Chapter 71 Attending the wedding ceremony
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The encroaching dusk cast its veil over the surroundings, signaling the imminent closure of the city gate.
Amidst the scarce signs of human presence on the outskirts of the city, Pei Ji galloped ahead, accompanied by a handful of loyal attendants.
The rhythmic clatter of horse hooves reverberated through the air, stirring up swirling clouds of dust, intensifying the somber hues of the twilight.
He remembered that today was the day of Wei Peng’s marriage to Lady Zhong.
Wei Peng was his highly admired subordinate, someone entrusted to his care by General Zhang. Naturally, he should personally attend today’s wedding.
Furthermore, the bride was none other than Lady Zhong, Li Zhi’s sister.
He was well aware of her profound affection for her elder sister and her fervent hope for her to find a compatible life partner. Considering the culmination of events today, her heart would surely be filled with genuine joy.
But what about herself?
She herself struggled against her circumstances, yearning to escape from everything before her. Now witnessing others achieving happiness and fulfillment, would there be a moment when she also felt a sense of desolation?
With a burst of speed, Pei Ji arrived just in time before the city gate sealed shut. In that moment, a fleeting smile flickered across his typically impassive face.
He could almost envision the look on her face—defiant yet tinged with a touch of arrogance—had she known what was going through his mind at that very moment.
She would assert that she didn’t require anyone’s pity.
Along the street outside Danfeng Gate, as they headed towards the alley, Shi Quan asked, “It’s almost time. Should we return home first before the wedding ceremony begins?”
Pei Ji raised his gaze to the sky, briefly casting a glance in the direction of the new house. “We should make a quick return to our residence.”
He had to return home first to pay his respects to his parents and grandmother, change into fresh clothes, and then proceed to witness the ceremony.
The auspicious hour had finally arrived.
Chun Yue gently tapped on the door from outside and whispered, “Miss, General Wei’s personally-led entourage has arrived.”
The two sisters shared a smile reflected in the mirror, their hands clasped firmly together. Without hesitation, they stepped out of the room, making their way towards the grand hall.
Zhong Cheng Ping and Madamel Yang were already dressed in new attire, seated in the hall. Supported by a maid, Lan Ying steadied herself and respectfully bid farewell to the two elders before turning and stepping forward, one careful step at a time.
Beyond the gate, the wide and straight street resounded with an unending melody of music.
The groom’s welcoming entourage stood in perfect formation, their faces beaming with happiness as they eagerly awaited the arrival of the bride. When she finally made her appearance, their collective laughter and jubilant cheers filled the air.
As Wei Peng was not a local of Chang’an and had no surviving parents or close relatives residing there, his welcoming entourage comprised mainly of soldiers who were yet to depart for their military duties. These soldiers, towering in stature with a robust and courageous presence, let out thunderous cheers that nearly eclipsed the accompanying melodies.
Wei Peng, adorned in a pristine wedding ensemble, stood resolutely at the forefront of the gathering. At the mere glimpse of Lan Ying, his entire being involuntarily tightened. His lips initially formed a firm line, but they couldn’t resist the irresistible urge to curve upward, while his eyes sparkled beneath the dusky sky.
He locked his gaze on Lan Ying as she crossed the threshold with a smile. His hand instinctively reached out, ready to take a step forward. However, upon observing her slightly unsteady footsteps and the tenacity in her eyes, he gradually withdrew his hand.
Amidst the gathering, an beautiful young woman with a subtle limp gingerly approached her beloved, her every step appearing unsteady yet resolute.
Finally, he couldn’t resist any longer and reached out both hands, firmly grasping hers.
“Wei Peng.” Li Zhi who had been by Lan Ying’s side all along looked at the couple. Her heart swelled with a bittersweet mix of emotions, prompting her to softly speak, “You must treat my sister well.”
“Your Highness, I will treat her well,” Wei Peng held Lan Ying’s hand, gently caressing it, and amidst the cheers of the crowd, he softly spoke, “From now on, I will be your legs, guiding you across mountains and rivers.”
Under countless gazes, he released Lan Ying’s hand and slowly turned around, bending down and squatting.
Lan Ying’s expression froze as she cast her eyes upon the broad and dependable back before her. Quietly, her gaze became misted with tears.
Amidst the resounding laughter and joy, she glanced back, her gaze lingering upon the grand gate. Without hesitation, she turned her face forward, adorned with a dazzling smile, and lowered herself, resting upon his back as he gallantly escorted her onto the awaiting carriage.
