Chapter 69 Steps

Li Zhi turned towards the sound of his voice and caught sight of an empty porcelain bowl resting on the adjacent table.
Her misty eyes paused for a moment before slowly recollecting.

As she groomed herself earlier, she had casually mentioned his upcoming social engagement to Chun Yue, who inquired if she should prepare a hang-over soup.

At first, she readily agreed without much contemplation.
But later, upon realizing that she had not actually consumed any alcohol and that the hangover soup might arouse suspicion, she opted for a simple honey water instead.

Feeling exhausted, she didn’t bother explaining much when he asked about the hangover soup.
She lazily nodded, pushed him away, and closed her eyes again, murmuring, “Go wash up, I want to sleep…”

However, Pei Ji didn’t move.
His dark eyes sparkled with joy.

Slightly tipsy, he quickly removed his shoes, socks, and outer clothes.
Without a word, he uncovered the silk quilt and draped it over her, sealing her in an airtight cocoon as he kissed her passionately.

Pressed down and silenced by his kisses, Li Zhi struggled to inhale.
The sluggishness that had earlier enveloped her dissipated, and she knit her brows and gently pushed him away.

He didn’t comply with her as he always did, but instead he tightened his hold on her slender wrists, while his lips relentlessly chased after her movements, kissing her until she had to stop struggling.
Finally, he caressed the tip of her nose with a hoarse voice, “Thank you, Li-niang.”

Li Zhi’s mind had just been deprived of oxygen and felt a little dazed.
She struggled to catch her breath and recover her senses before finally realizing the unusual excitement that he was experiencing.

“I thought if you got really drunk tonight, you wouldn’t be able to climb over my courtyard wall,” she said, with a hint of mist in her eyes, looking at him with annoyance.

Pei Ji’s heart softened, and he couldn’t resist the urge to lower his head and nuzzle against her neck.
His warm breath brushed lightly over her delicate and flawless skin as he whispered, “I know what I’m doing.
I won’t get drunk.”

Why would he be willing to get drunk when he came here?

Li Zhi laughed softly and turned her head to avoid the ticklish sensation on her neck.
“That’s good.
If you fell under my courtyard wall, I wouldn’t be able to bear it.”

Pei Ji held onto the silk ribbon of her loose collar and gently pulled it apart.
He gazed at her face and felt his heart melt like honey in warm water after her words.

Sleeping with her for three consecutive nights, he was almost immersed in the gentle paradise.

He felt especially touched tonight, as he arrived to find that not only had she left the lamp on for him, but she had also prepared a special hangover cure.
It was so heartwarming that he almost convinced himself that he was her legitimate husband.

But as soon as that thought came to him, he couldn’t help but remember his father’s words from that morning.

They were not married, and the possibility of them becoming husband and wife seemed unlikely.

The Emperor was her husband, and even Prince Rui seemed like a more suitable match for her than he was.

However, he couldn’t postpone his own marriage indefinitely.
Even though he might be able to come up with excuses to evade it for a year or two, in the end, he would have to follow his grandmother and mother’s wishes and marry a suitable girl from a noble family.

What would happen to her then, and how should he face her and his future wife?

The future that he had never dared to imagine now lay before him like an icy chasm, after his father’s words.

The taste of the honey water he had enjoyed so much now seemed different, as if it were slowly corroding his body and mind, like a poison that would inevitably take hold…

His excitement and joy slowly dulled, like a blunt knife slicing into his heart with each passing moment.

He held her tightly, not leaving even the slightest gap.

Sensing his sudden change in mood, Li Zhi gently stroked his hair and asked softly, “What’s wrong? Why have you fallen silent all of a sudden?”

Pei Ji opened his mouth but decided to keep his thoughts to himself.
He instead used his rough fingertips to massage her shoulder.
He chuckled and shook his head.
“It’s nothing important.
I was only reminded that I need to leave for Puzhou the day after tomorrow and won’t be able to come tomorrow.”

He would be away for roughly two to four weeks.
On the night before his departure, he had to remain in the mansion to say goodbye to his elders and family.

Li Zhi was momentarily taken aback, but quickly regained her composure and smiled again.
She pushed him away and propped herself up.
She gazed down at him with a coquettish look and a more radiant smile.
“Since that’s the case, let’s take advantage of the time we have left.”

