At the Noble Consort’s Feet Chapter 81

Chapter 81 Self-disturbance

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On the next day, while greeting his grandmother and mother, Pei Ji took the chance to mention that he had to return to the palace for night duty.

The Grand Princess, who usually paid no attention to his official matters, suddenly waved her hand and said, “No need to go. I have already arranged for Shi Quan to take your leave on your behalf. Later, pay a visit to Furong Garden and play polo with Eleventh Young Master Li and Eight Young Master Yang.”

“Mother, everything is well. How could I neglect my official duties and engage in leisure at this time? Playing poli can be done at any other time, so why the sudden urge to go now?” Pei Ji was perplexed, furrowing his brow as he looked at his mother with disagreement.

The Grand Princess and Madam Pei exchanged a brief glance, then coughed gently. The Grand Princess continued, “A few days ago, when I accompanied your grandmother to visit the ailing Empress Dowager in the palace, I observed her deteriorating condition. I thought of enlivening the Dragon Boat Festival by organizing a polo match at Qingsi Hall, inviting young gentlemen like yourself. It would bring joy to the Empress Dowager’s heart. Your mother was also concerned that if you were engrossed in official matters all day long, your polo skills might decline. Thus, she arranged this opportunity for you to practice.”

In reality, what she said was not entirely false. The palace banquet during the Dragon Boat Festival was indeed intended to uplift the spirits of the Empress Dowager. However, there was an undisclosed ulterior motive—many of the invited young gentlemen and ladies were unmarried, and it was no secret that this gathering presented an opportunity for them to appraise one another.

Her son had skillfully evaded the topic of marriage on several occasions, leaving her hesitant to speak directly. Though she hadn’t resorted to lies just now, an unexplainable sense of unease gnawed at her heart.

Pei Ji narrowed his eyes as he gazed at her, harboring lingering doubts.

Madam Pei, aware of her grandson’s discerning mind, wore a serious expression. “Alright, Third Son,” she said, “Your mother has the best intentions. While your official duties hold paramount importance, we must not overlook the obligation to show reverence to the Empress Dowager. Your mother understands this well and would never allow any negligence in matters of consequence. Today, heed her advice and depart swiftly.”

Confronted with his grandmother’s words, he found himself unable to further decline. Thus, he masked the disappointment and suspicion brewing within him, bowing respectfully before taking his leave.

With his departure, the Grand Princess released a sigh of relief and grasped her mother-in-law’s hand. “Thank the heavens we have you, Mother. Otherwise, I would be defenseless against his persistent inquiries.”

Pei Ji, now frequently traversing the corridors of power, shouldered increasingly weighty responsibilities on his outings. Despite his youthful age, his aura and commanding presence rivalled those of more senior officials.

Madam Pei shook her head with a hint of resignation. “That child, if we don’t keep it from him in advance, who knows what excuse he would come up with to avoid going? You, on that day, must observe him closely. As he is now, apart from his handsome face, there is little else that would charm a young lady.”

“Indeed, at such a tender age, he resembles a wooden block, difficult to fathom who he takes after. I used to believe he held someone dear in his heart, but after waiting for so long, it turns out he is just like his father, consumed by official duties day in and day out.”

The mother-in-law and daughter-in-law scolded him in the room for quite some time. Later, they jointly deliberated on the need for him to dress resplendently on that day, hoping to capture attention. It wasn’t until the hour of curfew, when he returned from Furong Garden to pay his respects, that their reproach ceased.

During the night, Chun Yue arranged hot water, a handkerchief, and other grooming essentials in the room before retiring to rest.

Left alone in the sleeping quarters, Li Zhi immersed herself in a book, occasionally glancing at the ticking of the clock.

It was now the end of the month, and it was Pei Ji’s turn to perform his night duty in the palace.

Having had no opportunity to meet for several days, based on her past experiences, she expected him to come today.

For some unknown reason, tonight she lacked her usual calmness. Though she held a book in her hands, she couldn’t resist repeatedly checking the hourglass. Even her heart skipped a beat now and then, and if she lost focus for a moment, she would become lost in her thoughts.

Deciding to put aside the book, she rose from her seat and knelt by the incense table. From a small box, she selected a piece of exotic incense, contemplating placing it into the censer. However, halfway through the motion, she hesitated, pausing for a brief moment, before eventually returning the incense to its box.

After all, they hadn’t made any prior arrangements. If he didn’t come, wouldn’t it be a waste of this precious incense?

The water in the hourglass continued its gradual descent, prompting Li Zhi to refocus her attention. She lifted the book once again, reading it meticulously, striving to maintain unwavering concentration.

