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    Chapter 69: Arrogance Born of Influence

    "The west wind blows across the Wei River, scattering leaves throughout Chang'an. Amidst the boundless world of dust, I alone find tranquility."

    Thin tendrils of smoke serpentined silently through the room, as a pure white long-haired cat gracefully leaped onto the low couch. Its eyes shimmered with intrigue, fixated on its male owner who was absorbed in calligraphy practice at the table.

    With an upright posture and steady wrists, Yuan Jun held the pen, meticulously writing down the renowned "Crescent Moon on a Full Street" by Lü Tongbin. As he reached the lines, "After nine cycles of alchemy, a single pill transforms one into a terrestrial immortal," a hint of mockery tugged at the corners of his lips. His brushwork became more uninhibited, flowing effortlessly across the page as he completed the composition in one swift motion.

    "Endowed with wealth and beauty, Rén Wàn Dīng adorns himself with treasures, his opulence reaching celestial heights. Yet, before the rice in his dream can finish cooking, the illusion shatters."

    He threw the pen back onto the inkstone and brush holder, aware that he was actually feeling somewhat restless.

    I wonder how my elder sister is faring. From the surface, it seems the Duke dotes on this daughter greatly. Yet, he hasn't lost his senses, bestowing the recently conquered Yan Yun Province under the Princess's name. It's indeed a brilliant strategic move.

    He retrieved his journal and briefly jotted down the events of recent days. The tip of his quill hesitated as he glanced at the earlier pages, still adorned with Rong Bi's delicate script. This young court lady had, on the surface, assisted in the wedding of his second brother. Lady Rong had shown remarkable audacity by reprimanding the Bei Xi envoys during the ceremony and then, with equal boldness, recommended Zheng Tanhua when his third brother sought assistance. Her actions had indeed been of great aid to him and his eldest sister in their dealings with Bei Xi.

    Yuan Jun recalled the earnest plea penned by the young court lady in Bei Xi - though she appeared content and self-sufficient, there was a hidden resilience within her, marking her as a person of great wisdom.

    He inscribed the date meticulously in his journal, then proceeded to record earnestly, "In gratitude to the State Preceptor, during my gravely ill moments, my soul had indeed wandered astray. By my elder sister's side, I guarded the city, taking the form of five-colored auspicious clouds, loitering with reluctance. It was the State Preceptor who summoned my spirit back, turning the perilous situation into safety. Having experienced such an extraordinary encounter, it behooves me to maintain a tranquil heart, to cultivate and preserve my soul, refraining from all mundane affairs."

    His eyes darkened; Yuan Zixu would inevitably suspect that his supposed soul departure was a ploy to deceive him. No matter how the emperor investigated, he could not comprehend how the prince, who had always been confined within the Treasure Palace, knew the intricate details of border defense. After all, even the third prince, who had personally visited the frontier, and Duke Song, who possessed great knowledge, were not privy to such specific information.

    For it was undeniably true – but not in the way one might expect. It wasn't a case of a single soul leaving its body; rather, it was a soul exchange.

    Yet, for the Grand Master Chong Xiao, this was a catastrophic revelation. Their conversation confirmed that the man was indeed a fraud. The red pills must have been created by chance, and even if he found the recipe again, there was no guarantee he could replicate them. Moreover, the emperor would never consider the implausible notion of soul swapping.

    As for the empress, he wagered that Empress Lao would never dare reveal that she had bestowed the red pills upon someone else.

    He knew Empress Lao too well. She was meticulous, leaving no room for error. Bestowing the emperor's gifted red pills on a palace servant was neither a trivial nor a significant matter. If the emperor suddenly inquired about it, she would certainly grow wary. Thus, she would never divulge anything that might displease the emperor. Instead, she would admit to having consumed them herself.

    As for Empress Luo, naturally, no effects could be found on her.

    Therefore, even if Yuan Zixu harbored suspicions, he would first pressure Chong Xiao to continue refining the pills, then... test him.

    It was simply to gauge whether he still had any interest in politics, whether he would read and approve official documents, involve himself in court affairs, or perhaps even attempt to release him from his seclusion...

    Of course, he had to pretend to be too weak to rise from bed, and at the same time, immerse himself in Taoist studies, meditating and cultivating in hopes of achieving another soul departure experience.

    Yuan Jun slowly placed the notebook back on the bookshelf, feeling a genuine sense of exhaustion. He rose and made his way to the study's rear, where he had recently established a meditation chamber for purity.

    Before him stood the trinity of Daoist deities, and he leisurely assumed a double lotus position, closing his eyes to regulate his breath. Remarkably, he began to meditate with an undistracted mind.

    Breathtakingly detached, not a single thought arose in Yuan Jun's mind; his thoughts became as clear as the vast emptiness, and he entered a meditative state. Unbeknownst to him, a fragrance gradually tickled his nostrils, reminiscent of chicken soup. It must be Cai Fan cooking chicken soup. Odd, didn't he request a light fish soup today?

