Chapter 40 Conference

The next day, Pei Ji rose before the sun as he always did, eager to accompany his father on horseback to the morning court.

Save for days of respite, the palace held regular morning courts, where only central officials of distinguished standing were required to attend, while others simply needed to make an appearance at the grand morning court.

This was the grand morning court, and even before the sun had fully emerged, a throng of officials awaited entry outside the palace gates.
Upon seeing Pei Ji and his father, they made way, bowing low in respect.

Pei Ji courteously returned their salutations with his father before advancing to the front of the line.

In his usual spot, Xiao Ling Fu’s expression suggested some degree of annoyance.
Upon Pei Yan’s arrival, he acknowledged him with a brief nod before continuing his vigil.

Pei Yan offered a stoic nod in return before retiring to the sidelines.
Pei Ji lingered behind him, his gaze drawn to the other side of Xiao Ling Fu, where a man of around forty, draped in a purple robe, conversed in hushed tones with Du Heng, his face clear and refined.

The sky still shrouded in pre-dawn haze, Pei Ji couldn’t discern the man’s identity at first, but as the stranger eventually made his way to the back of the line, it became clear that he was none other than Xu Yong, the Minister of Rites.

He cast his gaze downwards and refrained from staring any longer, yet an odd sensation stirred within him.

In political affairs, Xu Yong was notoriously unremarkable, and among the six ministries, the Ministry of Rites which he headed was regarded as the least prestigious.
Hence, he seldom interacted with Minister Du.

Yesterday, his mother had revealed that it was Worthy Consort Xu who had redirected the sudden marriage proposal of the princess towards the Noble Consort by presenting an idea to the Empress Dowager.
It was improbable that the Empress Dowager had done it herself, so how did the news spread beyond the palace walls? It must have been through the Xu family’s influence.

She may have done so to secure a favourable position for her father in front of Minister Du.

Two factions existed in the court— the old and the new.
With many newly appointed officials under his command and his link to Pure Consort Xiao, Xiao Ling Fu had no choice but to distance himself from the Xu family.
Worthy Consort Xu was aware of this, thus she used her identity as a Worthy Consort to leverage the Empress Dowager’s power and establish ties with the Du family.

She had calculated it well.

Pei Ji frowned and immediately thought of Li Zhi.
It seemed that the Worthy Consort was not particularly targeting the Noble Consort and the Zhong family.

His heart momentarily eased, only to be interrupted by the sound of the palace doors opening, with guards and eunuchs lining up along the sides.

He composed himself and joined the court officials as they entered the palace to pay their respects.

As today’s court session was a grand one, there were many official reports to hear and decisions to make, and after more than an hour of deliberation, most of the matters were settled.
Li Jing Ye then asked over twenty officials to stay behind and work out the details of the remaining issues.

It was already noon by the time they finished their busy morning.

Li Jing Ye sat on the throne, rubbing his forehead, and dismissed the officials, signaling that a hot meal was ready in the building where the chief advisors handled official affairs.
Xiao Ling Fu immediately stood up, leading the group of officials out.

Just as Pei Ji was about to leave the hall, Li Jing Ye called out, “Zi Hui, stay and join me for the meal.”

Pei Ji glanced at his father before pausing and stepping aside, waiting for the other officials to exit before returning to his seat.

Li Jing Ye had been sitting for half a day and was feeling stiff.
After the officials left, he stood up, stretched his limbs, and summoned a eunuch to massage his shoulders and back.

Looking at Pei Ji, who had maintained a straight posture for the entire duration of morning court, he chuckled lightly and remarked, “I feel like I’m getting old.
It’s only been half a day, and I’m already exhausted.
But you, Zi Hui, don’t seem to be showing any signs of fatigue.”

Pei Ji replied, “Your Majesty is in the prime of your life, how can you be considered old? Sitting for half a day would tire anyone.
I’m just accustomed to it.
Strict discipline in the army doesn’t allow any slackness even when exhausted.”

After the massage, Li Jing Ye felt much better and dismissed the eunuch.

When He Yuan Shi brought in the food, which had already been set up in the outer room, Li Jing Ye picked up a memorial from the pile on the imperial desk and handed it to Pei Ji, saying, “Take a look at this.”

Among the officials, Li Jing Ye trusted Pei Ji the most.
Having grown up together, Pei Ji would often speak to him about political affairs in private after court sessions.

Without any suspicion, Pei Ji received the memorial and began to flip through it.

