Chapter 31 Hunt
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Pei Ji used a break from his official duties to instruct Shi Quan to secretly send people to Yangzhou to look for suitable houses.
Shi Quan was taken aback, racking his memory before realizing that he had not heard anything about Pei Ji’s posting to Yangzhou. Feeling uneasy, he asked, “What if the Grand Princess inquires—”
Pei Ji shot him a look, shaking his head firmly. “It’s not for me, but for someone else. No need to involve my parents in this matter.”
Though still puzzled, Shi Quan refrained from pressing further and carried out the order.
Due to the distance and need for secrecy, Shi Quan estimated that it would take a month to obtain any information.
Pei Ji, having given the order, calmly assessed the situation and did not press for immediate results.
With autumn coming to a close, Li Jing Ye decided to take advantage of the officials’ day off and lead his courtiers and imperial relatives on a hunting excursion.
The Great Wei people were deeply influenced by the customs of the Hu people and held martial prowess in high regard. Not only were men proud of their equestrian, archery, and blade-wielding skills, but many noblewomen also displayed great proficiency in these areas, especially among the highborn.
The Emperor’s hunting excursion was intended to continue the trend of martial culture among the nobility and commoners alike, showcasing the prosperity of the realm while inspiring all to hone their skills and become fearless defenders of the nation in times of war.
Over the course of two days, attendants of the Emperor and many noble youths partook in the hunt, and some of the imperial consorts and ladies also followed suit.
During their rest at night, Li Jing Ye broached the topic of the hunt with Li Zhi and naturally invited her to join him.
Li Zhi readily agreed but hesitated a moment later. “But Your Majesty, I don’t know how to ride or shoot. I’m afraid I won’t be able to keep up with you.”
Li Jing Ye was momentarily taken aback, but he soon realized that Li Zhi’s humble background meant that she likely had not been trained in equestrianism or archery like other noblewomen.
His heart filled with compassion, Li Jing Ye hugged her tightly and said, “Don’t worry, there’s still time. I’ll teach you how to ride, and you can stay by my side during the hunt.”
Li Zhi smiled and thanked him before softly leaning against his side, secretly wondering if he would actually follow through with his promise.
As the Emperor, Li Jing Ye had made countless promises to her within the palace, such as visiting Taiye Pool, but every time, state affairs always took precedence, and the plans were never carried out. Li Zhi wouldn’t be surprised if this time would be any different.
As expected, the next day, Li Jing Ye took her out of the Beiliao Gate and into the grandiose Great Ball Court. He gifted her a magnificent Western Region horse and hurriedly left for court, leaving two skilled female officials behind to teach her the art of horseback riding.
But for Li Zhi, this was a relief.
Without the Emperor present, she no longer felt constrained and could focus on learning from the two female officials with ease.
With the gentle horse and her natural grace and flexibility from years of dance training, Li Zhi made remarkable progress within a few short days. She could finally ride a horse with ease and confidence.
The clear weather on the twelfth day of the ninth lunar month was perfect for hunting.
Li Jing Ye spent the night at the Yuniu Palace and hastily rose early in the morning to meet with his officials and nobles at the court. After completing all the necessary formalities, he led the entourage out of the Jinyang Gate and set out towards the hunting ground.
Li Zhi changed into a bright riding outfit and accompanied the Empress Dowager, concubines and other young female members of the royal family.
Pure Consort Xiao, who was pregnant and unwell, could not attend the event. And Li Lingyue, who never missed the hunting event in previous years, was unfortunately denied the chance to participate due to Zhongqiu Festival fiasco.
The concubines were few in number, joined by more than twenty female members of the royal family, and they stood out among the hundreds of men in attendance.
The hunting ground was a short distance from the mountains, and they arrived there in less than half an hour after leaving the Jinyang Gate.
The autumn wind whistled, causing the flags on the perimeter of the hunting ground to flutter wildly in the breeze.
Pei Ji had taken his two thousand guards to establish a fortified encampment near the hunting ground a day prior to the hunt.
With everything prepared, Pei Ji and his subordinates patiently awaited the arrival of the imperial carriage. As soon as they caught sight of the approaching entourage, Pei Ji spurred his horse forward to greet them.
The Emperor’s procession was a sight to behold, but Pei Ji’s gaze was immediately drawn to the exquisite figure walking beside His Majesty.
Adorned in riding garment, Li Zhi exuded a unique grace and boldness as she rode her horse. Her sparkling almond eyes, bright red lips curved into a smile, and fierce demeanor shone like a raging flame.
Pei Ji’s eyes dimmed slightly as he tightened his grip on the reins with his left hand. He forced himself to look away from the stunning figure and instead turned to Li Jing Ye, bowing respectfully.
Li Jing Ye had changed his imperial robes for a simple, yet elegant Hu outfit that made him appear more gallant and adventurous than usual.
He gestured for Pei Ji to relax and spoke out in a booming voice, “You have been working hard recently. In the past, you could accompany me on hunts even before you became the General of the Imperial Guards. But this year, you seem constrained.”
Pei Ji had fulfilled his duties as the General of the Imperial Guards in charge of the local defense with utmost dedication. He had proposed to abstain from joining this year’s hunt and instead focus on patrolling the perimeter, ready to respond to any signal from his accompanying guards.
“It is an honor to serve Your Majesty.”
Li Jing Ye gazed at Pei Yan, the Duke of Yanguo, with a smile on his lips. “Minister Pei’s son is truly following in his father’s footsteps, meticulous and dedicated. He will undoubtedly grow into a great talent in the future.”
Pei Yan grinned modestly and watched his son from the corner of his eyes, brimming with pride.
