Chapter 6 Hand Cream
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Inside the grand Zichen Hall, Li Jing Ye had spent the whole day tending to state affairs. Fatigue had now overtaken him, and he leaned back into his ornate chair, his eyes tightly shut as he attempted to rejuvenate his spirit.
Qian Yang stood before the Emperor with her head respectfully lowered, narrating the events of the previous night in a soft, clear voice. Despite her detailed account, she detected no response from him, and her curiosity got the better of her as she discreetly stole a glance.
The Emperor had already opened his eyes without her noticing and was staring motionlessly at the smoke rising from the white porcelain incense burner with cloud pattern carvings beside him. He was lost in thought and she didn’t know how much of her words he had heard.
The Emperor had been raised with a strict code of conduct and was careful to maintain his composure. He rarely criticized others, so everyone thought he was kind and gentle.
Only those who had the privilege of being in his service knew that despite his relaxed manner, the Emperor’s instincts were razor-sharp, and his suspicion of others was difficult to dispel.
Qian Yang’s heart fluttered uneasily as she wondered if she had acted rashly by coming today.
Li Jing Ye sat in silence for an unknown amount of time, lost in his thoughts. When he finally came back to the present, he gestured to Qian Yang with a wave of his hand, “That will be all. Just continue to keep watch.”
Qian Yang released a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding, but not before taking one last, reluctant glance at the Emperor. She bowed deeply and retreated out of the room.
“Yuan Shi.” Li Jing Ye rested his hand on the armrest and massaged his temples. His voice was devoid of emotion. “What’s the situation?”
He Yuan Shi knew that the Emperor’s suspicions wouldn’t be easily appeased, even if they failed to find any concrete evidence. He had already dispatched someone to investigate the eunuchs and palace maids who had served in Shaoyang Courtyard the previous night. Now that he had obtained the results, he stepped forward and spoke in a hushed tone, “Your Majesty, I have received news. Prince Rui did leave Shaoyang Courtyard for over an hour last night. He returned only after being escorted back by General Pei.”
Li Jing Ye frowned. “Was he with Zi Hui?”
He did indeed instruct Pei Ji last night to try to persuade the Sixth Prince if he saw him, but at that time, Pei Ji had already finished his duties and remained in the palace, which was not in line with his usual conduct.
Did the Sixth Prince really spend over an hour with Pei Ji?
Thinking of the cold look the Empress Dowager gave him when he went to Chang’an Hall to pay his respects yesterday, and the words of a few close courtiers after the morning court today, Li Jing Ye felt a surge of annoyance.
Three months had passed, but they still brought up his impulsive action from that day and criticized him for it.
He had planned to stay in the Zichen Hall to handle state affairs tonight, but he had no desire to do so now.
As the night fell outside the hall, he abruptly rose to his feet and began pacing the hall, finally saying, “Go to the Wangxian Temple.”
He Yuan Shi bowed and turned to instruct the eunuchs to prepare the sedan chair.
As soon as Qian Yang left the Wangxian Temple, Chun Yue rushed into the room and exclaimed to Li Zhi, “She’s gone and it looks like she made an effort to dress up. Miss, are we going to let yesterday’s incident go without punishment?”
Yesterday, Qian Yang’s demeanor showed no respect towards Li Zhi at all. If one didn’t know any better, they would have thought that she was a high-ranking female official in the imperial palace.
Lying on the beauty couch outside, Li Zhi lazily raised her eyelids and glanced at the darkening sky. “She was sent by His Majesty. How could I possibly have the authority to punish her?”
She was a nobody, not even a concubine of Prince Rui, just a woman with a coronet in the temple. And if she were to be ranked, she wouldn’t even be on par with an ordinary palace maid.
Furthermore, Qian Yang wouldn’t have dared to barge into her room yesterday without someone backing her up.
Being a palace maid in the Zichen Hall, the person behind Qian Yang must be the Emperor himself.
The Emperor was a man of great sensitivity and suspicion. Even after he had summoned her to the palace and given her his favor, she knew that he still doubted her loyalty. Li Zhi had already learned to live with this constant sense of scrutiny, knowing that it was only natural for him to send someone to keep an eye on her.
