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    Chapter 83 - Reluctant to Let Go

    Upon hearing this, Duke Ding Guo burst into laughter, his plump belly protruding like that of the smiling Buddha, Maitreya.

    Mu Shufang walked over to Chang Nian and stood beside her, whispering, "Why has Your Highness come?"

    "I came to find you," Chang Nian replied softly. "Is it convenient now?"

    "You're here to save me," Mu Shufang said gratefully, casting her a grateful glance before turning to Duke Ding Guo with a serious expression. "Father, our side courtyard's winter plum blossoms are in full bloom. Would it be alright for me to show them to His Highness?"

    "Dai-er, His Highness hasn't even sat down for a moment, and we haven't properly observed all the etiquette..." Duke Ding Guo muttered, then turned to bow to Chang Nian. "My daughter is spoiled, so please bear with her, Your Highness."

    "Please, no need for that," Chang Nian responded, rising to her feet and bowing in return before leaving the room with Mu Shufang.

    "As if you know!" As soon as they stepped out of the tea hall, Mu Shufang took Chang Nian's hand and pretended to be on the verge of tears. "Three hours, three hours since morning! My father has made me kneel in the ancestral shrine the whole time, lecturing me about how the youngest daughter of Minister Tang is already engaged, so why haven't I received any proposals? Oh heavens, Minister Tang's youngest daughter is marrying the idle son of the Ji family. Who would want to marry someone like that? Only Minister Tang treats his daughter like an object."

    Chang Nian couldn't help but chuckle. "Miss Mu is talented and beautiful; there's no need for you to compromise. Duke Ding Guo is simply too anxious."

    "That's right!" Mu Shufang exclaimed. "Yesterday, my mother sent over a registry of eligible bachelors from the capital, asking me to browse through them. In a fit of anger, I burned the book, and my father scolded me for being unreasonable. Heaven, getting married isn't like ordering food at a restaurant; can one really choose from a menu?"

    Chang Nian hesitated for a moment before asking her, "Do you still wish to marry me now?"

    "Of course!" Mu Shufang quickly nodded. "Marrying His Highness is the best choice."

    Chang Nian nodded and rubbed his palms together. "Then... I'll have to think about how to proceed."

    Noticing the worry on her face, Mu Shufang raised an eyebrow, sensing something was amiss. She dismissed the servants and took her hand, whispering, "Have you encountered some trouble?"

    "I won't hide it from you," Chang Nian said. "I've recently offended Third Brother, and the Crown Prince doesn't want me to have an easy time either. If they persist in causing trouble, my true identity won't remain a secret for long."

    Mu Shufang understood and smiled. "Then our marriage would be a win-win situation. Once we're officially wed, even if someone uncovers anything, they wouldn't dare bring it directly to the Emperor's attention for the sake of the Ding Guo Marquis House's reputation."

    "Mmm..." Chang Nian scratched his head. "It's just that I can't help but worry about implicating you. That's why I came today, to discuss the pros and cons with you before making a decision."

    "As I said before, as long as His Highness marries me, I will protect you," Mu Shufang smiled. "Even if we're just a pretend couple, we are genuine friends. Sharing hardships together wouldn't be difficult at all."

    "However..." Mu Shufang's eyes rolled around before she asked, "Does the Marquis know about this?"

    Chang Nian forced a laugh and shook her head.

    If he found out, she might not even be able to leave the house.

    Huddling her arms, Mu Shufang said with a shiver, "That's the biggest problem. If Duke Guo finds out, our plans will surely fall apart... Speaking of which, it's strange. You're a man, so why would he..."

    Looking at her in surprise, Chang Nian stammered, "How... How did you know about me and Duke Guo?"

    Winking playfully, Mu Shufang replied, "Doesn't everyone have eyes? I've known Duke Guo for years, and I've never seen him take interest in anyone. He's always the one standing on the sidelines, watching the show with his hands folded. But now, whenever the prince is involved, he can't help but join in, even if it means getting dirt on himself."

    Blushing, Chang Nian lowered her head, her toes tracing the ground as she struggled to find words.

    "But if he knew the prince was a woman, he'd be even happier," Mu Shufang clapped her hands. "It could even become a beautiful legend."

    Letting out a bitter laugh, Chang Nian shook her head.

    "It won't happen."

    She knew better than anyone that when Ye Jiangbai discovered the truth, her fate would be grim. And their relationship would come to an end.

    Seeing her expression darken abruptly, Mu Shufang exclaimed, "Oh," and squeezed her hand. "Don't be sad. Life is short, and there's no guarantee of a next life. If we don't live happily now, what's the point? Let's think of a way to keep it from Duke Guo for now. Once my father gets the imperial edict for our marriage, we can tell him then, right?"

    "Can it be obtained?"

    "It can. Our House of Ding Guo has many merits, and His Majesty is quite concerned about my marriage. If I wish to marry, they would have to bestow the marriage immediately, even if they fear I might change my mind," Mu Shufang said proudly, lifting her chin. "I'll tell my father right away that I won't wed without an imperial edict."

    Seeing this expression, Chang Nian couldn't help but laugh, feeling a sense of relief in her heart.

    "I will treat you well," she vowed firmly. "In the future, whenever you need me and if it's within my power, I will lend you any assistance."

    Mu Shufang curved her lips and gently pinched her delicate little cheek. "Your Highness, don't feel indebted to me. This is a mutual agreement, and neither of us owes the other."

    It was truly fortunate for her to encounter such a young lady, Chang Nian mused with a tilted head. She owed it to the unambitious young masters of the capital who failed to captivate Mu Shufang's heart. Otherwise, she would have been in a desperate situation today.

    Having reached a mutual understanding, Chang Nian spent more time chatting with Duke Ding Guo, expressing her affection for Mu Shufang. Overjoyed, the duke personally escorted her out of his residence when she took her leave, treating her almost like a future son-in-law in his words and actions. He praised Mu Shufang repeatedly, his pride evident in his tone.

    Suddenly, Chang Nian could thoroughly understand why someone as free-spirited as Mu Shufang would still yield to filial piety. With such a loving father, no one would bear to disappoint him.

    Upon returning home in her carriage, Chang Nian was embraced around the waist and pressed against the door panel the moment she entered the main house.

    "Where did you go?" Ye Jiangbai asked, leaning down to give her a fierce kiss.

    Gazing at him, Chang Nian unusually did not resist, allowing him to flirtatiously tease her as she whispered, "I just came back from the Patrol Division."

    "Mmm," Ye Jiangbai didn't ask further. He gently pecked her lips and then her cheeks, curling his lips as he said, "I just returned from the palace and didn't see Your Highness. I thought you had run off with someone again."

    In his tone, there was half jest and half lingering fear, which tugged at one's heartstrings.

    Chang Nian pursed her lips and reached up to wrap her arms around his neck. She tiptoed slightly, tilting her head to initiate a kiss.

    Ye Jiangbai paused, his fox-like eyes shimmering with unreadable emotions. He wanted to say something but didn't, instead laughing softly and capturing her earlobe between his lips. Applying more force in his grip, he pulled her tightly into his embrace, holding her firmly.

    Feng Tingyun had mentioned that he hadn't experienced much in the realm of love and could easily stumble in the smallest of pitfalls. Ye Jiangbai felt that he had already braved countless storms; if he were to truly stumble, it wouldn't be so bad – it would count as an experience.

    More importantly, this experience was incredibly enchanting and alluring, making him reluctant to let go.

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