Chapter 61 Strange
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Before the first light of day could pierce the sky, Pei Ji was already awake, his body following the same routine as always.
He held the warm, tender body in his arms, feeling a sense of comfort wash over him. In that moment, he couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her side.
But the silence and darkness of the palace room reminded him of where he was— in Daming Palace, beside the Emperor’s favored consort.
The warmth that had filled his heart slowly dissipated.
He gazed up at the ceiling.
If only he could take her away from this unpredictable palace.
A sudden, inexplicable thought jolted him out of his reverie, leaving him momentarily disoriented.
He tried his best to bury his confused emotions deep in his heart. Seeing that Li Zhi was still sleeping soundly, he carefully removed his arm from around her waist.
His arm had gone numb from the weight of her body all night long, making it difficult for him to move with grace. He accidentally startled her from her peaceful slumber with a careless movement.
In the dimly lit room, her voice was soft and muffled as she stirred from her sleep, her eyes fluttering open to the sight of the familiar face before her. For a moment, she was lost in thought before the memory of inviting him to stay the night returned to her.
With a gentle smile, she blinked away the excess moisture in her eyes, and reached out to touch his face. “Are you leaving already?”
Although her words were void of any reluctance, they held a certain tenderness that was not lost on Pei Ji.
Unable to resist, he leaned closer, his hands steadying himself on her waist, and kissed her passionately for a long while before breaking away. “I have an early meeting today and need to return to Jiuxian Gate. It’s still early, you can go back to sleep for a while longer.”
She didn’t protest or try to keep him back, merely nodding her head and tenderly brushing his jawline with her fingers before drifting off to sleep once more.
Pei Ji watched her for a while longer, a fond smile gracing his features before he silently dressed and made his way out the window.
As he reached the vicinity of Jiuxian Gate, it was the opportune time. After a brief search through the camp, he rode his horse alone towards the Danfeng Gate, where the ministers gathered to attend the morning court at Yanying Hall.
The wait in Yanying Hall lasted for some time, but Li Jing Ye failed to appear. Instead, He Yuan Shi arrived, accompanied by a handful of eunuchs and officials. He bowed to the assembly and said, “His Majesty is indisposed due to excessive drinking during last night’s banquet. There will be no morning court today. Gentlemen, please return home.”
The officials were all taken aback.
The Emperor was known to be dutiful in matters of state, and if the morning court was to be canceled after a banquet, he would have notified them well in advance. It was unprecedented for the court to be canceled after everyone had already arrived.
What was more, the reconstruction of the pontoon bridge at Pujin Crossing was currently under discussion. If they were to meet the deadline, they had to mobilize the country’s iron mines and smelters immediately.
“Chief Eunuch He, how is His Majesty’s health? Is there something seriously wrong?” Xiao Ling Fu inquired.
He Yuan Shi dared not reveal the true state of affairs and only shook his head, replying, “His Majesty is just fatigued and weak. There is no need to worry. If any of the gentlemen have important matters to report, His Majesty will summon you in the afternoon.”
The people were perplexed, but hearing that the Emperor was unharmed, they temporarily put their minds at ease and dispersed towards the yamen outside the Xuanzheng Gate.
Along the way, Pei Yan gestured for his son to come closer and asked in a low voice, “Last night, I saw that His Majesty was fine at the banquet and left earlier than usual. How did he suddenly fall ill? Third Son, you stayed in the palace last night. Did you hear anything?”
Faced with his father’s questioning, Pei Ji felt a sudden sense of unease.
He lowered his gaze and followed his father closely, quietly squeezing his left hand and pretending to be calm, “I haven’t heard anything. Although I stayed in the palace, I was near the Jiuxian Gate and knew very little about what happened inside the palace.”
Thankfully, Pei Yan did not suspect him, and after nodding slightly, he spoke to him about the construction of the bridge at Pujin Crossing.
In Chenghuan Palace, Li Zhi slept peacefully until the sun had already crossed the sky before finally awakening.
It was customary for the palace concubines to pay their respects to the Empress Dowager in the morning, but she was exempted from this ritual due to the Empress Dowager’s words when she first entered the palace.
She considered this a small blessing.
As she got up from bed, Li Zhi put on her outer garment and sat down at the dressing table to begin combing her long hair. As she did, she pondered whether it was a good idea to let Chun Yue visit the Zhong family today.
But just as she was lost in thought, Chun Yue pushed the door open with a look of distress on her face.
