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    Chapter 62: On the Verge of Death

    True to his expectations, when Yuan Zixu saw the medical records and prescriptions, he merely smiled at the chief physician and said, "The prince was deeply concerned about the princess and couldn't rest day or night. He wasn't in good health to begin with, so naturally, he had underlying health issues. Now that he's received the good news of the princess being rescued, his tension has eased, and thus, his illness has resurfaced. He needs proper care and rest."

    The chief physician promptly agreed and withdrew cautiously, indeed taking great care to treat the prince. However, they didn't expect that this time, the prince would be bedridden for days with an unyielding fever. His complexion grew pale, his pulse weak, and his heart beat gradually weakened. It seemed his condition was critical, and the imperial physicians dared not conceal the truth, so they could only report it honestly.

    Yuan Zixu was surprised and personally accompanied the imperial physicians to the Baohan Palace for another examination. He observed the prince, unconscious and burning up like charcoal, unresponsive to calls. He instructed the physicians to continue their treatment and summoned them one by one to take the prince's pulse inside. With a stern expression, he asked, "In your opinion, is the prince's illness due to sickness or poison?"

    Startled, the chief physician fell to his knees and assured, "I dare stake my life on it; it's definitely not from poisoning."

    But Yuan Zixu picked up on a discrepancy in the words. "If it's not from poisoning, then it must truly be an illness? How did it escalate so abruptly? I just asked the imperial physicians who diagnosed the prince, and they all said the fever is peculiar. Since his previous illness, he had a routine checkup every three days without any issues. It shouldn't have worsened from just drinking some wine. Moreover, the initial pulse didn't resemble symptoms of a cold or fever. It was only after a few days of fever that his appetite waned, and his pulse weakened."

    The chief physician hesitated for a moment before reluctantly suggesting, "Your Majesty is right. It seems like an invasion of wind evil..."

    However, Yuan Zixu's heart stirred, and he asked directly, "Could it be a result of witchcraft?"

    The chief physician was startled and dared not speak, only bowing deeply.

    Yuan Zixu casually walked a few steps, observing the chief physician, drenched with sweat and trembling beneath him. He knew that throughout history, cases of witchcraft often led to bloody repercussions. But since suspicion had arisen in his mind, he wouldn't let it go easily.

    First, an order was given to question the Qinghou Guards and the palace guards on duty that night. It was discovered that they had all consumed alcohol and food that evening. Upon learning of the prince's illness, Yu Huan and Shen Anlin had already met, both assuming that they must not mention the drinking incident and instead vaguely stated that there were no unusual occurrences that night.

    Fortunately, Yuan Zixu never suspected these guards in the first place. His suspicion lay with Empress Luo, but without evidence, he couldn't blindly investigate the witchcraft allegations. The courtiers would undoubtedly advise against it. After some thought, Yuan Zixu summoned Daoist Chong Xiao for consultation.

    Daoist Chong Xiao, after contemplating with his fingers, expressed concern, "His Highness the Crown Prince is the future ruler of our nation. If his health is compromised, the foundation of the kingdom will be unstable. From my observation, the palace still exudes a purple aura, indicating that the emperor is under divine protection. Allow me to perform a round of rituals in each palace to pray for the prince's well-being. This might help turn the tide in his favor."

    Yuan Zixu pondered for a moment before agreeing, instructing Empress Luo to arrange the prayer ceremonies within the palace.

    Upon hearing this, Empress Luo angrily smashed her cup, "He's suspecting me! The prince falls ill, and suddenly I'm the suspect! How dare he!"

    Yuan Zhen, who happened to be in the palace, suggested, "That Daoist Chong Xiao is only after money. Don't worry, Mother. I'll send him some wealth, and he won't dare speak nonsense."

    Empress Luo hissed, "You know nothing! These mystical charlatans can easily backfire. We must avoid them, not engage." She herself had used such prophetic tricks to manipulate the prince, so she was well aware of their dangers. Clearly, the emperor was now suspicious of her. After all, if anything happened to the prince, she would be the one to benefit. But she truly was innocent!

    Yuan Zhen didn't understand his mother's thoughts, having grown distant from Empress Luo since his encounter with Yuan Ya. He offered a few casual words of comfort, but Empress Luo resented his ignorance and maintained a cold demeanor, refusing to give him any tasks. Instead, she dismissed him and summoned Lord Lu to come in, secretly plotting her next move.

    ====

    The heavy gallop of horses thundered like rolling thunder as a cavalry approached, stirring up dust as they charged into the camp. The guards at the posts, spotting the royal banner adorned with eight dragons, hastily blew their horns and waved their flags to open the gates - the prince had returned!

