Chapter 34 Collapse
Standing under the swaying tree shadows not far behind, was a young woman dressed in a light-colored gown.
It was none other than Worthy Consort Xu, who had retired to her quarters earlier.
Her normally cool and reserved countenance was now shrouded in darkness, revealing a hint of suppressed emotions and an inexplicable aura.
Pei Ji calmly took half a step back, appearing to lower his long sword slightly.
But his body remained rigid and tense, betraying no signs of relaxation.
His brows furrowed with confusion.
“Why is Worthy Consort Xu here so late? This place is deserted and unsafe.
Please return to safety, Your Highness.”
Worthy Consort Xu fell silent for a moment before slowly approaching him.
To his surprise, she did not head towards the camp.
Her gaze descended from his striking features, and she spoke softly, “Zi Hui, you too have drank the deer blood wine.
You must be feeling uncomfortable right now.”
She was naturally beautiful, but her usual aloof and unapproachable demeanor made her seem like a temple’s goddess, dignified and beautiful, but not to be defiled.
As if she had made up her mind, Worthy Consort Xu shed her usual frostiness and transformed into a common, beautiful woman, spouting words laced with suggestive innuendos towards the young and dashing man, lending her a livelier air.
For anyone else, their heart might have faltered, but not Pei Ji, whose countenance darkened even further.
He maintained his hold on the blade and subtly took a step back.
Accompanied by a bow and a salute, he placed his glittering sword before him, a barricade of steel between him and her.
“Your Highness, I am grateful for your concern.
But I am too afraid to venture beyond my limits.
Please return swiftly.”
His calm and indifferent words never wavered, leaving no indication that he and Worthy Consort Xu were anything more than strangers, resolute in maintaining the distance between them.
Worthy Consort Xu’s expression shifted uncomfortably, and she came to a halt, tugging nervously at her dress hem.
She laughed unconvincingly, “You dare not overstep your bounds with me, yet with the Noble Consort, you do so with ease?”
Pei Ji’s eyes snapped up, icy and unforgiving, when those words fell from Worthy Consort Xu’s lips.
His thin mouth thinned even more tightly.
“What makes you say that, Worthy Consort?”
A flicker of jealousy and anger coursed through Worthy Consort Xu’s eyes, now taut with restraint.
“I saw what you did with her in the woods today,” she said, her voice barely contained.
Pei Ji’s face remained stiff, his expression fluctuating with guardedness.
“It has nothing to do with her.
It’s all my fault.”
He took all the blame without hesitation, causing Worthy Consort Xu to pause in disbelief.
The image of him that she had treasured in her heart was suddenly shattered.
A light chuckle escaped Worthy Consort Xu’s lips as she looked up at him.
She shook her head, unable to contain her words.
“I thought you were a man of self-discipline, a steadfast character.
You were mature beyond your years, even when you were young.
The Princess of Wuyang pursued you relentlessly, yet you never wavered.
But why, then, did you cross your own moral line so easily for the Noble Consort?”
Pei Ji remained silent, his body tense with a palpable wariness.
Yet, an inner voice whispered that the Worthy Consort’s words were true.
Whether it was his fortitude or his resolve, facing that woman had already battered him to the brink of collapse.
But as a man, he knew that he would have to shoulder any consequences if something were to happen.
He couldn’t allow her to suffer.
Granted, the first time he crossed that line was when he was drugged.
But even in the following two occasions, although she made the advances, he never refused while being completely clear-headed.
His grip on the sword grew tighter, his knuckles paling as he asked in a low voice, “What do you plan to do?”
Worthy Consort Xu gazed at him in silence, her heart slowly crumbling away.
“Zi Hui, sometimes I can’t help but think, if I had stubbornly refused to marry His Majesty back then, maybe I would have married you instead.”
She is twenty-two this year, three years older than Pei Ji.
His late grandfather used to be the head of the officials.
He and Pei Ji’s grandfather were highly valued officials by the Emperor, one civil and one military.
The Pei and Xu families were on good terms.
Her grandfather had once considered a betrothal between the two children of similar age, but after Pei Ji’s grandfather passed away, and Pei Yan was sent to serve in Hedong, the proposal was temporarily shelved.
She had a strict upbringing from a young age, being constantly reminded to remember the teachings of the Xu family, to be cautious and not to give in to greed, not to exceed the bounds of propriety.
Every action and movement seemed to be measured by an invisible ruler, leaving no room for error.
Compared to other young ladies of her age, she was reserved, taciturn, and aloof.
Despite being praised and loved by her elders, she had no close friends.
Among the high-ranking children of Chang’an, only Pei Ji had a few similarities with her.
He had been like a miniature adult from childhood, serious and disciplined, with a firm demeanor, not given to idle chatter or merriment, quiet and mature.
She once thought that they were both trapped by the same tedious rules.
Although they didn’t interact much, she felt a sense of empathy towards him.
However, as she grew up, she gradually understood that they were different.
The Grand Princess and the Duke of Yanguo were both kind and generous, and they didn’t have high expectations of him.
It was just his nature to be serious and mature.
At that time, she felt disappointed, but also envious of his carefree life.
If she had been born with such a temperament, she would probably have lived more freely.
Therefore, when she heard that her grandfather intended to arrange a marriage between her and Pei Ji, she felt overjoyed and hopeful.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned.
Not only was the engagement put on hold, but her grandfather also fell seriously ill.
Her father, Xu Yong, lacked the shrewdness and skill of her grandfather, and was seen as an average official despite serving for over a decade, only holding the position of a fifth-rank palace scribe.
In contrast, Pei Yan, a man of the same age and background, had already become a Military Governor with brilliant military accomplishments.
