Chapter 30 Hot Spring
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Turning towards the sound, Li Zhi saw a beautiful figure emerged in the moonlight. Pei Ji stood tall and strong beside the rugged rockery, his handsome face hidden in the shadows, revealing nothing of his emotions.
No one spoke for a while. She followed his gaze to the spot where he had been standing moments before, and her eyes fell upon a scarlet wall that loomed before them.
The wall stood tall, stretching out towards Rihua Gate and dividing her courtyard from the rest. He had deftly scaled the wall, landing safely behind the rockery where he was hidden from prying eyes.
As the General of the Imperial Guards, he had long since familiarized himself with the layout and terrain of the place, just as he had done during his time in Daming Palace.
Living in the Yuniu Palace, she was far removed from Changtang Pool, which seemed to be a good thing.
Her lips curved upwards in a playful smile as she dipped her feet back into the steaming waters. The white flesh of her toes glowed in the light of the setting sun, creating tiny ripples that danced across the surface of the pool.
“The General has arrived.”
She was not surprised at all. She had hinted at him twice during the day to find an opportunity to be alone with her, and now, at night, he had indeed come.
But when these words fell into Pei Ji’s ears, they stabbed at his heart.
Before coming, he had gone through a lot of painful struggles.
During the day, in front of everyone, she had gazed at him with eyes full of resentment and sadness, just for a moment. But that fleeting moment had left him in a daze for a long time. He felt guilty towards his two cousins for his feelings towards her, and he also couldn’t forget the promise he made to her. What if she needed his help someday? He could never ignore her.
After a lot of deliberation, he saw the Emperor’s sedan chair leaving from Rihua Gate and heading towards the Changtang Palace while he was patrolling the city wall of the Zhaoyang Gate. This made him realize that the Emperor would not stay in the Yuniu Palace tonight. He gritted his teeth and decided to come here.
However, seeing her calm demeanor, he began to doubt himself. Fearing that he had misinterpreted her earlier hints, his handsome face tightened with worry.
In the pavilion, bathed in the soft moonlight, she sat by the water’s edge. The mist swirled around her, and her delicate feet played in the water like shimmering pearls, calling out to him like a siren’s song.
He stood still beside her, struggling to keep his eyes from straying to the enchanting sight of her feet. In a measured voice, he asked, “Why did the Noble Consort summon me here?”
The graceful movements of her body came to a halt as she lifted her feet out of the water and placed them on the nearby rock.
The wispy fabric of her gown clung to her damp skin, darkening slightly under the influence of the water.
The pavilion was lit with several lamps, their gentle radiance caressing her fair skin. Pei Ji could almost feel the cool water droplets trickle down her exposed calves.
Seated elegantly, she deliberately accentuated the curves of her figure beneath the translucent material of her dress. Her limpid eyes gazed up at him innocently, “Do I need a reason to see General Pei?”
Pei Ji’s heart skipped a beat as he realized he had once again fallen prey to the allure of this calamity.
She alwayse used her innocent and charming looks to tease him, making him lose his once steely resolve and sharp senses.
Anger boiled inside him, turning his face even colder and more stoic as he spun on his heels and strode away without a word.
“Ah–” a soft gasp escaped from behind him.
His heart jolted, instinctively halting his steps.
Before he could even glance over his shoulder, slender arms coiled around his midriff, delicate fingers clutching his lower abdomen, and a lithe body pressed against his back with a soft, warm weight.
“General, you’re so cruel. Am I the only one missing you all this while?” Her voice, like a gentle breeze, tickled his ear from behind, rousing an unexpected burst of anger that threatened to crack his icy demeanor.
He cursed himself for being a fool, falling prey to her deception and then succumbing to her charm once again.
He shut his eyes, took a deep breath, and forcefully removed her hands that had wrapped around his waist. Turning around, he frowned and said, “Your Highness, why resort to such deceitful words to beguile me? Trust me, I won’t go back on my pledge. But having already committed one mistake, I cannot afford to make another.”
With a resolute air, he slightly bowed and appeared ready to leave.
Despite being pushed away, Li Zhi did not show any anger. Instead, she reached for the hem of his purple robe and looked at him pitifully. “General, do you regret what happened last time?”
Pei Ji’s eyes darkened, and he shook his head in a hoarse voice. “No, I don’t regret it.”
However, he felt a pang of guilt in his heart.
Li Zhi’s face brightened, and she smiled as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. “In that case, what’s the difference between making one mistake, or two, or three?”
She slowly approached, her bare feet stepping on his sturdy military boots, slightly tiptoeing, her arms wrapped around his neck, and once again tightly attached to him. Her cheeks were also lifted up, touching his nose, and their breaths intertwined.
Their eyes met, and her misty gaze seemed to draw him into two deep pools, tempting him to lose himself in them.
The scent of her body overwhelmed him, causing his mind to sway. The willpower he had managed to muster collapsed all at once, unleashing the beast that he had kept hidden inside.
