Chapter 51 Wind and frost
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Two days hence, Pei Ji embarked on his journey to the northern frontier.
With the matter settled, there was no longer any need for debate in the court. Due to his advanced age and the recent ordeal, Du Heng seemed to have withered a great deal and hardly spoke about anything anymore. Even in the matter of Xu Yong’s case, he dared not make any further pleas, fearing that it might backfire.
Wei Ye Qing’s memorial appeared to have irrefutable evidence and little fiction, but much of it was exaggerated or fabricated. Under normal circumstances, Xu Yong would never have been detained in the Dali Temple. The storm having passed, he would soon be freed once the facts were verified.
Despite his meek appearance, he was a man of unwavering principles and honor. Falsely accused, he couldn’t suppress his indignation, and to clear his name, he went on a hunger strike and refused sustenance while incarcerated.
Being no longer young, he lay incapacitated in his cell for three days without any signs of recovery.
Imprisonment was a severe ordeal, compounded by the machinations of Xiao Ling Fu and others who conspired against him. Xu Yong was unable to receive adequate medical care, and spent most of his time in a delirious state, surviving on a meager gruel that the guards begrudgingly provided.
The Xu family finally managed to secure a chance to visit, but their excitement quickly turned to fear as they made a beeline for the palace, seeking the Worthy Consort’s aid.
With no other recourse, Worthy Consort Xu reluctantly returned to Zichen Hall, hoping to sway Li Jing Ye to her father’s cause.
With no court session scheduled for the day, Li Jing Ye and Li Zhi dined together and planned to revel in the snow and blue skies at Taiye Pool.
Li Zhi donned a brilliant cloak made just for her by the Weaving Bureau, adorned with golden thread embroidery and an elegant golden tassel hairpin. She also carried a hand warmer fashioned from the fur of a fox personally hunted by Li Jing Ye. Standing there in all her beauty, she was like a vibrant flower blooming amidst the winter chill.
As Li Jing Ye turned to put on his black cloak, he was completely captivated by Li Zhi’s glowing smile.
Overcome with emotion, he took her hand and caressed her face with gentle fingers, then leaned in to plant a tender kiss upon her forehead, which was adorned with a vivid scarlet blossom.
He had been staying alone in the Zichen Hall for several days, and now with Li Zhi by his side, his heart naturally stirred, and even the lips that pressed against hers carried a dry and scorching heat.
However, Imperial Physicia Zhang’s words continued to echo in his mind, leaving him uneasy. He hesitated for a moment before gradually backing away, carefully studying her features with a smile, “Shall we go?”
Just as they took a couple of steps towards the door, a eunuch hastily entered and bowed, “Your Majesty, Worthy Consort Xu is kneeling outside the hall, seeking an audience with you.”
Li Jing Ye’s smile faded slightly.
He Yuan Shi quickly rebuked, “Didn’t His Majesty instruct us to carefully persuade Worthy Consort Xu to leave when she arrives?”
The eunuch nodded repeatedly, his face showing concern, “Your Majesty, Worthy Consort Xu came and knelt outside the hall. She said that if she couldn’t see Your Majesty today, she wouldn’t leave…”
Li Jing Ye’s face became even more displeased, a hint of irritation flashing through his eyes.
Li Zhi watched Li Jing Ye’s reaction with cold eyes, then turned her head to glance outside the window, where the snowy winter had piled up a thick layer of snow. She spoke softly, “Is Your Majesty really going to let Worthy Consort Xu kneel outside the hall in this freezing weather?”
Li Jing Ye did not answer, but instead followed her gaze to look outside at the snow. He naturally did not want to treat Worthy Consort Xu so harshly, but he also disliked others pressuring him. The more anxious they were, the more annoyed and disgusted he became.
Li Zhi, however, wanted to help Worthy Consort Xu and therefore slowly lowered her eyes, whispering softly, “If one day, I were to fall into such a situation, would Your Majesty also let me kneel in the snow without a word?”
