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    Chapter 64: Yan Yun

    "This battle should be well-planned, with the Duke of Song's heir also joining in. Originally, His Highness intended for him to stay and guard the camp with me. But for some reason, he discussed it with the princess and decided to lead his troops anyway, even vying for the vanguard position. His Highness allowed him to go."

    "As for Bei Xi? It's a mess over there. They've sent three waves of envoys to sue for peace, offering numerous gifts and surrendering more and more territories. They even sent several female slaves, one of whom is said to be a princess. However, they didn't dare to propose an alliance through marriage; instead, they said she was to serve His Highness. But His Highness refused her and dismissed them all."

    "The imperial court has also dispatched envoys, but His Highness claims that the battle is too intense. The Third Prince and Duke Song don't seem to dare venture too deeply into the conflict either. Perhaps they're preserving their options. As a result, they haven't had the chance to meet with His Highness yet."

    "Speaking of which, I haven't been in many battles in my life, but this one truly feels exhilarating."

    "Take good care of your injuries, Sister. A few days ago, His Highness had someone deliver a bow to you, a spoil of war from our victory. Bei Xi is indeed skilled in hunting, and that bow is exceptional! I heard it has a name... something like 'Chasing Phoenix.' Once you recover, I'll show it to you."

    "I've received quite a reward this time as well. When we return, I'll acquire more manors so that Father and Mother can finally rest."

    Rong Bi chatted casually with her brother, eventually succumbing to fatigue and closing her eyes. Rong Yi, seeing his sister asleep, promptly rose to thank Bai Ying.

    In the main tent, numerous maidens bustled about, heating water, while Lu Peiling organized the shifts for the soldiers. Stepping out, he noticed that it was already late at night, with dense clouds covering the sky. Faint rumbles of thunder could be heard, and lightning flickered behind the thick clouds, as if an irresistible force was brewing.

    At midnight, the thunder finally erupted in a roaring crescendo, accompanied by flashes of lightning and a downpour that seemed to split the heavens. The rain poured relentlessly onto the plains, cleansing the landscape and sweeping away all obstacles.

    Lu Peiling calculated the time and surmised that the prince should have already arrived at the royal court. Frowning, he realized that the sudden downpour would hinder their rapid attack strategy. Naturally, the rain might also dampen the morale of the defenders, but they were known to rely on oil for fire attacks. Under such heavy rain, those tactics would be ineffective. Thus, the situation seemed to hold both advantages and disadvantages. Given the prince's capabilities and the morale of the Northern Rhinoceros troops, there was no need for excessive worry.

    He directed his soldiers to dig trenches to divert the water, preventing it from flooding the main tent and alarming the princess. With a concerned gaze, he looked towards the distant horizon.

    Fortunately, the rain came and went swiftly. After about an hour, it began to taper off, leaving a gentle drizzle. By the time the eastern sky started to brighten, the rain had ceased altogether. The golden hues of dawn illuminated the dewdrops on the grass, indicating a clear day ahead.

    Having kept watch all night, Lu Peiling turned to face the east, unsure of the battle's progress. Instead, he heard the faint cries of a newborn from the main tent, resembling the weak mewling of a kitten. It was clear that the child had been born premature, weak and lacking in strength. Yet, in the stillness of the dawn, those cries were especially poignant.

    Approaching the tent, Lu Peiling noticed Yu Twelve accompanied by several loyal officers, still armed and guarding outside. Their faces bore a hint of joy, but when they saw Lu Peiling, their expressions turned cautious as they watched him with drawn swords.

    Lu Peiling offered a bow but remained silent, waiting respectfully outside without overstepping his bounds. After a while, Mei Xiang, the palace lady, emerged from the tent. Upon seeing Lu Peiling, she curtsied and announced, "Lord Lu, the princess has safely delivered a little princess. Both mother and child are well."

    Lu Peiling breathed a sigh of relief and returned the greeting. "Thank you, Aunt Mei, for conveying the message. Before His Highness left for battle, he instructed that upon the safe delivery, the good news should be shared with everyone, banners hung, and wine and food distributed to celebrate."