He leaned over and passionately kissed her lips, which were dampened by the mist. His clenched fists relaxed and wrapped around her waist, stroking her spine.
Their clothes became increasingly disheveled, falling one by one among the plants by the pool.
Amidst the mist, Li Zhi’s eyes glistened as she looked at him, who seemed to have lost control. “General, have you not thought of me at all during these days?”
Pei Ji’s heart was crumbling.
He didn’t respond to her question but instead closed his eyes, and together they immersed themselves in the warm, soothing embrace of the hot spring.
As the water enveloped their skin, the temperature rose, and tiny droplets of sweat emerged on their foreheads.
He guided her hands to the pool’s edge and pulled her into his embrace from behind.
Despite her claims of longing and hurt, he knew that it was all a pretense.
Li Zhi was a woman without a heart. Whether it was the Emperor or Prince Rui, her feelings were nonexistent. How could she feel anything genuine for him?
But he couldn’t bring himself to reject her words.
For almost two weeks, not a single day passed without him longing for her presence, consumed by thoughts of their last encounter.
In the vicinity of the Changtang Palace, Li Jing Ye listened attentively to the reports of the female official, his eyes fixed on Pure Consort Xiao as she swallowed the pregnancy medicine. Only when he saw her take the last sip did he finally let out a small sigh of relief. With the help of his eunuch, he undressed and sat on the bed.
Supporting her body with one hand and her swollen belly with the other, Pure Consort Xiao moved aside apologetically, “My deepest apologies for disturbing Your Majesty and the Noble Consort’s enjoyment.”
She had witnessed the Noble Consort enter the Rihua Gate with her own eyes today, and later learned that the Emperor had arranged for her to stay at the Yuniu Palace, not far from the Feishuang Hall. And to make matters worse, he had even ordered the digging of a coral peony hot spring exclusively for the Noble Consort’s use. Her heart ached with jealousy and pain, and she found it difficult to control herself.
As night fell, and His Majesty had yet to appear at the Yuehua Gate, she knew he must have gone to the Yuniu Palace.
Driven by her intense jealousy, she suddenly felt unwell and boldly ordered her attendants to invite Your Majesty over.
Fortunately, the Emperor still held some feelings for her. The moment he heard that she was not feeling well, he rushed over without delay.
Li Jing Ye sat unmoving on the edge of the bed, his expression darkening. “Pure Consort, you have always been as insightful as your father, understanding my heart and acting with grace and decorum. I have always trusted you. How could you be so muddled about the matter of bearing an heir? Hasn’t the last time taught you anything?”
Just moments ago, Li Jing Ye had been informed by a female attendant that the Pure Consort’s distress today was caused by her deliberate attempts to eat less, which had left her weakened and, if continued, might have dire consequences for the child in her womb.
Pure Consort Xiao’s complexion turned ashen, her eyes brimming with tears.
Struggling to kneel upright, she lowered her gaze and said, “Your Majesty, I know I have been foolish. I was afraid that if I ate too much, I would become unsightly and repulse you…”
Pure Consort Xiao had never before questioned her own appearance, but now, with the Noble Consort’s incomparable beauty, she became increasingly fearful that her gravid figure would be deemed unattractive and unappealing.
She was acutely aware of men’s proclivity towards novelty and fickleness, even the the Emperor whom she adored was no exception. Pure Consort Xiao hoped only to cling to him a little while longer, while she was still young.
Li Jing Ye saw her repentance and, mindful of her pregnancy, softened his expression and consoled her by holding her hand. “It’s alright. This time I won’t hold it against you. Remember to take good care of yourself and our child in the future. Giving birth to an heir is a great benefit to our nation. How could I ever be disgusted with you?”
“I understand, Your Majesty.” Pure Consort Xiao wiped away her tears and carefully held his hand back. “May I ask, Your Majesty, whether you hope for a boy or a girl?”
Li Jing Ye carefully watched her pleasing expression and his heart softened. He smiled and touched her belly. “Either is fine, be it a princess or a prince. I will love them all the same.”
Despite the fear that the child would be difficult to conceive, Li Jing Ye remained optimistic. Even if the Pure Consort were to fail to give birth to a son, there would be plenty of opportunities in the future.
Pure Consort Xiao spoke softly, “I hope to give birth to a little prince for Your Majesty, to become Your Majesty’s eldest son. Would Your Majesty be willing to teach him personally and let him become as wise as Your Majesty?”
Li Jing Ye gazed at her silently, deep in thought.
He knew that the Pure Consort was trying to test him, to see if he was willing to make her child the Crown Prince.
Following the proper protocols, the Crown Prince should be the eldest legitimate son. Since he had yet to name an Empress, the eldest son of the primary consort would be the most suitable. But if the Pure Consort were to give birth to a prince, the officials would surely petition for his appointment as the Crown Prince.
On its own, this matter was unremarkable.
But now he found himself hesitant.
