Chapter 3 Prince Rui
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The whispering breeze carried a subtle fragrance of locust flowers, which cleared the confusion in her mind and refreshed her senses.
She was not in a hurry to go back. She relished the refreshing coolness of the place while meticulously sorting through her thoughts.
In her dreams, the images were disjointed and unclear, yet they provided enough clues for her to discern her predicament.
She was blessed with natural beauty, born into a modest family. Tragically, her parents passed away when she was young, and she was forced to live with her sister Lan Ying at their uncle’s home. Enduring constant cruelty and mistreatment, her alluring figure and enchanting face fueled her longings and desires.
Her heart had always yearned for an authentic and unconditional love.
Thus, when the Emperor disregarded all conventions and brought her back to the palace, conferring upon her the title of Noble Consort, lavishing her with attention and adoration, she was foolishly convinced that she had attained everything she had ever wanted.
In time, she became the object of envy for all women in Chang’an, and her family also rose to prominence because of her.
Lost in a dream spun of glitz and glamour, she reveled in her newfound power and position.
It wasn’t until three long years had passed, under the walls of Fufeng City, that she came to realize just how brittle her world truly was.
The Emperor who had showered her with affection and favor, abandoned her without a second thought. And Prince Rui who had once loved her, cruelly humiliated her.
Only the pale moonlight bore witness to the dusty bones buried beneath the sands.
She was a woman both pitiful and tragic, her fate forever sealed by the whims of men.
As the night enveloped her, Li Zhi released a soft sigh, a fleeting moment of pity for the woman she once was. But soon she recognized the foolishness of such emotion.
Whether it be love or desire, both were but fleeting clouds in the grander scheme of life. Had she only realized this sooner, she might have avoided the tragic end that awaited her.
As it was her turn now, she knew she had to temper her sharpness, take a step back, and proceed with caution, making sure to plan for the long term in order to avoid a disastrous outcome. But she was lacking a crucial breakthrough point to escape from the situation that had trapped her.
Lost in thought, she heard a soft call from behind, “There you are, Miss!” Turning around, she saw a maid of her own age, Chun Yue, who had a round, simple face with a small crimson birthmark under her right eye. Chun Yue had been by her side since she was a child.
Chun Yue looked at her with a worried expression and said, “I thought Miss was hiding again and didn’t want to go back.” Li Zhi softly smiled and pinched Chun Yue’s cheek. “No, if I don’t go back, you won’t be able to eat again, and your face will lose a few ounces of flesh,” she teased.
During her first month here, she often felt confused and uneasy, wanting to escape. Every time she hid alone, Chun Yue became so worried that she couldn’t eat or sleep, and even lost weight. It wasn’t until the past two months that she started to recover.
Chun Yue blushed as she was pinched and said earnestly, “It doesn’t matter if I eat less, as long as Miss is well taken care of.”
Li Zhi was momentarily stunned.
She rarely saw such sincere kindness.
Chun Yue was simple-minded and did not notice anything unusual about her mistress, thinking that her change in temperament was due to the upheaval caused by the marriage.
“Silly child,” she murmured, taking Chun Yue back with her. “I’ve come to terms with it and won’t do that again.”
Chun Yue’s round face immediately relaxed, but then she frowned and whispered, “Miss, Prince Rui is here, in your room.”
The smile on Li Zhi’s face vanished.
This was the third time that Prince Rui Li Jing Hui had come to visit her. Since moving to the Wangxian Temple on imperial orders, he had found reasons to linger in the palace, even sneaking into her room twice to avoid being seen.
Growing up in the Daming Palace, he knew every nook and cranny of the place, including the many hidden paths in the woods surrounding Wangxian Temple. The first two times, he stood silently in the room, watching her from a distance.
Li Zhi knew he was not one to endure humiliation silently, and now, with the Emperor only just leaving and darkness falling, he had come again, unable to bear it any longer. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then turned to Chun Yue and whispered urgently, “Go down the mountain and find General Pei. Remember, don’t let anyone else hear about this.”
The matter must be handled with utmost care, and no one with malicious intent can be allowed to find out.
Chun Yue nodded vigorously, but then lowered her voice and asked, “What about you, Miss? What will you do?”
Although Prince Rui had not taken any action during his previous visits, Li Zhi still couldn’t shake off the unease of being alone with him.
For a moment, Li Zhi had been tense and anxious, but Chun Yue’s question brought a faint smile to her lips.
She gently pushed Chun Yue and whispered, “Don’t worry, hurry and find General Pei. He should be finishing his duties soon, and once he’s here, I’ll be safe.”
Without hesitation, Chun Yue rushed out of the room, her dress fluttering behind her.
