Chapter 35 Polo match
The journey back to Wenquan Resort from the hunting ground was swift, taking no more than half an hour, the same amount of time it had taken to get there.
With a polo match on the horizon, Li Jing Ye eschewed a trip back to the palace, instead leading the entourage straight to the Grand Ball Court beyond Beiliao Gate.
Thanks to the efforts of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Six Departments, everything was ready and waiting by the time the Emperor arrived at the viewing platform, followed by female relatives and officials.
Pure Consort Xiao, who did not go to the hunting ground due to her pregnancy, couldn’t wait any longer and headed towards the Grand Ball Court. She was about to pay her respects to Li Jing Ye when she was helped up by He Yuan Shi himself.
Slowly and with the bearing of an Empress, Pure Consort Xiao rose to her feet, intending to join her beloved husband’s side as she had so many times before. However, she was taken aback to find that Worthy Consort Xu, known for her haughty demeanor and disinterest in petty squabbles, had taken her place instead.
Momentarily stunned, Pure Consort Xiao hesitated, a nagging sense of unease creeping up on her.
Worthy Consort Xu sat with perfect composure, seemingly unaware of the gaze upon her, just like the other spectators, all with their eyes fixed upon the dozens of young guards galloping towards the field.
Prior to the polo match, selected from the Imperial Guards, dozens of guards were to display their exquisite riding and shooting skills to the Emperor and his ministers on the field.
Most of these guards were commoner sons who had passed rigorous selection tests to become the Emperor’s attendants. In order to provide them with greater opportunities for advancement, ever since Pei Ji had taken the post of General last year, he had personally pleaded with Li Jing Ye to allow the most exceptional commoner sons from the left and right wings of the Imperial Guards to showcase their skills in public during the autumn hunting every year. If they could earn recognition, then such rare talents would not go unnoticed.
With this unique opportunity to outshine the privileged children before the Emperor, virtually every commoner son in the Imperial Guards had brought forth their best, and now, with their skills on full display, they commanded the attention of all.
Even Li Jing Ye was intently watching the scene, nodding in approval whenever he saw something impressive. When a guard rode by and shot three arrows simultaneously, he immediately ordered a reward for him.
Pure Consort Xiao looked around in search of someone to help her, but finding no one, she reluctantly took a seat next to Worthy Consort Xu.
Li Jing Ye suddenly came back to reality, taking a closer look at Pure Consort Xiao and inquiring about her wellbeing. He then ordered He Yuan Shi to add two more cushions to her seat, which slightly eased her discomfort.
Li Zhi kept a cool, dispassionate eye on the proceedings.
By now, she could almost sense a shift in Worthy Consort’s behavior that was unlike before. It seemed that something had prompted her to abandon her usual aloofness and draw closer to Li Jing Ye, perhaps even seeking to compete with the Pure Consort for his favor.
While she was curious about the reason behind the Worthy Consort’s sudden change, she wasn’t particularly worried. After all, she knew that the Empress had little emotional attachment to Li Jing Ye.
If she could redirect Li Jing Ye’s attention elsewhere, she would be more than happy to do so.
However, for some reason, she recalled Pei Ji’s peculiar behavior earlier and had a vague suspicion that he was somehow involved in this matter.
The guards in the arena continued with their display, but she was absentmindedly nibbling on the food on the table. She took the opportunity to steal a glance at Pei Ji, who was sitting not far away from her on the steps.
Pei Ji seemed to have sensed her gaze and casually looked over at her.
Their eyes met for a brief moment before they both averted their gaze.
Suddenly, Li Zhi remembered how Worthy Consort Xu had ordered the caning and execution of everyone around Li Ling Yue. She had an intuition that Worthy Consort Xu’s strange behavior was possibly connected to Pei Ji.
After more than half an hour, the Imperial Guards finally concluded their performance and left the field one by one.
