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    Chapter 66: Returning to the Capital

    The Hundred-Day Banquet indeed was grand, as if Guo Shuji intended to announce to the world his joy of having a daughter. He rewarded his subjects, honored the troops, pardoned convicts, and exempted the thirteen states of Jingbei and the sixteen states of Yan Yun from taxes for three years.

    In the midst of this revelry, Rong Bi packed her belongings, preparing to return to the capital. Regardless of the circumstances, she was happy to go back. Her brother, Rong Yi, looked even more delighted, his brows relaxed and his steps light. During his stay here, he had made many friends and thus had a constant stream of banquets. He too received an award, but Princess Yi Yang secretly asked Duke Song to secure Rong Yi a position as an instructor in the Northern Great Camp when the rewards were presented.

    Initially, Rong Yi wasn't particularly pleased with his appointment, as his sole focus was on taking care of his recuperating sister and he hesitated to leave for the capital. However, upon hearing that Rong Bi was also returning to the capital, the prospect of going back turned into a joyful event. As their departure drew near, they suddenly found themselves busy with preparations.

    Seeing her elder brother's renewed enthusiasm, Rong Bi planned to purchase a residence in the city, busied herself writing letters to their family, and entrusted someone to deliver a message to Third Brother. This all filled her heart with joy.

    The wound had healed, leaving behind a star-shaped scar on Rong Bi's chest, its deep, menacing hue yet to fade. Physicians prescribed numerous scar-reducing remedies, but Rong Bi paid them little heed. The princess, however, felt a tinge of regret and rewarded her with ample amounts of Snow Jade Ointment.

    The herbal cuisine shop was still under operation, with Yu Twelve staying behind to manage it, while Tang Youyu decided to return to the capital with her. Princess Yi Yang summoned the guards and, to her surprise, found that a staggering eighty percent of them were willing to follow "Second Young Master Rong" back. Rong Bi knew that these were the people the Crown Prince had won over during his time in her body. Even her own elder brother held an immense admiration for that decisive and skilled warrior sister, praising her without end. This made Rong Bi feel a mix of guilt and curiosity. She often gazed into the mirror, struggling to imagine the allure the Crown Prince must have possessed while in her body.

    For the attendants who followed them back to the capital, they were originally part of Princess Yi Yang's efforts to nurture a support group for the Crown Prince. Hence, she allowed Princess Yi Yang to make all the arrangements without interfering.

    On this day, she was overseeing the preparation of fish soup in the courtyard. A small flame simmered beneath the pot, causing the milk-white broth to bubble gently. This nourishing dish was intended for the princess's health, but the fish was unusually large, almost the size of a person, sourced from goodness knows where by the prince's estate.

    She was attentively watching the palace servants prepare salted sour fish when Guo Shuji unexpectedly summoned her. Feeling somewhat taken aback but nonetheless obliging, she made her way to him.

    Guo Shuji donned a casual indigo robe, the brusque edge from his battlefield experiences significantly softened. With piercing eyes, he appraised Rong Bi and said, "There's no need to fear that I would do you harm. I am aware the Queen has continuously assigned people to safeguard you. I merely wished to give you an official response upon hearing of your return to the capital."

    Regarding what you shared with me last time, concerning our conversation about the inner workings of the palace.

    Rong Bi: "..." What was he referring to? She hadn't exchanged much with the prince, so it must have been the Crown Prince. She desperately tried to recall the succinct comments the Crown Prince had left in the ledger, but to Guo Shuji, this silence held a different implication.

    Guo Shuji was indeed deeply impressed by this young lady of remarkable talent. He spoke slowly, "In the battle to reclaim Yan Yun, you have indeed proven your worth. Regarding your earlier proposal to form an alliance with the Crown Prince, I consent. Upon your return to the capital, you need only inform the Crown Prince of this matter."

    Rong Bi: "..." Alliance... It finally dawned on her that the Crown Prince had indeed written on a certain page, "Once advised Lord Guo to form an alliance, but to no avail."

    Thus, the alliance wasn't discussed then, but the Crown Prince never mentioned what he was willing to offer in exchange. She looked at Guo Shuji cautiously. "Your Highness's meaning is...?"

    Guo Shuji nodded slightly. "I used to think you were Princess Rong's person, but judging from recent events, it seems you belong to the Crown Prince."

    Confused, Rong Bi wondered if there was a difference.

    Guo Shuji gazed at the young lady's clear, icy eyes. Her face was pale, and she appeared fragile, a stark contrast to her calm, cold, and resolute demeanor on the battlefield. No one in Jingbei dared underestimate the renowned General Rong Er now.