Li Zhi stood still for a moment, watching Chun Yue disappear, before she put on a soft and vulnerable expression and slowly turned around to go back into the garden. As she approached her room, she saw a familiar figure standing at the door.
The person seemed to have been leaning against the door frame and gazing for a moment. His voice carried an indescribable hoarseness and bitterness.
The two looked at each other for a moment, without saying a word.
He let go of the door and took two steps closer. His features, which had been blurry due to the candlelight in the room, gradually became clear in the moonlight. It was her former husband, Prince Rui, Li Jing Hui.
Li Zhi calmly swept her surroundings. Seeing no one else around, she secretly breathed a sigh of relief.
She lowered her head, avoiding his obscure and unclear gaze, and said softly, “It’s already evening. Your Highness shouldn’t have come here. You should go back quickly.”
Li Jing Hui looked at her evasive posture and clenched his fists secretly, suppressing his emotions as he asked, “Li-niang, don’t you… don’t you have anything you want to say to me?”
Li Zhi furrowed her brows in response to Li Jing Hui’s words, quickly lifting her head to look at him before avoiding his gaze and speaking softly, “Your Highness, please come inside if you want me to speak. There are many people coming and going here, and it’s not appropriate to discuss such matters outside.”
She knew that this palace was filled with curious eyes and gossiping ears, and any misstep could be interpreted as a scandalous secret relationship between her and Li Jing Hui. Despite the open-mindedness of the Great Wei, and despite the fact that they were already married, she was very aware that the Emperor would not tolerate such behavior.
Pei Ji was due to arrive soon, and before that, she had to calm Li Jing Hui down.
In the scattered dreams she had before, Li Zhi had sincerely hoped for a marriage with Li Jing Hui. Even after entering the palace, she was filled with gratitude and guilt towards him. However, knowing that the two of them were no longer possible, she didn’t want to hold him back and had to refuse decisively.
Unexpectedly, it aroused the anger and hatred hidden in his heart, transforming him from a privileged prince basking in luxury to a rebellious traitor determined to seize power and exact revenge.
Later on, when they met again in the army, Li Jing Hui’s once-fond feelings for his beloved wife had long since vanished, and he now regarded her as nothing more than a tool to be used for venting his pent-up frustrations…
Now that the resentment of taking his wife had already taken root, Li Zhi had no intention of resolving the enmity between these brothers. Considering the situation, she decided to temporarily attach herself to the Emperor.
However, she couldn’t afford to let Li Jing Hui despise her once again.
If only he knew that she had been forced to make her choice, he might have shown her a modicum of mercy and kindness should he ever capture her again.
This was her final trump card, one she had held back to ensure her safe escape.
With these thoughts in mind, she stepped aside to let Li Jing Hui enter the room. Once inside, she closed the door and pinched herself hard, forcing out a few tears before turning to face him.
She was still contemplating her opening when Li Jing Hui suddenly swept her up into a tight embrace.
“Li-niang, come away with me!”
Li Zhi was taken aback, her eyes widening slightly. She felt the urge to struggle, but after a moment’s hesitation, she refrained from pushing him away outright.
Under the cover of the night, Pei Ji and several guards followed Li Jing Ye as they left the mountain path and headed towards Zichen Hall.
Despite the excellent moonlight, Li Jing Ye did not ride in a carriage, but walked side by side with Pei Ji, leading the way.
Pei Ji was not just any ordinary man. He hailed from the illustrious Pei family of Hedong. His father, the Duke of Yanguo, Pei Yan, held the position of Deputy Prime Minister. His mother was none other than Li Jing Ye’s own aunt, Grand Princess Li Hua Zhuang of Shouchang.
The Emperor and Prince Rui were both his first cousins, and the three grew up together, naturally close.
Pei Ji was known for his steady and upright nature, earning him Li Jing Ye’s complete trust. At the tender age of eighteen, he was appointed as the General of Imperial Guards, becoming one of the Emperor’s most trusted confidants and entrusted with the important task of safeguarding the palace.
In the year that passed, Pei Ji had faithfully carried out his duties without the slightest hint of laxity. He had never allowed himself to entertain any thoughts other than those which pertained to his loyalty towards his cousin, Li Jing Ye.
However, in the past three months, he had grown increasingly perplexed by his cousin whom he had grown up with since childhood.
Last year, Prince Rui had fallen head over heels for Third Miss Zhong and proposed to make her his Princess Consort, which had already left him astounded. But little did he expect that during the wedding ceremony three months ago, even His Majesty, who had always cherished his younger brother, lost his senses and took the woman as his own!
Remembering the woman’s appearance he had caught a glimpse of outside the Wangxian Temple just now, he couldn’t help but furrow his brows. He slowly rubbed his fingertips together, which were now clenched tightly by his side.