Fortunately, she possessed considerable self-discipline. She managed to regain her composure and read until the second quarter-hour of the hour of the Pig, when her eyes began to feel weary. It was only then that she gently set the book aside, extinguished the lamp, and retired for the night.

In the darkness, she gazed at the ceiling for a moment before slowly closing her eyes. A faint sense of disappointment briefly fluttered through her heart before dissipating.

He didn’t come. Perhaps he was preoccupied with something.

But what did it matter to her? She was accustomed to being alone, and she shouldn’t allow herself to be disturbed by such trivial matters.

The Dragon Boat Festival arrived swiftly. Out of consideration for the Empress Dowager’s well-being, the palace banquet was arranged during the daytime.

The day boasted clear skies and radiant sunshine, casting its brilliance upon the spacious polo field outside the Qingsi Hall. The field had been meticulously prepared, with seats and stands arranged in anticipation of the festivities.

Mature women, accompanied by their young daughters-in-law, found their place together, engaging in light-hearted conversations and laughter. The young ladies, resplendent in their vibrant attire, dazzled the surroundings. They huddled in small groups, discussing garments and jewelry, occasionally stealing glances towards the field.

Within the field, several young gentlemen, adorned in their robes, confidently mounted their horses and tested their skills with polo sticks. With each forceful swing, the ball found its mark, skillfully striking the goal, evoking joyous exclamations from the young ladies.

Accompanied by his mother, Pei Ji walked along the path leading to the outskirts of Qingsi Hall. Upon seeing the scene unfolding before him, how could he remain oblivious to the meaning behind his parents’ and grandmother’s recent peculiar behavior?

Naturally taciturn and rarely given to smiling, his countenance grew even colder upon witnessing the situation.

Amidst the crowd, several young ladies caught sight of his arrival within the field. Gathering together, they exchanged a few murmured words, causing a flurry of glances to be directed his way—some bashful and timid, while others filled with ardent admiration.

Previously, it was a rarity for young ladies to openly gaze at him in such a manner. Firstly, he possessed a captivating appearance, yet his demeanor remained consistently detached, exuding an aura imbued with martial prowess. Secondly, he was the man who had captured the interest of the Princess of Wuyang, a fact that deterred anyone from challenging her affections.

However, now that the princess had long since married, and today’s gathering was an unspoken understanding among all, there was naturally less need for restraint.

As the mother and son duo prepared to move forward, a gentle sound of footsteps resonated from the nearby path. Their attention turned towards the sound, revealing Li Zhi walking without the accompaniment of a carriage. She strolled leisurely, flanked by two palace maids.

The two groups encountered each other directly, causing all movement to cease simultaneously.

“Grand Princess, General,” Li Zhi greeted them with a nod and a smile.

The Grand Princess reciprocated the smile with her own.

Pei Ji stood behind his mother, his gaze momentarily flickering. In a discreet gesture, he gently pinched his left index finger, striving to restrain his gaze from lingering excessively upon her figure.

On that particular day, he had originally planned to pay her a visit in the palace. However, due to a sudden decision by his mother and grandmother, he was dispatched to Furong Garden for a game of ball. Unfortunately, it wasn’t feasible for him to personally explain the circumstances to her, leaving him unsure if she might harbor any resentment.

Anxiously weighing his thoughts, he observed her unaffected expression, a smile adorning her lips as she gracefully departed, making her way towards her designated seat.

An overwhelming sense of melancholy swept over him, knitting his brows as he prepared to step forward. Yet, before he could proceed, a firm grip seized his arm.

Stepping back, the Grand Princess scrutinized him intently, her gaze traversing every inch of his form. Finally, she fixed her eyes upon his cold and impassive face, her disapproval apparent as she voiced her dissent, “Third Son, with your current demeanor, not even a lady would dare to draw near.”

Pei Ji, who had always been reluctant to participate in such gatherings, his mind preoccupied with thoughts of Li Zhi, fell into an even deeper silence upon hearing her words. His countenance remained devoid of emotion as he fixated his gaze upon his mother.

A hint of disappointment flashed across the Grand Princess’s face. Hastily, she waved her hand, dismissing her previous remarks, “Never mind, never mind. It’s good that you’ve come. Just focus on the game later and spare me any embarrassment.”

“Understood,” Pei Ji replied in a subdued tone, stealing a fleeting glance towards Li Zhi, who stood not too far away. Only then did he proceed, trailing behind his mother.

