Chapter 60 Stay behind
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The banquet was filled with distinguished guests, including many generals who had traveled from the far reaches of the empire. Yet despite the impressive company, it was Wei Peng alone who managed to leave a lasting impression on the assembled crowd.
Their time together had been all too brief, and except for the Emperor and Prince Rui, she had shown no interest in any other man. That’s why his sudden question caught her completely off guard.
Pei Ji thought of Wei Peng as young, heroic, and with a bright future ahead of him. Even he had high hopes for him, and for some reason he felt a twinge of bitterness in his heart.
Looking back, he realized that in her eyes he had probably been nothing more than a talented young warrior with a bright future ahead of him.
He absentmindedly caressed her soft cheek.
Li Zhi lay there with her eyes closed, lost in thought as she felt his rough fingers caress her face. She nuzzled against his chest, hoping for some kind of response, but when none came, she began to suspect that something was wrong with him.
She gazed at him silently for a moment before flashing a sly smile, lightly biting his jaw to bring him back to reality. “What? Shouldn’t I remember? Not only do I know his name is Wei Peng, but I also know he’s from Shu Province, 22 years old this year, and only went to Hedong three years ago. Am I right?”
With each word she spoke, Pei Ji’s brow furrowed tighter, until she finished and he seemed to recall something. His face darkened as he spoke slowly, “I remember. You’re also from Shu. You and he…knew each other before?”
Li Zhi hooked one hand around his neck and caressed his cheek with her fingertips, a smile playing on her lips as she leaned in close. Their noses almost touched as they breathed in each other’s scent, their eyes meeting in the flickering light of the candle.
“Yes, Brother Wei and I are old acquaintances.”
The words “Brother Wei” made his heart feel like it was being squeezed tightly, and the hands around her waist felt numb and hot at the same time.
He gazed intently into her eyes, as if daring to test the sensation in his fingertips. Suddenly, he exerted a firm grip and pulled her into his embrace.
Their bodies collided with a solid thud, and they pressed together tightly.
He tilted his head slightly and swiftly captured her soft lips, kissing her with fervor.
Li Zhi’s eyes crinkled with a smile, but the next moment, she winced in pain as he bit her lip, gasping in surprise and pushing him away.
Instead of releasing her, he held her tighter, constricting her until she struggled for air before loosening his grip.
Li Zhi glared at him, poking her slender index finger into his unyielding chest. When she finally regained her composure, she smiled wryly and said, “Why didn’t you let me finish? Brother Wei and I go way back. When my father was alive, he arranged for him to marry my elder sister. Three years ago, he journeyed thousands of miles to Chang’an to claim her hand in marriage, but my uncle refused to accept a military man as a son-in-law and drove him out of the city.”
Pei Ji froze, then gradually remembered something he had heard about her family in the past. “Your sister’s leg… it was broken back then, wasn’t it?”
Li Zhi’s playful demeanor faded away, replaced by regret and admiration. She nodded, saying, “Uncle wanted to send her to a Prince’s household as a concubine. Knowing she couldn’t marry Brother Wei and unwilling to submit to Uncle’s plans, she made a drastic decision and allowed the carriage wheel to crush her own leg.”
She didn’t need to elaborate on what happened next. He already knew.
Had she not caught the eye of Prince Rui and been sought after as his Princess Consort, would she have been forced to resort to self-harm like her sister to escape the fate of becoming a pawn of the powerful?
The thought weighed heavily on his heart.
Though young, he had accompanied his father on many travels and witnessed the hardships of the common people.
When he saw poor people who couldn’t afford to eat, dress warmly, or have a place to call home wandering the streets with dirty faces and tangled hair, his heart ached for them.
They huddled together in clusters, wailing and praying. Their voices reached the ears of officials who empathized with their plight, prompting them to reduce taxes, provide food and clothing, erect shelters, and temporarily settle them. Once they had overcome their hardships, they would be dispatched to various regions to farm, weave, and trade, so they could recover by the following year.
