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    Chapter 56: The Grand Wedding

    In the following days, the imperial physicians paid their visits and announced that the Crown Prince had recovered somewhat, allowing him to venture out for some fresh air. Coincidentally, it was also time for the Second Prince's grand wedding.

    Despite the hasty preparations, the Ministry of Rites spared no effort in arranging an extravagant ceremony. Since the Second Prince had yet to establish his own residence, the wedding took place in the Qinhai Hall, with invitations extended to all high-ranking officials of the second rank or above. Initially, most of these officials treated this marriage as a mere joke, given how the humble Bei Xi sought peace amidst being battered by the Jingbei King. Regardless of the relationship between the court and the Jingbei Kingdom, they could not help but feel a sense of superiority over the once-arrogant Bei Xi. Thus, the atmosphere at the banquet was initially filled with insincerity.

    However, everything changed when the master of ceremonies announced the arrival of the Crown Prince. All the noble and distinguished officials were startled. The long-ill Crown Prince, who had been absent from public view, attending the wedding was a surprise to the courtiers. Overwhelmed by shock, they hastily rose to pay their respects to the heir apparent. As the highest-ranking figure, the Crown Prince was escorted by Prince Wu, the host of today's wedding, and seated on the prestigious throne, where he received their salutations with a mere, "You may rise."

    All the officials attending the banquet secretly observed the rumored captive Crown Prince. They noticed his relaxed demeanor, his slightly pale complexion, but his composure and dignity exuded the regal bearing of a royal. He seemed untouchable and distant.

    Was he really unwell? Nevertheless, no one dared to approach him to offer congratulations or inquire about his health. The Crown Prince himself appeared disinterested, sitting there coldly, like an aloof deity.

    As the drums and music began, the venue was illuminated with lanterns and colorful decorations. Firecrackers echoed as the Second Prince greeted the Bei Xi Princess at the entrance, personally escorting her from the sedan chair to the main hall. The princess was slender and weak, still young, but she was obedient.

    Prince Wu oversaw the wedding ceremony, while the Ministry of Rites' master of ceremonies conducted the rituals meticulously. The newlyweds knelt to receive the imperial edict and gifts bestowed by the emperor and empress before paying their respects to heaven, earth, and ancestors. With the ceremony completed, a group of bridesmaids led the bride to the bridal chamber, while the Second Prince, Yuan Zhen, personally went around toasting each guest.

    As the heir apparent, the Crown Prince held the highest status, so the Second Prince approached him first with a smile to offer his respects. Rong Bi was nervous inwardly but managed to maintain the usual demeanor of the Crown Prince. She remembered the princess's words about their differences and met people's gazes without actually seeing them, her face expressionless as she sipped the wine lightly. "Congratulations on your nuptials, Second Brother."

    Nonetheless, the calm and indifferent Crown Prince appeared lofty to others, not particularly close to the Second Prince.

    Amidst the din of the feast, a sudden burst of laughter echoed. Everyone turned to see that it was Prince Gele, the third prince from Bei Xi's marriage delegation. With his curly hair and slightly blue eyes, he chuckled and said, "I've heard that His Highness the Crown Prince has been unwell and unable to meet others. Yet, looking at him today, he seems robust and in good health. The Great Yong, an imperial power that upholds the rituals of ancient Zhou, is it not unusual that the elder brother, the Crown Prince, has yet to take a crown princess, while the younger brother, the Second Prince, has already taken a concubine?"

    His voice rose high, instantly silencing the banquet, even the Second Prince's expression froze. Rong Bi, however, having spent considerable time in Jingbei and frequently hearing tales of Bei Xi raiders plundering caravans and slaughtering villages to the south, answered without hesitation, "Reciprocity is the cornerstone of etiquette; according to the Rites of Zhou, six ceremonial rites must be observed for a wedding. Yet, Bei Xi hastily sends its princess without fulfilling these six rites. Considering your small, barbarian state's ignorance of such proprieties, His Majesty, my royal father, has deigned to bestow the princess in marriage to my second brother, an act of grace towards Bei Xi. Otherwise, a union lacking these six rites would, in our Great Yong, only be regarded as a concubinage."

    Prince Gelu's smile froze on his face. The completion of all six wedding rituals would take at least half a year, and Bei Xi was currently embroiled in war. They had hastily come to seek peace, thus inevitably neglecting some wedding etiquettes. He hadn't expected the crown prince to point this out, leaving him unable to refute. He had merely seen the crown prince's disdainful expression and felt indignant. Rumor had it that this crown prince was suspiciously imprisoned within the palace, forbidden from leaving. Coupled with his resentment towards the Yong dynasty, he couldn't help but taunt him a bit. To his surprise, he had only humiliated himself, provoking laughter and whispers among the ministers at the banquet, further fueling his anger. "If Your Highness the Crown Prince insults my sister-in-law in such a manner, I suppose there is strife between you and Second Prince?" He had long heard rumors that this crown prince might be deposed, while the Second Prince, as the son of the empress, had a high chance of becoming the future heir. This was why he had agreed to marry his sister to the Second Prince. Now, faced with public humiliation, he couldn't resist firing back.

