Chapter 43 Carriage
Earlier, Li Zhi had instructed Chun Yue to secretly send flying money to Peaceful Dwelling in Pingkang District. Upon finding out, Lan Ying went to investigate and discovered that the owner of the residence was none other than Pei Ji.
From that moment on, she harbored doubts in her heart, waiting for the wedding day to confront her sister directly.
Now, she was almost certain that the relationship between Pei Ji and her sister was far from simple.
Lan Ying was not one to conform strictly to conventional virtues, and she knew all too well that Third Sister’s entry into the palace was not a matter of choice. Moreover, Third Sister’s exceptional beauty was sure to draw attention to her, no matter where she went.
However, such matters were not to be tolerated, even in the most ordinary of households, let alone within the imperial family.
Even the Princess who had transgressed was forced to marry Zhong Hao, a man so dissolute and lacking in merit. If Third Sister were to be discovered, her fate would be even more tragic.
Li Zhi gazed at Lan Ying whose expression was serious and full of concern, but devoid of any contempt, and felt her nose tingle with a hint of sadness. She spoke with a firm tone, “Elder Sister, you need not worry, I have everything under control. I will not allow myself to be caught in such a predicament.”
Lan Ying leaned in closer, her eyes scrutinizing Li Zhi’s face in the flickering candlelight. She spoke softly, “Third Sister, do you have feelings for that young general?”
Li Zhi was taken aback by her question, and shook her head vigorously in denial. “No, Elder Sister, I am fully aware of my situation. I have no room for such foolish infatuation.”
Lan Ying remained silent for a while, her eyes locked onto Li Zhi’s, trying to discern any sign of guilt or sadness. When she saw none, she finally let out a long breath and advised, “That is good, Third Sister. Always remember, never place all your hopes on a man, they are often unreliable.”
As she spoke, Lan Ying’s eyes grew moist with tears, and Li Zhi knew that her elder sister was thinking of her own painful past.
During their childhood, the two sisters had lived in the province of Shu for several years with their parents. Their father, Zhong Xing Huai, was a seventh-rank household officer in Shu, while the Wei family was just an ordinary military household. It was during this time that Wei’s patriarch, a sergeant in the army, saved Zhong Xing Huai’s life when he was in danger of falling off a cliff while riding his horse on a treacherous mountain road.
Through a series of coincidences, the two families grew closer, and eventually, they decided on this marriage. Wei Peng, although born into a common family, was known for his bravery and kindness. He had always been good to Lan Ying since she was young, and although she was still a child, she had already regarded Wei Peng as her sweetheart and her future husband.
But fate had other plans. Wei Peng and his father went north with the army, while Zhong Xing Huai stayed in Shu province. When a corruption case broke out, Zhong Xing Huai was falsely accused and imprisoned for several months. He was only released when he was on the brink of death, and soon after, the husband and wife both passed away, leaving behind two orphaned girls.
When Wei Peng came to propose marriage, Lan Ying was full of hope. However, the actions of her uncle’s family gradually made her despair, and in the end, she could only watch Wei Peng being expelled from Chang’an and had to cut off her own leg.
“Elder Sister, do you still miss Brother Wei?”
Lan Ying breathed deeply and shook her head. “No, I no longer long for what could have been. When fate has passed, it has passed. There’s no use dwelling on it,” she said, straightening her composure and revealing a warm smile. “I quite enjoy being on my own. My uncle and aunt fear you, so they won’t trouble me. I’m quite content with my independence.”
Li Zhi let out a long sigh and relaxed her shoulders, following Lan Ying’s lead.
The sisters chatted for a while, discussing their plans to stay in Chang’an for a few more days. Lan Ying would purchase a smaller mansion and hire some servants and attendants. If they ever had to leave, they would have a proper escort.
However, Zhong Cheng Ping, their uncle, was only a military judge in Jingzhao Prefecture, responsible for land affairs in Chang’an. They would need to use Pei Ji’s name to register the mansion under his ownership.
The two sisters talked long into the night until exhaustion crept in. Lan Ying bid Li Zhi goodnight and left the room.
Li Zhi had been enduring the entire day and was now quite tired. She decided to take a short nap before continuing their journey. At two in the afternoon, Li Zhi changed into warmer clothes and prepared to leave the inn with Chun Yue.
On account of the wedding ceremony that day, the mansion’s defense had been entrusted to the Imperial Guards. Unlike the heavily fortified imperial palace, the backyard here was relatively lax in its security. With guests streaming in and preparations for an all-night banquet underway, the servants were all assembled at the tables.
The winter night was bone-chillingly cold, with snow still piled up along the sides of the path. As Li Zhi stepped forward, the occasional creaking sound from underfoot was quickly drowned out by the various songs, dances, and laughter emanating from the front hall.
Even though Li Zhi had taken care to bundle up in warm clothes before venturing out, she still couldn’t help but shiver uncontrollably in the biting cold wind. Squeezing her hands together, which were starting to ache from the cold, she quickened her pace, heading toward the corner gate.
