Chapter 52 Falling into the water
Pei Ji stood motionless, his body rigid as he felt the biting wind whip across his cheeks.
With a firm grip on his fist, he spoke in a deep voice, “She is fine.”
Li Jing Hui’s features blurred as he stared unblinkingly, his mind filled with a mixture of guilt and confusion. Just as he was about to look away, Li Jing Hui turned to face the solitary moon in the distance, a wry smile curling his lips as he muttered, “Yes, she is the favored consort, at His Majesty’s side. Of course, she is fine.”
Despite the weight of his thoughts, Pei Ji bit back the words that threatened to escape his lips. He parted his mouth, but in the end, remained silent.
The situation was already beyond repair, and further words would only add fuel to the fire. Besides, he was now embroiled in it himself, leaving him with no room to criticize others.
Outside the tent, the two of them lapsed into a familiar silence.
Pei Ji cast his eyes downward and spoke respectfully, “Your Highness, I must meet with Hedong generals to discuss important matters. With your permission, I will take my leave.”
With those words, he turned on his heels and made his way to his tent not far away.
Li Jing Hui stood in the distance, watching his familiar back with a bewildered expression.
“Your Highness.” A robust figure emerged from behind the tent curtain and stood by his side. It was none other than An Yi Kang.
Li Jing Hui composed himself, his handsome features gradually contorting with anger. “Zi Hui must have sensed something was amiss.”
“I never expected General Pei to be so astute, despite his youth.” An Yi Kang snickered, his light brown eyes flashing with a dangerous glint. “Your Highness, shall we take action?”
With a hand resting on his sword hilt, An Yi Kang spoke with a menacing face and insinuating tone.
Li Jing Hui furrowed his brow. “He’s my cousin, my aunt’s only son, and he’s not involved in this matter. Master An, you seem to be overstepping your bounds.”
An Yi Kang fell silent for a moment and then lowered his tone, relaxing his stern expression. He mustered a smile and said, “I was just kidding. Young General Pei is a member of the imperial family, how could I dare to be impulsive in front of him? Your Highness, please rest assured that I will take care of this matter.”
Li Jing Hui nodded at this and said expressionlessly, “Tell Ashina Duobi that we have fulfilled all our previous agreements, and he should keep his promise and stop there. Otherwise, don’t blame our Great Wei warriors for being impolite.”
Near the border, Great Wei and the Turks had been facing off for several days. With the joint efforts of the Hedong and Lulong’s armies, they finally achieved a complete victory and drove Ashina Duobi back to the desolate north.
With the tense strings finally relaxed, both armies were overjoyed and immediately celebrated with feasting and rewards for their soldiers outside the camp of Jixian.
There were many old soldiers in Hedong’s army who had fought side by side with Pei Ji for two years. Now that the war had ended and they knew he would soon be returning to Chang’an, they naturally felt reluctant to part and took the opportunity to catch up with him.
During the banquet, Pei Ji, who was not known for his joviality, showed a rare glimpse of a genuine smile. He set aside his aristocratic airs and joined the soldiers in drinking and feasting.
Several generals in their thirties were drinking heavily. Led by Zhang Jian, they playfully pushed a young man in his twenties towards Pei Ji.
“I heard that when the General returns to the capital, he intends to bring along some of the soldiers who have made great achievements on the battlefield. Don’t forget Wei Peng! Although he has only been in the army for a few years, he started as a foot soldier and repeatedly charged ahead. Now he has been promoted to the rank of regiment captain, leading a hundred men. This time, he even personally beheaded sixteen enemy soldiers!”
Pei Ji had indulged in a few drinks, and his face had turned slightly red. Upon hearing this, he carefully observed Wei Peng.
On the battlefield, the sword was unforgiving. Although the soldiers were brave and skilled, not many could kill dozens of enemies. Beheading an enemy was even more challenging than the usual combat. Without rigorous training and the willingness to sacrifice everything, few could achieve such an extraordinary feat.
The man appeared to be no more than twenty-three or twenty-four years old. He had a robust build, a chiseled face, and was caught off guard when the others pushed him forward. However, upon seeing Pei Ji, he calmly bowed and respectfully greeted him, “Greetings, General Pei.”
Pei Ji was impressed by the young man’s composure and nodded, offering his hand to help him stand up. “It’s rare to find a warrior who can single-handedly take down sixteen enemies. General Zhang-“
Zhang Jian had already planned to promote Wei Peng and understood immediately, “I propose that Wei Peng, after this military triumph, be elevated from regiment captain to liutenant.”
One lieutenant could command three regiments, so this was considered a promotion.
Pei Ji took a moment to consider and then lightly patted Wei Peng’s shoulder, nodding, “Well-deserved. When we return to Chang’an, I will report to His Majesty. Hopefully, this will bring you one step closer.”
Many military children came from humble backgrounds and needed to see the possibility of promotion. Wei Peng was a model to follow.
Zhang Jian smiled and pushed Wei Peng forward once more.
Wei Peng was unable to conceal his joy and immediately knelt down to thank Pei Ji.
While Hedong’s army cheered, there was suddenly a commotion among Lulong’s army.