Li Jing Ye was taken aback, but seeing her pitiful appearance, his eyes softened considerably. He quickly took her hand and said earnestly, “No, Li-niang, I would never do that to you!”
At that moment, Li Zhi’s mind suddenly flashed with a dream – of her body buried under the earth at the foot of the Fufeng city wall, leaving only a snowy white wrist. She couldn’t help but coldly laugh in her heart, but her face remained calm as she bit her lip, seeming not to believe his words.
“Li-niang,” Li Jing Ye sighed softly, squeezing her hand, “It’s been so long, and you still don’t trust me.”
He rubbed his temples and signaled to He Yuan Shi to let Worthy Consort Xu in.
At this, Li Zhi breathed a sigh of relief and smiled at him before taking her leave with a graceful bow.
Beyond the palace gates, the warm sun shone down on a world of ice and snow.
Worthy Consort Xu knelt on the ground, shivering in her thin winter clothes. He Yuan Shi emerged from the palace and saw her, her face blank as she asked, “Chief Eunuch He, what did His Majesty say?”
He Yuan Shi felt a pang of sympathy for her and helped her up. “Thankfully, Noble Consort Zhong was able to convince His Majesty to show some leniency. He’s waiting for you now. Please hurry inside.”
As Worthy Consort Xu rose, her eyes brimmed with emotion. Only after the pain and numbness in her knees subsided did she slowly make her way into the palace.
Just as she stepped out, she saw Li Zhi and they both froze, their eyes locking for a moment.
Outside the palace, the freezing wind howled through the corridor.
Li Zhi’s complexion, so fair and rosy, had turned slightly numb from the cutting wind. But when she looked up and caught sight of Wortht Consort Xu, her delicate lips curved upwards into a faint smile despite the discomfort.
They both loathed the person within the hall, but neither spoke of it aloud. Thus, the Worthy Consort would never reveal her secret trysts with Pei Ji, and Li Zhi vowed to assist her in silence.
Such a proud individual would never have compromised her dignity and begged so fervently were she not driven to the brink of despair.
Worthy Consort Xu held her gaze, lips parting as a trail of misty breath escaped her lips. “Thank you,” she said.
Li Zhi watched the mist dissipate into the frigid air, caught in a moment of quiet contemplation before realizing that the two women had already passed each other.
Chun Yue tugged gently on her mistress’s sleeve, urging her to retreat from the harsh chill. “Miss, let’s go back. The weather is bitter today.”
But Li Zhi, emboldened by curiosity, was in no hurry to return to the warm confines of the palace. Taking Chun Yue’s hand, she strolled with purpose around the northern side of Penglai Hall, towards the glittering expanse of the Taiye Pool.
The Taiye Pool in winter had lost its vibrant colors of spring, summer, and autumn. Under the biting cold, it was now adorned with a thick layer of ice, which was further covered with a soft blanket of white snow. The whole place was dressed in a stunning white and silver outfit.
From afar, Li Zhi could hear the joyful laughter of several palace maids playing and running on the thickest part of the ice surface by the bank. Their voices rose and fell in a merry rhythm.
Chun Yue couldn’t help but feel a tinge of discomfort at the thought of Worthy Consort Xu’s earlier plight. Seizing the moment when they were alone, she murmured softly, “His Majesty is being too ruthless. Worthy Consort Xu has been in the palace for years without making any mistakes. Now, to request an audience, she has to go through so much trouble. I have heard many say that Minister Xu may not be as distinguished as his late father, the former Prime Minister Xu, but his character is just as impeccable. How could he commit such an act?”
As Li Zhi gazed at the serene white scenery before her, the sound of laughter and playful banter reached her ears. Her complexion gradually improved, though her words still carried an undertone of sadness. “Yes, His Majesty must know all of these things, but he still chose to imprison Minister Xu in Dali Temple.”
Chun Yue’s spirits plummeted. “I just hope that Worthy Consort Xu’s plea to His Majesty will sway his decision.”
Li Zhi remained silent.
Li Jing Ye was not only a self-interested ruler, but also plagued by indecisiveness. Perhaps he had deliberately avoided meeting the Worthy Consort before, but now his heart had softened.