How could she possibly punish someone who belonged to the Emperor?
The sun was sinking to the west, casting long shadows across the palace grounds. The heat of the summer day had finally dissipated, leaving behind a pleasant breeze.
Li Zhi slowly rose from the couch, stretching her limbs as she made her way over to the bronze mirror. Seeing this, Chun Yue wanted to get the rouge, the powdered shell, the flower hairpin and other tools for her, but Li Zhi waved her hand to indicate that it was not necessary.
Her face was naturally radiant, with a beauty that required no artificial enhancement. The evening light shone down upon her, casting a soft glow upon her skin.
But Li Zhi had other reasons for her outing tonight, and she knew that her careful preparation would only arouse suspicion from others. Nonetheless, she was determined to carry out her plans with grace and composure.
She examined herself in the bronze mirror, carefully applying a tiny bit of rouge on her lips. “Is the hand cream ready?” she inquired.
Though not as effective as medicine, hand cream could moisturize the skin and promote wound healing, reducing the likelihood of scarring.
Chun Yue quickly produced a small blue porcelain box. “It’s ready, Miss. Please take a look.”
Li Zhi examined the contents of the box and, after a moment of reflection, picked up a pair of tweezers and plucked a few dried coral peony petals. She shredded them into small pieces and sprinkled them into the box. She then closed the lid and rose to her feet. “Let’s go. I’ve been in the palace for so long, but I’ve never had a chance to see the scenery around the Taiye Pool.”
It was already the hour of Rooster, and Pei Ji was patrolling alone near the Taihe Hall, making his way towards the Taiye Pool.
He didn’t need to stay on duty tonight. As usual, Shi Quan had already left, taking Pei Ji’s horse to the outside of the right Yintai Gate for him. Pei Ji only needed to continue west along the Taiye Pool to exit the palace.
The sun was just about to dip below the horizon, casting a hazy orange light over the water’s surface.
A cool breeze danced along the shore, alleviating the day’s heat and heavy atmosphere, causing Pei Ji to involuntarily slow his pace.
To his right was the Taiye Pool, and to his left, he could see the hillside leading up to the Wangxian Temple.
Pei Ji looked up and then quickly looked away, the memories of the previous night rushing into his mind.
He didn’t know why, but he could almost smell the woman’s faint fragrance again, and his palms and back of his hand grew hot, as if he could still feel the touch of her slender fingertips on his skin.
The cool breeze should have been refreshing, but instead, it reminded him of the stifling heat under the blankets from last night, causing him to break out in a sweat.
The darkness covered the sky, and he couldn’t help but pinch and rub his left hand that was hanging by his side, his face becoming gloomy.
This was a feeling he had never experienced before.
From an early age, he had a habit of not letting others get too close to him, especially women. Even the maids in the mansion, with the exception of his childhood nurse, were only allowed to approach him when he was a child.
When he was sixteen or seventeen, there were a few attractive and youthful maids in the mansion who would frequently “accidentally” bump into him. Whether it was intentionally falling or dropping their handkerchiefs, the implications were all too clear.
Had he been any other young master from a different family, he would have taken advantage of the situation and brought them back to his room.
However, he had never felt anything other than disgust, and even accidentally touching their fingers would cause him discomfort for days.
Yesterday, he felt something different. He did not reject it, but felt a mixture of disdain and a memorable heat and itchiness. He remembered the Emperor and Prince Rui’s infatuation with that woman, and a hint of regret flashed in his eyes, becoming more and more convinced that the woman was a calamity who could bewitch people’s hearts.
He should keep his distance.
However, just as this thought flashed through his mind, the scene before him made him furrow his brows.
Two young women stood in a pavilion dozens of yards away from him by the lake. One of them was dressed in a graceful palace dress, with her hair combed in a hanging horse bun, looking up into the wind. Her clothes were blown close to her body, revealing a graceful figure. Her clothes and belt were flipping and flying as if she was flying with wings. It was the woman he had just remembered in his heart.
He stopped in his tracks, intending to quietly turn and go around, but the woman seemed to sense something and suddenly turned her head, looking in his direction.