Pei Ji furrowed his brow and looked over in the direction of Li Jing Hui and An Yi Kang.
There, he saw two men twisting a slightly thin soldier in the middle, as he struggled to come over to them.
“Your Highness, this person was acting suspiciously just now. He was trying to sneak away while everyone was distracted. He must be a spy! We caught him and found this on him.”
One of the men who had twisted the person around presented two crumpled pieces of paper covered in characters.
Although Pei Ji didn’t understand the language of these nomadic peoples, he could see that the simple characters on the paper were derived from the Sogdian script, which was common among the Turks.
Suddenly, everything became quiet, and countless pairs of eyes turned to the trembling soldier kneeling on the ground.
Li Jing Hui gestured for the two papers to be handed to An Yi Kang.
After a hasty reading, An Yi Kang’s face turned livid with anger. He drew his sword with one hand and pointed it at the man, while raising the two papers high with the other. “These are letters from the Turks, and this man is a spy in our army. He leaked our movements earlier, which allowed the Turks to prepare for us, resulting in the unnecessary deaths of our people and soldiers. He’s guilty of treason, and we won’t tolerate it!”
Without waiting for anyone to react, the sword’s blade, glinting with a cold light, suddenly fell.
With a scream, blood sprayed into the pristine snow, creating a tragic and gruesome scene.
The onlookers looked at each other in horror, shivering in fear.
Li Jing Hui looked at Pei Ji with a solemn face. “Zi Hui, your suspicions were correct. There really was a spy in the army.”
Pei Ji looked back at him expressionlessly, not uttering a word.
In Daming Palace, since the Empress Dowager had fallen ill, Li Jing Ye had been tirelessly attending to her in her chambers, but to no avail.
As the year drew to a close, various court ceremonies and rituals were scheduled in quick succession, leaving him with no rest and unable to remain at her side constantly.
Recalling his mother’s faith in Buddhism, he summoned the eminent monk Hui Xian and his twelve disciples from the distant Western Regions. They were translating Buddhist scriptures in the newly built Daci’en Temple in Daming Palace, to come and recite sutras and pray for her speedy recovery.
Though Li Ling Yue had recently suffered a miscarriage, her youth and resilience had allowed her to recover. After a few days of rest, she hurried to the palace and kept her mother company.
Bereaved and matured, she devoted herself to praying in the Daming Temple by day and keeping vigil in her mother’s chambers by night, without overstepping her bounds.
For more than two weeks, the palace was shrouded in a solemn mood that persisted until New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
The traditional grand year-end feast was put on hold this year. Only the Emperor himself met with envoys from neighboring countries, receiving their New Year’s wishes and gifts arranged by the Ministry of Rites and the Honglu Temple.
It was only on the tenth day of the new year that the Empress Dowager’s health showed signs of improvement, and good news from Youzhou kept coming, making everyone breathe a sigh of relief.
Li Jing Ye’s long-standing despondency began to lift, and he finally gave orders to hold a grand Lantern Festival in the palace to welcome the upcoming holiday. He invited members of the royal family, relatives, and high-ranking officials to attend.
The planning and preparations for the festival were still entrusted to Worthy Consort Xu and the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
The festival was only five days away, and there was not enough time to make all the exquisite palace lanterns. Luckily, the palace had been preparing since before the new year, and there were still many beautiful and well-preserved lanterns stored in the Treasury.
With great effort and hustle, everything was ready for the Lantern Festival.
Despite the chill, the night sky was crystalline, glittering with stars.
The pathway around the Taiye Pool was adorned with an array of colorful lanterns, casting a warm and inviting glow from the countless candles that flickered inside.
The Empress Dowager remained in the Qindian Palace to recover and did not attend the grand feast. The Emperor and his concubines sat upon a raised platform in the Qinghui Pavilion, while the other guests were seated in front of their respective halls.
As a consort of high standing, Li Zhi occupied the seat directly below the Emperor, flanked by Worthy Consort Xu and Pure Consort Xiao.
Worthy Consort Xu appeared to have lost a bit of weight, while Pure Consort Xiao’s pregnancy had rendered her more voluptuous.
Li Zhi gazed upon her companions and sensed an unspoken tension. Perhaps, today was not an ordinary day.
Lost in her thoughts, Li Zhi was startled when Li Jing Ye’s gentle voice rang out, “Come sit closer, Li-niang.”
His slightly pale face couldn’t hide his exhaustion, as he pulled her closer and carefully examined her before saying, “I have been busy lately and neglected you.”
He had been busy for a long time and almost never stopped. It had been over half a month since he had entered the palace. Except for sending someone to inquire after her and Pure Consort Xiao, he had not paid attention to anyone else.
Li Zhi had not seen him for several days, and had been enjoying her time alone. Now that he was facing her again, she couldn’t help feeling a little sad.
She smiled gently, her eyebrows and eyes curved like a crescent moon. “Your Majesty is busy with state affairs, and I would never complain. I only hope Your Majesty takes good care of yourself.”
