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    Chapter 65: Destined to Be Alone

    Everyone said that the Duke of State was an avid jade lover, but with so many in his possession, he wouldn't feel a pinch even if one were to break.

    Yet, this was the most expensive jade she had ever purchased. Even though it was bought with the silver he gave her, she had waited at the shop's entrance early in the morning and sweet-talked the owner into selling it to her.

    In the end, he simply dismissed it.

    Chang Nian pursed her lips, gazing at the pitiful broken jade, her heart aching uncontrollably.

    "Don't crouch there. Your boots will get wet again," Beitang Miao frowned as he pulled her up, reaching out to discard the jade fragment.

    Chang Nian clenched her fist, retracting her hand.

    Ye Jiangbai, walking ahead, quickened his pace, soon disappearing from sight. She turned away and softly said, "Let's go."

    Beitang Miao's brows knitted slightly, but he didn't comment further. To avoid suspicion, they left the palace separately, meeting again outside before returning together to the Beitang Mansion.

    Just after the New Year, the air was filled with the aroma of various households' cured meats and sausages. As their carriage passed by, smoke rose continuously from chimneys, amidst the bustling noise, yet it evoked a sense of warmth.

    Ye Jiangbai leaned expressionlessly against the carriage wall, listening to Xue Song's chatter from outside. "Grandfather's messenger has sent word that the New Year has passed, you should at least pay him a visit."

    "Whatever happened before was just a moment of anger from Grandfather, you can't really avoid going back to the ancestral home."

    "The younger generation is still waiting to pay their respects to you."

    Growing impatient, Ye Jiangbai snapped, "Be quiet."

    Silence ensued outside, and Ye Jiangbai lowered his gaze to the half-piece of ice-type jade hanging at his waist. His eyes darkened with hostility as he reached out to remove it, preparing to throw it out the window.

    However, just as the jade was about to be released, he hooked the string and pulled it back.

    The jade hadn't done anything wrong; it was the people who had made mistakes.

    Upon returning to the Marquis's residence, the entire place was desolate, save for the servants. Ye Jiangbai sat alone in his room, receiving two stacks of documents which he meticulously reviewed and dealt with. He then instructed Liang Ce to attend to matters, delivering New Year gifts to Prince Third.

    With all tasks completed, he found himself staring blankly at the screen in his room.

    In the distance, the lively sounds of firecrackers echoed, yet his surroundings were devoid of any such festivity, as silent as a grave.

    Nonetheless, Ye Jiangbai thought to himself, all those who sought to reach the pinnacle were bound to be solitary. He should not have tasted the warmth of companionship.

    "Liang Ce," his attendant ventured cautiously, "It's late. Should we send someone to fetch His Highness back?"

    "No need," he replied with a smile, regaining his composure. "My courtyard doesn't require outsiders."

    Indeed, they were merely strangers to each other.

    On the seventh day of the new year, Beitang Miao took Seventh Prince to the Patrol Unit. Although there was no explicit order from the emperor, with him as the commander, Zhao Changnian smoothly assumed the role of Deputy Protector, receiving the official robes and seal.

    Coincidentally, Third Prince was also present that day. Upon encountering her, he offered a sarcastic smile. "Seventh Brother's abilities surpass my expectations."

    Changnian felt uneasy and wished to clarify, but Third Brother ignored her, leaving with his entourage.

    "General," she asked, hanging her head low, "Where's Hong Ti?"

    Beitang Miao turned away, replying, "She'll come eventually."

    He had dispatched someone to fetch her, but Ye Jiangbai refused to release her, necessitating more effort.

    Chang Nian perceived his distress and, after some thought, suggested, "It might be more effective if I go back personally."

    "No need," Beitang Miao replied. "If he's willing to let it go, sending someone would suffice. If he isn't, your presence won't make a difference."

    But... Chang Nian pressed her lips together. She felt that Ye Jiangbai was waiting for her to apologize. If she were to humble herself, this matter could pass. But if she didn't... what would happen if she didn't?

