Chapter 24 Pledge
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Li Jing Ye hadn’t even spoken yet when he heard a familiar and somewhat urgent female voice behind him.
Pure Consort Xiao held her slightly bulging belly with one hand and held the hand of a palace maid with the other, walking quickly as if afraid of being late.
“Pure Consort, you’re still pregnant. Walk slower.” Li Jing Ye frowned slightly and waved his hand, signaling the eunuchs beside him to come forward and protect her. His attitude was not particularly considerate.
However, Pure Consort Xiao did not stop. She just walked closer and stopped beside the imperial carriage, looking up at him with a relieved smile. “Fortunately, Your Majesty hasn’t left yet.”
Li Jing Ye’s usually gentle demeanor was absent as he questioned her bluntly. “Why are you chasing after me now with such urgency, Pure Consort? You should be more cautious with your pregnancy, especially with our child’s safety in mind. This recklessness is unlike your usual grace.”
The delighted expression on Pure Consort Xiao’s face froze for a moment, then she silently lowered her eyes and forced a smile. “I apologize for my lack of forethought, Your Majesty. All I wished was to bless you with a long and prosperous life.”
Although today was Li Jing Ye’s birthday, he had spent the night in Chenghuan Palace and had been occupied with the affairs of the former dynasty all day. Even in Linde Hall, he was surrounded by people and had no chance to speak alone with any of his concubines except the Noble Consort.
She had observed everything that occurred in the hall earlier and perceived that there was probably some animosity between the Emperor and Prince Rui due to the Noble Consort. Tonight, when he wasn’t in the best of moods, presented a great opportunity.
On previous birthdays of His Majesty, he would have been more considerate of her due to her diligence, and he would have slept with her at night. This year, even though she was pregnant and still managed everything flawlessly, she didn’t receive a single word of praise from him. Just now, when the Emperor left the banquet, her father even told her in secret to seize the moment while being pregnant and win his affection.
With each thought, her heart grew more bitter.
She knew the Emperor well and was aware that he didn’t appreciate others being eager for rewards or being jealous. Consequently, she composed herself quickly and smiled, “Today is Your Majesty’s birthday, but I saw how hard you worked all day and how you didn’t relax even at the banquet just now. My heart aches for you. I want to do something for you, but since you have the world at your feet, there’s nothing you lack. As a pregnant woman, I can’t dance for you like the Noble Consort, so I came here before your birthday ends to wish you a happy birthday in person.”
With a heavy heart, she swallowed her longing and resentment, taking a step back to clear a path for him. “I’ve said my piece, Your Majesty. It’s time for you to make your way to the Chenghuan Palace,” she murmured softly, her voice laced with a hint of sorrow.
“Si-niang,” Li Jing Ye studied her in the dim light, his gaze flickering with a range of emotions. He let out a deep sigh and patted the space next to him, his tone gentle. “Come, sit beside me.”
Pure Consort Xiao raised her head suddenly, her heart thudding in her chest. “Your Majesty, aren’t you going to head to the Chenghuan Palace?”
Li Jing Ye’s eyes shuttered briefly, hiding his annoyance. He shook his head and replied, “No, I’ve decided to spend the evening at the Shicui Palace with you.”
Pure Consort Xiao’s heart fluttered with relief and gratitude as she thanked him, cautiously taking a seat beside him.
The eunuchs lifted the imperial carriage in response and headed straight to the Shicui Palace without the Emperor needing to say anything further.
In the Linde Hall, after the Emperor left the table, the concubines and other women also dispersed, leaving only a number of envoys and officials.
According to tradition, there were three days of vacation after the Qianqiu Festival. On the next day, there was no need to rush to attend the morning court or go to the government office. His Majesty had just announced that they could drink and enjoy themselves in the palace until dawn. Everyone became even more unrestrained, raising their cups and laughing loudly, or dancing to the music with their hands and feet, making the whole Lide Hall lively as if it were in the heavenly palace.
At the end of the long east corridor, there was a secluded and uninhabited side hall, with a tightly closed door that blocked out all the noise.