There, standing tall and erect like a steadfast pine tree, was a dark figure. Despite the wind howling around him, he remained motionless, as though he had been waiting for some time.
Through the veil shrouding her face, Li Zhi couldn’t discern the man’s features clearly. But as she drew closer, she recognized him from his profile alone as Pei Ji.
Without hesitation, she stepped forward and whispered softly, “Why did the General summon me so late?”
Pei Ji cast a glance at her, noticing her slight shivers due to the cold, and without a word, he gently pushed the mansion door open, leading her outside. The northeast corner gate led to a secluded, narrow alleyway that needed to be traversed before reaching the main road of the town. A plain and narrow gray carriage was parked by the side of the alleyway, and Shi Quan stood beside it, ready to assist.
Observing the carriage’s modest size, which could accommodate no more than two people, with one person driving, a maximum of three persons could ride, yet now there were four. Li Zhi hesitated, frowning slightly. Pei Ji sensed her reluctance and spoke softly and succinctly, “You two will ride in the carriage.” This statement indicated that he and Shi Quan would accompany them, riding together outside.
Chun Yue was startled and nervously pulled at Li Zhi’s sleeve. She was used to being humble, and hearing that the general would drive the carriage outside, she instinctively felt unworthy.
Li Zhi paused for a moment, turned around and said to Chun Yue, “You go back first, I’ll be back soon.”
Chun Yue breathed a sigh of relief, but then became nervous again. “Miss——”
Li Zhi knew she was worried about being alone, and comforted her by squeezing her hand, “It’s alright, General Pei is here.”
After hesitating for a moment, Chun Yue finally went back step by step.
Pei Ji remained silent, lifted the carriage curtain for her, and sat down beside her after she was settled. He lightly tapped on the carriage wall, and Shi Quan urged the carriage to move slowly.
It was already midnight, and the curfew was in effect. The carriage moved at a snail’s pace, as the martial officials on patrol paid little attention to the residents within the districts but still couldn’t let them roam around freely.
The carriage was small and cramped, but Pei Ji’s towering physique made Li Zhi look even tinier sitting next to him. As the carriage rocked back and forth, their shoulders and arms brushed against each other, the thick winter clothes unable to cushion the friction.
Li Zhi removed her hat and turned to Pei Ji, asking, “Where are we going, General?”
“To the clinic.”
Li Zhi furrowed her brows, perplexed by his answer. It wasn’t until she remembered their previous conversation about medicine that she realized he must be taking her for treatment.
As the carriage jolted again, a gust of biting wind infiltrated through the crevices, causing Li Zhi to shiver. Pei Ji noticed her fingertips had turned red from the cold and instinctively reached out to cradle her hands in his. The warmth from his palms flowed into her fingers, easing the stiffness and returning them to their former suppleness.
Li Zhi looked up and met Pei Ji’s deep, dark eyes. She couldn’t help but curve her lips and said, “General, I’m so cold.”
Pei Ji’s eyes slightly flickered. After hesitating for a moment, he silently extended his arms and held her close. Li Zhi leaned her chilled face against his warm neck, adjusting her posture to find a more comfortable position. She whispered, “Why is the General so good to me?”
Pei Ji felt a chill from her cold cheek against his neck, followed by her warm breath that gently swept across his skin as she spoke. He couldn’t help but shudder, and a strong enthusiasm quickly spread from his neck throughout his body.
In the cold winter night, he suddenly felt a rush of heat throughout his body, as if ignited. His arms tightened around her, pressing her curves even tighter against him, and he bent down to find her full, red lips, kissing them passionately.
It had been over a month since he had last touched her, and the pent-up desiere was like a flood waiting to burst through any crack in his willpower. Li Zhi fluttered her long eyelashes and half-closed her eyes, actively circling his neck with her slender fingers, slipping them into his meticulously combed black hair.
The once cold and cramped carriage now seemed to be filled with warmth, as the temperature quietly rose between them. After what felt like an eternity, Pei Ji couldn’t resist the temptation any longer. He lightly bit her small, delicate chin, causing her to slightly loosen her hold on him. His voice was hoarse as he uttered, “I owe you.”
His words were full of suppressed emotions and helplessness, as if he was fighting an inner battle.
Li Zhi’s eyes were misty and her body went soft at the sound of his voice. It took her a moment to realize that he was answering her earlier question. Chuckling lightly, she continued to rub against his warm neck, absorbing the heat. “General, could it be that you have developed feelings for me?”
Her teasing words had an unexpected effect on Pei Ji. His face quickly darkened, and the impulse that had almost been suppressed was instantly doused with cold water. He lowered his deep, dark eyes to meet hers, pursed his lips, and remained silent. His heart was heavy with the realization that he was deeply trapped in her snare, just like his two cousins before him.