Along the procession’s path towards the new residence, the streets were filled with curious spectators. Among the throngs, an unidentified voice exclaimed, “The groom today is none other than the Colonel Wei, renowned for his valiant exploits on behalf of our Great Wei!”
Over time, the number of onlookers grew, each of their gazes carrying a sincere reverence and genuine well-wishes as they turned their attention towards the couple.
The new residence had been meticulously tidied and adorned, both inside and out, while the guests streamed in, filling every nook and cranny.
The master of ceremonies led the couple into the courtyard. Just as they were about to perform the ceremony at the auspicious moment, someone rushed in from outside the main gate, shouting, “His Majesty—His Majesty is here, personally attending the ceremony!”
The once bustling courtyard fell silent in an instant, all eyes turning towards the main entrance.
Among the gathered guests, primarily local residents and a handful of low-ranking officials, their attendance owed more to their past dealings with Hedong’s army than any notable status. Yet, out of deference for Pei Ji and upon his request, they had assembled to partake in the nuptial ceremony.
How could it be that a mere eighth-rank Colonel, even one who had earned commendations and personal recognition from His Majesty, warranted the Emperor’s personal presence at his wedding?
The only plausible explanation was that the Emperor’s attendance was solely for the sake of Noble Consort Zhong.
Previously, it had been widely rumored that the Emperor had dismissed Noble Consort Zhong and sent her back to her family, suggesting his waning interest. However, to everyone’s surprise, after a little over a month, he graced the wedding of her elder sister with his presence. Perhaps, the earlier rumors were merely a manifestation of the Emperor’s concern for Noble Consort Zhong’s deep bond with her Elder Sister, prompting him to grant her a temporary sojourn at her family’s residence.
Initially, the attention of the crowd was primarily fixed on Lan Ying and Wei Peng, but gradually their focus shifted towards Li Zhi.
Li Zhi’s smile appeared slightly frozen on her face, as her initial delight gradually chilled.
Although she had known for some time that she would soon have to return to Daming Palace, at this moment, she still did not want to encounter Li Jing Ye.
“So, His Majesty has been thinking about Third Sister all along.” Miao Yun, who had quietly approached her side at some point, spoke softly. The glimmer in her eyes revealed undisguised envy and jealousy. “Third Sister, are you unhappy?”
Li Zhi’s expression remained composed as she glanced at the surrounding gazes, some filled with envy, others inquisitive. She chose to maintain her silence.
Before long, the Emperor’s procession arrived outside the new residence, with Li Jing Ye stepping into the courtyard under the escort of eunuchs and guards.
The crowd promptly rose to their feet, paying their respects in unison.
The mansion, handpicked by Pei Ji for Li Zhi, was modest in its display, slightly more spacious than the average wealthy residence in Chang’an, but noticeably smaller in comparison to the grand mansions of noble houses.
In an instant, dozens of people rushed in, causing the once spacious courtyard and halls to suddenly feel somewhat crowded.
Seated on the couch, Li Jing Ye left an empty space beside him. Casting his gaze around with a smile, he uttered, “Please rise, everyone. Today is a joyful occasion for Wei Peng. I am here to join in the festivities, so there is no need for formalities. Let everything proceed as usual.”
With a signal, he instructed He Yuan Shi to present the carefully prepared lavish gifts. Then, his eyes lingered on the familiar figure of Li Zhi. “Li-niang, come to my side.”
Simultaneously, everyone stood up, their gazes converging upon Li Zhi as if drawn by an invisible force.
Li Zhi looked at the outstretched hand, a few feet away. She paused for a moment, then replaced her expression with a dignified smile and walked gracefully, gently placing her hand in his palm.
His hand abruptly tightened, nearly squeezing her delicate fingers until they paled.
Calmly, she sat beside Li Jing Ye on the couch, her expression unchanged, silently observing the scene in the courtyard.
He Yuan Shi gestured for the wedding ceremony to proceed. The previously paused melodies and the calls of the ceremonial attendants resonated once again.
Throughout, Li Jing Ye maintained a firm grasp on Li Zhi’s hand, unwilling to loosen his hold in the slightest.
“Li-niang, during this month, I have longed for your presence,” he confessed. His touch gently traced patterns on her hand, imbued with a soothing sense.
