Chapter 49 Sudden change
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Amidst the harsh depths of winter, despite the tireless efforts of the Imperial Guards to clear the path the day before, there remained patches of snow that stubbornly refused to yield to the sun’s feeble warmth.
The procession had hoped to hasten their pace, but the slickness of the road rendered each step a tenuous, treacherous affair. What was meant to be a brief journey took nearly three arduous hours, punctuated by numerous stops and starts.
As they returned to Daming Palace, the midday sun had already reached its apex.
Driven by the urgency of the conflict in Youzhou, Li Jing Ye scarcely allowed himself a moment’s respite. Scarfing down a quick meal within the confines of his carriage, he made a beeline for Yanying Hall, summoning every official with a stake in the matter to discuss the situation.
The trio of Xiao Ling Fu, Du Heng, and Pei Yan sat perched on the edge of their seats nearest to the imperial throne. Meanwhile, Pei Ji and a handful of officials from the Ministry of War hovered unobtrusively in the background.
Li Jing Ye had divulged his plan to dispatch Pei Ji to lead Hedong’s army on a critical mission to provide backup.
Pei Yan and his son were present in the court, unable to decline the Emperor’s request. They remained silent, withholding their stance. On the other hand, Du Heng and his allies didn’t conceal their opposition, and were on the verge of debating with the Emperor right then and there.
Mobilizing troops from Hedong, in such a far distance, might squander precious military resources and human lives. Worst, it could lead to a delay in the perfect timing for the war, causing great suffering for the people of Youzhou.
At the core of it all, the Emperor was afraid of the border generals, and more so, terrified of Prince Rui residing far away in the border area. His trepidation had made him reluctant to relinquish any of his power.
Only Xiao Ling Fu stood by Li Jing Ye’s side. Before he even spoke, he eloquently refuted everyone’s arguments.
The atmosphere in the hall was tense, and everyone’s faces were not very pleasant.
Li Jing Ye felt restless.
If it were an ordinary official from the Ministry of War, Li Jing Ye wouldn’t have to worry too much. But Du Heng was different. He was not only one of the chief advisors, but also came from a prominent family. What’s more, he was Li Jing Ye’s uncle, a senior figure in the court whose every word carried weight. Even Li Jing Ye had to be careful in dealing with him.
Knowing that there would be no resolution today, Li Jing Ye rubbed his forehead wearily and waved his hand to signal that everyone should leave and continue the discussion tomorrow.
One by one, the officials left the hall, until only Xiao Ling Fu remained. When the hall was empty, he returned to Li Jing Ye’s side and bowed deeply. “Your Majesty, don’t worry. I will shoulder your concerns regarding this matter.”
Li Jing Ye slowly opened his tired eyes and looked at Xiao Ling Fu calmly. “What do you propose to do?”
“Minister Du is the elder brother of the Empress Dowager and also Your Majesty’s elder. I understand Your Majesty’s concerns, and I will make sure to convey Your Majesty’s attitude on this matter. Minister Du always considers the overall situation and will not insist on his own opinion,” Xiao Ling Fu spoke in a low voice, exuding a hint of confidence.
Li Jing Ye didn’t respond to him, but suddenly asked, “I’ve been neglecting you lately. Does it bother you?”
Upon hearing this, Xiao Ling Fu quickly bent his knees and lowered his head, kowtowing. “I dare not, Your Majesty. Your discernment and wisdom remind me to be cautious and never to become arrogant. I take your advice to heart and am grateful for the enlightenment. I have no complaints.”
Lately, his mind had been as clear as a polished mirror.
His Majesty had been avoiding the Pure Consort in the palace and treating him with less favor during court discussions than before. On the one hand, this was to impress the Du family, and on the other hand, it was to discipline him. Previously, he had formed private relationships with officials who held real power in various positions, although their ranks were slightly lower. It seemed that His Majesty was displeased with this.
