After an hour, Pei Ji, looking refreshed and dressed tidily, rode his horse into Daming Palace.
Moments ago, while he was still in his residence, it seemed as if he could no longer bear the longing of nearly two months.
His thoughts were consumed by the desire to see Li Zhi, leaving him somewhat unsettled.
Thankfully, he didn’t hastily depart.
Seizing the opportunity during his bath, he concentrated on calming his mind, temporarily subduing the inner restlessness before leaving his residence with composure.
He had a vague sense of unease and discomfort.
As the days went by, he found it harder to rein in certain emotions.
A day would come when there would be an explosion, and he had to discover a way to escape the predicament before that time arrived.
At this moment, during the hour of the Monkey, Li Jing Ye was absent from Yanying Hall.
Pei Ji asked the palace attendants and discovered that he had ventured off to Dajiao Temple.
After contemplating briefly, he opted to change his route and head towards Chang’an Hall.
Inside the Chang’an Hall, the Empress Dowager leaned on two palace maids for support as she strolled slowly through a shaded spot, occasionally releasing sighs.
Her overall vigor and radiance appeared to have waned slightly compared to two months prior.
As Pei Ji drew near, her aged and burdened countenance finally mustered a smile.
“Third Son, it has been a while since I last saw you.
Come, have a seat.”
Pei Ji respectfully performed his courtesy before leading the Empress Dowager to sit down on the newly placed couch for palace attendants.
“I just returned from Puzhou today and was worried about Your Your Highness.
That’s why I came to visit immediately.”
As he spoke, he looked at her with a trace of sadness in his heart.
“Your Highness, please take good care of your health and don’t worry about others.
Only when Your Highness is healthy, can His Majesty feel at ease.”
He had been raised by the Empress Dowager in the Daming Palace for several years when he was young, so he naturally had sincere feelings for her and felt close to her.
Now that he saw her looking so withered and distant from the Emperor, with no hope of reconciliation, he felt somewhat heartbroken.
The Empress Dowager forced a smile and nodded.
She drank two sips of tea offered by the female official, then frowned and pushed it away, saying, “You won’t fan me, yet you want me to drink hot tea on such a hot day.
How can I feel comfortable?”
As the day got hotter, the palace became more and more stuffy, and everyone was exhausted.
In all the other halls, people had already started drinking iced tea to cool down.
However, in the Chang’an Hall, because the Empress Dowager was sick, they could only put one or two ice basins in a corner to prevent the heat.
They couldn’t even use a fan, let alone drink iced tea.
Even the best temperament can be worn out by such days.
The female official knew that the Empress Dowager was annoyed again, so she quickly lowered her head and said, “Please forgive me, Your Highness.
After a while, when Your Highness is feeling better, everything will be alright.”
The Empress Dowager let out a dissatisfied hum, saying, “I can’t predict if I’ll be feeling better in a while.
But summer’s already over, so what’s the point of talking about whether it’s hot or not?”
The female official was speechless, unsure of how to respond, and her face grew red as she remained silent.
Pei Ji motioned for her to leave, then fetched a damp cloth and wrung it in warm water.
He walked to the Empress Dowager’s side, carefully wiping away the beads of sweat that had formed on her forehead.
The Empress Dowager looked listless and when she felt the warmth of the cloth, she furrowed her brows, leaned back slightly, coughed, and asked, “Third Son, why are you also acting recklessly with them?”
Pei Ji, who usually had a stern expression, showed a hint of helplessness as he spoke in a gentle voice, “Your Highness, please bear with it for a while longer.
Be patient, and you will feel cool soon enough.”
The Empress Dowager glared at him but didn’t say anything more, just watching him warily.
After a moment, her forehead had been wiped clean, and Pei Ji smiled and asked, “How do you feel now, Your Highness?”
The Empress Dowager frowned.
She’d just been feeling like she couldn’t stand the sticky heat on the cloth, but now she was really surprised to feel a coolness seeping out of the spot on her forehead that had been wiped, and her spirits lifted a bit.
“It does feel cooler…”
Pei Ji gave the cloth to a palace maid and said, “When I was in the army, summer heat was unbearable.
We didn’t even have fans or cold drinks, and the water we stored was heated up by the sun.
Some soldiers taught me this trick.
We heated it up first, and it quickly cooled down.”
In the palace, they always had a ton of unused ice in the summer, and someone like the Empress Dowager had loads of palace maids to fan her, so they didn’t know about this way to cool off.
She looked at Pei Ji, her expression softening, and let out a small sigh.
“You went through a lot during those years.”
He bowed his head and said, “A man can’t avoid suffering.
I was born into a military family and meant to go through hardship on the battlefield.”
“You, child, have your mother to thank.” The Empress Dowager looked at him carefully for a while, feeling inexplicably sad.
“If I had been like her and only had one son…”
Pei Ji took a quick glance at the Empress Dowager and felt a little uneasy inside.
If he had to choose one, which one would he want to keep more? If it were his mother, even if she had more than one son, she would not play favorites.
But he couldn’t say that aloud.
He looked down and whispered, “His Majesty and Prince Rui both love and respect the Empress Dowager very much.”
The Empress Dowager realized she had misspoken and fell silent for a while before shifting the topic back to the Princess.
