Chapter 26 Punishment
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“Cousin!” Li Ling Yue’s eyes lit up at the sight of Pei Ji, and she longed to approach him. However, before taking another step, she paused, her heart heavy with a sudden sense of guilt.
Pei Ji’s eyes were fixed on the slender figure kneeling before him, and he paid no heed to Li Ling Yue’s presence. With a deep gaze, he surveyed the scene before him, taking in Zhong Hao’s cowering form before withdrawing his gaze in silence.
He strode forward with purpose, his steps echoing through the chamber. As he reached a position one step diagonally in front of Li Zhi, he knelt down and kowtowed to the Emperor. “Your Majesty, the Princess’s actions today were all because of me. Zhong Hao is now a member of the Imperial Guards. He offended the Princess due to my lack of strict management and negligence. All the blame and responsibility for this grave error should be borne by me alone, and none other.”
When he entered the room, he saw Li Zhi being shoved to the ground. Despite the fact that the incident had nothing to do with her, he heard her plea for mercy from the Emperor. The sight tugged at his heartstrings, and without a second thought, he took responsibility for everything.
He had promised to protect her in the future.
“Today’s grand feast in the palace, as the commander of the Imperial Guards, it was my duty to prevent such an incident from happening. If Your Majesty decides to demote or punish me, I will have no complaints.”
He spoke with a strong and steady voice, just like any other day, yet his presence alone brought a sense of comfort and reassurance to the woman standing behind him.
Li Jing Ye was a man of pride and power, and the Princess’s outburst had hit him where it hurt the most. But Li Zhi was no fool. She knew that in order to protect herself from his anger, she needed to be the first to admit fault and seek forgiveness. And so, with a trembling voice, she knelt before the Emperor and begged for mercy.
Though she had nothing to do with the incident, the fact that it involved Zhong Hao, coupled with her own tarnished reputation, made her a prime target for malicious speculation and judgment.
When Pei Ji came in just now, she almost thought he was going to confess to the Emperor about the accidental affair tonight, and she nearly lost her composure. Fortunately, she later saw the disheveled and wet state of his clothes, and was able to calm herself down.
He stood a few steps in front of her, his imposing figure shielding her from the accusing glares and disapproving looks.
She had indeed chosen the right man.
Pei Ji was even more dependable than she had anticipated.
Li Jing Ye remained quiet for a moment, rubbing his forehead with impatience.
Worthy Consort Xu’s eyes scanned the room before she spoke softly, “General Pei is in charge of defending Chang’an and protecting the country against foreign invaders. Today’s incident was initiated by the Princess, and it is an internal matter. How could it be related to the Imperial Guards?”
Li Zhi glanced at Worthy Consort Xu calmly.
She recalled Worthy Consort Xu’s indifference to everything. Why was she suddenly speaking up for Pei Ji and placing blame on the Princess?
She suddenly remembered seeing Worthy Consort Xu staring coldly at Li Ling Yue when she had first arrived, brimming with disdain and discontent.
Li Jing Ye let out a heavy sigh and motioned for Pei Ji to rise. “Zi Hui, get up quickly. I still don’t know how to explain to my aunt and Minister Pei that Ling Yue has done such a disgraceful thing. How can I blame you?”
He looked at the drenched and slightly disheveled Pei Ji again. How could he not understand what happened?
Clearly, he had been drugged and then repeatedly drenched with cold water, barely managing to hold on.
Judging from his condition, it had been almost two hours since he was drugged, and yet he was still soaking wet, which showed that the drug was potent and difficult to bear.
Pei Ji didn’t move, wanting to speak up for Li Zhi but unable to do so openly. He paused for a moment and said in a deep voice, “Please, Your Majesty, do not involve innocent people.”
Li Zhi didn’t speak, just lowered her head even more, making people feel sorry for her.
