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    Chapter 54 - Unabandoned

    Princess Yi Yang reacted calmly to the message: "As a princess and the wife of the Prince of Jingbei, how could I abandon my city now? Living a small life in the South Seas is not the life I, Yuan Yiqing, aspire to. But I cannot disappoint Scholar Zheng Tanhua and Duke Song for their perilous journey. You and Rong Yi should leave; this is a rare opportunity."

    She looked at Rong Bi. "Allow me to be selfish, for the sake of the prince... Go to a safer place. The South Seas have a pleasant climate, abundant resources, and the support of the Zheng family's trading fleet. You'll thrive there with your amiable nature, and with your eldest brother by your side, you won't be alone."

    Rong Bi gazed at Princess Yi Yang and whispered, "But Princess, if the prince were here, he would surely wish for you to leave."

    Princess Yi Yang smiled at her. "This is the test the Prince of Jingbei has set for me. I can't retreat without a fight. Scholar Zheng is right; it's an open plot. I cannot leave. I can accept or escape, but he left Scholar Zheng behind to give me a choice. I won't let him underestimate me, Yuan Yiqing."

    "Abandoning the city means forsaking my duty as the prince's wife and weakening my position as his ally or adversary. If I flee, all the pressure will shift to the Prince of Jingbei. The court would promptly spread news of my demise, blaming him and ordering Duke Song to lead troops against Jingbei. With the court's two thousand soldiers pressing down, they'd split the Jingbei army in half. Should the court also form an alliance with Bei Xi, Prince Guo Shuji would face a dilemma."

    Rong Bi's eyes widened as Princess Yi Yang continued with a smile, "This is what Duke Song and Scholar Zheng didn't tell you, and it's the calculation of my high and mighty father. They have history with me, and with a battle between the court and Jingbei inevitable, they naturally lean towards me, hoping to protect me. Perhaps even after the court allies with Bei Xi, Father might still entitle my child as the next Prince of Jingbei and place them in the capital, removing the Jingbei threat. My contribution would warrant Father's continued favor for my younger brother, ensuring the prince's title remains intact. This is Father's silent promise and leverage."

    Rong Bi looked at her in awe. With just the thread of leaving, Princess Yi Yang had unraveled such a scenario. Rong Bi said, "But the Prince of Jingbei treats you this way..."

    Princess Yi Yang met her gaze. "He hasn't done anything wrong. Using me as bait isn't incorrect."

    Raising her eyebrows, she smiled. "Should I become a woman under his protection, an equal opponent, a useful ally, or a formidable enemy in the future? That's what I need to prove. Strategically, using a decoy to draw the enemy's forces and relieve pressure on the main army is sound tactics. Whether it was me or any other general of Jingbei, I am indeed the most suitable choice."

    "It is the responsibility of the royal family, who receive the offerings of the people, to drive Bei Xi back to their Wulian Mountains and reclaim the sixteen provinces that have been occupied for half a century, restoring peace and prosperity to the land. Whether I am a princess of Great Yong or the queen of Jingbei, this remains true. It's better to leave behind an unyielding legacy than to seek a comfortable life through compromise."

    Rong Bi opened her mouth but found no words. Yes, he might be a general, an ally, but certainly not a lover.

    Her eyes reddened, yet she could utter no complaint. In the past year, following these siblings, she had witnessed too many unknown intrigues and vortexes that had propelled them, against their will, to this point.

    Princess Yi Yang spoke slowly, "I know what you're thinking. His treatment of me isn't the deep affection owed to a wife. Why can't I just go along with my beloved father's grand plan, protecting the crown prince while securing a life of wealth and safety?"

    Rong Bi replied, "Does the princess believe that the King of Jingbei has a hidden agenda and won't let you leave?"

    Princess Yi Yang said, "Perhaps he does, but it doesn't matter. Until now, he has been an upright gentleman. Rong Bi, my mother taught me that when unsure of a choice, one should pick the side that hasn't sunk to the depths of evil. Even if we lose, at least we'll earn respect in the end."