    The cavalry rode straight into the central camp, led by Prince Jingbei, Guo Shuji. He dismounted, his face stern and expressionless, his armor clinking with each step. Drawing his sword, he strode purposefully towards the main tent, where he was greeted by none other than Lu Peiling.

    Guo Shuji inquired, "How is it?"

    Lu Peiling wore a bitter smile. "The princess led an army of ten thousand on a rapid march, eliminating several Northern Xi rebel and regular troops along the way. They joined the main force the day before yesterday. But Princess's bodyguard Rong Er, with three thousand soldiers, was escorting the princess at the rear. She was mistakenly hit by an arrow, piercing her chest, and fell into a coma. Her brother carried her back to camp for treatment. The military doctor is attending to her, but the injury is to her vital heart meridian, and her condition is critical. The princess insists on staying by Rong Er's bedside, refusing food and rest. She is, after all, pregnant, and this ordeal worries the physician."

    Guo Shuji's face turned ashen, yet he asked, "Rong Er, that's the female officer, isn't it?"

    Lu Peiling replied, "Yes, she commanded the city defense and the troops throughout the journey, leading by example, personally engaging the enemy. Her bravery and loyalty are commendable. I've spoken with the commanders who escorted her, and they all have great respect for General Rong Er. Nine out of ten soldiers in that army are our sons; it wasn't easy for Rong Er to lead them, but she fought a brilliant battle defending the city. Along with the one thousand guards assigned to the princess, every one of them fought fiercely without fear of death. Our boys have come to admire her."

    Guo Shuji was surprised. "When did the princess's guard increase to a thousand? Didn't she only have five hundred before?"

    Lu Peiling explained, "They were secretly sent by Duke Song to assist the princess. Since she didn't leave, they stayed. I've seen their leader—it's the Duke's heir, Song Xiang."

    Guo Shuji's expression remained unchanged. Upon reaching the tent, he didn't ask further but entered directly. Inside, Princess Yi Yang was indeed sitting by the bed, leaning against a soft armchair, her face extremely pale. Upon seeing him, she lifted her head briefly, then lowered it coldly, holding the unconscious female officer's hand.

    Guo Shuji asked, "How severe is the injury?"

    Princess Yi Yang replied calmly, "They say it's a wound to the heart meridian, difficult to heal. They've used ginseng, but if she doesn't awaken, it's fate."

    Guo Shuji fell silent, observing her ashen, gaunt face, slender shoulders, and contrasting protruding belly, which looked particularly alarming in the dim light. His tone softened. "I have a protective heart pill for emergencies. Have someone bring it here to give to her."

    Princess Yi Yang's tone remained indifferent. "Many thanks, Your Highness."

    Silence persisted in the air. Princess Yi Yang seemed disinclined to speak further, her attention solely on the pale-faced maid lying on the bed.

    After a moment, Guo Shuji spoke again. "I thought you would leave. I've already made arrangements for your disguise."

    Princess Yi Yang chuckled softly with disdain. "Your Highness has underestimated me from the start, but that no longer matters."

    Guo Shuji asked, "Prince Zheng, the heir of Duke Song – either would make an excellent match. Why does Princess insist on staying here?"

    Princess Yi Yang replied coolly, "In the past, I might have offered an explanation. But now, I have no desire to do so anymore. Your Highness and I should part ways, each to our own paths."

    Guo Shuji said, "Since Princess has held the fort, why not wait there for the imperial army? You could remain safe until we conquer Bei Xi's royal court and return triumphantly."

    Princess Yi Yang lifted her gaze to meet his, and Guo Shuji sensed an inexplicable coldness and stillness in her eyes. She spoke, "Doesn't Your Highness understand? The day the imperial army unites with me will be the day Princess Yi Yang departs this world. Duke Song was ordered to ensure my death, whether it be real or staged. Princess Yi Yang must vanish from the eyes of the world. Father probably wishes to show some mercy, hence sending Duke Song and Third Brother as a means to spare my life."

    Guo Shuji countered, "By keeping your unborn child, the plan is for it to one day succeed you as the Jinging North Prince, rendering the title meaningless. Isn't that the intention of the court?"

    Princess Yi Yang responded, "Your Highness refuses to believe that we are on the same side. And you are unaware that between me and the Crown Prince, there are no other options left."

    "Nevertheless, all of that no longer matters."

    "Your Highness, should anything happen to him, I will never forgive you for the rest of my life."

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