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    Chapter 96: The Seventh Prince's Transformation

    After two days of recuperation at Beitang Mansion, Chang Nian moved to the palace estate bestowed by His Majesty. Despite not yet being officially titled a prince, she was able to have a mansion thanks to the blessings of the Ding Guo Duke's household. Therefore, on her first night in the new residence, she invited Mu Shufang over for dinner.

    As soon as Mu Shufang entered, she examined Chang Nian from left to right, frowning. "I heard that there was a conflict between you and the Duke, and you got hurt?"

    The mention of Ye Jiangbai still made Chang Nian pause, but she quickly regained her composure and smiled. "It wasn't anything serious."

    "His Excellency Duke is like that, accustomed to being domineering. When he's angry, he doesn't think things through," sighed Mu Shufang. "As long as Your Highness is unharmed, it's fine. If not, I'd have to confront the Duke."

    With that, she blinked, swayed her tiny waist, and tugged on Chang Nian's hand, saying, "After all, Your Highness is my betrothed!"

    Chang Nian couldn't help but chuckle at her coquettish demeanor, feeling slightly lighter in spirits. She guided Mu Shufang to sit down and said earnestly, "If Nian ever achieves greatness, I will never treat you unfairly."

    Mu Shufang agreed with a smile, but later realized something was amiss. She looked up at Chang Nian once more.

    The previous Seventh Prince had been meek and delicate, speaking softly and avoiding eye contact. But now, what was this? It seemed as if his entire aura had changed, his gaze resolute and shimmering with a newfound light.

    "Your Highness is planning to..." Mu Shufang began hesitantly, pointing in the direction of the Forbidden City outside the window.

    Chang Nian gently smiled and offered her a piece of meat. "Don't overthink it. Let's enjoy our meal first."

    Muzhushufang swallowed, gazing at the meat in her bowl. She wanted to advise her but was unsure how to do so without hurting her pride. It made sense for other princes to compete, as they had influential supporters or the emperor's favor. But what did Prince Seventh have? He was an insignificant prince – how could he possibly contend with the others?

    Feeling uneasy, she quickly lost her appetite after a few bites. She called him formally, "Your Highness."

    "Mm," Chang Nian acknowledged, then asked, "Finished already?"

    "Yes, but Your Highness..."

    "Once you've finished eating, have them clear the area. I still have some guests to receive," Chang Nian spoke softly. "You're about to marry me. If you don't mind the formality, you may join me in meeting them."

    Mu Shufang was taken aback but, intrigued, she suppressed her misgivings and nodded. "Very well."

    In the reception hall of the prince's residence, she found herself surrounded by a sea of court officials. At their head was the Deputy Minister of Revenue, Feng Jingxian, known among the courtiers as the "Cold-Faced Calculator." Abandoning his usual aloofness, he bowed respectfully to Chang Nian. "Your Highness."

    Mu Shufang was startled. Glancing between the officials and Chang Nian, she couldn't fathom how they had all come together.

    Feng Jingxian and the others, however, didn't seem surprised by her presence. They barely gave her a second glance after bowing, as if she were invisible, before addressing Chang Nian. "His Majesty has entrusted the construction of the imperial retreat to Third Prince and assigned the training of new soldiers in three nearby counties to the Crown Prince."

    "His Majesty has recently been unwell, and it would be inappropriate to transfer military power to the Crown Prince at this time. However, with both princes disputing the construction of the imperial retreat, His Majesty may wish to balance their rivalry to alleviate their resentments."

    Chang Nian fell silent for a moment before saying, "The three neighboring counties of the capital are Earring, Huai Qu, and Black Journey. These regions are garrisoned, not only with new troops but also with seasoned soldiers."

    "Feng Jingxian nodded, "Indeed. But the command of these veteran troops lies in the hands of Prince Wu. His Majesty holds him in high esteem, and as such, Prince Wu has never left the palace to establish his own residence. None have seen him except on rare occasions."