    Startled, he opened his eyes and immediately sensed something amiss. He found himself reclining on a comfortable wicker chair, a light quilt patched together from various fabrics draped over him. Sunlight filtered gently into the small courtyard, illuminating a corner where a winter jasmine bloomed with pale yellow flowers. Though not particularly eye-catching, their subtle fragrance filled the air. However, at that moment, the aroma was overshadowed by the stronger scent of simmering chicken soup wafting from somewhere nearby.

    The courtyard was spacious, with a row of winter plum trees hugging the wall. Several stone flower beds were scattered around, cultivated with small onions, garlic, chives, and mint - essential herbs and spices. Despite the harsh winter, the soil was meticulously covered with straw, allowing these plants to thrive, maintaining a vibrant green life amidst the cold.

    On either side of the winter plum tree, the courtyard walls were strung with ox sinew ropes, where quilts basked in the rare winter sunshine. Beside it stood a towering wooden drying rack. Its upper tiers hung with pickled vegetables, sausages, salted fish, and cured meats, while the middle and lower sections were stacked with bamboo baskets filled to the brim with a myriad of provisions: dried chili peppers, peppercorns, dried beans, dried radishes, dried mushrooms, mung beans, millet, vermicelli, peanuts, soybeans, sweet potato chips, black fungus, shiitake mushrooms, daylily buds, and dried bamboo shoots. This dazzling array of sundried goods attested to the modest abundance of this little household.

    He stretched out his hand and, as expected, saw that delicate, slender wrist protruding from the loose fox fur robe. He had switched bodies with Rong Bi once again.

    But where was he?

    Supporting himself on the armrest, he attempted to stand up in search of Rong Bi's journal. Despite feeling a lingering weariness in his limbs and a faint ache in the wound on his chest, he heard a young man's voice say, "Rest more, the soup is prepared just as you instructed. Don't worry, there's no need to keep coming to the kitchen. Get some proper sleep."

    Lifting his gaze, he recognized the respectful yet watchful and sharp-eyed young scholar he had met before. The scholar's sleeves were rolled up, revealing his arms, and he held a cleaver in his hand, smiling warmly and attentively while emphasizing, "I've used the dried chicken truffles you brought back – they really do smell divine."

    Yuan Jun could only lie back down, and Rong Mo, reassured, waved him off before returning to the kitchen, where the sound of chopping meat echoed loudly.

    Rong Mo, the third elder brother of Rong Bi, how could he be here? Wasn't he supposed to be in the capital?

    Wait, he suddenly realized that the faint sounds of an opera troupe coming from outside... It was still within the New Year celebrations, and with the recent recovery of the Yan Yun Sixteen Provinces, even if the court was wary of Prince Jingbei, they had to put on an appearance of celebration. Thus, during the holiday recess, various opera troupes and performers were permitted into the capital, engaging in festivities. City gate taxes were overflowing, and with the concurrent imperial examination and regular provincial examinations scheduled for next year, many scholars from all over had gathered in the capital, making it bustling with excitement to the point that even in Baohan Palace, one could hear the lively opera performances outside.

    So, they were still in the capital? Did his eldest sister, Rong Yi, send Rong Bi back home?

    Just as he was about to stand up, the courtyard door opened, and Rong Yi entered, carrying a load of firewood with two wild chickens hanging from it. Upon seeing him, he said, "Why are you up? Rest more. Third Brother and I can handle dinner. Look, while buying firewood, I saw someone selling these wild chickens. They looked plump, so I thought it'd be good for the New Year's feast. The hunters don't have an easy time during the holidays, so I bought them. Later, I'll rub salt on them for a delicious smoked dish. Everything is expensive in the capital, even firewood. When I have time, I'll go to the mountains myself to fetch a load."

    Yuan Jun: "...The mountains within the city are part of the Imperial Garden's rear hills. It's forbidden to gather firewood or hunt there. Be careful not to get caught by the city guards."

    Rong Yi replied, "I'm aware. I'll leave the city, and you can rest assured. Just now, I inquired about the city gate tax. If one has an official pass from the capital, they only need to pay half the usual toll!"

    Yuan Jun: "If it's for personal use and not for sale, then it shouldn't be subject to taxes, right?"

    Rong Yi shrugged nonchalantly. "The city gate guards rely on these tips to make a living. If you don't give them something, they might cause you trouble later. It's not worth it." He deftly stacked the heavy firewood against the wall and asked, "Is the blanket in the room warm enough? It's a nice day today, should I ask the doctor to come and check your pulse again? Have you taken your medicine?"

    Yuan Jun found such solicitous care somewhat overwhelming, barely managing to respond with a few words. He watched as Rong Yi swiftly tended to Chai Lei's injuries, then checked on the kitchen, plucked the pheasant, drew water from the well, and fetched a pot of boiling water from the kitchen to prepare for cleaning and defeathering the bird.

