Chapter 65 Imprint
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Pei Ji’s lips formed a thin line, his eyebrows slightly furrowed, and his eyes, as dark as night, held a hint of uncertainty and concern.
With a delicate smile, Li Zhi stepped back, raising her face, allowing him to scrutinize her attentively.
“Why, are you afraid I’ll be sent back home, feeling heartbroken and distressed?”
Her words flowed effortlessly, as they always did, laced with a playful undertone, revealing no trace of artificial composure.
At that moment, Pei Ji released the tension in his furrowed brows.
As the sun still lingered in the Empress Dowager’s palace, a palace maid suddenly entered, bringing news that the Emperor had sent Noble Consort Zhong back to her natal family.
The Empress Dowager was greatly surprised and interrogated the palace maid for quite some time.
He consciously averted his gaze from his mother, but as he departed, he couldn’t suppress the underlying tension and strange emotions that welled up within him. Deciding to slow his footsteps, he loitered near the grand entrance, catching fragments of conversations that drifted his way.
The palace maid herself couldn’t provide a full account of the situation, but the only certainty she held was that after Noble Consort Zhong’s visit to the Xianju Palace, a dispute had arisen between her and the Emperor. In a moment of impulsiveness, the Emperor decided to send Noble Consort Zhong back to her family.
On his way, he found himself unable to clearly tell the emotions that tugged at his heart. All he knew was that during the remaining half of the day, he remained restless, his mind preoccupied. He yearned to see her immediately, to find out how she was doing.
Finally, when evening approached, he took advantage of the pre-curfew period to leave the residence. After lingering for a while, he skillfully and discreetly sneaked into the Zhong’s mansion, finding his way to her room.
Having meticulously surveyed the mansion inside and out due to the princess’s wedding, he had gained a thorough understanding of its structure. Now, with her return, the customary presence of over ten Imperial Guards patrolling the mansion remained. Nonetheless, he effortlessly slipped inside, evading their vigilance.
Observing her unchanged expression, he quietly released half of the tension that burdened him. Without delay, he enveloped her in his embrace, caressing her back in a gentle rhythm, gradually succumbing to a wistful sentiment. Muffled words escaped his lips, “As long as you’re not sad.”
He found himself wrestling with unnecessary worries, unable to restrain the genuine concern brewing in his heart.
A soft chuckle escaped her lips, and in high spirits, she lovingly traced the shape of his face, her fingertips lingering in delicate strokes along the nape of his neck.
“How will you justify lingering outside so late into the night? What explanation will you provide to the Grand Princess?”
In the past, whenever he clandestinely visited her during the night, he strategically timed his visits to coincide with his duty hours within the palace. It was the sole occasion that granted him entry into the Zhong residence, exploiting the all-night revelry that accompanied the Princess’s nuptials.
Pei Ji, seldom burdened by a sense of unease tinged with guilt, diverted his gaze away from her. “Occasionally, I indulge in drinks with my colleagues in Pingkang District. A single night’s absence is inconsequential. I will simply claim to have spent the night at my residence in Pingkang District.”
Li Zhi observed his restless appearance, and, unusually, a hint of remorse flickered within her towards the Grand Princess and her husband. This young man, who had recently come of age, was once known for his unwavering rectitude, selflessness, and fearlessness. However, he had now transformed into a mischievous young man who clandestinely sought moments of bliss with her, evading the Emperor’s notice.
Their ages presented a striking contrast, each complementing the other.
Despite his composed and restrained demeanor, he was, after all, a young man in his twenties, unable to resist the ardor and vitality that coursed through his veins.
He grasped the delicate strand of hair she had nestled near his neck, intending to bring his lips closer for a kiss. But with a gentle exertion of force, she swiftly withdrew her hand.
In the absence of her presence in his embrace, a profound sense of emptiness assailed him.
She turned her body, taking a step forward, and glanced back at him, revealing a profile of mixed reproach and grievance. “Only occasional visits?”
Pei Ji’s gaze faltered, as if she had ensnared his heart, causing a tingling sensation of both sourness and pain, yet subtly laced with a bittersweet essence.
