Chapter 17 Drinking alcohol
When Li Jing Ye arrived in Shicui Palace, Pure Consort Xiao was lying on the bed, with redness around her eyes.
Lan Zhao held a round fan to help her cool down.
At the sound of the door, she quickly got up to bow.
Li Jing Ye waved his hand and said, “Don’t rush.
You are pregnant, so you should rest well.”
He sat down beside her with a rare smile on his face.
“Congratulations on your good news.
I came here especially to see you.
Why do you look unhappy? I just heard a female official say that you need to take good care of yourself and relax.” As he spoke, he gently touched Pure Consort Xiao’s flat belly beneath her clothes.
“According to my calculations, this child should have been conceived on the fifth lunar month.”
Although he was talking to the Pure Consort, his mind inexplicably wandered to another person.
In the fifth lunar month, Li Zhi was still living in the Wangxian Temple.
At that time, she was far from the gentle and obedient person she was now.
He didn’t dare pressure her too much, so he made it a habit to visit her every few days at dusk.
But each time, she would sit on the side, with her eyes lowered and her demeanor as cold as a goddess statue.
She refused to give him even a fleeting glance.
It wasn’t until two months had passed that she finally began to let down her guard and slowly allowed him to approach her.
Even now, she appeared unchanged when facing him, but he knew that she had quietly buried her grievances deep in her heart.
Although she had given up on her feelings for Sixth Prince, she had never truly considered the Emperor to be her reliable support.
Li Jing Ye felt a hint of helplessness in his heart.
He was never usually so anxious when dealing with other concubines, but whenever he encountered Li Zhi, he couldn’t help but become restless and lose focus.
He remembered how cold and distant he had been when he left earlier, and gradually felt regretful.
Unknowingly, he had become concerned for her well-being.
Pure Consort Xiao lay against the bed, watching the Emperor’s absent-minded expression.
She felt a sense of desolation and sadness creeping into her heart.
She was well aware of what had transpired in the fifth lunar month.
The Emperor had been bewitched by Third Miss Zhong of Wangxian Temple, and he had been absent from the harem for quite some time.
When he visited her in Shicui Palace, it was because her brother Xiao Chong had offered to go to the border to fight in the war against Tibet.
Whom else could he be preoccupied with, when mentioned now?
As she recalled what Lan Zhao had said about the Emperor resting in the Chenghuan Palace, Pure Consort Xiao couldn’t help feeling a twinge of sadness.
She cast her gaze downward and spoke in a soft voice, “Your Majesty’s visit today brings me immense happiness.
I was concerned that I might have disrupted your time with the Noble Consort when I sent someone to invite you earlier.”
Her words brought Li Jing Ye back to reality, and he examined her closely.
He detected a rare hint of disappointment on her face that she was struggling to conceal.
Pure Consort Xiao had been his wife since he was still a Crown Prince.
They had been inseparable for many years, and though he had never been deeply moved by her, he had developed some fondness for her.
Pure Consort Xiao was always diligent in following protocol and had kept the palace running like clockwork.
She was mindful of her status and never competed for attention.
Her father and brother were important ministers whom he held in high regard.
With a child growing inside her, he ought to be more attentive.
“It’s of no concern.
Li-niang is not like other women.
She wouldn’t fuss about such things.”
A surge of repressed jealousy washed over Pure Consort Xiao.
Li Jing Ye moved closer, taking her hand and speaking, “Si-niang, I made her the Noble Consort because she doesn’t have a family background like the Xiao clan to support her.
Her status is unique, and the Empress Dowager already dislikes her.
If I don’t protect her, she will be truly alone.
Do you understand, Si-niang?”
Pure Consort Xiao struggled to contain her jealousy and disappointment.
Her body quivered slightly, her eyes reddening.
She reminded herself that the Emperor disliked women who jostled for his favor and that she shouldn’t create any drama.
In a soft voice, she said, “I understand.
As long as Your Majesty likes her, I will like her too.”
Li Jing Ye’s smile was warm as he pulled her into his embrace, comforting her.
“You have always understood me, Si-niang.
The palace affairs will still be under your control as they were before.
Li-niang doesn’t understand these things.
However, you are pregnant now and have some previous health issues, so you must not overexert yourself.
Shall we let the Worthy Consort share some of your burdens for now?”
Pure Consort Xiao returned his embrace gently, her heart filled with a bittersweet emotion.
She nodded softly and asked, “Will Your Majesty be returning to Chenghuan Palace today?”
Her inner longing was just too hard to resist.
Li Jing Ye said, “No, I will rest in Shicui Palace today.
Let’s go to sleep earlier.
I heard that you fainted today, so you must take good care of yourself.”
Finally, Pure Consort Xiao was able to let go and rest, leaning back on the pillow and closing her eyes.
