Chapter 50 Bitterness
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She rested her exquisite frame against his sturdy bicep, turning her head to press her cheek against his chest. The fabric was cool against her skin, but beneath it she could feel the powerful thump of his heartbeat. Her hands wandered gently over his waist.
Pei Ji’s fingertips traced tender circles over the curve of her back, each stroke a soft caress that soothed and comforted.
For reasons he couldn’t quite fathom, she seemed different to him today.
In their previous encounters, she had always been the more assertive one, but now, as she held him, there was a gentleness to her touch that spoke of a deep, unspoken sadness.
“What troubles you?” His rough fingers brushed lightly against her face, a harsh texture against her silky skin that sent shivers down her spine.
Li Zhi couldn’t say why she felt so melancholy just now, but as she held him close, the sadness gradually dissipated, replaced by a sense of peace and contentment.
She lifted her head slowly, meeting his gaze with a soft, enigmatic smile. “You’re leaving,” she murmured, the words as insubstantial as the faintest breath of air.
With those four simple words, Pei Ji’s heart was suddenly filled with a sense of completeness he hadn’t felt in a long time.
He gently cradled her face in his hands, studying her features intently with dark, intense eyes. “The Turks have an army of 80,000 iron-clad cavalry, fierce and bloodthirsty like wolves. But the soldiers of Great Wei are brave and resilient, and they slightly outnumber the enemy. Lulong’s army has not slackened in training these past few years, and Hedong’s army has become well-acquainted with the Turks’ battle tactics. The war will not last long, at most two months, and then I will return.”
Despite both father and son being in Chang’an, it was Pei Yan who held the distant command of Hedong. Zhang Jian, an old soldier of the Pei family, remained in Hedong to manage local affairs, always keeping in touch with the family and providing updates on training, garrisons, and movements.
Pei Ji exuded a confident and proud air as he spoke of the army, a glint of youthful spirit and fervor sparkling in his eyes. This was a rare departure from his usual mature and stable demeanor.
Li Zhi raised her eyes and looked at him, lost in thought.
She was well aware that Pei Ji was a devoted patriot, loyal to the Emperor, just like his father and the majority of court officials.
But he was also Li Jing Ye’s cousin, as close as brothers, and now, he must witness his once-familiar sibling becoming a stranger, ostracized from all, causing him immense pain.
Nevertheless, he remained resolute in his unwavering faith to stand by Li Jing Ye’s side.
Suddenly, a question popped into her mind. Was it truly worthwhile to do this?
Unfortunately, he was unable to offer her a response at the moment.
In reality, since she transmigrated into this world, many things had been different from what she had dreamed of. Who knew what further changes lay ahead in the remaining two years?
Perhaps he would no longer be the same man she had once dreamt of. General Pei, known for his loyalty and tenacity, had surreptitiously become entangled with her, the woman of the Emperor. Who knew what else was in store for them?
Her mind slowly cleared, and the enchanting smile that he couldn’t resist gradually appeared on her face. “What brings you here today?”
Pei Ji’s gaze deepened, his body burning like a raging flame, and he couldn’t contain it.
He opened his mouth to tell her that he had brought medicine again, reminding her to take it on time, and that he had taken care of everything else. However, the words suddenly died in his throat.
His breaths became heavier, and his thumbs traced the contours of her cheeks. He then trailed his hands down her neck, shoulders, and finally to her supple waist. With a gentle but firm grip, he lifted her effortlessly and placed her on the table behind her.
With his hands propped on the table on either side of her, he leaned in, his gaze glued on her, as if drawn to her lips, full and soft and inviting.
Suddenly, Li Zhi turned her head, and his eager kiss landed on the smooth skin of her neck instead.
She playfully jabbed her slender fingers at his chest, causing him to step back in surprise. Then, with a mischievous glint in her eyes, she reached for the jade belt hook at his waist.
Her nimble fingers deftly grasped the ends of the hook, smoothly flipping it over twice to loosen his belt.
The belt and hook clattered to the ground with a muted thud, forgotten amidst the softness of the nearby carpet.
Now that the restraint at his waist was gone, his robes fell loosely around him. He reached to undo his clothes himself, but she intervened.
Her fingers danced over his clothing buttons, deftly unfastening them one by one with tantalizing slowness. As each button popped open, he felt as if a weight had been lifted from his heart.
He was wound tight, his throat constricting as he fought to control his impulses, waiting with bated breath for her to unbutton the final clasp.
Her delicate hands glided over his strong build, coaxing off the bulky winter wear, while she deftly shrugged off her own coat from her shoulders.
The smooth silk blouse slipped off her skin, revealing her glossy shoulders. Meanwhile, the sheer pale pink chest-wrap robe and skirt maintained her modesty.
Pei Ji found himself beyond restraint. His broad palm captured her shoulders, and he trailed it down her slender arms until his fingers entwined with hers.
The coarse touch made her quiver. She arched toward him, seeking more.
He leaned in and bit down on the silk ribbon that fastened the skirt, gently tugging at it.
The ribbon came undone and her skirt fell gracefully to the floor.
With tenderness, he held her close and kissed her, his hands wrapped gently around her arms.