This was a memorial sent to the central court by An Yi Kang, Lulong’s Military Governor.
It said that recently, the new Turkic Khan Ashina Duobi had reorganized the royal court, and in the past two months had been vigorously raising horses and training soldiers.
It was feared that he would lead his army to invade by the end of the year, and this time it would not be be the usual small-scale harassment.
The court was requested to make preparations.

Though he didn’t say it outright, he still hoped that His Majesty would grant him the power to temporarily oversee civil and financial matters in addition to governing the troops in Youzhou.
He believed that unifying military and civilians under one leader would better equip them to face the impending enemy.

“What’s your take on this matter, Zi Hui?” asked Li Jing Ye.

When he first entered the court, An Yi Kang had repeatedly brought up this matter.
At that time, several high-ranking ministers and officials from the Ministry of War had differing opinions, and the Emperor himself had many concerns.
Once the precedent was set for the Military Governor to have complete authority in Youzhou, it would be difficult to suppress similar cases elsewhere.
Therefore, the final decision had not been made even when An Yi Kang left the capital.

However, now that Li Jing Hui was also in Youzhou, it was even more impossible for him to easily relinquish his power.
But with the Turks really about to attack, the border needed a response.

Pei Ji closed the memorial in his hand and placed it back on the imperial desk.
He considered it for a moment and said, “I believe that the military situation is urgent.
If the Turks find out, they are likely to take advantage of our weaknesses.
However, Your Majesty commands the entire nation, and cannot focus only on one place.
If you are unwilling to set a precedent, perhaps you could appoint another person from the central government to go and temporarily supervise the situation.”

Li Jing Ye furrowed his brows in contemplation, his fingers drumming a slow rhythm against the wooden surface of the table.
“This plan could work,” he eventually spoke up.
“However, we must exercise caution.
Rather than mobilizing Youzhou’s troops immediately, I suggest we order the Hedong forces to prepare for battle.
We will only call upon them if a significant conflict arises.”

Hedong and Lulong were adjacent, both designed to defend against the Turks.
While this plan was feasible, fighting in different locations could create vulnerabilities for the enemy to exploit.
It will also add more burden to the troops in Hedong.

Pei Ji’s thoughts were interrupted by Li Jing Ye’s sudden inquiry.
“I recall that you have served in the Imperial Guards for over a year now,” he said, eyeing Pei Ji intently.

Pei Ji was taken aback by the seemingly unrelated question.
Nevertheless, he nodded in agreement, unsure of where this was leading.

Li Jing Ye rose from his seat, beckoning Pei Ji to follow.
“You have proven yourself as the General of the Imperial Guards.
Your father continues to serve as Hedong’s Military Governor.
If the need arises, I want you to lead the troops in Hedong.
Should you succeed in battle, you will inherit your father’s post.
And as for your future, well… we will cross that bridge when we get there.”

Pei Ji paused, then realized that the Emperor wasn’t seeking his counsel but had already made up his mind.
Even if he disagreed, he couldn’t dissuade him now, so he could only bow and say, “Thank you for the honor, Your Majesty.
I won’t disappoint you.”

Leading troops into battle was something he was not afraid of, and even eager to do, but with this arrangement, he felt uneasy and had to be extra careful when the time came.

After discussing official business, the two sat down at the dining table, ate, and chatted about other matters concerning the royal family.

Pei Ji’s mind eased, but he couldn’t shake the recent rumors he had heard.
After hesitating for a moment, he spoke up, “Your Majesty, I’ve heard whispers in the streets about the marriage of the Princess of Wuyang.
They say you favored the Zhong family because of your love for the Noble Consort.”

Li Jing Ye raised his eyebrows, set down his jade chopsticks, and said, “I do cherish the Noble Consort, but I’m not so foolish as to act recklessly.
You know about Ling Yue’s matter, how could you believe such groundless rumors?” He paused and continued, “Li-niang is a woman who knows her place and has never asked me for anything.”

Pei Ji replied, “I understand, and I feel responsible for the Princess’s situation.
However, I think the rumors are aimed at the Noble Consort and ultimately damage Your Majesty’s reputation.”

Li Jing Ye listened and guessed the rumors’ true purpose might be to create an excuse for Ling Yue.
After thinking for a while, he nodded faintly and said, “I know what I’m doing.”

Li Jing Ye left Pure Consort Xiao’s chambers that night and headed straight to Worthy Consort Xu’s palace.

Worthy Consort Xu had received word earlier and had deliberately dressed up.
She stood outside the door, waiting for him.
As soon as she saw him, she hurried forward to greet him with a smile and called him “Your Majesty.”