    He affirmed, "Or perhaps, you are someone the Princess has painstakingly prepared for the Crown Prince." He continued, "Since the Princess and I are at odds, there's no difference in telling you. Previously, I believed the Princess, Crown Prince, and the Emperor were in cahoots, so I didn't dare trust an alliance. Now that you've returned to the capital, you can tell the Crown Prince that I agree to the alliance. I'll give him three years. If within this time, he can seize the throne and become the one sitting on it, Jingbei and the court can still coexist peacefully."

    Guo Shuji cast a glance at Rong Bi and reaffirmed his decision. "To demonstrate my sincerity, I will release the concubines from the prince's residence. I shall establish a female heir, and Princess Yan Yun will become my designated successor."

    Rong Bi appeared slightly taken aback. Guo Shuji explained, "Of course, Jingshi needs time to catch its breath and recuperate. But I have the strength to spare, and it's now the time for the Crown Prince to prove himself."

    Rong Bi hesitated for a moment before asking, "Is His Highness doing this to make amends for the princess and the young county princess?" She had sensed a subtle sadness in the princess's demeanor, yet she barely interacted with Prince Jingbei at all. Nevertheless, Rong Bi was certain that the prince would, out of guilt, make some concessions to the court.

    Guo Shuji replied, "I merely chose a more stable and advantageous path for Jingbei."

    Rong Bi lowered her eyelashes, and Guo Shuji added, "Of course, it would be ideal if we could gain the princess's forgiveness. But I believe what the princess truly needs is allies and support." He spoke in a solemn voice, "Princess has always been insightful and doesn't require meaningless apologies or pleading. There's no need for me to indulge in such sentimental gestures. I have spent my life navigating through intrigues, manipulating people's hearts, and weighing benefits. Even if I were to declare now that I'd sacrifice my kingdom for her happiness, she wouldn't readily believe it."

    Rong Bi gazed at Guo Shuji with a complicated heart, and simply rose to bow respectfully. Guo Shuji gave her a profound glance, as if he could see through her to the siblings standing behind her.

    Rong Bi withdrew and conveyed Guo Shuji's message to the princess. The princess was in the midst of helping the princess consort put on her socks when she heard the news. She merely replied coolly, "That's good news. Pass on my words to Hengzhi: when I'm no longer here, the two of you should communicate more often. At present, Prince Jingbei seems trustworthy, but we can't be too naive. Ultimately, you must find your own way to stand firm."

    Rong Bi responded, "From what I observed, the prince appears sincere about forming an alliance."

    Princess Yi Yang gently covered her sleeping daughter with a blanket, then sat beside the bed, gazing at her innocent face. "Our interests align temporarily now. In the royal family, it's common for fathers, daughters, siblings, and spouses to turn against each other. Yesterday's enemies can become today's allies for mutual gain – that's nothing unusual."

    "I've experienced a marriage without conflicting interests, albeit briefly. Every journey together, however short, is a bond of fate. I don't perceive my current marriage as worse than the previous one."

    "I'm afraid you might not fully comprehend these matters just yet."

    The princess turned to look at the bewildered Rong Bi with a gentle smile, as if regarding her own younger sister. "When you grow up a bit more, you'll understand. With me backing you, no one will dare to overlook you, Ah Bi. Even the crown prince won't be able to bully you."

    Rong Bi fell silent for a moment before cautiously voicing her concern. "If this situation never changes in the future..." Currently, the crown prince needed her, and thus the princess supported and cherished her. But once they grew tired of the uncertainty brought by their constant soul swapping, their interests would no longer align. Would the princess still remember their current bond then?

    This worry had always lingered in her heart. While she was moved by the sincerity shown to her by the princess and the crown prince over the past year, the complicated relationship between Princess Yi Yang and the northern prince – their seemingly love-hate dynamic, appearing affectionate one moment and ready to turn against each other the next – made her sensitive heart fearful of the lives of these nobles.

    Princess Yi Yang understood the unspoken remainder of Rong Bi's words. "Given that your souls are now entangled with the crown prince's, when your body sustains serious injuries, his body will also be in peril. This indicates that your life force is interconnected... Neither of you can afford to recklessly put yourselves in danger. Therefore, you should feel reassured, right? We won't do anything detrimental to you in an attempt to end this situation."

    Rong Bi felt a slight warmth on her cheeks as Princess Yi Yang, holding the child, looked at her with a smile. "I understand, you've been frightened by us. There's suspicion between fathers and sons, and no trust between husbands and wives. It's only natural that you can't trust us. But given your current situation with the Crown Prince, it would be best for you to have more faith in him. He is different from me... Meeting someone as pure-hearted as you is his good fortune."