“I am aware that there is lingering resentment in your heart. If it were not for me—” He paused, his words hanging in the air, “you would now be the Princess Consort, the legitimate wife of the Sixth Prince. But by choosing to follow me, you can only be the Noble Consort, unable to hold the title of my Empress.”
“I must adhere to the Late Emperor’s teachings and cannot bestow the title of Empress in this lifetime. However, I promise you that after a hundred years, when we rest together in the imperial mausoleum, there will only be you by my side. And then, I will posthumously confer upon you the title of Empress, alright?”
Li Zhi remained silent, maintaining a composed smile on her face. Her gaze swept over the nearby Miao Yun, who occasionally glanced over with curiosity, and Lan Ying, who couldn’t help but look at her with concern.
Without betraying her emotions, she attempted to wrest her hand from his firm grasp. “Your Majesty, please join the audience and witness the ceremony.”
She was unwilling to mar Lan Ying’s wedding, forcing herself to suppress the frigid bitterness within.
Li Jing Ye averted his gaze towards her, gradually releasing his grip, allowing her to reclaim her hand.
As the ruler of the realm, he had made such an extraordinary promise. She must have comprehended the depths of his intentions by now, hadn’t she?
The two sat in dignified silence, their smiles masking their inner thoughts. They observed the wedding rituals in the courtyard without exchanging further words. Eunuchs stood at a respectful distance, discreetly maintaining a separation between the couple and the assembled guests.
As the ceremonial proceedings neared their conclusion, He Yuan Shi took two steps forward and addressed, “Your Majesty, Your Highness, General Pei has returned.”
Li Zhi’s heart skipped a beat.
There, at the grand entrance, emerged a familiar and gallant figure. It was none other than General Pei, his attire impeccable, betraying no sign of the hurried journey from beyond the city walls.
Uncertain why, Li Zhi felt an indescribable stir upon witnessing his expressionless stride, and when their gazes fleetingly locked, the suppressed chill within her heart transformed into a delicate pang of sorrow, yearning to escape.
She discreetly pinched her fingertips, swiftly lowering her eyes, concealing that fleeting moment of peculiarity.
Meanwhile, Li Jing Ye’s laughter resounded, breaking the silence. “Word reached me of your imminent return a few days prior, but little did I anticipate your arrival today. After enduring the hardships of travel, have you not considered resting at home for a day before venturing forth?”
“In carrying out tasks for Your Majesty, I dare not claim fatigue,” Pei Ji respectfully bowed, his gaze lowered to the ground as his voice turned dry. “Furthermore, there is someone of importance here, which compelled my attendance.”
Li Zhi swiftly cast a fleeting glance at him before diverting her gaze.
Li Jing Ye glanced at Wei Peng, who had completed his salutations, and then turned his attention to Pei Ji. A smile played on his lips as he spoke, “Indeed, Colonel Wei is under your command. His merits have earned your esteem. Go and greet him first.”
Pei Ji nodded in agreement and, accompanied by Shi Quan, who carried the congratulatory gift, made his way to extend felicitations to Wei Peng, who was raising his cup in celebration.
Before long, Wei Peng and Lan Ying approached once again, expressing their gratitude to Li Jing Ye and Li Zhi. Following that, Lan Ying was guided to the bridal chamber.
The courtyard began to buzz with the harmony of music and the lively conversations of the guests. Observing this, Li Jing Ye signaled for everyone to loosen up and enjoy themselves. He then led Li Zhi to a secluded spot within the inner courtyard.
Pei Ji had initially engaged in conversation with Wei Peng and the other guests, but upon seeing the situation, he made a brief pause before finding an excuse to follow them.
Along the meandering corridor, Li Zhi stood by the pillar, her face devoid of emotion as she silently gazed at the crescent moon in the heavens above.
The palace attendants had been temporarily dismissed, and Li Jing Ye stood beside her. Illuminated by the gentle moonlight and the soft glow of lanterns, he carefully studied the shape of her profile. It felt as though the missing piece within his heart had been finally filled.
Taking a few steps closer, he reached out and embraced her, drawing her into the warmth of his embrace. His nose gently brushed against the crown of her head, inhaling the lingering fragrance that clung to her being.
“Li-niang, come back with me. I will never backtrack on the words I spoke earlier.”
Li Zhi remained silent for a moment, gradually extricating herself from his embrace. She gazed at him expressionlessly.
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