Chapter 67 Encounter
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Li Zhi’s face was intimately close to his, and silence enveloped them. With a silent understanding, he guided her into the inner chamber.
Deep within her heart, she faintly comprehended his profound attachment to this matter, but she refrained from exposing it. She didn’t want to repeatedly remind him to stay sober.
The inexplicable blush that adorned her face revealed its concealed secret— in the presence of this pure and reassuring young gentleman, she experienced a profound sense of solace. Her heart which had been unmoved for a long time finally stirred with emotion.
However, what significance did it hold?
She was no longer an innocent maiden, and he, unlike his peers, possessed maturity and composure. Even without prior experience in matters of the heart, she believed in his ability to perceive the vast disparity in their positions and circumstances through intellect and will.
Matters with uncertain outcomes necessitated a restrained expectancy. Since her heart had been swayed, she might as well seize the moment and occasionally indulge in it.
It was nice to have someone to cuddle and keep warm with when in the darkness.
“Let nature take its course.”
Her tender touch graced his cheek, where her lips had just brushed against her neck. She whispered softly into his ear.
His movement halted abruptly, his eyes slowly shutting as he buried his face within the fragrant cascade of her hair, concealing the tumultuous emotions in his gaze.
He felt that he was gradually understanding the meaning behind her words.
Inhaling deeply, he cautiously withdrew and gently maneuvered her, allowing her to turn over. Seizing her exposed shoulder, he enshrouded her from behind.
At least now, she truly trusted him, didn’t she?
Long time had passed, but the lingering enchantment of the room refused to dissipate.
Li Zhi lazily lay on the bed, perceiving the subtle transformation of the man’s embrace behind her.
She couldn’t help but gently nudged him with her elbow, shifting her body slightly.
Pei Ji promptly caught up, reclaiming her into his secure embrace, his grasp delicately restraining her hand as he whispered, “I won’t disturb you. Rest for a while.”
“Rest for a while” subtly hinted at unfinished matters.
Her brows furrowed, and just as she was about to speak, his voice resonated in a deep tone near her ear. “Last night, Worthy Consort Xu passed away.”
The words poised on her tongue were abruptly halted, and she clutched the corner of the embroidered blanket. After a lingering silence, she mustered a soft “Hmm.”
It was the first time, since her arrival in this world, that she had such an intimate encounter with life and death.
“What did His Majesty say?”
Sensing her stiffness, Pei Ji held her even tighter and soothingly patted her hand. “Today, a member of the royal family entered the palace. His Majesty has granted the posthumous title of Empress to Worthy Consort Xu and ordered her burial with full imperial rites.”
He, too, felt a twinge of sorrow. However, since childhood, he had experienced his grandfather’s departure and witnessed countless scenes of bloodshed on the battlefield, cultivating a resilience beyond that of ordinary individuals.
Once again, a prolonged silence engulfed them. Her mind recalled the indifferent and aloof face of that person within the palace, causing her fingertips, clasping the brocade quilt, to gradually tighten.
He had proven himself time and again to be just as they said.
Deep down, he had secretly desired Worthy Consort Xu to vanish completely, no longer serving as a constant reminder of those unspoken matters. But now that she had truly passed away, he assumed this lofty and virtuous facade, leading others to perceive him as a wise ruler.
Unconsciously, her thoughts drifted back to the vivid images from her dreams.
Once he ended Li Zhi’s life with a stroke of a white silk, would he assume an air of helplessness and overwhelming grief? If fate permitted his survival, would he continue to grasp onto the ease and influence paved by the blood of innumerable warriors, feigning sentimental remembrance of her?
Lost in her thoughts, she imagined such scenes, her fingertips quietly embedding themselves within the warmth of her palm.
Pei Ji keenly observed her response, and upon sensing it, he tenderly enclosed her hand with his broad palm. Drawing closer to her lips, he pressed a gentle kiss, gradually alleviating the tension within her.
Expressionless, Li Zhi turned her head, locking her gaze with his.
In those depths of jet-black eyes flickered two dancing, vivid yellow candle flames, luminous and crystal-clear, slowly pulling her back.
In an attempt to dispel the prevailing gloom of the moment, he shifted his focus to other matters.
Li Zhi remained close to him, their movements intertwining, and the previously lifeless facade of apathy had dissipated, as if everything had returned to its normal state.
She reached out to gently push him away. “That’s enough. You slept little yesterday, and tomorrow you still have court. It’s best to get some rest.”
Pei Ji looked at her with astonishment before shaking his head. “I am still young. A little less sleep won’t matter. It’s often the case when there’s much to do.”
