Chapter 25 Scene of the crime
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The moon had already passed its peak. In the still of the night, Chun Yue waited anxiously in the same spot. Her heart fluttered when she finally saw Li Zhi return. She hurriedly approached, her eyes sweeping over the surroundings with caution. “Miss, you have finally returned! This servant was worried!”
She quickly took in the lady’s appearance from head to toe. While her hair bun was slightly disheveled, she was otherwise unscathed and even radiated a certain charm. Chun Yue let out a sigh of relief, but in the same breath, her guard was raised once again.
“Miss and General Pei…” Chun Yue’s eyes widened, finding it difficult to speak.
“We each took what we needed,” Li Zhi replied, her expression calm as she looked at Chun Yue. “Are you afraid? Do you think I am a bad person?”
Chun Yue shook her head vigorously, and tears brimmed over in her round eyes. “How could that be? Even if this servant thinks so, Miss is still too pitiful…”
While others might not have grasped the anguish concealed in these words, she saw it with clarity.
She was aware that her young mistress had been treated like a lean horse since childhood, and though she clearly despised it, she was too weak to resist. Having been under the care of others since her youth, the young lady lacked the courage to stand up for herself.
Just when she thought she could live a peaceful and prosperous life as the Princess Consort after earning the favor of Prince Rui, the Emperor forcibly brought her back to the palace.
Witnessing the estrangement between the Emperor and Prince Rui today, she knew that although the Emperor still had feelings for the young lady, men in this world were known to be unfeeling. The Emperor was surrounded by countless beauties and would welcome new ones with open arms. How long before the affection for her mistress fades, leaving her in a precarious position?
Her young mistress was unable to bear children and lacked the means to secure her position.
Despite her heartbreak, she took comfort in the fact that Li Zhi had grown increasingly resolute and decisive over time. Her delight outweighed her sorrow, and she was no longer afraid.
“Good girl.” Li Zhi pinched her cheek and chuckled, taking her towards the direction of Chenghuan Palace and asking, “Did anyone come by just now?”
Chun Yue shook her head. “After informing Chief Eunuch He, no one has come to visit.”
Li Zhi nodded and slowed down her pace, stretching her tired waist slightly.
With no visitors in sight, Li Jing Ye must have retreated to rest elsewhere.
She had anticipated a quarrel between him and Li Jing Hui tonight, and she knew that he would not return to Chenghuan Palace. It was just as well. If anyone asked, she could say that she had been truly exhausted and had slept in a side chamber for a while.
Chun Yue hesitated for a moment before speaking up. “Miss, when I couldn’t find you earlier, I went to the main hall and overheard a conversation. It seems that Prince Rui had asked His Majesty’s permission to go to the border, and the Emperor has agreed…”
Li Zhi paused in her steps, a cold sneer tugging at the corners of her lips.
Earlier, she had been too afraid to refuse Prince Rui directly because of the dreams she had. She knew he could be unforgiving, and she didn’t want to risk losing his favor again.
Without her provocation, he was still incited by the Emperor’s words to go to the border. This just showed that the matter had nothing to do with her, and was merely a power struggle between men, using a woman as an excuse.
She stopped thinking and quickened her pace towards Chenghuan Palace, stretching her sore waist.
It was no longer early, and since Li Ling Yue had already given Pei Ji the medicine, she had to wait for him to finish the job. After more than an hour had passed without any sign of Pei Ji, she would begin to worry. With her temperament, she probably couldn’t keep her cool and would blow things out of proportion.
Pei Ji didn’t say how he would handle the aftermath of the incident, but his words had clearly told her that he would take care of everything.
Before that happened, she had to return to the Chenghuan Palace and wait for the situation to unfold.
In the middle of the night, Li Jing Ye was sound asleep in Shicui Palace when he was abruptly awakened by He Yuan Shi. The expression on his face showed impatience.
Normally, He Yuan Shi wouldn’t dare to wake up the Emperor in the middle of the night for anyone, but the urgency of the matter tonight left him no choice.
He knelt down by the bedside with a nervous expression, his voice deliberately low, “Your Majesty, General Pei’s subordinate, Deputy General Shi, sent a message earlier, saying that the Princess of Wuyang drugged General Pei at tonight’s banquet…”
Li Jing Ye paused for a moment before suddenly coming to his senses, quickly sitting up and pulling back the curtain. He asked urgently, “What about Ling Yue? Where is she?”
He Yuan Shi’s forehead was covered in sweat, and he shook his head slightly, “This old servant sent someone to Princess’s palace earlier, but the palace maids kept evading, saying that the Princess was already asleep. So this old servant dared to enter and take a look, but the Princess was nowhere to be found.”