Li Jing Ye’s smile deepened as he listened to the newly presented songs and dances from the music department, while holding her hand and pointing to the colorful lanterns by the Taiye Pool. “Today is the Lantern Festival. We should appreciate the lanterns. Let’s go and have a look.”
Upon seeing this, Pure Consort Xiao hurriedly got up, her pregnant belly protruding slightly, and said softly, “I also wish to see the lanterns. May Your Majesty grant me permission?”
Li Jing Ye was in high spirits, and upon hearing this, he looked at her bulging belly and chuckled, “Of course, go and take a look. It’s not every day you get to witness such a splendid sight.” He then turned to Worthy Consort Xu, whom he had not previously invited, with a hint of contrition in his gaze. “Worthy Consort Xu, please join us as well. You have been helping me with palace affairs lately, and I appreciate your hard work.”
The group of people proceeded towards the Taiye Pool, followed by other concubines and princes, gathering together to admire the lanterns and scenery.
Despite the spaciousness of the palace path by the pool, the crowd made it seem narrow and cramped.
Li Jing Ye held Li Zhi’s hand the entire time as they strolled slowly along the riverbank, igniting feelings of envy and bitterness within Pure Consort Xiao.
She longed for more time with the Emperor and quickened her pace, holding her waist for support as she approached him on the opposite side, carefully saying, “Your Majesty, I heard that on the Lantern Festival, people make wishes and release lanterns into the water to seek good fortune. As my child is about to be born, I wish to release a lantern myself and pray for my baby’s well-being.”
Li Jing Ye’s gaze softened as he looked at her bulging belly. He nodded in agreement and said, “Very well, I’ll have someone fetch the lanterns for you.” He then turned to the crowd, “Today, we’ll experience the customs of commoners by releasing lanterns and pray for our Great Wei’s prosperity.”
Within moments, palace attendants brought over dozens of colorful lanterns, handing them to the crowd.
Li Zhi was hesitant to take one.
She never put much faith in the idea that releasing a lantern could make her wish come true. To her, it was nothing more than a self-consolation.
But under Li Jing Ye’s watchful eyes and with all eyes on her, Li Zhi reluctantly accepted the lantern and made her way towards the water’s edge.
Together with the crowd, they gingerly placed the lanterns into the water.
The glittering lake was soon adorned with dozens of colorful lanterns. They floated on the rippling water, swaying gently, flickering like stars, and slowly drifting away with the currents.
Li Zhi watched the lanterns in awe for a moment before standing up. As she was about to leave, she heard two sudden “plops”. To her astonishment, both Pure Consort Xiao and Worthy Consort Xu, who were standing close by, had fallen into the water!
The enormous splashes of water landed on her, the piercing coldness gradually seeping through her thick winter clothes, and permeating her skin, causing her to tremble uncontrollably.
For a moment, there was silence, before screams and curses echoed in the air.
“Hurry, save them!” Li Jing Ye rushed towards the scene, his face betraying his unbridled anxiety.
A group of palace maids scurried into Qinghui Pavilion to fetch thick blankets and coats, while a few robust palace servants, now stripped down to their thin underclothes in the harsh winter, dove into the water and surrounded the drowning pair. With all their might, they pushed and pulled the two towards the shore.
Just as the lamps had been placed in the water, several were snuffed out and sank.
In the bitter cold of winter, most people entering the water would become numb and shake uncontrollably, unable to move. Even these strong palace servants were exhausted after a struggle, and only managed to bring the pair to the shallow water near the shore.
Both Pure Consort Xiao and Worthy Consort Xian were drenched and looked extremely disheveled. Their thick winter clothes were saturated with frigid water, causing them to shiver uncontrollably and turn deathly pale.
Especially Pure Consort Xiao, who coughed violently and clutched her stomach, shaking her head repeatedly. “It hurts so much…Your Majesty—”
“Where is the female official?” Li Jing Ye’s face turned ashen as he quickly approached the struggling Consorts. “Pure Consort, wait a moment. I have already sent someone to summon the court lady.”
“Just now, someone pushed me—” Pure Consort Xiao nodded at first, then shook her head again as the pain subsided slightly. “Your Majesty, someone pushed me from behind…”
The group fell into a tense silence, each exchanging horrified glances.
“Did anyone see who it was?” Li Jing Ye’s expression was grim as he demanded answers.
Tears and water droplets mingled on the Pure Consort’s delicate cheeks as she shook her head in agony at the words she heard. She looked like a porcelain doll drenched in sorrowful rain.
The Worthy Consort stood beside her in disarray, wrapped in a thick winter coat that was now soaked through. She suppressed her trembling as much as she could, coughing heavily until she finally spat out a mouthful of water. Her lips moved slightly, as if she was trying to say something.
Before she could even open her mouth, a young palace maid suddenly rushed out of the crowd and knelt before them. “Your Majesty, I saw it with my own eyes just now—” She turned to the side and pointed with a trembling finger. “It was Noble Consort Zhong!”
Li Zhi cast a cold gaze upon the palace maid and could not help but inwardly sneer at her pathetic attempts to gain favor.
To their surprise, the palace maid was none other than Qian Yang, who should have been slaving away in Yeting Palace.
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