Chapter 33 Deer Blood
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The day’s hunt went smoothly without any unexpected occurrences, and it was only as dusk settled that it drew to a close.
Li Jing Ye led the group on horseback, his heart filled with satisfaction. Alongside the Emperor rode a number of guards who had returned with an impressive bounty of game, including foxes, rabbits, and wild boars, among a dozen other species.
Li Zhi had barely begun to bow in respect when Li Jing Ye sprang from his horse with a boisterous laugh. He took her hand and helped her up. “Li-niang, today I caught a fine fox with beautiful fur that will complement your beauty perfectly. I’ll have it made into a fur coat for you.”
His eyes narrowed as he spoke, shedding some of his usual refined demeanor, revealing a hint of sincerity. For a moment, he seemed more like a young man eager to surprise his beloved with a gift.
Li Zhi’s eyes flickered, and she made an effort not to dampen his excitement. She offered a grateful smile and thanked him, “Your Majesty’s kindheartedness is truly moving. To think you still remember me after all this time. I’m almost not worthy of such a generous gift.”
A younger official stepped forward and bowed low. “Your Majesty’s prowess with a bow is truly awe-inspiring. When you shot the fox, your arrow passed clean through its skull, yet not a single hair was disturbed.”
Li Jing Ye felt somewhat gratified upon hearing the compliment, though he could not easily accept it. He merely waved his hand and said, “Perhaps it was just good luck that favored me today. And of course, you all were being very considerate.”
Li Zhi secretly stole a glance at the young man who spoke.
The man was dressed in a long red robe, and although he was quite tall, his build was somewhat slender. He didn’t appear to be skilled in the art of horseback archery. While his face was considered handsome, his slightly upturned eyes were frequently half-lidded, and a sycophantic smile hung on his lips, making him look rather obsequious.
This man was none other than General Xiao Chong of the Left Golden Shield Guards.
“Why be modest, Your Majesty?” Xiao Chong spoke up. “You hunted the most game today. We all saw it with our own eyes.”
Li Jing Ye’s smile broadened upon hearing Xiao Chong’s words. He no longer felt the need to downplay his accomplishments.
Meanwhile, Pei Yan and his companions remained quiet, keeping their eyes lowered.
Among the imperial concubines, Lady Wang was known for her ability to discern the thoughts of others. When she saw that the Emperor was only focused on the Noble Consort, she felt a twinge of jealousy and boldly stepped forward. “Your Majesty,” she spoke up, “you have hunted so many animals, how can you be so partial and only reward the Noble Consort?”
Lady Wei, who had always been in step with Lady Wang, chimed in with agreement.
Though Li Jing Ye did not often engage with his concubines, he remained affable towards them. Upon hearing Lady Wang’s words, he led the group towards the camp, smiling as he replied, “Alright, everyone will receive their share. The Worthy Consort will distribute the rewards tomorrow.”
However, the usual response he would receive did not come.
Everyone couldn’t help but look at Worthy Consort Xu, who still had a cold face but seemed a bit absent-minded.
“Worthy Consort Xu?” Li Jing Ye’s brow furrowed slightly, and the smile from earlier faded a bit. “Are you feeling tired from today’s hunting?”
Worthy Consort Xu finally came to her senses, but she showed no signs of embarrassment. She simply bowed to him and said, “Your Majesty, please forgive me. I am indeed a bit tired today. I will distribute what I have gained to my sisters tomorrow as you have ordered.”
Li Jing Ye uttered a sound of agreement, but did not show any displeasure. “You have always enjoyed quietness. If you are tired, you may retire to your tent and rest.”
They stayed at the campsite on the edge of the hunting ground on the first day of the hunt.
Worthy Consort Xu did not refuse and thanked him before turning away, as if nothing was amiss.
However, for some reason, Li Zhi felt that her coldness today seemed to be tinged with more irritation and disgust than usual.
A fire had already been lit in the campsite, and simple beds had been set up in the surrounding tents. The two deer they had brought back earlier were waiting to be dealt with.
