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    Chapter 70: Dragon's Brain

    Dinner was prepared by the two brothers, an extravagant feast. Despite Yuan Jun's mostly taciturn nature, he could sense the evident estrangement among the three siblings. Rong Yi was inherently reserved, while Rong Mo was slightly more talkative, though his words were clearly chosen with great care. Both brothers held a tender affection for their long-lost sister but seemed unsure of how to express it.

    This turn of events conveniently facilitated Yuan Jun's portrayal of Rong Bi without arousing suspicion. After partaking in a humble family meal, it was indeed arranged that a carriage would be waiting next door. Rong Mo also accompanied them on horseback, and under the cover of night, they arrived at the residence of Marquis Cheng'en.

    Marquis Cheng'en, Shen Pingye, had long received word that a lady-in-waiting from the princess' side was returning to the capital – none other than Rong Mo's younger sister, named Rong Bi. He wondered what could be the purpose behind the princess suddenly dispatching someone to the imperial city.

    After a while, Shen Anlin led into the study not one but two brothers. Rong Mo, whom he had met before, was following behind a young man. The young man had his hair tied up with a silver crown and was wearing a large white fox fur cloak. He had a light and elegant demeanor. As he approached to pay his respects, he looked up, his eyes as clear as cold water. Shen Anlin shivered slightly, and without realizing it, he stood up from the grand teacher's chair, not daring to receive the full courtesy.

    Yuan Jun spoke with calm composure, "Greetings, Marquis Cheng'en. I am Rong Si."

    Upon hearing Shen Pingye's crisp voice, he immediately recognized the lady official. However, her demeanor was composed and noble, with an air of sophistication that belied any hint of shyness or reticence typically found in young women. Although he knew that Princess Yi Yang often preferred male attire, it only added a touch of masculinity to her inherent charm. In contrast, the young man before him, dressed in male clothing, carried an extraordinary presence, one that even the imperial princes and nobles of the capital might envy. Shen Pingye was initially awed by this demeanor, but upon closer inspection, he could discern the beauty beneath the sickly appearance.

    When had such a remarkable figure appeared in the princess's entourage?

    Intrigued, Shen Pingye treated Rong Si as he would any gentleman, responding with a bow, "Young Master Rong Si, please be seated and enjoy some tea." He glanced at Rong Mo with a mix of amusement and exasperation. There was also Rong San, but she lacked the dignity and refinement that Rong Si possessed. Even the most talented and accomplished women of noble families would struggle to maintain such poise in front of men.

    He turned his gaze back to Yuan Jun and asked, "I've heard Young Master Rong Si comes from Jingbei. Is there a message from the princess?"

    Yuan Jun said calmly, "Princess has just given birth to a young princess and has now solidified her position in Jingbei. She is deeply devoted to the King of Jingbei, and thus has sent me to inform Duke Shen that the northern border should remain stable for the next two to three years. Duke Shen, please rest assured."

    Shen Pingye's furrowed brows relaxed. "I've heard Duke Song mention this before, but with Fourth Young Master Rong's confirmation, I am even more reassured. However, I wonder how Princess can utilize an old man like me?"

    Yuan Jun replied, "Princess is concerned about the crown prince and has ordered me to wait in the capital for his instructions. The other day, I received a message from the crown prince, asking me to convey his regards to Duke Shen. There is tension between Empress Luo and the second prince, so it's advisable for Duke Shen to pay attention and perhaps even escalate the situation if necessary."

    Shen Pingye nodded slightly. "It's clear to all that the Emperor and Empress have abandoned the second prince. Otherwise, they wouldn't have betrothed the princess of Bei Xi to him. The second prince still has some loyal followers; they will eventually realize the situation."

    Yuan Jun smiled faintly. "The Emperor doesn't wish to see the princes grow in power, so Empress Luo will inevitably focus more on the fourth prince. However, the third prince is also showing signs of ambition. It would be wise for Duke Shen to keep an eye on the third prince as well."

    Shen Pingye said, "Does the crown prince intend to divert the Emperor's attention to other princes?"

