At the Noble Consort’s Feet Chapter 28

Chapter 28 Entrustment

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Five sunsets had passed since the Qianqiu Festival’s jubilant vibes simmered down among the populace, and the border officials, who had sojourned in the capital for days, were now taking leave and returning to their homesteads.

Due to his sour rapport with the Empress Dowager, Li Jing Ye had dragged his feet in issuing the transfer orders. Now that An Yi Kang and his companions were poised to depart, he had no choice but to act. And as dusk approached, he finally gave the decree to appoint Prince Rui, Li Jing Hui, as the inspector and commander of Lulong, tasked with monitoring the local governance, as well as the defense of the border. Li Jing Hui would hold a position subordinate to the military governor.

Imperial members assuming roles as regional officials was not a rare occurrence, yet in the past, they usually held ornamental positions in the capital, and actual decision-making power rested with local officials. However, Li Jing Hui was resolute on departing for the distant border.

With the matter settled, the Empress Dowager was unable to keep him any longer, so when Li Jing Hui came to bid farewell, she couldn’t help but cling to him and weep profusely.

Li Jing Hui’s heart weighed heavily in his chest as he gently wiped away the tears that streamed down his mother’s face. After all, he had been raised by her for many years, and the thought of leaving her behind was unbearable. Finally, as she began to calm down, he bowed deeply and strode out of the room, determination etched on his face.

With each step he took, Li Jing Hui felt his heart grow heavier. The road before him stretched long and wide, the palace walls looming high on either side. Suddenly, he saw Li Zhi, who had just left Zichen Hall, standing before him. He came to an abrupt halt, his eyes fixed on her graceful form.

She was in the midst of a conversation with her attendants when she sensed a presence nearby. Startled, she lifted her head and saw Li Jing Hui standing before her, his expression unreadable. She felt her heart quicken in her chest, but forced herself to remain calm.

Despite the people milling about them, Li Jing Hui seemed not to notice their presence, lost in thought as he gazed at Li Zhi m. But she knew better than to let her guard down, especially after their past encounters.

For a moment, their eyes met, and Li Jing Hui could see the caution in her expression. He felt a pang of disappointment in his heart, knowing that she was wary of him. He wished he could find a way to make her see him differently.

As he started to speak, he realized that there was nothing he could say to her that would make a difference. So, he bowed slightly and moved past her.

Under the clear autumn sky, leaves fell from the treetops and settled on the ground.

Li Zhi closed her eyes slightly and let out a sigh, feeling her heart finally able to settle down for a moment.

In the stillness of the night, Pei Ji extended an invitation to Li Jing Hui for a farewell drink, a tradition they had cultivated over the years.

In order to avoid being disturbed by outsiders, the two did not go to a tavern, but drank in Pei Ji’s quiet residence.

The ethereal sound of pipa music wafted in from the outer room, where two women plucked at the strings and sang with melodic voices.

As the wine flowed freely, Li Jing Hui placed a comforting hand on Pei Ji’s shoulder and spoke with admiration, “Zi Hui, in my youth, I often envied your travels with Minister Pei through the mountains and rivers. You wore armor and fought on the front lines, claiming countless victories. There was not a noble son in all of Chang’an who could rival your prowess. And now, finally, it is my turn to seek glory at the border.”

Pei Ji lifted his gaze from his cup, the moonlight casting shadows on his rugged face as he remembered the arduous days of his youth. “It was a time of true hardship,” he murmured. “But to live and fight alongside my brothers-in-arms, sharing in both their joys and sorrows, was an experience that will forever remain etched in my memory.” 

He could still recall how he had followed his father to Hedong on a whim and joined the army. His father had warned him that once he entered the army camp, he could not show any signs of weakness.

He was only twelve years old then, and even though he was more mature than his peers, he was still an inexperienced child. Driven by a fiery passion, he joined the army, but after just a few days, the strenuous training began to take its toll, and he felt like giving up. But he was not one to back down easily. He gritted his teeth and persevered through the grueling first two months until he finally adjusted to the harsh lifestyle.

“The army is no place for the faint of heart. I hope you won’t regret this, Sixth Brother,” Pei Ji, who was usually serious and reserved, joked under the influence of alcohol.

A few days prior, he had asked Li Jing Hui why he suddenly wanted to go to the border. Li Jing Hui had replied that he felt suffocated staying in Chang’an and had always admired Pei Ji’s experience in the army. He wanted to take this opportunity to test himself and hopefully come back with a changed outlook.

Pei Ji sincerely hoped that the two brothers could temporarily part ways and calm down. When they meet again, he hoped their relationship could be mended.

Li Jing Hui laughed heartily and pointed at Pei Ji, teasing him, “If you can endure it, why can’t I? Don’t forget, I taught you a lot of your archery and riding skills, brat!”

Pei Ji simply smiled and took another sip of wine with Li Jing Hui.

He had indeed learned archery and riding from Li Jing Hui when he first joined the military with his father. However, two years later, his skills had already surpassed Li Jing Hui’s.

As they laughed and watched the moon climb higher in the sky, Li Jing Hui suddenly grew serious and said, “Zi Hui, you’ve always been reliable. The Emperor and Empress Dowager trust you, and so do I. After I leave Chang’an, there’s something I want to entrust to you.”

Pei Ji put down his cup when he saw Li Jing Hui’s serious and melancholic expression.

“In Chang’an, there were countless people to worry about, but only Li-niang was of concern to me. She was different. With a humble background and no close family ties, she had no one to rely on. And now, in the midst of turbulent times, the Empress Dowager’s disfavor only added to my worries. Zi Hui, I have a request to make of you. When I am not in Chang’an, I need you to watch over her, secretly.”

