Chapter 42 Lan Ying
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As the eleventh lunar month drew near, the preparations for Li Ling Yue’s impending marriage were in full swing.
In accordance with custom, the union between a man and a woman required passing through six elaborate rituals. This process could take anywhere from three to five months, and sometimes even longer, spanning up to a year or two. For the common people, these procedures were often rushed through in two or three months. However, when it came to imperial affairs, especially the marriage of a princess, there could be no room for carelessness. Every detail of the ceremonial procedure had to be meticulously adhered to.
Nonetheless, Li Ling Yue’s predicament was unprecedentedly sudden, and although she could exercise some patience, the same could not be said for the baby growing inside her. Under the persistent prodding of Zongzheng Temple’s head monk, the wedding ceremony was hastily arranged, scheduled for the twenty-sixth of the eleventh lunar month.
The deadline left only a little over a month to finish everything, including the outfits and props for the wedding ceremony. However, they managed to make it happen, with the Weaving Bureau working tirelessly day and night to produce the necessary attires. Fortunately, Li Jing Ye had already ordered the construction of the princess’s mansion upon her coming of age, thanks to the Empress Dowager’s affection. By June, the residence had already been completed, sparing them the trouble of finding another venue.
Such a sudden turn of events was bound to draw criticism and gossip from outsiders, who could not help but speculate about what had really transpired. Initially, the Emperor’s lavish attention on the Noble Consort had been the topic of discussion, but it had now shifted to conjecturing the possibility of a feud between the Emperor and the princess.
Ultimately, the decision to appoint Zhong Hao as the Commander of the Cavalry had been made. Despite the Emperor’s fondness for his favored consort, there was no need for them to rush into marriage.
Within the palace, all affairs were still delegated to the capable hands of Worthy Consort Xu.
Ever since Li Jing Ye’s departure from Worthy Consort Xu’s palace, he had not imposed any punishment on her, but had chosen to coldly ignore her. In the span of a month, he had visited Lady Wang twice and had yet to set foot inside Worthy Consort Xu’s quarters.
Despite Worthy Consort Xu’s calm exterior, a sense of unease lingered within her heart.
Having gone to the Emperor’s presence twice, she had only caught a glimpse of Li Jing Ye before being quickly persuaded to leave.
Faced with no other options, she meticulously attended to Li Ling Yue’s wedding preparations, impressing the Empress Dowager with her dedication.
With each passing day, the weather grew colder until the highly anticipated day of the Princess of Wuyang’s wedding arrived.
The clock had just struck midnight, and Wenquan Resort was bustling with eunuchs and palace maids.
The snow had only stopped falling the day before, and the palace was covered with a thick blanket of snow. In the dead of night, the eunuchs swept the palace paths clean, paying extra attention to the palace gates and the old dynasty’s ruins. Meanwhile, the palace maids were busy hanging colorful silk decorations everywhere, adding a festive air to the place in honor of the princess’s wedding.
Li Jing Ye couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sadness for his little sister’s wedding. After checking on Li Ling Yue in person the previous night, he retired to Feishuang Hall, choosing solitude over Yuniu Palace.
Li Zhi slept soundly and awoke earlier than usual. She donned a robe and headed out to bathe in the hot spring before the snow had melted, relaxing her body and mind. Then, she wrapped herself tightly, walked through the frigid courtyard, and returned to her chambers.
The palace maids had already delivered her meals and then withdrew, leaving Li Zhi to enjoy her breakfast in peace.
Chun Yue draped an additional coat around Li Zhi’s shoulders and said, “Miss, everything is prepared, and Qing Zi will bring them all one by one.”
Qing Zi was among the palace maids that Li Zhi had personally handpicked from the new palace attendants. She hailed from an ordinary family, possessed a gentle disposition, and acted with prudence, earning Li Zhi’s trust above all others.
Li Zhi nodded gracefully, inviting the maid to join her for a meal.
As the wedding was related to the Zhong family, Li Zhi had already sought Li Jing Ye’s permission to attend, eager to witness the celebration and visit her beloved elder sister, Lan Ying.
With Prince Rui dispatched to the border, Li Jing Ye had no objections to Li Zhi’s request to leave the palace. He even sent her generous gifts of gold, silver, and cloth to distribute among her family and friends.
And so, as the welcoming procession approached in the evening, Li Zhi and Chun Yue readied themselves to depart.
After finishing their meal, the two chatted briefly and meticulously checked the items they had prepared to bring with them. By afternoon, Li Zhi had dressed herself in the finest ceremonial garments and jewelry, ready to be escorted by a eunuch to the front hall.
Though the wedding was scheduled for dusk, royal protocol demanded numerous preliminary rituals, and so the guests arrived early to the front hall.
As Li Zhi stepped forward, the concubines stood to one side, and the royal family and courtiers arrived. And as the Emperor and Empress Dowager took their seats, the ceremony was set to begin.
As per tradition, the ceremonial official recited each step of the elaborate ceremony. As dusk approached, Li Ling Yue finally made her way into the palace, led by a procession of female officials.