Witnessing the magnificient momentum of the army and the superb skills of the soldiers, Li Jing Ye was filled with joy. He rewarded the soldiers first and then heaped praises on Pei Ji in front of the important officials. “Zi Hui is indeed a young talent. Previously, the morale of the Imperial Guards was low. I remember when the Late Emperor was still alive, he even contemplated disbanding the Imperial Guards and establishing the Shenwu Army, but was dissuaded by Prime Minister Xu. Now, in the hands of Zi Hui, it is almost as if the army has been resurrected and its momentum restored. I can see that you will become a cornerstone of the country in the future!”
Pei Ji remained unfazed by the Emperor’s words, neither becoming haughty nor embarrassed. He stood up calmly, bowed to the Emperor, and replied in a dignified tone, “Serving Great Wei and Your Majesty loyally is a minister’s duty. I cannot take Your Majesty’s compliments too seriously.”
Li Jing Ye chuckled and waved his hand. “There’s no need to be so modest all the time. We’re not only monarch and vassal, but also cousins. We shouldn’t be so distant from each other. During the upcoming game of polo, you must give it your all and not go easy on me.”
He rose to his feet and walked a few steps towards the stairs.
Everyone understood that the Emperor was preparing to play polo himself.
In previous years, the polo matches were usually led by Prince Rui and Pei Ji, with Li Jing Ye and the Empress Dowager watching from the stands. However, with Prince Rui having gone to Youzhou and the Empress Dowager absent, Li Jing Ye seemed to have no trouble adapting and had already decided to join in the game.
The eunuchs hurried forward with the robes for the players, helping the Emperor and the other twenty-something players put them on and tightly fastening the sleeves.
The robes were divided into two colors: brown for Li Jing Ye’s team and white for Pei Ji’s team.
Two towering wooden walls adorned with intricate golden dragon carvings were erected on either side of the field. Each wall boasted a small aperture, no more than a foot in diameter, through which a goal could be scored, with a net cleverly woven behind it to prevent the ball from escaping. Underneath these goalposts, the skilled drummers of the musical troupe stood poised to create a thunderous beat that would keep the players energized throughout the match.
Officials and guards stood at various points around the field, some watching the goals, some patrolling, and others holding small red flags to signal the beginning of the match. The people of Great Wei, men and women alike, loved to play polo, and as the preparations continued, excitement spread through the crowd.
Even Li Zhi couldn’t help feeling a little excited.
In the past two days, she had always heard of how skilled Pei Ji was at riding and archery, but she never had a chance to see it for herself. Now that he was about to play polo, she naturally wanted to see it.
Li Jing Ye had already picked up a colorful and decorated crescent-shaped polo mallet.
Seeing this, Pure Consort Xiao carefully stood up while holding her stomach and kindly reminded, “This game has always been intense, Your Majesty, be careful.”
Li Jing Ye tried swinging the mallet, turned his head with a slight smile, and a rare sense of spirit flashed across his somewhat pale face: “It’s alright, I know how to handle it. Don’t worry, take care of yourself and don’t get too close to the edge of the field. Just sit and watch.”
His attentive words mollified much of the consort’s previous discomfort, a tender expression blooming across her features.
Li Jing Ye scanned the field before turning his head towards Li Zhi seated among the audience. A grin formed on his lips, “Have you ever watched a polo match, Li-niang? Who do you think will win, Zi Hui or myself?”
With his words trailing off, Pei Ji, who was also wielding a polo mallet and limbering up, silently slowed up his movements.
Li Zhi shifted her gaze from Pei Ji towards Li Jing Ye, her eyes flickering with amusement. “Indeed, Your Majesty. I have yet to see a polo match in the palace. But since you’ve asked me to guess, I’ll say General Pei will emerge triumphant.”
Pei Ji’s body tensed almost imperceptibly, and his hand holding the long-handled mallet turned as white as the winter snow. His heart was a chaotic mess, full of both nervousness and excitement.
