Chapter 8 Inner Fire
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As the curfew hour drew near, the streets of most neighborhoods were deserted, with scarce signs of life. Only in Pingkang District, the lights shone brightly, and the air was filled with the alluring scents of perfume and the sounds of laughter and music. The comings and goings of people were incessant, creating a bustling scene.
Pei Ji arrived at Yunlai Pavilion in Pingkang District, and found Li Jing Hui sitting alone in a private room, lost in his own thoughts. The table was adorned with the remnants of Dukang wine, and Li Jing Hui was squinting and muttering to himself, already under the influence of intoxication.
Seated in the outer room, a songstress cradled a pipa in her arms, her voice resonating with a captivating melody. As soon as she caught sight of Pei Ji’s entrance, she was about to rise and offer her respects, but he gestured for her to remain seated with a wave of his hand.
The music abruptly ceased, bringing Li Jing Ye back to his senses from his drunken stupor. He glanced at Pei Ji, who was approaching with a furrowed brow, then cast a gaze towards the vacant spot where the songstress had been. Struggling to steady himself, he leaned on the table, attempting to rise. “No wonder the music stopped. It’s you, Zi Hui.”
Pei Ji noticed Li Jing Hui’s unsteady state, and his brow furrowed with concern as he approached and extended his hand to assist him back to his seat.
“Your Highness, you’re already this intoxicated, do you still require my company?”
Li Jing Hui waved his hand and forced a bitter smile at his cousin in front of him. “I came here today with the intention to express my gratitude for the blow you delivered yesterday. Without it, Li-niang would have suffered because of me…”
Pei Ji laughed inwardly as he looked at the appearance of his cousin in front of him, resembling another cousin in the palace.
He no longer addressed him as “Your Highness” and asked with a furrowed brow, “Sixth Brother, why go to such lengths for a woman? She has already forgotten about you since she followed His Majesty!”
“Nonsense!” Li Jing Hui immediately wanted to argue. “Li-niang was coerced, it was His Majesty… sigh, why wasn’t I born a few years earlier than my elder brother? If only today…”
His voice grew softer and softer, and he stopped halfway through his words, slumping onto the desk as if muttering absentmindedly, but it sent a chill down Pei Ji’s spine.
Such words must not be heard by others. If it reaches His Majesty’s ears, their brotherly bond of twenty years might truly come to an end.
Pei Ji rubbed his temples wearily, wishing he could capture that calamity from Wangxian Temple and expose her true identity to both His Majesty and Prince Rui!
The Yunlai Pavilion was filled with people talking loudly, and it was no longer a place for him to stay. He quickly commanded Shi Quan to settle the bill and summoned the guards of Prince Rui who were stationed outside the gate. “His Highness is intoxicated. Escort him to my private residence for rest.”
His private residence, known as the Peaceful Dwelling, was located in Pingkang District. With the city under curfew and no possibility of returning to his mansion, he decided to spend the night there.
The two guards immediately obeyed and supported the Prince as they descended the stairs and helped him onto the waiting carriage.
Pei Ji did not ride a horse, but sat in the carriage with his eyes closed, resting.
The carriage rattled as it navigated through the busy market, and a sudden thud caught Li Jing Hui’s attention as an object fell onto the floor, rolling towards his hand.
Feeling disoriented and groggy from the jolting of the carriage, Li Jing Hui reached out and touched a cold object, bringing it closer to examine, “Zi Hui, is this… a hand cream?”
Pei Ji opened his eyes and glanced at the jade-colored porcelain box in Li Jing Hui’s hand, pursing his lips before nodding in confirmation, “Hmm.”
Just as Pei Ji was about to retrieve the porcelain box, Li Jing Hui beat him to it, opening it to reveal a creamy ointment dotted with dried flower petals.
Despite his slightly drunken state, Li Jing Hui couldn’t help but be taken aback. “Zi Hui, when did you start using floral-scented ointment? Could it be a gift from a lady?”
“No,” Pei Ji’s heart tightened, and he denied it vaguely, swiftly taking back the porcelain box, closing it and tucking it back into his pouch. However, an image of a familiar woman flashed through his mind, her enigmatic smile seeming to mock him.
His Adam’s apple bobbed as he caught a whiff of the coral peony scent, and he inwardly cursed at the woman’s cunningness, even infiltrating such a trivial item.
The floral fragrance was reminiscent of the scent on her dress that day.