In front of a captivated audience, Li Ling Yue donned a headdress of golden jade and a resplendent green-blue ceremonial gown. With lowered eyes, she walked towards her mother and brother, slowly bowing down before them.
With a belly slightly swollen due to her three-month pregnancy, Li Ling Yue was fortunate that her wide ceremonial gown helped conceal it. She moved gracefully without any hint of discomfort.
Standing to the side, Li Zhi’s eyes lacked joy, and even a tinge of bitterness crept across her peeling cheeks.
In this past month, Li Ling Yue had appeared to resign herself to her fate. She no longer made trouble with her mother and brother, choosing to remain quietly in the palace. Today, it seemed evident.
If even the princess had to endure such a fate, then who could be exempt?
The Empress Dowager, usually calm and reserved, couldn’t help but shed tears as she watched her daughter bow down. Even Li Jing Ye was moved to the point of moistened eyes.
The Empress Dowager wiped her tears and took her daughter’s hand, looking at her with maternal love and a touch of sadness. “Ling Yue, I only pray that you will have a smooth journey ahead of you.”
Li Ling Yue’s somber expression softened slightly as she met her mother’s tearful gaze and nodded in silent understanding.
As the sky grew darker, the wedding procession of the groom, Zhong Hao, arrived at the palace gates amidst great fanfare. The ceremonial official’s voice boomed across the courtyard, “The auspicious hour is upon us. The groom has arrived!”
Li Jing Ye rose from his seat and walked over to his sister, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Ling Yue, if anyone wrongs you, come to me, and I will make it right.”
Li Ling Yue looked at him with complex eyes as she remembered her elder brother’s kindness and thoughtfulness towards her when they were young. Tears almost fell from her eyes as she forced a smile and opened her mouth to say something, but in the end, she only managed to utter a single word, “Understood.”
Zhong Hao, resplendent in a crimson wedding costume, bowed respectfully to the Emperor and his courtiers before leading Li Ling Yue onto the beautifully decorated carriage waiting outside.
Li Zhi also boarded the carriage behind the procession with many relatives who were going to witness the ceremony, and they all left together.
Li Jing Ye had yet to issue orders for the wedding procession to return to Daming Palace. Therefore, the entourage had to travel back from Lishan to Chang’an. The journey was quite a distance of twenty miles, so Pei Ji had taken the initiative to lead the Imperial Guards to wait outside the palace, ready to escort everyone back to the city as soon as they arrived.
The road was a well-trodden path, free of obstacles and easy to navigate. The Imperial Guards had cleared the way beforehand, and so the procession proceeded smoothly without any hiccups. After just over an hour, they finally arrived at the newly-built mansion of the Princess of Wuyang.
The mansion bestowed upon the Zhong family was adjacent to the Princess of Wuyang’s palace, and both structures were identical in design. Zhong Hao and Li Ling Yue resided in the Princess of Wuyang’s palace, while the rest of the Zhong family lived in the newly granted Duke’s mansion.
By the time they arrived, the mansion was bustling with guests, and everything was in order. As soon as the newlyweds entered the premises, the drummers and musicians began their lively tunes, filling the air with an infectious energy.
Zhong Cheng Ping and his wife, Madam Yang, were ecstatic and brimming with joy. They led the guests in paying their respects to Li Zhi and then ushered her to the front row of the spectator’s gallery, where she could have an unobstructed view of the celebrations.
On the way, all eyes were on Li Zhi, taking in her striking features and graceful posture. Some were awestruck and envious, while others were curious and disdainful. However, Li Zhi remained unfazed and simply smiled, taking her seat with calm composure to watch the festivities unfold.
Once the formalities were over, the guests began to indulge in the sumptuous banquet.
Li Zhi and the other guests had only sipped a couple of cups of wine before she quietly slipped away, her eyes scanning the crowd for any familiar faces. When she spotted one, she made a quick excuse and led Chun Yue to the privacy of the backyard.
Once inside, Chun Yue whispered urgently, “Miss, General Pei’s attendant gave me this letter for you.”
She produced an incredibly slim bamboo tube from the folds of her sleeve and extended it to Li Zhi.
Li Zhi was in the middle of undressing when Chun Yue’s words stopped her in her tracks. She reached out and took the tube, her fingers unrolling the parchment inside.
Only a few characters were scrawled across the paper: “At three-quarters past midnight, at the northeast corner gate. Wear a veiled hat.”
Despite the stark simplicity of the handwriting, Li Zhi could almost see the serious countenance of Pei Ji, his youthful features belied by a rare but endearing maturity. There was no signature, but she knew instinctively that the message was from him.
The handwriting matched the person.
After reading the message, Li Zhi walked toward the candlelight and ignited the paper. She watched as the flames consumed the words, leaving only ashes behind.
Ever since General Pei departed from Yuniu Palace, a month had passed without a private meeting. Even during chance encounters in the palace, they would only exchange polite greetings before moving on.
The words Pei Ji had spoken that day led Li Zhi to believe that he would never seek her out again. Hence, receiving the letter today left her feeling surprised.