With the matter now resolved, it was unlikely that Xu Yong would be subjected to further suffering. However, Li Jing Ye’s wavering decision-making made it hard to predict the future.
Her mind was filled with images of the possible misfortunes that awaited her, causing her heart to constrict. Suddenly, she thought of Pei Ji.
He was the only life raft she had left.
Alas, Xu Yong did not survive long enough to be released from prison.
It was said that on that day, Worthy Consort Xu’s tearful plea in the Zichen Hall had moved Li Jing Ye’s heart. He had promised to grant her request without waiting for the verdict, and had issued an edict the very next day, allowing Xu Yong to return home to recuperate.
However, only an hour after Worthy Consort Xu’s departure, news arrived from the Princess of Wuyang’s residence that the Empress Dowager had fallen ill.
Since Li Ling Yue’s miscarriage, the Empress Dowager had personally gone to the princess’s residence to take care of her daughter. After days of hard work and worry, her body, which had just recovered at Wenquan Resort, collapsed again.
Despite regaining some strength after a few days, Li Ling Yue’s youthfulness couldn’t bear the weight of her mother’s illness and she fainted in public.
When the palace servants brought the Empress Dowager back, Li Jing Ye disregarded everything else and rushed straight to her hall to personally administer medicine and attend to her needs.
Naturally, Xu Yong remained incarcerated.
Having missed one or two days, Xu Yong, who was already on the brink of death, couldn’t survive the last few days in prison and passed away on the 20th of the twelfth lunar month.
When the news reached the palace, Wortht Consort Xu almost collapsed on the spot and was carried back to the Xianju Palace in a daze, where she slept for a whole day.
The following day, the Wortht Consort acted as if the previous night’s events had never occurred. She calmly penned a letter to be sent back to her family, and then proceeded to oversee the affairs of the palace with her usual efficiency.
Chun Yue was puzzled and spoke in a hushed tone, “In the Zichen Hall earlier, the Worthy Consort appeared to be in great distress. But now that Minister Xu is gone, she seems entirely unconcerned. How can this be?”
Li Zhi furrowed her brow and whispered back, “It’s not that she’s unconcerned.”
During the few times Li Zhi had seen the Worthy Consort lately, she had noticed a subtle change. Although the Worthy Consort appeared unruffled on the surface, upon closer inspection, she had lost some weight and her once-beautiful features had taken on a more poignant allure.
For reasons unknown, Li Zhi recalled the dream in which the Wortht Consort had taken her own life by hanging. A vague sense of foreboding crept over her, as if the Worthy Consort was quietly hatching some sort of scheme.
With the order to mobilize the troops arriving without delay, General Zhang wasted no time in issuing the command for his army to ready themselves for battle and make their way to the front lines in the north come the next day.
Hedong’s army was stationed in Taiyuan Prefecture, while Youzhou’s army was located in the northeast direction of Hebei Province. The 60,000-strong army marched northward and, upon arriving near Lingqiu, encountered Pei Ji and his light cavalry. They had been riding day and night to catch up with the main force, and now, under his leadership, they continued northward until they reached the area just north of Jizhou as the New Year approached.
The fierce winds and snow had already covered the vast deserts and grasslands north of the Great Wall. It was the harshest time for supplies, and the Turks, more ferocious than usual, were trying to seize food and money.
Pei Ji had just arrived at the front when he discovered that Lulong’s army was in a state of defeat. Due to a moment of carelessness, the iron cavalry of Ashina Duobi had swept through two counties, robbing the grain warehouses in the city and taking local women and children as captives. The situation was utterly tragic.
He felt uneasy, but he didn’t have time to ponder it. He immediately formulated a strategy with Zhang Jian and sent the light cavalry to the west to ambush the Turks, luring them into chasing the vanguard and dividing their forces. This would give Lulong’s army an opportunity to join the fight and face the enemy together.
After days of intense fighting, when the tide of battle gradually turned in favor of Great Wei, he finally relaxed his tense heartstrings a little.