On the opposite side, Li Zhi moved with poise, navigating the crowd’s inquisitive and appraising gazes. With unwavering composure, she took her place on the appointed seat, her eyes fixed straight ahead.

Though there were still numerous individuals offering their greetings, their demeanor lacked the previous deference and reverence.

Unfazed, she accepted each salutation gracefully. Her gaze alternated between observing the proceedings unfolding in the vicinity and engaging in conversation with Chun Yue and Qing Zi.

“So, today’s Dragon Boat Festival gathering has an underlying purpose,” she realized, even though nobody had explicitly elucidated it to her beforehand. “No wonder it was scheduled during broad daylight.”

Qing Zi cast a glance at the resplendent rays of sunlight overhead, and smiled. “Indeed, if it were held at night, one would struggle to discern facial features clearly. The radiance of the midday sun is incomparable.”

On the other side, Chun Yue’s expression was less favorable. She discreetly tugged at Li Zhi’s sleeve and exchanged a meaningful glance with the Grand Princess and Pei Ji across the way.

Li Zhi cast a swift glance at Pei Ji before swiftly averting her gaze, offering a gentle smile while subtly shaking her head in response.

Naturally, Pei Ji accompanied the Grand Princess to observe the gathering of these young ladies.

Initially, she experienced a tinge of surprise, followed by a fleeting moment of uncertainty and disappointment. However, as she settled into her seat, a faint sense of remorse began to emerge.

Having spent more time in his company, she gradually acquired the ability to discern subtle shifts beneath his stoic countenance, sensing the undercurrents of various emotions.

Even with a brief and cursory glance, she could already discern his displeasure and restlessness beside the Grand Princess. It was apparent that he had little desire to be present at this banquet.

If he had never harbored such sentiments, then even amidst the persuasion of their parents and elders, it would be of no consequence. However, if his resistance stemmed from her, wouldn’t it become her own failing?

She had no intention of impeding his personal journey.

Lost in her thoughts, Li Zhi was once again interrupted as the people around her rose to pay their respects. Lifting her gaze, she spotted Pure Consort Xiao approaching with a gentle smile, accompanied by a wet nurse who cradled the infant in her arms—a child who had recently reached the milestone of one hundred days.

Their eyes met, and in unison, they nodded as a sign of mutual acknowledgment.

Li Zhi’s gaze instinctively fell upon the tiny form nestled within the swaddled blankets, her curiosity piqued.

Despite being born prematurely and having experienced bouts of illness, the child possessed an enchanting delicacy. With rosy cheeks and a round, healthy face, there was no trace of weakness. Evidently, the child had been well cared for.

The baby’s bright eyes surveyed their surroundings, until they finally settled upon Li Zhi. With animated gestures and a contagious giggle, the baby welcomed her presence.

Observing this, Pure Consort Xiao graciously handed her son over and asked Li Zhi, “Would you like to hold him, Noble Consort?”

Li Zhi paused for a moment, then nodded and extended her hands, a warm smile adorning her face. With the guidance of the wet nurse, she cradled the baby’s bottom with one hand and supported his neck with the other, displaying both caution and a genuine sense of curiosity.

The child’s wide, curious eyes locked onto Li Zhi’s bright and expressive gaze, their tiny hands waving with uncontained joy, and their babbling filled the air, adding an extra layer of adorableness.

“This child has been blessed with such excellent care. I can only imagine how diligently the Pure Consort tends to him,” Li Zhi commented appreciatively.

Respecting boundaries, Li Zhi refrained from holding the child for too long, gently returning them to the waiting embrace of the wet nurse.

Speaking of her son, the Pure Consort’s face radiated affection. “Indeed, he arrived earlier than anticipated, causing me endless worry. But fortunately, he is a resilient child, growing healthier and stronger with each passing day.”

As her words subsided, Li Zhi noticed the assembled guests rising from their seats, bowing in unison to show their respect.

Li Zhi stood up and followed the collective gaze, discovering that Li Jing Ye had quietly escorted the Empress Dowager to the gathering. He stood there, seemingly lost in a daze, his eyes fixed on her with a mixture of bewilderment and melancholy.

Suppressing her smile, Li Zhi consciously avoided his gaze, instead joining the others in humbly lowering her head and performing the customary bow of deference.

Unintentionally caught in his thoughts, Li Jing Ye failed to prompt the expected response.

A momentary hush fell upon the gathering, broken only by a gentle cough from the Empress Dowager, jolting him back to reality.

Casting a casual glance around, Li Jing Ye raised his hand, signaling for everyone to rise, before offering his support to the Empress Dowager as they ascended to their elevated seats.

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