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    Chapter 119: A Disastrous Teammate and a Divine Adversary

    "Your Highness's words puzzle me," Ye Jiangbai said, lifting his chin slightly. "As a subject, the matters I aspire to are, naturally, a stable realm, a prosperous nation, and peaceful people."

    Chang Nian gazed at him, a storm brewing in his eyes that he forcefully suppressed. Clenching his fists, he said, "The incident of the Crown Prince taking someone else's wife occurred a month ago. Why didn't Duke Guo bring it up then, but instead waited until Third Brother had left the capital to create such a commotion?"

    Why else? Naturally, one must break them down individually to gain control of the entire situation.

    Ye Jiangbai smiled faintly, stepping forward a half-pace, and gently straightened Chang Nian's robes. "It would be best for Your Highness to remain within the prince's mansion, keeping the princess consort company. Affairs of court and state will have others to worry over them."

    With that, he brushed past her, heading for the exit.

    "Should Duke Guo's wish truly be for a stable realm, national prosperity, and the people's well-being, Chang Nian would surely lend my assistance."

    Just as he had taken two steps, Zhao Chang Nian's voice echoed from behind, icy and resolute:

    "If it is not, then even at the cost of my life, I will certainly hinder you."

    Frustration ignited within Ye Jiangbai, and he turned to face her, his gaze frosty. "Does Your Highness truly believe yourself to be that formidable?"

    Chang Nian bowed towards him, his lips tightly pressed together, a stubborn glint in his eyes.

    Ye Jiangbai was furious, taking a step forward as if to return to her presence, but Feng Tingyun beside him reached out an arm to bar his way.

    "Duke," he glanced at the Imperial Forest Army standing nearby, "His Highness is young and impetuous. Why must you rush in after him?"

    With a slight pause, Ye Jiangbai suppressed his irritation, narrowing his eyes as he regarded Chang Nian, before flicking his sleeve and stalking away.

    Feng Tingyun turned his head and, with a smile, bowed respectfully to Chang Nian, "Your Highness, please don't take offense." He then hurriedly chased after her.

    Chang Nian watched him depart, then pondered for a moment before heading to the Imperial Study.

    Li Shiqing was currently reporting to the Emperor about the petition signed by thousands of people. The Emperor's expression turned grim upon hearing this. Seeing the eunuch convey a message, he gestured for Chang Nian to enter.

    "Does Nian'er have something to report as well?"

    Chang Nian gathered her robes and knelt, bowing her hands in greeting. "Your Majesty, while serving in the Patrol Division, I learned that the Crown Prince has been tirelessly recruiting new soldiers in three districts for half a month now. Normally, during spring recruitment, we might enroll only thirty thousand in a month. Yet, with the Crown Prince personally overseeing this, over thirty thousand troops have already enlisted in just these short two weeks."

    The Emperor had initially assumed she would come to add fuel to the fire, but to his surprise, she was speaking up in defense of the Crown Prince. His brows relaxed, and he nodded. " Rise and continue."

    "Thank you, Father," Chang Nian rose to her feet, casting a glance at Li Shiqing before continuing, "At this moment when new soldiers are undergoing training, it would be inappropriate to punish a front-line general over a domestic matter. Instead, let the Crown Prince return his wife to her rightful place and distribute his wealth as compensation."

    "Your Highness," Li Shiqing frowned, "Over a hundred lives were lost in the dungeons, more than half due to torture. To whom should the Crown Prince distribute his wealth as reparation?"

    Chang Nian turned her head, anger flaring across her face. She raised an eyebrow and said fiercely, "The Ministry of Justice is under your jurisdiction. If innocent people have died unjustly within its walls, what crime does that make you?"

    Li Shiqing was taken aback by her sudden outburst, blinking in surprise.

    Chang Nian lifted her chin, hands folded in her sleeves, her expression stern. "The Crown Prince forcefully took another man's wife, yet the Ministry of Justice not only failed to intervene but also assisted in imprisoning the victim. Now you blame the Crown Prince for the unjust deaths in prison. What is your true intention? The Emperor's health is fragile, and instead of alleviating his worries, you use your negligence to burden him further. What is your motive?"

