Chapter 56 Wei Peng
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The voices of the people around rose and fell, obscuring every movement between the two.
Pure Consort Xiao gaped at Li Zhi, scarcely able to believe her words. “You——how could it be?”
If she could not bear a child, why would she fear her, who carried a pregnancy, and act surreptitiously?
At a mere seventeen, when she was in full bloom, how could she be barren?
For some inexplicable reason, Pure Consort Xiao shuddered.
“Surely you must have guessed by now,” Li Zhi observed calmly, her smile deepening and rendering her dazzling features even more splendid against the flickering light. “It is His Majesty.”
Pure Consort Xiao stared unblinkingly into her eyes, which seemed to pierce her like rays of light, her pupils contracting until she could scarcely meet her gaze.
“If you’re unconvinced, you are free to investigate the records kept by the female officials who examined me at Wangxian Temple.”
Li Jing Ye had kept the matter of making her take medicine suppressed, but for two months, she suffered from frequent and unbearable abdominal pain and tremors. The symptoms resembled those after a miscarriage, and were easily noticeable upon closer examination.
Pure Consort Xiao didn’t say a word and slowly turned her body towards the table where the food had been laid out. Her gaze was blank, her hands tightly clutching her sleeves and nervously stirring back and forth.
She had a strong gut feeling that the Noble Consort was telling her the truth.
The Emperor had previously spent little time in the imperial harem, and in the six years since then, very few concubines had become pregnant. No one had suspected anything unusual. However, over the past half-year, he had spent over half of his days in Chenghuan Palace, yet the Noble Consort remained without a sign of pregnancy.
Slowly, she recalled the many things that the Noble Consort had done when she was still known as “Lady Lian Zhen” in the Wangxian Temple.
The Empress Dowager had been incensed when the Emperor openly brought back Prince Rui’s Consort to the palace. For the next few months, she refused to budge and allow the Emperor to take his brother’s wife into the harem. Even Prime Minister Du had spoken out in court, arguing that the Emperor’s actions were unethical and would earn him the people’s disapproval.
In those days, the women of the harem had wished that the matter could simply be left to simmer, waiting for the Emperor’s initial fervor to wane.
Yet, not long thereafter, Third Miss Zhong was unexpectedly promoted to Noble Consort, becoming the most distinguished woman in the harem, second only to the Empress Dowager.
The Empress Dowager, who had once been fiercely opposed, now showed no objection, while even Ministrr Du seemed to have accepted the change, never mentioning it again.
In retrospect, it seemed likely that the Emperor had made some surreptitious concessions.
But why must a woman be sacrificed for such concessions? Surely, His Majesty… he truly loved the Noble Consort, treating her with utmost sincerity and care, didn’t he?
She couldn’t help but steal a glance at the composed and collected Noble Consort seated beside her.
She had always been envious of the Noble Consort. Envious of how shebcould effortlessly win the Emperor’s favor without doing anything, while she had been with him since he was in the Eastern Palace, always being careful and submissive, but had never received such love from him.
However, on this day, she suddenly felt a sense of emptiness, accompanied by a slight ache that wasn’t jealousy or resentment.
Li Zhi glanced at the Pure Consort’s reaction but remained silent. She slowly scanned the relatives who had already entered the palace and soon spotted the familiar Zhong family making their way towards the seat from a distance below the steps.
She didn’t have high hopes, but before she could look away, she saw that in addition to the four people from her uncle’s family, there was also a tall, slender, and bright figure limping along. It was Lan Ying.
Everyone’s eyes immediately turned to this beauty who bore some resemblance to the Noble Consort. Some were amazed, while others looked at her feet and shook their heads in pity.
Lan Ying walked through the crowd with a slight limp, carrying herself with a hint of grace and confidence. As onlookers whispered and gossiped, she calmly took her seat and gazed up towards the higher ranks.
The sisters locked eyes and broke into smiles almost simultaneously, as if the time apart had been but a mere moment.
Despite the lack of words, their reunion brought an overwhelming sense of joy and release.
Not long after, Worthy Consort Xu made her appearance.
Clearly, she had yet to fully recover from her recent miscarriage. Her face, already fading in complexion, looked even paler under the glare of the lights. Her figure too had shrunk, despite the temperature no longer being bone-chilling. As she made her way over, a gentle breeze caused her to tremble, and she instinctively brought a handkerchief to her lips to stifle her cough.