“What’s the matter?” Li Zhi turned to face her and felt a twinge of unease.
Chun Yue took a seat beside her and relayed everything she had heard while receiving their meal with Jiang Cai and Qing Zi, “Last night, I mentioned that His Majesty went to the Xianju Palace. But today, I heard that something terrible happened there!”
“Apparently, His Majesty did not spend the night there and left the Xianju Palace in the middle of the night. Shortly after, the eunuchs surrounded the Xianju Palace and didn’t let anyone enter or leave. After returning to Zichen Hall, His Majesty asked Imperial Physician Zhang to examine him, but nobody knows what happened.”
Xianju Palace, where Worthy Consort Xu resided, came to Li Zhi’s mind first.
Li Zhi remembered Worthy Consort Xu’s feeble appearance from last night and her usual cold and resolute demeanor, causing her heart to sink slowly.
Chun Yue hesitated for a moment and said, “We went to the vicinity of Xianju Palace earlier, and saw a eunuch who was guarding the place crying from afar. It seems that Worthy Consort Xu is severely ill. If she is not allowed to see a female official, it may be dangerous. However, the eunuchs…none of them are willing to let her out.”
It appeared that Li Jing Ye no longer cared about Worthy Consort Xu’s life and death.
Li Zhi fell silent for a moment, and then thought of the beautiful body buried in the sand under Fufeng City in her dream, causing a layer of chill to rise from her back.
After a while, she whispered, “The one who pushed Pure Consort Shu into the water that day was probably Worthy Consort Xu.”
Chun Yue widened her eyes in surprise.
Li Zhi continued, “Last night, she was probably confessing to His Majesty.”
The Worthy Consort, with her unyielding character, had not only confessed to her wrongdoings but also kept her affair with Pei Ji a secret until now. After the tragic loss of her father, she must have harbored a deep resentment towards Li Jing Ye. As her health deteriorated, she seemed determined to lay all her feelings bare.
Li Jing Ye, who was naturally suspicious, couldn’t tolerate any hint of opposition from those around him. Upon discovering the depth of Worthy Consort’s hatred towards him, he was both shocked and furious.
Chun Yue remembered what she had seen earlier and her eyes began to well up with tears as she whispered, “His Majesty…if it weren’t for his carelessness, Minister Xu wouldn’t have suffered such a terrible fate in prison. The Worthy Consort wouldn’t be in this state…”
Li Zhi looked at her reflection in the bronze mirror without any emotion, remaining silent.
Even in her time, women were expected to submit to men and the powerful, how much more in ancient times?
Worthy Consort Xu had a strong personality, yet she had submitted to marriage with Li Jing Ye and had lived as an unremarkable imperial concubine for years. If she had not been pushed to the brink, why would she have resorted to such a self-destructive method to seek revenge?
Sadly, she was never able to free herself from the chains that bound her.
As the afternoon sun slanted low, several imperial ministers and more than ten officials, including the Grand Secretaries of the Six Ministries, stood outside Yanying Hall, awaiting the Emperor’s summons.
Having rested for seven to eight hours, Li Jing Ye had largely recovered and, dressed in formal attire, strode into Yanying Hall to confer with the officials about the matter of bridge construction in Pujin Crossing.
Pujin Crossing was a special place in the city of Puzhou. It was a vital entry point for travelers from Hebei and Hedong regions, and people had fought over it for centuries. The son of the King of Qin had used boats to connect the land and build pontoon bridges there. Many others had followed his example over the years. Unfortunately, these bridges didn’t last very long, and the weight of traffic became too much for them to bear. Puzhou had grown into a bustling transportation hub, and it needed something more robust to support the travelers passing through.
It had been half a month since Chen Ying Shao, the Minister of War, submitted his request to the court for the reconstruction of the pontoon bridge. He had carefully considered the matter before making his appeal.
After days of discussions, the officials finally agreed to reinforce the stone embankment and upgrade the pontoon bridge with iron locks and iron bulls instead of bamboo locks and wooden piles. The iron bulls stood guard on both sides of the river, secured by iron chains, and provided sturdy support and connectivity for boats. With these upgrades, the river crossing would no longer be threatened by passing carriages or tumultuous waves, allowing for smoother communication and transportation between both banks.
The only thing left to discuss was who would be in charge of the project.