He had always been astute at sensing the Emperor’s will. Seeing His Majesty’s increasing coldness towards him, he became vigilant early on. For over a month, he had restrained his sharpness, stayed out of trouble, and even instructed his brothers, uncles, and other relatives to be cautious with their words and deeds.
Normally, if he had to do something for His Majesty, he wouldn’t have to come and ask for instructions in person. He could take action directly, and His Majesty would understand. Today, he stayed on purpose to clarify things.
As the leader of this group of officials, he knew he still had some use for His Majesty. The purpose of the discipline had been achieved, and it was time to rally the troops.
His Majesty had of course learned of his recent activities. After silently observing him for a while, he spoke softly, “You have always comprehended my intentions. The war cannot be postponed.”
Xiao Ling Fu immediately kowtowed again before turning around and leaving.
The next day, when the court was still engrossed in the affairs of Youzhou, a sudden incident occurred that left everyone surprised and taken aback.
Wei Ye Qing, the Deputy Chief of the Imperial Censorate, had submitted a memorial accusing Xu Yong, the Minister of Rites, of embezzling exorbitant amounts of money during every annual sacrificial ceremony, grand ceremony, and reception of foreign envoys under the pretext of his official duties. The memorial was a scathing indictment, with every word piercing through Xu Yong’s character and exposing him as a conniving and deceitful scoundrel.
During the court meeting, Li Jing Ye skillfully avoided discussing the ongoing affairs of Youzhou, but instead, flung Wei Ye Qing’s memorial in front of all the officials, leaving them stunned and bewildered.
The room was suddenly filled with murmurs of disbelief and confusion.
For generations, the Xu family had served the imperial court, and even Xu Yong’s father was a high-ranking statesman during two different reigns. The Xu family was known for their incorruptible values, and while Xu Yong’s performance in his official duties was not exceptional, he had never been suspected of using his position for personal gain. This sudden accusation was all the more shocking to those who knew him.
Many people found it hard to believe that such a charge could be leveled against Xu Yong, but they were also hesitant to dismiss Wei Ye Qing’s allegations altogether.
Du Heng, who sat closest to the throne, felt his expression stiffen as he slowly raised his eyes and looked up at his young nephew. He knew that there was much more to this incident than met the eye, and he wondered what role his nephew was playing in all of this.
Li Jing Ye’s gaze was calm as he regarded the man before him.
Their eyes locked, and Du Heng’s initial stiffness and disbelief faded into a look of resignation and disappointment.
Xu Yong, the most unassuming of the six ministers of the Ministry of Rites, had climbed the ranks through his family’s connections. Despite his average political achievements, he had made no enemies and was known for his honesty. How could the Imperial Censorate suddenly launch such a vigorous impeachment against him?
In despair, he could not help but close his eyes.
It was all because Xu Yong had grown close to him, the Vice Prime Minister. But the Emperor, constrained by the Empress Dowager’s influence, could not directly target him, and so he started with the people around him.
He understood this, and so did Xu Yong.
While the officials were discussing the matter, Xu Yong remained composed and dignified. Rising from his seat, he knelt in the center of the room and spoke in a resolute tone, “Your Majesty, I plead with you to see the truth. I will willingly submit to trial in the Grand Court to prove my innocence.”
“Minister Xu has always been a man of integrity and honesty, I cannot believe that he would act in such a way. Even if he is thrown into the prison of the Great Court, I am sure he will be released soon.” Xiao Ling Fu’s voice was filled with conviction.
Xu Yong didn’t need to ponder to know that Xiao Ling Fu was the mastermind behind the accusations. Upon hearing his words, he gave him a cold and disdainful glance.
Countless officials were close to Du Heng, so why did they choose him, an insignificant minister from the Ministry of Rites? It was evident that Xiao Ling Fu is using this opportunity to bring down the Xu family and remove obstacles for Pure Consort Xiao in the palace.
Xiao Ling Fu’s face flushed with embarrassment.
Li Jing Ye’s voice was calm and authoritative. “Minister Xu is a man of honesty and integrity, and I have always known that. However, we must investigate this matter thoroughly before making any decisions. Therefore, I must inconvenience you to enter the Great Court. You will supervise this case personally, and justice will be served for you.”