Li Zhi furrowed her brows at the sight, quickly calling for a wider cloak to be fetched for Worthy Consort Xu. “How have you been, Worthy Consort Xu?”
Ting He hurried over with the cloak and draped it over Worthy Consort Xu’s shoulders, hoping to ease her discomfort.
The Worthy Consort’s eyes flickered towards Li Zhi, her lips curved into a small smile, and she spoke softly, “All is well.”
Li Zhi couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but the anger that had previously simmered in the Worthy Consort’s gaze had vanished, replaced by a new, mysterious look of expectation.
Even during her house arrest, she still asked Qing Zi to inquire about the recent events every time she left the palace, so she was not entirely unaware.
It was said that Li Jing Ye was overjoyed when he heard that the Pure Consort had given birth to a son on the day of the Lantern Festival. Although the child was weak from birth, he was still the firstborn and was named Si Zhi.
As for the Worthy Consort, he seemed to feel guilty towards her. He knelt before the late emperor’s shrine for half a day, and in the following month, he almost visited the Xianju Palace every day to check up on her.
The Worthy Consort remained indifferent to Li Jing Ye’s guilt and did not show any gratitude. Although the female officials said that she was still young and had no serious problems, she seemed to be getting worse during her recovery period.
Li Zhi furrowed her brow, sensing an uneasy familiarity with her former resoluteness in dreams.
After a brief pause, all the guests had arrived, and Li Jing Ye, accompanied by the Empress Dowager, led the procession of distinguished figures, including General Pei Ji and Li Jing Hui, into the grand hall.
As Li Zhi paid her respects with the others, her gaze immediately settled on Pei Ji, walking a few steps behind Li Jing Ye. But their eyes met only for a moment before she caught a glimpse of Li Jing Hui, whose gaze held a subtle and unfamiliar expression.
Her heart skipped a beat, sensing that something had changed within him during his absence, and she could not shake the feeling of a stranger before her.
This time, he didn’t brazenly stare at her as he used to, but casually glanced away, striking up conversation with the soldiers by his side.
Li Zhi let out a small sigh of relief.
Perhaps his experiences on the border had matured him beyond her recognition. In any case, it was better this way, as she could finally let go of her constant worry and fear.
Today’s feast was meant to honor the bravery and sacrifices of their soldiers. After Li Jing Ye took his seat, he gestured for the guests to enjoy themselves and drink freely until dawn. Notably, the soldiers from Hedong and Lulong were each given a generous reward of one hundred taels of gold.
The music department had meticulously choreographed several powerful and grand dances that now boomed loudly. The soldiers in the army were stirred and joined in the chorus.
The atmosphere inside the hall immediately grew lively.
The Empress Dowager, who had just recovered from a prolonged illness, was in high spirits today. Nevertheless, she was not young, and after sitting for a while, Li Ling Yue helped her leave.
After several performances of music and dance, the guests had already indulged in several cups of wine, and their merriment rose.
A member of the imperial family laughed heartily and said, “General Pei, I’ve heard a rumor about a brave warrior who single-handedly beheaded sixteen enemies in the recent war. I wonder if this hero has arrived in the capital? Can we all meet him and pay our respects?”
Great Wei was a country that prized martial arts. Even civil officials had to master riding and archery to earn their colleagues’ admiration. Thus, upon hearing of a warrior who could chop off sixteen enemy heads, everyone couldn’t help but discuss and scan the crowd.
Pei Ji heard the question, and for once, a rare smile played across his usually stern countenance.
Pei Ji signaled to Wei Peng below with a knowing look and guided him to the throne, where he respectfully announced, “Your Majesty, this is Lietenant Wei Peng, the hero who slew sixteen enemies with a single sword. I’ve heard he’s only twenty-three and has served for just over two years, yet he’s already accomplished more than most. He’s garnered respect from his fellow soldiers and even struck fear in the hearts of the Turkic camp. Your Majesty is known for his keen eye for talent, and I humbly request that we invite Liutenant Wei to the capital.”
All eyes turned to the young warrior standing beside Pei Ji, their gazes held captive by his impressive physique and noble demeanor. They couldn’t help but murmur their admiration.
Li Jing Ye rose from his seat and gazed at the warrior with a smile, nodding in approval. “Truly a talented individual. I believe that the rank of liuetenant is too low for him. Let’s promote him to Imperial Punishment Colonel.”