Outside the hall, several palace maids shivered on both sides, bowing their heads and not daring to speak.
Li Jing Ye stood with his hands behind his back, looking into the distance with a calm expression.
He remained silent for a long time before turning around and leaving.
After leaving Chang’an Hall, Pei Ji hurried to Yanying Hall as the sun began to set.
Seeing him arrive, Li Jing Ye didn’t immediately inquire about official matters.
Instead, he ordered his servants to bring out food and wine and led Pei Ji to sit by the table.
“Zi Hui, it’s been a long time since we brothers have had a chance to drink together.
Since you’ve returned, let’s have a few drinks.”
The eunuchs brought over two cups of wine and dishes that had been prepared in advance.
Pei Ji couldn’t refuse and could only accept with a bow.
The two of them shared a couple of cups of wine.
Pei Ji brought up some official business, but Li Jing Ye didn’t seem particularly interested.
After Pei Ji finished speaking, Li Jing Ye replied, “You handle things well, and I trust your judgment.
Let them investigate first.”
Then, changing the subject, Li Jing Ye calmly asked, “Did Mother see you in Chang’an Hall just now? Was she pleased? What did she say to you?”
Pei Ji hesitated briefly, immediately recalling the Empress Dowager’s words, and a shadow passed over his face.
The Emperor never asked him about these things.
But today, out of the blue, he brought it up.
Did he know something?
He knew the Emperor very well.
He quickly thought about it and then stood up from the bed, politely answering, “I apologize, Your Majesty.
I spoke carelessly and unintentionally upset the Empress Dowager.”
“Please have a seat and talk,” Li Jing Ye calmly watched him, as if it was just a random question.
“What did you say?”
However, Pei Ji didn’t sit down.
He lowered his head and explained everything that was said in the Chang’an Hall, without hiding anything.
Li Jing Ye observed him for a while, then suddenly chuckled.
He got up and pulled him back to his seat, saying, “Zi Hui, you’re good in every way, but sometimes you’re too formal with me.
It’s just the two of us here, no need to be so formal.
I was just asking casually, you don’t have to worry about every little detail.”
Pei Ji glanced at the slight smile in his eyes and instantly understood that His Majesty was very pleased with what he had said.
Finally, he relaxed a bit.
He suddenly realized that he had started feeling different towards the Emperor, his cousin.
He used to respect the Emperor like an older brother, but now he felt less close to him.
He used to feel guilty about Li Zhi, but that feeling was fading away.
He was not sure when this change started, but it might have been because he saw the Emperor hurting Li Zhi or neglecting important work.
They had some more drinks and talked about other things.
Then He Yuan Shi brought some medicine, which he mixed into Li Jing Ye’s drink.
Pei Ji watched quietly and noticed that the Emperor’s cheeks were red, either from drinking or the medicine.
He didn’t approve of it.
He glanced at the darkening sky outside the hall, stood up and said, “Your Majesty, it’s getting late.
I should go to the Imperial Guards now.”
Li Jing Ye was pleased with his work and waved to signal him to leave.
But as he turned, he heard someone call his name, “Zi Hui.”
He stopped and turned to face Li Jing Ye’s confused but meaningful gaze.
“I’ve always thought that you’re different from your father, don’t disappoint me.”
Pei Ji felt a shiver run down his spine at these words.
It was the second time he heard such words.
The last time, the Emperor had said “them,” and now he said “father.” Two months ago, the Emperor expelled Minister Du from the court.
What about now? Perhaps it was a warning to draw a clear line with his father during the turmoil…
Was this the Emperor’s kindness or cruelty towards him?
After staring blankly for a moment, Pei Ji stiffly bowed and turned to walk into the darkness.
Inside the Chenghuan Palace, Li Zhi strolled around the courtyard with Chun Yue and Qing Zi, enjoying the coolness of the night after the scorching day.
They took their time, chatting and laughing along the way, their clothes soaked with sweat by the time they reach the palace.
Luckily, they had kept the doors and windows of the palace closed during the day, keeping the heat outside.
They also placed ice buckets around the room and used fans to create a refreshing breeze.
Li Zhi wiped her forehead with a handkerchief as she entered the palace, finally feeling relieved from the heat.
Knowing Li Zhi’s preference for cleanliness, Chun Yue offered to prepare a bath for her.
Li Zhi declined, saying that she had already taken two baths today and couldn’r take another.
Instead, she requested a basin of warm water to clean herself.
Shortly after, a handkerchief and a copper basin of warm water were brought in.
She dismissed her attendants and closed the door before walking over to the screen.
There, she removed her outer garment and hung it up.
Then, she took a towel and wiped away her sweat without any help.
Although her skin was soft and delicate, even the gentle cloth she used left a faint red mark as she wiped.
Soon, her previously pure and unblemished neck, shoulders, and chest turned into a soft, pink hue that shone in the flickering candlelight.
As the warm water droplets evaporated from her skin, she felt a refreshing coolness spread over her.
She reached to untie the ribbon at her chest to wipe the remaining parts of her body, but suddenly heard a light footstep behind her.
She was startled and turned to see a familiar, hot and strong body pressed against her from behind.
Pei Ji embraced her with his arms and grasped her soft curves, then leaned in close to her ear and whispered, “Li-niang, I’m back.”
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