Xu Yong remained silent and lowered his head to show respect. He then raised his head and followed the palace guards into the hall, leaving with a resolute stride.
Du Heng stood tall, his weathered face revealing traces of exhaustion.
As one of the empire’s most powerful ministers, he believed that it was his responsibility to always consider the big picture. Regardless of whether the Emperor accepted his advice or not, he had to elucidate the benefits and drawbacks.
He understood that over the past two years, the Emperor had been constantly under constraints and had become increasingly dissatisfied. If his suggestions were flatly rejected, he would not harbor any grievances. Nevertheless, he was disheartened that innocent people would be made scapegoats.
“Regarding the situation in Youzhou, does anyone else have any comments?” Li Jing Ye placed the memorial back on the table and returned to the previous issue. “Minister Du?”
Du Heng looked exhausted and weakly replied, “I have nothing to say. The decision is yours, Your Majesty.”
Li Jing Ye smiled slightly and raised his voice, “Very well. General Pei will lead the troops from Hedong to assist Lulong’s army in withdrawing from the enemy in Youzhou.”
After speaking, he felt the weight in his heart slowly dissipating.
However, what followed was an overwhelming fatigue and weakness that he could not resist.
At night, Imperial Physician Zhang carried his medicine box and hurriedly entered Zichen Hall with a eunuch.
He had already finished his duties for the day and was about to leave, but was urgently summoned by the eunuch. Along the way, he asked about the Emperor’s condition, but the eunuch remained vague, causing him to become increasingly nervous.
As he entered, he saw the warm room filled with the fragrance of incense. The Emperor was quietly lying on a soft couch, with Chief Eunuch He standing by his side, showing no signs of worry. It seemed that there was nothing serious.
Imperial Physician Zhang breathed a sigh of relief and quietly approached the Emperor.
He Yuan Shi whispered, “Your Majesty, Imperial Physician Zhang has arrived.”
Li Jing Ye uttered a faint “um” and slowly sat up from the couch. He reached out his hand and said, “Today, I suddenly felt weak and unfocused. Please examine me and find out what’s wrong.”
Imperial Physician Zhang first observed the Emperor’s complexion, then took out his pulse-taking pillow, and put his fingers on the Emperor’s wrist, concentrating for a moment. Finally, he asked a few questions before saying, “Your Majesty is fine, only suffering from excessive worry and exhaustion. With a few days of rest, you will be fine.”
Li Jing Ye furrowed his brow at the words and asked, “Just rest? I rested well after returning from hunting last time, but it’s only been a month, and I’m like this again?”
He was not yet twenty-seven years old, but he often felt weak and fatigued, which made him unable to let go of his worries.
Imperial Physician Zhang quickly bowed, “Your Majesty, forgive me, I dare not speak recklessly. Your Majesty’s health is indeed fine, but only because of the strain of state affairs, which has led to this. If you see these symptoms frequently, you may occasionally drink some ginseng soup or other nourishing tonics and reduce your mental stress, which can help alleviate the situation.”
Li Jing Ye still furrowed his brow, apparently not entirely believing the physician’s words. However, he could not refute them for a while. After thinking for a moment, he waved his hand, “All right, you may go. I will follow your advice and rest in the Zichen Hall for a few days. Yuan Shi, get some ginseng soup.”
He Yuan Shi took the order and left the inner chamber with Imperial Physician Zhang. Li Jing Ye was left sitting alone on the soft couch, lost in thought.
Within the palace walls, the news of Xu Yong’s imprisonment in the Dali Temple had become the talk of the town. Even the most insignificant palace maids were well aware of the scandalous affair.
Gossips whispered about the fall of Worthy Consort Xu, and it was no secret to Worthy Consort Xu herself.
But her mind was in chaos, and she had little energy to pay attention to the rumors circulating in the palace. Her heart was set on finding a way to plead with Li Jing Ye for her father’s freedom.