    Everyone was astonished by the seventh prince they had known as meek and submissive suddenly becoming so formidable. Li Shiqing was stunned, and so was the emperor. Both stared at her, involuntarily rubbing their eyes.

    "This matter originated from the Ministry of Justice, thus it should take the lead in taking responsibility," Chang Nian said with a frown. "As for the punishment for the Crown Prince, let Father decide privately, without bringing it to the court."

    With that, she turned back to the emperor, bowing her hands in respect. "I request Father's judgment."

    The imperial study fell silent for a while.

    The emperor stared at her, then suddenly smiled, nodding in gratification. He said, "Minister Li, you may withdraw first."

    With the Seventh Prince interceding, it seemed unlikely that the Crown Prince's punishment would be easily imposed. Li Shiqing's face darkened, shooting a glare in Chang Nian's direction before cupping his fists and retreating gracefully.

    "I am pleased that you understand this," the emperor said. "Among all my sons, only you comprehend the value of fraternal bonds."

    Bowing her head, Chang Nian thought to herself that, truth be told, these siblings were hardly treasures. Apart from her second brother who was far away, none of the other princes were easy to get along with. They were siblings, but also rivals who fought tooth and nail. There was nothing endearing about them. Were it not for the fact that only the Crown Prince remained in the court, she would never have compromised her conscience to speak such words today.

    "Sigh, Funing has truly gone too far this time," the emperor lamented. "To take someone's wife as a concubine, it would bring disgrace to our reputation if word were to spread. I wonder what could have been going through his mind."

    "Your Majesty, what does the Emperor intend to do with Imperial Brother?" Chang Nian inquired.

    The emperor pondered for a moment before saying, "Do as you suggest for now. At least it will help alleviate the public's outrage."

    Restoring one's wife to her family and compensating them with all one's wealth might not seem like a severe punishment, considering that the Crown Prince's apparent fortune was but a fraction of his hidden riches.

    However, neither Chang Nian nor the Emperor could have foreseen that this decision would provoke a fierce resistance from the Crown Prince.

    "I shall not yield to his demands," Zhao Funing declared coldly while standing in the Eastern Palace. "If he craves beauty, I can offer him other maidens, ten, a hundred if need be. But Chanjuan belongs to this palace."

    Chang Nian was deeply troubled. "Elder Brother, the situation outside has escalated. Father Emperor is already withstanding the pressure from the court officials to show leniency toward you. You can't be completely inflexible."

    "Show mercy?" Zhao Funing turned his head, his gaze sharp as he regarded her. "You deliberately wanted this palace to give up Chang Juan, didn't you? Everyone in the Eastern Palace knows how much I dote on her, yet you ask me to part with my love?"

    Truly, he had been indulged by the emperor since childhood and would not tolerate the slightest injustice. Chang Nian anxiously scratched her ear, asking, "Between beauty and the kingdom, which holds more weight?"

    The crown prince laughed rebelliously. "Only a mediocre ruler would have to choose one over the other."

    He intended to have both.

    Chang Nian found persuasion futile; she felt exhausted. Ye Jiangbai was already lurking nearby like a predator, and yet her imperial brother was shortsighted, easily swayed by beauty. What could she do?

    The crown prince refused to yield. The Ministry of Justice continuously submitted petitions. The emperor, lying on his sickbed, grew irate and declared, "If he truly insists on not giving in, then let him abdicate his position as crown prince!"

    "Your Majesty, you exaggerate!" Chang Nian shook her head like a rattle-drum.

    "Unworthy son! Unworthy son! If I continue to indulge him, he will surely bring ruin to the Zhao family's realm after my death!" The emperor coughed violently, a trace of blood escaping his lips. His face turned pale with fright as he looked at Zhao Chang Nian, "Chang Nian, do you wish to take the position of the Crown Prince?"

    Chang Nian shook her head without a moment's hesitation. "No."

    To change the heir at such a critical juncture would be the height of imprudence. Besides, her life wasn't nearly as tenacious as Zhao Funing's. It would be far easier for Ye Jiangbai to dispose of her than to eliminate the crown prince.

    The Emperor's coughing fit persisted, rendering him unable to speak any further. He could only close his eyes to rest.

    Before Chang Nian left the palace, she earnestly instructed the attendants in the Dragon Coiling Palace, "What the Emperor said today must not be divulged to anyone."


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