Chapter 62 Visit
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Time passed and soon came the officials’ day of rest. From the Emperor to the lowest-ranking official, none of them needed to attend to official business. It was a day for them to relax and take a break from the constant demands of their positions.
Li Zhi had already risen early. After a satisfying meal, she gazed out at the clear sky and the lush greenery of the season. She sat in front of her luxurious dressing table, preparing to make herself even more beautiful before heading to the Zichen Hall.
Li Zhi was usually summoned by Li Jing Ye before making any visits, but today was different. She had no choice but to go.
The day before, Chun Yue had been sent to the Zhong family’s estate in the afternoon to inquire about Lan Ying.
Chun Yue had left that afternoon with joy and optimism, but returned in the evening with a distinct frown on her face.
As it turned out, Wei Peng had taken it upon himself to pay another visit to the Zhong’s mansion on the third day after the grand victory banquet, expressing his desire to marry Lan Ying. But on that same day, the Minister of Personnel, Xiao Ling Fu, had personally sent someone to the Zhong family to propose a marriage between his son, Xiao Chong, and Lan Ying.
Xiao Chong, being twenty-six or twenty-seven years old, had already taken a primary wife. Should he ask for Lan Ying’s hand in marriage, it would mean he would take her as a concubine.
However, Zhong Cheng Ping was completely unfazed. When faced with two groups of visitors who arrived almost simultaneously at his door, he wasted no time in turning Wei Peng away and ushering in the Xiao family’s matchmaker with the utmost respect.
He had set his heart on marrying off his two striking nieces to illustrious families, so that his entire household could scale the dizzying heights of power. With the Third Sister already ensconced as a Noble Consort and he, a seventh-rank small-time official, now hobnobbing with the aristocrats, how could he possibly resist the idea of marrying off Lan Ying to a Prime Minister’s son?
Although Wei Peng had been promoted by the Emperor himself to the position of an eighth-rank court martial officer, the gulf between him and Xiao Chong, a third-rank General of the Left Golden Shield Guards, was still as vast as the distance between heaven and earth.
It should be noted that the road to officialdom was riddled with challenges, and someone like him had languished at the seventh rank for nearly a decade. Climbing further up the ladder was a humongous task, and who knew whether Wei Peng would face the same obstacles?
Of course, Lan Ying was vehemently opposed.
But in the face of power and influence, her objections were worthless.
Li Zhi was well aware of the power the Xiao family wielded. In particular, Xiao Ling Fu was a man of great cunning, and he seemed to hold some grudge against her, the current Noble Consort. Li Zhi suspected that their request for marriage was not simply due to Lan Ying’s stunning beauty, as her uncle had thought, but rather a ploy to humiliate her.
With no other options, Li Zhi knew that she had to convince Li Jing Ye to refuse the marriage proposal.
However, Li Jing Ye had been confined to Zichen Hall for days and rarely visited the harem. Thus, Li Zhi decided to take the initiative and go to him.
Just as Li Zhi was preparing to leave, her maid Qing Zi rushed in with urgent news, “Your Highness, the Grand Princess and General Pei have just arrived at the palace to pay their respects to the Empress Dowager, and His Majesty has gone with them.”
Pei Ji, who often accompanied the Grand Princess to the palace and lingered in the Empress Dowager’s palace for hours on end, had just returned from a long journey. Today was his first day back, and it was unlikely that he would leave before at least half an hour.
Acknowledging the situation, Li Zhi dismissed Qing Zi and retreated to her quarters, opting to wait until later to approach Li Jing Ye.
Chun Yue hesitated as she put down the Noble Consort’s outer coat she had just picked up. She sat down with a sigh and said, “I heard that the Worthy Consort has been feeling worse these days, but they all seem indifferent and continue with their daily routine as if nothing happened…”
In reality, she only wanted to mention Li Jing Ye. Even if others sympathized with the Worthy Consort, they didn’t dare to cross him. The Empress Dowager wanted to intervene, but her health had been poor lately, and she only mentioned it briefly before giving up when she saw that Li Jing Ye was unmoved.
Li Zhi paused with a piece of preserved fruit halfway to her mouth upon hearing this news.
Whenever she thought of the Worthy Consort, she couldn’t help but recall the potential fate that she might experience in her dreams. It stirred her heart with compassion.
Today was an opportune moment with Li Jing Ye present with the Empress Dowager, Pei Ji, and the Grand Princess.
After careful consideration, she pulled Chun Yue over and whispered, “Go to the Empress Dowager’s palace and find His Majesty.”