    Would the Crown Prince really be different? She had an inkling that he was indeed unique. However, her main concern was ensuring her safety and that of her brother and family. In the past year, she felt like she was trapped in a small boat amidst turbulent waters, unable to advance or retreat, carried along by the currents. Reaching this point was already the best possible outcome – and it was the Crown Prince and the Princess who had fought their way through, securing the support and promise of Prince Jingbei, albeit a somewhat unreliable one.

    Back in her room, Rong Bi retrieved her journal and meticulously documented the conversation with Prince Jingbei and the Princess's instructions. During her recovery, they hadn't experienced any soul swapping, probably because the Crown Prince was also severely ill. Rong Bi recalled the message she received, which mentioned that the Crown Prince was gravely ill, causing the emperor to become suspicious of Empress Luo.

    Time flew by, and soon it was time to depart. Clearly, the Princess was anxious about potential complications; she didn't want the Crown Prince to change back and refuse to leave. Thus, she promptly sent Rong Bi back, arranging for Song Wensong to escort her. Before leaving, the Princess instructed, "Upon returning to the capital, you can stay with your brothers. Manager Song will take care of your accommodations. If you need assistance, you can turn to Duke Ding's residence. Prince Song has returned to the capital, and you know him. Also, Marquis Cheng'en is my maternal uncle; you can entrust matters to him as well." After a moment's thought, she added, "You can also rely on Zheng Tanhua, but it's not necessary to have too much public interaction. Don't worry too much, he's a wise man and knows how to handle boundaries."

    Listening to the Princess's instructions, Rong Bi found the intricate relationships overwhelming. How she wished the Crown Prince were here. This thought made her feel a bit ashamed; perhaps she was better suited to quietly tending to the garden, reading books, and cooking.

    They returned to the capital accompanied by the Yongxing Escort Agency's convoy, with their guards disguised as martial arts instructors from the agency. The owner of Yongxing, Li Cunyi, aware that this was "Second Master Rong's" return, eagerly offered to join the journey. Upon departure, he specially came to greet them through the carriage, inquiring about Second Master's health: "I've heard that you were injured. I hope you're feeling better now. The journey is long, so if there's anything you need, don't hesitate to ask. Once we arrive in the capital, if there's any way the Yongxing Escort Agency can be of assistance, please speak up."

    Rong Bi had only met him once a long time ago. Later, she heard that during the great battle, the Yongxing Escort Agency had accompanied Zheng family's merchant convoy and provided substantial aid in provisions and weapons. It seemed that Li Cunyi had only encountered the Crown Prince after that encounter. Thus, she was afraid of revealing her true identity and simply lifted the curtain to give him a respectful bow. "I have largely recovered. Thank you for your efforts, Mister Li, on this journey back to the capital."

    Li Cunyi had previously witnessed "Fourth Lord Rong" galloping through battlefields with his icy gaze and regal demeanor, yet he commanded such loyalty that all desired to serve him. Now, seeing "Second Lord Rong" pale and frail, lips nearly colorless, wrapped in a pristine white fox fur, barely able to hold himself up, yet stubbornly enduring the long journey back to the capital despite his illness, Li Cunyi couldn't help but wish fervently to take his place. With a stammer, he said, "It's no trouble at all, Lord Rong. Whatever your instructions, I'll see to them."

    Rong Bi gave a slight nod. Li Cunyi, fearing that she might be overwhelmed by her illness, refrained from saying more and withdrew. Rong Yi lowered the carriage curtain and spoke to her, "This Yongxing Security Bureau has rendered meritorious service during the previous war and was rewarded by the royal house. Nowadays, their business in the northern territories has grown significantly."

    All those achievements belong to the Crown Prince... Rong Bi felt guilty, but she still changed the subject. "I wonder how Third Brother is doing with his preparations for the examinations in the capital."

    Rong Yi chuckled. "How fortunate! Previously, there were rumors that the Emperor would hold an imperial examination on his fiftieth birthday. Given his average talent in studies, his teacher encouraged him to take a chance and head to the capital. If the imperial examination was indeed held, he could immediately seek recommendations from fellow villagers to participate. Even if it wasn't held, the following year would still be a major examination year. It was better for him to arrive in the capital earlier to prepare. At that time, he also hoped to see you in the capital, so he went. Recently, I've been gathering news from the court. With the recovery of the Sixteen Prefectures of Yan Yun, I've heard that next year's major examination will be a combined imperial and extraordinary examination, accepting candidates based on both quotas. This means more opportunities! Apparently, there will be over a hundred additional spots compared to previous years! If he has the chance to obtain the title of a scholar, our family will truly shine. Then, we can reconnect with Second Brother and figure out a way to bring him back to the capital or have him discharged from military service."

    Listening to Rong Yi's animated account, Rong Bi felt a growing eagerness for life in the capital.


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