    "Consider his actions: plotting to end the lineage, imprisoning his own child, manipulating his daughter, allying with barbarians, and betraying our own military leaders. Which of these deeds is honorable? If I submit to him for my brother's sake, sacrificing territories and leaving a curse for generations, just so he can remain a prince, what kind of glory is that? What kind of decaying and corrupt empire would he inherit? I am ashamed to be his daughter!"

    "On the other hand, the King of Jingbei has shown patience. Even suspecting that the child in my womb isn't his, he hasn't humiliated me. Offering myself as bait to defend the city seems heartless, but as mere allies, it's my moment to prove my worth. This is an open and honest scheme. He acts with integrity and has left a way out. Duke Song and Duke Song are his backup plans, showing he hasn't cut off all escape routes. If I were to truly leave, he would likely replace me with someone else to continue this bait mission."

    "Yet, by doing so, I completely lose the chance to ally with the King of Jingbei. I'll be trapped under the control of an unjust ruler, a powerless puppet. His willingness to take such a gamble stems from his confidence in his strength. Even if I were to side with the emperor now, he'd still hold sway over the situation. The emperor's preoccupation with schemes indicates his insecurity and lack of power."

    "He distrusts his own son, fears the vassal king who has grown strong in the north, and even contemplates seducing foreign tribes to harm his own generals. He treats soldiers' lives as insignificant and views the entire realm and its people as mere tools. What loyalty is due to such a father and ruler?"

    Princess Yi Yang looked at her with a gentle expression. "You shouldn't have been dragged into this. Now that things have come to this, my brother and I shouldn't involve you further. Leave with your brother. Remember, if you stay, he will stay by your side. For your elder brother's sake, I'll write to Zheng Tanhua and ask him to look after you."

    Rong Bi gazed at Princess Yi Yang and blurted out, "If only the Crown Prince were here."

    The princess smiled at her. "No, I'm glad he's safe. If he were really here, he wouldn't have left either. Then I would feel guilty towards our mother and be more cautious in my actions."

    Rong Bi replied, "But isn't that precisely why the Duke dared to leave you here? Because 'Concubine Rong' once broke a formation? Isn't it because the Crown Prince is skilled in warfare? He believes the Crown Prince can defend this city!"

    Princess Yi Yang studied her for a moment. "I taught the Crown Prince military strategies and tactics. Whatever he can do, I can do as well."

    How could one person be as capable as two? Moreover, the princess was heavily pregnant and suitable only for planning behind the scenes. How could she lead troops into battle like the Crown Prince? Rong Bi said, "I'll find a way to bring the Crown Prince back." A mysterious feeling stirred within her. She recalled the time she faced extortion at the medicinal food shop. Back then, she involuntarily wondered how the Crown Prince would handle the situation, and they had switched bodies.

    Though she couldn't grasp the fleeting inspiration, she had since attempted multiple times to will their souls to switch again, but to no avail.

    Princess Yi Yang smiled and stroked her hair. "Go, dear child. You're like my own sister. Contact Zheng Tanhua and make plans for you and Rong Yi to leave quickly."

    Rong Bi observed Princess Yi Yang's serene and composed face, feeling a mix of emotions. She didn't say anything else. The princess had already ordered someone to enter and enforce a curfew throughout the city, with heightened security. All markets were thoroughly inspected, streets guarded, and unauthorized individuals prohibited from entering or leaving. Each resident was searched and inventoried, their food supplies collected, and rations distributed based on the population. Preparations were made to defend the city.

    Rong Bi watched her arrange the defense measures systematically and calmly, seemingly unconcerned about the perilous situation as bait. However, the princess's face was pale, her lips a faint blue. She had barely eaten the food prepared today, and her visibly swollen belly made it difficult for her to maintain her usual upright posture. She leaned on pillows to write, but her exhaustion was evident despite her efforts to hide it.

    Defending the city and engaging in battle both required immense strength and focus, a strain too great for the princess. Yet, if the commander lost their composure, it would only further shake the confidence of the soldiers. Thus, the princess had no choice but to persevere, especially since she also needed to convince herself to leave.

    Rong Bi bowed silently before retreating.