The rest were stunned, but the Worthy Consort remained composed. Her gaze swept slowly over Li Zhi’s face.
Li Jing Ye raised an eyebrow, his heart feeling slightly displeased. But he quickly shrugged it off and chuckled, “Well then, let me show you what I’m made of. When I was a Crown Prince, I led four Imperial Princes to defeat a ten-man polo team brought by a Tibet envoy!”
However, as the Emperor, he rarely played and never directly confronted Pei Ji on the field.
Wise Consort Xu spoke up suddenly, “Indeed, this was once a popular tale in Chang’an. The Noble Consort might be unfamiliar with it, but I remember it well. I predict that Your Majesty will win today’s polo match.”
Li Zhi smiled at her confidence, “Ah, I see. Perhaps I am ignorant.” She leaned closer and whispered in Li Jing Ye’s ear. “Your Majesty,” she murmured, “last night you were so vigorous and energetic that I still feel weak all over. I can’t help but feel a little resentful.”
Li Jing Ye finally felt relieved and couldn’t help but lower his eyes to take a closer look at her. His fingers grazed over her creamy skin tinged with a hint of pink, and he chuckled, “So you’re getting back at me.”
Li Zhi’s eyes glimmered as she glanced at him and said, “If Your Majesty can’t win, don’t bother coming to Yuniu Palace today.”
Though her voice was low, it carried clearly to Pei Ji, who stood several feet away, causing him to falter for a moment.
Li Jing Ye roared with laughter, completely oblivious to the exchange between the two. “Alright, then. Let’s see what I’m made of,” he said, turning to Pei Ji. “Don’t go easy on me, Zi Hui. I want everyone to give it their all.”
Pei Ji bowed his head respectfully and led his white-robed players forward, his voice ringing out loud and clear. “Your Majesty, I assure you that we will give this our all.”
With the beat of the drums pounding in their ears, the group strode confidently onto the field, each player gripping their long mallet and mounting their horse. To the sound of singing and drumming, they galloped forward, ready for battle.
Pei Ji and Li Jing Ye both approached the wooden, hollow, colored ball, which was the size of a grown man’s fist, at the center of the field.
Despite their earlier exchange, Pei Ji showed no signs of retreat. He unleashed his usual power, snatched the ball from Li Jing Ye’s grasp when he wasn’t paying attention, and swiftly passed it to another white-robed player. Then, he galloped to the goal.
The players on the field were mostly noble sons. Although they occasionally feared the Emperor’s power, they were much better than common soldiers. Pei Ji’s meticulousness inspired them to become more serious and competitive.
After several rounds of coordination, Pei Ji had already arrived at the goal, caught the ball that another player had struck, pulled it fiercely, and accurately threw it into the goal.
The guards promptly waved a small red flag, signifying the end of the round.
Since Li Jing Ye ascended to the throne, those around him had become accustomed to accommodating him due to his status. Upon seeing Pei Ji’s competitive spirit, he was momentarily stunned, but quickly regained his composure. He concentrated and seized the opportunity to snatch the ball.
It didn’t take long before the team in brown successfully scored a goal.
The spectators in the stands immediately erupted in excitement, while the drummers on the sidelines intensified their beats.
Initially, everyone assumed that with the presence of His Majesty, the outcome of the match was a foregone conclusion. However, the current situation seemed to be a bit more unpredictable.
Even Li Zhi was secretly feeling a bit anxious.
Although she didn’t know the actual strength of the two players, she was aware that Li Jing Ye had consumed too much deer blood and hadn’t rested well the previous day. Despite his apparent vitality today, he was already somewhat weakened. He was simply oblivious to it.
Meanwhile, Pei Ji was robust and vigorous, having abstained from indulgence and diligently practiced martial arts over the years. Even in matters of physical strength, he had an upper hand over others.
