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    Chapter 61: Depth of Calculations

    Marquis Cheng'en dabbed away his tears before remembering to introduce Rong Bi, "This is Rong Mo, Lady Rong's elder brother. He is the third child in their family. He has come to the capital this time for next year's spring examination. This year marks His Majesty's fiftieth jubilee, and many speculate that the autumn examination might have an additional imperial favor category. As a result, candidates with any sort of insider information from across the realm have flocked to the capital. However, given the current state of war, it's uncertain if the Emperor will indeed hold such an imperial favor exam."

    Rong Bi finally looked at his Third Brother with an air of openness as he approached with sleeves unfurled, ready to pay his respects. His heart raced, and he waved his hand, dismissing the need for formalities. "No need for such ceremony... I have limited time, so there's no need to be overly formal. I've heard that there's been some misunderstanding between you, the princess, and myself... hence, I've come to meet with you."

    Rong Mo saw the Crown Prince arriving in the middle of the night amidst the rain, with a tall and slender figure, wearing a long robe with wide sleeves, exuding an air of nobility. When he removed his wind cap, his handsome face and elegant demeanor were as beautiful as jade. Coupled with his speech, Rong Mo couldn't help but be secretly impressed. However, he still worried about his sister, "Your Highness, my sister Rong Bi, has been sold into the palace since childhood to support our family. Our entire family has felt guilty for many years. Now that we finally have news of my sister, we learn that she is in a dangerous situation. I may have spoken with some resentment, but I hope the Crown Prince will forgive me."

    "Having been enlightened by Lord Hou's meticulous explanation, and having seen today's battle report that he has kindly shared with me, I am filled with pride knowing that my sister, despite being a woman, harbors a patriotic spirit and is courageous enough to ride into battle."

    Feeling a tender warmth in her heart, Rong Bi's cheeks flushed slightly. After all, it was the Crown Prince who had the ambition to serve the country on the battlefield, soaring like a Kunpeng into the sky. In contrast, she was but a sparrow content with guarding her little courtyard through the seasons. She steered the conversation away, asking gently, "How many days did it take you to travel from your hometown? Are you confident in the upcoming examinations?"

    Rong Mo promptly replied. Rong Bi then inquired, "Are your parents in good health? Are they still working hard?"

    Surprised, Rong Mo wondered why the Crown Prince, who had taken the risk to leave the palace and mentioned the scarcity of time, would engage him in such casual conversation. However, seeing the genuine concern in the prince's eyes and the warmth in his voice, he answered truthfully to all questions. Rong Bi asked about the weather, harvests, and the chill of the season. She even probed about which scholar he studied under, how much tuition he paid, and if he dedicated enough hours to reading. Her inquiries were mundane, like a typical exchange between neighbors, to which Rong Mo responded to each one.

    After a while, Shen Anlin softly coughed as a reminder. "Your Highness, it's almost time for the palace shift change."

    This was a subtle hint that it was time for them to depart.

    Rong Bi felt a tinge of reluctance, but still, she took out a black lacquer box with golden trim from her sleeve and passed it to Rong Mo. "These are my personal scholarly tools; I gift them to you, wishing for your name to grace the golden list soon." Rong Mo initially wanted to decline, but upon learning that they were the Crown Prince's own writing supplies, something that could be passed down to future generations, his eyes lit up, and he accepted the gift with gratitude.

    Rong Bi adjusted her hood, fearing that her brother's concerns might affect his exam performance. She then exhorted, "Your sister is unharmed. Once this matter is settled, I will release her from her status and send her home. You need only focus on your examinations."

    A smile spread across Rong Mo's face. "This student is deeply grateful for Your Highness's kindness!"

    However, Marquis Cheng'en and Shen Anlin behind them were slightly surprised, but they still respectfully saw the Crown Prince off.