He had refrained from naming an Empress to prevent the meddling of powerful relatives in politics, but now the entire Xiao clan had earned his trust. With Xiao Ling Fu as the leading official, their status was already significant. If he were to appoint the Pure Consort’s son as the Crown Prince, wouldn’t it only make the Xiao clan even more prominent?
This would make the practice of not naming an Empress to prevent the interference of powerful relatives meaningless.
Although he was satisfied with Xiao Ling Fu’s work, he didn’t want his family to become the next Du.
He envisioned his ideal Crown Prince being born to a common family, rather than the son of a high-ranking imperial consort.
Thinking of this, he couldn’t help but think of Li Zhi still in Yuniu Palace.
If only fate had led her to him before the Sixth Prince, he would have made her son the indisputable Crown Prince.
Unfortunately, her current status is quite awkward.
“My child, whether male or female, shall receive my personal guidance,” he declared.
While sidestepping the Pure Consort’s probing words, he nevertheless made his intentions clear.
Pure Consort Xiao’s forced smile betrayed her disappointment as she deftly changed the topic at hand.
Her father had once warned her of the Emperor’s cool and aloof nature, never fully trusting anyone. She had dismissed such cautionary tales before, but now, as she watched his demeanor, a chill crept into her heart, and she couldn’t help but wonder if there was some truth to those old rumors.
In the Yuniu Palace, the storm of passion had just passed.
Li Zhi was lounging languidly in the pool, watching Pei Ji hastily dress up in the pavilion. Her gaze lingered on his muscular body, tracing the water droplets that slid down his skin.
She couldn’t help but observe the arrow wound on his left arm and the knife wound on his right abdomen, both testaments to his bravery and prowess.
As Pei Ji noticed her watching, his face grew redder. She smiled wryly, then reluctantly stood up and walked out of the pool, unbothered by her bareness.
She had never enjoyed the company of servants, so she dismissed them all, giving her and Pei Ji a rare moment of privacy.
Pei Ji had already prepared a large towel to wrap her up in. He lifted her in his strong arms and carried her to the inner chamber.
Li Zhi snuggled up to him, enjoying the feel of his arms around her. She traced her fingers over his chest, marveling at his rippling muscles.
Pei Ji couldn’t help but tense up under her touch.
But Li Zhi was relentless. She reached up and lightly touched his Adam’s apple, feeling the vibrations of his deep voice.
Pei Ji’s eyes darkened with desire, but he managed to keep his voice steady as he said, “Your Highness, please don’t move.”
Li Zhi smiled gently as she pressed herself against his chest, her soft voice barely above a whisper. “General, could you do me a favor?”
Pei Ji felt his Adam’s apple bob as his heart raced. “What is it?”
“Would you buy a house for me in Yangzhou?”
Since she had made up her mind to leave, she had been planning her escape carefully. While she needed Pei Ji’s help, she also needed to ensure her safety and security once she was gone.
Li Zhi had pored over the maps of Great Wei territory she found in the palace books, carefully plotting the locations against her dream of the turmoil three years hence.
As the chaos was mainly concentrated in the northern regions, if she wanted to settle down, she should go south. However, at that time, the regions of Lingnan and Xinan were still considered as uncivilized and backward, and as a woman, she may find it difficult to establish herself there.
Only Yangzhou, with its bustling prosperity and welcoming culture, offered a viable alternative. There, she had heard, lived many unmarried or widowed women looking to make a life for themselves.
But without funds, her plans would remain but a pipe dream.
Lately, she frequently dispatched servants to deliver gold and silver items to the Zhong family, many of which were meant for her elder sister, Lan Ying.
Though her uncle and his clan were all ignoble, they did not dare to appropriate all the valuables for themselves, having been previously threatened by her. Hence, they left some for Lan Ying every time.
She sent Chun Yue to visit and divulge her plan to Lan Ying. She hoped that Lan Ying would take good care of herself while opportunistically hoarding some precious gold and silver. Such assets would prove useful when the sisters eventually had to depend on each other.
Lan Ying, a woman of fortitude, felt surprised yet pleased when she learned of her meek younger sister’s plan. She naturally didn’t object to it.
This approach wouldn’t raise any suspicion from outsiders.
However, Lan Ying was a woman with a disability, which hindered her from accomplishing much.
But with Pei Ji’s assistance, she’d already made some surreptitious arrangements for properties and farmland. This would come in handy should she manage to escape during the upcoming turmoil.
However, for the time being, she could not divulge her plans to Pei Ji.
Pei Ji furrowed his brows slightly, wanting to ask her why, but ultimately held back and simply nodded in agreement.
Nevertheless, buying a house was no big deal, and he saw no reason to doubt her intentions.
Li Zhi smiled up at him and planted a gentle kiss on his jawline. “Thank you, General.”
Pei Ji’s face reddened slightly, and his steps faltered. He swiftly carried her to the bed, tenderly wiping away the water stains on her skin before extinguishing the candles in the room and departing silently.
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