Li Jing Hui narrowed his eyes and chuckled softly, murmuring, “Thank goodness it’s not, otherwise Ling Yue would have thrown a fit…” He twitched his nose, a tinge of melancholy crossing his features. “This is coral peony. Li-niang also liked it…”
The lingering fragrance teased Pei Ji’s senses, and he pursed his lips, gazing at the sleeping Li Jing Hui with a complex swirl of emotions in his heart, even a faint sense of guilt.
In Wangxian Temple, Li Jing Ye released the captivating beauty from his embrace, and lifted the bed curtains as he ordered the palace maids to bring water.
Li Zhi reclined languidly on the bed, her gaze fixed on Li Jing Ye as he dressed with the assistance of the palace maids, her mind in a state of disarray.
The Emperor had left her weak and exhausted in the pavilion just moments ago, but now he seemed to be in high spirits, bringing her into Wangxian Temple for another round.
Midway, she caught a glimpse of darkness in Li Jing Ye’s eyes, as if he had made a resolute decision.
Her heart stirred with a faint sense of foreboding.
“Li-niang,” Li Jing Ye, already groomed and ready, sat by the bedside with a smile, lightly patting her cheek. “Go freshen up.”
Blushing, Li Zhi responded with a soft “Mmm,” and wrapped herself in the blanket before getting up, donning her clothes before heading to the adjacent clean room.
Li Jing Ye watched her retreating figure, then reclined against the soft pillow and beckoned to He Yuan Shi. With a serious tone, he issued an order, “Transfer Qian Yang and the others away.”
He Yuan Shi glanced at him discreetly, seemingly uncertain about the meaning behind his words. “Should they be transferred back to Zichen Hall?”
Li Jing Ye waved his hand and pointed towards the west, his voice barely above a whisper, “Send them back to Yeting Palace.”
He Yuan Shi hesitated for a moment before bowing respectfully, “Yes, Your Majesty.”
Yeting Palace was a place reserved for low-ranking maids and servants, and often used as a punishment for demoted officials’ families. Sending Qian Yang back to Yeting Palace carried a significant meaning.
The Emperor was generally lenient towards those around him, including Qian Yang. Despite her occasional arrogance, he had been indulgent towards her due to her loyalty. But suddenly transferring her away today, could it be for the sake of that woman? Who else could it be?
He Yuan Shi wiped his forehead and remained silent, listening to Li Jing Ye’s instruction, “Fetch the medicine.”
He carefully carried a jade bowl filled with a dark and warm medicinal concoction, placing it on a low table.
When Li Zhi emerged from the inner room, she saw Li Jing Ye dressed in loose robes and was leaning against the bed, reading a scroll. On the table beside him was a bowl of thick medicinal soup.
She paused for a moment before walking to his side and kneeling without a word.
Li Jing Ye put down his book and pulled her into his embrace, his voice gentle, “Tomorrow, I will have He Yuan Shi bring some new palace maids for you to choose from, to serve you personally.”
She smiled softly and nodded, saying, “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
He tenderly caressed her cheek and lifted the jade bowl from the side, bringing it to her lips with his own hand.
The rosy hue of her lips contrasted vividly against the jade bowl, causing his eyes to darken gradually.
She lowered her gaze and glanced at the swirling dark medicinal soup, but didn’t drink it directly. With a perplexed look, she raised her eyes, “Your Majesty?”
Li Jing Ye gazed deeply at her and spoke in his usual tone, “Li-niang, would you be willing to reside in Chenghuan Palace and officially accompany me from now on?”
A glimmer flashed in her eyes, and the word “no” choked in her throat. After a moment’s hesitation, it transformed into “yes.”
Li Jing Ye smiled warmly and caressed her hair. “Then go ahead and drink the medicine. Afterward, I will bestow upon you the title of Noble Consort, and everyone in the palace will have to show you reverence, understand?”
Her lips quivered slightly, and her almond-shaped eyes remained calm as water. “If I drink this medicine, will it hinder my chances of bearing a child?”
Li Jing Ye remained silent, guilt flickering in his eyes.
Her lips curled into a radiant smile as she eagerly swallowed the medicine from his hand.
“Your Majesty, please do not break your word.”
Li Jing Ye observed her composed demeanor, devoid of any signs of sadness, and felt a weight lifting from his chest.
“I always keep my word,” he murmured, tenderly wiping her lips with a handkerchief. He gently lowered her onto the bed and whispered, “Rest now, I won’t leave your side tonight.”
She obediently followed his lead and settled down beside him with grace.
The palace maids snuffed out the candles, one by one, and the door to the room closed quietly.
She lay on her back, her expression growing distant as she listened to the rhythmic and steady breaths of the man beside her.
She opened her eyes and stared at the dark ceiling, her mouth filled with the bitter aftertaste that left her sleepless.
