”
The hands clenched on his knees were beginning to shake, with visible veins pulsing. Yet, he still shook his head, denying her words.
“I cannot hurt you. While I still have the will to restrain myself, you should leave. Don’t worry about me.”
Li Zhi silently gazed at Pei Ji who was struggling to hold himself back, lost in thought.
Suddenly, she remembered something from her dream.
During the Zhongqiu Festival banquet, Li Ling Yue had drugged him and taken him to a secluded room where they had been alone together all night. When they were discovered the next day, their clothing was disheveled and askew.
However, he had always maintained that he had never touched the princess, even after he was forced to marry her later on. He never wavered in his words.
No one believed him, not even Li Zhi herself.
It was rumored that Li Ling Yue’s drug was a secret formula of the previous dynasty’s palace, with an extremely powerful effect that almost no one could resist.
But today, Li Zhi found herself suddenly believing that he might really not have touched Li Ling Yue. He was too stubborn and resolute.
“You won’t hurt me. I’m willing to do this.”
In the darkness, her eyes sparkled as she slowly unbuttoned his robe, her hands tracing his chest.
Pei Ji’s eyes were hazy and confused. He stared at her for a moment, unable to control himself, and pulled her into his embrace once again.
In the quiet side hall, the fragrance of coral peony gradually filled the air, mingling with their soft sighs and whispers.
Li Jing Ye walked back to his seat above the main hall, suppressing his earlier cold expression and putting on a gentle demeanor. His gaze flickered with a chill as it swept over the empty seat of Prince Rui, unnoticed by those around him.
Pure Consort Xiao, who had been his wife for many years and was closest to him, immediately noticed his change in demeanor. She followed his line of sight and guessed at his thoughts.
Before long, Chun Yue from the Chenghuan Palace arrived in a hurry, explaining that the Noble Consort was tired and had returned to rest.
Li Jing Ye nodded calmly, not showing any outward signs of regret. But his right hand instinctively went to his forehead, rubbing away the tension building there.
The banquet was already half over, with everyone having drunk quite a bit of wine. When the Emperor briefly left earlier, no one had thought much of it, assuming he needed to take a break after sitting for so long.
But now that the Emperor had returned, the performers on stage redoubled their efforts, and many officials and envoys below came up to toast and congratulate him. It was a joyful scene, but Li Jing Ye couldn’t shake off the unease in his heart.
Cup after cup, he drank in the well wishes and cheers, but his thoughts drifted further and further away. The clinking of cups began to sound muffled, as if coming from a distance.
Just as Li Jing Ye’s mind was about to wander too far, he was jolted back to reality by the unexpected return of Li Jing Hui, who had already left the banquet.
Amidst the crowd’s watchful eyes, he approached the Emperor’s throne and knelt down, his voice echoing in the grand hall. “Today marks Your Majesty’s great celebration. I’ve been taught and guided by you since my childhood, and now, as an adult and a prince, I’ve basked in the fruits of your labor without contributing even a fraction of what I owe to you and to the people of this world.”
Kowtowing deeply, he declared, “Today, I feel overwhelming shame and regret. I’m determined to plead with Your Majesty to allow me to join the army stationed on the border of Youzhou, to fight for our country, and to serve Your Majesty with all my might.”
His powerful words reverberated throughout the hall, silencing the officials who were previously lost in revelry. They all gazed upon the royal brothers standing before them.
Li Jing Ye remained silent, contemplating his brother’s request. Though his face betrayed no emotion, his eyes flickered with an indecipherable glint.
Beside him, Xiao Ling Fu shot a quick glance at the Emperor before speaking to Li Jing Hui. “Your Highness’s noble intentions would make His Majesty proud, and the people grateful. But the border of Youzhou is unforgiving, and you, a Royal Prince, may find it difficult to endure. If the Empress Dowager were to learn of this, she would surely be distraught. His Majesty has always cherished the values of benevolence and filial piety, and would never want to see the Empress Dowager in distress.”
The words had barely left his lips when several officials chimed in with their agreement.
But Li Jing Hui remained steadfast, kneeling and saying in a low voice, “Prime Minister Xiao is absolutely right. However, as a son of the Li family, I was taught from a young age not to let my desire for wealth and status overshadow my duty as a man to achieve great things. To serve the ruler with loyalty, even if it means sacrificing oneself. Moreover, the Empress Dowager has always been concerned with the bigger picture and never allowed personal feelings to affect the state affairs. She will surely understand my sincerity.”
Those closest to them could already sense that the brothers had some unresolved issues.
The Grand Princess observed from the sidelines but refrained from speaking about the sensitive political matter. She furrowed her brows and glanced at her husband, Pei Yan, hoping he would intervene.
However, Pei Yan remained silent, only subtly shaking his head.
The Emperor didn’t hold the old aristocratic officials in high regard, and if Pei Yan were to speak up, it might only worsen the situation.
Li Jing Ye’s thin lips tightened as he looked down at his brother, and after a moment of contemplation, he spoke calmly, “I am deeply pleased to hear of your intentions, Sixth Brother. There is no reason for me to refuse.”
Li Jing Hui paused briefly before bowing once again to thank his brother and leaving with the utmost respect.
The sudden twist of events left the hall with an awkward and oppressive atmosphere. Those who were already drunk and a few foreign envoys who were unaware of the situation were the only ones who remained unaware of the shift in mood, while others treaded carefully.
Li Jing Ye sat on his throne with no interest in enjoying the music and dance. After hastily accepting the remaining envoys’ congratulations and toasts, he conveyed the message that the night was free for everyone to drink and revel in the Linde Hall until dawn, and then promptly left the scene.
He Yuan Shi had already prepared the sedan chair and asked urgently as Li Jing Ye climbed aboard, “Where would Your Majesty rest tonight?”
In the darkness, Li Jing Ye’s face had already become completely gloomy, and the exhaustion and anger in his eyes were not concealed.
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, the words “Chenghuan Palace” already at the tip of his tongue.
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