She leaned down, placing her hands on his chest, and took the initiative to kiss his lips.
She murmured, “Darling Third has grown up and is no longer a child.
He can handle his own affairs now.
Just take good care of yourself, understand?”

Pei Ji’s body went weak and his scalp tingled at her calling him “Darling Third,” but when she playfully joked about him being a child, he could only manage a wry smile.

She was undeniably three years his junior.

The previous gloom that had clouded his mood dissipated completely.
Supporting her back, he smiled and said, “I understand.
While I’m away, I’ll be thinking of Big Sister every day.”

If she wanted to play the elder, he would let her have her way.

The dim light of the lamp flickered and died, casting the room into darkness.
In the narrow confines of the bed, two indistinct figures were locked in an embrace.

They spent a long time in their embrace, Pei Ji enjoying the moment and only stopping when Li Zhi became as pliant as water.
He lifted her up from the bed, took a damp cloth, and carefully cleaned her.
Li Zhi couldn’t help but tease him as he wiped her, tracing her fingers on his back to create an itch.

Pei Ji tensed up, and he grabbed her wrists, binding them behind her back, so that she couldn’t move.
He leaned down to leave marks on her body while he continued to wipe her. 

After lingering for a long time, the two of them embraced and lay down again.

In a daze, Pei Ji held Li Zhi in his arms and whispered, “Li-niang, I will leave in a few days.
You stay in Chang’an and take care of yourself.”

He was going to be away for a while, unable to communicate with her, and dared not inquire about her affairs.
He knew all too well what it felt like to be in the dark about her every move, having gone through it during his previous campaign.
It was an uncomfortable feeling.

Li Zhi was drifting off to sleep, barely registering what he had said.
She gave a soft “Mm” and turned away from him, slipping into a deep sleep.

Pei Ji gazed at her back and let out a sigh, then held her in his arms once more and shut his eyes.

The next day, Pei Ji woke up before dawn, slipping on his clothes noiselessly, hastily grooming himself before departing.

Just before leaving, Pei Ji couldn’t help himself and used the dim light to take the coral peony jade hairpin from her dresser.
He carefully stowed it away in his bag and leaned in to kiss her ear while murmuring, “Li-niang, I’m leaving.
I just took your hairpin, and it’s like…” He trailed off before finishing his sentence.

Pei Ji lingered for a moment longer, his hands tracing her face, before finally rising to his feet and slipping out the door.

Li Zhi stirred at his departure, her hand reaching out to touch his cheek as she murmured, “Take care.”

Pei Ji nodded silently, his hand brushing against the bag where he had kept the hairpin, before turning on his heel and disappearing into the night.

In the days that followed, Li Zhi continued to work alongside Lan Ying every day, preparing for the upcoming wedding feast.

Despite having no parents, there were still many tasks that required Madame Yang’s personal attention.
She did so, albeit reluctantly.

Madame Yang was now obsessed with seeking divine intervention to bless her son with a grandson.
She was also mindful of the female officials and guards around Li Zhi, ensuring her safety.

Due to Wei Peng’s urgent need to return to Hedong, the wedding was scheduled in the fourth lunar month, allowing them more than a month to make necessary preparations.

In the third lunar month, He Yuan Shi led a few eunuchs out of the palace and paid a personal visit to the Duke of Qinguos’s mansion.

At the time, Li Zhi had just sent a few maids to accompany some elderly women from the family to deliver the dowry to the new residence and prepare the bride’s room.
Upon seeing He Yuan Shi, her joy was momentarily dampened.

She had left the palace for more than half a month and almost forgot about Li Jing Ye and her status as a Noble Consort.
However, He Yuan Shi’s arrival was like a wake-up call, instantly reminding her of everything she didn’t want to remember.

He Yuan Shi appeared very happy.
As soon as Qing Zi led him into the front hall, he smiled broadly and greeted her with a respectful bow.

Li Zhi asked him to stand up and spoke in a calm tone, “Chief Eunuch, why have you left the palace today and come to my residence? Does His Majesty have any orders for me?”

He Yuan Shi bowed and replied, “This old servant was sent out of the palace by His Majesty to run an errand.
During these past few days, His Majesty has been concerned about the Noble Consort and specially ordered me to return to the palace to visit and inquire about her.”

