Chapter 72 Opportunity
His recent assurances, instead of providing solace, sent a shiver down her spine.
She had no interest in becoming an Empress, so how could his promise to bestow the title of Empress posthumously bring her any joy or excitement?
Besides, the memory of the recently departed Worthy Consort Xu lingered in her thoughts each passing day.
The unfortunate fate of Worthy Consort Xu weighed heavily on her. Even on her deathbed, she couldn’t shake off the shame and regret for her past actions, haunted by the wisdom imparted by her elders. Now, as she took her final breath, all she gained was the superficial honor of a posthumous Empress.
It occurred to her that Li Jing Ye’s decision to posthumously honor her had little to do with sincere remorse for Worthy Consort’s plight.
His intentions merely aimed to alleviate the slight unease troubling his own conscience.
What lay ahead for her in the days to come?
She believed in his ability to fulfill the promises made today.
It all came down to that fateful day beneath the city walls of Fufeng when a white silk cord would bring an end to her life, her remains to rest in the embrace of sandy earth, quelling not only his own anger but also the fury of his subjects and warriors.
Once the tribulations were surmounted, peril transformed into safety, he would feign profound emotions, forever cherishing her memory, bestowing posthumous honors upon her—provided, of course, he truly triumphed over the challenges.
Given such an outcome, what justified an overwhelming sense of gratitude?
Amidst the shadows, Li Jing Ye’s gaze fixed upon her face, its allure ever-shifting and enigmatic, causing an inexplicable unease to grip his heart.
Gripping one of her hands, he peered intently into her face through the veil of the moonlit night. “Li-niang, why don’t you speak?”
Li Zhi glanced at the hand he held, while her other hand, discreetly at her side, tightened its grip, her slender nails digging deep into her palm.
For a brief moment, she cast her eyes downward, releasing a light, feigned laughter. Pretending nonchalance, she casually withdrew her hand and slightly shifted her stance, ensuring he remained oblivious to the almost uncontainable abhorrence hidden beneath her gaze.
“Your Majesty is the Son of Heaven, such measures are truly unnecessary. Even without your earlier words, I would willingly return to the palace with you.”
Her voice remained calm, devoid of any oddity.
Li Jing Ye studied her for a moment, gradually easing the grip on his apprehensive heart.
In the end, she possessed the astuteness to discern the depths of his sentiments.
A contented smile gradually graced his composed face. He extended his hand once again to embrace her, lowering his head to kiss her lips.
Li Zhi closed her eyes, her fingertips tightly pinched, standing unmoving, allowing him to proceed unhindered.
Within the expanse of the elongated corridor, whispers of the night breeze intertwined with the mirthful laughter and melodic strains emanating from the courtyard.
After a considerable pause, Li Jing Ye slowly eased his grip, but his hands remained securely encircling her waist, his profound gaze wordlessly tracing every contour of her form.
“Li-niang, I miss you very much.”
His customary mellifluous voice carried a faint huskiness, seemingly suppressing a burgeoning turmoil.
Li Zhi lifted her gaze, locking eyes with him, attempting to formulate a response to his words, only to feel a lingering obstruction within her throat.
Luckily, he remained oblivious to her inner struggle, inclining his head to leave a tender kiss upon her ear.
He Yuan Shi silently drew near, stopping at a distance of two feet, respectfully bowing and gently reminding, “Your Majesty, it is time to return to the palace. There is an imperial court session tomorrow.”
The Emperor couldn’t casually spend the night outside, especially in this newly built residence of a low-ranking Colonel. With curfew approaching, it was time for him to return to the palace.
Li Jing Ye held her hand firmly. “Let’s go, accompany me back to the palace.”
Li Zhi’s body tensed, instinctively wanting to retract her hand.
“What’s the matter?” He halted his steps, squinting at her.
“Your Majesty,” she mustered her utmost effort to wear the same docile smile as before, meeting his gaze directly, “I have promised to accompany my elder sister in her marriage.”
“The ceremonial rites have been completed. Your elder sister is now considered married,” he responded calmly, his tone revealing hints of strain and discontent.
Li Zhi clenched her teeth, tilting her head softly as she pleaded, “Just for this one night. Tomorrow morning, I will return. Once you finish the morning court session, you can see me again. Is that acceptable?”
