Chapter 82 Lychee
The Emperor and Empress Dowager took their seats, and the rest followed suit, taking their assigned places at the table without fanfare or fuss.
The banquet held today boasted a greater attendance of guests with royal ties and a larger number of female companions. This made for a relaxed atmosphere, allowing guests to indulge and savor the moment without the usual stuffy protocols.
Despite her frail appearance, the Empress Dowager’s face lit up with a bright smile, rejuvenated by the liveliness of the young suitors and brides-to-be present at the banquet.
The Grand Princess sat near her, and the two occasionally exchanged words while subtly appraising the young ladies in attendance, as if already considering which among them would make an ideal match for Pei Ji.
The games planned for the day were of the traditional sport of polo, with three rounds scheduled. The first round featured mainly younger players, around the ages of fifteen or sixteen, to enliven the mood and provide an opportunity for the next generation of nobles to shine.
In the martial Wei dynasty, it was imperative to possess impeccable polo skills.
The competition had already begun, and the spectators were engrossed in watching the players on the field. The earlier tension, which had been due to the presence of the Emperor and the Empress Dowager, had dissipated, and the crowd was now getting into the spirit of the game. Some were on edge, some were cheering, and others were sighing.
Soon after, the game came to a close, and a guard announced the winning team in a booming voice. The triumphant players stepped forward amidst the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd to receive the rewards that had been prepared for the Emperor and the Empress Dowager.
During the break, several eunuchs carried in a massive wooden box and set it down in front of the Emperor and the Empress Dowager.
The lid of the box was lifted, revealing a bed of crushed ice that was releasing a cool mist in the hot weather. The ice was bedecked with a layer of fresh lychees, nearly a hundred of them, plump and succulent, some red, some green, and others still adorned with a stem and leaves. The crowd’s eyes were immediately drawn to the sight.
With a smile, He Yuan Shi stepped forward and announced, “Your Majesty, these are fresh lychees brought from Lingnan. They are best enjoyed while they are still fresh, so I have taken the liberty of having them delivered straight to today’s banquet.”
“Indeed, lychees are best eaten fresh. Please put them on a plate.” Li Jing Ye nodded in agreement as he gazed at the two plates of lychees that had been swiftly prepared and presented to him. As he turned to the side, he spoke out, “Li-niang—”
As soon as this name was spoken, he realized what he had said and stopped himself, feeling annoyed.
In the past, whenever something new arrived in the palace, his first thought was always of her. But now he must be cautious and avoid any mention of her, to prevent her from becoming a target of criticism.
Li Zhi sitting below the steps remained composed and quiet under the watchful eyes of the crowd.
Li Jing Ye’s eyes flickered momentarily before he turned away and instructed He Yuan Shi, “Distribute some of them.”
He Yuan Shi carefully divided a platter full of the delicacy into several dozen glass cups that had been prepared in advance, and ordered the eunuchs to distribute them.
The Empress Dowager observed Li Jing Ye’s reaction with a cold gaze, and her previous enthusiasm immediately dissipated.
She had never cared much for Noble Consort Zhong, and the recent addition of “Lady Zhong of Yingguo” only fueled her disgust towards the Zhong family. She found herself increasingly unable to understand the Emperor’s intentions.
Initially, the Empress Dowager had managed to keep her anger at bay since the Lady of Yingguo was absent from the festivities. She had simply chosen to ignore the Noble Consort’s presence. However, the Emperor’s public mention of the matter made her blood boil, and she couldn’t help but show her displeasure in front of everyone.
The Grand Princess quickly interjected, “Your Highness, why don’t we save a plate for the upcoming games as a reward?”
Lychee was a precious fruit that came from Lingnan every year, but most of them had already gone bad by the time they arrived. Only a few fresh ones remained, making it a rarity to receive even one, let alone a whole plate.
As the Empress Dowager scanned the room and noticed everyone becoming reserved, she glimpsed at Pei Ji’s expressionless face and quelled her dissatisfaction. She gave a forced smile and had someone take ten chilled lychess from her plate with crushed ice and sent them to the stage. “The most outstanding players in the upcoming games will receive these lychees as a prize.”
The Grand Princess followed suit by offering a pair of jade pendants that had been prepared in advance. “Let’s add these jade pendants to the prize pool as well.”
The remaining two games were to be played by the young ladies in the first game and the young gentlemen in the second.