As he spoke, he gestured to someone outside the room, and then five or six palace eunuchs carried several square wooden boxes into the room.
The boxes were open, revealing the gold, silver, pearls, and precious gems inside.

“His Majesty knows that Your Highness has a close relationship with your elder sister and hopes that her wedding can be more grand.
Therefore, he specially ordered me to bring more gifts to add to the dowry.”

Li Zhi glanced at the wooden boxes and then smiled lightly, “Please express my gratitude to His Majesty, Chief Eunuch, for his kind concern.”

Her expression and words showed little joy or gratitude.

He grew anxious and motioned for the accompanying eunuchs to step back, before lowering his voice and saying, “Your Highness, since your departure from the palace, His Majesty has been missing and worrying about you every single day.
However, as the Son of Heaven, he cannot bring himself to personally request your return to the palace…”

He left his sentence unfinished, but his meaning was clear.

Essentially, the Emperor regretted his impulsive decision to send the Noble Consort back to her family’s home after their argument, but could not bring himself to personally request her return to the palace.
He hoped that the Noble Consort would show her submission and take the initiative to return.

The Noble Consort kept her gaze lowered and remained silent.

The events of her departure from the palace remained etched clearly in her memory.

Li Jing Ye was emotionally unstable at the time and, upon hearing her speak up for her elder sister, he assumed that she was like her sister, still in love with their former fiance.
In a moment of disappointment, he impulsively sent her back to her family’s home.

In all of this, there was a subtle hint of warning and a lesson for her to learn.

However, he hadn’t anticipated that she would refuse to yield for so long, which caused him some unease.
Therefore, he sent He Yuan Shi to gauge her response.

Of course, nobody dared to defy the Emperor’s wishes.

She knew that she couldn’t resist and was afraid that she would have to return to that palace.

But why should she comply with his wishes and act like a mere plaything, submissive and obedient, ready to go back at his command?

Her life outside the palace was too pleasant, and she had become increasingly reluctant to do what he wanted.

She feigned ignorance of He Yuan Shi’s intentions and smiled at him, saying, “Please convey to His Majesty that he need not worry about me.
My elder sister is getting married soon, and I would like to be with her at that time.”

He Yuan Shi’s face stiffened.
He didn’t expect that the steps were already laid out for her to descend, yet she still insisted on staying outside the palace.
He was both surprised and uneasy.
If he couldn’t persuade her, how could he explain it to the Emperor?

He pondered for a moment, intending to persuade her once more.
However, she didn’t give him the opportunity.
She ordered someone to bring tea and snacks, and after he had finished, she went back to the inner court first.

He Yuan Shi had no choice but to wipe his sweat, hastily finish the refreshments, and leave to report back to the palace.

Chapter 70 Wedding

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Li Jing Ye, his brow furrowed with restlessness, rubbed his temples.
He accepted the eunuch’s offering of ginseng soup and downed it in one swift motion.

Ordering everyone else to withdraw, He Yuan Shi remained alone at the side, quietly sharing the latest covert information he had gathered and the intriguing events involving the Heavenly Master Yuan, which he had overheard while departing from the palace that day.

“…In the past, he had devoted nearly two decades to his spiritual cultivation at the remote Longhe Mountain in Meizhou.
Emerging from seclusion, he ventured into Chang’an not more than half a year ago.
Initially, he practiced his medical expertise in Changxing Lane, extending his benevolent aid to the destitute souls.
This Heavenly Master’s name soon resonated among the common folk.
I procured a few of his written prescriptions and sought the opinions of renowned physicians from various clinics in the city.
They unanimously agreed that his remedies were not extraordinary, yet they aptly addressed the maladies at hand.
Most noteworthy, the ingredients he employed were affordable, enabling even the most impoverished to scrape together a modest sum for their purchase.”

Li Jing Ye nodded and asked again, “From the information I gathered earlier, there are rumors about his immortal-like appearance, with snow-white hair and a youthful countenance even in his old age.
How much of it is true? And what about the claims of him curing several commoners’ chronic ailments that persisted for years?”