He stepped forward, standing behind her, hands clasping her shoulders. Lowering his head, their noses brushed against each other, engaging in a tender friction. “In the coming days, I shall try to visit you as often as possible. However, I fear there may be a need for me to journey to Puzhou in the near future.”
If only he could whisk her away directly to his home.
He delicately nibbled on her lip, savoring the intricate texture. Their bodies drew closer, his palms gliding down her figure, enveloping her waist, as though yearning to lift her weightlessly.
Suddenly, a slender finger gently prodded his chest.
Puzzled, he restrained the urge to forcefully draw her back, his gaze filled with bewilderment.
Her gaze danced, and she extended a hand, gently brushing aside the damp strands of hair that still retained the lingering moisture from her recent bath. With a soothing gesture, she raised her head and placed a tender kiss on his jawline. Then, with a light push, she turned and walked to the side.
Hastily reaching out, his hand could only touch the slightly cool strands slipping effortlessly through his fingers.
She approached the side, near a long table adorned with a white porcelain goose-shaped tripod incense burner. Assuming a kneeling position with elegance, she retrieved a petite brocade box to replenish the incense in the burner.
Following her lead, he knelt behind her, enveloping her waist with both arms. Inclining closer, he tenderly pressed his lips against her temple, his gaze fleetingly capturing the assortment of aromatics within the box.
Two grain-sized particles of incense were delicately plucked with tweezers and placed into the burner, mingling with the rest of the partially burned incense. Slowly ignited, they emitted bursts of crimson light.
These were the rare spices he had acquired from the merchants of the Western Regions.
Pausing momentarily, his gaze remained on the dwindling remnants in the box. He clasped her hand, simultaneously closing the brocade container, his lips gently brushing against her earlobe as he whispered, “The newly concocted medicine shall be procured tomorrow, and I have instructed Shi Quan to acquire a fresh supply of this incense. It shall all be delivered to you tomorrow…”
As she turned her head, her lips were swiftly sealed by his, and in an instant, her body was lifted, cradled, and gently placed upon the expanse of the long table. Like peeling an eggshell, his hands gradually shed the layers of her outer garments and flowing gown,.
Perhaps he felt emboldened by the fact that she would be staying at the Zhong Residence for a few days without any worries about hiding marks on her body. As a result, a repressed desire within him was suddenly aroused, and he felt the urge to bring her closer to him. He leaned over and gently nibbled on her smooth left shoulder, savoring the feeling for a few seconds, before leaving a faint, red mark.
The surface of the long table felt refreshingly cool against her bare form as she reclined. Moved by the fervent encounter, her back involuntarily arched, gradually adjusting to the subtle contrast in temperature. However, a sudden, tingling pain emanated from her left shoulder, prompting an involuntary furrowing of her brows and a soft exhalation escaping her lips.
Although her gaze inadvertently fell upon his deep, captivating eyes, the hand she extended to push him away momentarily paused, suspended in midair. Finally, it descended gently upon his shoulder, its touch a tender caress, silently communicating a myriad of emotions.
A profound darkness and silence veiled Shicui Palace.
Li Jing Ye lay calmly on the bed, his breaths stretching out long and tranquil.
In the depths of the darkness, Pure Consort Xiao lay on her side, watching the figure of the man beside her. She stared in silence, unable to fall asleep.
It was the first time, after her many years within the palace walls, that she shared a sleeping space with him. Yet, no comfort or delight enveloped her being in this moment.
Several days had passed, but the words of Worthy Consort Xu lingered persistently in her mind, carving a deeper imprint rather than fading away. They were like an inescapable nightmare, illuminating the things she had never fully seen before or perhaps chose not to see.
The man by her side, the man she had relied upon and revered for countless years, seemed to persistently validate the accuracy of Worthy Consort Xu’s words through his actions. Indeed, he was a cold and selfish person.
The feelings that had accumulated in her heart over the years now teetered on the brink of collapse, leaving her in a state of anxious bewilderment. She found herself plagued with uncertainty, a seed of doubt subtly sprouting within her, causing her to contemplate retreating.