“How could I go to the Empress Dowager’s palace? The Empress Dowager despises you so much…” Chun Yue was taken aback. “This is not an urgent matter, Miss. Let’s wait for a couple of hours.”
Li Zhi shook her head, her voice soft and low. “It’s not about that. Later, when you’re in front of the Empress Dowager and the Grand Princess, ask His Majesty to grant me permission to visit the Worthy Consort in Xianju Palace.”
“Remember, it’s crucial that the Empress Dowager and the Grand Princess both hear it.”
Li Jing Ye was always conscious of his image, never wanting to be seen as heartless and ungrateful. The death of Minister Xu had already caused him to feel ashamed, so he was naturally cautious about publicizing Worthy Consort Xu’s situation.
Until today, everyone believed that the Worthy Concubine became delirious and spoke harshly to the Emperor after suffering a miscarriage. As a result, she was confined to the Xianju Palace and ignored.
However, the Empress Dowager and the Grand Princess both felt sympathy for the Worthy Consort. Even if Li Jing Ye didn’t want her to see the Worthy Consort, he might not be able to refuse forcefully in front of them.
Chun Yue was hesitant at first, but seeing Li Zhi so confident, she listened to a few more instructions before departing.
In the hall, the Grand Princess and the Empress Dowager were sitting and chatting on a spacious couch.
The Empress Dowager had not been feeling well lately, but she was able to be in a better mood today after seeing the Grand Princess and her son.
Pei Ji and Li Jing Ye sat silently on both sides and did not speak.
Pei Ji was always reticent, while Li Jing Ye was uncomfortable seeing the Empress Dowager again so soon after sending Prince Rui away from the capital yesterday.
Not only that, but Pei Ji also noticed that he was absent-minded from time to time, much like his behavior at the court meeting in recent days.
The Grand Princess naturally noticed this too, frowned slightly, glanced at her son calmly, and then looked away.
She will have to find an opportunity to ask the Empress Dowager when the Emperor can leave the hall.
At this moment, He Yuan Shi, who was guarding outside the hall, came in and said, “Your Majesty, a palace maid from Noble Consort Zhong’s side has come with a request for you.”
Upon hearing that it was someone from Li Zhi’s side, Pei Ji’s heart tightened. He instinctively remembered the situation a few months ago when she first entered the palace and was harassed by the Empress Dowager. Pei Ji looked over and saw that the Empress Dowager’s face had darkened.
Why would she send someone over now? Has something happened?
Pei Ji’s hand on his knee clenched slightly. After a moment of hesitation, he steadied his mind and tried not to show any worry.
When Chun Yue was allowed to enter the hall, she took a quick glance at the people sitting in front of her, bowed to each of them, and then said, “Your Majesty, the Noble Consort has heard that the condition of the Worthy Consort has worsened, and she wishes to visit Xianju Palace to pay her respects. She has sent me to implore Your Majesty’s permission.”
Pei Ji’s heart first relaxed, but then slowly tightened again. He glanced over at Li Jing Ye and the Empress Dowager.
The Empress Dowager’s expression softened slightly, but Li Jing Ye’s face was grim. He almost immediately said, “It’s not possible.”
The other three were all surprised by his response.
The Empress Dowager frowned, dissatisfied. “That child has always been sensible. She lost her father and child, and I feel sorry for her. I don’t know how she angered the Emperor to the point of being locked up for these few days without being allowed to even see her once?”
Li Jing Ye’s temple veins were throbbing, and he opened his mouth to explain, but couldn’t say a word.
Did he have to tell everyone that because of his negligence, a loyal minister died miserably in prison, causing the Worthy Consort to hold a grudge and intend to seek revenge?
He squeezed the armrest under his hand, suppressed the irritability in his heart, and said with a stern face, “Forget it, let her go, but don’t stay too long.”
Upon receiving permission, Chun Yue thanked them and left for Chenghuan Palace.
Li Jing Ye remained in the hall, but became even more restless and uneasy.
The Worthy Consort’s cutting words pierced through his ears like a sharp blade, leaving him petrified with fear, as if a guillotine was hanging over his neck.
Why did Li-niang visit the Worthy Consort? Had she uncovered the truth about the Lantern Festival night? What did the Worthy Consort reveal to her? How would she perceive the Emperor?
Countless questions swirled in his mind, jumbling his thoughts, and making it hard to follow the conversations of the other three people. After sitting for a while, he rose to his feet abruptly, “I have urgent matters to attend to. I shall leave now,” and scurried towards Xianju Palace.
