Chapter 39 Shaken
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In the flickering light of the candles, Li Jing Ye stood before Li Zhi with an inscrutable expression. Her long hair fell in waves around her face, as she knelt before him, looking up with a mix of fear and earnest. Without a word, he bent down and lifted her up, his hands steady and firm. “Li-niang. It’s not your fault. It’s Ling Yue who made a mistake.”
Li Zhi hesitated, unsure of what to say. She took his hand, grateful for the comfort it offered. “The Princess is young, but my cousin is a grown man…”
Her eyes were full of concern as she dared to ask the question on her mind, “Your Majesty, what will you do?”
Li Jing Ye’s face darkened, his mind consumed with worry. “What can I do? She’s carrying a bst*rd child. She must marry Zhong Hao.”
He had fought against the idea before, but the weight of his responsibility was too great. He couldn’t ignore the situation any longer.
Li Zhi’s eyes met his for a moment, then flickered away. “But she’s the Princess,” she whispered. “Your own sister. My cousin is not someone to be trusted.”
She couldn’t bring herself to like either Li Ling Yue or Zhong Hao, but of the two, Li Ling Yue was still young and Li Jing Ye was also at fault. Why should her sister’s entire life be ruined because of this?
Li Jing Ye shook his head with a cold expression. “She doesn’t value her own purity, so she isn’t deserving of a better young man. Li-niang, this matter doesn’t concern you. I’ll take care of it myself.”
With a quick adjustment of his clothes, he hurriedly left with He Yuan Shi.
The door was left ajar, and Li Zhi stood by it, feeling the chill of the autumn wind. Her heart was as desolate as the barren lands.
It was no wonder that he was capable of sending his bed partner to the enemy camp, waiting for her to lose her innocence, and then killing her.
If he could treat his own younger sister that way, then what about her, the woman who was taken away from his younger brother?
It seemed that all the Emperors in the world were selfish, and all the men in the world were heartless.
Great Wei appeared not to be overly concerned about the purity and chastity of women, but in reality, it was only a matter of tolerating remarried women. The princesses of the past, who were raised like delicate flowers, never received the same leniency from officials with three or four wives.
She gazed at the lonely moon in the sky with a stoic expression. Her desolate heart flashed with a sliver of pity, but it soon passed like an untraceable wave, and she resumed her composure.
That night, Li Jing Ye rushed to Li Ling Yue’s palace, only to find that the Empress Dowager had already arrived. The three of them engaged in a heated argument that shook the palace walls.
Despite his sister’s objections, Li Jing Ye remained resolute in his decision to marry her off to the Zhong family. The Empress Dowager tried to stop him, but as a mother, she couldn’t bear to let her daughter suffer the pain of childbirth alone. After much internal struggle, she reluctantly agreed.
The only silver lining was that the Zhong family lacked power and influence. As a princess, Li Ling Yue would enjoy more freedom and less restraint by marrying into such a household.
Li Jing Ye wasted no time and issued an edict the next day appointing Zhong Hao, the son of Zhong Cheng Ping, the Duke of Qinguo, as the Commander of the Cavalry (Master of Imperial Stud), and ordered Zongzheng Temple to make arrangements for the wedding.
The news of the Princess of Wuyang’s sudden engagement to Zhong Hao, who had previously been expelled from the Imperial Guards for committing an offense, sent shockwaves through the imperial court. Everyone wondered why the Emperor had made such an unusual decision.
The common people, blissfully ignorant of the palace intrigue, attributed the Emperor’s decision to marry off the Princess to his favoritism towards the Noble Consort. They assumed he wished to raise her family’s standing by association.
Rumors spread like wildfire among the imperial family and officials, each one casting blame on Noble Consort Zhong.
Pei Ji could not shake off the uneasy feeling in his heart when he heard of the rumors.
He recalled the events of Zhongqiu Festival night, where the Emperor had already expressed his intention to marry off the Princess to Zhong Hao. Despite Pei Ji’s advice, the Emperor had only relented after the Empress Dowager intervened.
Pei Ji could not fathom why the Emperor had suddenly decided to go ahead with the marriage two months later. But one thing was certain, it had nothing to do with Noble Consort Zhong.
The Noble Consort must have had no loyalty towards anyone from the Zhong family. Something must have happened behind the scenes.
Pei Ji waited for days, anxious to know the truth. Finally, he learned the details from the Grand Princess, who had just returned from the palace.
Finishing her statement, the Grand Princess let out a heavy sigh. “Ling Yue made a mistake and caused such a great disaster. I can’t help but feel sorry for her.”
Pei Ji furrowed his brows, lost in thought. His heart felt as though it had been splashed with icy water, sending shivers down his spine.
It had only been on that Zhongqiu Festival night that the princess became pregnant!
His mind wandered to the few moments of intimacy he had shared with Li Zhi over the past few months. What would come of it?
During their encounters, she had never mentioned the possibility of pregnancy. As for himself, he was inexperienced in such matters. Even the noble sons he knew had personal maids to take care of such things.
He had overlooked this issue for such a long time!
If she were pregnant, what would he do?
He paused, considering that the woman had always been calm and collected, hiding her true intentions. Perhaps she had already thought of this matter. Was she not mentioning it because she didn’t care, or was there something else going on?