Li Zhi playfully prodded his chest with her fingertips and spoke in a serious tone. “Don’t take advantage of your youth to recklessly squander. The debts accumulated now will have to be repaid, even in old age.”
Pei Ji’s typically serious expression revealed a complex and unspoken emotion. It seemed like he wanted to argue about something but ultimately didn’t say a word.
He held the piece between his fingers, briefly bringing it to his lips for a gentle bite. Then, slowly withdrawing, he extinguished the candle flame. With proper decorum, he cradled her in his arms and softly said, “Sleep now.”
In the Zichen Hall, Li Jing Ye leaned wearily against the couch’s edge, repeatedly kneading his temples. His countenance bore the signs of exhaustion, entangled in a web of restless emotions.
He Yuan Shi meticulously recounted the day’s events in the palace, discreetly signaling a young eunuch by the door to add more calming incense to the censer.
“…Everything has been properly arranged. By evening, Xianju Palace will already be vacated.”
Li Jing Ye nodded, his other hand unconsciously clenching on the armrest. “In a couple of days, have the craftsmen repair Xianju Palace.”
He paused briefly. “As for that northern corner, the terrain is unfavorable. It’s no longer suitable for habitation. Let’s repurpose it for something else.”
He Yuan Shi respectfully bowed, refraining from uttering an unnecessary word.
After a moment of silence, Li Jing Ye seemed to calm down gradually and asked in a calm tone, “What about the others?”
He Yuan Shi swiftly cast a breathless glance at Li Jing Ye, instantly comprehending the nature of his inquiry. Hastily withdrawing his gaze, he responded, “Today, the Noble Consort and Lady Zhong ventured to a residence in Yongning Lane. They lingered for half an hour before returning. Apart from that, everything remains unchanged from yesterday.”
“Where did this residence come from?”
“It was a wedding gift bestowed upon Colonel Wei by Young General Pei. I’ve heard that it’s the designated venue for their impending marriage ceremony.”
Li Jing Ye uttered a subdued murmur, his thoughts drifting aimlessly as he gazed outside the window. After a prolonged silence, he inquired, “Li-niang… has she mentioned wanting to see me?”
Beads of cold sweat gradually formed on He Yuan Shi’s back.
The palace attendants who accompanied them outside the palace had unequivocally stated that the Noble Consort Zhong exhibited an air of normalcy, devoid of any trace of discontentment. Not once did she mention a word about His Majesty.
He pondered for a moment, then lowered his head and uttered, “The Noble Consort… perhaps, she is engrossed in tending to Lady Zhong’s wedding affairs…”
Li Jing Ye’s face gradually darkened, and his empty heart was filled with disappointment, each pang piercing him with pain.
The image of her expressionless face and unwavering demeanor outside the Xianju Palace that day slowly resurfaced before his eyes.
Nearly a year had passed, and deep within her heart, there was truly no trace of him. Since her departure, she alone had occupied his thoughts, causing him endless anguish.
“Have I been unkind to her?”
“Your Majesty, perhaps the Noble Consort was momentarily confused and stubborn…” He Yuan Shi offered counsel while gesturing to a eunuch in the outer chamber to bring the prepared calming medicine. “The medicine is ready, Your Majesty. It’s time to take it.”
Li Jing Ye looked at the pitch-black broth, its bitter aroma wafting from the jade vessel, as he gingerly raised it to his lips and took a sip.
The unbearable taste immediately saturated his entire mouth.
A surge of restlessness welled up within him, forcefully setting the medicine bowl aside. “They are all quack physicians, utterly useless!”
On the following day, Pei Ji awoke well before the crowing of the rooster, cautiously withdrawing his hand that encircled Li Zhi’s slender waist. With measured steps, he descended from the bed, meticulously dressing himself.
In the darkness, the moonlight lingered, refusing to fade away.
After securing his hairpin and adjusting his garments, he stole another glance at the woman still deeply immersed in slumber, her eyes tightly sealed. He couldn’t resist retracing his steps, his touch a gentle caress upon her face, illuminated by the soft glow of the moon.
As if sensing his touch, she instinctively nuzzled her cheek against the palm of his hand, murmuring softly.
A faint smile appeared on his usually stern face, and he gently kissed her forehead, whispering, “I have to leave now. Take a little more rest.”
Li Zhi responded with a muffled “Hmm,” striving to open her drowsy eyes to no avail. An involuntary expression of discontent shaped her delicate, rosy lips.
Unable to suppress a soft chuckle, Pei Ji used the pad of his thumb to smooth the curve of her discontented lips. He tucked the bedcovers snugly around her, ensuring her comfort, before finally straightening himself and quietly departing.
Outside the room, darkness enveloped everything, and the servants remained sound asleep.