    Yuan Jun replied, "The crown prince is about to immerse himself in the pursuit of immortality, seeking divine guidance, and neglecting worldly affairs in favor of the supernatural."

    Shen Pingye was taken aback. Looking at the girl's cold smile, he found her demeanor eerily similar to the crown prince. For a moment, he felt as if he were staring at the prince himself. Suddenly, he understood. "What method does His Highness the Crown Prince have to convince the Emperor that he truly has no interest in power?"

    Yuan Jun's eyes gleamed. "Isn't it the memorial day for Empress Shen in half a month?"

    Shen Pingye was startled. Yuan Jun continued, "I hope Lord Duke can allow me to visit the courtyard and rooms where Empress Shen once resided."

    There was no harm in that. After all, both the crown prince and the princess frequently visited the courtyard where Empress Shen had once resided, which was why the marquis's residence had never allowed others to occupy it. If the princess's lady-in-waiting wished to inspect the place, Shen Pingye saw no reason to decline and thus agreed.

    Yuan Jun stood up to express his gratitude and continued, "In any case, please take good care of yourself, Marquis Shen. It would be wise to keep a low profile for now. Additionally, regarding Daoist Chong Xiao, I suggest Marquis Shen dispatch someone to investigate his background. Apart from that, it's best not to engage in unnecessary matters."

    Shen Pingye replied, "Thank you, Fourth Young Master, for your concern—I'll have An Lin escort you there."

    Yuan Jun nodded slightly, rose, and bowed to bid farewell to Shen Pingye. He then turned to Rong Mo and said, "Third Brother, wait here for me. I'll be back soon."

    Rong Mo witnessed his sister's composed demeanor for the first time. She didn't show any sign of nervousness in front of a noble, and even carried an air of superiority. Recalling his elder brother's mention of Rong Mo's ability to command an army, he felt increasingly impressed and simply replied, "Alright."

    Yuan Jun showed no hesitation and simply rose to follow Shen Anlin into the depths of the palace. As Shen Anlin was not well acquainted with him, they journeyed in silence, eventually arriving at the Qinhuan Courtyard, where Empress Shen had once resided.

    Yuan Jun, familiar with the place, strolled into the annex of Empress Shen's former chambers where she used to read and write before her marriage. He knew these rooms well, as he and his elder sister would occasionally visit the room where their mother had lived before entering the palace. The layout of the desk and its various items were etched in his memory. On the desk still lay snowwave paper, and on the wall hung a painting crafted by his mother's own hand.

    In the outer chamber, an altar stood against one wall, adorned with a small portrait. On either side were elegies that he and his elder sister had inscribed after their mother's passing. Back then, he was still young, and it was Princess Yi Yang who taught him to compose a poem in memory of their mother. It was rather crude, with inadequate calligraphy, containing only a few lines from the "Song of Lament": "Alas, the tall sorrel, not I; My dear parents, how you toiled for me."

    He stood in silence for a moment, then turned to instruct Shen Anlin, "Fetch some water."

    Shen Anlin, instinctively responding to the familiar tone, stepped forward to pour tea but found the place deserted. He had to go out and fetch a cup of water from someone else, only for Yuan Jun to take out a scented bead from his sachet and dissolve it in the water, turning it red.

    Startled, Shen Anlin watched as Yuan Jun dipped his brush into the crimson ink and wrote a few lines beneath the poem he had composed before.

    Unable to stop him in time, Shen Anlin observed the four rhythmic lines, written with great flair, and felt a slight irritation. "This is the former Crown Prince's handwritten script. Even if Fourth Young Master is sent by the Princess, this isn't appropriate, is it?"

    Yuan Jun glanced at him without comment, then placed the brush into the teacup in Shen Anlin's hand. "Dispose of it and clean up."

    Resigned, Shen Anlin lifted his gaze to study the verses more closely, only to be startled. How could these characters... be identical to the Crown Prince's?

    The two lines of poetry, having dried under the breeze, gradually faded and vanished.

    Still reeling from shock, Shen Anlin asked, his face blank, "What is this?"

    Yuan Jun explained, "An ink made from an acid found in a certain sea fish, given to me by Zheng Tanhua. The writing will reappear when exposed to heat."

