Chapter 29 Trip
The distance from Daming Palace to Lishan’s Wenquan Resort was a mere sixty miles, but the procession started early in the morning and with plenty of time on their hands, they took a leisurely pace.
Li Zhi was reclining in her plush carriage, enjoying her idle moments until summoned to accompany Li Jing Ye.
Several ministers emerged from the Emperor’s spacious six-horse carriage, having just deliberated on matters of state, as Li Zhi made her way past them.
Among them were Pei Ji and his father, Pei Yan.
The ministers made a respectful bow as Li Zhi passed, stepping back slightly to give her space, except for their leader, Xiao Ling Fu, whose reaction was one of disdainful disregard.
Xiao Ling Fu bowed as well, but his movements betrayed a sense of impatience and indifference.
It was clear that he harboured ill-feelings towards Li Zhi, who had taken the position of head of the concubines from his daughter, Pure Consort Xiao.
Li Zhi noticed his behaviour, but paid it no mind, smiling serenely as she passed him by.
As she walked by Pei Ji, who was lagging at the very end of the procession, she cast him a suggestive glance, conveying her sense of grievance and resentment.
But before she could see his reaction, He Yuan Shi emerged with a smile, eager to receive her.
He lifted the curtain of the carriage with a chivalrous flourish and announced, “The Noble Consort has finally arrived.
His Majesty has just read a poem and sent me to escort you.”
Li Zhi felt a flicker of annoyance at the interruption, but she couldn’t refuse the summons.
She put on a polite smile and followed He Yuan Shi.
The carriage was spacious, and Li Jing Ye lounged against one side, rubbing his forehead in apparent weariness.
Despite this, his relaxed and amiable expression betrayed a good mood.
The past few weeks had been filled with tension due to the political scandals surrounding Prince Rui and the Princess, as well as the Empress Dowager’s illness.
But now, he could finally catch his breath.
Li Zhi sensed the shift in his mood and responded in kind, donning a warm and winsome smile.
She approached him and knelt by his knee, her voice soft and sweet as she addressed him as “Your Majesty.”
Li Jing Ye opened his eyes and was immediately captivated by his consort’s beauty.
His lips curved up in a smile, and he reached out to pull her closer.
He leaned in to give her a tender kiss, then pulled back to gaze at her with a playful twinkle in his eye.
“Did Li-niang miss me these two days?”
Due to the Empress Dowager’s illness, he had not set foot in the harem for four or five days.
He had only sent gifts to Pure Consort Xiao’s Shicui Palace and let He Yuan Shi inquire about the situation at Chenghuan Palace twice.
Li Zhi naturally didn’t tell the truth.
Instead, she opted to flatter him, pressing her cheek against his shoulder and coquettishly saying, “Your Majesty is preoccupied with state affairs and showing filial piety to the Empress Dowager.
I wouldn’t dare to disturb you.”
She had always responded in this way.
Though Li Jing Ye was disappointed by her answer, he didn’t show it.
He ran his fingers through her hair, untangling her strands and removing her hairpin.
He wanted her hair to cascade down her back and partially cover her enchanting face, which only made her more alluring.
His eyes gazed at her from head to toe, their glint growing increasingly deep and mysterious.
“Li-niang,” he murmured as he leaned down to kiss her chin, “I recall that you adore coral peony flowers, do you not?”
With her waist arched and held in the palms of his hands, Li Zhi struggled to push him away, but to no avail.
Her face turned red, and she could only mumble in response.
“For you, I have commissioned the construction of a private coral peony hotbspring in Wenquan Resort.
It will be exclusively for your use.
Do you like it?” After days of not relaxing, Li Jing Ye finally had some free time, and he was not going to let her go.
He used his strength to hold her down beneath him.
“It is an honor for Your Majesty to remember me, and I am grateful.”
Li Zhi knew that after several days of idleness, she couldn’t hide today.
She didn’t resist much, just closed her eyes and turned her head away, hoping he would finish quickly.
