The sun gradually shifted as the sky filled with red glow.
Bamboo shadows swayed as a gentle breeze brushed through. The young attendant waited outside, tired but without a hint of slackness. Inside the study, hot tea was brought in time and again. Occasional bursts of hearty laughter could be heard, indicating a lively conversation among the three individuals in the room.
Seeing that the time was getting late, Li Yuanmin took Ni Lie and bid farewell to Sima Yu. Once the two of them left the residence of the Marquis Zhenbei, just as their paths were about to diverge, Ni Lie suddenly spurred his horse forward. He approached the entourage of King Guang’an and said, “Please convey to Your Highness that I have important matters to discuss.”
The entourage and Ni Lie hurriedly exchanged words in hushed tones near the carriage curtains. The sedan curtain was gently lifted, revealing Li Yuanmin’s fair and splendid face. He glanced at Ni Lie helplessly, maintaining an official demeanor as he spoke, “General Ni, you are to accompany me.”
As night fell, the two returned to the inn. They entered through the gate, one after the other, upon stepping into their room, Ni Lie closed the door behind them. He suddenly took a few steps forward, holding Li Yuanmin’s hand in his own with an intense gaze.
Li Yuanmin didn’t pull away. He lifted his gaze and looked at Ni Lie, stating directly, “In my previous life, I admired him.”
He made a slight attempt to free his hand, finding that he couldn’t, and sighed, “But that’s a matter from a past life.”
Ni Lie naturally disliked this kind of questioning that resembled that of a woman in a boudoir. However, during their time at the Marquis Zhenbei’s residence, the certainty in Sima Yu’s actions and words towards the person before him made him deeply wary.
He understood Li Yuanmin very well. Even though he had been controlled by the Sima father and son since childhood in his previous life, his nature was not one to be manipulated willingly. While he had been imprisoned in the palace for so many years, it was certain that Sima Yu had used something to keep him captive. The absolute certainty that Sima Yu displayed today couldn’t help but make him suspicious.
Seeing that Ni Lie’s face still held traces of disbelief, a slight ache formed in Li Yuanmin’s forehead. After this period of contact, he had already grasped the temperament of the man before him. He believed that direct honesty would be the best approach, so he recounted the tragic entanglement between him and Sima Yu from their previous life.
Reflecting on it now, it was no wonder that Sima Yu was so sure of his unwavering loyalty. In his previous life, he had been confined to a secluded cold palace, controlled by the Sima father and son since the age of thirteen. Being treated with such care by someone like Sima Yu, his emotionally starved heart couldn’t escape the web of affection, even though he had later keenly sensed that something was amiss. The environment of lacking love since childhood had made him deceive himself and ignore everything, willingly submitting to Sima Yu’s control.
It could be said that Sima Yu’s unwavering attachment to him was like a sacrificial offering. Even when he finally saw through Sima Yu’s hideous face, feeling utterly dead inside and taking his own life, Sima Yu still didn’t attribute it to himself. He believed that it was fear of the Red Tiger King that had driven Li Yuanmin to such ruthlessness.
“Nevertheless, this works in our favor. After all, he won’t suspect me,” Li Yuanmin said calmly, as if discussing something that happened to someone else.
Seeing his reaction, Ni Lie’s expression relaxed a bit. He touched his nose, feeling somewhat embarrassed.
However, since they were discussing matters openly, Ni Lie decided to get some clarity. He cleared his throat and asked, “What about that skinny monkey-like physician?”
This matter still bothered him, and he thought he might as well bring it up today.
Li Yuanmin furrowed his brows, feeling displeased. He didn’t think He Yunyi was so unimpressive as to be described that way. But seeing Ni Lie’s pensive expression and for some inexplicable reason, his heart softened a bit, he patiently recounted the days of their friendship in the palace, though he omitted the final rift.
He gave Ni Lie a sidelong glance. “From now on, don’t speak of him that way.”
Ni Lie had been in good spirits, but upon seeing Li Yuanmin defending He Yunyi, he felt a pang of jealousy. “Humph, frail and feeble, what else could he be but a skinny monkey?”
Li Yuanmin was already tired from dealing with Sima Yu’s matters, and now being bombarded with Ni Lie’s consecutive questions upon his return left him even more weary. Seeing Ni Lie remain silent for a while, he suddenly spoke up, asking, “Is there anything else you haven’t told me?”
Despite Li Yuanmin’s generally good temperament, he couldn’t withstand such questioning from Ni Lie. Irritation flickered in his watery eyes as he retorted, “I’ve interacted with not just tens of thousands, but thousands of people. Should I go through them one by one to answer your inquiries?”