Women like her were a different breed of pitiable.
She was born into a well-off official’s family, where it appeared that she had everything she could wish for. However, the reality was that she was exploited and manipulated by her family as though she were a mere commodity.
Even if she did not wish to submit, she had nowhere to turn for help.
He caressed her face, his eyes brimming with tenderness.
Li Zhi observed the change in his expression, her eyes clouded with confusion. “Do you think that being selected by Prince Rui is a fortunate occurrence for me? Shouldn’t I feel grateful?”
She mused that most people, even those in her time, would likely think the same way after learning about her experiences, although there were always exceptions.
Pei Ji paused, then shook his head slowly. “If this is not your heart’s desire, why should you offer thanks?”
Li Zhi scrutinized him quietly and then snorted in disbelief. “Exactly. Neither of us wanted this, so why should I thank anyone for it?”
When Prince Rui sought her hand in marriage, it was not out of respect for her, but just an impulsive desire for her beauty. Ultimately, it was all for his own selfish desires.
If he found out that she didn’t match his fantasies, or if he found someone else, he might gradually lose interest in her.
In the end, what difference would it make?
However, Pei Ji’s reaction was unexpected. He seemed different from other men.
In Great Wei, where aristocratic men all had multiple wives and concubines and coveted pleasure and beauty, why was he so different from them?
Was it just because he was young and had not yet taken a wife or concubine?
She thought this way and asked him directly.
Pei Ji appeared taken aback by her question. After furrowing his brows in deep thought for a moment, he finally spoke, “My father instilled in me from a young age that women should never be bullied. He only married my mother, and our family has always been a harmonious one.”
While observing other powerful families, Li Zhi noticed that many of them were engaged in varying degrees of open or hidden conflicts and struggles. Especially those households with multiple wives and countless children, whose apparent prosperity was a veneer hiding their internal strife and frigid relationships between siblings, sometimes even to the point of outright hostility.
However, he didn’t feel comfortable discussing other families in front of her, so he kept his further thoughts to himself.
Li Zhi had a general idea of what he meant.
Pei Ji’s mother was the Grand Princess, a noble and highly respected figure in the household. His father had also remained faithful and did not take any concubines, and the couple had been deeply in love for many years, in stark contrast to other noble families.
It was no wonder he was different from the others.
Li Zhi gently stroked his face and smiled, once again feeling his preciousness and finding comfort in his reliability.
“General Pei, may I ask if the eldest son of the Wei family is currently married?”
A rare flush crossed Pei Ji’s face.
“I never inquired, but on our way back, General Zhang asked me to help Wei Peng find a suitable match in the capital. I believe he is still single. Would you like me to ask on behalf of your elder sister?”
Li Zhi pondered for a moment before shaking her head, “No rush. I’ll check with A’Zi first.”
The two chatted about other things in the room for a while. As the hour grew late, Pei Ji carried her to bed and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Tomorrow, I’ll go to the medical clinic and relay all the details you gave me to Physician Zhang. He’ll concoct a new medicine for you.”
Li Zhi nodded in agreement.
Lately, Pei Ji had been speaking more than usual.
“Going forward, even though I will continue to serve as the General of the Imperial Guards, I’ll only have to work one day a month. It’s possible I won’t be able to visit you frequently. However, the day I pay my respects to the Empress Dowager will remain the same. If you want to see me, just give me a signal, and I’ll find a way to come.”
After the war, the recognition of his exceptional service had landed him the coveted position of Hedong’s Military Governor, a role that he had inherited from his father. Moreover, he had also secured a prestigious position in the Ministry of War, which made his daily visits to the office a necessary evil. Consequently, he had no choice but to delegate most of the Imperial Guards’ responsibilities to his deputy commanders.
His love for her burned strong, which was why he still spared one day each month to spend the night at the palace, just as he had done before.