Even from dozens of yards away, her face was shrouded in a dreamy beauty that was illuminated by the moonlight and the lights in the pavilion. It was her sparkling eyes, however, that held him transfixed, as if an invisible hook had latched onto his gaze.
His entire body stiffened as he stood there for a moment before resuming his composure and continuing on his path with a stoic expression, intending to pass straight through the pavilion.
With his status, he had no obligation to acknowledge someone of her lower rank, and so he moved to brush past her with little regard.
But the woman seemed to have anticipated his actions and emerged from the pavilion, stopping him in his tracks with a smile that was impossible to ignore.
“General Pei,” she said with a soft and delicate voice, her graceful stance making her appear so fragile that one might have wanted to hold her close. “I’m glad you’ve finally arrived.”
Pei Ji’s heart skipped a beat. With a stoic expression, he glanced at her and took a step back, as if he had not understood the meaning behind her words. His brows furrowed, and he said, “It’s already late. My lady, you should return quickly and not linger outside.”
He spoke in a tone as cold as the icy winds of winter, with a face as expressionless as a statue of Buddha.
Li Zhi’s gaze swept across his clenched fists and she didn’t seem to mind his coldness. Instead, she took a step forward, raised her watery apricot eyes, and innocently looked at him, saying, “But I came here specifically for General Pei…”
Pei Ji stood in the dark, and the corners of his mouth sank. He was about to remind her of his identity, but suddenly felt a familiar touch on his left hand.
It was soft, delicate, and warm, making him tremble all over like he had been struck by lightning.
He unconsciously took a big step back, his tone unfriendly, “My lady, what are you doing?!”
Li Zhi’s slender hand froze in mid-air, trembling slightly as her almond-shaped eyes welled up with tears, making her appear vulnerable and fragile.
She glanced at his quickly retracted left hand and whispered, “I just remembered that General had an injury on his left hand yesterday, so I wanted to bring some hand medicine for General. After all, you helped me yesterday…”
Pei Ji furrowed his brows as he recalled scraping his left hand on the rough wall while sneaking into Wangxian Temple last night. He had barely registered the scratch, and if she hadn’t mentioned it, he wouldn’t have remembered.
As a martial artist, how could he care about this? It was this woman who was pretentious, pretending to be weak and helpless. He couldn’t figure out what was on her mind.
He was about to turn away when he saw that she had already extended her palm at some point.
A small blue porcelain box was placed on that delicate and slender palm, which looked like a small box used to hold hand medicine often seen in the palace. He had seen it at his mother’s place.
He furrowed his brow and didn’t extend his hand to take the object. Instead, he followed her slender finger with his gaze, trailing it up her arm until he reached her wrist.
Whether intentional or not, she raised her hand slightly, causing her sleeve to fall down her arm and exposing a tender, pale limb with faint bruises adorning its surface like a wistful melody.
That was the same spot where Prince Rui had squeezed her yesterday and where he had held her with a powerful grip.
The image of the two of them tangled in the scarlet gauze canopy, their breaths intermingling, flashed through his mind once more, and the delicate and fragile touch of her skin seemed to linger on his fingertips.
His Adam’s apple bobbed with a subtle movement as he averted his gaze without a word. “You should keep it for yourself.”
Li Zhi paid no mind to his rejection and boldly took hold of his large hand, slipping the small porcelain box into it before he could retreat. Before letting go, she gently scratched his palm with her nails, an intentional or unintentional action that left a trail of goosebumps in its wake.
With her face upturned and a smile on her lips, she gazed at him, and despite the unshed tears in her almond eyes, her smiling cheeks revealed a hint of coquettish satisfaction.
The porcelain box still radiated the warmth of her palm, and Pei Ji felt it almost scorching in his grasp.
His reflex was to hand back the object, but just as he was about to reach out, he caught sight of her delicate and hurt expression, and his hand froze in the air.
In that fleeting moment of indecision, the Emperor’s entourage could already be seen nearing the Qinghui Pavilion in the south.
The Emperor had evidently spotted them, sitting in his carriage with his eyes narrowed, and inquired, “Zi Hui, Li-niang, what are you doing?”
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