Chapter 55 Night Banquet
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The twentieth day of the second lunar month had arrived, the day when Pei Ji was scheduled to be on duty.
The Imperial Guards had expected Pei Ji to return as a victorious hero. However, he arrived early in the morning and made his way towards Jiuxian Gate as usual.
As the news of his punctual arrival spread among the guards, they were initially taken aback. But, as they remembered his tireless work ethic and the meticulous attention he gave to his duties, they realized that this was just another day in the life of their General.
The responsibility of the Imperial Guards extended far beyond the palace walls, encompassing the entire city of Chang’an. The deputy commander in charge of military affairs, currently at the helm, was feeling the weight of his responsibilities more than ever before. Each day was a test of his resolve, as he struggled to maintain vigilance without faltering. When he saw Pei Ji return, he breathed a sigh of relief, grateful for the support and guidance of his superior. Together, they inspected the palace gates and the surrounding areas, while the deputy commander filled Pei Ji in on all the happenings of the past two months.
With his usual diligence, Pei Ji listened intently to the reports, analyzing and assessing each detail with the utmost care. After the inspection was complete, he returned to his camp and reviewed the recent records, ensuring that all was in order. Finally, after everything had been accounted for, a hint of satisfaction crossed his expressionless face.
With a light tap on the deputy commander’s shoulder, Pei Ji nodded in acknowledgement. “You’ve been working hard lately. Your excellence in the Imperial Guards over the past two years hasn’t gone unnoticed by His Majesty. When your term is up, I will recommend you to him, and he will surely grant your transfer to a local garrison.”
Though the deputy commander’s family background was modest, hailing from a minor noble clan in Chang’an, he had struggled for three long years to secure his position in the Imperial Guards. However, it wasn’t until a little over a year ago, when Pei Ji was appointed as the General, that he was given a chance to truly shine.
Despite being three to five years Pei Ji’s senior, the deputy commander couldn’t help but stand tall and maintain a respectful demeanor in his presence. Upon hearing the news of his potential transfer to a local garrison, he was overwhelmed with excitement and immediately expressed his gratitude.
While family background held weight in Chang’an, military achievements were highly prized in local areas. With the deputy commander’s current rank in the Imperial Guards, his transfer to a local garrison would grant him the rank of senior captain. If he could perform well in battles, future promotions would come more easily.
In the afternoon, the two men left the palace, mounted their horses, and rode to the garrisons outside each city gate, meticulously inspecting each one. As the sun began to set, they made their way back to the palace.
As night fell, Pei Ji suppressed his impatience and expressionlessly inspected each post after the shift change. Passing by the Zichen Hall, he intentionally glanced at the bright lights inside before quietly making his way through various guard posts, walking southward from Qinghui Pavilion and the Left Treasury, until he accurately located the palace wall behind Chenghuan Palace. In the dim moonlight, he effortlessly climbed over the wall and silently landed under the cover of a tree.
Due to Li Zhi’s house arrest, eunuchs kept watch around Chenghuan Palace day and night. Though not particularly strict, Pei Ji did not dare take it lightly. He quickly darted to the shadows of the corridor, waited until he saw that there was no one around, then cautiously approached the window and listened at the crack.
Bright yellow light poured through the paper windows and gaps, spilling onto his face.
A familiar woman’s voice floated out faintly, as if a gentle hand was soothing the nervous and restless feelings that had been plaguing him.
Pei Ji closed his eyes, waited until he was sure that only Li Zhi and Chun Yue were inside the room, then lightly tapped on the window frame.
The room immediately fell silent. After a moment, footsteps approached and the window was pushed open from inside, revealing Chun Yue’s surprised face.
She grinned and turned back, whispering, “It really is General Pei! This servant’s guess was correct.”
Pei Ji also looked inside, and there he saw the familiar, stunning figure under the warm light turning to look at him.
Their gazes met, and they both fell silent.
His heart skipped a beat as he quietly flipped into the room, closing the window behind him. As he turned around, he noticed that the light had dimmed, casting an bewitching and intimate atmosphere.
Chun Yue had already departed, leaving Li Zhi alone in the room, her back facing him as she blew out the flickering candles in the corner.