Meanwhile, Zhong Hao misinterpreted Pei Ji’s words, believing that he was pleading for him. Grateful, he thanked Pei Ji profusely, “Thank you, General. Thank you, General!”
Li Jing Ye watched Zhong Hao’s spineless behavior, his brow furrowed in displeasure.
Disregarding Zhong Hao, Li Jing Ye turned to Pei Ji and instructed him, “You may rise now. I have my own plans.”
As he spoke, he turned and pulled Li Zhi up from her side, settling her down next to him. His face softened as he said, “Li-niang, don’t blame yourself. I know this has nothing to do with you.”
Li Zhi shot a quick, almond-eyed glance at Li Jing Ye, thanking him softly, “Many thanks to Your Majesty’s kindness.”
Li Jing Ye gently squeezed her hand and pulled her closer to him.
Pei Ji kept his head lowered, but from the corner of his eye, he noticed their movements. They were so close that it was impossible not to. A strange feeling rose in his heart.
The woman before him had been intimate with him, yet he watched her being pulled into another man’s arms. He couldn’t decipher whether he felt more guilty towards the two of them, or had other thoughts altogether.
After pondering for a moment, Li Jing Ye turned to Worthy Consort Xu and said, “First, escort the Princess back to her palace. Detain and interrogate all the palace maids and eunuchs in the Princess’s residence. Those who aided her will be punished according to the rules, while the others will be sent back to the Yeting Palace. Select a few capable female officials from the Shangyi Bureau to teach the Princess manners and etiquette daily. Once I am satisfied with her progress, they can be dismissed. Worthy Consort, let’s keep this matter confidential.”
Worthy Xu’s expression was serious as she stood up and bowed respectfully, her voice still chilly yet exuding a compelling calmness. “I’ll handle it with utmost care and ensure that no information leaks out.”
She promptly escorted the pale-faced and speechless Li Ling Yue out of the room.
Only four people remained in the chamber.
Li Jing Ye fixed his gaze on the trembling Zhong Hao, who was still kneeling on the ground, and a flicker of murderous intent crossed his eyes.
Li Ling Yue’s reckless actions today had brought shame upon the royal family. Even though it was her own fault, she was still a princess and his younger sister. To restore the dignity of the royal family, executing Zhong Hao wouldn’t be too harsh of a punishment.
But the woman beside him, sitting quietly with her head bowed, made him hesitate.
He couldn’t ignore Li Zhi’s presence.
Despite knowing that Li Zhi wasn’t close to the Zhong family, others still saw them as a unified entity. Punishing the Zhong family was akin to suppressing the Noble Consort, especially with the Sixth Prince still alive.
Moreover, Zhong Hao was appointed to the Imperial Guards personally by him, and Zhong Cheng Ping was also given the title of Duke of Qinguo by him.
He closed his eyes briefly, then reopened them with a decision. “Zi Hui, handle this according to the rules of the Imperial Guards.”
Pei Ji suggested, “According to military regulations, he should be punished with flogging in public for dereliction of duty, committing a major offense, and offending the princess. He should also be stripped of all military ranks and expelled from the army.”
Li Jing Ye nodded gravely. “Dispose of the matter as you’ve suggested. But the reason must not be disclosed to the public.” He turned to Zhong Hao and issued a stern warning. “If I hear so much as a whisper linking today’s incident to you, you’ll answer to me alone.”
Zhong Hao’s mind was a blur, but he eventually understood that the Emperor had spared his life. Trembling, he repeatedly kowtowed and was then silenced and hauled away by two intimidating Imperial Guards.
Silence descended upon the room. Li Jing Ye then turned to Pei Ji with a contrite expression. “Zi Hui, I apologize to you for what happened today. I need to make amends to you, my aunt, and Minister Pei. As for Ling Yue’s transgressions, I’ll speak to my mother tomorrow. If she consents, I’ll make the decision to marry her to Zhong Hao. Once she’s wed, she’ll no longer burden you with her troubles.”