Li Jing Ye’s silence spoke volumes. He didn’t deny it, implying his tacit agreement. That bowl of medicine was indeed the potion that would make it difficult for her to conceive.
This was exactly the same as what she had seen in her dream.
The woman in her dream had spent three years in the palace, showered with the Emperor’s favor, yet remained childless. It was all because the Emperor had administered that potion to her with his own hands.
However, that woman in the dream was innocent and pure, never harboring any resentment towards the Emperor, especially after becoming the envy of all. As the esteemed Noble Consort Zhong, she wholeheartedly relied on and attached herself to the Emperor.
But she was different.
She had never been a woman of virtue, and everything she did now was for her own sake.
She understood that Li Jing Ye’s actions were aimed at the Empress Dowager, silencing her opposition to her becoming a consort.
She also didn’t want to get pregnant. These past few months, she would be anxious before her monthly cycle, only feeling relieved when it arrived on schedule.
She was well aware that the medicines of this era, even if they came from the palace, were not foolproof. They might only temporarily affect her fertility due to her weakened physical condition. She believed that with proper care and attention, her reproductive abilities could be restored.
But that didn’t mean she was willing to sacrifice her inherent right as a woman to conceive and bear children in exchange for a position as a Noble Consort.
Her rights should not be easily taken away by others.
She cast a sidelong glance at the man sleeping beside her in silence. She began to feel that an invisible web of gold was silently closing in around her in the palace. The man and the overwhelming imperial power behind him were like heavy shackles, weighing on her neck and wrists, making her feel trapped.
She yearned for a sharp blade that could sever the shackles binding her, tear through the tightening web, and assist her in breaking free from it all.
And she believed she had found this blade.
In her dreams, she had seen him as a man of unwavering integrity, able to discern right from wrong with clarity, unlike the Li brothers.
This became evident in his subsequent actions, as he stood by her side during moments of crisis.
Despite his disagreement with many of Li Jing Ye’s actions, he still led twenty thousand elite Imperial Guards to protect his rear.
As the military governor of Hedong, he rallied a hundred thousand troops to his cause.
Although possessing the strength to challenge the Emperor and Prince Rui, he still chose to stand on Li Jing Ye’s side.
While Li Zhi didn’t necessarily agree with his defense of the so-called legitimate imperial power, in this era, loyalty to the ruler was considered the highest virtue.
What was truly remarkable was that in the enemy’s camp, faced with tens of thousands of people cursing her as the calamity of a fallen nation, he did not add insult to injury, but personally protected her and brought her back to Fufeng.
Even though he harbored deep aversion towards her.
It was evident that he possessed unwavering determination and a clear sense of right and wrong, once he set his mind to something, nothing could shake him.
Such resoluteness was exactly what she needed in her dire situation.
In the midst of the chaos three years later, she knew that if she could evoke even a trace of compassion in him, she might have a chance to escape with his help.
However, he was unlike any other man she had encountered. Even that glimmer of compassion required her to use all her cunning and wit.
After several careful tests, she keenly perceived a flicker of warmth in his heart.
But it was not enough.
In the darkness, she clenched her fingertips tightly.
She believed that no one was flawless and invulnerable. Before moving away from Wangxian Temple, she had to do something more.
It was already the latter half of the night, and the residence was shrouded in silence.
Pei Ji woke up from a nightmare, sitting up abruptly from his bed, drenched in sweat, breathing heavily.
There was a dampness under the brocade quilt, reminding him of his vivid dream just now.
He had just turned nineteen this year, and would be of age next year. It was not surprising for a young man in his prime to have such dreams at night.
However, in his previous dreams, those women were just vague images without name or face. But today, it had turned into that calamitous woman from the Wangxian Temple!
He remembered it clearly. In his dream, she was standing in the pavilion by the Taiye Pool. Silk curtains fluttered gently around her, adding to her ethereal presence. Her attire was delicate and revealing, with fiery red lips that exuded an irresistible allure. With a lazy yet graceful gesture, she extended her hand, as beautiful as jade, and plucked the dewy petals of a coral peony that adorned her hair.
She held the scattered petals in her hand, and a soft sigh escaped her red lips.
The petals danced and twirled, carrying a faint fragrance as they flew towards him, filling the air with their delicate aroma…
On this sultry summer night, Pei Ji’s heart turned icy cold.
He closed his eyes slightly, sitting cross-legged, intending to recite some scriptures to calm his mind.
But even before he could find peace, the name “Lian Zhen” flashed in his mind.
The words “ice-clear and pure jade” suddenly ignited a fire in his heart.
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