Although he had never been interested in women, he couldn’t find a single flaw in Miss Zhong’s appearance.
Her beauty was simply stunning.
It wasn’t the kind of beauty that one could easily find in the ordinary and gentle ladies, but rather a kind of allure and charm that was indescribable. As if she were born with innate beauty, every single movement she made captured people’s hearts and left a lasting impression on their minds.
But could a mere stunning appearance truly justify such a callous disregard for brotherly love and moral principles?
Not to mention, when he observed the demeanor of the young lady outside Wangxian Temple just now, she always had a fragile, delicate appearance, a pitiful facade. Even when confronted with his cold, scrutinizing gaze, she didn’t flinch at all, almost as if she was a woman of deep cunning.
He furrowed his brows, truly puzzled.
Li Jing Ye caught a glimpse of his younger cousin’s expression and couldn’t help but sigh. “Zi Hui, you must find my conduct like this utterly despicable.”
How could the Emperor bring his brother’s wife to the imperial palace and privately favor her in a Taoist temple? Even he himself found it absurd, let alone others.
Pei Ji’s eyebrows tightened even more, and he said in a deep voice, “I dare not, but I just don’t understand. Your Majesty has the world in his hands, why must you have that Third Miss Zhong?”
He wanted to ask if one beautiful woman could really surpass years of brotherly love?
Despite being close to the Emperor, he knew his place and wouldn’t say anything unnecessary.
“Zi Hui, you just don’t understand,” Li Jing Ye sighed and patted his shoulder. “On the day of the wedding, the moment I saw Li-niang, I knew I could never forget her. I’ve watched my sixth younger brother grow up since he was seven. I’m willing to give him anything he wants in this lifetime except for the throne, but Li-niang, she’s different.”
He gazed up at the high-hanging full moon, as if he could see the woman’s beauty before him. “I’ve had too few chances to indulge myself in this lifetime. I only regret not meeting her before my sixth younger brother…”
Pei Ji remained silent, lips pursed in thought.
The Emperor’s intentions were beyond his comprehension.
Since childhood, he had never enjoyed the company of others. Even though he was nineteen and born into a noble family, he remained unmarried and had no personal maidservant in his chamber.
His focus was solely on his official duties. When he returned home, he would often spend his time practicing martial arts or reading. Although he occasionally attended banquets at other noble houses or drank with colleagues at Pingkang District, he would rarely allow singers or dancers to get too close.
After living this way for many years, he never felt lonely. He believed that it was good to be free from external distractions, and he could not comprehend those who were swayed by women’s beauty.
“Things have come to this point, Your Majesty. It’s time to make a decision.”
He reminded the Emperor that they had already brought the woman here, and it was not appropriate for her to remain nameless and unaffiliated in the Wangxian Temple for too long. It would be better to bring her into the harem earlier to put an end to Prince Rui’s aspirations.
Li Jing Ye naturally understood, his eyes becoming increasingly dim as he said, “Of course I want to. But my mother and Sixth Brother’s relationship—”
The words caught in his throat and he sighed helplessly. “Forget it, it’s useless to tell you about it. I heard that Sixth Brother came to see Mother in the palace today, drank a little too much, and is staying in the Shaoyang Courtyard. If you see him, please advise him on my behalf.”
Pei Ji nodded in agreement, bidding his farewell before turning on his heel. He had to make his rounds and check the various guard posts before he could retire for the day.
As he made his way past the Penglai Hall and drew closer to the Qinghui Pavilion, he spied a young woman dressed in simple Taoist robes hurrying towards him on the mountain path leading to the Wangxian Temple. Though the moon’s light was weak, he could tell from her panicked gait and ragged breathing that she was in a state of distress.
The guard at his side, Shi Quan, squinted his eyes and spoke up. “General, that’s one of Third Miss Zhong’s maids. She looks like she’s searching for you.”
Pei Ji could now see the scarlet birthmark beneath Chun Yue’s eyes in the light of the moon, and his expression grew grave. He had no desire to interact with Third Miss Zhong in any way, but as the General of the Imperial Guards, it was his duty to attend to palace affairs, particularly since the Emperor had specifically instructed him to keep watch over the area surrounding the Wangxian Temple.
He then stopped and ordered Shi Quan to step back a little, waiting for Chun Yue to approach.
“General Pei!” gasped Chun Yue, her eyes red and wild. She did not dare waste any time and, seeing that the surrounding people had retreated, quickly whispered, “My lady— Prince Rui has broken into my lady’s chamber!”
Pei Ji’s eyelids twitched when he heard this, and his expression became even more serious. He had a sense of foreboding when the Emperor had mentioned that Prince Rui was staying at the Shaoyang Courtyard tonight, and it seemed that his intuition was correct.
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