    As previously mentioned, the emperor's stability on the throne was largely due to his brother's support. Hence, he valued fraternal bonds deeply. However, the old emperor had a contingency plan - he kept the military forces in the vicinity of the capital under Prince Wu's control while keeping a watchful eye on him. For over two decades, he had not allowed Prince Wu to leave the palace.

    "Feng Jingxian continued, "These days, the palace gates are guarded even more strictly. Even Commander Huang, when off duty, must present a permit from the Imperial Guard Commander to leave the palace, let alone others. If His Majesty's health were to deteriorate critically, and the Crown Prince were to mobilize the army, asking Prince Wu to come to the emperor's aid, there might not be enough time for him to react."

    Chang Nian frowned, reprimanding Feng Jingxian, "Don't speak nonsense."

    Though the Crown Prince was spoiled, he had been cherished by his father for years. It was not a matter one could simply rebel against. Even if he didn't rebel, the throne would eventually be his. Why bother with such complications?

    Feng Jingxian realized his slip of tongue and apologized with a bow. Chang Nian rose and pondered for a moment, "I will find an opportunity to enter the palace and pay my respects to my royal uncle."

    "Feng Jingxian added, "With His Majesty unwell these past couple of days, it would be most filial for Your Highness to visit the palace."

    Chang Nian nodded, but his thoughts briefly drifted to Ye Jiangbai.

    The Emperor was unwell. Would he... also come to the palace?

    Her fingertips suddenly turned cold.

    She didn't want to see him. Though she didn't hate him to her core, she couldn't easily forgive what had happened that day. A reunion would undoubtedly be awkward, so it was best to avoid it if possible.

    "Tomorrow, I'll head to the Chongyang Gate first," Chang Nian whispered. "Once there's no one else in the Dragon Coiling Palace, have Commander Huang convey a message, and I'll enter then."


    Mu Shufang propped her chin in her hand, gazing at the young one before her. Despite her slender frame, she still managed to hold up the elaborate four-clawed dragon robe as if it were merely a garment hanger. Her back was straight, and with her eyes half-lowered, she exuded the air of a monarch.

    Suddenly, Mu Shufang smiled.

    She felt that life was fleeting, and having the chance to let loose a little was not a bad thing.

    Ye Jiangbai, still recovering from his illness, entered the palace in a carriage, his occasional coughs betraying his weakened state. His sharp features had softened, revealing a touch of vulnerability that tugged at the heartstrings of the attending palace maids. As they passed through the Chongyang Gate, one of them couldn't help but whisper, "All the imperial physicians seem to be available today. Should we ask one to attend to the Duke?"

    Ye Jiangbai replied with a faint smile, "It's just a minor ailment."

    A mere casual glance from his fox-like eyes sent a row of palace maids into a trance, longing to support him with all eight of their imaginary hands.

    Ye Jiangbai paid no heed and proceeded into the Dragon Coiled Palace. He paused at the partition and said to the grand eunuch, "Kindly inform the lower ranks that I have left the palace after three incense sticks of time, Grand Eunuch."

    The grand eunuch, puzzled, inquired, "What is Duke Guo's intention?"

    "Thank you for your trouble."

    The eunuch, respecting the other's unwillingness to speak, didn't press for more information. He simply followed the instructions and, in the end, couldn't help but ponder the reason behind it all on his own.

    After three incense sticks had burned, the news spread, and soon a young eunuch came to report, "Elder Eunuch, Seventh Prince has come to pay his respects."

    The chief eunuch hesitated. He was well-informed and had heard that the Emperor's betrothal had caused some friction between Duke Guo and Seventh Prince. Wouldn't it be awkward for the two to meet now?

    So he went in to whisper the question to Ye Jiangbai softly.

    In response, a swift glint passed through the Duke's eyes, like gentle springwater yet also sharp like a frosty blade.

    Zhao Changnian knew nothing of this. Upon learning that Ye Jiangbai had left, he hurriedly entered the Dragon Coiling Palace, asking the chief eunuch with some anxiety, "How is Father's condition?"


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