In truth, it was merely a single night, seemingly inconsequential. Yet, for reasons unknown, she hesitated to accompany him back at this moment.
“Young General Pei has also returned,” she suggested, attempting to ease his worries. “Your Majesty, if you still have concerns, you could have him accompany me back to the palace tomorrow. How does that sound?”
Li Jing Ye gazed at her for a prolonged moment before exhaling a sigh, reluctantly agreeing, “Very well, I will abide by your wishes.”
Naturally, he didn’t want her to stay outside the palace any longer, especially since he had personally come to fetch her but was still rejected. His heart felt a mix of dissatisfaction and disappointment, and a sense of restlessness seemed to emerge.
However, having only just mended their relationship, he didn’t wish to create an impression of pettiness. Hence, he reluctantly gave his consent.
Observing his reluctance, Li Zhi took the initiative to grasp his hand and smiled, attempting to alleviate his concerns.
Li Jing Ye’s face relaxed, and after observing her for a moment, he suddenly chuckled. “I recall you used to fear Zi Hui greatly. Why has that fear dissipated?”
Li Zhi’s heart skipped a beat, but her outward demeanor remained composed. She gently bit her lip and softly uttered, “Naturally, the fear still lingers, but Your Majesty trusts him…”
He Yuan Shi refrained from urging them any further. Instead, he subtly raised his head, stealing a glance at the visible sky within Li Jing Ye’s line of sight.
Taking notice, Li Jing Ye refrained from further inquiry.
“If you’re reluctant to have Zi Hui accompany you back to the palace, then request him to assign another deputy. His competence in handling matters is reassuring to me.” With a gentle grasp of her hand, he planted a kiss near her lips. “I will eagerly await your return tomorrow.”
Li Zhi nodded, her unwavering gaze fixed on him until she witnessed his return through the corridor, heading back to the festivities in the courtyard. Only after hearing the reverberating sounds of farewells from others did she take two steps back, leaning against the adjacent pillar.
However, the touch of the pillar she anticipated, cold and unyielding, never materialized.
Behind her, a familiar and broad embrace appeared silently, enveloping her tightly.
The man’s heavy breath brushed past her ear, carrying an imperceptible weight.
He remained silent, seemingly exerting great restraint. Only his arms, firmly wrapped around her, tightened progressively, as if he intended to merge her into his own body.
She felt a pang of pain and struggled to breathe, but she didn’t push him away. Instead, she slightly turned her head and softly called out, “You’ve returned.”
At the sound of her voice, he swiftly spun her around, firmly pressing her against the pillar. Without hesitation, he seized her lips in a passionate kiss.
Gazing at the crescent moon in the sky, she slowly opened her eyes. Extending her arms, she tenderly embraced his neck.
Curfew was about to begin, and the streets were bustling with people coming and going.
However, this particular stretch of road, reserved for the Emperor’s carriage, remained empty. It had already been cleared by the guards earlier, creating a stark contrast to the busy intertwining paths on either side.
Seated inside the carriage, Li Jing Ye’s gaze involuntarily drifted towards a wooden box, containing a pair of coral peony white jade bracelets. His face darkened, unable to hide the weight of his thoughts.
Those bracelets were specially commissioned for Li Zhi, with the intention of personally adorning her with them during their journey back. However, she was absent.
The cavity in his heart, once filled, now felt vacant once again. Disappointment and restlessness surged, threatening to overpower him, as the burden grew increasingly difficult to bear.
His lips pursed tightly, while he massaged his temple, revealing signs of exhaustion.
He Yuan Shi carefully studied him for a moment, then lowered his voice and asked, “Your Majesty, the elixirs prepared by Heavenly Master Yuan are still in my possession—”
Li Jing Ye cast a fleeting glance at the wooden box cradled in his hands, a trace of hesitation flickering in his gaze. With a wave of his hand, he spoke, “No need, let it remain as it is.”
Lately, he had sensed a slight improvement in his well-being, no longer relying on Imperial Physician Zhang’s prescriptions. However, he remained torn, contemplating the elixir secretly offered by the Immortal Ancestor Yuan.
