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    Chapter 69: A Radiant and Unfettered Woman

    "One is born as an individual, but there are those who, unrelated to you, you still wish to claim as your own, believing they cannot belong to anyone else. If they do belong, it's either by twisting or pulling, and this heart will always respond."

    Beitang Miao's words echoed in Chang Nian's mind, rousing her from her thoughts with a start.

    What was she doing? Could she, a mere bait, have feelings for the fisherman? Even if it meant being crushed into dust, never to be whole again! There were countless people in this world; she could still love a man, but not this one before her.

    Better to trust in ghosts and gods than in powerful ministers!

    Taking a small step back, Chang Nian composed herself and smiled. "I must return to the Patrol Camp, so I won't overstay my welcome."

    "Your Highness," Ye Jiangbai called out, halting her. "My residence rarely hosts banquets, and especially ones that benefit Your Highness. Why rush off?"

    "Benefit... me?" Chang Nian looked at him.

    Ye Jiangbai smiled, his handsome face warm and approachable. "With His Majesty's favor and the position of Vice Commander of the Patrol Camp in Your Highness's hands, what remains is merely the support of your family, isn't it?"

    Concubine Qin's family could not be relied upon. Thus, she would have to establish a queen, relying on the queen's family for support.

    Her eyes dimming slightly, Chang Nian was tempted to say that she didn't need it at all, but listening to the tone of Ye Jiangbai's words, she pressed her lips, straightened her back, and replied, "Thank you for your advice, Duke of the State."

    A delicate face, now shed of its timid demeanor, was adorned with sharp brows and star-like eyes that inexplicably commanded attention.

    Mu Shufang couldn't help but exclaim, releasing Ye Jiangbai as she walked to Chang Nian's side and took her hand. "The banquet has already begun outside. Duke Guo isn't one for crowds. Would it be alright if I accompany Your Highness there?"

    "Very well," Chang Nian accepted without hesitation.

    Ye Jiangbai pursed his lips, his chin tautening. "Miss Mu," he addressed her with formality.

    "Hmm?" Mu Shufang turned her head back.

    Gazing at her intently, Ye Jiangbai said with a hint of jest and warning, "Do mind your manners, shall you?"

    Raising her sleeves to cover her lips, Mu Shufang chuckled and asked Chang Nian, "Our Duke really is a rather petty person, isn't he?"

    "Indeed," Chang Nian nodded expressionlessly, well aware of Ye Jiangbai's dominance. He wouldn't allow anyone else to touch what belonged to him, and since he was already stingy with her, pretending to be a man, he would undoubtedly be even more possessive over other women.

    Nonetheless, upon realizing his displeasure, Chang Nian reached out and gently held Mu Shufang's delicate hand.

    Mu Shufang was taken aback, then her eyes lit up. "Your Highness?"

    "Let's go," Chang Nian said without turning back. A rebellious satisfaction filled him as he pulled her out the door, quickly leaving Ye Jiangbai's sight.

    Ye Jiangbai stood rooted to the spot, his face darkening as he gritted his teeth and cursed under his breath.

    Feng Tingyun emerged from the shadows behind, lifting the curtain. He smiled. "I told you before that there are those who prefer women among those who dabble in same-sex relationships, but you wouldn't believe me."

    Ye Jiangbai pressed his lips together tightly and snorted coldly. With a flick of his sleeve, he sent a teacup on the low table beside him crashing to the ground. The fine porcelain shattered with a loud crash, making Feng Tingyun jump and cover his mouth in fright.

    How could someone like Zhao Changnian, with his effeminate manner, be interested in women? Could it be that he was capable of intimate acts with other men, just like them?

    He couldn't picture such a scene, and if he forced himself to imagine it, the figure in his mind would only be himself.

    "You keep an eye on Mu Shufang," Ye Jiangbai gritted his teeth. "That woman has no boundaries and will do whatever she pleases."

    "Who? Me?" Feng Tingyun looked around in alarm and shook his head. "I can't afford to offend her."

    Turning to look at him, Ye Jiangbai smiled. "Watch over her, or take a business trip to Shanxi this year. Choose one."

    "I'll attend to it immediately," Feng Tingyun bowed and swiftly lifted his robe to depart.

    Compared to Mu Shufang, Ye Jiangbai was someone one could afford to offend even less.

    Chang Nian followed Miss Mu, but after two steps, he finally realized the significance of this "Lady of Duke Ding Guo."

    Mu Shufang – tales about this lady had been heard both in the former dynasty and the imperial palace. She could read a thousand characters at three, recite the Four Books and Five Classics at five, and at seven, she left the court orators speechless with her debating skills. At ten, her pipa performance astounded everyone.

    Other children might show promise in their youth only to become ordinary adults. But this young lady's brilliance persisted into adulthood and even intensified. At last year's diplomatic feast, when a foreign envoy attempted to humiliate the imperial prestige with a song called "Journey to Huoze" played on a huqin, an instrument few in the court were proficient in, the situation became awkward. Miss Mu stepped forward without hesitation, seized the huqin, composed a new piece on the spot called "West Gate Pass," and afterwards composed a poem with the first character of each line forming a hidden message, fiercely reprimanding the envoy.

    The emperor himself had once praised her, stating that if Shufang were born as an imperial prince, the great Zhou dynasty would surely flourish for another hundred years.

    How could such a brilliant and composed woman also attend this grand banquet at the Duke's residence?

    "Your Highness," Mu Shufang spoke up with a gentle smile, ensuring they were alone, "Do you lack a principal consort?"

    Zhao Changnian: "..."

    Does this... not seem a bit too straightforward? She looked at the young lady with a touch of panic, unsure how to react.

    Mu Shufang found amusement in her reaction and chuckled again, her face blossoming like a spring flower, truly radiant. After her laughter subsided, she said with shimmering eyes, "By making me your main consort, not only will you gain the support of my Ding Guo Duke's Mansion, but there will be countless other advantages. It's a win-win situation, Your Highness, would you consider it?"

    "Why me?" Chang Nian was puzzled, gesturing behind her to the main courtyard. "Isn't the Duke of Auxiliary State more suitable for you?"

    "She?" Mu Shufang's expression fell, and her nose wrinkled slightly. "He's too clever and has no heart. If I were to marry him, I would lose myself and probably die from melancholy. My lady has known the Duke for four years now. If we were truly compatible, wouldn't our marriage have already been arranged?"

    Chang Nian gave a sheepish smile, understanding now that this young lady saw value in her simplicity and tractability. By marrying into the family, she could continue living freely while also having someone at her beck and call.

    "Ah, where did Your Highness get that idea?" Mu Shufang chided playfully, giving her a glance. "My lady didn't mean that."

    Startled, Chang Nian put her hand over her chest in fear. "You... can read minds?"

    Mu Shufang laughed again, her eyes sparkling with delight as she dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. "Your Highness is simply adorable."

    With everything clearly displayed on her face, how could anyone miss what she was thinking? Did she think her heart was hidden behind her stomach?

    Chang Nian pouted, feeling wronged.

    Gently stroking her face with an inexplicable tenderness, Mu Shufang explained, "What my lady meant is that after the marriage, I am willing to assist Your Highness. However, we can maintain our own lives without interfering too much with each other. Your Highness can be with whomever you wish, regardless of gender. Not only will I not mind, but I am also willing to cover for you."

    Staring at her with wide eyes, Chang Nian forgot to dodge her hand, foolishly asking, "What do you gain from this?"

    "The satisfaction of filial piety," the beautiful woman before him sighed deeply.

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