However, Li Yuanmin misunderstood Ni Lie’s intentions. What Ni Lie was asking about wasn’t what Li Yuanmin presumed. It was about an event from eight years ago that had been haunting Ni Lie’s mind these past few days. The matter was of great importance, and Ni Lie needed to approach it with extreme caution. He had regretted asking when the words left his mouth, but fortunately, Li Yuanmin had misinterpreted him.
At that moment, Ni Lie chose not to press the matter further. Seeing the faint annoyance on Li Yuanmin’s face, he swallowed his pride and leaned in with a somewhat embarrassed expression. “I won’t ask anymore. I understand now.”
He pulled Li Yuanmin into his embrace and whispered softly, “Jiaojiao, it’s my first time truly loving someone. Can you accommodate that?”
Li Yuanmin was taken aback by Ni Lie’s straightforward words, his heart trembling. He couldn’t help but raise his gaze to look at Ni Lie. The innocence in the man’s eyes seemed incongruous with someone who had lived two lifetimes. Ni Lie kept his head low, a smile lingering on his lips, carrying a sense of eagerness to please.
For some inexplicable reason, any trace of discomfort that Li Yuanmin had felt vanished rapidly from his heart.
He soothingly stroked Ni Lie’s face and pressed his forehead against Ni Lie’s.
Seeing his reaction, Ni Lie’s heart filled with joy. He tightened his embrace and held him for a long while.
The flickering candlelight took on a more intimate ambiance.
Ni Lie smelled the fragrance on Li Yuanmin’s breath, his mind racing with thoughts. He kissed Li Yuanmin’s lips and asked, “Jiaojiao, is your pregnancy stable now?”
Li Yuanmin remained unaware of the implications and simply nodded. “From now on, I don’t need to take medicine.”
Ni Lie’s Adam’s apple bobbed, and he rubbed his nose against Li Yuanmin’s. The warm breath spread across Li Yuanmin’s face. “… Is three months enough?”
If Li Yuanmin still hadn’t caught on at this point, he’d be a complete fool. Annoyance bubbled up within him, he felt like leaving, but Ni Lie tightly clasped his waist. “If I can’t touch you again, I might just have to bring an ice bed to sleep on. It’s going to ignite a big fire.”
He grabbed Li Yuanmin’s pale hand and pressed it against his own firm chest. His heart pounded fiercely, as if it might burst through his chest. Li Yuanmin’s fingertips trembled, he tried to pull away, but he was firmly held in place.
“Jiaojiao, my fate is now in your hands,” Ni Lie bit his lip, fiery flames dancing in his eyes.
Seeing Li Yuanmin lower his head without resistance, Ni Lie was overjoyed. Without any restraint, he swept him up in his arms, planting hasty kisses on his fair and exquisite cheeks. Then, he dashed excitedly behind a folding screen.
In that brief moment with his back to the bed, Li Yuanmin let out a soft sigh, his ears burning red. He grabbed onto Ni Lie’s strong forearm, his eyes blurred with a hint of pleading. “Blow out the candles.”
However, Ni Lie was unwilling. He tore off Li Yuanmin’s belt, his tone carrying a touch of complaint. “How long have you kept me waiting? Tonight, you must let me see you properly.”
Throwing aside the object in his hand, Ni Lie pressed against Li Yuanmin’s forehead, his voice slightly hoarse. “Jiaojiao, my dear Jiaojiao, tonight you must endure a bit.”
With swift movements, he stripped Li Yuanmin’s silk clothing, leaving him bare. He swiftly untied the curtain’s fastenings, and the azure curtains cascaded down like flowing water, concealing the intimacy of the bed.
Night descended, casting the already quiet garden into a deeper silence.
For who knows how many times now, Qiu Chan had lifted the intricately carved bronze mirror in her hand. Once again, she scrutinized her reflection in the mirror. Her attire and hair might have been simple, but every detail was exquisite. During these days of rest, her once egg-shaped face had regained its former allure. She smiled at her reflection, radiating charm with her bright eyes and gleaming teeth.
Feeling a sense of contentment, she put the mirror away. Today, she wore her favorite apricot-colored palace attire, meticulously embroidered with plum blossoms at the collar and cuffs. It matched the piece she had sent out of the palace – a rare opportunity she intended to seize.
Yet, Qiu Chan didn’t dwell too much on worry. Since the person had gone to such lengths to come here, she had every assurance that her plans would come to fruition. She put the mirror away, a smile gracing her lips.
As the night watch bells sounded, the door behind her creaked open. Startled, Qiu Chan swiftly turned around. A tall and handsome man dressed in the uniform of the Patrol Camp stood at the doorway. It was indeed Ni Lie.
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