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    Chapter 89: Bestowing Marriage

    In early spring, when all things came back to life, the Third Prince strode towards the palace gates with several confessions hidden in his sleeves, his expression far from relaxed.

    He had spared no effort to find the old servants from Concubine Qin's palace from years ago, only to obtain just two testimonies, with all human evidence eradicated. Relying solely on these two statements... he couldn't guarantee that his father would believe them, but he decided to give it a try, hoping to at least arouse some suspicion in the Emperor. After all, wasn't it easy to verify whether someone was male or female?

    However, as soon as he stepped into the Dragon Coiling Palace, he heard the Emperor's hearty laughter.

    "Excellent! Very good!"

    The joyful voice greeted him, and Zhao Hengxu paused, slowing his pace. As he approached to pay his respects, he observed the person standing beside the Emperor.

    Zhao Changnian had entered the palace and stood just three steps to his left. Next to her was Duke Ding Guo, both with joyful expressions. What was even more unexpected was that Miss Mu was also there, looking down with a shy smile, embodying the demeanor of a young maiden.

    Suspecting something unpleasant, after finishing his greeting, Zhao Hengxu asked with a smile, "Is there some good news?"

    The Emperor patted his armrest and said, "You've come at just the right time. I was just pondering who would be suitable to deliver the imperial edict. Since you are Changnian's brother and have some leisure time, why not make a trip to Duke Fu Guo's residence and Duke Ding Guo's residence?"

    "....This." Zhao Hengxu glanced at Zhao Changnian, frowned momentarily before hastily smoothing his face, forcing a smile. "Could it be?"

    Those standing around all nodded with smiles.

    Indeed, Zhao Hengxu clenched the item in his sleeve. After a brief stiffness, he suddenly let go and bowed towards Chang Nian and Duke Ding Guo with a smile. "Congratulations, congratulations."

    Chang Nian gave him a deep look and replied with a faint smile, "Many thanks, Your Highness."

    He had obtained the confession, she knew, but now he could no longer use it.

    Leaving the Dragon Coiling Palace, Chang Nian slowed her pace and waited for Zhao Hengxu to catch up. She tilted her head and whispered, "Does my elder brother truly not tolerate me?"

    Zhao Hengxu's expression was grim as he bowed to her. "I underestimated Seventh Brother. This time, I am the one who lost."

    "I have never intended to compete with my royal brothers for victory or defeat," Chang Nian straightened her posture, one head shorter than him, looking up at him with her clear deer-like eyes. "But why can't my elder brother just let me be?"

    Let her be? And then watch her climb higher until she stood above him? Zhao Hengxu scoffed and shook his head, whispering, "Seventh Brother should think carefully about how to account to Duke Guo."

    Chang Nian fell silent.

    Ye Jiangbai had gone on an inspection tour of the East City that day. The officials there eagerly stuffed red envelopes into his hands, which Ye Jiangbai did not refuse. He set out with an empty carriage and returned fully loaded, planning to give some banknotes to the little fool so she wouldn't always look so impoverished.

    As the carriage rolled along the road, there was a great commotion outside. Occasionally, they could hear phrases like "imperial marriage." Ye Jiangbai raised an eyebrow and chuckled. "Could it be that His Majesty has made up his mind to bestow some noble lady upon Feng Tingyun?"

    The driver, Liang Ce, laughed. "In that case, Lord Feng would certainly climb up the city tower and threaten to take his own life."

    Recalling Feng Tingyun's appearance, both master and servant burst into a low chuckle.

    The carriage stopped at the Duke of Guo's residence. When Ye Jiangbai alighted, he was unexpectedly greeted by Xue Song, who approached with a grave expression. "Master, the Third Prince has brought an imperial edict."

    The smile froze on Ye Jiangbai's face as he gradually reined in the corners of his lips. "What edict?"

    "The Emperor has arranged a marriage between Lady Mu, daughter of Duke Ding Guo, and... and the Seventh Prince."