Yet, every time she attempted to enter the Zichen Hall, He Yuan Shi blocked her path, urging her to return to Xianju Palace and wait for the Emperor’s decision.
With no other options, she turned her attention to the Empress Dowager.
Though the Empress Dowager was willing to help, before any progress could be made, tragic news arrived that the Princess of Wuyang had lost her unborn child. Overwhelmed with grief and despair, she left the palace without delay to pay her respects to the bereaved.
At night, Li Zhi sat on the couch, her brow furrowed as she absently popped a piece of candied fruit into her mouth.
She had just swallowed the pill, and her mouth was filled with a bitter taste. But when a piece of honey candy touched her tongue, a sweet and sour flavor spread throughout her mouth, making her brows relax.
Chun Yue kept chattering about Worthy Consort Xu’s situation by her side. “It’s said that the Empress Dowager intended to intervene, and she specifically invited the Grand Princess to the palace, probably to get Minister Pei to mediate. But who would have thought that the Princess of Wuyang would have such an accident? Worthy Consort Xu has gone to Zichen Hall these past two days, but has yet to step inside.”
Li Zhi appeared to be lost in thought.
She was afraid that Li Ling Yue’s situation might be related to the Zhong family. Yesterday, she had specifically sent Chun Yue back to see her elder sister and learned that Zhong Hao had caught a cold and was still not fully recovered, and the Zhong family had not returned to the Princess’s palace since then. She could finally put her mind at ease.
The Empress Dowager’s concern for her daughter was expected. Moreover, even without Li Ling Yue’s situation, the Empress Dowager probably couldn’t have helped Worthy Consort Xu.
Li Jing Ye’s move was clearly aimed at Xu Yong’s targeting of Du Heng. If the Du family were involved again, it would only be counterproductive.
Nevertheless, she couldn’t help feeling a tinge of remorse and sympathy for the changes that had befallen the Xu family.
Had Worthy Consort Xu not discovered her affair with Pei Ji, would she have resorted to the ruthless pursuit of power and status? In her dream, she clearly recalled Worthy Consort Xu’s life of simplicity, until Li Jing Ye fled and Worthy Consort Xu, with her unyielding spirit, refused to leave and hanged herself in the Xianju Palace.
Her heart was momentarily filled with a sense of lament and pity.
If only she had the power, she would have spared any of these women from the same tragic fate.
Alas, she was struggling in a sea of trouble, barely able to keep her own head above water, let alone those of others.
Two pieces of sweetmeats remained in the dish, and she gazed at them vacantly, feeling that the bitterness in her mouth had become even more pronounced after being enveloped by the sweet and sour flavor.
Chun Yue remained silent for a moment, observing her in this state.
The two of them fell into silence, until a familiar sound from outside the window of the inner chamber interrupted their thoughts.
A smile lit up Chun Yue’s face as she whispered, “It must be General Pei who has arrived. I’ll go and wait next door.”
Although General Pei didn’t visit often, her mistress had gradually gone from being nervous and apprehensive to joyful and expectant.
Her mistress was deep in thought and lacked anyone close to her. However, General Pei treated her well, and she couldn’t help but feel happy.
Li Zhi’s expression softened, and she let out a gentle “Hmm” before standing up and making her way towards the inner chamber.
The window beside the bed had already been opened and closed.
The familiar figure stood beside her bed, exuding a cold and desolate aura, looking at her under the dim candlelight.
As their eyes met, a faint sense of melancholy rose up in Li Zhi’s heart.
She walked slowly towards him, ignoring the chill that permeated his clothes, and wrapped her arms around his waist, resting her face against his chest.
The two temperatures, one cold and one hot, quickly invaded each other, gradually blurring their boundaries until they couldn’t tell where one began and the other ended.
Pei Ji paused and said in a hoarse voice, “I’m cold, don’t freeze.”
Despite his words, he didn’t push her away. Instead, he extended his arms and hugged her even tighter, until her entire body was pressed closely against his without any gaps.
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