The dancing candle flames flickered and burned out almost simultaneously.
The room was shrouded in darkness, but the air was alive with the sound of their whispered intimacy.
Pei Ji’s body was a fiery volcano, unable to contain the intense passion coursing through his veins. He carried her from the table to the short couch, then to the bookshelf, until finally, with her damp face nestled in his arms, he took her to bed.
He held her close, his breath ragged, his voice hoarse and stuttering as he said, “About that medicine…I brought some more today…”
Her beautiful eyes, glazed with confusion, struggled to make sense of his words. The mist in her almond-shaped eyes grew thicker, eventually coalescing into pearls that trickled down her cheeks.
He leaned down and delicately kissed away the teardrop that threatened to fall into her hair, whispering in her ear, “When I’m gone, no one can bring you medicine. We can’t change the prescription yet, so you’ll have to make do until I return…I’ve arranged for your family’s home in Chang’an, and when I come back, I’ll give you the deed.”
She bit her lip and nodded slightly, suppressing a soft moan in her mouth.
Earlier, she had revealed her wish to secure a residence for Lan Ying in Chang’an, along with a retinue of servants. She couldn’t act in Lan Ying’s name due to the constraints of her uncle’s position in Jingzhao Prefecture, so she had to assign it all under his name. Remarkably, he recalled everything and made it his priority to see it through.
She lost track of time, until Li Zhi was completely satiated and he slowly held her, lying together to steady his racing heart.
Pei Ji’s strong arms offered a safe haven for Li Zhi’s head to rest upon, her hand resting upon his chest to feel his heart beating with unwavering strength. The comfort induced drowsiness.
Her senses were clouded as he traced a finger across her back in a gentle and reassuring manner. As he pulled her hair from where it rested on his chest to his lips, his voice was barely audible, “I had to leave for a campaign today, so I remained temporarily in the palace. Once I’m gone, someone else will take over the palace’s defense. You will remain alone in the palace, so take extra care.”
Li Zhi’s “hmm” was soft, as she cuddled closer to him and with a pout complained, “How will I manage without you? No one will be there to assist me in the palace.”
Her words hung in the air as his strong body stiffened ever so slightly.
He held her arm tight, then loosened his grip, his deep gaze fixed on the ceiling as he spoke with tension, “With His Majesty present, he will not allow you to suffer.”
His words were meant not just for her, but also for himself.
Pei Ji was sinking deeper and deeper. Just moments ago, when they were intimate, he almost forgot everything. But now, in the calm aftermath, he felt like he was plummeting into an abyss, and only by stabbing at his heart could he remain momentarily clear-headed.
At her words, Li Zhi seemed to snap out of her daze and sneered coldly, mocking him, “Do you really believe that?”
Pei Ji’s heart clenched in pain and bitterness.
Did he believe it?
He knew he should believe it. And he should force himself to let go, to stop this endless entanglement with her.
Yet he found himself unable to comply. Despite his understanding of the Emperor’s favor towards her, the fact that he still chose to administer the medicine to break her spirit left him with a vague realization.
He was powerless, impotent in the face of this predicament.
The darkness engulfed him, and he was consumed by the bitter realization. His thoughts silenced.
Memories of the days in the army stationed on the eastern bank of the river flashed through his mind. For a fleeting moment, he entertained the thought of leaving this grandiose palace city with her, venturing to the expansive frontier, where they could ride horses, hunt, and lead a self-sufficient life.
But he was constrained by the circumstances.
The city walls stood tall and impenetrable, the gates were heavily fortified, and the adage “Under heaven, all are the Emperor’s subjects” followed them even if they left Chang’an. Where could they run to?
And what would be their fate if they managed to flee?
As a member of the illustrious Pei family, could he betray their honor, forsake his elder’s trust, and abandon his own ardor, simply to elope with her?
She was a delicate beauty that drew attention wherever she went, as if she was meant to be cherished and protected from birth. How could those tender and smooth hands, and that delicate face withstand the harshness of wind and frost?
He was powerless, unable to do anything but hope that the Emperor truly loved her.
Now that she was no longer a threat and the Zhong family behind her had lost their power and influence, unlike other high-ranking families, the Emperor… surely wouldn’t mistreat her again, right?
He closed his eyes in despair, turned to face her, and leaned in to kiss her forehead.
The scorching heat of his lips pressed against her forehead, causing her heart to skip a beat.
She could sense his emotions and couldn’t help but hold back her sarcasm, speaking calmly, “You need not pity me. I am not a woman who can be content with living an obedient life, and you should not expect anything from him when it comes to me.”
Because of Li Jing Ye’s selfishness, she could make her choice without hesitation. He would always pay a price for everything he did, while she would only watch coldly, unaffected.
For a moment, Pei Ji held her tightly, but didn’t say a word.
After a while, in a low voice, he said, “It’s not out of pity.”
If not out of pity, then what was it?
Neither of them spoke further. They seemed to understand each other’s thoughts, but neither would break the silence.
In the stillness of the night, Pei Ji didn’t rush to leave. After tidying up for each other, he stayed in the Chenghuan Palace until dawn. Quietly, he got up and left through the window while she was asleep.
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