Perhaps it was the daylight or the gentle swaying of the carriage, but Li Jing Ye’s excitement was particularly high.
He lingered with her for almost an hour, yet he showed no signs of fatigue.
Fortunately, as she was in a daze with tears in her eyes, she heard He Yuan Shi’s cautious voice from outside the carriage, “Your Majesty, after traveling for so long, the Empress Dowager has developed a headache.
A female official has been summoned to diagnose her.”
Li Jing Ye was in high spirits and showed no signs of slowing down.
However, as the Emperor, he had to show filial piety to the Empress Dowager and set an example for his subjects.
Frustrated, he used more force, causing Li Zhi to whimper, and then quickly ended their encounter, summoning a eunuch to assist her in cleaning up and changing clothes.
Before departing, he leaned down to kiss Li Zhi’s glistening cheek and gently pinched her fingertips.
“Rest here if you’re feeling tired,” he said, “you need not rush to leave.
I’ll come to find you later tonight.”
Li Zhi lifted her tired eyelids and murmured her agreement, but as soon as he left, she got up and began to dress and leave.
How long would he be attending to the Empress Dowager’s illness? If she fell asleep and he returned before she awoke, she would have to handle the situation on her own.
Pei Ji received word of the Empress Dowager’s illness and hurried to her carriage, where he found his mother already present and waiting to pay her respects.
With Prince Rui absent and recent troubles involving the Princess, the Grand Princess fretted that the Empress Dowager might feel burdened with guilt and become distant from the Pei family.
She urged her son to visit more frequently and show his filial piety.
Pei Ji had spent many years by the Empress Dowager’s side and held her in the highest esteem as his elder.
As the Empress Dowager lay on the low couch, suffering from bouts of dizziness, the Grand Princess offered a steady stream of comforting words.
Pei Ji sat by her side, occasionally interjecting with words of his own.
Li Jing Ye arrived at the carriage not long after.
Pei Ji rose to greet him, but Li Jing Ye waved him off before he could bow.
Li Jing Ye approached the couch and took a seat, his expression furrowed with concern.
“What has caused mother to fall ill so suddenly? What did the female official say?”
The Empress Dowager looked a bit haggard, and when she saw her son approaching, she hesitated for a moment before quickly regaining her composure and softly saying, “It’s nothing serious, just that my previous cold hasn’t completely healed yet.
The jolting of the carriage on the way here made me feel a bit dizzy and disoriented, but I took two pills and had the palace maid massage me a bit, and I’m feeling much better now.
I’m sorry to have disturbed you.”
Li Jing Ye’s expression grew serious, and he breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing her explanation.
Shaking his head, he said, “It’s only natural for a son to worry about his mother.
How can you say that you’re disturbing me?”
Glancing at the sky outside the carriage, he said, “We’re already halfway there, and it should take a little over half an hour to get to Wenquan Resort.
Please bear with it a little longer, Mother, and you’ll be able to bathe and relax soon.”
The Empress Dowager nodded weakly in agreement.
Observing the outwardly serene but inwardly strained dynamic between mother and son, the Grand Princess felt a tinge of sadness.
She yearned for the bond between them to be rekindled, and so she endeavored to strike up a pleasant conversation that would ease the tension and promote harmony.
Pei Ji watched in silence as Li Jing Ye’s face grew increasingly solemn, yet his spirit remained vibrant and content.
His eyes shone with a glint of satisfaction, making Pei Ji’s eyes flicker.
Just moments ago, he had seen Li Zhi enter His Majesty’s carriage.
Now, with the Emperor’s expression as it was, how could Pei Ji not understand what had transpired between the two of them?
A sour bitterness simmered within Pei Ji’s chest, and with it came a torrent of guilt and inner turmoil that he couldn’t seem to quell.
The Emperor and Prince Rui had bestowed an unwavering trust upon him, yet Pei Ji was covertly coveting the same woman they both cherished.