If Li Jing Ye lost, Li Zhi knew that he would not go to Yuniu Palace that night, and it would be just what she wanted. She couldn’t help but feel a sense of satisfaction.
As the scores of both sides were tied, with each goal from one side immediately followed by a response from the other, the game had been going on for half an hour and was now tied at three goals each. Li Zhi’s heart was pounding.
Suddenly, a rapid drumbeat echoed across the field. Then, a guard shouted loudly, “There’s only half a moment left before the game’s end!”
Despite being drenched in sweat, both teams were instantly invigorated by the news.
Pei Ji’s face grew solemn as he watched the ball fly towards him. He urged his horse forward, holding the ball high with one hand, preparing to strike.
Pei Ji was unsure whether his intense focus was due to his distaste for flattery and unwillingness to back down, or because of the woman’s words from earlier.
Regardless of the reason, Pei Ji’s determination to win was unwavering. Now, he only needed to make this final blow to secure the victory.
On the other end, Li Jing Ye refused to slacken his pace, swiftly turning his horse’s head and giving chase.
But he was running on fumes now, only pushing himself as he held his mallet in a tense standoff with Pei Ji’s. They were neck and neck, both determined to score the final goal in a match that had already lasted half an hour. Li Zhi’s heart was beating wildly in her chest.
But with a cry of surprise from the audience, Li Jing Ye, unable to hold on any longer, loosened his grip, and the mallet flew out in an instant.
Immediately after, another cry of surprise came, as Pei Ji took advantage of the situation and accurately hit the ball into the goal.
The guards hurriedly sang the final score, announcing the end of the match.
The White team scored one more goal than the Brown team, narrowly winning the match.
Li Jing Ye’s face was momentarily stiff, but he then slowed down and rode to the sidelines, dismounting and smiling at Pei Ji. “Well done, I have lost to you today.”
Pei Ji bowed respectfully, “I dare not claim victory, Your Majesty. You hunted yesterday and played ball today, while I have not gone hunting, which may have contributed to my narrow win by a single ball.”
Upon hearing the Emperor’s praise, the others let out a burst of joyful cheers.
After rewarding the victorious white team, Li Jing Ye was helped up to the high platform by He Yuan Shi. His expression betrayed a brief moment of embarrassment and contemplation.
Li Zhi approached him, her voice soft as a whisper, “General Pei is truly a military prodigy, excelling in all aspects. He is the perfect candidate to serve Your Majesty.”
Li Jing Ye paused, pondering her words, and felt his heartbeat quicken slightly.
She spoke the truth. As the Emperor, he did not need to compete with his subjects, but rather, he should learn how to inspire their loyalty and service.
Winning at everything was the duty of his subordinates, not him. As Emperor, he should not care about winning or losing. Even if he lost today, his subjects would still view him as a benevolent ruler.
He then smiled, took two sips of water, looked sideways and said, “I lost, what should you do, Li-niang?”
Li Zhi’s expression turned sour. “Naturally, Your Majesty, it would be best if you did not come to Yuniu Palace today.”
Li Jing Ye raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t you willing to let me off the hook?”
Li Zhi evaded the question. “Your Majesty is the Son of Heaven, and your words carry great weight.”
His narrowed eyes betrayed his disappointment before he let out a sigh and said, “Very well, I’ll spare you this once. If you don’t want to go, you needn’t.”
Amidst the crowd, Xiao Ling Fu and his son sang the praises of the Emperor’s magnanimity and benevolence. While a few old ministers exchanged glances, they refrained from intervening.
Pei Ji was escorted back to his seat by the white-robed men. A smile, rarely seen on his cold demeanor, flickered on his lips.
As he was about to take his seat, he cast a quick glance at the woman beside the Emperor.
Their eyes met briefly before both looked away, having silently agreed to their unspoken understanding.
Tonight, he had to pay a visit to the Yuniu Palace.
If you enjoy this novel, support the Translator ginevre on her ko-fi account :))