Li Zhi and Pei Ji were taken aback. Their eyes met briefly before quickly averting.
“Your Majesty,” Li Zhi spoke up. “My cousin is from a humble background. How could he possibly befit a Princess?”
Li Jing Ye’s expression turned grave. “She must face the consequences of her actions. Such temperament has no place in a noble family. Initially, I planned to find a newly appointed scholar with a humbler background for her, someone who could tolerate her personality better. But it seems she’s chosen for herself, and I shall grant her wish. Furthermore, she’s made her bed and lost her innocence, how could she marry another?”
Despite the more liberal attitudes in society nowadays, losing one’s chastity before marriage still carried a negative reputation, especially for a princess.
This outcome was expected.
However, for some inexplicable reason, when the words “lost her innocence” were mention, Pei Ji felt Li Zhi’s gentle gaze drift over him, carrying with it a hint of melancholy and longing, sending shivers down his spine.
He tightened his fists, forcing himself not to look at her, and spoke no more. With a bow, he took his leave.
Inside the room, Li Jing Ye embraced Li Zhi. “Li-niang, you’ve had a tough day. It will be dawn in an hour. I will accompany you back to the Chenghuan Palace.”
Li Zhi lifted her head and caught a glimpse of the figure outside the door gradually slowing down. She said, “Thank you, Your Majesty, but the Pure Consort is still waiting for you. She’s pregnant, and if she doesn’t see you, she’ll be worried.”
Li Jing Ye sighed and hugged her tightly, kissing her gently. He helplessly said, “You always think about others. Alright, I’ll take you back to Chenghuan Palace first, then go to Shicui Palace.”
Li Zhi didn’t want to refuse again, so she obediently nodded. She saw the departing figure suddenly speed up, looking somewhat embarrassed.
On the imperial sedan chair, Li Jing Ye felt tired and restless in his heart.
Today was his birthday, but the successive events had made him unable to feel any joy.
The distance between him and his mother only grew further, and even his relationship with his younger siblings seemed to be deteriorating. He was also aware that some of the old ministers disapproved of his recent actions, though he never spoke of it.
It felt as though everything was gradually slipping away from him.
For no discernible reason, a sense of emptiness took hold of his heart, and he found solace in holding Li Zhi close to him, gently rubbing his chin against her hair.
“Li-niang,” he whispered softly into her ear, “you won’t leave me, will you?”
Li Zhi’s cheeks burned from his tender kisses, her almond eyes glistening with emotion. She playfully pushed him away and called his name a few times, but she didn’t answer his question.
As he continued to act restless and infatuated, Li Zhi couldn’t help but feel a twinge of fear deep within.
In the adjacent chamber, Pei Ji had just experienced the joys of love for the first time and was also under the influence of some powerful drugs. Despite Li Zhi’s repeated reminders, he struggled to control his strength.
Her skin was easily bruised, and there were slight marks on her chest and legs when they were cleaned up just now. They would probably be better by tomorrow, but if Li Jing Ye saw them now, it would be difficult to explain.
In a blur, the imperial carriage gently landed near Chenghuan Palace.
Li Zhi dodged and said, “Your Majesty, the Pure Consort is still waiting at Shicui Palace…”
Li Jing Ye’s reason returned, he sucked on her lips heavily and slowly let her go. He watched her step down from the carriage and wait by the road before ordering people to carry him to Shicui Palace.
Li Zhi watched him leave before slowly letting go of her worries and turning back to Chenghuan Palace.
After tossing and turning for half the night, not only was she exhausted, but even Chun Yue and the others in the palace were also tired.
She quickly let everyone rest, and she also returned to her bedroom and hastily changed her clothes.
As the last flicker of light faded away, the room plunged into a deep, inky darkness. She lay in bed, listening to the hush of the night outside. Suddenly, the window beside her creaked open, and a tall, muscular figure vaulted inside and landed lightly by her side.
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