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    Chapter 97: A Year

    The chief eunuch whispered, "The imperial physician has already prescribed a remedy. He says there's no major issue, just the need for careful nursing and rest."

    Hearing this, Chang Nian finally heaved a sigh of relief. She brushed off her robe and was about to enter the inner chamber to pay her respects when, to her surprise, she found someone blocking her way.

    With her head lowered, she did not catch a glimpse of the man's face at first; instead, her eyes fell upon his boots. Made of Sichuan brocade in a creamy hue, they were adorned with subtle patterns of white cranes, exuding both elegance and affluence. Chang Nian tilted her head, wondering to herself just who could be so wealthy that even their boots would exhibit such refined taste?

    Then, she heard Ye Jiangbai's voice: "Your Highness, this one has arrived."

    Startled, Princess Chang Nian's lips turned pale, and she instinctively turned to run.

    "Your Highness?" The grand eunuch intercepted her with a gentle shake of his head.

    He had already informed the Emperor that Prince Seventh had come to pay respects. How could she leave halfway through?

    Forcing herself to stop, Chang Nian gritted her teeth and took several deep breaths before turning back, pretending not to see Ye Jiangbai. She walked past him and approached the dragon bed.

    "I, your son, come to pay my respects to our father, the Emperor."

    The emperor heard her voice and half-closed his eyes, saying, "Rise, it's rare for you to show filial piety. You're the first among my sons to come and pay respects."

    Chang Nian lifted her eyes slightly, a jolt of alarm running through her.

    The grand eunuch had said that the emperor was not in critical condition, but judging from his ashen face, listless demeanor, and cracked lips, it didn't seem like a minor illness.

    "Has Father taken any medicine?" she asked.

    The emperor coughed lightly and waved his hand. "The imperial physicians in the palace are useless. A mere cold, and they can't even prescribe the right remedy. I've already summoned Minister Ye to the palace. His medicine is more effective."

    Minister Ye? Chang Nian was puzzled, casting a sidelong glance at Ye Jiangbai beside her. If he was here, then the emperor couldn't be referring to him. But besides the Duke of State, who else could be this Minister Ye?

    Before she could figure it out, the emperor continued, "Your two elder imperial brothers have been busy lately. You should visit the central palace more often to accompany your empress dowager. It would also be a way for you to show filial piety on behalf of your imperial brothers."

    Since the empress had brought down the concubine, her mood had improved day by day. There was no need for Chang Nian to accompany her. However, it was still an order from her father. Even if Chang Nian didn't want to, she could only reply, "Yes."

    The emperor nodded and turned to Ye Jiangbai. "If you have time, please accompany Nian'er on this trip."

    Times had changed, and the emperor still cared about Chang Nian's well-being. Knowing that the empress disliked her, having the Duke of State accompany her would likely reduce many troubles.

    Yet, the moment his words fell, Zhao Changnian's lips paled, and she hastily replied, "The Duke's affairs are numerous. Your subjects can attend the palace alone."

    Ye Jiangbai, who was about to agree, paused. His fox-like eyes narrowed as he cast her a glance.

    Unaffected by his gaze, Changnian bowed again before taking her leave. She rushed out of the Dragon Coiling Palace at a brisk pace, like a nimble hare.

    After running a considerable distance, she turned back to ensure no one was following. Only then did she lean against the palace wall, panting heavily.

    "What is the Princess afraid of?" someone asked her.

    Still trembling with fear, Changnian answered, "The Duke of State."

    "Oh?" The Duke of State, whose name had been mentioned, stood before her with his hands in his sleeves. "The Princess, a child of heaven's armor, fears this mere mortal?"

    Changnian's throat constricted. She lifted her head abruptly, stepping back in terror until she tumbled onto the ground. "You!"

    She had just checked behind her, and there was no one there. Was this person a ghost?

    Ye Jiangbai frowned, reaching out to pull her up. However, she recoiled from him as if he were a venomous snake, swiftly moving away.

    "Stop." Ye Jiangbai withdrew his hand and said coldly, "Beyond this point is a puddle."