Li Jing Ye sat on the main seat in the tent, signaling for everyone to take a seat as well. Despite being in the wilderness, they made sure they did not lack fine wine and dancing. In Great Wei, everyone was skilled in singing and dancing, and the nobles even more so.
In the camp by the hunting ground, there was a sense of wildness as they all demonstrated their talents in front of the Emperor, singing and dancing. Li Jing Ye was quite thrilled and had already drunk quite a bit of wine in just half an hour.
When the wine was flowing, Xiao Ling Fu made a subtle sign to his son, Xiao Chong. The young man understood and stood up with a smile, calling for the kitchen staff to bring the deer to the fire. He turned to Li Jing Ye and said, “Your Majesty, it’s almost time to slaughter the deer. It’s warming in the belly right now, and a cup of deer blood wine is the best tonic.”
Li Jing Ye had never tasted it before, but his curiosity had been piqued since he heard about it earlier in the day, and he now looked towards the scene.
The cook held a sharp knife and bowed slightly to the crowd. With skillful precision, he pierced the deer’s neck, and blood flowed into a cup, where it was mixed with wine to make a blood-red concoction.
With a furrowed brow and a cold stare, Li Zhi glanced briefly before averted her gaze.
The deer emitted a mournful cry as it struggled to break free from the butcher’s firm grip under the watchful eyes of the crowd.
Instantly, blood flowed and collected in a copper basin held by a nearby attendant, who then presented it to the Emperor.
Seated beside Li Jing Ye, Li Zhi’s eyes fixated on the thick, red liquid that filled the basin. She shrank back in disgust and asked, “What does Your Majesty plan to do with deer blood? It’s scary to look at.”
Without a word, Li Jing Ye’s suggestive gaze swept over her body, sending shivers down her spine.
Xiao Chong approached them, and for some unknown reason, Li Zhi felt uneasy with the way his eyes lingered on her, hinting at something more. “Your Highness might not know, but this thing is most nourishing and greatly benefits men.”
Pei Yan, who was seated on the side, gazed coldly for a while. Finally, unable to contain his thoughts, he stood up and said, “The nourishment from deer blood has the potential to overdo it, and thus may cause more harm than good. Your Majesty, I implore you to take good care of your health.”
Li Jing Ye remained silent and simply directed his gaze towards Xiao Ling Fu and his son.
Xiao Ling Fu understood what Li Jing Ye was hinting at and quickly stood up with a smile, “Minister Pei, your worries are unfounded. His Majesty is the Son of Heaven, with an abundance of energy and divine blessings. Drinking a small amount of deer blood will not cause any harm.”
“Prime Minister’s words are a bit too much.” Li Jing Ye pretended to reprimand him lightly, then looked at Pei Yan and said, “I understand my uncle’s concerns. Although many Emperors have drunk deer blood, I know my limits.”
Although his words sounded pleasant, Li Jing Ye was already somewhat irritated.
This was a familiar situation, and it had occurred many times before. This year, however, it had become even more frequent. Knowing that he couldn’t persuade Li Jing Ye, Pei Yan sat back down and remained silent.
Witnessing this, Xiao Chong stepped forward with a smile, scooped up half a cup of deer blood, and mixed it with half a cup of wine. He then presented the concoction to Li Jing Ye, saying, “Please try this deer blood wine, Your Majesty.”
Li Jing Ye took the cup and downed its contents in one gulp.
The wine was now infused with the warm, fresh blood, carrying with it a slightly pungent and fiery taste that coursed through his mouth, down his throat, and into his gut.
He paused and furrowed his brow slightly, as if relishing the flavor. After a brief moment, a subtle warmth crept into his belly, and he nodded approvingly. “Hmm, it seems to have some effect.”
Xiao Chong quickly refilled his cup.
“Your Majesty,” Pei Ji interjected, noticing that he seemed to want more. He was about to voice his concerns when Li Jing Ye cut him off with a smile. “Just in time, Zi Hui, come and taste this wine. You’re young and likely haven’t tried it before.”