    Ye Liang smoothly entered the Imperial Guard camp, thanks to the emperor's favor, and obtained a decent rank, allowing him to meet Chang Nian daily.

    With great caution, Chang Nian asked him, "Is Duke Guo still angry with me?"

    Ye Liang sighed and said, "How could we commoners fathom the thoughts of our master? Yet, we can see that His Highness has been in a troubled state lately, barely recovered from a major illness yet still overworking himself. He has no one close by to attend to his needs. Neither Liang Ce nor Xue Song dares to approach, leaving him be."

    Chang Nian inquired, "Is he refusing to see a physician even though he's unwell?"

    Ye Liang nodded.

    After some contemplation, on her way back to the Beitang Mansion, Chang Nian made a detour to the capital's most renowned pharmacy, Xuanhu Tang, where she procured a bottle of medicine, which she surreptitiously tucked into her robes. The following day, upon encountering Ye Liang again, she pressed the bottle into his hands.

    Curiosity piqued, Ye Liang inquired, "Since Your Highness still concerns yourself with the Duke, why not pay him a visit?"

    Chang Nian lowered her head, pointing at the attire of an Assistant Commander she was wearing. "He wouldn't want to see me."

    She hadn't listened and had entered the Patrol Unit without permission, causing a conflict with Third Brother and disrupting his plans. Ye Jiangbai would undoubtedly be displeased to see her now.

    Her assumption was correct. Even in his dreams, Ye Jiangbai saw her with seething hatred.

    Puppy! White-eyed wolf! Unfilial child!

    Each night, when he saw that delicate, pitiful face in his dreams, Ye Jiangbai cursed inwardly. However, despite the cursing, he still approached, wanting to seize her.

    But Chang Nian seemed to have grown eight legs; she always fled swiftly.

    Upon waking, Ye Jiangbai fiercely instructed Liang Ce, "Prepare crabs for lunch. Cook all those with eight legs!"

    Liang Ce trembled as he replied, "Master, there aren't any crabs this time of year..."

    "Then go buy them!" With a flick of his sleeves, Ye Jiangbai stood up, pulling open a drawer and throwing out a stack of banknotes.

    As the banknotes scattered down, Liang Ce couldn't help but muse—his master was indeed very wealthy and also very capricious.

    Amidst the turmoil in one part of the palace, a major incident unfolded elsewhere.

    During his confinement, the Fifth Prince had secretly left his quarters and clashed once more with the Crown Prince, resulting in the latter falling down the stairs and fracturing his left arm. The court officials submitted petitions in unison, condemning the Fifth Prince. The emperor, filled with rage, demoted his foster mother, the Honorable Consort, to the rank of Noble Consort and planned to send the Fifth Prince into exile to Kunlun.

    Noble Consort knelt in the snow outside the imperial study for half an hour, her tears softening the emperor's heart. He temporarily suspended the Fifth Prince's exile. However, Ye Jiangbai entered the palace once more, reporting that there were rebellious bandits in Bashan, unsettling the hearts of the officials, and that the imperial presence was needed to stabilize the situation.

    Thus, the Fifth Prince could not escape his fate of being dispatched afar.

    Chang Nian sighed deeply, "Can the Duke of State truly determine the fates of us princes with ease?"

    Beitang Miao shook his head and said solemnly, "Fifth Prince's downfall is due to the Empress and the Crown Prince. Duke Guo at most added insult to injury. How could a mere civilian official challenge the royal family?"

    Chang Nian lowered her eyes. If she had not spent time with Ye Jiangbai, she might have thought the same. But now, she dared not underestimate that person in the slightest.

    "I want to see Fifth Brother," she said.

    Beitang Miao nodded. "I'll make the arrangements for you."

    Fifth Brother, with his illustrious family background, had always been one of the most confident princes besides the Crown Prince. Whenever Chang Nian saw him, he held his head high, exuding both arrogance and nobility.

    Yet, upon this reunion, Fifth Brother appeared disheveled despite his magnificent attire, and the arrogance in his eyes had seemingly faded away.

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