Chapter 64 Returning home
Inside the carriage, only the two sisters, Lan Ying and Li Zhi, found themselves in quiet seclusion. Lan Ying clasped Li Zhi’s delicate hand, studying her intently with a discerning gaze. It was only after careful scrutiny that she gradually felt relieved.
Recalling the astonishment and anxiety that had colored her aunt and uncle’s faces upon receiving the news, a gentle laugh escaped from her lips. “Third Sister, did you see their faces just moments ago? It was so satisfying!”
But then, she became worried and asked, “I’m happy you’re back, but what about His Majesty? Will he be upset with you?”
Li Zhi also composed herself and pondered carefully about Li Jing Ye’s reaction.
She was not worried that Li Jing Ye would suddenly blame her.
He personally snatched her away from his own younger brother’s hands and disregarded the strong opposition from his ministers, bestowing upon her the title of a Noble Consort. In the present day, her importance went beyond just being an ordinary consort. Her role now involved protecting the Emperor’s reputation and dignity as the ruler.
His regard for his own prestige had always been paramount, never allowing a tarnish upon his image as a wise ruler. Despite his clear aversion to the senior officials, he refrained from openly contradicting them even when their political views diverged. Instead, he resorted to the covert machinations orchestrated by Xiao Ling Fu and his cohorts, employing their lowly means to subtly convey his position, ultimately compelling the venerable ministers to voluntarily concede.
The painstaking effort he had invested in bringing her into the confines of the imperial harem, causing officials to dare not raise the topic in his presence, begged the question: how could he possibly allow his own face to be marred now?
He would never admit that he had made a mistake in the past.
Even the manner in which he dispatched her back to her natal home was cloaked in ostentatious pretext.
What truly captivated her attention was his uncharacteristic attitude and response on this particular day.
While the former Li Jing Ye possessed a certain degree of suspicion and sensitivity, he had also mastered the art of tempering his emotions, suppressing his impulses with unwavering resolve. Today, however, he appeared considerably impulsive and fragile.
Evidently, he seemed rather apprehensive of what the Worthy Consort might have disclosed to her.
That demeanor bore some resemblance to the Li Jing Ye she had seen in her dreams, the one who would emerge a year later.
At that time, the divide between him and the old ministers grew deeper, as did his estrangement from the Empress Dowager, princesses, and other members of the royal family. Gradually, he became ensnared in suspicion and anxiety, burdened by excessive contemplation, and plagued by physical frailty, resulting in restless days filled with trepidation.
In hindsight, it seemed as though all of these circumstances had surreptitiously advanced ahead of schedule.
It was likely due to the incident involving the Worthy Consort.
In that moment, she found herself both vaguely anticipating the future and unable to shake off her worries.
If only she could extricate herself from it all sooner. She hoped no further unexpected twists would complicate matters.
She gently squeezed Lan Ying’s fingertips, offering a reassuring smile. “There’s no need to worry, A’Zi. Tell me about the recent happenings at home. Has Aunt caused any more trouble for you?”
[T/N] A’Zi is not a name. It means Big Sister.
“Of course, she wouldn’t dare,” Lan Ying lifted her head with a dismissive air. “Before, I never let her get away with anything, and now that you’re here, her courage has dwindled even further. Moreover, she has been consumed by anger, brooding over Cousin’s misadventures, leaving her with no time to bother with me.”
Li Zhi arched an eyebrow. “What mischief has Cousin been up to this time?”
“He’s still the same, lingering aimlessly day after day in Pingkang District. Now, having deluded himself into the lofty title of Commander of the Cavalry, he has become even more ridiculous,” Lan Ying stifled a laugh behind her hand, her eyes brimming with contempt. “It involves the Princess.”
Drawing closer to Li Zhi’s ear, she whispered with a lowered voice, “The Princess recently lost her child, and Aunt is heartbroken. She desperately wants Cousin to spend more time at the Princess’s residence, hoping he can share the bed with her and conceive another child. But every time he goes there, he’s promptly sent back without setting foot across the threshold of the Princess’s chambers.
“Aunt is worried that the Zhong family line will end. So she’s busy finding concubines for Cousin. However, the Princess sent a message, strictly forbidding them from arranging such things. Aunt is furious, but she’s afraid to confront the Princess. She planned to see you in the palace, but didn’t know you were returning today. She must be very angry!”