“You’re here,” she spoke softly, devoid of any discernible emotion, still with her back turned to him. Her delicate figure was wrapped in a gauze skirt, giving her a fragile appearance.
He paused for a moment, as his emotions swirled in his heart. Overcoming his hesitance, he took a step forward and gently wrapped his arms around her from behind.
The sensation of her soft and warm body against his, along with the sweet fragrance she carried, filled his heart with an overwhelming sense of comfort.
Her luscious locks were incredibly smooth, held together loosely by a single wooden hairpin. As his fingers brushed against it, the hairpin slipped and fell to the ground, emitting a soft sound.
As she turned, her raven locks spilled down, draping over her shoulders and sliding down her chest in a waterfall of midnight silk.
His arms encircling her waist loosened slightly, his palms tracing the slender contours of her bones, while his cheek nestled in the fragrant tresses that tickled his skin. “I have returned.”
Li Zhi said nothing, pausing to slowly pivot around and reach out to caress his chiseled features, which had grown even more rugged and resilient after being weathered by the elements.
After a prolonged silence, a trace of desolation flickered across her serene countenance, and her lustrous almond eyes slowly turned red. “You lied to me.”
Pei Ji’s heart skipped a beat, and he quickly grasped her hand, tenderly wiping away her tears. Without inquiring about the reason for her tears, he said first, his voice thick with remorse, “It’s my fault.”
Li Zhi’s watery orbs bored into his, her teeth gnawing on her lip as she challenged him, “What’s your fault?”
Pei Ji halted for a moment, and then spoke slowly, “I pledged to protect you, but I failed to keep my word.”
Li Zhi was caught off guard by his words, mistaking his seriousness for jest. It was only upon processing his reference to her unjust confinement that she realized the seriousness of the situation.
Despite being stationed miles away at the border, she couldn’t shake off the feeling that he was somehow involved in this ordeal. Yet, it was irrational to believe so, and she tried to push those thoughts aside.
He was a man of honor, that much was clear. But his sincerity was starting to make her uncomfortable, and she wasn’t sure how to respond to it.
She averted her gaze slightly, avoiding his dark eyes, and spoke softly, “Don’t blame yourself. It was just a joke earlier.”
As she spoke, she put on a smile and gently stroked the contour of his jawline, looking back at him. “General Pei, did I ever appear in your dreams during these past two months?”
Pei Ji’s heart raced as he was captivated by her flirtatious gaze. His arms tightened around her waist, and he leaned in to kiss her as his hand trailed up her spine to the back of her neck.
Though two months wasn’t an eternity, they’d rarely had the chance to meet privately before, and the distance only made their separation feel all the more agonizing.
Every night, without fail, her figure would haunt his dreams – at times elusive, at times vivid, at times seductive, at times demure.
His body was a wildfire, and he couldn’t hold back any longer. He bit her lips gently, pulling and tugging at her clothes.
Li Zhi tilted her head back, yielding to his touch as he trailed his rough fingers over her curves, the layers of her thin garments falling away one by one.
She wrapped her arms around his neck and asked in a hushed voice, “They say that swords are blind. General, did you escape unscathed, or do you carry the marks of battle?”
Pei Ji pulled her hand to his collar, silently urging her to undo his buttons. “You can check for yourself.”
Without another word, he lifted her up and carried her to the bed, their bodies entwined in a fierce embrace.
The dim light of the solitary lamp cast their figures in a tantalizing glow, their beauty a sight to behold.
After a long while of intense intimacy, Pei Ji shifted his position to hold her in his embrace, taking advantage of the dim light to carefully examine the exhaustion etched into her closed face.
“It seems you’ve lost weight,” his rough fingertips traced her face, his voice laced with an indescribable tenderness.
Li Zhi’s glistening cheeks curved into a smile as she opened her eyes a fraction, slyly taking his hand and placing it on a particular spot, asking, “Where did I lose weight?”
Pei Ji hesitated, feeling the warmth in his hand rise as he yearned to firmly massage her body.
However, he held back, moving his hand away slightly and asking in a hoarse voice, “How have things been for you in the palace lately?”
Li Zhi’s smile gradually faded, replaced with a rare sharpness as she retorted, “You’ve heard, haven’t you? If things aren’t good, what can I do? Refuse or run away?”