Worse still, he was plagued with an overwhelming sense of remorse towards her, having made a promise to her in secret.
Pei Ji knew full well that his desires went against all rationality, but he was powerless to stop himself from sinking deeper into the abyss.
Suddenly, Li Jing Ye spoke up, pulling Pei Ji from his melancholic thoughts.
“Zi Hui, you worked tirelessly to prepare the defenses at Wenquan Resort a few days ago.
If you’re willing to stay and stand guard for the next few months, you needn’t remain stationed at the gates.
Why don’t you take up residence at the Shaoyang Pool instead?”
The Shaoyang Pool Courtyard was located near the Zhaoyang Gate, adjacent to the Taizi Pool Pavilion.
It was originally a pool for the Emperor’s sons to bathe in and was rarely given to noble families outside of the imperial clan.
With no heir in sight and Prince Rui already departed to Youzhou, His Majesty had bestowed this precious gift upon his cousin, a clear sign of his favor.
Pei Ji and the Grand Princess exchanged a hesitant glance before rising to decline the offer, insisting they were unworthy of such a gift.
However, the Empress Dowager intervened, stating, “You are like half a son to me.
You are also His Majesty’s half-brother.
You have done a lot for the Emperor in the past year or two.
This gift is but a token of appreciation, there is no need to decline.”
The Emperor nodded in agreement
Pei Ji had no choice but to express his gratitude and accept the gift.
Although he accepted it, he would not often reside in the Shaoyang Pool.
He would only go there three to five times at most, so as not to disappoint His Majesty’s kindness.
He could not go beyond this limit.
At that time, the team finally arrived at Wenquan Resort.
Li Jing Ye was still at the side of the Empress Dowager, and the other concubines, who had intended to join them, were forced to return to their respective palaces as the Empress Dowager made it clear that there was no need to make a big fuss.
It was a tradition of the imperial family to seek refuge from the cold at the spring resort before and after winter.
Li Jing Ye had already visited five times since ascending the throne, and the concubines each had their own regular residence.
Only Li Zhi was visiting for the first time.
Before, Li Jing Ye had mentioned that he had built a pool of coral peony for her, but she didn’t know where it was.
Then, she saw He Yuan Shi leading two palace maids over, his face beaming with a smile, and he said, “This old servant is acting on the order of His Majesty, inviting the esteemed concubine to the Yuniu Palace.”
Li Zhi thanked him with a smile, then followed him past the back palace.
However, she didn’t go eastward to the Yuehua Gate like the other concubines, but instead turned westward to the Rihua Gate facing directly across from them.
This caused the other concubines to be both surprised and envious, and even Pure Consort Xiao, who was pregnant, could hardly contain the expression on her face.
It should be noted that the layout of Wenquan Resort bore some resemblance to that of the Daming Palace.
The Feishuang Hall in the west served as the Emperor’s bedroom, while the nearby Xingchen and Jiulong Pools were also reserved for the Emperor’s use.
The concubines live near the Changtang Pool Palace behind the Yuehua Gate in the east.
Li Zhi felt puzzled and couldn’t help but ask, “Chief Eunuch, why did you bring me to the Rihua Gate?”
He Yuan Shi had a hard time containing his laughter and bowed repeatedly as he walked, “His Majesty favors the Noble Consort and has specially granted her residence in the Yuniu Palace to the west, where the coral peony hot spring is also located.
His Majesty’s love for the Noble Consort prompts him to bring her closer.”
Li Zhi concealed her displeasure and smiled in gratitude, following He Yuan Shi into the Yuniu Palace to settle in.
The coral peony hot spring was a newly excavated pond in the courtyard of the Yuniu Palace that was designed to resemble coral peony petals.
As Li Zhi entered, the pond had just been filled with water and mist was rising from the surface, slowly permeating through the curtains of the pavilion that hung over it.
Dried coral peony flowers were sprinkled in the pond, emanating a sweet aroma.
After enduring a long carriage ride and being favored by the Emperor, Li Zhi was feeling tired and her body ached.