As he finished speaking, Li Jing Hui looked at Pei Ji with earnest eyes.

Pei Ji remained silent, his heart heavy with conflicting emotions.

Only a few nights ago, when he had made an error in the Linde Hall, that woman had also appealed to him for protection. And now, even as Prince Rui prepared to leave Chang’an, his heart still lingered on her, entrusting her care to Pei Ji. Was it possible that the two shared a special connection?

The idea that the two might share a deep understanding left Pei Ji uncertain.

Seeing his cousin’s hesitation, Li Jing Hui spoke with gravity. “Zi Hui, there is no one else I can trust with this matter. Only you are dependable and steadfast, and your words carry weight with the Emperor and Empress Dowager. Given our long-standing friendship, can I count on you to set my mind at ease?”

Pei Ji lowered his gaze and took a sip of wine, feeling the bitterness rising in his heart. “Sixth Brother,” he asked hoarsely, “Do you still can’t let go of her?”

Li Jing Hui fell into a deep silence. He recalled seeing the stunning lady in the palace during the day, she was so close, yet he couldn’t cross the boundaries between them. His heart was filled with mixed emotions.

With a sigh, Li Jing Hui spoke, “Zi Hui, I won’t hide anything from you. I have realized that our status difference is too great, and there may be no chance. But, I cannot let go of her in this lifetime. Even if I cannot keep her by my side, I still want to protect her and make her life better for now. Do you understand?”

If he ever gained enough power and status to counter everything, he would take her back.

However, these words couldn’t be shared with anyone else.

Pei Ji met his hopeful gaze, feeling a twinge of guilt and unease.

Prince Rui and the Emperor remained unaware that he, too, had become ensnared by that calamitous woman. Even without the Prince’s plea, he had already promised to protect her in secret.

After a moment, he averted his gaze from Li Jing Hui and looked down at the cool liquid in his cup, illuminated by the flicker of a nearby candle. “I promise you,” he whispered.

Li Jing Hui’s anxieties temporarily faded, and he opened up, drinking heartily with him. The next day, he and An Yi Kang set out from Chang’an towards Youzhou.

In the imperial harem, on the second day after Prince Rui’s departure, the Empress Dowager fell ill.

It was likely due to the shock of recent events that her illness progressed so rapidly. The female officials reported that the Empress Dowager had caught a cold and the distress weighing on her mind had led to a surge of internal heat, culminating in her current state.

In a matter of moments, the mood in the Daming Palace had become solemn and oppressive.

Li Jing Ye had planned to discuss Li Ling Yue’s marriage with the Empress Dowager, but he had to temporarily set it aside. He spent his days tending to political affairs and only visited Chang’an Hall to attend to the Empress Dowager’s health. As a result, he had little time to visit the Chenghuan Palace.

The concubines, eager to demonstrate their filial piety, flocked to the Chang’an Hall daily.

To her relief, Li Zhi had been instructed by the Empress Dowager to stay away from the Chang’an Hall. Since the Empress Dowager was ill, Li Zhi couldn’t go there even if she wanted to. She didn’t want to further provoke her annoyance.

Unfortunately, as she spent more time in the palace, her opportunities to see Pei Ji became fewer and fewer. She could only catch a glimpse of him every few days when he accompanied the Grand Princess to the palace.

Fortunately, on the night of Zhongqiu Festival, she had received his promise, which gave her some peace of mind. She was no longer in a hurry.

This continued for nearly half a month until the Empress Dowager’s illness began to subside.

As autumn drew near, the weather became increasingly chilly day by day. In a show of filial piety, Li Jing Ye decided to move to Wenquan Resort in Lishan outside the city in ten days, almost a month earlier than the usual practice.

According to the age-old tradition, the Emperor would reside in the palace in Lishan until the end of the year, which could last several months. Hence, all the favored concubines would follow the Emperor’s lead.

The officials would also follow suit.

For the Emperor’s convenience in governance, all central institutions would temporarily move to the resort, and many senior officials would also reside near Lishan with the Emperor.

Naturally, Li Zhi and Pei Ji would accompany the Emperor as well.

As the General of the Imperial Guards, Pei Ji would set off to the resort five days early to guard the route until the day of departure. He would then hurriedly return with his troops on the morning of the departure to escort the Emperor and his entourage to Lishan.

With a grand procession and a majestic momentum, the Emperor embarked on his journey.

As Li Zhi was about to board the carriage, she caught sight of him. He was donned in shining silver armor and wore a purple robe underneath. He rode on a tall and majestic horse with a straight posture, urging the horse to trot and meticulously inspecting the guards who followed behind them.

In that fleeting moment, she deliberately slowed down her boarding action, taking advantage of his horse’s trotting speed as he ran past her side. With a hint of shy joy and expectation, she looked up at him, seemingly casual yet purposeful.

Her almond-shaped eyes, brimming with water, conveyed an indescribable complaint as she gazed upon him.

Although Pei Ji had already noticed her presence, he tried his best to restrain himself as he rode past her. His eyes only flickered slightly over her face, then immediately became steadfast again.

However, his tightly pursed lips, which had almost whitened, and his left hand unconsciously tightening the reins, revealed his inner turmoil.

He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but he sensed that there seemed to be some different implication in those beautiful and alluring almond eyes. They beckoned him to scrutinize and appreciate them more deeply, and he found himself compelled to do so.

The tautness in his grip on the reins transmitted to the horse, which seemed to sense its rider’s change. The animal obediently slowed its pace, prolonging the moment when the two of them passed each other.

As if the wind had blown past, leaving no trace, everything vanished in silence, unnoticed by anyone.

Only a pair of cold eyes, hidden in the shadows, captured the brief exchange of glances and subtle movements between the two, and then silently furrowed in disapproval.

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