“What nonsense!” Li Jing Ye’s eyebrows kept twitching as he angrily stood up and put on his clothes. “Spoiled by her mother, she dared to do such a thing!”
Pure Consort Xiao had been sleeping lightly since she became pregnant, and she was now awake, preparing to follow along.
She was responsible for handling many daily affairs. The Princess of Wuyang still lived in the palace as an unmarried woman.
Li Jing Ye pressed Consort Xiao back onto the bed and tried to calm his emotions before speaking. “Si-niang, there’s no need for you to go since you’re pregnant. Rest well. You’ve always been kind and gentle, but we must be firm this time. I’ll send Worthy Consort Xu over later. Don’t worry and get some sleep.”
With that, he ordered someone to summon Worthy Consort Xu.
Although Pure Consort Xiao didn’t want Worthy Consort Xu to take her place, she knew that the other Consort was cold and aloof and indifferent to everything. She was unlikely to start a conflict with her overnight. Besides, it was a matter of offending someone, and if she took action, she would have to navigate the Emperor’s favoritism, as well as potentially offending the princess and Empress Dowager. It was better to let others handle it.
She then settled back down, urging the Emperor not to worry so much.
Suddenly, a eunuch rushed in from outside the chamber and whispered to He Yuan Shi.
He Yuan Shi’s face grew more tense, and he approached carefully, whispering, “Your Majesty, the Princess has been found. She’s in the western wing of the Linde Hall, and…there’s another young man with her.”
Li Jing Ye’s face darkened instantly, and he was on the verge of losing his temper. He quickly strode out of the chamber and boarded the royal carriage, heading towards the Linde Hall.
Inside the western side hall of Linde Hall, Worthy Consort Xu hurriedly arrived to find Li Ling Yue weeping with tears streaming down her face. Several palace maids had rushed to cover her unclothed body with clothes.
Standing beside the princess was a young, fair-skinned man, who appeared to be shivering with sweat as he struggled to dress himself.
Clad in black armor draped over his clothes, the young man was clearly a guard from the Imperial Guards.
Worthy Consort Xu’s contemptuous gaze fell upon Li Ling Yue before turning to the young man with a sneer. “Who do you think you are to engage in a forbidden affair with a Princess inside the palace?”
Zhong Hao managed to put on his clothes and fell to his knees, trembling with fear as he spoke. “I never imagined having an affair with the Princess. When I entered, the Princess embraced me first, and I thought she was just an ordinary palace maid… My father is the Duke of Qinguo. I beg you, Your Highness, to help me find my sister… the Noble Consort.”
How was he to know that the woman who offered herself was not an insignificant maid but a princess?!
When Worthy Consort Xu heard the title “Duke of Qinguo”, her mind was momentarily befuddled. It wasn’t until the mention of “Noble Consort” that she understood the speaker’s identity. This man was none other than Zhong Cheng Ping’s son, and also the cousin of the Noble Consort.
As she gestured for the palace attendants to summon the Noble Consort, Li Ling Yue, who had been crying pitifully, abruptly rose to her feet. She quickly arranged her disheveled clothing and confronted Zhong Hao with an accusing tone, “You’re spouting nonsense! I was waiting for my cousin, where did you take him?”
Zhong Hao appeared perplexed, his countenance displaying uncertainty as he stammered for a prolonged period. It was only after some time that he realized the “cousin” the princess was referring to was the General of the Imperial Guards, Pei Ji.
Before he could reply, Worthy Consort Xu’s voice rang out in a scolding manner, “Princess, refrain from speaking in such a manner. To do such a thing to General Pei is truly disgraceful!”
Li Ling Yue was momentarily stunned. Apart from her elder brother, no one had ever dared to speak to her with such frankness. Worthy Consort Xu had always been courteous to her before, but today, her sudden change in demeanor caused Li Ling Yue to leap to her feet. “How am I disgraceful? As a Princess, it’s none of your concern whether I want to marry my cousin!”
Her words had barely left her lips when a thunderous shout reverberated from outside the room, “Silence!”
Li Jing Ye strode in, raging with anger, and looked at his sister without any mercy. “Ling Yue, you have disappointed me too much! You have done such a shameless thing!”
Li Ling Yue also knew that she had made a big mistake and had only made things worse. As soon as she saw her elder brother, she burst into tears. “Elder Brother, I know I was wrong. Please, Elder Brother, drag this person out and beat him to death. He, he offended me…”
Only then did Li Jing Ye turn his head towards the kneeling Zhong Hao.
Zhong Hao’s teeth chattered as he prostrated himself before the Emperor, pleading for mercy. “Your Majesty, spare my life!”