Pei Ji was caught off guard by her sudden words, his heart felt like it had been struck heavily by an invisible force, causing him a dull ache. He tried to say something in response, but his lips were sealed shut.
“But being confined to my quarters does have its perks. I’m not lacking in food or clothing, and I’m living comfortably every day.” She flashed him a seductive smile, then flipped over to straddle him, placing her hands on his broad shoulders and gazing down at him, “We must seize the moment and indulge ourselves to make the most of these carefree days.”
A lock of her black hair slipped down and gently caressed his neck and shoulder, sending shivers down his spine.
He felt like a fish on a chopping board, helpless and at the mercy of the person holding the blade. And she was the one wielding the knife.
As pleasure and pain intertwined, the dull ache in his heart gradually intensified, weighing heavily on him until he could no longer bear it and closed his eyes in agony.
Two days after the victory, Li Jing Ye hosted a grand banquet in Linde Hall to reward the heroic soldiers who had contributed to the cause. Apart from Pei Ji and Li Jing Hui, there were more than a hundred soldiers from Hedong and Lulong’s armies who also attended the feast.
The war had deprived the palace of many festivities at the beginning of the year, but now, in the aftermath of the great triumph, Li Jing Ye seized the chance to invite all the dignitaries, officials, and relatives to the celebration.
Over a month had passed since the Lantern Festival, and Li Jing Ye wished to bury the mishap of that night in the past. He took the opportunity to release Li Zhi from her confinement and invited her to join him at the banquet.
As the evening approached, Linde Hall was impeccably decorated, and guests – ministers and nobles alike – gathered in small groups to chat and drink.
Li Zhi arrived just as Pure Consort Xiao appeared, riding in a palanquin from the north.
The two women met on the palace road outside the hall. One stood on the lower ground, while the other sat on a palanquin, their gazes locking in a silent exchange.
As everyone in the hall caught sight of them, the atmosphere became hushed, all eyes fixated on the two women. Though no one spoke of the mishap at the Lantern Festival again, its memory lingered on in the back of everyone’s mind.
Amid countless prying gazes, Li Zhi stood composed while Pure Consort Xiao, who sat atop the sedan chair, looked sullen and defensive. With a nod and a faint smile, Li Zhi gracefully stepped back, conceding to Pure Consort Xiao’s position. “The Pure Consort has recently given birth, and your body may still be recovering. Please, after you.”
Li Zhi was sincere in her words. After all, it was true that Pure Consort Xiao had only recently given birth. And there was no reason for animosity between the two of them.
Pure Consort Xiao was taken aback by Li Zhi’s poised demeanor and her willingness to take a step back. For a moment, she hesitated, fearing to step out of line. Eventually, she relented and disembarked from her sedan chair, following Li Zhi into the hall.
The hall slowly returned to its lively state as the two women took their seats.
The Emperor and Empress Dowager had yet to arrive, and the Worthy Consort was nowhere to be seen. Li Zhi and Pure Consort Xiao sat side by side in silence.
With a sideways glance at Pure Consort Xiao, who was struggling to conceal her anger, Li Zhi inquired in a gentle voice, “Is there anything you wish to ask me, Pure Consort?”
She didn’t enjoy being wrongly accused, so she had to clear things up.
“Yes,” Pure Consort Xiao’s chest heaved as if she were struggling to suppress her emotions. “That day…was it really not you?”
“No,” Li Zhi’s tone was calm but resolute, just like it was on the day they stood by the Taiye Pool. She looked into Pure Consort Xiao’s eyes without flinching.
The hall remained silent as Li Zhi and Pure Consort Xiao sat facing each other.
The Pure Consort furrowed her brows, her expression of caution and nervousness faltering.
She already knew the results of the palace maids’ interrogations. Apart from Qian Yang, who had a history of grievances with the Noble Consort and insisted it was her, no one else had accused her. Could it really not be the Noble Consort?
However, she distinctly remembered being shoved from behind.
“How can I believe you?”
Li Zhi’s lips curved up into a small smile, her eyes cool and collected. But as Pure Consort Xiao looked into them, she couldn’t help but feel a chill run down her spine.
She leaned in a little closer and calmly whispered in a voice only they could hear, “Because… I can no longer bear children.”
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