Chapter 7 Pavillion
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Pei Ji remained silent, gripping the porcelain box in his hand with intensity as he bowed deeply to the Emperor, his eyes cast downward in respect.
He naturally heard the doubt in the Emperor’s calm tone, and was about to explain, but the woman beside him approached the imperial chair, looked up at the Emperor who had not yet come down, and asked, “What brings Your Majesty here at this hour?”
Li Jing Ye sat stoically in his sedan chair, allowing no movement from the eunuchs at his side. He reached out and lifted the woman’s delicate chin with his hand, peering into her eyes with the help of the moon’s light and the flicker of candles held by palace attendants.
His expression betrayed nothing, yet his words carried a hint of coolness. “Don’t you wish to see me?”
Li Zhi’s face was a vision of gentleness and obedience as she raised it to the moon’s light. Her eyes glimmered with unshed tears as she gazed steadfastly upon Li Jing Ye, her voice carrying the weight of her unspoken grievances. “Why would not I wish to see Your Majesty? When did you come to see me after nightfall…?”
Li Jing Ye remained silent, studying her carefully with a narrowed gaze. Suddenly, he let out a soft chuckle and leaned in to plant a gentle kiss on her lips. He signaled the eunuchs to lower the carriage and gestured for her to come aboard.
Following his instructions, Li Zhi gracefully lifted her dress and stepped onto the carriage. She intended to kneel respectfully to the side, but Li Jing Ye had other plans. He pulled her close, wrapping his arm around her waist and seating her directly on his lap. With one hand, he toyed with the ribbon adorning her chest.
“What about Zi Hui? How did you two meet?” Li Jing Ye addressed Li Zhi, his fingertip tracing the outline of her lips. “Why aren’t you staying inside the house? What brings you down the mountain?”
Though his words were directed at Li Zhi, Li Jing Ye’s piercing gaze was fixed on Pei Ji.
Pei Ji stood before the Emperor, unwavering in his gaze, but he couldn’t help but notice the woman sitting beside Li Jing Ye. Her hands were folded in her lap, absentmindedly brushing against a bruise on her wrist, which was only partially hidden from view.
He felt the porcelain box in his palm getting hotter, but his face still showed no expression. “As Your Majesty’s loyal subject, I was conducting inspections in various locations when I happened upon the lady.”
Concise and to the point, in line with his usual indifference.
A faint, enigmatic smile played at the corners of Li Zhi’s lips.
While the Emperor’s attention was fixed on Pei Ji, the rest of the palace staff kept their eyes lowered, but Pei Ji alone was privy to the alluring curve of red-tinted lips under the dim light.
She seemed to be reminding him of his words from the previous night.
“If you seek me out again, I shall inform the Emperor directly,” he had said, only to go back on his word.
Li Jing Ye nodded, seemingly convinced, and asked, “Did you see the Sixth Prince yesterday?” His gaze then shifted to Li Zhi, searching for clues in her subtle expressions.
Li Zhi felt a jolt of fear, but quickly composed herself by forcing out even brighter tears in her eyes. She looked away from him, pretending to be strong and hiding her emotions.
Pei Ji spoke calmly, “Yes, after I left Zichen Hall yesterday, I ran into Prince Rui. His Highness was in a bad mood and we had a few drinks by Taiye Pool. When we returned to Shaoyang Courtyard, he was already so drunk that he passed out, and I had to carry him back.”
He had indeed matched all of He Yuan Shi’s report.
Li Jing Ye’s doubts gradually dissipated, and he relaxed his smile a bit. He said to Pei Ji, “We kept you too long yesterday. You should return now, or my mother and aunt will blame me for giving you too much work. You don’t need to personally inspect the remaining places. Your subordinates have always been reliable.”
Although the Imperial Guards mostly consisted of military families who had served for generations, there were also many noble children from Chang’an among them, making it somewhat difficult to manage.