She knelt down to feel the water temperature, which was still quite hot, and decided to have dinner first.
After taking a stroll around the courtyard, she retired to her bedroom, planning to take a bath in an hour.
However, she had only just drifted off to sleep when she was roused by Chun Yue’s voice.
“Miss, His Majesty has arrived.”
Li Zhi was propped up against the bed, rubbing her drowsy eyes.
She barely recalled Li Jing Ye’s request from earlier that day, that she wait for him at night.
Irritation stirred within her.
She did not get up to greet him as she usually would, instead remaining still, her body feeling heavy and weak.
As Li Jing Ye strode into the room, his eyes alighted upon her lying there, looking delicate and dreamy, her cheeks suffused with a rosy hue.
The ardour that had not abated throughout the day was kindled afresh, and he did not mind her lack of formal reception.
He approached her with a few swift strides, then reached out his arms to cradle her on both sides, holding her close and inspecting her appearance.
“Have you seen the pool? What do you think of it?”
Li Zhi gazed up at him with dewy, almond-shaped eyes, and replied, “The pool is indeed exquisite, but I am too exhausted to derive any pleasure from it.
Your Majesty is to blame for wearing me out so thoroughly during the day.”
Li Jing Ye chuckled softly, his lips trailing feather-light kisses along the curve of her neck.
“It’s been only a few days, yet you’ve become even more delicate,” he remarked.
“If you’re tired, don’t exert yourself.
Allow me to escort you there personally.”
Without waiting for her response, he scooped her up in his arms, holding her horizontally, and strode towards the pool.
The palace maids stationed by the pool quickly extended their hands to check the water temperature upon seeing the royal couple’s approach.
Finding it suitable, they moved forward to help Li Jing Ye and Li Zhi change into their bathing clothes.
But Li Jing Ye waved them off, his eyes darkening with desire as he settled Li Zhi against the edge of the pool, seizing her lips.
The pool was constructed with rough boulders, and its surface was heated by the natural hot springs.
With her back against the wall, Li Zhi felt a mix of pain and heat, causing her to squirm and protest, “Your Majesty, it hurts.”
Li Jing Ye’s heart overflowed with tenderness for his beloved.
Gently nipping at her nose, he disregarded their clothing and pulled her towards the water’s edge, promising, “Once we’re in the water, you’ll feel much better.”
Li Zhi’s bare feet had just touched the water when a sudden sound interrupted the tranquility of the moment.
It was He Yuan Shi’s voice, echoing from outside the chamber: “Your Majesty, the Pure Consort sent word that she vomited twice during the day and is now sleeping but has a fever.
She has called for a female official to attend to her.”
Hearing this, Li Jing Ye’s movements suddenly became sluggish.
Despite the Pure Consort’s good health throughout her pregnancy, Li Jing Ye had been taking no chances, ordering everyone to be extra cautious in serving her.
Now, he regretted not being there for her.
Li Zhi sensed his hesitation and urged him softly, “Your Majesty, please go and check on her.
The future of the royal family is of utmost important.”
Li Jing Ye reluctantly tore himself away from Li Zhi, gave her a lingering kiss, and quickly straightened his clothes before heading off to Changtang Pool.
As he disappeared from view, Li Zhi released a sigh of relief.
She knew he wouldn’t be back for the rest of the day.
With everyone else gone to rest, only Chun Yue remained by Li Zhi’s side in the outer hall.
It had been a tiring day for them all, and Li Zhi could not shake off the feeling of unease that had settled over her.
The mist swirled around Li Zhi as she sat by the pool, leaning against the pavilion pillar, her feet gliding in the water.
She was lost in thought for a long time, until she suddenly snapped out of it.
As she was about to rise and remove her clothes to soak in the water and ease her weariness, she heard a slight noise from the rockery wall nearby.
“Who’s there?” Her voice was barely audible in the quiet of the night.
Before long, a familiar figure emerged slowly from behind the rockery.
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