    Chang Nian paused, using the ground to pull herself up. She brushed off the dust on her clothes and whispered, "If there's nothing else, I'll take my leave."

    "What if there is something else?"

    "Even then, I'll still be taking my leave," Chang Nian pursed her lips and lowered her head, attempting to walk past him.

    "I assumed that once Your Highness's secret was exposed, you would seek a negotiation with me to ensure I keep your secret," Ye Jiangbai said with a forced smile, looking straight ahead. "It seems Your Highness doesn't care about the lives of your kin at all."

    As if struck by a sudden paralysis, Chang Nian froze beside him, clenching her fists slightly.

    "Would the Duke report this to the authorities?" she asked softly. "Offending the Ding Guo Duke's residence for the sake of getting rid of an insignificant prince like me—would you really make such a loss-making deal?"

    With a mocking glint in his eyes, Ye Jiangbai replied, "Many people behind my back call me a madman, Your Highness. When a madman goes into a frenzy, he doesn't consider the pros and cons."

    "You're threatening me?" Chang Nian closed her eyes.

    "Yes," Ye Jiangbai rolled up his sleeves, speaking confidently. "Will Your Highness accept or reject this threat?"

    With a cold smile, Chang Nian said, "Threats never end. If Duke wishes to use this secret to blackmail me for the rest of my life, that's wishful thinking. I'd rather die than let you succeed."

    Feeling a slight constriction in his chest, Ye Jiangbai's face darkened. "In Your Highness's eyes, is life so worthless?"

    "Life is indeed precious, and I'm reluctant to part with it," Chang Nian shrugged. "But if my life would endanger many others, then I'll have to let it go."

    Beneath his sleeves, Ye Jiangbai clenched his fists. His voice was as cold as ice. "What if what I want isn't much? Would Your Highness be willing to give it, even at the cost of your own life?"

    Chang Nian looked at him in confusion. "What does Duke desire?"

    "One year." Ye Jiangbai's expression remained stoic. "All I ask for is one year with Your Highness."

    Chang Nian was startled, her gaze turning particularly complicated as she stared at his face. "You want me?"

    "I have no ulterior motives. We've already consummated our marriage, so I simply wish for more time with Your Highness," Ye Jiangbai said calmly. "It's better than wandering around brothels, where things aren't clean and proper."

    Upon hearing this, Chang Nian felt particularly embarrassed. Her fingertips trembled, and her heart tightened.

    He wanted companionship but didn't wish to marry or visit brothels. Thus, she, as a woman disguised as a man, was the perfect choice for a secret affair.

    What did he think she was?

    Indeed, feelings and affection were all fake. A woman in a man's heart was merely a plaything. Fifth Brother had always said to trust in deities before court officials, but she had only kept those words in her mind, never truly internalizing them. She deserved to be toyed with.

    Taking a deep breath, Chang Nian also smiled, her gaze cold as she spoke, "I kindly request two days to consider your proposal."

    "Very well." Ye Jiangbai dismissed her with a casual wave of his sleeve. "When you've made your decision, have Ye Liang convey your message to the Duke's residence."

    "Thank you, Your Grace," she said mockingly, bowing to him before turning away.

    Footsteps followed behind her, indicating that he had indeed caught up. But now, with anger fueling her, Chang Nian's courage had grown, and she no longer feared him. Let him follow if he wanted; it mattered not where he went.

    Upon entering the central palace, Ye Jiangbai didn't pursue, and Chang Nian didn't look back, proceeding directly to pay her respects.

    The Empress wore a green-patterned brocade dress with a tight waist, slightly revealing her décolletage, exuding both maturity and allure.

    Spotting her, a rare smile graced the Empress's face. "Nian'er has finally thought of your mother."

    Chang Nian bowed with clasped hands. "At the command of His Imperial Father, I have come to inquire after the well-being of my royal mother."

    Chuckling softly, the Empress dabbed her lips with a silk handkerchief before remarking, "As expected of one favored by His Majesty, your words carry a confident air."

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