Li Jing Ye had a smile on his face, but he didn’t seem as warm as he had been on their previous meetings.
He simply gave a light “Hmm” and gestured for her to rise.

Worthy Consort Xu knew that he had something to say, and so she followed him into the room.

Li Jing Ye always moved with deliberate slowness.
He took his time admiring her new paintings and then inquired about palace affairs before finally saying, “Worthy Consort, I’ve heard that you’ve been visiting the Empress Dowager more often than before.”

After hearing Pei Ji’s words earlier that day, he had ordered He Yuan Shi to discreetly inquire about palace servants.
After some investigation, he learned that very few people knew about the matter, and Worthy Consort was one of them.

Worthy Consort Xu looked at him calmly and replied, “Recently, I’ve been overseeing the affairs of the six palaces and twenty-four departments in the palace.
Naturally, I need to pay closer attention to the Empress Dowager’s food and clothing.
That’s why I’ve been visiting her more often.”

Li Jing Ye let out a soft laugh and gently placed his tea cup down on the table.
“Your filial piety is commendable.
But I’ve also heard whispers that you’ve been spreading rumors outside the palace, claiming that I favor the Noble Consort and even went so far as to arrange Ling Yue’s marriage to the Zhong family.
Such claims would make me look like a foolish ruler.”

Upon hearing this, Worthy Consort Xu immediately knelt down and lowered her head.
“Your Majesty, please forgive me.
I only spoke to protect the Princess’s reputation and had no ill intentions.
The Princess is your younger sister, and her honor is your honor.
I had no idea that it would cause such a misunderstanding.
I beg for your punishment, Your Majesty.”

In this moment, she realized that she must follow the Emperor’s will and confess in order to regain his trust.

“If it were a trivial matter, I would not punish you.” Li Jing Ye’s smile faded away as he spoke in a restrained tone.
“However, you have been in the palace for many years and have always known your place.
How could you disappoint me this time? I have appointed Li-niang as the Noble Consort, and she is deserving of my affection.
I will not tolerate anyone disrespecting her.”

Worthy Consort Xu clenched her fingers tightly, her head still lowered as she apologized once again.

Li Jing Ye stood up and adjusted his robes, no longer looking at her.
“I will not stay here today.
Take care of yourself.”

With that, he left the room and climbed onto his carriage, heading towards Rihua Gate.

Inside the Yuniu Palace, Li Zhi learned that Li Jing Ye had gone to visit Worthy Consort Xu.
She then dismissed everyone else to rest, leaving herself and Chun Yue in the bedroom to spend some quality time together.

Li Zhi held a book in her hands and recited passages to Chun Yue, teaching her how to read and write.

Despite Chun Yue’s simple-minded nature, she was devoted to her lessons.
Having learned some basic characters in secret while still with the Zhong family, she now reveled in the opportunity to learn even more without fear of reprimand.

In the flickering candlelight, Chun Yue’s eyes widened as she focused on each character, following Li Zhi’s finger and carefully memorizing each one.

“This character is the ‘tide’ (潮) in ‘tide water’ (潮水).”

Chun Yue eagerly added, “I remember now! If we go to the left of the water, we’ll arrive at the ‘imperial court’ (朝廷)!”

Li Zhi chuckled and nodded.
“Indeed, it’s also the ‘morning’ (朝) in ‘morning glow’ (朝霞).”

The master and servant were engrossed in a serious conversation when they suddenly heard a faint sound coming from the tightly shut window beside the bed.

Li Zhi’s movements paused for a moment.
She remembered something and immediately suppressed her smile.
She stood up quickly, took a few steps forward, and whispered softly, “General Pei?”

There was a moment of silence outside the window, then it slowly opened as someone pushed it aside.

The light in the room mixed with the darkness outside, creating a dim atmosphere that illuminated a handsome and dignified face.

“It’s me,” he said in a hoarse voice.
He stood outside the window, not entering directly into the room, but just gazing fixedly at Li Zhi.

Li Zhi’s face turned slightly cold.
After staring at him for a moment, she turned around and instructed the stunned Chun Yue, “You go to the adjacent room and keep watch.
If anyone comes, knock on the window frame by the corridor.”

Chun Yue nodded hesitantly, cast one more glance at Pei Ji, and then cautiously left while closing the door behind her.

Li Zhi then turned back and sat down by the bed, whispering, “Come in.”

Pei Ji hesitated for a moment, then he widened the window a little more, braced himself with both hands, and gracefully leapt into the room.

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