In Pingkang District, at Yunlai Pavilion, Prince Rui Li Jing Hui, who had been silent for many days, invited Pei Ji to drink again.
The two did not request a private room today, but instead found a semi-open booth on the second floor, drinking and watching the passionate Hu dancer on the first floor stage.
The Hu dancer had lustrous brown hair and striking blue eyes, with sharp and defined facial features.
She wore a sheer, fiery red gauze that barely covered her modesty, revealing her flat stomach and slender limbs.
She spun rapidly to the music, and her knee-length red gauze skirt transformed into a blooming flower, earning cheers from the onlookers.
Pei Ji observed the scene below and silently sipped a cup of Dukang wine, his eyes remaining calm and composed.
Although the Hu dancer’s movements were beautiful, they lacked a certain softness and restrained elegance.
Gradually, his mind drifted back to that day by the Taiye Pool.
That calamity was a vision in a diaphanous veil dress, her long hair falling in wild waves around her face, and a jade hairpin held delicately between her lips as she danced with the wind.
He remembered her soft curves, her full red lips so tantalizingly close.
In that moment, he could have reached out and pulled her close, kissed her until they were both breathless…
Memories of that day flooded his mind.
Even the Dukang wine he had just drunk seemed to carry the sweet scent of coral peony, burning all the way from his throat to his lower abdomen.
His eyes took on a hazy look, his cheeks flushing with an unexpected heat.
Suddenly, the cheers of the crowd below broke through the fog in his mind, as the Hu dancer shed a red veil from her lithe form and tossed it to the crowd below.
He started at the sound, as if waking from a dream, his thoughts racing back to the present.
Beside him, Li Jing Hui looked lost in thought, oblivious to the world around him.
“Zi Hui, today Li-niang has become His Majesty’s Noble Consort.
Do I have no chance now…?” His words trailed off, lost in the din of the revelry below.
Li Jing Hui stared at the drunken and rowdy patrons below with a bitter expression.
For a long time, he had not dared to set foot inside the palace, afraid that he could not control himself and go to find Li-niang again.
But today, he finally gave in to his curiosity and inquired about the goings-on in the palace, only to learn that Li-niang had moved into Chenghuan Palace and become the consort of his own brother.
For him, this was like a sudden and unexpected thunderbolt, shattering his heart into a million pieces.
Pei Ji’s heart also trembled, and he suddenly became much more sober, fiercely suppressing the inexplicable impulse surging up from the bottom of his heart.
“Sixth Brother, don’t think about it anymore.
She is His Majesty’s woman,” he said, not knowing if he was saying this to Li Jing Hui or to himself.
With a resolute expression, Pei Ji refilled his cup and drank it all in one gulp, hoping to drown his sorrows in the fiery, bitter liquid.
He had finally spoken his mind to her today, and she had ascended to the position of a Noble Consort.
He prayed that she would no longer trouble him.
As he reminisced about her sudden coldness outside Chang’an Hall, Pei Ji felt relieved yet deeply saddened.
The dance downstairs had drawn to a close, and now a pipa player, her face half-covered, played a mournful melody.
The two men fell into a brief silence.
“I must see her again,” Li Jing Hui said suddenly.
“I must ask her myself if she has ever had any feelings for me…”
Pei Ji looked at his cousin’s dejected face, his eyes still glimmering with hope, and felt compelled to caution him.
He knew all too well that the woman’s ambiguous attitude during their last encounter had never truly relinquished Li Jing Hui’s last shred of hope.
But what would be the point of asking? It would only add to their worries and could potentially make a bad situation worse.
If the Emperor were to find out, it could very well drive a wedge between the two brothers and turn them against each other.
Pei Ji didn’t even have a chance to speak before Li Jing Hui interrupted him, saying, “Zi Hui, don’t bother trying to change my mind.
I acted recklessly last time, but this time I’ll be more cautious.
I’ll just ask one question and then leave…”
Pei Ji furrowed his brow, sensing that Li Jing Hui’s words were not entirely sincere.
Li Jing Hui was a man of determination, once he made up his mind about something, he never wavered.
As demonstrated by his decision to marry Third Miss Zhong without knowing anything about her background or marital status.
Since he couldn’t convince him otherwise, Pei Ji had no choice but to warn the person in Chenghuan Palace, so that she could be on her guard.
Pei Ji contemplated in silence, as the murmur of two women behind the screen that separated them from the rest, reached his ears.
“In a little while, you will take the jug of wine to Master An personally.
Remember, this medicine only lasts for two hours, so be careful not to let anyone take advantage of it.”
“But… I’ve heard Master An has an exceptionally strong will.
What if the medicine doesn’t work?”
“Don’t worry, this medicine is from the Western Regions and is very potent.
If an ordinary man takes it, he will be consumed by desire, lose all reason, and even if he doesn’t take that last step, it will look the same to others.