“In my humble estimation, the rumors bear some semblance of truth, though they are largely embellished.
Nonetheless, this Heavenly Master Yuan strikes me as a candid individual,” mused He Yuan Shi as he recollected the encounter he had personally witnessed earlier that day.
“Upon hearing my words, he smiled and willingly explained his background.
He claimed to have recently celebrated his sixtieth birthday, far from the century-long existence others have ascribed to him.
Such accounts perfectly align with the information we obtained from Meizhou.
From my observation, despite being in his sixties and having snow-white hair, he exudes vitality and vigor.
Judging by his complexion alone, it would not be an exaggeration to say that he has just crossed the threshold of middle age.”

“Not entirely unfounded,” Li Jing Ye’s suspicions lingered, as he naturally doubted the veracity of fantastical rumors.
Yet, the present circumstances seemed to mirror his own expectations.

“Regarding the claims of successfully treating chronic ailments, the Heavenly Master Yuan himself dismissed them as exaggerations by outsiders.
He claimed to have merely tried his best using elixirs he had been researching for many years.
However, I personally visited several individuals who had taken his medicine, and while their conditions had not completely healed, there was a noticeable reduction in their symptoms.
Furthermore, their complexions became healthier, and their spirits were revitalized.
It appears that there is indeed some skill behind his claims.”

As the words fell, Li Jing Ye’s expression became inscrutable.
He remained silent, gazing at the steaming black medicinal concoction before him, showing no intention of drinking it.

Throughout the past fortnight, Imperial Physician Zhang diligently delivered the daily medicine, but Li Jing Ye’s adherence to the scheduled doses gradually waned.

A fleeting glance from He Yuan Shi revealed a glimmer of understanding within his heart.
“Your Majesty, it may be prudent to summon the Heavenly Master Yuan into the palace for an audience, allowing us to reach a definitive resolution.”

Li Jing Ye deliberated for a moment, then nodded, supplementing his agreement with a suggestion, “Let us extend an invitation to the Dajiao Temple in the northern quarters.
We shall convey that I have summoned him to seek blessings for the casting of the iron bull in Puzhou.”

Thus, the matter was deemed settled.

However, another weighty concern remained, one that had yet to be broached.

Upon the table’s surface, amidst the porcelain vessels containing the ginseng soup and medicines, lay a piece of beautiful jade recently presented as tribute from the Western Regions.

Unknowingly, in the light of day, the sight of the jade evoked thoughts of Li Zhi.

The jade possessed a supple sheen, as if solidified cream, white as the blossoms of a pear tree.
Its exquisite texture harmonized perfectly with her flawless, porcelain-like complexion.
If it were fashioned into a jade bracelet and he personally adorned her wrist with it, the sight would be truly captivating.

Regrettably, she was absent from his side.

“Have you visited the Zhong residence?” He withdrew his gaze, suppressing the unfamiliar sentiments that had welled up within him, calmly posing the question.

Cold perspiration trickled down He Yuan Shi’s back as he lowered his gaze and respectfully bowed, delivering his report, “Indeed, I have paid my respects at their residence and conveyed Your Majesty’s generous gift.”

Li Jing Ye remained silent, subtly adjusting his posture, involuntarily straightening his spine.

He Yuan Shi paused momentarily, swiftly weighing his words, “The Noble Consort expresses her gratitude and requests Your Majesty to take good care of yourself, assuring you that there is no need to worry about her.
She also conveyed her reluctance to part with the Lady Zhong and intends to remain in the Zhong residence to accompany her until the time of the wedding.”

Li Jing Ye fell into silence, his heart unable to conceal the overwhelming disappointment and restlessness.

If she were genuinely grateful and delighted by the gift he had presented, he would have hoped for her return to the palace.
However, He Yuan Shi’s response seemed far too indifferent and understated.

Her decision to remain at the Zhong residence, patiently awaiting Lady Zhong’s marriage, revealed a complete absence of remorse in her heart.

As the Emperor, he had taken the initiative to extend an olive branch, yet her response remained nonchalant!

It was as if everything was reminding him of the past year, during which her meekness and gentle demeanor were nothing but an illusion.
She remained the same woman who had entered the palace, obstinate and refusing to bow, untouched by the months of erosion.

It was his own oversight.

What he truly desired was for her to let go of everything else and belong solely to him.
He had showered her with adoration and glory that others could only envy, but he had never managed to captivate her heart.