In the past, she roamed the palace alone, free from worries, wholeheartedly serving him. As long as she received a little bit of his genuine happiness and approval, she deemed it sufficient.
But now, circumstances had changed. She had become a mother, and with that came the responsibility to not only consider her own welfare but also to diligently plan for the well-being of her child…
Within the cloak of darkness, Li Jing Ye, previously submerged in a peaceful slumber, abruptly grew restless.
His eyes remained firmly shut, but the furrow between his brows revealed his inner turmoil. His limbs twitched intermittently, while faint murmurs escaped his lips, beyond his conscious control.
“Li-niang, come back, come back quickly!”
Pure Consort Xiao raised herself from her reclined position, retrieving a silk handkerchief to gently dab away the beads of cold sweat adorning his forehead. However, upon hearing his call, her motion came to an abrupt halt.
It was the first time she didn’t feel a pang of jealousy or bitterness. Instead, a chilling sense of desolation and trepidation engulfed her entire being.
Today, he decided to send the Noble Consort back to the Zhong’s residence, and the rumors within the palace grew even louder. Whispers of His Majesty’s supposed disillusionment with the Noble Consort echoed through the corridors, carrying with them a venomous mix of mockery, schadenfreude, and spite that even she couldn’t bear to hear.
If he truly couldn’t bear to part with the Noble Consort, then why subject her to such unwarranted suffering and the relentless onslaught of criticism?
She clenched her teeth, biting down until the pain snapped her back to reality. Extending her hand, she gently pushed him, urging, “Your Majesty, please wake up.”
Li Jing Ye was plagued by haunting nightmares, his restlessness causing him to toss and turn, his head jerking back and forth. In his disarray, he randomly uttered the names “Li-niang” and “Worthy Consort” before suddenly jolting awake, his eyes springing open.
He stared into the void, his gaze unfocused, until gradually regaining his composure. With great effort, he propped himself up, swaying slightly as he shook his head, eventually accepting the silk handkerchief from the Pure Consort’s outstretched hand, using it to gently wipe away the perspiration on his brow.
“Did I startle you just now?”
His voice carried a raspy tone, seemingly offering gentle comfort while concealing a faint sense of caution and unease.
In the wake of a recent nightmare, upon waking, he had already forgotten most of its contents. Only a vague memory lingered—a moment in the Chenghuan Palace, where Li Zhi had beamed at him with infectious laughter, evoking an irresistible urge to hold her in his arms.
However, before his outstretched arms could make contact with the fabric of her attire, the surroundings transformed into a somber and frigid Xianju Palace.
The smile on Li Zhi’s face vanished, leaving no trace.
She stared at him with a chilling gaze, devoid of warmth, and without waiting for his embrace, she turned abruptly and hastened away, distancing herself swiftly.
His instinct urged him to chase after her, but Worthy Consort Xu suddenly appeared before him.
Her face bore a grim and ghastly expression, her pale and hollowed cheeks quivered, and though her lips moved soundlessly, every word of the curse rang crystal clear: “You… shall… face… repercussions.”
Xianju Palace and Shicui Palace stood in close proximity, their distance so near that an eerie sensation crept up his spine while he resided in the chambers of Shicui Palace.
Pure Consort Xiao masked her expression, her smile faintly shaking as she gently shook her head. “I wasn’t startled. Your Majesty, it seems your sleep was rather restless.”
Stepping down from the bed, she took it upon herself to pour a cup of tea. “Would it please Your Majesty to summon Imperial Physician Zhang for a consultation?”
Li Jing Ye’s hand, receiving the delicate porcelain cup, faltered momentarily, and his countenance abruptly chilled.
Downing the lukewarm liquid in one gulp, he placed the cup upon the edge of the bedside table with a subdued thud. Shaking his head, he uttered, “There’s no need. I am alright.”
In recent days, he had repeatedly sought counsel from Imperial Physician Zhang, yet the true nature of his condition remained elusive. Despite diligently ingesting the prescribed tonics and herbal remedies, there was no trace of improvement. Instead, the symptoms of daytime lethargy seemed to intensify, shrouding him in a relentless fog of weariness.