Li Jing Ye’s words left no room for argument, and Pei Ji sat back in his seat, saying nothing more.
Li Jing Ye ordered He Yuan Shi to distribute the fresh deer blood to the assembled officials and nobles in the court.
With only one large basin of fresh deer blood to go around, each person received a mere half-cup serving. Pei Ji, however, was given an additional half-cup due to his earlier comment.
He furrowed his brow and gazed at the diluted red wine in his cup, knowing that he couldn’t avoid this moment, and braced himself to chug it down.
With that matter temporarily forgotten, the guests resumed their feasting and carousing.
In the kitchen, the deer had been skinned, deboned, sliced into pieces, roasted over the flames, and then tied up with ribbons of vibrant colors before being presented to the diners.
Li Jing Ye grasped a bamboo knife, expertly sliced off two slivers of meat, and offered them to Li Zhi, watching intently as she parted her lips and savored the morsels.
The roasted deer meat sizzled with hot oil, leaving a vivid and tempting sheen on her lips that twinkled as she chewed.
The smears of meat grease around her lips would have appeared unseemly on others, but on her, it only enhanced her allure, making her look even more captivating as she sat there with a serene expression, savoring every bite.
Perhaps it was the effect of the deer blood, but Li Jing Ye suddenly felt a flush of warmth coursing through him, his gaze on Li Zhi deepening in intensity.
He leaned closer, half-encircling her with his arm, and asked in a low voice, “What do you think of the taste?”
Li Zhi smiled and nodded, praising the meat as “truly tender and fresh”. As she reached for a handkerchief to wipe her lips, he intercepted her hand and held it firmly in his own.
His hand burned like fire. She looked at him in surprise and said, “Your Majesty—”
But before she could utter another word, he covered her lips with his own.
She was taken aback for a moment, then began to struggle and push him away.
The two cups of deer blood wine seemed to begin showing effects.
Li Zhi knew that her beauty had always captivated him, but in front of his courtiers, he usually restrained himself and behaved with decorum. His sudden actions today in front of hundreds of people made her feel embarrassed and uneasy.
She suppressed her impatience and whispered a reminder, “Your Majesty, there are still people here—”
But Li Zhi’s eyes began to redden, and he continued to chase after her lips for a kiss.
Suddenly, a deep voice rang out from the side, striking fear into their hearts.
Pei Ji had been enduring the whole time, but at some point he stood up, his face serious and his fists clenched tightly as he stared intently at the two of them.
The others could only hang their heads in silence, but seeing him rise up and speak out, they couldn’t help but secretly admire him.
Li Jing Ye seemed to snap out of it temporarily with this reminder. He slowly released Li Zhi, composed his face, and smiled weakly at the crowd. “I’m tired, let’s call it a day.”
As he said this, he glanced over at He Yuan Shi.
He Yuan Shi quickly stepped forward to support him into the tent, and then ordered someone to escort the Noble Consort inside.
Everyone looked at each other and fell silent for a moment, before quietly dispersing. Although the people were open-minded and did not avoid affairs between men and women, many of the concubines and female relatives still blushed.
Who didn’t understand what was going on? It was obvious that the effect of the deer blood wine had taken hold quickly, and His Majesty was taking the Noble Consort to relieve his pent-up desires.
Pei Ji’s face was gloomy as he took a few steps toward the curtain, which had been lifted and then fell down again, almost involuntarily.
“Third Son,” Pei Yan’s voice came from behind, causing him to stop in his tracks. “Are you alright?”
Pei Ji snapped back to reality, realizing that his father was asking whether he felt any discomfort after drinking that cup of wine just now.
“This son is fine.”
By now, everyone had left, and Pei Yan was heading towards his own tent. He couldn’t help but let out a sigh and shake his head. “In the past year, His Majesty has grown closer to the father and son of the Xiao family. Xiao Chong has no sense of propriety and even dares to bring such things to His Majesty’s attention. But His Majesty insists on distancing himself from me and Minister Du.”