    "Who?" Ye Jiangbai's gaze darkened as he grabbed the lapel of Xue Song's robe, seemingly unable to comprehend. "You said Lady Mu is to marry whom?"

    "Reporting to Master," Xue Song swallowed. "The Seventh Prince."

    Something in Ye Jiangbai's mind exploded with a loud "bang." He staggered a half-step and took a deep breath, but couldn't seem to exhale for a long while.

    Liang Ce hurried to support him. Ye Jiangbai regained his composure, only to forcefully push the man away and stride inside hastily.

    Excellent, most excellent! Bestowing marriage between Chang Nian and Mu Shufang? He hadn't received any news at all, which meant that the Emperor was keeping it from him. Why?

    Unless it was Chang Nian's own request!

    Yesterday, just yesterday, she had still been warmly embracing him, looking at him with the world's most innocent eyes, promising to stay by his side. Yet, today, he received an imperial edict to marry her off!

    She had known all along... Long before yesterday, before going to Delong Street, even before growing close to him, she had already plotted this!

    There were many advantages to marrying Mu Shufang – gaining the aid of Duke Ding Guo, being able to establish his own household, and...

    Leaving him.

    His chest felt heavy, and Ye Jiangbai slowed his pace, reaching out to support himself on the vermilion carved column by the corridor as he gasped for air.

    "…Duke."

    Someone called him softly.

    Ye Jiangbai lifted his gaze, his fox-like eyes filled with a bloody red, staring straight at the person.

    She remained as delicate and refined as ever, clad in a light indigo robe, biting her lip with her pearly teeth, her hands and feet at a loss as she looked at him. As if wanting to approach, she took two steps back, intimidated by his gaze.

    Ye Jiangbai felt like laughing. How was it that his eyes, which had seen through countless people, failed to penetrate her? She wasn't an innocent prince who avoided strife; she desired so much more. She yearned for the emperor's favor, status, power, the hearts of others, and a chance to turn her fortunes around.

    Yet, she never wanted him.

    The corners of his mouth twitched, and he straightened, bowing towards her. "Congratulations to Prince Qi, on the impending joyous occasion."

    Chang Nian's face paled, and she lowered her head, clutching her fists. "I'm sorry."

    "There's no need," Ye Jiangbai shook his head with a smile. "What could His Highness possibly apologize for? It's I who should be apologizing, for not knowing of your heart's choice and persistently bothering you, causing distress."

    "It's not that..."

    Approaching her, Ye Jiangbai seized her wrist and asked in a hoarse voice, "Why didn't you tell me earlier?"

    He forcefully suppressed his emotions, his breath uneven, exuding a fierce aura. Chang Nian trembled slightly, aware that she couldn't evade. Instead, she whispered, "If I told you sooner, you wouldn't have allowed this imperial edict to reach our residence."

    So, she hadn't given him the slightest chance to interfere.

    Ye Jiangbai chuckled, his laughter rough and strained as he tightened his grip on her wrist. "Your heart is truly made of iron."

    "Is yours not the same?" Chang Nian lowered her gaze, studying the pale knuckles of his hand as she whispered, "No matter how many sweet nothings you say to me, the first one you'll always choose to protect is Third Brother."

    "I dare not bet my life on who you will help next, so I'll save myself."

    "Did I do wrong?"

    Ye Jiangbai was taken aback, and by the time he understood the implications of her words, his eyes seemed to be bleeding with emotion.

    "I've said before that emotions don't lie. Duke appreciates me, and I feel the same way," Chang Nian placed her hand over his. "But in Duke's heart, you wouldn't sacrifice your life for me. And it's the same in mine."

    Feelings come in many forms - some deep, others shallow. Without reaching the depths of true love, they're merely fleeting infatuations and impulses. Eventually, the words 'betrayal' would fall upon one person's shoulders.

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