    If not for the soul swap with the prince, she would have remained an obscure palace maid, dreaming only of a peaceful retirement. Now faced with the decision to depart, she never imagined herself leading an eventful life. She yearned for tranquility, gardening, cooking, and being with her family. Despite this ongoing desire, when the moment arrived, she found herself reluctant to leave.

    Though ephemeral like a mayfly, she suddenly felt a surge of ambition. Born into humble origins, Rong Bi now felt a sense of bravery. She returned to her courtyard, where Rong Yi, accompanied by a few soldiers wearing conical hats, approached her. "How is it? The reinforcement from Zheng Tanhua has arrived. We're awaiting your decision."

    One of the tall soldiers lifted his hat slightly, revealing his identity. Rong Bi's eyes widened. "Prince Song."

    The soldier had long, slender eyebrows and a striking gaze; he was none other than Duke Ding's heir, Prince Song Xiang. He whispered, "What is the princess's decision?"

    Rong Bi shook her head. "The princess will not leave."

    Prince Song's face fell, yet he seemed prepared for this outcome. In a low voice, he said, "Please convey to the princess that I have five hundred men within the city. Since she has made her decision, we will protect her here. This is also my father's wish. Bound by imperial orders, he cannot defy them, but he will do his utmost to stall Prince Third. Princess, if you have any instructions, please entrust them to me."

    Rong Bi replied, "Thank you, Prince Song, for your assistance."

    Prince Song nodded slightly. "Zheng Tanhua instructed that if you or your brother choose to leave, I will arrange for your safe departure."

    Rong Bi said, "Let's discuss it further before contacting Prince Song."

    Song Xiang nodded, bowed slightly, and then strode away.

    Rong Bi turned to Rong Yi and said, "Big Brother... I... don't plan on leaving. But the princess promised me that she would let you go. You should return home first, otherwise, I won't be at ease."

    Rong Yi chuckled. "Sis, what kind of joke are you playing? You're underestimating your big brother. If everyone's staying to kill the barbarians, why can't I? I've been in the army for over a decade; surely I'm not inferior to you. Besides, this isn't a desperate situation. I've faced harder times before. Don't worry, I'm staying to protect you, not for that Jìng Běi King. Whether they fight for the world or use cunning schemes, it doesn't concern us. All I know is that we have a city to defend, and whoever dares to attack will be met with death."

    "And," Rong Yi laughed heartily, "I've heard that you once broke through an enemy formation with a single arrow. Now, as the princess's protector, who wouldn't yield to you? Let your big brother witness your skills too."

    Rong Bi gazed at Rong Yi, her eyes rimmed with red. "Thank you, brother... You're right, we might just be able to hold our ground." She turned away, tears streaming down her face. Her brother had stayed for her sake, but she was not the prince capable of piercing through enemy lines, nor could she protect even her own sibling.

    She hurried back to her room and opened the journal, diligently jotting down everything she had seen and heard that day. For the first time, she wrote with solemnity and earnestness, "The princess and His Highness have lofty aspirations, facing death without fear, their integrity shining bright. They wish to protect the common people, and I, Rong Bi, offer my humble body in trust, hoping His Highness will triumph over his foes and conquer the world. When His Highness ascends to the throne, I pray he will not forget his resolve today, still remembering the compassion for ants and the sacrifice for eagles. Eldest Brother left his homeland and journeyed thousands of miles for me, and I have not been truthful to him; I am filled with guilt. I can only implore His Highness to protect him with all his might. I have no other wishes except for His Highness and the princess to quell the barbarians and reunite the Central Plains, allowing us common folk to live in peace."

    Lowering her lashes, she studied the tiny, meticulous script she had written. Imagining the girl who could shoot an arrow through clouds and break through enemy formations, she had never more desperately wished to switch places with the prince. A surge of emotion overwhelmed her, causing her vision to blacken. When she opened her eyes again, the vibrant flowers and tender willows outside the window greeted her, bathed in sunlight, with gentle winds caressing her face and the scent of blossoms intoxicating. It was Bao Han Palace.

    She had succeeded.

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