    He then instructed Shen Anlin briefly, "On the anniversary, incense and candles are lit on this altar. Remember to use the Balsamodendron oud oil as before."

    Shen Anlin was taken aback. "There's not much left; it's what the Empress used previously."

    Yuan Jun replied, "I'll reward you later."

    Shen Anlin: "..."

    Dragon's brain incense had been a tribute from the Brahman Kingdom since the Tang Dynasty and was exclusively used in the palace. It was incredibly valuable, costing a thousand or two gold pieces. Resembling mica in appearance and as white as snow, it emitted an extremely subtle fragrance that lingered on clothes for years. In the previous dynasty, a noble consort would mix a tiny bit of dragon's brain powder with water and apply it to her fan. As she fanned herself, a gentle, ethereal scent would waft around her, making her seem like a celestial being.

    However, after the Brahman Kingdom fell, the dragon's brain forest was destroyed in the chaos and flames of war. Thus, the Brahman Dragon's Brain Incense became extinct, and what remained became even more expensive. Even Princess Yi Yang considered it extravagant and sparingly used such scents. Forget about ordinary attendants; Shen Anlin found it surprising that this young lady casually mentioned rewarding him with it, yet somehow, he felt it was entirely appropriate.

    Shen Anlin glanced at the fading ink and then at the thick candle below, which was as thick as a child's arm. He began to understand that on the Empress's memorial day, candles would be lit throughout the night. By then, the poem resembling the Crown Prince's handwriting would reveal itself.

    Though uncertain of its intended purpose, it was undoubtedly connected to his conversation with his grandfather earlier.

    Yuan Jun nodded silently and received the instructions: "Dispose of the brush and then return home. I'll make my way back to the reception hall alone."

    Observing that Yuan Jun seemed genuinely familiar with the task, he agreed and took the brush and teacup, exiting the room. Yuan Jun glanced wistfully at the calligraphy hanging on his mother's wall before leaving the courtyard and strolling through the garden toward the reception hall.

    The garden was bleak in the winter, but Yuan Jun had no heart for admiring the scenery. Instead, his mind was preoccupied with the intricate details of his next move.

    Suddenly, he encountered a noble lady coming from the opposite direction. She wore an elegant hairpin styled like a fairy's coiffure and a bright red feather cloak. Her attire was lavish, and she was accompanied by two attendants. Yuan Jun recognized her as Shen Danzhu, the legitimate daughter of Shen Hou and his own cousin. He politely stepped aside to let her pass.

    To his surprise, Shen Danzhu stopped and sized him up before asking, "Are you the Lady Rong who was sent by the princess to convey her message?"

    Yuan Jun's brow furrowed slightly, clearly displeased. He couldn't tell if it was Shen Hou or Shen Anlin who had casually mentioned the matter to the inner court ladies, but he believed that such affairs should be handled discreetly.

    But Shen Danzhu asked him, "Lady Rong traveled all the way from the Northern Frontier. I wonder how my Princess cousin is doing now?"

    Suppressing his impatience, Yuan Jun made a slight bow. "Fourth Lady Rong pays respects to Miss Shen. The princess and the county princess are both safe and well. Thank you for your concern, Miss Shen. However, I am on an assignment and must take my leave."

    Shen Danzhu was taken aback. Behind her, the green-clad maid giggled, "Sister, our miss and the princess are actually cousins and were very close. She has always been concerned about the princess's life after marrying far away. Now that we finally have the chance to ask you for some news, please do us a favor and give us more details." As she spoke, she even tried to press a sachet into Yuan Jun's hand, a gesture of gratitude.

    Yuan Jun was surprised. "The princess and Miss Shen have never had much interaction, so they can't be considered close. Thank you for your kindness, Miss Shen, but there's no need to trouble yourself."

    He was used to being second only to the emperor, with strict upbringing in etiquette. He had never encountered a servant attempting to hold his hand or tug at his sleeve. Swiftly stepping back and making a slight bow, he turned and walked down another path, leaving Shen Danzhu with a flushed face, standing awkwardly. For a moment, she felt deeply embarrassed.

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