A foreboding feeling slowly crept up in Pei Ji’s heart, and his hand on his knee unconsciously tightened.
The Grand Princess noticed her son’s silence and furrowed brows, prompting her to call out, “Third Son, what’s the matter?”
Pei Ji snapped back to reality, mustered a forced smile, and pushed aside his uneasy thoughts to recall his mother’s words, “If that’s the case, why are there rumors circulating outside?”
“It was the Worthy Consort’s doing,” the Grand Princess frowned and revealed, “She didn’t hide anything from me. Although I didn’t ask, she brought it up first. His Majesty ordered the Worthy Consort to handle Ling Yue’s affairs. Knowing the Empress Dowager was worried about Ling Yue’s reputation, she took the initiative to suggest spreading the news that His Majesty married the Princess to Zhong Hao because of the Noble Consort.”
She glanced at Pei Ji and shook her head, “Before, I thought Ling Yue was an upright and honest child, much like you. But now… she’s changed.”
Pei Ji remained silent, took a sip of hot tea, and lowered his gaze thoughtfully.
As he pondered the Worthy Consort’s actions, he couldn’t help but feel guilty and uneasy.
In the past, he would have accepted praise for his honesty and integrity with ease. But now, he had become lost in a haze of confusion and was no longer the same upright and guiltless person he once was.
Seeing his silent reaction, the Grand Princess assumed he did not want to discuss the Emperor’s concubines and changed the subject, “Today, the Empress Dowager mentioned that you are no longer a young man. If you have someone in mind, there’s no need to be shy about it. Getting married and starting a family would put an end to her concerns about you and Ling Yue’s marriage.”
In just a few months, Pei Ji would reach the age where ordinary young men would be getting married or engaged. However, while his peers have already found their partners, he remained idle.
“Mother, there’s no rush.” He unconsciously furrowed his brows, not wanting to discuss this any further. “I need to achieve something before I can think about starting a family.”
The Grand Princess looked at him with a helpless expression. “I thought you already had someone in mind. Never mind, never mind. If you need to attend to official duties, go ahead. Your grandmother will remind you when the time comes.”
Pei Ji bowed to his mother before turning and heading back to his own courtyard without saying a word.
As the night deepened, his courtyard remained empty and deserted, with no one attending to his needs as usual.
It had been his habit since childhood to rely on himself, even when he lived in the grandeur of the Daming Palace for two years, he kept the palace servants at arm’s length. After he joined the Hedong army, he grew accustomed to a life of simplicity, where he did everything by himself, from making his own plain tea to preparing his simple meals.
His residence was sparsely attended to, only receiving a cursory cleaning when he was not there during the day. Save for Shi Quan, no one else was permitted to enter his courtyard.
Since the Emperor’s relocation to the Wenquan Resort, he and his parents moved to a nearby mansion in Lishan. He was unaccustomed to living in this new residence, as it was a place they rarely stayed in.
He stood at the door for a moment, contemplating, then pushed it open and lit the lamp inside.
His bedroom was spacious and neat, with only essential items such as bedding, tea utensils, and a few necessary decorations on the shelves. It was a reflection of his modest and understated style, one he had developed during his time in the army.
He sat down by the bed, intending to read a stack of military documents by the light of the oil lamp. However, his hand changed direction midway and opened the storage box on the desk instead. He picked out a small, delicate object and held it gently in his palm.
The icy chill of the porcelain seeped through his skin and gradually dissipated between his warm palms.
It was a gift from that woman.
The hand cream with coral peony petals remained unused, its efficacy long gone, and yet he could not bring himself to dispose of it. Instead, he scraped off the ointment and washed the small box, keeping it close at hand.
Oddly enough, he carried it with him when he relocated from the city to Lishan.
He took a deep breath, clenched his fist tighter, and endured the pressure on his flesh and bone until a faint ache crept in. Abruptly, he released his grip and tossed it back into the box.
He yearned to ask her face-to-face why she never mentioned the possibility of being with child.
However, the piercing glare of Wortht Consort Xu loomed over him like a sharp blade.
Furthermore, the woman’s casual remark of “not meeting when there’s no pressing matter” halted him in his tracks.
He knew he had to exercise restraint and reason, not to sink any deeper, yet the princess’s situation still gnawed at his heart.
He gently placed the small box back in its designated spot, sat down on the couch, and stared off into the distance, lost in thought. The flickering candlelight added to the serene atmosphere of the room.
Suddenly, a noise outside caught his attention, and shortly after, Shi Quan’s voice followed, “General, there’s news from the south.”
Pei Ji paused for a moment, deep in thought, before he realized that the south referred to Yangzhou.
Collecting his thoughts, he sat upright and called for Shi Quan to enter.
“General, three exquisite estates have been chosen in Yangzhou, each unique in its own way. The maps have arrived today,” Shi Quan reported, taking out the sketches of the three estates from his sleeve and carefully placing them on the table. “Each estate is situated in a different location, and we have gathered detailed information on the previous owners and the construction history. It is now up to the General to decide.”
After contemplating for a brief moment, Pei Ji collected the sketches and said, “You may leave now. I will make a decision in two days.”
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