What exactly did she want?

He Yuan Shi observed the unpredictable expression on his face and contemplated, “Your Majesty, the Noble Consort has relied on Lady Zhong since childhood, their bond undoubtedly deep.
It is understandable that she eagerly anticipates witnessing Lady Zhong’s marriage and becoming a respected lady in a reputable family.
Her desire to stay at the Zhong residence is not without reason.
If Your Majesty finds the opportunity, it would be fitting for you to grace the wedding ceremony with your presence.
This would not only honor the Zhong family but also fulfill a cherished wish of the Noble Consort’s.” By then, the Noble Consort would not refuse the benevolence bestowed by His Majesty.

However, Li Jing Ye remained silent, lost in his own thoughts.

“Becoming a respected lady in a reputable family”—one as the legitimate wife of an ordinary household, the other as a concubine in a prominent lineage.

It seemed as though something had sparked his recollection.

“Very well, as you have suggested.
When the wedding day arrives, I shall personally depart from the palace to witness the ceremony.”

“Craft a pair of jade bracelet according to the Imperial Consort’s measurements.”

In the city of Puzhou, Pei Ji saw off the Minister of War, Chen Ying Shao, who was responsible for overseeing the casting affairs.

Pei Ji, entrusted with frugality and inspection matters, made it a priority to tour the newly erected smelting site within the city.
Subsequently, he diligently studied the daily reports dispatched from various iron mines, meticulously organizing the intricate web of transportation routes.

After the passage of more than half a month, he had acquired a comprehensive understanding of the affairs at hand.

As the project was still in its infancy, Chen Ying Shao’s comportment adhered scrupulously to the prescribed protocols.
However, only time would tell whether this level of dedication could be sustained in the months to come.

Upon stepping back into his quarters, Shi Quan stood patiently, awaiting his return.

Casting a swift glance towards him, Pei Ji closed the door behind him and took his seat once more at the desk before inquiring, “How did it go? Have you discovered anything out of the ordinary?”

Shi Quan initially shook his head, but then a flicker of hesitation passed through him before he slowly nodded.
“Minister Chen hasn’t shown any overt signs of irregularity.
His work diligently adheres to established protocols, and his place of residence in the city remains within the boundaries of proper decorum.
However, today, I observed him sharing drinks with an unfamiliar individual at a tavern.
Subsequently, that person entered Minister Chen’s residence and lingered for more than two hours before departing.”

Pei Ji listened with unwavering focus and inquired, “Do you have any knowledge of the person’s identity?”

Shi Quan responded, “No idea.
The person in question is neither a court nor a local official.
Their actions and demeanor don’t align with any past acquaintances either.
If they were messengers sent by officials responsible for transportation, mining, or casting affairs, why wouldn’t they conduct their business openly at the yamen? Furthermore, I sensed a faint martial aura emanating from that individual, indicating an affiliation with the military.”

Given the close relationship between iron mines and the casting of military weapons, any potential ties to the military couldn’t be disregarded.

Chen Ying Shao’s ability to shoulder the weighty responsibilities of Minister of War was undoubtedly founded upon his genuine talent and competence.

It was the Late Emperor who had raised him to his current position.
Over the years, whenever he embarked on official missions, Du Heng and Pei Yan took great care to arrange counterparts of equal stature to act as checks and balances.
While there weren’t many within the court who knew of his occasional struggles with greed, there were certainly a few who did.

The potential consequences would be unimaginable if someone were to exploit this vulnerability for personal gain.

Pei Ji’s expression turned grave as he contemplated for a moment before inquiring, “Is that person still in Puzhou?”

Shi Quan nodded.
“They have taken lodging within the city’s inn.”

“There is no need to divulge this information to others at present.
We shall continue to monitor discreetly.” Pei Ji’s gaze shifted to the stack of reports on the desk.
“Tomorrow, quietly seek out Huangfu Jing and arrange for him to dispatch someone to tail that person.
Should they depart from Puzhou, we must know their ultimate destination.”

Shi Quan quietly acknowledged in a hushed tone.

“Tomorrow, we shall make the necessary preparations and set off the day after.”

