Chapter 32 Woods
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Arching an eyebrow, Li Zhi tilted her head back to look up at him. The radiant and enchanting face was bathed in the dappled sunlight filtering through the sparse trees, shimmering with a dazzling golden glow.
“General, why must you speak so? Can I not enter, when others can?”
Pei Ji’s gaze flitted to the docile horse standing beside her. “Though there are no ferocious beasts in these woods, small creatures such as foxes and rabbits often pass by. One wrong move, and the horses will be startled. Your Highness is a novice rider. It’s better to be cautious.”
Watching his tall, imposing figure, she couldn’t help but smile. “So, General, you were worried about me and followed me all the way here?”
The question had been nothing but a casual remark, but the blush that spread across his face and the flicker in his eyes told her the answer.
However, he quickly regained his composure, his lips pursed into a thin line. “Your Highness misunderstands. I do not overstep my bounds. I am just fulfilling my duty to protect all those present here.”
In reality, as soon as the others scattered and went their separate ways, he noticed her dismissing the eunuch who had been trailing her, and unease gnawed at him. Taking advantage of his patrol, he quietly followed her.
With keen interest, Li Zhi watched as he put up a facade of nonchalance, trying to distance himself, and couldn’t help but feel astonished.
Despite the fact that they had already shared intimate contact, every time he was alone with her, he was utterly composed, without even the slightest hint of ulterior motives.
Had it been a more timid young lady, she would have crumbled beneath his icy demeanor ages ago.
But this person, who appeared so unshakable, like a rock in a storm, who wished he could renounce the world and become a monk, always became domineering and overbearing whenever they were intimate, leaving her powerless to resist.
The disparity between this man and the one on the bed was striking. His behavior was more likely driven by a sense of shame rather than any love or affection.
Li Zhi secretly felt relieved.
She had never believed in romantic love between a man and a woman. To her, it was simply a transaction where both parties took what they needed and parted ways cleanly.
When the time came, whether he chose to be a loyal and devoted commander or to seize power during chaos, it was of no concern to her. She only needed to use his power to escape, and then live the rest of her life freely and without worries.
In that moment, a mischievous thought crossed her mind.
She cried out in surprise, her legs giving way beneath her. She stumbled and leaned against a huge rock, looking up at Pei Ji with pleading almond-shaped eyes.
Pei Ji’s body stiffened, but his thin lips remained tightly closed as he sat atop his horse. His dark eyes narrowed slightly, casting a cold gaze down at her.
Ever since that day at the coral peony hot spring, he vowed not to make the same mistake again.
“Noble Consort, please stand still. Why did you suddenly fall?”
His voice was laced with icy detachment and a hint of sarcasm, as if he had easily seen through her facade.
Her crystalline eyes betrayed her deep disappointment. She nibbled her lower lip and turned her gaze away to the dense forest, whispering softly, “I’m alright. It’s just that my legs are a little sore from learning to ride these past few days. General, if you’re not concerned about me, please go ahead. There are still many who need your protection in the hunting grounds.”
Her voice was tender and delicate, heavy with a palpable sense of grievance that made one’s heart ache.
Pei Ji remained silent, his grip on the reins tightening as he leveled her with a steady gaze before turning his horse’s head and retreating at a slow, measured pace.
The silence behind him was deafening, as if she truly remained rooted to the spot and had not followed him.
He furrowed his brows in uncertainty, plagued by a sense of unease.
Learning to ride a horse was not without its struggles, and it was not uncommon for one’s legs to grow sore and weak from the unfamiliar motions. She had only just begun to learn, and today’s long ride from Wenquan Resort had undoubtedly taken a toll on her.
His suspicions deepened, prompting him to unconsciously tighten his grip on the reins and slow his pace, stealing a quiet glance over his shoulder.
He saw Li Zhi was sitting softly by the giant stone, her almond-shaped eyes now with a layer of tearful mist, and even her small nose was tinted pink as if about to cry.
Pei Ji felt a pang of pain and bitterness in his chest. He looked up at the sky, silently sighed, closed his eyes, then dismounted and walked quickly towards her. He half-crouched in front of her and asked in a deep voice, “Can you go back by yourself?”