Looking at the participants in today’s competition, Pei Ji’s skill was undoubtedly the best. The second round was a given, and the young ladies knew that they had to give it their all in front of the Empress Dowager and the Grand Princess.
Within minutes, more than ten young ladies, dressed to impress, rode their horses onto the field from both sides.
The sound of the galloping horses and the colorful riding outfits of the young ladies, along with their lively faces, made it hard for the onlookers to take it all in.
Li Zhi’s eyes glinted with interest as she quickly identified one of the most remarkable girls.
The young girl looked to be around fourteen or fifteen years old, but her tall and slender frame exuded a confident and bold energy that showed no fear. Someone called her “Seventeenth Miss,” suggesting she was of royal blood.
A guard threw a ball, and without hesitation, Seventeenth Miss Li urged her horse forward, effortlessly dodging opponents who tried to block her from the left and right. Then, with a swift motion, she lifted her stick and struck the ball with precision.
The ball found its way straight into the goal, eliciting a burst of amazed exclamations from the crowd.
Li Zhi couldn’t help but smile and applaud admiringly, thoroughly impressed.
However, when she turned her head, she caught the familiar and intense gaze of Pei Ji by chance.
The moment they locked eyes was brief, with no lingering, but Li Zhi still noticed the chill in his stare.
She paused for a moment, then turned her attention back to the field, though her hand, concealed in her sleeve, slowly clenched.
The game ended not long after, with Seventeenth Miss Li’s team emerging victorious and, not surprisingly, with her scoring the most goals.
The Empress Dowager regained her interest at last and beckoned the Seventeenth Miss forward. She personally shared the earlier plate of lychees with her, and the Grand Princess, elated, held her hand and praised her. She then tied a jade pendant from her set around the young lady’s waist, admiring her and saying, “Good child, your aunt always knew you were exceptional. Now that you’ve grown, you’re even more beautiful, and your polo skills are remarkable!”
“Your Highness is too kind. You are the true heroine among women. I’ve heard that even when playing polo with the gentlemen, you were never outshone. Before Your Highness, I dare not display my modest abilities.” Though her words were complimentary, her tone was neither obsequious nor haughty. She was truly a delightful little girl.
Li Zhi smiled as her gaze drifted towards the Grand Princess.
Pei Ji was no longer seated, presumably he had gone to change for the upcoming horse race.
She withdrew her gaze, took a sip of the bitter tea in her cup, and then peeled the last lychee on the table and popped it into her mouth.
It was indeed sweet and juicy, but overripe, and the sweet taste was tinged with an unfamiliar sensation.
Covering her mouth with her sleeve, she spat out the pit and took another sip of tea, allowing the bitterness to dispel the strange feeling.
In the middle of the field, Pei Ji sat on his horse, his grip on his stick firm and his face expressionless. Behind him, a team of people followed as he led them on a lap around the perimeter, saluting the crowd before charging towards the ball at the command of the guards.
His desire to win burned bright within him.
Although this was not a situation that he looked forward to or derived joy from, with her watching from the sidelines, the mere thought of losing never crossed his mind.
The other team had already planned their tactics beforehand. As soon as he moved, they quickly rushed in from both sides, attempting to intercept and block him.
Fearless, Pei Ji loosened his reins and leaned down to stick close to his horse’s back. He stretched out his hand to block the opponent on his left and swung his stick with all his might, successfully sending the ball to his teammate’s horse. Taking advantage of the opponents’ stunned state, he turned his horse’s head and forced the opponents’ horses to stop, then used the opportunity to break free from the encirclement.
His teammate hit the ball back towards him just as he managed to escape the encirclement.
He deftly caught the ball with a precise swing of his stick, scoring a point effortlessly.
The crowd erupted into cheers, and the guards planted a small red flag into the ground, while bold young ladies threw flowers onto the field.
Pei Ji took a deep breath and glanced over at the smiling face of Li Zhi, feeling a surge of passion in his chest.
The drums beat on as the game continued.
His Majesty did not participate today, giving Pei Ji the freedom to play with abandon and score several goals with ease, leaving the opponents helpless.
As the game drew to a close, the opponents had lost their momentum, waiting helplessly for the final strike.
Riding his horse towards the designated spot on the field, Pei Ji turned his head to glance at the seats outside the field, but the figure that had once ignited his fighting spirit had disappeared without a trace.