    Mei Xiang bowed again. "The princess has said that since His Highness is away, there is no need for grand celebrations. For now, she wishes to generously reward the midwife, physician, and the soldiers and attendants who worked tirelessly through the night. Each will receive ten taels of silver. When the army returns victorious, a grand celebration will be held to honor this triumph over Yan Yun."

    Lu Peiling inwardly applauded the princess's tactful words and smiled. "I shall adhere to Her Highness's command. When our troops conquer the royal court, we will doubly celebrate this double joy. I have already arranged for nursing ewes to be kept on standby. If there are any further needs, please do not hesitate to ask."

    Mei Xiang nodded and turned back towards the tent. Lu Peiling, however, could see the subtle worry behind her smile. The child, having been born prematurely, likely faced health challenges. Moreover, the princess's premature birth might have stemmed from her depression, which could have taken a toll on her own health. Shaking his head, he instructed the guards to promptly respond to any requests from the main tent and dispatched a detachment of soldiers to inform the prince of the joyful news.

    Within the tent, Princess Yi Yang was forcing herself to have the maid bring over the young princess, who was still crying and weak, her skin tinged with purple. Mei Xiang, seeing Yi Yang unbutton her robe, panicked and said, "Princess, rest for now. We've already arranged for goat's milk."

    Princess Yi Yang shook her head. "She's arrived too early. The wet nurses we chose before have stayed in Jingbei. I'll feed her myself." She added, "Tell the physician to prescribe me some herbs to stimulate lactation."

    Mei Xiang protested, "Princess... you've been so exhausted these days. The physician said your body is severely drained, and you need proper care. We've boiled the goat's milk, and we won't mistreat the young princess."

    Princess Yi Yang shook her head again. "I know without the physician telling me. Such a tiny premature child is hard to raise. At this moment, her mother's milk would be the most nourishing." Though fatigue showed on her face, her eyes were resolute. "My daughter, I'll care for her myself."

    ===

    In Bei Xi's capital city.

    The atmosphere was solemn. After the heavy rain, the air should have been fresh, but there was still a faint trace of blood in it. The dark-robed North Jing soldiers were stationed in the square in front of the Bei Xi royal palace.

    The entire Bei Xi royal family, ministers, and officials had removed their outer garments, donned plain clothes, and bound their hands behind their backs, kneeling in submission. Not far away, coffins were placed, with servants holding goats on their knees.

    The leader of the Bei Xi royals, bare-chested, trembled slightly as he raised both hands, clutching the royal seal and offering surrender.

    Guo Shuji stood at the entrance of the towering palace, overlooking the surrendering Bei Xi royalty with an indifferent expression. A scholar whispered beside him, "Your Highness, this is a ceremony of surrender. If word reaches the court, it might add another charge of arrogance and rebellion against the Bei Xi King. His intentions are sinister."

    Guo Shuji dismissed the comment with a snort. He instructed his men to accept the Bei Xi royal seal and then ordered the soldiers to drive the Bei Xi royal family away for further punishment. As he turned to see a messenger galloping towards them from afar, his eyes turned cold.

    A messenger rode forth swiftly, dismounting gracefully to kneel on one knee before the prince, and reported, "Your Highness! The Princess Consort has given birth to a young princess!"

    Guo Shuji fell silent for a moment, then waved his hand. "The day we reclaim our lands shall mark the birth of my daughter, an omen of great fortune, a blessing from heaven, and a sign of peace in the north. Pass the word to the troops to celebrate this double joy. Bestow upon our princess the title Yan Yun—Yan Yun, the Sixteen Prefectures, shall be her domain, her land to bathe in prosperity."

    The scholar's heart skipped a beat, yet his face betrayed a hint of delight. He was almost tempted to applaud the prince's brilliant strategic move.

    Jingbei was originally composed of thirteen provinces. The recently recovered Yan Yun Sixteen States, which had been ceded to Bei Xi by the previous dynasty, had been lost to barbarian tribes for many years. Now that they were regained, the court would inevitably send officials to govern these territories, inevitably leading to disputes with Jingbei. Although the prince was usually reserved and skilled in warfare, it was surprising to see his astuteness in politics as he effortlessly assigned the Yan Yun Sixteen States under the princess's jurisdiction.

