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    Chapter 53: Bait

    Zheng Changyuan was still dressed as a merchant in the shop. Upon seeing Rong Bi in men's attire, he was not surprised. He merely inspected the tall and robust Rong Yi standing beside her. Rong Bi introduced, "This is my elder brother, Rong Yi, with perseverance's Yi. He came to visit me but encountered the war. Concerned for my safety, he accompanied me."

    Rong Yi stepped forward and bowed. "Rong Yi pays his respects to Lord Zheng."

    Zheng Changyuan raised his hand in humility. "Truly a valiant and upright warrior! With such vigor and bearing, you must have served in the military?"

    Rong Yi, admiring Zheng Changyuan's grace and charm, felt a sense of camaraderie and replied, "Yes, I served in the Huai'an military for over a decade."

    Zheng Changyuan smiled wistfully. "No wonder when I met Lady Rong in Julu some days ago, she seemed like a solitary crane among pines, aloof and sullen. Today, Lady Rong appears composed and tranquil, likely due to the calming presence of your elder brother."

    Rong Bi knew that Zheng Changyuan had actually encountered the Crown Prince. With their vastly different auras, it was clear to someone like Zheng Changyuan or the Princess. Had it not been for the Princess and the Crown Prince's deliberate concealment and the Jingbei King's coincidental absence, she would have left traces in front of the Jingbei King.

    Zheng Changyuan instructed his servant to fetch some nourishing supplements suitable for pregnant women. As he spoke to Rong Bi, "Time is scarce, so I'll be direct. Please, Lady Rong, be honest with me. How exactly is the relationship between the Princess and the Duke?"

    Rong Bi was taken aback. After a moment of hesitation, she found it difficult to explain the current state of the Princess and the Duke's relationship, let alone reveal the Duke's top-secret matter. She equivocated, "The Duke... does not hold any anticipation for the child in the Princess's womb."

    Rong Yi gasped, while Zheng Changyuan shook his head, seemingly expecting this. His expression grew more serious. "In that case, the Princess should not stay long in Keldar City. After its capture, the Jingbei King immediately led his troops in pursuit of the retreating Bei Xi enemies, leaving only the pregnant Duchess to recuperate in Keldar City."

    "Now, it's common knowledge in the thirteen states of Jingbei, including the imperial court and Bei Xi, that the Jingbei King is deeply devoted to his queen. Despite her pregnancy, the princess accompanied the king on his campaign. And to spare her from the hardships of military life, he expended great effort to seize Keldar City so she could rest there. Do you understand what this implies?"

    Rong Bi's heart skipped a beat. "A target for all?" Though she lacked military knowledge, she knew the princess's status was both precious and sensitive. As the cherished wife of the Jingbei King, carrying the heir to the throne, and also the emperor's favorite princess, her presence in an isolated city in these chaotic times would be like honey luring bees to their doom.

    Rong Yi also frowned. "Everyone knows the princess is in Keldar City. Isn't that like hanging a huge sign? If I were a general, I'd be tempted to try my luck... With three thousand troops inside the city and ten thousand outside, all infantry, logistics, and support... It's too risky."

    What they would try, of course, was reclaiming Keldar City and capturing the pregnant Jingbei Queen, a tempting prize for any Bei Xi commander...

    All three furrowed their brows. Rong Bi quickly asked, "As Lord Zheng suggested, what should we do about the princess now?"

    Zheng Changyuan shook his head. "I'm no strategist, but you must prepare to defend the city. The citizens here are all from Bei Xi, and the Jingbei King didn't massacre them. Without the king's presence to stabilize the situation after the recent conquest, there may be spies among the people, as well as former officials and officers. If an enemy attacks, some might follow the Jingbei King's example..."

    Recalling Zheng Changyuan's description of how the Jingbei King captured the city, Rong Bi frowned deeply. "Should the princess leave Keldar City?"

    Rong Yi shook his head. "No, it's too dangerous outside with the chaotic armies. We've left only infantry, support troops, and the injured behind. It's safer for her to stay within the city walls. Keldar City is easy to defend but hard to conquer. If organized properly, it could still hold its own."