Hearing this, Li Zhi couldn’t help but let out a cold laugh. “The Princess of Wuyang has never been one to endure silently, allowing others to manipulate her. If Aunt harbors aspirations of becoming a prominent figure among the imperial relatives, she must brace herself for such tribulations.”
That family had always aimed high, their ambitions reaching for the skies, yearning to climb the ladder of power and prosperity. However, they have encountered a formidable opponent in Li Ling Yue.
“Indeed! They always want to claim all the benefits,” Lan Ying absentmindedly smoothed her dress, her delicate fingers brushing lightly against her leg. “On the day when Cousin married the Princess, Aunt even dared to dream of the Zhong family’s future splendor, comparable to that of the illustrious Pei family. But she fails to recognize that the Princess of Wuyang is no Princess of Shouchang, and Cousin possesses neither the moral character nor the talents of Minister Pei. It is truly a foolish and baseless delusion.”
The carriage had arrived at the outskirts of Duke of Qin’s mansion.
Having received news from the imperial palace, the Zhong family members anxiously gathered by the gate, eagerly awaiting their arrival. As the carriage drew closer, they hurriedly stepped forward to extend their greetings.
Li Zhi gracefully stepped out from the carriage and turned back to assist Lan Ying, ensuring her easier descent from the step stool.
Ahead was a busy and wide street, and suddenly, the sound of footsteps and carriages echoed through the air, getting louder as they approached. Everyone looked towards the noise and saw Princess Li Ling Yue’s carriage, surrounded by palace maids and guards, moving gracefully forward. They passed by the Duke of Qin’s mansion gates without stopping even for a moment.
The faces of the Zhong family members instantly stiffened, their gazes fixed on the receding figures. Madam Yang couldn’t contain her disdain and spat out, “Such a lack of virtuous conduct.”
The words reached Li Zhi’s ears, causing her brows to furrow involuntarily.
“The Princess goes to the Daci’en Temple for comfort since losing her child,” Lan Ying explained in a hushed tone. “However, rumors suggest that there may be more to her visits. Some believe that she and Xuan Guang, one of Master Hui Xian’s disciples who came from Fusang (Japan), are involved in a secret affair.”
Li Zhi thought back to the time just before the New Year when Xuan Guang was invited to Mingde Temple in Daming Palace by Li Jing Ye. They went there to offer blessings and recite scriptures for the Empress Dowager. Li Ling Yue had lost her unborn child, but she stayed in the palace to support the Empress Dowager.
Faint echoes of rumors had reached Li Zhi’s ears during that period, hinting that Li Ling Yue, day after day, would personally kneel in devotion, offering her heartfelt recitations of sacred verses in Mingde Temple.
Even if these whispers held an ounce of truth, Madam Yang’s choice of words displeased Li Zhi.
Li Zhi looked coldly at Madam Yang and said, “If Cousin frequents Pingkang District to spend time with courtesans and enjoy idle pleasures, how can Aunt accuse the Princess of wrongdoing?”
Madam Yang’s words caught in her throat, her face alternating between pale and a fleeting flush. She thought for a retort, but her eyes fell upon the entourage of palace maids, female attendants, and guards following closely behind Li Zhi, compelling her to begrudgingly hold her tongue.
With Zhong Hao absent from the scene, Zhong Cheng Ping stood by his wife’s side, glaring at her with resentment. He then put on a forced smile and made a perfunctory bow to Li Zhi before leaving.
Holding her breath, Madam Yang waited until they entered the main hall, with the servants remaining outside, before she spoke, “Third Daughter, have you angered His Majesty in the palace? I witnessed how inseparable he was from you wherever he went, but today he sent you back. What should we do?”
Li Zhi grew weary of her aunt’s insincere pretenses, and without the slightest mercy, she retorted, “Why? Is Aunt afraid that I might meet a misfortune and bring trouble upon our family?”
Madam Yang let out a forced chuckle. “How could that be? Aunt is concerned for you. After all, both you and Eldest Sister were raised under the care of your Uncle and me. We consider you as our own daughters, so it’s only natural to be concerned…”
Taking a step forward, Lan Ying’s tall figure loomed over Madam Yang, diminishing her presence by half. “Aunt, there’s no need for such polite formalities. The past is not something that I or Third Sister can easily forget.”
Madam Yang felt a sense of shame and growing unease.
The memories of the past served as a bitter reminder of how they mistreated these two sisters.