On a short couch, a beautiful and weak figure lay prone among scattered clothes. Her slender and flexible body curved into a soft and graceful shape. Her eyes were filled with a dizzying mist, and her plump and seductive lips were slightly parted, occasionally emitting soft purrs.
Perhaps because it was his first time, and had been drugged, the man behind her was more difficult to deal with than she had imagined. Apart from the first round, which ended hastily under her guidance, he had gradually become more and more skilled and proficient, learning on his own without a teacher.
With his year-round training in martial arts, his physique was strong and robust, and his strength was unmatched. His chest, waist, and arms were rippling with taut and solid muscles, while the calluses on his palms testified to his years of wielding spears and swords. Whenever he brushed past something, it sent shivers down her spine.
Through a haze of confusion, she felt an unsavory satisfaction that was equal parts release, hatred, and pity.
Her eyes drifted, her nose twitched, and her heart quivered like a small boat caught in the midst of a turbulent storm, adrift and alone, ready to be engulfed and drowned by the towering waves.
This court, and everything beyond it, was a vast and unfathomable ocean that entrapped her.
She couldn’t resist reaching out behind her, hoping to grab onto something sturdy and dependable.
In the darkness, a rough and blazing palm reached out, firmly cocooning her fragile body. While providing her with strong support, it also held her captive in a tight embrace.
She was frozen in place, her heart at once calm and frantic with unease.
Taking that first step forward, she knew there was no going back from what lay ahead.
She had lost track of time until her mind grew hazy and tears streamed down her face, but eventually she steeled herself to keep moving forward.
As the drums and flags fell silent, a moment of confusion washed over them both.
Li Zhi squirmed slightly and Pei Ji rolled over beside her, staring up at the dark ceiling lost in thought.
The two of them huddled closely on the small couch, their bodies pressed together, each lost in their own contemplation.
With the medicine’s effects subsiding, Pei Ji’s mind cleared and he quickly relived the events that had just transpired.
He closed his eyes and pondered the events of the banquet carefully.
The Imperial Kitchen and Wine Bureau were in charge of the food and drinks, and with the involvement of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, there were many eyes and ears present. No one would dare to tamper with anything.
Furthermore, he had not made any enemies within the palace. Even if there were officials who wished to do him harm, they would not choose the Qianqiu Festival banquet in the imperial palace as their chance. He knew his status was unique, and unless he committed an offense as severe as treason, the Emperor would hardly bring down heavy punishment upon him.
He couldn’t resist casting a furtive glance at the woman lying motionless by his side, her back turned towards him.
In the soft light, the gentle curves of her body were only just visible, and her skin shimmered with a radiant luster, as if she were a bewitching spirit.
The effects of the medicine still lingered within him, causing his mind to ripple with a familiar unease, and his throat to silently clench.
A few speculations flashed through his mind: Could it be her?
Over the past month, she had been ceaselessly provoking him, making it increasingly difficult for him to maintain his composure. If it was really her lying beside him, he felt a flicker of relief and elation in his heart.
Sadly, this notion was quickly dismissed.
A bitter and pungent sensation stirred deep within him.
She was a woman of great boldness and peerless beauty, and had no need for such low tactics. All she had to do was be alone with him, and he would be helpless against her allure.
Suddenly, he remembered the cup of wine the princess had poured for him before she left, realizing it did not come from the jug on his table, but the one she had been holding.
Why bother bringing a jug of wine if it was just a toast?
His heart skipped a beat as he recalled the princess’s unusual expression – a mix of struggle and anticipation. Even the wine tasted weaker than before.
But he was too distracted to notice at the time.
So it was her!
She had pretended to have come to her senses and let him go, but had secretly set a trap, waiting for him to fall into it.
He felt a surge of anger, causing the affection he once had for her as a brother to fade away.
Soon, he began to feel regretful.
Should the effects of the drug take hold and he was facing the princess instead, he was almost certain he could restrain himself. At worst, he would knock himself out to avoid overstepping the boundaries.
However, he was beside another woman.
