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    Chapter 60: A Choice of Two

    "Third Brother," she said with a smile, "I thank you for your help. Here, let me raise a cup in tribute to you."

    The Third Prince turned his head and smiled at her, though the warmth did not reach his eyes. Their cups clinked lightly as he said, "It's Seventh Brother who is truly capable. There's no need to thank me."

    Feeling slightly embarrassed by the rebuff, Chang Nian glanced at her brother's expression, understanding that he didn't wish to hear more. She downed her drink in one gulp and whispered, "If there's anything Third Brother needs assistance with in the future, just give the word. Though I may not be talented, I'm willing to go through fire and water to repay your favor."

    Before the wine even touched his lips, the Third Prince set down his cup and softly replied, "That won't be necessary."

    For lesser matters, he wouldn't have become so agitated. But overseeing the grain supply was something he had planned for half a year and meticulously strategized to obtain. He thought he had it in the bag and could lend a hand to his seventh brother along the way. Little did he expect that this unremarkable Zhao Chang Nian would ruin everything.

    Though he had gained some benefits this time, their father now viewed his capabilities as inferior to Seventh Brother's. When court officials praised the Seventh Prince, they often did so by subtly putting down the Third Prince. As a result, the most common phrase heard when discussing the Seventh Prince was – "marginally better than the Third Prince."

    Marginally better my foot! If not for Duke Guo's support, this piece of trash might still be rotting somewhere as good-for-nothing! He had tried to help her, yet she had climbed over his head instead. Who could bear such humiliation?

    Noticing that Third Brother's anger seemed to be growing, Chang Nian shrunk back and moved to the side.

    "Well, did you hit a wall?" The crown prince, still waiting in his original spot, laughed when he saw her return to her seat. He patted her back and said, "You're still young. It's always wise to listen to your older brother's advice."

    "Many thanks, Your Highness," Chang Nian bowed his hands in greeting, exchanging a few polite words.

    The Crown Prince wasn't offended. Instead, he lowered his voice and said, "Nian'er, you can't trust outsiders. No one will genuinely be good to you. The moment there's something more beneficial than you, anyone, no matter who they are, will abandon you."

    Chang Nian smiled foolishly and nodded along.

    Was he implying this about Ye Jiangbai, trying to sow discord? Chang Nian thought to herself, Which prince who has survived in the palace until now hasn't seen through human nature? How could she fall for such a petty trick?

    Firecrackers exploded in the snowy courtyard outside, while the imperial musicians played their instruments joyfully, reaching the climax of their performance. The entire royal family was in high spirits, filled with laughter and merriment. As the banquet drew to a close, the Emperor, slightly tipsy, summoned Chang Nian to his side.

    "Imperial Father!" Chang Nian exclaimed with overwhelming joy, kneeling before him.

    The emperor gazed at her for a moment, then, in an unprecedented gesture, he leaned forward personally to offer her his assistance.

    "Nian'er," he said, "you're growing up now and able to share my concerns. I am truly delighted."

    Gazing at the imperial dragon boots before her with a mixture of surprise and reverence, Chang Nian stammered, "It pleases Father Emperor... that is all that matters."

    "Among all my imperial sons, you are the most timid," the emperor chuckled, then whispered, "But it seems, you are also the one who favors me the most."

    Her throat tightened, and Chang Nian bit her lip.

    How could she not love her own father? Since childhood, she had envied the crown prince the most, who was often cuddled and teased by their father. She had waited and hoped, but even as she grew into an adult, she never received a hug from her father like the one he gave the crown prince.

    But it didn't matter now. Her father was treating her differently, and she was overjoyed.

    "I, your subject, wish for my father's reign to last forever," said Chang Nian, unsure of what else to say, as she bowed once more.

    The emperor looked at her, slightly moved, and patted her shoulder gently. "Good girl."

    Chang Nian's eyes misted with emotion.

    In this palace, all the princes showed respect when they met the emperor. Only Zhao Chang Nian approached him with heartfelt anticipation and enthusiasm. Previously, when Nian'er was deemed incompetent, the emperor had been too busy to pay much attention. Now that she had matured and could handle official duties, the emperor felt that he owed her some compensation.

    Thus, on the fourth day of the New Year, news came from the palace: The emperor intended to send the Seventh Prince to the Patrol Camp for training, already arranging a position as a vice commander.

    Chang Nian jumped out of bed in delight, grabbing Hong Ti's hand. "Father wants me to be trained!"

    Hong Ti winced from her grip but quickly nodded. "Yes, His Majesty holds you in high regard."

    His high regard for her meant that the better she performed her duties, the more her father, the Emperor, would come to favor her. Chang Nian beamed, her smile so wide that her eyes vanished beneath her arching brows. She wrapped herself in a small cloak and dashed toward Ye Jiangbai's courtyard.

    Ye Jiangbai's cold was almost entirely gone, but he still pretended to be ill and stayed indoors, lazily reading. Hearing the commotion outside, he instructed Liang Ce without hesitation, "The young lady is here. Prepare some snacks for her."

    "Yes, Your Excellency," Liang Ce acknowledged the order.

    "Marquis, Marquis!" Chang Nian called out as she ran. "I have good news, Marquis!"

    For some reason, Ye Jiangbai enjoyed hearing her double his title. Even before seeing her, he could sense her joy, and his lips curled upward in response.

    However, he knew the news already and was well aware of its outcome, so he suppressed his smile, put down his book, and looked up at the person entering the room.

    Chang Nian had flourished in the Marquis's residence, becoming even more fair-skinned with bright red lips and an enchanting appearance. But she had also become increasingly uninhibited. Upon entering, she pounced onto his soft couch and hugged his legs, exclaiming, "Marquis, Father Emperor plans to promote me!"

    Ye Jiangbai replied, "A mere Deputy Protectorate, can that be considered a promotion?"

    Chang Nian pouted, voicing her resentment. "Why do you know everything? There's no surprise left."

    "It wasn't really a surprise to begin with," Ye Jiangbai said, setting aside his book. Reaching out, he untied the sash securing her cloak at the neck and removed it, hanging it to one side. Then, he continued, "Let this matter rest, Your Highness. It won't come to pass."

    Chang Nian was taken aback, not understanding the implications. "What do you mean?"

    "The Patrol Division is under the charge of Third Prince. Recently, His Highness hasn't been on good terms with him. If you insist on approaching, there'll be trouble," Ye Jiangbai explained. "It's better to let it go for now and wait for another opportunity."

    Feeling a heavy heart, Chang Nian frowned. "But Father Emperor personally appointed me. Can't that still work?"

    Fixing her with a deep gaze, Ye Jiangbai smiled. "It won't work."

    His confident tone made Chang Nian grasp the situation instantly.

    Even the emperor's will could be thwarted if Ye Jiangbai opposed it.

    But why? Even if she had offended Third Brother, wouldn't it serve its purpose if he used this as an opportunity to vent his anger? Besides, Father Emperor wished for her to go. She...she wanted to go.

    Kneeling upright, Chang Nian whispered, "Did Third Brother ask you to stop me?"

    Ye Jiangbai was slightly startled before lowering his eyes. "Why would Your Highness think so? I'm only looking out for your best interests."


    Chang Nian was tempted to confess her understanding of his relationship with Third Brother, expressing that he held precedence over her, which is why, faced with a choice, she knew he would choose him. However, considering the potential repercussions of such straightforwardness, she held her tongue. Instead, she slowly descended from the luxurious couch, clasping her hands together and inquired, "What if I insist on going?"


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