From a young age, this only son had demonstrated an uncommonly resolute temperament, never relying on his noble birth to feel superior, but instead pouring more effort into everything than others.
Although he had yet to achieve many military feats that earned widespread recognition, at only twelve years old he had entered the army and roughed it out for four years in Hedong, earning him the praise of all soldiers whenever Pei Ji was mentioned, as a testament to the virtuous conduct of the Pei family.
Now back in Chang’an, he had become the standout among all the sons of nobles, and his father naturally felt extremely proud.
Especially now that he and other old ministers like Du Heng were not particularly close to the Emperor, with mutual suspicion and wariness lingering between them, his son’s pure-hearted nature and childhood bonds had won him the Emperor’s trust. For the entire Pei family, this was truly a blessing.
Li Jing Ye waved his hand and looked around at the young nobles eager to test their mettle. “Since Zi Hui won’t be participating in the hunt this year, you can all compete against each other.”
Pei Ji had always excelled in both horseback riding and archery, and with him around, no one else could measure up.
The group burst into laughter at the Emperor’s words, half-jokingly claiming they would thank General Pei while urging the Emperor to hurry up and issue the order.
Li Jing Ye rode closer to Li Zhi and spoke softly, “Li-niang, I’ll be taking them to hunt some fierce beasts in the distance. You and the ladies can hunt around here. If you get tired, you can rest at the camp when I come back.”
Hunting was predominantly a male pursuit, and while women were allowed in the hunting grounds, they couldn’t venture too far into areas where dangerous beasts lurked. They usually stuck to the slopes and edges of the nearby dense forest.
Li Zhi had only learned to ride horses and shoot arrows on flat ground, and riding on horseback made her nervous. She hadn’t intended to go hunting, only hoping to get some fresh air. Upon hearing the Emperor’s words, she smiled and nodded, “Your Majesty, please proceed. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be here waiting to see the game you catch.”
Li Jing Ye rarely laughed so openly, waving his hand and leading the group to gallop towards the distant hunting area.
The group dispersed in a flurry, leaving only a handful of women behind.
Worthy Consort Xu maintained her cold and emotionless demeanor. As soon as the Emperor departed, she wasted no time and nodded to Li Zhi, “Please forgive me, Your Highness. I will go hunting first.”
She then pointed to two eunuchs on horseback nearby, turned her horse, and made her way towards the mountainside.
Observing her departure, the rest of the entourage felt restless, but their status prevented them from leaving so abruptly.
Knowing what they were thinking, Li Zhi waved her hand, “If any of you wish to go hunting, feel free to do so. Just be sure to bring a few more eunuchs along and be careful.”
Suspecting that Li Zhi was not adept at horseback riding or archery, they were somewhat condescending, but did not express it. Only a young and naive girl asked, “Are you not coming with us, Your Highness?”
Everyone fell silent for a moment, looking at each other, not knowing what to do, afraid that Li Zhi would get angry because she was struck in a sensitive spot.
The young girl realized her mistake and became flustered.
Li Zhi didn’t let the indifference of others affect her. She smiled at the crowd and turned to the young lady, revealing her vulnerability, “I’m not skilled in archery, and I only recently learned to ride horses. Therefore, I can’t accompany you on this hunting trip. Please go ahead without me.”
Li Zhi was no stranger to the condescending looks and whispers from those who judged her by her birthright. Despite keeping a calm facade, deep down, she knew the importance of staying true to her roots and never succumbing to the pressures of her peers.
Living in this environment had hardened Li Zhi’s resolve to stay true to herself. She reminded herself of her humble origins and remained steadfast in her principles, never allowing anyone to crush her spirit.
Facing the judging gazes and sneering remarks of others, she faced them with poise and grace, but never felt the need to agree with their opinions.
Li Zhi’s response made the young lady secretly breathed a sigh of relief. She bowed and saluted, and left with her companions. The others had nothing to say and left with their familiar attendants.
As the crowd dispersed, Li Zhi relaxed and called over an attendant to run around the edge of the forest and the slope, asking about the safety of the area and where the fierce beasts might appear. Then she sent the attendant away and rode her horse alone to enjoy the scenery.
With one hand gripping the saddle in front of her, and the other loosely holding the reins, Li Zhi allowed the horse to run freely, until it finally reached the edge of the woods. There, she reined the horse in, dismounted, and continued on foot, taking slow and measured steps along the forest path.
The warmth of the sun was obstructed by the canopy of trees, casting a cool shadow over the area. In the sky above, a single goose flew across the remaining expanse of blue.
A sharp whooshing sound sliced through the air as an arrow was released, hitting the goose with astonishing precision and sending it tumbling towards the ground in a violent gust of wind.
Li Zhi’s attention was drawn to the nearby slope where Pei Ji sat atop his horse, holding a longbow in his hands and gazing up at the sky with a steady focus. He gradually lowered the bow after releasing the arrow that had hit its target.
Pei Ji’s attendant, Shi Quan, cast a quick glance in Li Zhi’s direction before turning his horse towards the fallen prey and galloping towards it with purpose.
The surrounding area was deserted and devoid of any signs of life.
A smile graced Li Zhi’s lips as she slowly led her horse closer to Pei Ji, calling out to him with respect, “General Pei.”
Pei Ji remained expressionless, as if he hadn’t even heard her approach. He allowed his horse to slowly walk towards her until he stood a few steps away, gazing down at her from a superior height. His eyes then shifted towards the shadowy woods behind her, as he spoke in a deep, grave voice, “Your Highness, it is not safe for you to venture into the woods alone.”
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