It could be said that he was taking advantage of the situation or that he was a cunning man, but even then, he retained some shred of rationality. However, upon hearing her utter the word “willingly”, he lost his mind, abandoning all caution and yearning only to drown in the moment with her.
He held his forehead, lost in thought for a moment. Then, he rose from the bed and hastily donned his undergarments. Without a word, he picked up Li Zhi that lay beside him and began to dress her, piece by piece.
Li Zhi lay limp and unresponsive in his arms, content to remain motionless as he clothed her.
In the darkness, his rugged features became even more pronounced, his body taut and still, unconsciously exuding a serious and cold aura.
Clearly, he was still a youth who hadn’t even come of age yet, his upper body bare, but he insisted on making a heartless appearance like an ascetic.
His inexperience was betrayed only by the clumsiness of his movements.
“Allow me,” Li Zhi laughed lightly, struggling to sit up and dress herself.
The warm and tender body slowly slipped away, and his hand, hanging in mid-air, slowly retracted, a sense of desolation gripping his heart.
He turned around silently, picking up his clothes and putting them on hastily.
After both had dressed, he suddenly spoke, “If it pleases the Noble Consort, I shall go and apologize to His Majesty. This fault is mine alone, and I will not evade my responsibility.”
Li Zhi looked up to meet his firm, dark gaze and asked softly, “Pei Ji, do you regret it?”
Pei Ji’s gaze softened slightly, his voice hoarse as he replied, “I have no regrets.”
Li Zhi smiled, “Nor do I. Furthermore, I don’t want to die.”
The gulf between their stations made any intimacy between Li Zhi and Pei Ji a daring act. Exposed, Pei Ji could evade any consequences. But for her, it would be the end of the line.
The glamorous facade of women in this era hid a world of subjugation and restriction.
A sharp pain jolted through Pei Ji’s heart.
No matter the facts, the consequences always weighed heaviest on her. But Pei Ji had to speak his mind.
He wanted her to know that he was a man of accountability. If only she would ask, he would give everything to make things right.
“Your Highness, any other wishes you might have, I will fulfill them as long as they don’t risk the bigger picture.”
Pei Ji had inquired multiple times, but the absence of her response spoke volumes about her hidden intentions.
Now more than ever, Pei Ji needed to show her his true self and gain her trust.
Li Zhi’s eyes glittered mischievously, and the smile on her lips deepened, oozing a coquettish laziness that hinted at their intimate encounter. “Just these words from the general will do,” she purred. “All I ask is that the general protect me in the future.”
Pei Ji was caught off guard, his gaze fixed on her. “Is it really that simple?” he asked.
Li Zhi laughed, her voice like tinkling bells. “General, you need not doubt me. I would never do anything that goes against the natural order. I only hope that you will keep your promise to me in the future.”
Pei Ji’s expression was inscrutable, his brow furrowed as he contemplated the weight of her words.
Li Zhi stepped closer, her body now only a breath away from his. “Don’t worry,” she whispered, their breaths mingling. “I will also repay the General.”
Her eyes were dark and captivating, and her words held a subtle suggestion that stirred something in his heart.
Pei Ji gazed at her with a mixture of admiration and desire, understanding the meaning behind her words.
“Noble Consort need not trouble herself,” he said, his voice low and husky. “I promise I will never offend you again.”
He spoke with conviction, but his heart couldn’t help but be reignited. The intense passion from just moments ago flashed through his mind, stirring up a wild surge of emotion and impulsiveness.
Li Zhi remained aloof and did not confirm or deny his words. She simply glanced at his Adam’s apple, noticing its slight movement, and smiled a sly smile, clearly not convinced.
Despite his strong willpower, he was still a man who couldn’t resist temptation.
Pei Ji wanted to explain himself, but his body betrayed him and made him feel ashamed. He could only clench his fists and suppress the strange feelings in his heart as he watched her turn and leave.
The small side hall was suddenly empty, with only Pei Ji standing there, feeling the heat and the lingering scent of coral peonies dissipating into the air.
He stood alone, suddenly feeling a sense of emptiness and desolation.
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