Xianju Palace was eerily silent.
Li Zhi sat at the bedside and gazed at the prone figure of the woman, asking in a hushed tone, “How are you?”
In only a few days, the Worthy Consort appeared to have wasted away. Her cheekbones protruded, her eye sockets were hollowed out, and a vicious gash adorned her forehead, caked with dried blood, rendering her appearance skeletal.
She lay still, but her appearance was impeccable. Her long hair was coiled into an elegant bun, her face painted with makeup, and her clothes were immaculate without a single crease.
She strained to look at Li Zhi, managing a smile. “I’m fine. I’ve done everything I needed to do. I just wanted to see you one more time. Now that you’re here, it feels like my wish has been granted.”
Li Zhi could sense that she had given up on life and was ready to meet her end.
Suppressing her grief, Li Zhi looked away. “If you care about your family, why not choose to live and not become a burden to them?”
Worthy Consort Xu chuckled softly, but then broke into a fit of coughing. After a moment, she managed to calm down. “It won’t burden them. Don’t you know him? He wants me dead, but he doesn’t want anyone else to know. Otherwise, how can he claim to be a ‘wise ruler’? Besides… my family, they probably don’t even want to acknowledge me anymore…”
Li Zhi was momentarily taken aback, but soon realized that the Xu family had served the Emperor with unwavering loyalty for generations. Even if Xu Yong had been wrongly accused and executed, he would have never harbored disloyalty.
It wasn’t just the Xu family. The Du and Pei families were the same.
Thus, in her dreams, Pei Ji never gave up on Li Jing Ye, even though he had descended into a paranoid and pleasure-seeking Emperor, obsessed with sorcery and carnal pleasures.
Her heart sank, and she turned away slightly, telling Worthy Consort Xu, “You’re fighting for what you deserve.”
Worthy Consort Xu fixed her gaze on Li Zhi and smiled softly after a long pause. “I knew you were different from others the first time I saw you in the palace.”
A fleeting glance on the palace path had revealed to her that this Miss Zhong was unlike any other woman in the harem.
“But I’ve always wondered, what is it that you truly desire?”
She couldn’t help but wonder, why would the Noble Consort risk everything to collude with Third Master Pei, even though she never sought power or wealth for her family and kept her distance from others in the palace?
Li Zhi’s eyes were deep and enigmatic, fixed on hers as she spoke with conviction, “I want to control my own destiny.”
Worthy Consort Xu remained perplexed, unsure what to make of Li Zhi’s words.
“My marriage, my life, my wishes,” Li Zhi continued, her voice unwavering. “I refuse to let others dictate them. And the only way to achieve that is by leaving this place.”
Worthy Consort Xu couldn’t help but suggest, “But why not become the Empress Dowager?”
In the palace, all women – even the lowliest maid – longed to become consorts or empresses, hoping to bear a prince and attain unparalleled power.
But even Worthy Consort Xu, who had once sought to advance her family’s interests, knew deep down that true freedom came not from titles or rank, but from being in control of one’s own fate.
“Can the Empress Dowager truly act freely?” Li Zhi sneered, her gaze full of disdain. “Don’t they still have to bow down to men, cling to their power and influence? I admit I lack the ability to change traditions that have persisted for centuries, so I can only focus on taking care of myself. And what about you? You’re still young. Don’t you want to live life to the fullest, and see his downfall?”
Wortht Consort Xu fell silent, struggling to open her eyes and staring intently at Li Zhi. For a moment, a glimmer of hope shone in her fading eyes as she pondered Li Zhi’s words.
But all too soon, that glimmer of hope slowly flickered and died out.
She coughed lightly twice and shook her head. “Never mind. I’ve done all I can.”
She only wished that Pure Consort Xiao wouldn’t disappoint her.
Seeing her like this, Li Zhi felt regretful in her heart and didn’t try to persuade her any further. She rose from her seat and bid her farewell.
As she turned to leave, she felt a tug on her sleeve.
She looked back to see tears welling up in the woman’s sunken, cloudy eyes, trembling with emotion.
“You and Zi Hui…you must stay together forever.”
Li Zhi considered telling her that her relationship with Pei Ji was purely one of convenience, but the words caught in her throat.
She knew that she and Pei Ji were only using each other for their own purposes.
Despite her doubts, she couldn’t bring herself to shatter the woman’s hopeful expression.
She nodded silently and turned away, leaving the woman’s fate to the uncertain future.
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