    Rong Bi was undaunted. "Prince Gele, cherish this moment. In a few days, when the Jingbei Army breaches the royal court, you might not even be able to plead to become a vassal state. As a captive of a fallen kingdom, you might not qualify as a prince's concubine, let alone retain your status – you could only be a servant."

    Boom! The hall erupted in laughter, the ministers no longer concerned with court etiquette as they all roared with amusement. Prince Gelle's face turned a mottled shade of green and white, while Rong Bi set his cup down decisively. "This solitary one's health is yet to fully recover, and my chest feels somewhat stifled. I shall return to the palace first." Rising abruptly, he turned and left without further ado. All the ministers present, including the Second Prince, hastily rose from their seats and bowed to see him off. Rong Bi felt an unexpected rush of satisfaction, suddenly comprehending the immense prestige that Princess Yi Yang had spoken of—the Crown Prince, groomed since childhood for the throne, stood second only to the emperor, towering above tens of thousands.

    Any dissatisfaction could be openly refuted, leaving the other party to swallow their anger. Because of his high status, there were still those who would humorously follow and mock. As for avoiding socializing, he could simply leave whenever he wished, with no one daring to comment – such liberation was truly exhilarating.

    Rong Bi emerged and climbed into his sedan chair. A group of guards had been waiting, just as they had when he left in the morning, tightly surrounding the Crown Prince as they escorted him back to the Precious Scroll Palace. In reality, he remained confined, but his appearance had sparked various speculations.

    The next day, early in the morning, Yuan Zhen brought the Second Princess Consort to the palace to pay respects to the Emperor and Empress. At Empress Luo's palace, after asking the Second Princess, Yuan Yixue, to accompany the Second Princess Consort for a stroll in the imperial garden, Yuan Zhen stayed behind to talk with Empress Luo. He began with a tone of grievance, "If not for Uncle pulling me back yesterday, I really wouldn't have gone through with that marriage! What is Father's intention? Bestowing me a marriage to unite with Bei Xi, only to have the Crown Prince attend and with just a few words, drive away the prince from Bei Xi? The wedding turned into a complete farce!"

    Empress Luo clearly wasn't in high spirits either, but she still tried to comfort him, "I've spoken with your father as well. Today, he has ordered an imperial edict to be announced. The Crown Prince's disrespectful words will result in a three-month confinement."

    Yuan Zhen widened his eyes, "What kind of punishment is that? He was already locked up!"

    A hint of irritation flickered across Empress Luo's face, but she still said, "Before, it was due to illness and recuperation. Now, it's confinement. How can they be the same? Your father has his own intentions, which your uncle should have mentioned. Bei Xi has always been rebellious. If not for the Crown Prince suppressing them a little, they'd think too highly of themselves. Giving them a Princess Consort from the Second Prince's household is already a great favor. The Crown Prince isn't wrong about that." Recalling the submissive and somewhat inarticulate Bei Xi princess she had just seen, who could only be described as pretty, Empress Luo couldn't help feeling regretful. "I had planned to marry you to someone older and more mature, someone who could bear children well. But now that the marriage has just taken place, without any children from the Queen, it wouldn't be appropriate to arrange other consorts to serve. We'll have to choose a concubine slowly."

    Yuan Zhen said irritably, "Why did Father suddenly decide to let the Crown Prince attend my wedding feast?"

    Empress Luo replied nonchalantly, "Isn't it obvious? He wants to win over Princess Yi Yang. Don't worry, he won't be happy for long. I've heard that Princess Yi Yang was abandoned in the city by Prince Jingbei, while he went to attack the royal palace. Now, the princess is alone in the city, and the Bei Xi see her as an easy target. They're all attacking that city. It probably won't hold out for many days. She might even be captured by Bei Xi as a hostage. They probably think capturing Yi Yang would give them leverage against Prince Jingbei, with the future prince still in her womb. Huhu."

    Upon hearing this, Yuan Zhen laughed in delight. "Prince Jingbei probably wishes that bastard would never come into this world. Hahaha." He wondered if the Crown Prince would still maintain his lofty and aloof demeanor when the time came. His father was only keeping the title of Crown Prince for now to appease Prince Jingbei.

    Finally, a sense of ease returned to his face. "Well, it's for the best. When we form an alliance with Bei Xi and deal with Prince Jingbei, Father will surely remember the injustice I suffered today."

    Empress Lao said, "Yes, return home and console the Princess. With Prince's words, Princess Bei Xi won't be able to put on airs in front of you anymore. You'll be more at ease. It would be even better if you could give birth to an imperial grandchild soon, as I've heard." She whispered, "The Prince is genuinely unwell, likely due to excessive worry. If this continues, he might not endure it. It will be impossible to have an imperial grandchild then. You must take this matter to heart."

    Empress Lao pondered for a moment and added, "There's one more thing. I heard that the Prince is trying to recruit the brother of that Concubine Rong whom I picked for him back then. You should also try to recruit him."