Pei Ji also looked serious. “His Majesty has always been like this. In the past two years, he hasn’t listened to the Empress Dowager’s advice. Whenever I try to advise him, he won’t even let me speak.”
Both father and son felt worried.
Pei Yan glanced at his son, his hands clasped behind his back. “That’s alright. Let me handle any unpleasant matters from now on. You’re still young, and it’s only when His Majesty still trusts you that you can help him in the future.”
Pei Ji’s heart skipped a beat and he couldn’t help but ask, “Father, why do you say that?”
His father’s words seemed to hold a deeper meaning.
A hint of concern crept onto Pei Yan’s face. “We may be out of favour now, but things could get even worse in the future. And then there’s the matter of the Turks.”
The Emperor doesn’t take kindly to old, aristocratic officials and he’ll eventually find a way to suppress them. With the Turks on the move, yet the Emperor still indecisive and without a plan, they could very well find themselves in the midst of a war before long.
Pei Ji suddenly grasped the gravity of the situation, feeling his heart sink.
He silently nodded in agreement and escorted his father back to his tent, before setting out to patrol the various areas along the edge of the camp.
As soon as Li Zhi entered the Emperor’s tent, Li Jing Ye pressed her onto the bed and passionately kissed her.
The eunuch in the tent was so frightened that he dared not lift his head. He quickly bowed and retreated, tightly closing the curtains to prevent any breeze from entering.
Li Jing Ye had been exhausted from the day’s hunting, but now he felt hot and restless, his pent-up energy urging him to release it.
His face was flushed with an unusual color, and he acted more domineering and forceful than usual.
At first, she struggled to resist and tried to push him away, but he tightly restrained her, leaving her unable to move. As she grew more and more exhausted, he continued his advances, leaving countless red marks on her smooth, delicate skin.
“Li-niang,” Li Jing Ye’s eyes were bloodshot, and his breaths came in uneven gasps. “I treat you so well, do you feel the same way about me?”
“Your Majesty, please be gentle,” Li Zhi closed her eyes, turned her head to the side, and softly whimpered, “I’m so tired…”
Her body had lost almost all its strength, but she still had a trace of clarity in her mind. No matter how much she flattered and concealed her thoughts on usual days, she did not want to give in to him on this matter.
She did not want to give him what he wanted.
Li Jing Ye became even more reluctant to let her go, as he could not get the answer he wanted.
The sounds inside the tent rose and fell, until the red candles burned out, and the tent finally fell silent.
The gentle slope at the edge of the camp was a serene and vast expanse of emptiness.
Pei Ji sat alone under the tree, his gaze fixed on the sky that was shrouded in a blanket of darkness.
The autumn night was still, devoid of the usual cacophony of the chirping cicadas that accompanied the summer nights.
The effect of the deer blood wine from the banquet took its time to kick in. It was only now that he began to feel the spreading heat in his stomach. As the cool breeze blew, he felt a rush of coolness and then a wave of heat, like the ebb and flow of the tide.
He knew what he desired at this moment, but the woman who ignited his senses was in the embrace of his cousin.
He couldn’t distinguish whether it was jealousy and pain or struggle and guilt that writhed within him. He just felt a sense of desolation that spread throughout him. Even though his body was ablaze, he couldn’t muster any interest, as if his body and soul had already been ripped apart.
He silently closed his eyes, leaned back against the sturdy trunk of the tree, and inhaled a deep breath of the crisp air that filled the night.
In the bright light of day, she leaned against him, memories of riding together slowly emerging in his mind. The soft, delicate touch of her hand seemed to return to him, silently and unobtrusively.
The emotions that had been drained from his heart slowly trickled back in, the restless energy within his body finally reaching his chest.
He was taut all over, knowing it was impossible, yet still secretly hoping that she would appear suddenly, as she had many times before.
A soft, feminine call came from behind him, but it was not her voice.
Pei Ji’s eyes snapped open, his senses returning quickly. He sprang up from the ground, drew his long sword from his waist, and whirled around to face a pair of eyes that were both familiar and unfamiliar.
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