Navigating with ease, he ventured beyond the estate, skirting three narrow paths until he reached the area near the district gate. There, he untied the rope tethering his horse and proceeded forward.
The hour before the drum tolled, a scattering of residents stood near the gate, anticipating its opening. Catching sight of Pei Ji’s approach, they paid him no unusual attention.
Gradually, more people began to assemble, and the faint light on the horizon grew brighter. Warriors from various districts also arrived, positioning themselves between the neighborhoods.
With the clock striking the third hour before dawn, the first resounding beat of the drum resonated, its echo rippling through the entirety of Chang’an.
The gate swung open, prompting Pei Ji to mount his horse. Accompanied by a small group of fellow early risers, he passed through the gate, his course now set toward Daming Palace.
Just a moment later, numerous officials would be rushing from their homes to attend the morning court session. By timing his departure precisely, he skillfully evaded the bustling crowd. It wasn’t until he passed through Yishan District, located closest to Daming Palace that he gracefully dismounted and ventured into a shop known for its delectable early morning lamb pastries. He bought a piping-hot one to satisfy his hunger.
From afar, the figures of a few officials, clad in their distinguished robes, emerged on horseback. Adjusting his appearance with meticulous care, he guided his steed onto the broad avenue of the district, intending to proceed toward the palace. However, a voice called out from behind, “Third Son.”
Pausing in his tracks, he turned around, only to find his father, Pei Yan, approaching on horseback, his brow knitted in concern.
“It’s really you. You’ve been absent from home these past two nights. Where have you been? Your mother is worried, and mentioned how you’ve been absentmindedly gallivanting about.”
If it weren’t for the deep-rooted trust Pei Yan held for his son, he might have resorted to direct interrogation, suspecting Pei Ji of causing some outrageous incident in Pingkang District.
Pei Ji composed himself, raising his solemn face, and calmly greeted his father before offering an explanation, “Several guards in the Imperial Guards are nearing the end of their service terms and will soon be transferred elsewhere. In these past two days, banquets were held in Pingkang District, and I stayed overnight at Peaceful Dwelling.”
The gathering with colleagues indeed took place. However, he always made his exit before the curfew.
Upon hearing this, Pei Yan’s expression eased slightly, gesturing for him to mount his horse.
Pei Yan knew his son was always prudent, never doubting the truth in his words.
Father and son rode side by side, conversing as they advanced.
“I intended to discuss this matter with you yesterday. Regarding the issue of the cast iron bull, we cannot afford to be careless. Minister Chen visited yesterday—though he possesses talent and earns the Emperor’s trust, he mustn’t be without constraints. As the supervisor of frugal matters, you must keep a close eye on him without delay.”
Minister of War, Chen Ying Shao, possessed considerable talent and a decisive character. However, he occasionally succumbed to lust and greed, unable to resist flattery and praise from others. Previously, whenever Chen Ying Shao was involved in any matters, Du Heng always dispatched another person to accompany him, ensuring constant supervision and preventing any slackening of discipline.
This time, His Majesty chose Minister Chen alone to oversee the grand project of casting the iron bull at Pujin Ferry. Nearly half of Great Wei’s precious iron mines, reserved for weapon production, were entrusted solely to him.
With the depletion of the iron mines used for forging weaponry, the state of affairs at the northern frontier became a cause for greater concern.
“Furthermore, we must remain vigilant regarding General Zhang’s responsibilities. We cannot afford to be lax. Constantly gathering intelligence on the movements of the Turkic people is crucial, preparing ourselves ahead of time.”
Pei Ji’s expression turned serious as he nodded and whispered, “I understand. At Pujin Crossing, I have instructed General Huangfu, who is stationed there, to monitor the transportation of iron mines. As for Hedong, I have already informed General Zhang before he returned. Once Wei Peng heads north after his marriage, I will write another letter for him to deliver to General Zhang.”
“Hmm, as long as you understand,” Pei Yan nodded and then turned to observe his son. “Third Son, this year you will come of age. You are now an adult, and it is no longer appropriate for your mother and grandmother to worry about you.”
Pei Ji, oblivious to his father’s intentions, respectfully nodded and replied, “Indeed.”
Pei Yan gently tightened the reins, causing his horse to slow its pace. With a grave and heartfelt tone, he began to offer guidance to his son, saying, “Ever since your youth, you have proven yourself to be a thoughtful and resolute child. Your mother and I have always placed our trust in you, and you have never failed to live up to our expectations. However, there is a matter that requires my reminder today.
“While the path of officialdom and the duties that come with it hold great significance, one must not disregard other aspects of life entirely. Third Son, you have reached an age where it is fitting for you to marry and establish your own family.”
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