“Why must the two elder sisters torment Mother like this? If it weren’t for the benevolence of Father and Mother in providing shelter, how could the two of you have reached this day unscathed? The debt of nurturing and raising you still remains,” Miao Yun, standing beside Madam Yang, couldn’t resist speaking up in rebuttal.
Li Zhi remained unbothered. “Uncle’s decision to shelter his two nieces was only the proper thing to do. According to the laws of Great Wei, had he abandoned us and turned a blind eye, his official position would have been at risk. Furthermore, when we ventured north to seek refuge in Chang’an, the proceeds from the sale of our family’s properties and estates were entrusted to Uncle and Aunt. Though not extravagant, it was more than enough to raise the two of us.”
Miao Yun, aware of her own guilt, clenched her teeth and fixed her gaze upon Li Zhi. Unable to restrain herself, she took a few steps closer and spoke, “Third Sister, it is your own inadequacy that you can lay blame on my mother. If I were in your position, I would never allow myself to fall into such dire circumstances!”
Li Zhi abruptly halted her footsteps, slowly turned her head, and gazed upon the determined young girl before her who bore a striking resemblance to herself. Suddenly, a smile bloomed on her face.
She was well aware of Miao Yun’s thoughts.
It all boiled down to jealousy regarding her circumstances and an inflated sense of self-worth, causing Miao Yun to belittle Li Zhi’s actions, presuming that it was only a matter of slight misfortune.
Miao Yun was never one to settle for an ordinary existence, mirroring the traits of her parents.
“Fourth Sister, do you believe I am oblivious to your intentions?” Li Zhi offered a faint smile, meeting her gaze head-on. “You need not see me as your rival. I won’t block you. You may proceed as you wish. However, it is imperative that you carefully contemplate the potential outcome. It may not align with your wishes.”
Miao Yun felt her thoughts laid bare, her face suddenly displaying a tinge of embarrassment.
Her once unyielding resolve began to waver, but she continued to lock eyes with Li Zhi, unwilling to admit defeat. After a prolonged moment, she spoke with a lowered voice, “Rest assured, my thoughts are crystal clear.”
Li Zhi observed her, as if witnessing the ominous fate that had befallen the Zhong family in her dreams.
It was a time when the Zhong family, alongside other nobles and court officials, accompanied Li Jing Ye in his escape. When the soldiers clamored for the execution of the Noble Consort, Li Jing Ye hesitated.
Overwhelmed by their unrestrained indignation, the soldiers, on the very first night of their encampment in Fufeng, launched a relentless assault on the Zhong family. With the exception of Lan Ying, who vanished without a trace, none of the remaining four were spared.
Miao Yun’s unwavering determination to draw closer to Li Jing Ye would only serve to plunge them deeper into a grim and sorrowful future.
What a pity that they never grasped the essence of grounded composure and restraint.
“Take care of yourself,” Li Zhi nonchalantly chuckled, then turned around, departing alongside Lan Ying.
In the stillness of the night, Li Zhi engaged in a brief conversation with Lan Ying.
As the hour approached midnight, the two sisters bid each other farewell. Li Zhi, having refreshed herself in the bathhouse, returned to her chamber, cradling a scroll of legendary tales in her hands.
In recent times, Chun Yue’s knowledge of characters had steadily expanded, enabling her to read simple literary works. Having received instruction from Li Zhi, she now reciprocated the favor by teaching Qing Zi. Presently, the duo diligently delved into their studies within the adjacent room.
With the gradual warmth of the season, Li Zhi left a window slightly ajar, allowing a breath of fresh air to enter the chamber.
It didn’t take long for a faint sound to resonate from beyond the room, as if delivering a subtle reminder.
Li Zhi placed her book aside and raised her gaze, only to see Pei Ji lurking in the shadows just outside the partially opened window, intently observing her.
Gracefully, she rose, wearing a smile that anticipated his entry through the window. However, he unexpectedly closed the window, turned on his heels, departed, circumvented the door, and only then pushed it open to step inside.
The door swung open and shut, ushering in a waft of sweet-scented herbs and verdant foliage.
Enveloped by the delicate fragrance, Li Zhi’s spirits soared, and with nimble steps, she flung herself into the familiar and sturdy embrace.
“Darling Third, I knew you would come,” she said with a naturalness that carried both allure and playful banter, evoking a tightness in Pei Ji’s chest.
His hand instinctively reached out, cradling her securely, while his touch traced soothing patterns along her back. Briefly closing his eyes, he silently savored the moment before loosening his hold and raising her face, carefully studying every detail.
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