Were it not for the years under the care of Imperial Physician Zhang, he might have dismissed him as a mediocre healer and cast him out of Daming Palace.
The persistent throbbing at his temple stirred restlessness within him, a clamor seeking release through any available vent.
Though the night grew late, he had no intention of remaining there any longer.
“Yuan Shi, prepare the carriage.”
“Where is Your Majesty going at such an hour?” Purr Consort Xiao knelt beside the bed, her voice inquiring.
Li Jing Ye had already risen and donned his robe. He hastily patted her hand upon hearing her words. “I’ve just remembered there are some state affairs I need to attend to. I shall return to Zichen Hall. I will come to see you tomorrow.”
With that, he didn’t even bother to light a lamp and swiftly departed in the darkness.
Pure Consort Xiao remained kneeling motionless, her gaze fixed, until his figure vanished into the night. Only then did she softly call out, “Lan Zhao.”
Lan Zhao, who had been waiting outside, promptly responded, “Your Highness.”
“Arrange for someone to send word tomorrow and invite Mother to the palace for a visit. I have some matters I wish to discuss with her.”
Li Jing Ye sat atop the sedan chair, gliding along the spacious and tranquil palace avenue, traversing the distance from the outside of Xianju Hall.
Enveloped in obscurity, the palace complex vanished from sight, while the feeble moonlight cast a faint glow, illuminating blurred white walls, azure tiles, and vermilion pillars.
An unsettling restlessness surged within his chest, prompting him to tightly clasp the armrest and urge, “Faster!”
The eunuchs bearing the sedan chair, upon hearing his plea, strived to maintain stability and hastened their steps.
Perhaps due to their accelerated pace, or some other unknown cause, the lantern held by one of the guiding eunuchs abruptly flickered out. In the darkness, the eunuch beside Li Jing Ye momentarily lost sight and accidentally kicked a loose pebble, faltering on uncertain ground. The burden on his shoulder nearly slipped away.
Li Jing Ye experienced an abrupt jolt, and his body careened uncontrollably to the side. Acting on instinct, he tightly gripped the armrest, averting a potential fall from the sedan chair.
Startled exclamations rippled through the air, resonating with profound alarm. The attendants promptly set the sedan chair down.
The two eunuchs immediately dropped to their knees, their limbs quivering uncontrollably, pleading, “Please spare these slaves, Your Majesty!”
He Yuan Shi, equally startled, softly rebuked the two men while bowing, offering his words in their defense, “Your Majesty, these two youngsters merely experienced a momentary lapse, and their actions were unintentional.”
Li Jing Ye, consumed by a tumultuous mind, had no intention of punishing the two eunuchs. Impatiently, he dismissed them, instructing for two others to take their place.
As the attendants once again raised the sedan chair, ready to depart from Xianju Palace, he abruptly waved his hand, summoning He Yuan Shi closer.
“Yuan Shi, the Worthy Consort—there is no need to keep her by my side any longer.”
With a troubled expression, he gently massaged his temple, his words escaping in hushed tones that were audible only to He Yuan Shi amidst the entourage of eunuchs.
“You must personally handle this matter and ensure its utmost secrecy.”
He Yuan Shi’s back dampened with a cold sweat, overwhelmed by fear, yet he suppressed it, obediently responding in silence.
Throughout His Majesty’s reign, despite growing suspicions and an increasingly irritable temperament, he had never resorted to killing those in his inner circle.
Even the previous case involving Qian Yang was routinely handled by the Six Departments.
However, now, he had become even more chilling and fear-inducing.
The hour was nearing midnight.
Pei Ji lay upon Li Zhi’s body, gently caressing her neck and shoulders with tender kisses, relishing in the remnants of their passion, unwilling to part just yet.
The red candle on the lampstand, previously spared from a breath’s touch, now neared its final moments. Its flickering flame vanished abruptly, leaving behind a mere trace of smoke from the dwindling wick.
The room descended into sudden darkness.
Li Zhi extended her hand, gently pushing the figure atop her.
Pei Ji slowly rolled over, cradling her in his arms, reluctant to release his embrace. Together, they turned, settling in a position where she lay prone against his chest.