Li Zhi looked at him before tightly wrapping her arms around his neck. She leaned softly against him, complaining, “I thought General would leave me here alone.”
She seemed to have forgotten that she came to the woods alone in the first place.
Pei Ji stiffened. He hesitated for a moment, then extended his arms to hug her back. “I thought the Noble Consort is playing a prank on me again.”
She was always so ambiguous, making it difficult for him to decipher her true feelings, thus making him cautious.
Li Zhi leaned in closer to Pei Ji’s ear, her voice low and gentle as she whispered, “General Pei, why do you always appear so cold? How could I tease you? I’ve been learning how to ride these past few days, and I still have some bruises on my body. If you don’t believe me, you’re welcome to take a look for yourself.”
Her words were true, for her legs were indeed sore, though not enough to impede her movement.
Pei Ji’s felt a rush of warmth suffuse his body, his cheeks turning crimson as he looked down at the woman in front of him.
He held her against his body, his voice becoming slightly dry, “Don’t move, I believe you.”
As a young man with blood and fire, once he tasted the pleasures of love, he would know the taste. At this moment, with Li Zhi in his arms, he could hardly restrain his desires.
Li Zhi sensed his strange behavior and obediently stopped moving.
Though they were alone in this secluded spot, the wilderness around them serving as a natural barrier against prying eyes, Li Zhi had no intention of allowing things to go any further between them.
For a while, the only sounds were the gentle rustle of the leaves in the breeze and the soft beating of their hearts.
Pei Ji gradually calmed down, moved back a little, and squatted in front of her, reaching out to massage her legs.
Li Zhi sat still, feeling her legs gradually ease.
Looking at the droplets of sweat trickling down his forehead, she extended her hand, pulling him up to stand beside her with a smile. “Thank you, General. I feel much better now.”
Her gaze fell upon the wooden longbow he had been carrying on his back, and she complimented him, “I forgot to mention earlier, General. Your archery skills are remarkable. You were able to take down the geese soaring in the sky.”
A flicker of a smile finally flashed across Pei Ji’s usually impassive face.
Catching her inquisitive look, he reached behind and retrieved the longbow, placing it in her hand. “It’s nothing much. Any young man who practices archery for a few days can do it.”
Li Zhi regarded him with a skeptical expression, doubting his words.
Li Jing Ye’s earlier recounting of Pei Ji’s superior hunting skills allowed Li Zhi to understand that he was once a distinguished hunter, surpassing others with his horsemanship and archery abilities.
She carefully observed the longbow in her grasp, trailing her fingertips over the smooth purple shirt wood and rough bowstring.
Although it appeared light from a distance, it weighed heavily in her hands.
She had tried a few short bows a couple of days ago. Now, holding this extraordinary longbow in her hand, she stood straight, arms parallel to the ground, with one hand gripping the bow and the other pulling the string, striking a pose.
Despite her best efforts, the bow remained unbending, with the string refusing to yield.
Pei Ji let out a light laugh and strode two steps forward, standing behind her. Taking out an arrow, he covered her hand with one and helped her pull back the string with the other.
Li Zhi’s eyes widened as she watched him effortlessly perform the task, the sound of the taut bowstring almost audible in the air.
The two of them pressed together once again, radiating heat.
Pei Ji’s gaze followed the arrowhead into the distance, and he whispered in her ear, “This bow was given to me by my grandfather before he passed away. I was eight years old at the time, frail and sickly, unable to lift the bow, let alone pull it back. It wasn’t until I went to Hedong and trained in the army for over a year that I grew strong enough to use this bow.”
Li Zhi’s ears perked up at the sound of his deep voice, causing her to turn her head and steal a glance at him.
He seldom spoke during their rare moments of solitude, but today he opened up to her, sharing more about himself than ever before.
Pei Ji felt her slight movement and lowered his head to meet her gaze.
With their bodies already so close, their noses brushed and their breaths mingled.
The air thickened with an undeniable heat, the previous tension between them reigniting.