Worthy Consort Xu intervened, “Your Majesty, he is the son of the Duke of Qinguo and the cousin of the Noble Consort. I have already sent word for her to come.”
Li Jing Ye massaged his temples in frustration, his mind racing as he pondered his next move.
He Yuan Shi had already interrogated the two little eunuchs who had been guarding outside on behalf of Li Ling Yue, relaying the details of the situation to Li Jing Ye as they made their way to the throne room.
It all boiled down to Li Ling Yue’s impatience, as she anxiously waited for a response and heard that a suitable young man was to be chosen as her husband. She resorted to despicable measures and drugged Pei Ji.
A royal princess engaging in such a filthy act was a matter of great shame!
If it were an ordinary guard of commoner birth, he could have carried out her orders and dragged the offender to his death in the name of offending the princess. However, this was a member of the Zhong family, and even a member of the Imperial Guards he personally selected.
Not only had the princess lost her chastity before marriage, but she also wanted her lover executed. If word got out, how could she still marry? Even ordinary noble families would not tolerate her, let alone the Pei family.
Even though he was the Emperor, he could not resort to abusing his power for the sake of his sister’s marriage. The previous dynasty had numerous princesses who, due to their abuses of power, faced many difficulties even after marrying into noble families and eventually died of depression.
It seemed that there was only one solution left.
After deep contemplation, Li Jing Ye finally came to a decision.
He loomed over Zhong Hao, who knelt before him, with an expressionless face. His voice was heavy as he spoke, “The son of the Duke of Qinguo is barely a suitable match for the princess’s status—”
Though he had not finished his sentence, the implication was clear.
Li Ling Yue halted her sobs and stared at him in disbelief. “Your Majesty…you intend to wed me to him? He…he’s only a seventh-ranked official’s son. How can he even compare to me?”
“Official rank can be elevated, and he comes from a noble family regardless. How can he not compare to you?” Li Jing Ye’s thin lips were tightly pressed together, his anger simmering beneath the surface.
Li Ling Yue wiped away the remnants of tears on her face and carefully observed Zhong Hao.
The Zhong family was blessed with decent looks, and Zhong Hao, who was twenty-three, was tall, fair-skinned, and had handsome features that faintly resembled Noble Consort Zhong. He was undeniably a dashing young man.
Nevertheless, the longer Li Ling Yue look at him, the more repulsed she felt. She could not help but sneer twice, her face full of derision as she looked at Li Jing Ye. “Your Majesty can shamelessly snatch away the Princess Consort of Sixth Brother for your own selfish desires, yet I, a Princess, am forbidden to marry the man I love. Your Majesty is truly a model Elder Brother—”
A loud crash echoed in the chamber as a teacup grazed Li Ling Yue’s cheek and shattered against the doorframe, littering the floor with ceramic fragments.
“Silence!” Li Jing Ye’s voice boomed, cutting off any further protest.
Li Ling Yue smirked at the sight of the broken teacup, then swiftly advanced toward the door, seizing Li Zhi’s delicate wrist who had just arrived. She pulled her along the path of broken ceramics and flung her down beside the Emperor without a word.
“His Majesty’s generosity knows no bounds,” Li Ling Yue remarked sarcastically, her eyes gleaming with contempt. “He elevates a lowly woman to the rank of Noble Consort and even intends to marry her brother off to a Royal Princess. How wise and virtuous a ruler he is, yet how easily swayed by his own lust!”
Li Zhi gasped as she knelt before the Emperor, her eyes wide with shock.
She looked up at Li Jing Ye, only to see anger mixed with a hint of embarrassment in his eyes. He even avoided her gaze for a moment.
Seeing her, Zhong Hao felt as if he had found his savior. He came closer and grabbed her sleeve, saying, “Third Sister, please plead with Her Highness and His Majesty for me!”
Li Zhi bit her lip, feeling a coldness creeping up inside her. She turned her head, brushed away his hand, and took a step back before kneeling before Li Jing Ye. “This is the fault of this concubine and her elder brother, Your Majesty. We should not have reached beyond our means. I beg of you to punish us.”
Her delicate figure was straight and poised, revealing a mixture of fragility and stubbornness.
Li Jingy’s lips parted as if to speak, but no sound escaped them.
The air in the room became heavy and tense, and nobody spoke for a moment.
Suddenly, a suppressed and hoarse voice echoed from outside the room, “The Noble Consort is not at fault, Your Majesty. All the blame for this matter should be on me.”
Everyone turned their heads towards the sound and saw Pei Ji walking slowly from the darkness, his drenched clothes sticking to his skin. Every step he took left a deep water mark on the floor behind him.
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