    The fiefdom of Tangmu has always been a privilege reserved for princesses, but what difference does it make if one is the princess of the King of Jingbei? Moreover, she is the daughter of Princess Yi Yang, the granddaughter of the current emperor. It is only a matter of time before she receives the title of a princess.

    These sixteen states, directly announced by the Prince of Northern Pacification as a grant to the Princess, could the imperial court possibly issue an edict to strip the Princess of her domains? And the newly born young princess, frail and tender, held no real control over the Yan Yun Sixteen States, which in truth remained firmly in the grip of the Prince of Northern Pacification. During the years until the princess comes of age, there exists ample room for maneuver and manipulation – the princess's spouse, her upbringing... The Prince of Northern Pacification possesses a hundred ways to maintain his hold over the Yan Yun Sixteen States.

    Instantly, the Jingbei Army was filled with joy and excitement, continuously shouting their felicitations to the thousand-year-old ruler.

    By the time the imperial court received news of the military report, it was told that on the very morning of Yan Yun Princess's birth, a divine omen graced the heavens with radiant crimson hues in the east. The Jingbei Army, as if blessed by the gods, effortlessly captured the Bei Xi royal court, reclaiming Yan Yun. Tales of this miraculous victory had already spread far and wide across the Central Plains.

    Prince Jingbei has detained the entire Bei Xi royal family and is sending them to Fufeng City under the pretext of presenting captives. He requests that Third Prince and Duke Song escort them back to the capital for the imperial court to mete out justice. Furthermore, he has issued an order to rename the sixteen prefectures of Bei Xi as the original sixteen prefectures of Yan Yun. All sixteen will revert to their original Han names.

    When the imperial court received this "big gift" from the Northern Rhinoceros royal family, they were speechless, but they could only hold their noses and acknowledge it. They organized a grand surrender ceremony in the capital, and reluctantly named the Northern Rhinoceros King the Marquis of Anshun.Afterwards, the Ministry of Rites discussed the great achievements of the recovery, and issued an edict to confer the title of Prince of Super Grade on King Jingbei and "double share of the prince's salary as a token of superiority." Princess Yiyang was given the title of "Zhen Guo" and an additional title of 1,000 cities. Princess Yanyun was given tenIn Tang Muyi of the Six Prefectures, "all uniforms and systems are governed by the princess' rules", and the famous generals who contributed to the recovery of Jingbei's three armies were rewarded according to their merits.

    On this diplomatic mission, Yuan Ya didn't even get to see Princess Yi Yang before he safely returned to the capital with his captives. Despite his father's indifferent expression and lack of praise, merely asking a few casual questions before dismissing him to visit the Empress Consort, Yuan Ya was content and not at all bothered by his father's coldness. He obediently made his way to the Empress Consort's palace.

    Consort Jiang, upon seeing him return safely, was moved to tears. After inquiring about his journey, she learned that he had been utterly confused and had merely followed Duke Ding's instructions. She praised him, "That's exactly right. It's likely that Zheng Tanhua and Duke Zheng were communicating behind the scenes. Not meeting Princess Yi Yang was the best course of action. Otherwise, how could you have returned unscathed? Things might have turned chaotic. By the way, since you've come back from Jingbei, you must pay a visit to the Crown Prince."

    Yuan Ya was surprised, "Visit the Crown Prince? Won't Father and the Empress be displeased?"

    Consort Jiang shook her head, a hint of satisfaction on her face, "The Crown Prince was critically ill recently. Now that you're back, it's only proper for you to go and see him. Otherwise, the Emperor might think you lack brotherly affection."

    Yuan Ya was startled, "Crown Prince is critically ill? Wasn't he well inside the palace?"

    Consort Jiang whispered, "It's quite mysterious. His condition seemed to have improved, and he was even able to attend Second Prince's wedding ceremony. But one morning, without any apparent reason, he fell into a fever-induced coma. The Emperor, for some reason, began suspecting that person..."