It was already the first month of the year. After discussing with the other generals in the joint camp, he found some mental space and approached Prince Rui, whom he hadn’t seen for a long time. He carefully chose his words and voiced the doubts that had been weighing on him for many days, “Your Highness, when I arrived earlier, it seemed that our army was losing. But several months ago, the court had already received news of the Turkic movements. During these days, Lulong’s army should have been preparing for war, so why did they let the enemy act so recklessly?”
As the Lulong’s Defense Commander and Supervisor of Inspections and Commissioner for Management, Li Jing Hui’s status was second only to the Military Governor, so he was naturally one of the commanders in this great battle.
His face darkened slightly, and he narrowed his eyes to scrutinize Pei Ji. “We have been preparing day and night, and of course, Ashina Duobi has been doing the same. Perhaps it’s been a few years since we’ve had such a big battle, and our soldiers have underestimated the ferocity and brutality of the enemy, so they were caught off guard.”
Pei Ji remained silent, his disagreement with Li Jing Hui’s words apparent in his expression.
Though only a few years had passed since the truce with the Turks, many soldiers had come and gone, and the generals had been rotated occasionally. Nonetheless, most of them were still the same old faces. An Yi Kang, in particular, had been Lulong’s Military Governor for years, stationed near Youzhou with a remarkable history of military achievements. How could he have possibly been caught off guard by the enemy’s attack when he was already well-prepared?
Pei Ji had scrutinized the situation on both sides during the previous few battles. It seemed that the Luong’s army had spread out its forces to stretch its defense line, a strategy that granted Ashina Duobi the opportunity to concentrate his forces and launch a fierce attack on one spot to take advantage of the situation. Although it appeared to be a prudent decision for An Yi Kang to consider the overall situation and avoid abandoning any frontline, it was, in reality, quite coincidental and at odds with his past ruthless and bold style.
But, there was more that worried Pei Ji. Prince Rui, who had come this time, had also undergone significant changes.
He surveyed his cousin before him, feeling a sense of unfamiliarity wash over him.
Li Jing Hui, who used to be so carefree, full of youthful vigor, and reckless in his youth, now had a youthful and handsome face that was weathered and roughened by the winds of the borderland, and had shed most of his youthful naivety and brightness, replaced by a profound and fierce aura.
The day prior, he had watched Li Jing Hui execute a young soldier who was tired from consecutive battles and was nodding off during his night watch.
Despite being accustomed to the bloodshed in battles, he couldn’t help but feel that Li Jing Hui’s actions were excessive, although he understood that the intention was to kill the chicken to scare the monkey and make the soldiers stay vigilant.
In just a few months, his cousin seemed to have shed his former self entirely.
Standing in the freezing cold wind, under the cover of darkness, both men were lost in their own thoughts and remained silent.
After a long moment of silence, Li Jing Hui suddenly chuckled and slapped Pei Ji’s back, as if he had transformed back into the young, carefree prince of old. He laughed out loud and said, “What’s this? Can’t speak? It’s been months since we last saw each other, and you didn’t even bother to write me a letter. You know, as your cousin, I always took care of you!”
Pei Ji looked at him with a flicker in his eyes, but then he slowly averted his gaze and said, “I was afraid that Your Highness wouldn’t want to receive my letters.”
He and Li Jing Hui had grown up together, and their relationship was like that of brothers. Pei Ji had thought about writing letters to Li Jing Hui, but he worried that it would remind him of the past and cause him pain.
Furthermore, he was concealing his entanglement with Li Zhi, struggling with guilt and conflict every day. How could he dare to write letters to Li Jing Hui again?
Li Jing Hui chuckled and gave him a playful thump on the back, “Zi Hui, our relationship goes way back, why wouldn’t I want to receive your letters? You’re still as serious-faced as ever.”
As he spoke, memories of the past flooded back to him, and his once-cheerful expression grew pensive. He gazed up at the solitary moon in the chilly winter of the borderlands and spoke softly in the howling wind, “Zi Hui, how is Li-niang… is she well?”
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