As he tightened his grip on the reins, the boiling enthusiasm within him turned to ice in an instant, and he felt his heart sink.
He pulled his horse to a stop and glanced at his teammate Eight Young Master Yang, who was standing two feet away, lost in thought as he gazed at Miss Li. Pei Ji whispered, “Would you like that jade pendant?”
Young Master Yang was surprised, and hope slowly filled his eyes.
Pei Ji pursed his lips, his expression unreadable, and said, “You take this shot.”
The guards had already left the field, and with a quick flick of his wrist, Pei Ji sent the ball hurtling towards Young Master Yang.
Younh Master Yang was still in shock, but when he saw the ball coming towards him, he quickly regained his senses, caught it, and headed towards the goal. Fortunately, the opponents had almost lost their drive and were not putting up much resistance, so he managed to score with relative ease.
With the insertion of the last small red flag, the guards shouted, and a wave of joy and laughter erupted all around.
The Grand Princess’s laughter filled the air, and she pulled Miss Li up from her seat while beckoning to Pei Ji and the others. “Come here, come here, let’s hang up this prize.”
Miss Li’s eyes were drawn to the jade pendant in the Grand Princess’s hand, and then she looked down at the one that matched it hanging from her waist. Despite her previously poised demeanor, a faint blush rose to her cheeks.
Pei Ji, however, refused to accept it.
His expression remained solemn and devoid of any hint of pleasure as he spoke. “It doesn’t seem fair for a son to take the prize that his mother gave out, and besides, the last goal was scored by Eight Young Master Yang. This jade pendant should be given to him.”
He then took the jade pendant from his mother’s hand and surprised everyone by passing it on to Young Master Yang.
Young Master Yang was still in shock, and upon receiving the jade pendant, he quickly thanked Pei Ji before instinctively looking towards Miss Li. His youthful and vibrant face was filled with a shy and smiling expression.
Miss Li’s previously rigid expression once again turned red under his gaze.
The Grand Princess looked at her son with a mixture of annoyance and helplessness. She longed to reprimand him, but as there were too many people around, she could only sit down in a huff, muttering under her breath.
The Empress Dowager shook her head disapprovingly and handed the remaining half of the lychees to Pei Ji. “You child, your mother’s heart is wasted on you…but, it should be to your liking. These lychees belong to you, don’t they?”
“Thank you, Your Highness.” Pei Ji no longer refused and accepted the lychees. He then knelt on the couch, washed his hands, and peeled each lychee one by one. He personally served them to the Empress Dowager and Grand Princess, which helped to ease their anger.
It was the Dragon Boat Festival, and after the three rounds of archery competitions, there were still plenty of other entertainments to enjoy.
Six rounds of rice dumplings have been prepared, totaling over a hundred. They are ready to be delivered and enjoyed by shooting them down with small bows and arrows. There is also dragon boat racing in Taiye Pool. The Qingsi Hall is located at the top of Longshou Mountain, providing a panoramic view of Taiye Pool without the need to go elsewhere.
Everyone was having fun eating and drinking when Pei Ji slowly stood up and turned to Li Jing Ye. “Your Majesty, I should be on duty in the palace today, so I cannot stay in the Qingsi Hall any longer. Please forgive me, Your Majesty.”
Li Jing Ye replied, “The court has a day off today. You have been busy for quite some time before. I permit you to have a good time and not be on duty today.”
However, Pei Ji remained steadfast in his decision. “Your Majesty, I have already requested a day off during my assigned duty. After discussing it with my colleagues, we agreed on today. I cannot postpone it any further.”
Li Jing Ye raised his brows, suspecting that Pei Ji was feeling pressured by his elders and looking for an excuse to leave. He didn’t want to keep him any longer and smiled, “Very well, you may go. Just make sure you don’t tire yourself out too much.”
Pei Ji immediately bowed and departed.
The palace attendants brought over the rice dumplings, filling the hall with a lively and joyous atmosphere.
Li Jing Ye cast a glance at the untouched lychees in front of him and then at the empty seat beside him. He summoned He Yuan Shi and said casually, “I won’t be eating these lychees. Yuan Shi, take them away.”
He Yuan Shi was caught off guard and looked in Li Jing Ye’s direction before realizing what was happening. He quickly took the lychees and left the hall through a small path to the north.
Did His Majesty really intend to give him these precious lychees? He must be saving them for the Noble Consort!
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