    But Zheng Changyuan said, "The king entrusted the main city to the queen. If she leaves with great fanfare, it'll severely dampen morale. But if she stays, she'll serve as a constant lure for Bei Xi's main forces. Although I don't know the king's exact plan, Keldar City wasn't initially targeted because its loss or gain holds little significance."

    He pulled out a simple map from his sleeve and pointed at it. "Judging by the route, Jingbei is pursuing a lightning strike strategy, racing with light cavalry straight for the Bei Xi royal court, bypassing Keldar to capture Dongxiang State. The king's current path clearly aims for Dongxiang City. It's crucial, a strategic stronghold that must be seized. Keldar, with its strong fortifications and lack of resources, would require extra troops to attack or defend, which isn't cost-effective – and losing it wouldn't be a significant loss."

    Zheng Changyuan whispered, "This is an open strategy. The princess is now in a precarious situation. On the surface, her fate is intertwined with the prince's, but in reality... the prince might just be using her as bait to divert troops and ease the pressure on his vanguard."

    Rong Yi frowned. "How can someone be so heartless towards their own spouse and child?"

    Zheng Changyuan replied softly, "In royal families, there's no such thing as father-son affection. For that throne, family ties, whether it's fathers, sons, spouses, or siblings, can all be sacrificed."

    Rong Yi suggested, "What if Duke Song were to bring his troops here? I've heard that the court has also mobilized twenty thousand soldiers. Old Duke Song has ample military experience; if he could come, he should be able to protect the princess—however, food and supplies will be a major issue. After all, this isn't our city or our people, and requisitioning provisions would be extremely difficult. If Duke Song could bring extra supplies..." Rong Yi, with his years of military experience, saw through the situation at once.

    Zheng Changyuan shook his head and sighed. "Don't count on the court's troops. Even if Prince Jingbei seeks help, something will likely go wrong along the way, causing their rescue efforts to be delayed. Old Duke Song will assist the princess, but not openly. This time, he secretly sent me five hundred elite soldiers, the best-trained of the Song family. They have made significant contributions in this siege."

    Rong Bi whispered to Zheng Changyuan, "Sir has already saved the princess and the crown prince once. Do you have a good plan this time?"

    Zheng Changyuan sighed. "In broad daylight, with so many eyes on us, it's not appropriate to discuss this. Our only chance now is to take advantage of the chaos in Bei Xi's ranks before they react. I'll lead a group to protect the princess while she makes a secret escape. Meanwhile, we'll find a maid to impersonate the princess, giving the impression that she's still in the city. Given the princess's pregnancy and high status, no one would dare barge in to see her, allowing us to deceive our enemies."

    "But," Zheng Changyuan looked at Rong Bi, "the princess won't leave. With her character, she wouldn't desert her troops or the city in times of crisis. That's why I've sought out Lady Rong. I hope you can persuade the princess, as per Old Duke Song's suggestion. The court is corrupt, and the princess has had a pitiful life. Her father, the king, doesn't show her any mercy, and she has entrusted herself to the wrong person. Old Duke Song proposes that if the princess is willing, she could seize this opportunity to escape and disappear. I'll arrange for someone to send her overseas, to the Southern Seas, where she can live a life of wealth and security. As for those around her, like yourself, we can make suitable arrangements. Amidst the chaos, you can separate from your brother and seek refuge. Once the conflict subsides, we'll send you both back home."

    Rong Bi replied earnestly, "I will convey your message to the princess."

    Zheng Changyuan said, "Very well. I can't stay in Keldar City for too long. Time is of the essence. News of Prince Jingbei's absence will soon spread, and within three days, Keldar City will draw endless enemies. Therefore, we must leave within three days, or we won't be able to escape."

    Rong Bi gently furrowed her brows and replied, "Very well, I'll immediately return to inform the princess."

    Although her heart was filled with mixed emotions, she knew that the princess was most likely not going to leave.

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