After joining the Imperial Guards, Pei Ji worked tirelessly, dedicating himself to his duty. For over half a year, he worked relentlessly to rid the General’s quarters of their lazy attitudes and tighten the palace defenses, using all of his energy.
Being the only son of the Grand Princess, he was often the topic of conversation between his mother, the Empress Dowager, and the Emperor.
“Thank you for your consideration, Your Majesty. It is merely part of my duty.”
Knowing that the Emperor had ordered his expulsion, Pei Ji didn’t linger. Instead, he bowed respectfully and departed, clutching the small porcelain box tightly.
As he watched Pei Ji leave, Li Jing Ye finally turned his attention to Li Zhi, who remained silent and pursed-lipped. “Are you upset?”
He reached out to grasp her chin once more, wanting to turn her face and kiss her.
Li Zhi merely gave him a gentle glance before turning her face away to avoid his kiss, whispering softly, “Your Majesty doesn’t trust me.”
Li Jing Ye didn’t move to kiss her again, he simply leaned back slightly, still holding her slender waist with one hand. He spoke in a calm tone, “When have I ever doubted you?”
Li Zhi tilted her head up to gaze at the moon in the dark sky, revealing the elegant curve of her jawline and neck. She whispered, “If you believed me, then why did you look at me like that when mentioning Prince Rui?”
“Li-niang, I never doubted you,” Li Jing Ye called out softly, his heart beginning to soften.
He pulled her in closer by her waist with one hand, while the other stroked her slender neck. Gently, he kissed her on her beautifully painted lips.
Li Zhi pushed him away with both hands, tears already welling up in her eyes. She looked at him with a pitiful expression and said, “Your Majesty doesn’t have to lie to me. Yesterday… Sister Qian Yang, how can I not understand what you mean?”
Li Jing Ye furrowed his brow, his gaze fixed on the tears now streaming down her face. He didn’t rush to comfort her, only asking, “How could you call her ‘Sister’?”
He was the Emperor, the ruler of all, and nothing could interfere with his actions. Therefore, he didn’t care whether she knew about the spy he’d set upon her.
But he minded that she called a palace maid “sister”.
Naturally, Li Zhi knew he would take issue with it.
Tearfully lost and uncertain, she looked at him with caution, “Qian Yang is a proper palace maid by your side. I’m just a girl with no name or status. I dare not cross the line…”
Li Jing Ye tenderly wiped away the tears from her cheek with his thumb, his expression turning solemn. “In the future, you cannot address a maidservant as ‘Sister’.”
He gazed at her with tenderness, his heart melting as he saw her frail and vulnerable appearance. Her almond eyes were filled with tears and confusion, but she didn’t dare ask for clarification.
His features relaxed, and with a gesture to the eunuchs to continue on their journey, he pulled her closer. Twirling a tendril of hair around his finger, he asked nonchalantly, “What made you decide to venture out tonight? Especially at such a late hour?”
He held Li Zhi gently in his arms, supporting her as the carriage swayed back and forth. Her cheeks were rosy from the motion, and he couldn’t help but appreciate her beauty.
She clung to him tightly, explaining, “I’ve been in the palace for so long, but I’ve never had a chance to admire the scenery of the Taiye Pool. During the day, I’m afraid of being seen by others and bringing dishonor to Your Majesty. So I had to wait until night to sneak out and catch a glimpse.”
As she spoke, she remembered something that made her tears threaten to spill again. “I ran into General Pei earlier, and he warned me not to linger outside. Your Majesty, am I not allowed to be seen in this state?”
Li Jing Ye looked at her pitiful expression, her face red and her tears flowing, and he couldn’t help but chuckle. His earlier concerns had vanished in the face of her endearing innocence.
He drew her near, his lips meeting hers in a gentle kiss as he whispered softly, “Where could you not be seen? Li-niang is so beautiful that everyone should behold your radiance. Zi Hui has always been like an unsociable old antique. Don’t mind him.”