Pei Ji’s responsibilities were solely related to overseeing matters of frugality.
He was not an official permanently stationed in this location.
Sooner or later, he would have to return.
If there were indeed individuals waiting for an opportune moment to exploit his absence, they would undoubtedly reveal their true intentions once he departed.
By taking the initiative to leave first, he could exploit this chance to gather vital information about the other party.

He instinctively reached down, his hand grazing his waist.
Having been away from the capital for a considerable time, a sense of longing welled up within him.

In the blink of an eye, the sixth day of the fourth month arrived, marking the anticipated wedding of Lan Ying and Wei Peng.

Personally bestowed by the Emperor himself, even the wedding dowry held gifts graced by the imperial seal.
Despite the Zhong family’s reservations, they had no choice but to throw themselves wholeheartedly into the preparations.

As the first light of dawn painted the sky, the imposing gates of the Zhong family estate swung open, revealing a scene of bustling activity.
Every member of the household donned new garments adorned with colorful ribbons, engrossed in their various tasks.

Li Zhi stayed in Lan Ying’s chambers, where they went through the ritual of bathing, grooming, changing garments, and styling their hair.

Throughout the mansion, an infectious air of merriment enveloped the surroundings.
Countless female relatives from the Zhong clan flocked to Lan Ying’s chamber, their voices filled with laughter and well-wishes.

In that moment, her thoughts wandered back to her own bridal day.

It was a time when she had newly arrived in this world, still reeling from the initial shock when the occasion of marriage was suddenly thrust upon her.
To make matters even more unnerving, the wedding ceremony had barely concluded by dusk when she was summoned by an imperial edict to the Wangxian Temple within the palace.

More than a year had passed, yet these memories felt as fresh as yesterday’s dawn.

She had never let go of the overwhelming confusion and anxious unease she had experienced back then.
Such sentiments were ones she wished to spare herself from reliving, and shield others from encountering.

Thankfully, Lan Ying didn’t have to confront the same predicament.

Female relatives continued to pour in, one after another, until the hour approached noon and the influx gradually subsided.

With the auspicious moment drawing near, the two sisters found themselves alone in the chamber, their hearts tinged with a bittersweet emotion.

Seated before a polished bronze mirror, Lan Ying gazed upon her transformed reflection, only to steal a glance at the graceful figure standing behind her, casting a smiling gaze.
Suddenly, her eyes brimmed with tears, the surge of emotions overwhelming her.

Noticing her sister’s state, Li Zhi took a couple of steps closer, gently resting her hands on Lan Ying’s shoulders, and met her own reflection in the mirror with a smile.
“Why are you crying? In just a short while, we shall be meeting Brother Wei.
All the efforts we’ve made in perfecting our appearance mustn’t be in vain.”

“It’s nothing, I’ll be fine in a moment.” Lan Ying tucked the handkerchief at the corner of her eyes, taking a deep breath.
Placing her hand gently upon her shoulder, she made a determined effort to straighten her spine, assuming the role of an elder sister comforting her younger sibling.
She spoke with a grave tone, “Today, I am to wed a groom of my heart’s choosing.
In the future, my third sister will surely find her own desires fulfilled, and be accompanied by a cherished husband in the days to come.”

Li Zhi listened in silence, and as the phrase “cherished husband” reached her ears, an image of a resolute and composed face fleetingly flashed through her mind.

Immediately, she shook her head inwardly, a wry smile gracing her lips as she dismissed the preposterous notion that had fleetingly crossed her thoughts.

“There is no need to worry about me.
I have come to accept the reality of the situation.
As long as I can break free from this confinement, whatever may come shall be deemed inconsequential.
As for a cherished husband, if he exists, he shall be an exquisite embellishment.
If not, there is no need to strive for it.
I am capable of living contentedly on my own.
At the worst, I can seek refuge under A’Zi’s care.”

In this era, she held little faith in the existence of a man who would truly admire, love, and respect her.
Moreover, the notion of a monogamous relationship, which held paramount importance in her heart, stood in stark contrast to the prevailing customs and conventions of society.

Given such circumstances, it was best to relinquish hope early on.

Lan Ying recalled that she had spoken similar words before.
She looked at Li Zhi, who hesitated to speak, and finally let out a soft sigh, patting her hand before falling silent.
What was meant to happen would happen eventually, and they would know when the time came.

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