    Observing that Yuan Jun was alone, with neither Bai Ying nor any servants lending a hand, he didn't feel it appropriate to ask directly. Instead, he suggested, "Does cooking interfere with your studies, Third Brother? Perhaps it would be wise to hire a chef."

    Rong Yi didn't even lift his head, skillfully holding the chicken upside down with one hand while plucking its feathers with the other in the midst of the white steam, exposing the chicken's skin. "Why bother with cooking? If he can't pass the imperial exams just because he needs to cook, then he might as well end it all. What's the point of taking the exams?"

    The courtyard was too small. Rong Mo, holding a kitchen knife, poked his head out and chuckled. "You don't understand. My sister must have something she's too shy to ask us for help with. Bai Ying and Hong Ying are both next door. If my sister needs anything, I'll send them over. We have extra wild chickens anyway, so it's better to stew them and give them to the guards."

    Yuan Jun understood that the two maids had likely returned to the capital with them and were placed nearby for convenience and protection. He didn't comment further. Sure enough, not long after Rong Yi left, Bai Ying came over with a bright smile. "Is Fourth Lady doing well today? Even through the courtyard wall, I could smell the aroma of the chicken soup. Today, we have some fresh pears. Let me bring them over for Fourth Lady, Master, and Third Master to try."

    Rong Yi took the heavy, juicy pears and said, "Thank you. It was Fourth Lady who wanted to see you. The sun is already setting, and there might be a breeze outside. Come inside and rest."

    Yuan Jun walked in. Through the window, he saw the embroidered flower on the curtain of the largest and brightest bedroom at the back, realizing it must be Rong Bi's room. He slowed his steps. Bai Ying hurriedly stepped forward to draw the curtain. As expected, he found a study separated from the bedroom by a screen.

    The desk was made of huanghuali wood. Seeing him inspecting the bedroom furniture, Bai Ying quickly asked, "Is there anything else Miss needs? Everything was arranged by the princess's manor beforehand, and they also consulted Third Master. He only gave some general requirements."

    Yuan Jun didn't comment. Sitting at the desk, he indeed found the familiar journal on a shelf. He said, "Fetch me a cup of tea."

    Bai Ying hurried out. Yuan Jun took out the journal and flipped through it. Yan Yun, the young princess, had the characteristics of the Guo family, so Guo Shuji had acknowledged her as his daughter and had indirectly expressed his willingness to cooperate with the crown prince. Thus, his elder sister had sent the Rong siblings back to the capital to assist her.

    He understood now. Putting the journal back, he felt a bit more reassured. Since the Jingbei King had acknowledged the child, he likely felt guilty towards his elder sister. However, this guilt couldn't sway any decisions. Therefore, Princess Yiyang promptly sent the Rong siblings back, taking advantage of the Jingbei King's current inaction towards the court to aid him.

    Lost in thought, he saw Bai Ying enter with the tea. He said, "Contact Marquis Cheng'en for me. I want to meet him tonight."

    Bai Ying was taken aback for a moment before she promptly asked, "Are you referring to going with Third Master?"

    Recalling that Rong Mo indeed should be accompanying them, Yuan Jun nodded and added, "I'll change into men's attire. You can still address me as Fourth Master."

    Bai Ying acknowledged with a nod. Yuan Jun continued, "Go make the arrangements then."

    Bai Ying secretly lifted her gaze to glance at Yuan Jun. The young maiden's profile was serene as she lowered her eyelashes, engrossed in her book. Despite not uttering another word, the straightforward and clear command, along with the quiet yet confident arrogance, belonged distinctly to "Fourth Master Rong."

    This was an entirely different temperament from "Fourth Lady's" vulnerability during their journey, her coquettish tenderness upon returning to the capital and reuniting with her two brothers, as well as her usual gentle and amicable demeanor towards others. Even though "Fourth Lady" possessed a resilient gentleness, it was distinct from the simplicity and tranquility of "Fourth Master Rong."

    She subtly sensed the nuanced distinction between "Fourth Lady" and "Lord Rong Si." If she had to pinpoint a clear difference, it was that "Fourth Lady's" eyes beheld them, acknowledging their presence, whereas "Lord Rong Si's" heart was too encompassing; his gaze stretched towards the horizon. To him, Bai Ying and Hong Ying were indistinguishable, mere maidservants tasked with handling affairs.

    Yuan Jun was well aware that the maids Hong Ying and Bai Ying, in their daily service to both him and Rong Bi, would inevitably perceive the differences in their characters. However, with numerous matters to attend to, he didn't dwell on it much. He thought to himself that time was running out, and he needed to seize the opportunity to meet Marquis Cheng'en. Lately, due to his severe illness, he had constant attendants by his side. Moreover, the secret passage by the lotus pond was suitable only as an escape route and not for frequent use to leave the palace. If he were discovered outside the palace walls, the risks would be too great. "Crown Prince Yuan Jun" had to remain confined within the palace walls to minimize Yuan Zixu's suspicions.

    "Rong Fourth Lord," on the other hand, was the true pillar of support for the Crown Prince in his endeavors outside the palace walls.

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