The sedan chair swayed leisurely back and forth, and he was moved by the closeness they shared. He extended his hand to cradle her flushed face, his gaze lingering on her for a moment before he commanded the chair to be lowered. Carrying her up into his arms, he strode purposefully towards the pavilion where she had been before.
The pavilion was adorned with several lanterns, their warm glow casting a soft light upon the interior, while curtains were drawn closed around them.
He set Li Zhi down on the railing and held her close from behind, pointing at the scenery before them. “Today, I will allow you to feast your eyes on the beauty of the Taiye Pool. And when I have more time, I will take you personally to Penglai Mountain and the Taiye Pavilion in the heart of the lake.”
Li Zhi stood in the pavilion, feeling the warmth of his body inching closer to hers, and the large hand that had been gently caressing her waist slowly moving up, teasing at her clothes.
She took a deep breath, masking the chill in her gaze, and turned her head slightly to avoid his lips as they brushed against her cheek. Her voice quavered as she said, “Your Majesty, there are people here…”
The area by the Taiye Pool was spacious, and although there was no one in the pavilion, palace guards and passing servants occasionally patrolled the nearby palace path.
“Yuan Shi!” Li Jing Ye called out with force, gesturing towards the fluttering gauze curtains.
He Yuan Shi understood the unspoken command and signaled two palace maids to lower the surrounding gauze curtains, their movements soft and silent.
“Don’t worry, there’s no one around to see,” he reassured her.
Her silk ribbon came undone, and the delicate fabric of her clothes slipped effortlessly down her shoulders. She turned to face him, her slender hands gripping the railing behind her as her back arched gracefully.
The refreshing wind blowing over the water caused the gauze curtains to flutter and dance.
Tilting her head slightly, she allowed him to shower her neck with delicate kisses, her dreamy eyes gazing past the fluttering curtains to the distant horizon.
Countless lamps were lit along the poolside, their warm and inviting light snaking along the palace path until they faded into the darkness.
In a daze, she thought she saw a familiar and resolute figure walking away into the darkness, his back straight and unwavering.
Pei Ji walked alone on the palace path by the pond.
Just as he neared the grand Jinluan Palace, a prickling sensation crept up his spine. He halted in his steps, turning his head to peer into the shadows.
In the dark night, the Emperor’s carriage stopped by the path, with several palace maids and eunuchs standing by silently.
And near the carriage, in a pavilion not far away, the previously opened curtains were now down, dancing in the breeze by the pond. Too far away to see clearly, only a vague figure seemed to be moving inside.
Pei Ji’s features betrayed no emotion as he took in the sight. He diverted his attention from the distant pavilion and resumed his course down the palace path, skirting past the left treasury and approaching the right of Yintai Gate.
A sudden discomfort in his hand prompted him to ease his grip on a small porcelain box he had been holding all along. He wrinkled his brow as he realized how tightly he had been clutching it.
He slowly opened his hand and carefully examined the object in his hand.
It was a small porcelain box, not even as big as his palm, with a translucent glaze covering its surface that shimmered with a lustrous, dark blue hue under dim lighting.
Smooth and flawless, like her skin.
Such a beautiful, flawless exterior, but who knew what kind of heart it contained?
His breathing hitched, and his gaze flickered uncertainly.
Shi Quan’s voice came from ahead, and before he knew it, he had already arrived at Yintai Gate.
Pei Ji stowed the porcelain box in his bag, looked up at the sky, took the reins, and mounted his horse.
“A messenger came from the palace just now, saying that Prince Rui invites the General to drink with him in Pingkang District.” Shi Quan also mounted his horse and asked, “Are you going, General?”
Remembering what happened last night, Pei Ji knew that Prince Rui was probably just over his momentary anger and was now suppressing his pain, inviting him to drink in Pingkang District to drown his sorrows.
He sighed softly, gazing at the sky before saying, “It so happens that tomorrow is a day of rest. Let’s go.”
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