Pei Ji released his grip on her hand, and in a swift motion, the feathered arrow shot out with a force that easily pierced a nearby tree trunk the size of a bowl.
The silence of the woods enveloped them once more.
Pei Ji’s eyes locked onto Li Zhi’s as he tightened his hold around her waist, leaning down to claim her lips in a fierce and passionate kiss, unable to resist the strong pull between them.
With her eyes half-closed, Li Zhi climbed onto his solid arm, letting him lead her to a sturdy tree trunk where he kissed her from her lips to her neck.
He gradually lost control of his actions, becoming somewhat rough, even putting force into the kisses on her neck and pulling at her shirt.
Li Zhi gently pushed him away, panting and shaking her head.
Although they were temporarily alone, the place was not secluded enough, and she didn’t want to take any risks.
Pei Ji gradually stopped, motionless and restraining himself on her shoulder.
After looking at him for a moment, Li Zhi suddenly said, “General, please carry me on the horse.”
Although he was puzzled, Pei Ji did as she asked, lifting her up horizontally and struggling to restrain his physical reaction. He then placed her on a horse and was about to mount another horse himself, but she stopped him and signaled him to sit behind her, riding together on one horse.
She pivoted her horse and strode slowly toward the depths of the forest.
Pei Ji furrowed his brows, blew a sharp whistle, and signaled his mount to follow her. But just as he was about to speak, he suddenly froze, his blood boiling.
Li Zhi sat sideways in front of him, a slender hand sneaking into his clothes, gently gliding downward.
“You…” His eyes flickered with darkness, his voice choking with emotion, all of his senses focused in one spot.
Without a word, Li Zhi continued her ministrations, leaving him increasingly tense, and unable to resist the urge to lean down and claim her lips in a kiss.
The two steeds leisurely meandered through the woods, occasionally snorting and whinnying, producing a faintly suggestive sound.
In the shadows, a pair of eyes watched unblinkingly, both shocked and furious.
It was almost half an hour before the two of them slowly separated from their embrace.
Pei Ji straightened their clothes, sent her back to the edge of the forest, watched her ride back to the camp alone, then turned his horse to search for Shi Quan.
Shi Quan had been waiting for a long time at the foot of the slope. The wild goose that was supposed to be in his hand was nowhere to be seen. When he saw Pei Ji coming back, he couldn’t help but look at him with surprise. He quickly concealed his expression under Pei Ji’s cold gaze and said, “General, His Majesty has sent someone to bring back two freshly hunted deer. He said he wants to eat roasted deer meat and drink deer blood wine tonight.”
Pei Ji’s brow furrowed upon hearing the news. “Why does His Majesty want to drink deer blood wine? Did someone suggest it?”
Deer blood was a precious tonic that nourished the essence, supplemented yang, nourished the qi, and dispelled cold. It was always cherished by the nobility as a precious item that greatly benefited those with physical deficiencies. However, because of its value, it could not be consumed indiscriminately.
In ancient times, many Emperors indulged in pleasures and, after drinking deer blood, felt full of energy and strength. They would often drink it, and among them were those who over-nourished themselves to the point of physical deficiency and death.
Li Jing Ye, at the age of twenty-six, was strong and robust. Why would he even need such things? He was usually able to control himself and would not indulge in such luxuries.
As expected, Shi Quan spoke up, “General Xiao mentioned that during the war in Tibet, he once tasted deer blood wine. The flavor was exquisite and the effects were outstanding, which piqued His Majesty’s interest.”
General Xiao was the son of the Prime Minister, Xiao Ling Fu. Although he did not achieve any significant military accomplishments in the war against Tibet, he was still promoted to become the Left Golden Shield Guard General.
The father and son pair were always fond of guessing the Emperor’s intentions, flattering and pleasing him, and the Emperor trusted them.
Pei Ji could almost imagine the scene when his father and Du Heng had tried to dissuade the Emperor, but were impatiently interrupted by him.
Although the Emperor appeared gentle, he was suspicious and obstinate. Once he made a decision, the persuasion of others would only lead to the opposite effect.
Although Pei Ji didn’t agree with it in his heart, he had no choice but to remain silent.
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