    Amidst the stormy weather, after Rong Mo had bowed as the Crown Prince left, he stood in a daze for a moment before remarking, "The Crown Prince truly is a deity among men!" He turned to Marquis Cheng'en and bowed again. "Thank you, Lord, for your wise counsel. The Crown Prince shows great respect for scholars; I am truly convinced. If there is any task in the future, please do not hesitate to command me."

    Marquis Cheng'en returned the bow and instructed someone to personally escort Rong Mo away. Upon seeing him leave, Shen Anlin was somewhat perplexed. "Why would His Highness take such a risk and endure hardship just to come here, without sharing more strategic plans with Grandfather? Instead, he engaged in casual conversation with Rong Mo and gave him an ordinary gift. Although those scholarly tools are the Crown Prince's daily use items, they are undoubtedly of high quality. But if he wanted to win people over, why didn't he offer a generous reward? You had even prepared gold and silver, awaiting the Crown Prince's command to distribute them."

    Marquis Cheng'en looked at Shen Anlin and sighed deeply. "When the late Empress was still alive, your grandfather often said that if she were not a woman, she would have been the one to inherit the family business, ensuring the safety of the Shen family. At that time, I did not agree, but now, looking at our children, she indeed surpasses me in many ways."

    Shen Anlin, accustomed to his father's teachings, shrugged it off. "How can I compare with His Highness? Seeing how he's confined in the palace every day yet can still cook dishes with precision, I genuinely admire His Highness."

    Marquis Cheng'en spoke with profound meaning, "Being imprisoned by his sovereign, yet he remains calm and undaunted – his determination is extraordinary. But that is not the most crucial point. Throughout history, great figures like Goujian and Han Xin endured what ordinary people couldn't. What's truly remarkable is that despite being imprisoned for so long, when he finally got out today, he didn't vent his grievances to me. There was no trace of anger, sadness, or depression on his face. Instead, he remained as composed as ever, chatting casually with Rong Mo and casually gifting his personal belongings, as if he were not confined but living his life with ease and composure."

    Shen Anlin agreed, "Yes, I thought that since the Crown Prince couldn't complain about his hardships in the palace, he would at least give us some guidance when meeting Father. Yet, he only talked about everyday matters with Rong Mo, leaving me utterly confused."

    Marquis Cheng'en sat down and stroked the tablecloth slowly. "With the princess being sent far away to marry and the crown prince confined, how could he not harbor resentment? But for the crown prince to conceal his feelings so well at such a young age, without any trace, his depth of character even impresses an old man like me."

    Shen Anlin suggested, "Perhaps His Highness was restrained from speaking too much due to outsiders being present?"

    Marquis Cheng'en gave him a deep look. "Have you not realized that the crown prince treats Rong Mo more like family than he does us? Whether it's the Rong siblings or Tang Xi, who, unknown to us, has been won over to risk everything for His Highness by digging secret tunnels, they are all deeply relied upon by him. Today, we are the outsiders."

    Shen Anlin was speechless.

    Marquis Cheng'en continued, "If you were Rong Mo, with the crown prince now in a weakened position, would you dare accept his promise of high ranks and generous rewards for his siblings?"

    Shen Anlin was taken aback. Marquis Cheng'en added, "They're just common folk. Would they not fear that the nobles' generosity with gold is a ploy to take their lives?"

    Stuttering, Shen Anlin asked, "Then why was Rong Mo so wary of us at first, but when he learned of his sister's danger, he was willing to take her place and even go to the Imperial Edict Office? Would they sell the bond of siblings for money?"

    Marquis Cheng'en said, "A commoner can shed blood for three feet; do not underestimate them. At first, the crown prince took great risks to meet Rong Mo, humbled himself to befriend him, and rewarded him with personal belongings. This shows his genuine reliance on the Rong siblings, treating them as key supporters and confidants. Refusing high-ranking positions and not mentioning the possibility of a royal marriage, but only promising their safe return home, is the most cunning move. Remember, the crown prince is currently imprisoned. Promises of high offices and riches are meaningless. It might even make the elder brother worry if the prince is lusting after his sister. The promise of a safe return home is what they truly desire. This signifies that the crown prince vows to ensure their safety, even if the future doesn't go as planned. That's why the Rong family's three sons are so convinced."