The rank of Imperial Punishment Colonel was a title of distinction among military officers, often bestowed as an honor. Wei Peng had previously held only the rank of lietenant and commanded the soldiers under him, but now, as an Imperial Punishment Colonel, he had become an eighth-rank military officer.
The crowd erupted in applause and praise while Wei Peng bowed and saluted under Pei Ji’s guidance.
Li Zhi sat by, observing the man with a slight frown on her face.
Wasn’t this Wei Peng, the same man who had traveled all the way from Shu Province to Chang’an three years ago, only to be cruelly driven away by her uncle Zhong Cheng Ping?
Instinctively, she glanced towards the direction where the Zhong family sat and sure enough, her uncle Zhong Cheng Ping wore an expression of embarrassment, while Lan Ying stared blankly. As if sensing something, she slowly lifted her head and locked eyes with Li Zhi.
Li Zhi paused, gave her a subtle nod, then slipped away unnoticed towards a secluded side hall.
In the main hall, Li Jing Hui’s eyes flickered as he noticed this and after looking around, he quietly rose to his feet as well.
Amidst the bustling crowd, Lan Ying stole a glance at Wei Peng, who was receiving endless praise. Her eyes betrayed a fleeting expression of sorrow and bewilderment.
She had entered the palace today out of concern for Li Zhi, whom she had not seen in a long time. Little did she expect to encounter Wei Peng there.
She shrugged off the scornful remarks of Madam Yang and Miao Yun, and sat silently for a while. After some time, she got up with a limp and made her way through the crowd towards a secluded side hall.
Lan Ying had already resolved to never think about Wei Peng again, to banish his name from her heart forever.
Her life was already in ruins, and her hopes for marriage had long since withered away. Having finally managed to put her past sorrows to rest, the sudden reappearance of Wei Peng shook her to the core.
In that fleeting moment, a glimmer of joy flickered across her face.
But the next moment, Miao Yun’s words shattered her newfound happiness. “This man is quite impressive. I had underestimated him. After fleeing for nearly three years, he has gone from being a lowly soldier to an eight-ranked military officer with limitless potential. No doubt there are many noble families eager to have him as a son-in-law.”
Indeed, he was no longer the penniless commoner he once was. He had risen in rank and gained glory as a young warrior, his future bright with promise.
Meanwhile, she remained an unmarried, middle-aged woman with a disability.
Walking along, she couldn’t help but smile bitterly as her usual pride and determination crumbled under the eyes of others. Her heart yearned to speak to Third Sister and share her jumbled emotions.
The noise of the crowd grew fainter as she quickened her steps, following in the direction of Li Zhi’s departure.
But just as she turned a corner, she collided with a young man wearing a scarlet robe.
The man was handsome, with a youthful face, but he was obviously drunk, the smell of alcohol emanating from him. It was none other than Xiao Chong.
His eyes flickered for a moment, then he leaned against the wall with a smirk, looking at Lan Ying with a hint of greed. “Isn’t this Miss Zhong? I saw you earlier and thought you were stunning. Up close, you’re no less beautiful than the Noble Consort herself. It’s just a shame that—”
His gaze flickered towards her legs hidden under her skirt, a click of his tongue preceding his nod. “It’s all thanks to this leg of yours that I’ve chanced upon you today.”
In a brazen display, he reached out and attempted to grasp her wrist.
Lan Ying immediately became wary and stepped back, deftly dodging his hand. Her voice stern, she demanded, “Who are you? If you know that I am the Noble Consort’s elder sister, why do you dare to act so recklessly in the palace?”
A sneer played at the corners of Xiao Chong’s lips. “And what of Noble Consort Zhong? Was she not confined by His Majesty for a long time? As for me, my fourth sister is the Pure Consort and bore His Majesty’s eldest son. My father is the leader of the council of ministers, and I am a third-ranking General of the Left Golden Shield Guards.”
As he spoke, he stumbled forward in drunkenness.
Lan Ying’s fury mounted, and as she retreated, she lifted her hand to deliver a slap to his face.
He was stunned for a moment, then touched his cheek in silence and gradually realized what had happened. The playful expression on his face turned into anger, and he raised his hand, ready to strike her.
Lan Ying tightly pursed her lips, seeing that she couldn’t avoid it. She straightened her back without any fear.
Just as his palm was about to land, a broad hand suddenly reached out from the side, accurately grabbed his wrist, and blocked his next move.
Lan Ying looked sideways and saw Wei Peng, who was recently praised by everyone in the hall, had arrived by her side.
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