Li Zhi listened intently, and a rare sense of reluctance crept into her heart.
She tugged at his hand and made some room for him, her eyes full of tenderness as she said, “He won’t come today, Darling Third. Will you stay with me instead?”
Pei Ji’s heart skipped a beat, and he readily agreed, his love for her burning brighter than ever.
He quickly discarded his outer robe, blew out the candle, and lay down next to her, pulling her close to him. “Rest now, Li-niang. I’ll leave before dawn tomorrow,” he whispered in her ear.
Li Zhi murmured her agreement, basking in his warmth and feeling a profound sense of peace wash over her. She closed her eyes and nestled against him, letting herself drift off into a restful sleep.
In Zichen Hall, Imperial Physician Zhang knelt nervously to the side, carefully holding a bowl of medicine above his head. It wasn’t until Li Jing Ye had drank the entire bowl and finally fell asleep with the help of his eunuchs, that Imperial Physician Zhang let out a long, relieved breath. As he wiped away the sweat on his forehead, he followed He Yuan Shi cautiously out of the sleeping quarters, making sure not to make any noise.
As the night wore on, the once lively hall had now become eerily quiet, the silence only broken by the occasional footsteps of a lone attendant.
He Yuan Shi didn’t immediately depart, choosing instead to dismiss all the attendants and take the imperial physician aside. With a solemn expression, he asked, “Please tell me the truth, how is His Majesty’s health?”
His Majesty had suddenly collapsed earlier, and after Imperial Physician Zhang had spent a long time administering acupuncture and prescribing medicine, the Emperor had finally been able to fall asleep. However, Imperial Physician Zhang had been reluctant to share any specific diagnosis, leaving He Yuan Shi and everyone else worried and uncertain.
In just a few short months, His Majesty had already fallen ill three times, with this latest episode being the most severe. After fainting, he had remained in a dazed, unresponsive state for a long time, his entire body feeling numb and his mind in a state of panic and confusion.
“Oh!” Imperial Physician Zhang couldn’t help but stomp his feet and sigh deeply as he spoke. “I won’t keep it from you, Chief Eunuch. His Majesty is absolutely healthy, and all of his symptoms are the result of a troubled mind!”
He Yuan Shi’s expression grew grave, clearly not fully convinced by Imperial Physician Zhang’s words. “But earlier, you said His Majesty was weak and frail. How come now it’s all caused by a troubled mind?”
Imperial Physician Zhang paced back and forth restlessly, scanning the surroundings before explaining, “Earlier, he was just slightly physically weak. But recently, His Majesty’s worries have become increasingly overwhelming. The acupuncture and medicine I gave him were only meant to help him relax his stiff limbs and calm his nerves. His Majesty has not contracted any disease. Rather, his excessive worries and restlessness have caused his illness. Currently, he is weak, prone to fainting, and gradually experiencing unexplained pain throughout his body, even though he is not actually sick. He always feels as though he is dying and becomes increasingly sensitive and suspicious with each passing day.”
He had been Li Jing Ye’s physician for many years and knew his temperament well. He couldn’t be too blunt, or else it would only worsen his patient’s worries.
He Yuan Shi furrowed his brows and pondered over the imperial physician’s words. Seeing that the he didn’t seem to be lying and recalling the tales of those who died from overwhelming sorrow, he hesitantly believed him and asked, “What can we do then?”
Imperial Physician Zhang replied with a tone of helplessness, “There’s no cure for a troubled mind. If His Majesty can find a way to relax and ease his worries, he will slowly recover and return to his normal self. However…”
They both knew that the chances of that happening were slim to none.
“Otherwise, I can only administer acupuncture and prescribe calming medicine for His Majesty from time to time, to temporarily alleviate his suffering. I implore the Chief Eunuch to also advise him and prevent him from overworking and worrying too much.”
He Yuan Shi was unsure of what to do, so he could only nod in agreement and keep the physician’s words in mind.
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