    Shen Anlin still looked somewhat perplexed. Marquis Cheng'en patted his shoulder. "Regardless, the Shen family's fate is tied to the crown prince's. Our prosperity and decline are one and the same. I've often been worried, but after meeting His Highness today, my heart has settled. The crown prince is a rare and exceptional ruler, with remarkable intelligence, strategy, and grace. It's a blessing for the Shen lineage to have such a descendant... For the entire realm to have such a wise emperor would also be a blessing for all. The crown prince deserves the full support and loyalty of the Shen family."

    Shen Anlin asked, "Father means that we have no backup plan?"

    The Marquis Cheng'en felt an unexpected surge of enthusiasm. "To follow such a wise ruler, there's no need to worry about anything else. Just act fearlessly! Our destiny, whether it be a century of wealth and prosperity or utter ruin, depends on this one move!"

    Unbeknownst to Rong Bi, her casual actions during her brief departure from the palace had deeply impressed the Marquis Cheng'en, leading him to believe that she was willing to dedicate her entire clan to the prince. She had merely wanted to see her Third Brother and comfort him. As she was not the prince, she couldn't discuss grand strategies with the Marquis, nor could she promise high-ranking positions or riches, for they were not hers to give. Similarly, although the prince's chamber was adorned with countless valuable items and ornaments, she couldn't accept them without guilt. Thus, she simply chose an ordinary set of writing materials from the table to take back with her, imitating the way nobles would gift items to others, so as not to appear inadequate before the Marquis.

    Upon returning to the palace, she fell asleep peacefully. However, she was abruptly awakened by a searing pain in her chest, as if struck by lightning. Struggling with the agony, she tried to get up for a cup of hot tea to soothe herself. Since her confinement, no servants were left to attend to the prince. As she reached for the teapot, the pain in her arm made her drop it, shattering it on the floor.

    Hearing the noise, a eunuch in the outer courtyard hurriedly approached the screen. "Your Highness? Do you need water?"

    Rong Bi regained her composure, feeling the pain in her chest subside. Her arm stopped shaking, and she waved it dismissively. "It's nothing. I only wanted some water. The teapot is broken, but clean up tomorrow when it's light. It's raining heavily; I'll sleep now."

    The eunuch dared not defy her and bowed, staying outside the screen, waiting until morning to tidy up. Upon entering, he found the prince still in bed, unresponsive to his calls. Gathering his courage, he lifted the bed curtains and saw the prince lying unconscious with a feverish forehead. Alarmed, he immediately summoned a physician and informed the emperor.

    In no time, the chief physician of the Imperial Hospital, accompanied by several on-duty doctors, arrived. After examining the prince, they were perplexed and conducted further checks. His pulse didn't seem seriously affected, just a slightly elevated heartbeat. However, his forehead remained scorching, and he remained in a deep sleep. They ordered ice to be brought to lower his temperature and reported to the emperor that the prince had caught a chill after drinking and that his previous illness had resurfaced. Everyone held their breath, especially the eunuchs and maidservants serving in the Bao Han Palace, fearing punishment for their inadequate care.

    Some courtiers discreetly asked their fellow countrymen to intercede and convey their plea to Li Dongfu, hoping he, as a trusted courtier, could help mitigate the situation. Li Dongfu declined any gifts, assuring them, "There's no need to worry, everything will be fine. Just go back and take good care of the prince."

    The messenger eunuch was skeptical but relayed Li Dongfu's words. "Tell them not to worry, no blame will be laid this time." Li Dongfu thought to himself: This illness comes at a good time. The emperor has been displeased with both the princess and the prince. Now, with the prince ill, the emperor might feel relieved. He wondered if the prince's ailment was genuine or feigned. If it was fake, the prince's understanding of the emperor's mind had reached a new level, and perhaps the emperor wouldn't outlast the prince in this game.

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