Indifferent to exertion, she obediently rested her head upon his sturdy shoulder, one hand lightly placed over his heart.
Gradually, her thoughts emerged from the haze of confusion, and clarity returned to her mind. Memories of the day slowly resurfaced, prompting her to verify her observations. With a deliberate yet subtle motion, she playfully traced her fingertips across his chest. “Today, when I saw His Majesty’s countenance, something seemed strange.”
Pei Ji felt a tingling sensation ripple through his chest, where her touch had kindled a delightful sensation. Instinctively, he clasped her restless hand and leaned in for a tender kiss. However, upon hearing her words, his expression turned serious, and he nodded solemnly. “I have sensed it as well. Today, during my visit to the palace, I happened inquire with the Empress Dowager.”
Li Zhi raised her gaze, resting her chin upon his chest, and inquired, “And what was the Empress Dowager’s response?”
The Emperor’s daily affairs, including his meals, routines, and well-being, were diligently overseen by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The concubines, on the other hand, fell under the jurisdiction of the Six Departments and Twenty-Four Offices. Even Pure Consort Xiao, who managed the palace affairs, dared not meddle in the Emperor’s personal matters.
Pei Ji leaned against a soft pillow, his fingers gently caressing her smooth cheek, his brows slightly furrowed. “Even the Empress Dowager remains uncertain. She only knows that Your Majesty has sought the counsel of the imperial physicians several times, yet their diagnoses yielded no definitive answers. It appears to be a culmination of internal distress and physical depletion.”
Even in broad daylight, the concerns raised by the Empress Dowager only hinted at the underlying worries. However, deep within, they all knew that the Emperor’s temperament had grown increasingly sensitive. It was likely that his physical exhaustion was predominantly a result of burdensome thoughts weighing upon him.
Initially, the Empress Dowager had the intention to intercede on behalf of the Worthy Consort, persuading the Emperor to temper his anger and release her from confinement. However, as rumors reached her ears that the Emperor’s demeanor had worsened following their encounter at Xianju Palace, she became hesitant to intervene any further, afraid of exacerbating the situation.
He anticipated that the Emperor might not readily heed the words of others. Originally, he had intended to personally offer his counsel, but his father worried that such an action would strain his relationship with the Emperor. Hence, he was temporarily restrained from intervening.
Their collective hope lay in the gradual recovery of the Emperor.
Suppressing the unfathomable and unspoken conflicts deep within his heart, he cast his gaze upon the woman nestled against his chest, his eyes silently dimming.
Even though she was sent back to her maiden home, it seemed that she still cared about the Emperor. Despite hating him, she was still his concubine.
As for him, he could only hide in the shadows, treasuring those rare moments of closeness they shared, for they were incredibly hard to come by.
Such circumstances left him profoundly disheartened, to the point where he started entertaining impossible aspirations, though aware of their futility.
However, Li Zhi paid no heed to his gaze, a derisive smile curling upon her lips. “Darling Third, tell me, would His Majesty ever heed the counsel of others?”
Pei Ji refrained from responding, his hand resting on her back came to a halt, while the scorching warmth continued to permeate the space between their skins.
They both understood whether he would listen or not.
If he were receptive to advice, how could they have found themselves in such dire circumstances?
Li Zhi turned her face, gently pressing her left ear against his chest, her voice barely above a whisper. “If one day, he becomes utterly foolish, indulging only in pleasure and disregarding all state affairs, would you still faithfully defend him?”
Pei Ji quivered, his entire body tensing up, his eyes fixed on her in astonishment. It was as if he had been caught off guard by her audacity, completely unprepared for her to speak such bold words.
Despite the semblance of harmony within the imperial court, beneath the surface, a subtle rift had been forming between the ruler and his ministers. Though the era appeared to be one of peace and prosperity, there were rumblings of discontent brewing in the shadows. If the delicate balance were to tip one day, it would unleash a tempestuous clash of powers.
He harbored no desire for such a day to arrive. And yet…
Inexplicably, within the depths of his heart, a scarcely detectable glimmer of anticipation sprouted, its source elusive and enigmatic.
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