Since his childhood, he had been groomed to become an enlightened sovereign. Upon his designation as the Crown Prince, the Grand Tutor had cautioned him about the countless monarchs throughout history who, in their pursuit of longevity, had become ensnared in esoteric practices, ultimately forsaking their governance duties and succumbing to decline.
He held disdain for those “loyal and upright old ministers” who had been ever-present, their words echoing with reminders of the “proper path of rulership”, while meticulously monitoring his every move.
Once, he had confided his frustrations to his mother, who had offered solace by affirming that upon ascending the throne as Emperor, he would wield the greatest power in the realm. At that time, no one would dare impede his decisions.
Yet, until this day, he remained unable to break free from their shackles.
Should he indeed consume the elixir, and were they to discover it, he dreaded the daily barrage of counsel that would follow. Even though his intention was not to seek immortality, among those officials, some harbored an ardent devotion to Buddhist or Taoist beliefs.
With growing restlessness in his heart, he couldn’t help but wave his hand dismissively at He Yuan Shi. “Go, instruct them to hurry.”
He Yuan Shi followed the order and departed, only to return shortly after with news, “Your Majesty, it appears that Fourth Miss Zhong is ahead, seemingly awaiting Your Majesty’s arrival. She seems to have an important matter to report.”
In theory, both sides of the road should have been cleared, devoid of any commoners. However, since Fourth Miss Zhong had joined the gathering moments ago and her identity as a cousin to the Noble Consort was widely known, no one dared to forcibly remove her. Furthermore, it seemed that she had something to inform His Majesty. Hence, they sent someone back to seek clarification from He Yuan Shi.
He Yuan Shi remained cautious, bearing in mind the encounters they had experienced within the palace before. Overcoming a fleeting hesitation, he stepped forward to inquire further.
“It’s her again.” Li Jing Ye’s face darkened, a cold sneer escaping his lips. “Ignore her and go straight past.”
He Yuan Shi received the command and was about to leave, but was halted.
“You mentioned that she had something to report?”
“Yes, it was deemed inappropriate to make it public during the wedding ceremony, hence it wasn’t directly mentioned.”
Li Jing Ye let out a cold snort, his hand resting on his knee involuntarily rubbing the fabric. “Bring her over.”
The carriage slowed down, and Miao Yun was led to its side.
The carriage curtain remained undisturbed as the Emperor’s composed voice permeated through, “If you have something to report to me, do so promptly.”
Miao Yun bit her lip, her expression inscrutable as she glanced at the spacious and splendid carriage before taking a couple of steps closer. Standing outside the carriage wall, she whispered, “Your Majesty, the matter I wish to discuss is not suitable for others to hear. I beseech Your Majesty to allow me to explain it carefully inside the carriage.”
Miao Yun could almost imagine the young Emperor looking at her with the same disdainful gaze he had previously. However, she was unwilling to retreat. She wanted to take a gamble.
She envied Third Sister and longed to become an esteemed figure like her. However, the current situation of the Zhong family hindered her progress.
Despite the Zhong family being bestowed noble titles and rising as a prominent lineage within Chang’an, she no longer found common officials’ offspring suitable matches. She was expected to marry a talented youth from a similarly esteemed background.
Nevertheless, even within the grand premises of the Duke’s mansion, genuine high-ranking families were reluctant to negotiate marriage proposals. The occasional suitors who came forward merely aimed to secure her as a concubine.
Their dismissive attitudes stemmed solely from their reservations regarding the Zhong family’s noble title.
She refused to accept the role of a lowly concubine, subjected to disdainful treatment. Earning the Emperor’s favor became her most favorable path moving forward.
However, her chances of meeting the Emperor were few and far between. It was only through the radiance of Third Sister that she could get slightly closer. Obtaining an opportunity like today was not easy, and even if she had to endure humiliation, she couldn’t let it slip away.
After a brief interval, a faint voice resonated from within the carriage, “Come inside.”
The carriage curtain was lifted by a eunuch, unveiling a man leaning against the headrest, his face chilled and aloof.
Miao Yun clenched her fist, then gradually released her grip. Holding her skirts, she stepped onto the footstool, ascending the carriage one deliberate step at a time.
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