Her grandfather, who foresaw the decline of the Xu family’s prestige after his passing, and feeling that their family could not match the noble military heritage of the Pei family, pondered for days before seeking the Emperor’s permission, as a high-ranking minister, to let her marry the Crown Prince when she turned fifteen.
She realized that her grandfather’s decision was to safeguard the glory of the Xu family for future generations.
Therefore, without any complaints, she entered the palace and followed her family’s teachings, always being a virtuous wife and never competing with others.
However, every now and then, she felt a little disheartened and resentful when she thought of Pei Ji.
Over the past six years, she had always secretly observed his every move, hoping in her heart that he would find a suitable young lady who matched his family background and character.
She believed that a man as firm and determined as him, who had the unwavering resolve to reject the princess, would prefer a gentle, poised, and cultivated lady of a noble house.
But she had no idea that he would privately engage in an affair with the Emperor’s woman.
On the day they left Daming Palace, she had noticed a fleeting exchange of glances between them, but had initially dismissed it as a misunderstanding.
However, having now witnessed their clandestine tryst with her own eyes, she had no choice but to believe it.
The image of the resolute, selfless, and composed young man she had once known had gradually faded away.
“I won’t think about it anymore,” she said, her expression suddenly turning cold, as if she had severed all her feelings with a single stroke.
“In the past, I felt some sympathy for her, thinking she was a poor girl from a humble background who had no choice.
But now I know that she is truly a wanton woman who cannot be content with her own station in life.”
Pei Ji was shocked by her words, and suppressed his emotions.
“If you have any grievances, you can take it out on me.
I won’t complain, but don’t involve her.”
Worthy Consort Xu let out a cold laugh.
“Why should I bow to your wishes, Zi Hui? I won’t betray your secret to His Majesty, but as an imperial consort, I must fight for my own rights.”
She felt no attachment to the Emperor and cared little if he was deceived or if other women were unfaithful to him.
But the bold and audacious actions of the beauty she saw in broad daylight stirred up an unexplainable jealousy and impulse within her, as if she were desperate to break free from the chains that bound her.
Why must she be a woman who restrains herself, always following the rules and lacking any sense of adventure?
She turned to face the dark and desolate wilderness, her once frigid eyes now shining with a newfound spark.
“I’ve suppressed my true self for far too long, but there will always come a time when I must break free.
Zi Hui, take care of yourself now,” she said before turning away, ignoring the sullen expression on Pei Ji’s face.
The next day, Li Jing Ye, who always rose with the sun, ignored He Yuan Shi’s call for the first time and instead held Li Zhi close.
Despite wanting to start her day, Li Zhi’s body was too exhausted from the previous night’s tossing and turning.
She was unable to move and her eyelids weighed heavily.
After pushing Li Jing Ye twice to no avail, she surrendered to the blissful haze of sleep once again.
The sun had risen high in the sky before the two finally stirred from the bed.
Li Zhi attempted to sit up, propping herself up on Li Jing Ye’s chest, but her body ached and her muscles were sore.
She fell back down, her brow furrowing in discomfort.
She looked at Li Jing Ye with annoyance, silently blaming him for their current state.
In fact, regardless of their status, Li Jing Ye could be considered gentle and considerate in bed.
Whenever he acted, she tried to ignore her stubbornness and unwillingness in her heart and could still enjoy the pleasure.
However, too much of anything was not good, and he really lost his sense of measure last night.
Li Jing Ye lay on his back, his complexion no longer as excited and flushed as it had been the night before, but rather a bit paler than usual.
He looked at Li Zhi with a smile, and although her gaze carried reproach, it also seemed to contain a hint of coquetry, making his heart feel a bit weak.
He couldn’t help but embrace her and have someone bring water over to wash up.
For once, he personally helped her get dressed before they had something to eat.
By the time they were ready, their attendants and officials were already waiting outside.
Several senior officials, such as Pei Yan, were secretly anxious, afraid that His Majesty had drunk too much deer blood wine the night before and had harmed his health during their outdoor activities.
When Li Jing Ye and Li Zhi emerged, the people outside breathed a secret sigh of relief.
Although the hunting trip was supposed to last two days, on the second day they didn’t go hunting, but instead participated in horse racing, archery, polo matches, and other activities with young royal relatives and nobles.
Li Jing Ye saw that everyone was ready, so he led them all back to Wenquan Resort.
Li Zhi felt sore all over her body and couldn’t ride a horse anymore, so she had to sit alone in the carriage.
From afar, she passed by Pei Ji and felt that his expression was strange.
The look in his eyes when he glanced at her contained some meaning of wanting to speak but hesitating.
Li Zhi frowned and paid attention, guessing that he probably had something to tell her, but was restrained by the presence of others and couldn’t come close.
Outside the carriage, the concubines who were traveling with them were restless because the Noble Consort could not be with the Emperor.
Especially Lady Wang and others, who were about to ride their horses close, suddenly saw that Worthy Consort Xu, who usually kept her distance from people, had already arrived next to Li Jing Ye and the two of them were talking.
Li Jing Ye was also somewhat surprised.
Worthy Consort Xu, who was always aloof, had never changed her demeanor even before the Emperor.
However, for some unknown reason, she approached him today and talked about yesterday’s hunting.
He responded calmly, but his gaze couldn’t help but wander over her.
While there were many beauties in the palace, no one could compare to Li Zhi’s consort in terms of appearance.
Nevertheless, Worthy Consort Xu was also considered beautiful and had a refreshing, natural blush on her fair face, particularly striking in the warm autumn sunlight.
He suddenly remembered Pure Consort Xiao, who was left behind at resort.
The probing words Pure Consort Xiao spoke to him that day lingered in his mind, and he felt it was time to teach her a lesson.
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