For this woman, he disregarded ethics and principles, betraying both loyalty to his ruler and kinship ties. Yet despite his struggles and guilt, he would always succumb to his greater desires, indulging in rare moments alone with her even though he knew she was manipulating and ensnaring him.
But why must it be this way?
He dared not consider it. He could only think that he had fallen victim to the woman’s poison, his desires clouding his judgment.
It was natural for men and women to love each other.
As for the peculiar feelings in his heart, he knew exactly what they were, yet he had to strain to ignore them.
She liked to tease him with such words, but she was truly a woman of steel.
His eyes flashed with a complicated mixture of anger and bitterness. He opened his mouth, unsure whether to lash out at her or to reveal his feelings.
Sensing his reaction, Li Zhi’s face turned cold, her heart sinking with a bad premonition.
At that moment, the slow-moving carriage finally came to a stop. Shi Quan lightly tapped on the carriage wall from outside, “General, we’ve arrived.”
Li Zhi quickly pushed him away, readjusted her veil, lifted the carriage curtain, and stepped out.
Pei Ji sat alone in the carriage, closed his eyes, composed himself, then got out expressionlessly.
In Wenquan Resort, after the team that escorted the princess to her wedding departed, the Empress Dowager sat listlessly on her throne for a while before finally snapping out of her daze and returning to the palace.
The attending officials slowly withdrew, and Worthy Consort Xu walked up and carefully supported the Empress Dowager, accompanying her as they left.
Along the way, the Empress Dowager seemed as if she had lost all her spirit, silent and withered like a dead tree. It wasn’t until they returned to the back hall that she took Worthy Consort Xu’s hand and earnestly spoke, “Worthy Consort Xu, His Majesty is not young anymore and should have more sons. As a member of a noble family in the position of a Consort, if you can give birth to a son and a daughter, I will be happy for you.”
She was hinting that she would stand by Worthy Consort Xu’s side.
In recent days, Worthy Consort Xu had managed the palace meticulously, without any mistakes, especially in handling Ling Yue’s case.
The Worthy Consort used to be indifferent to everything and seemed like a person who had no disputes with the world. Now she knew that it was not the case.
She had lived in the palace for a long time, from being the Empress to the Empress Dowager, and naturally could see that the thoughts of Worthy Consort Xu were not simple.
But these were all insignificant.
The Xu family was of noble origin. Although Xu Yong was a mediocre person, he was by no means a villain. He was much better than Xiao Ling Fu and his son.
Seeing that Pure Consort Xiao was about to give birth, if it were a prince, Xiao Ling Fu might set his sights on the position of heir. As the Empress Dowager, she was not willing to see such a villain gain power. However, the Emperor did not trust her Du family, so she had no choice but to find ways to support others.
Worthy Consort Xu looked into the Empress Dowager’s eyes and immediately understood. She bowed and said, “I understand and will not disappoint your expectations.”
The Empress Dowager nodded in satisfaction, lightly patted her hand while suppressing her fatigue, and then returned to the palace hall.
As the night deepened and the officials had departed, Li Jing Ye didn’t hasten his return to Feishuang Hall. Instead, he made his way alone to Changsheng Hall, where he sat in front of the altar dedicated to the heavens and earth for a long while. Today, he had married off his only full-blooded sister, and the sense of loneliness that overcame him was palpable.
His siblings seemed to be gradually distancing themselves from him, while he alone would continue to reside in the palace.
He knew that the marriages of his younger siblings had not gone smoothly, and although his mother no longer spoke of it, she must be blaming him in her heart.
Even his relatives and courtiers were probably confused and gossiped about his actions in secret. Li Jing Ye realized that the only person who dared to speak frankly with him was Zi Hui.
A wave of impatience and gloom slowly surged up in his heart.
He was the Emperor, the ruler of all the people in the world. Yet, he couldn’t even have this little bit of power? Those officials had been advising him on countless trivial matters since he was a mere Crown Prince, as if the fate of the Great Wei dynasty hinged on whether or not he would crush an ant one day.
He chuckled darkly to himself as he thought about it. Yes, he was slowly silencing those people who thought they knew better than him. Outside the palace, the wind howled and the snowflakes flew, but he paid it no mind.
Suddenly, He Yuan Shi’s soft voice broke through his thoughts. “Your Majesty, it’s snowing again. The road will be difficult to walk in a while. Let’s go back.”
Li Jing Ye paused, then slowly relaxed his expression. He stepped out of the hall and onto the imperial carriage, and said, “Let’s go to the Yuniu Palace today.” His tone was surprisingly gentle and affectionate.
He Yuan Shi froze, surprised by the sudden change in his demeanor. Cautiously looking up at him, he reminded the Emperor, “Your Majesty, the Noble Consort has returned to Chang’an today.”
Li Jing Ye hesitated, a hint of disappointment flickering in his eyes. He murmured, “Oh,” and said, “Then let’s go back to the Feishuang Hall.”
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