The casting of iron bulls required a large sum of money. More than half of the iron ore produced in a year would be required, and other matters such as smelting, shipbuilding, and reconstruction would also need to be dealt with. Even the defense of Puzhou needed to be rearranged, and the issues involving money and power were vast.
To complete the project before the flood season and the winter season, they needed to determine the person in charge immediately.
Xiao Ling Fu had always recommended his own people. This time, of course, he would first support the Assistant Minister of Works whom he had promoted. On the other hand, Du Heng and Pei Yan both suggested that the Minister of Works and the Minister of War jointly handle the matter.
The group argued fervently, each firmly holding their own opinion, all waiting for Li Jing Ye to make a decision.
However, for reasons unknown, Li Jing Ye seemed distracted today, occasionally furrowing his brows and scrutinizing the three men before him with a hint of suspicion and curiosity. As everyone fell silent, he remained lost in thought.
The grand hall was still and tense, with everyone exchanging unsure glances.
Xiao Ling Fu cleared his throat and gently reminded His Majesty, “Your Majesty, it is time to make a decision.”
Only then did Li Jing Ye snap out of his trance.
Du Heng and Pei Yan exchanged a sorrowful look and suppressed their disappointment.
After the matter of Xiao Chong’s campaign against Tibet, the two men knew that such an important issue had likely already been discussed in private between Xiao Ling Fu and the Emperor, and the final decision had probably already been made.
Nonetheless, the two still held onto a glimmer of hope, passionately laying out the advantages and disadvantages of their arguments during the discussion, hoping that His Majesty would not be swayed by partial opinions.
However, at present, it appeared that His Majesty had not taken a single word to heart from the earlier discussion.
Under the scrutiny of all, Li Jing Ye regained his composure but before he could utter a word, the sharp words of the Worthy Consort pierced his ears:
“…consumed with pride and deaf to reason…”
“…how long will they remain faithful…”
A strange feeling enveloped him, and his expression darkened for a moment. Suppressing his doubts, he refrained from giving a direct reply and instead turned his attention towards Pei Ji. “Zi Hui, what is your opinion?”
Pei Ji was taken aback by the sudden question, but quickly regained his composure. “Concerning the construction of the pontoon bridge, I have no strong opinions. However, I have a recommendation for the rebuilding of Puzhou’s city defenses.”
He knew the Emperor’s temperament well and refrained from speaking too much about state affairs beyond his responsibilities. The Emperor would only ask for his opinion privately when necessary. Today, he chose not to interfere with the construction of the bridge and only spoke about matters within his responsibility.
Li Jing Ye relaxed a little when he saw that Pei Ji was still the same as before, and asked, “Tell me, who is it?”
Pei Ji made a small bow and answered, “Your Majesty is well acquainted with this man. He’s none other than Huangfu Jing, the deputy commander who temporarily held the military affairs of the Imperial Guards when I went on a military campaign earlier.”
Li Jing Ye pondered for a moment before nodding his approval. “Yes, I remember him. You trained him well, and he proved himself a reliable administrator when he was in charge of the palace and the capital’s defenses.”
Just when the other officials were starting to furrow their brows, as it seemed Li Jing Ye would appoint someone else for the bridge construction, the Emperor’s next words surprised them all. “Let the Ministry of Works handle the bridge construction, and assign Huangfu Jing to oversee the defense of Puzhou City. Zi Hui, you’ll be in charge of reviewing expenses.”
The decision was made on the spot, and apart from Pei Ji’s input, no one else’s suggestions were taken into consideration.
Xiao Ling Fu was flabbergasted, and even Du Heng and Pei Yan, who were initially relieved, couldn’t help but wonder what the Emperor’s motives were.
The Emperor’s behavior today was unusual, leaving everyone perplexed. He not only refused to believe the words of the two officials, but also caught Xiao Ling Fu off guard.
As they walked on the road after the meeting, Pei Yan broke his usual habit of not prying into his son’s private affairs and asked, “Third Son, did the Emperor discuss the matter of the bridge construction with you in private?”
Pei Ji shook his head and replied, “Father, I just returned from Youzhou, I haven’t had a chance to meet His Majesty privately these past few days. He didn’t mention anything about this matter to me, and I have no idea why he acted so differently today.”
Pei Yan furrowed his brow and contemplated for a moment. Feeling uneasy, he said, “When you accompany your mother to pay respects to the Empress Dowager in a few days, remind her to inquire about His Majesty’s health.”
Pei Ji understood his father’s intention and nodded in agreement.
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