    She gestured in the direction of the Empress's Purple Mansion Palace, "The Emperor ordered Daoist Chongxiao to perform exorcism rituals in the palace. Strangely enough, after the Daoist conducted the ceremony, the Crown Prince woke up and his fever subsided. Even the imperial physicians couldn't explain the phenomenon. The Emperor, who was already suspicious, became even more convinced that there was something sinister at play when the Crown Prince recovered after the ritual. These days, I've heard that the Emperor has rejected several of the Empress's proposals. Second Prince was reprimanded for not focusing on his studies and for being disrespectful and disobedient. He was also confined to his quarters because he appeared joyful during the Crown Prince's illness. And to top it off, Lord Lu's rank was lowered due to some fault found in him. Now, things over there have become much quieter."

    Consort Jiang's delight in others' misfortune was evident on her face. "Just visit and return, don't do anything else. Mediocrity can be a blessing."

    Yuan Ya agreed and, after chatting with Consort Jiang about everyday matters, left to seek permission from the Emperor to visit the Crown Prince. Yuan Zixu indeed granted his request.

    Upon entering Baohan Palace, Yuan Ya observed the lotus pond, now covered with lush leaves, adding an extra charm to the scenery. Reflecting on the Crown Prince being confined here, detached from court affairs, he thought that this illness had actually come at an opportune moment, aligning perfectly with his father's wishes. Otherwise, with King Jingbei's great achievement, his father would undoubtedly have felt threatened. Now, with the Crown Prince's life hanging in the balance, the Emperor had instead turned his suspicion towards Empress Lu.

    In that case, it seems this illness holds more secrets than meets the eye.

    Yuan Ya's doubts flashed through his mind, but he followed the eunuch into the prince's chamber. Yuan Jun indeed looked as pale as paper, leaning against the bed while gazing at a snow-white long-haired cat with one eye of a different color. The cat's luxurious fur was particularly abundant and elegant, lounging lazily beneath the bed.

    Yuan Ya chuckled. "Has my elder brother recovered? As your foolish younger brother, I've been supervising the army outside and couldn't attend to you during your illness…" His words trailed off when he saw Yuan Jun lift his gaze, his eyes icy and distant. That glance almost made Yuan Ya bite his tongue, and after a moment, he regained his composure to continue, "Where did my elder brother find this cat to keep?"

    Yuan Jun's expression remained mild. "Duke Song returned to the capital, and my older sister sent a lady-in-waiting with gifts. Perhaps she was worried about my loneliness in the palace and sent a cat for company." In reality, this had been a gift arranged before Yuan Jun's time in Jingbei. Originally, he planned to send his favorite cat to Concubine Rong to alleviate her boredom in the palace. However, due to the chaos of the war, the gift only arrived with the prisoners and tribute after their great victory.

    Along with the gift came comforting words from his older sister, mentioning the birth of the young princess and the safety of mother and child. She asked him not to worry and to take care of himself. Throughout the exchange, palace eunuchs supervised the lady-in-waiting, leaving Yuan Jun unable to express anything more than wishing his sister good health.

    Yuan Ya said, "Yes, I remember now. Before returning to the capital, King Jingbei sent a group to escort prisoners and tributes to the court. Presumably, my sister also brought a gift for you. Are you much better now? From what I hear, your sister is doing well, but because of the premature birth, our niece is somewhat weak. While I was in Jingbei, I sought out several wet nurses to send to her."

    A hint of concern flickered across Yuan Jun's face. "I have also asked Father to send skilled physicians in obstetrics and pediatrics, along with some tonic herbs, to help my sister recover her strength."

    Observing Yuan Jun's weak voice and lack of energy, as well as his cold and distant demeanor, Yuan Ya realized his brother was indeed suffering from melancholy due to his illness. Not wanting to overstay his welcome, Yuan Ya shared a few anecdotes from Jingbei. He noticed Yuan Jun merely responded politely, showing no real interest. Puzzled, Yuan Ya offered additional gifts and presents before taking his leave, citing the need to avoid disturbing his brother's recovery.

    Yuan Jun nonchalantly granted permission, and as Yuan Ya exited the chamber, he glanced back at Yuan Jun. He saw his elder brother picking up a flower branch from the table to play with the white cat, looking more lively in that moment than when they had met.

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