We don’t have to worry about him not admitting to it.”
Pei Ji and Li Jing Hui shared a knowing look, both of them realizing what was truly happening.
The two women seemed to have mistaken the emptiness of these compartments and thought it was safe to plot their scheme here.
Little did they know that Pei Ji had reserved all the adjacent compartments.
The surname An belonged to the Sogdians, one of the Zhaowu tribes.
Among the officials in the court, the majority were Han people, and those with the An surname were few and far between.
Pei Ji suspected that the “Master An” mentioned by the two women was An Yi Kang, the military governor of Lulong who recently arrived in Chang’an to report on his duties.
Besides his position as a military governor, he also temporarily held the position of Imperial Censor-in-Chief.
Pei Ji was shocked and angered by the fact that they dared to secretly use such an obscene drug on a court official in broad daylight!
Pei Ji was about to order his men to seize the two women when he heard some commotion.
The two women seemed to have noticed someone spying on them and quickly shouted, “Who is lurking here?”
The sound of disordered footsteps echoed through the room, followed by a familiar voice, “How dare you lay your hands on me!”
Li Jing Hui and Pei Ji were taken aback and rose to their feet in unison.
They quietly made their way to the adjoining room and caught sight of two unfamiliar women violently twisting the arms of a young girl who, upon closer inspection, turned out to be Princess Li Ling Yue of Wuyang.
The very same princess who was strictly forbidden from leaving the palace.
“Ling Yue?” Li Jing Hui, who was now mostly sober, was astonished to see her there.
“How did you get here?” he asked, incredulously.
The sudden arrival of Li Jing Hui and Pei Ji frightened the two women into releasing their grip on Li Ling Yue’s arm.
Pei Ji, taking swift action, seized the medicine bottle that the women had yet to hide away, and ordered Shi Quan, who was stationed nearby with Prince Rui’s guards, “Find out where Imperial Censor-in-Chief An is.
Bring these two women and their medicine to him.”
Shi Quan and the others immediately followed his command, taking the two women away.
Li Ling Yue stared at the retreating figures of the two women, didn’t answer her brother’s question, and only asked, “What were they going to do to Master An just now?”
Li Jing Hui didn’t dwell on the matter for long, unwilling to discuss such unsavory topics.
Instead, he turned his attention to his sister’s recent escapades.
“How did you leave the palace and come to Pingkang District?” he inquired.
“Did Mother and Elder Brother know?”
Li Ling Yue shifted uncomfortably.
“Eldest Brother doesn’t know, but Mother does,” she admitted.
“I just wanted to see Sixth Brother… and my cousin.”
As she spoke, she glanced nervously at Pei Ji, who stood by her side, his expression cold and inscrutable.
Today, she was forbidden to leave the palace by her Eldest Brother, but she was still thinking about what happened during the day, fearing that Pei Ji would really treat her as a presumptuous and unreasonable princess.
So, while the Emperor was away, she begged the Empress Dowager persistently until she got permission to leave the palace and go to her aunt’s residence.
But when she managed to get there before dark, she was informed that her cousin was in Pingkang District.
She was filled with disappointment.
After bidding farewell to her aunt, she originally intended to return to the palace.
However, she remembered that Pingkang District was a famous place in the city for seeking pleasure and companionship.
She became increasingly uneasy and, after much deliberation, decided not to return to the palace, but instead came here to find him on her own..
Li Jing Hui couldn’t help but infer that his sister had made the journey with Pei Ji in mind, given the way she appeared.
Glancing at the frigid, apathetic Pei Ji, he frowned and admonished, “Now that you’ve found him, hurry back.
Leaving the palace without authorization is no trifling matter, let alone venturing to a place like this.
If His Majesty gets wind of this, you’ll face severe punishment.”
Li Ling Yue quickly turned her gaze to Pei Ji, tears already welling up in her eyes.
“Cousin, please don’t be angry with me.
This isn’t typical of me.
Today I acted on impulse and believed that witch’s lies…”
At the mention of the word “witch,” Pei Ji’s expression soured.
Stepping back two paces, he clasped his hands and bowed deferentially, “I’m not angry with you, Your Highness.
You’re overly anxious.
It’s getting late, so please return to the palace as soon as possible.”
Without giving Li Ling Yue a chance to say anything, he turned around and called for someone to come up.
Li Ling Yue knew that she had gone too far by sneaking here today and didn’t dare to linger any longer.
She could only walk away with tears in her eyes, taking three steps back and looking back once.
Sitting in the carriage back to the palace, she still felt aggrieved.
The accompanying palace maid comforted her, “Princess, don’t be sad.
Just now, we saw that General Pei came to Pingkang District and remained virtuous, without any women approaching him.”
Li Ling Yue thought of the scene just now and remained silent, but suddenly remembered the medicine that those two people wanted to use on Master An.
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