Pei Ji must have scouted the area during his early inspection. The northeast corner gate was close to her yard, and the veiled hat he requested her to wear suggested that they would be leaving the mansion. Li Zhi pondered about what his intentions could be.
Li Zhi sat on the couch under the gentle light, lost in thought. “Take a rest for now. We will go at midnight.”
Chun Yue had become literate by now, and Li Zhi didn’t hide the contents of the letter from her. She nodded understandingly, picked up two veiled hats, and headed toward the adjacent room.
Just as she was about to close the door, a young woman dressed in a vibrant gown appeared along the corridor. The woman bore a striking resemblance to Li Zhi, except she was taller and more slender.
Her appearance was striking, with a unique charm, but her gait was marred by a slight limp in her left leg, which detracted from her elegance.
She was none other than the Eldest Miss of the Zhong family, Lan Ying.
Chun Yue’s face immediately lit up upon seeing her and she called out, “Eldest Miss.” However, Lan Ying’s expression remained placid, making it impossible to discern her mood.
Stepping into the room, Lan Ying approached Li Zhi, who was seated under the glow of the lamp. With proper decorum, she bowed and said, “I pay my respects to the Noble Consort.”
Li Zhi was taken aback and gazed at her without uttering a word for a moment.
Lan Ying rose to her feet slowly, taking in Li Zhi’s reaction. Unable to contain her amusement, she let out a chuckle and dispensed with formalities, walking up to Li Zhi and taking her arm, saying with a smile, “Alright, I won’t tease you anymore. Look at how frightened you are, just like before!”
Chun Yue breathed a sigh of relief and quietly shut the door, leaving the two sisters alone to converse.
Li Zhi continued to stare at the woman before her, feeling a sour and bitter sensation welling up inside her chest.
She was a wandering ghost who had crossed over, with no sisterly bond to Lan Ying. Despite her earlier desire to care for her, it was largely due to respect in her heart.
But for some reason, seeing Lan Ying now made her feel exceptionally familiar and close, as if they were truly sisters without a hint of unfamiliarity.
“Elder Sister,” she gazed upon Lan Ying with a warmth that slowly flowed from her previously withered heart, causing tears to involuntarily well up in her eyes.
Seeing this, Lan Ying chuckled and embraced her, pinching her cheeks and saying, “Why do you still cry like a child when you see me? I don’t know who it was, but someone shamelessly had Chun Yue pass along a message that they wanted to rely on me. I can see that she is really unreliable.”
Li Zhi smiled at her words, her bent eyes squeezing out tears that had been building up and rolling down her cheeks.
She pouted and held onto Lan Ying’s waist, nestling in her embrace and saying, “Elder Sister doesn’t think about me at all, so of course I have to cry.”
Emotions that had been suppressed for months now slowly bubbled up like finding an outlet.
Lan Ying patted her back and took a handkerchief to wipe away her tears bit by bit, saying, “Third Sister, Elder Sister misses you so much! Fortunately, you have come back safe and sound, and haven’t lost any weight.”
Li Zhi’s smile was tinged with a soft, nasal tone. “In the future, I will leave with Elder Sister and lead a good life. I’ll take care of myself and never let myself become thin and worried.”
Lan Ying scrutinized her with a serious gaze before finally asking, “Third Sister, I’ve been meaning to ask. Since we’re alone, have you been mistreated in the palace? Why do you want to leave?”
Li Zhi wiped away her tears and sat upright. “As a Noble Consort, no one would dare to bully me. But…my status is a disgrace, and I can’t shake the feeling that the Emperor is cold-hearted. I fear I won’t be able to rely on him in the future, so I need to plan ahead.”
She wanted to confide in Lan Ying about her dreams, but was hesitant, afraid that her sister would dismiss them as mere fantasies. Instead, she talked about Li Jing Ye’s character and recent events without divulging everything.
Lan Ying listened with a furrowed brow and nodded in agreement. “You’re right to think of yourself. It’s important to plan ahead.”
Lan Ying was a woman of conviction with a strong sense of independence. Seeing her younger sister taking charge of her own life made her feel relieved and proud, so she did not oppose her sister’s plans.
However, being in the imperial family was no longer the same as before. Li Zhi had to be more careful and cautious now. She thought for a moment, her gaze becoming sharp as she stared directly at Lan Ying, and asked, “What is your relationship with General Pei?”
Li Zhi hesitated, biting her lip, unsure if she should reveal the truth.
Although Lan Ying was unlike other women, she was still a woman of her time and had a strong sense of integrity. She could not tolerate herself succumbing to others and was unsure if she could accept Li Zhi’s current actions.
Li Zhi lowered her head and considered for a moment before speaking carefully, “General Pei will help me.”
“Third Sister!” Lan Ying’s brow furrowed deeply as she looked at Li Zhi, slowly understanding the situation. She spoke in a low voice, “You are beautiful, and there will always be those who covet you. It’s common. However, there is no reliable man in the world. Everyone seeks profit and avoids danger. If the Emperor finds out, how will you protect yourself? Be careful not to be too clever and make foolish mistakes!”
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