    Yuan Zhen was taken aback. "That Concubine Rong? Didn't the Prince dismiss her directly to Princess Yi Yang? Why is he recruiting her now? What's the purpose?"

    Empress Lao smiled faintly. "Don't bother about his purpose. Right now, it's a clever move. Just leak the news to him that Princess Yi Yang and her entourage of lady attendants are trapped in Bei Xi. That Concubine Rong's brother, despite being a peasant of humble origins, has managed to pass the provincial examinations and is heading to the capital for the metropolitan exam. His future is promising. He must have influential mentors and fellow townspeople. Scholars tend to have their own pride. If anything were to happen, it wouldn't be our concern."

    Yuan Zhen was startled, but after some thought, he clapped his hands and exclaimed, "Indeed! The Prince refused to keep Concubine Rong and sent her to Princess Yi Yang, forcing her to marry into a harsh land far from home. Now, she's trapped in Bei Xi with her life unknown. How could the second son of the Rong family not hold a grudge against the Prince? This situation can indeed be utilized to our advantage!"

    Empress Luo commented, "It's just a casual move in case it becomes useful someday. You should keep a low profile now and build your reputation. Try to befriend people who could be of use. It's getting late, so go ahead and do as you're told. Be cautious and don't leave any traces behind. There will be plenty of time in the future."

    Yuan Zhen felt pleased, glad to cause some inconvenience for the crown prince. He got up to bid farewell to his mother and, guided by the ladies-in-waiting, headed to the imperial garden to escort Princess Consort of the Second Prince back to the prince's residence. From a distance, he saw Yuan Yixue walking alongside the Fourth Prince, Yuan Yi, both laughing and chatting with the Princess Consort. Approaching them, Yuan Yixue and Yuan Yi stood up, greeting, "Greetings, Imperial Brother."

    Yuan Zhen casually asked, "Why aren't you attending classes today, Fourth Brother?"

    Yuan Yi replied, "I've been making progress in my studies, so Father Emperor excused me from class today since it's Second Brother's wedding day and he wanted me to pay respects at court. However, he asked me to write a few large characters that he plans to review personally."

    Yuan Zhen was taken aback and gave the Fourth Prince a closer look. At thirteen years old, Yuan Yi was dressed in a lustrous moon-white robe with a small golden crown on his head. His features were handsome, making him appear like a refined young man. Unlike himself and Yuan Yixue, he resembled their father more than their mother. Teasingly, Yuan Zhen said, "Is Father Emperor really that free to check your calligraphy personally? Weren't you always discussing metaphysics with that Taoist priest or practicing dual cultivation with Taoist nuns before? Suddenly, he has the interest to personally educate an imperial prince? Perhaps it's just a passing whim."

    Yuan Yi chuckled. "Father Emperor has been paying close attention to my studies lately, checking on me daily. He's even replaced my tutors several times. The other day, he even took me to play polo and taught me how to ride a horse. Have you seen those short horses from the south, Second Brother? They're fascinating!"

    A wave of jealousy washed over Yuan Zhen. He bitterly thought that their father only favored the younger princes who posed no threat, while being suspicious of the adult ones. Just as he was about to ask more questions, Yuan Yiqing interjected, "Fourth Brother, don't bother Second Brother too much. It's his wedding day, and he needs to take his new bride home. Today, the palace made some delicious clear rice dumplings, and they finished making that wooden carriage toy based on your drawing. You should hurry and see them. It's rare for you to have a day off; you'll be back in class tomorrow."

    Yuan Zhen glanced at Yuan Yixue, who quickly averted her eyes. However, Yuan Zhen noticed a fleeting hint of caution in her gaze. He froze as he watched Yuan Yixue hold Yuan Yi's hand tightly, saying, "Second Brother, quickly take your new bride back. This is a precious time for you two. We won't disturb you." With that, she immediately led Yuan Yi away, followed hastily by several eunuchs, wet nurses, and palace maids, forming a large entourage.

    Had the Fourth Prince always had such a large group of servants? And why had his second sister, who used to be close to him and would always beg him to buy things for her, suddenly become distant? When did this estrangement begin? It seemed to occur after the mention of marrying her off to Jingbei. Could she still be resentful about that proposal? But it was Mother Empress who suggested it, not him! Yuan Zhen felt annoyed, thinking that his sister was ungrateful. The Second Prince's Consort approached timidly and bowed, "Husband, let's go back home."

    Yuan Zhen gazed at the unassuming Princess Bei Xi, recalling his mother's casual demeanor just now. In the past, she would inquire about his studies, his archery practice, and how he managed his royal assignments. Now, all she hurriedly urged was for him to forge connections with influential figures and bear imperial grandchildren. She justified it by saying that as the crown prince grew older, he posed a threat to Father Emperor's position, hence Father Emperor's indifference towards the princes as they matured... Wasn't that how Fourth Brother had won Father Emperor's favor...

    A chilling thought suddenly dawned on Yuan Zhen. Could it be that he had been forsaken by his father, the Emperor, and his mother, the Empress?

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