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    Chapter 78: Refusing the Marriage Proposal

    Rong Bi was oblivious to the intrigue and turmoil within the palace walls. Returning to the small courtyard where she lived with her brothers, she found them busily roasting lamb in the yard.

    The affordable, fatty sheep tail had been marinated in pepper and salt, boiled slightly, then sliced thinly and flattened before being wrapped around the lamb. Skewered and grilled, they were sprinkled with sesame seeds, filling the air with an irresistible aroma.

    Rong Yi boasted proudly, "This is a method I learned from my time on the frontier. It's truly delicious. Don't underestimate this cheap sheep tail oil – if you know how to prepare it, it becomes the most precious ingredient." As he spoke, he pounded a pestle full of garlic into a paste.

    Rong Bi smiled, lips pursed, and reached into a jar for some pickled cucumbers she had prepared earlier. She sliced them evenly and arranged them in a small dish to counteract the richness of the meat. Accompanied by vinegar, garlic cloves, and plum sauce, the appetizing combination already made her mouth water.

    Rong Mo glanced at Rong Bi surreptitiously, feeling a bit uneasy. He sensed that although his sister had always been quiet, her recent cold and regal demeanor seemed vastly different from her current gentle disposition.

    Rong Yi presented a large jar of salt, scattering it generously over a plump fish. "This is sea salt sent over by the Zheng family. Look at its color – it's a deep crimson, perfect for seasoning." The translucent, dark red salt crystals fell onto the fish's charred, yellowish skin, making it glisten temptingly. Rong Yi then added more spices and herbs, intensifying the fish's aroma.

    Recalling the prince's letter about Zheng Tanhua's marriage proposal, Rong Bi's eyes flickered. Though she wished to seek her family's opinion, she knew her situation best. Besides, Zheng Tanhua had shown no affection for her in the past. Why would he suddenly propose? There must be ulterior motives.

    She instructed Bai Ying to send an invitation to meet Zheng Tanhua at a shop, as she pondered her future.

    Now, her fate was intertwined with the prince's. Escaping this vortex would depend on when the prince could free himself from the emperor's imprisonment and oppression.

    She couldn't share these thoughts with her two elder brothers, and in fact, she suddenly realized that after being away from home for so long, the Crown Prince, rather than her estranged siblings, was the one who could understand her feelings and felt closer to her.

    The Crown Prince wrote gently, "If you have inclinations, you may accept. I will endeavor to minimize any impact on your life. A woman's bloom is short-lived, and I would not wish to see you waste your youth. But you must also consider carefully that women are different from men. Once committed to the wrong man, one's fate is in his hands. Though Zheng Tanhua is a capable statesman and talented scholar, he might not be a good husband. If you are unwilling, I can also ensure a prosperous future for you."

    Yet, she wished dearly to confront the Crown Prince in person, to discern his true intentions towards Zheng Changyuan, their future, and the strategic moves he seemed to be making behind the scenes.

    Rong Bi picked up a skewer of roasted lamb, the rendered sheep tail fat caramelized and coating the tender morsels of meat. She added crisp slices of cucumber before rolling the meat into her mouth, regretting that the Crown Prince, confined within the palace walls, could not savor such delicacies.

    The next day, when sunlight graced the sky, she met Zheng Tanhua.

    Zheng Tanhua looked at her with surprise. Today, the formidable aloofness that had once intimidated him was replaced by a tranquility that had briefly captivated him. She wore a simple jade-green silk robe, no longer dressed in male attire, her face free of makeup, her raven-black hair styled in a simple bun adorned with a jade hairpin, and her ears graced with teardrop-shaped jade earrings.

    This stirred a hint of anticipation within him.

    But Rong Bi simply greeted him with a traditional feminine bow, a gentle smile on her lips. "Lord Tanhua."

    Zheng Changyuan returned the gesture. "Has Lady Rong made a decision today?"

    Rong Bi smiled warmly. "Indeed, I am not dressed in male clothing to make it clear that Rong Bi is still just a young woman at heart. If Lord values my skills in archery and military strategy, you might be disappointed."

    Zheng Changyuan said, "Concubine Rong is too modest."

    Rong Bi replied, "What Lord has seen and knows is not the true Rong Bi. I only wish to cultivate vegetables and pick fruits in my garden during peaceful times, cooking and boiling beans. Lord comes from a wealthy family and holds a high position in the court. The wisdom, courage, and unwavering resilience that a wife should possess—along with the determination to move forward—are qualities I do not have."

    Zheng Changyuan pondered for a moment. "Is it your intention to say that your previous displays were due to circumstances, a last-ditch effort for survival? And that given the chance, you would prefer a quiet life, avoiding further intrigue and managing affairs, desiring only to retire peacefully?"

    Rong Bi smiled gently. "Lord sees clearly." The bravery that belonged to the Crown Prince, the sharpness on the battlefield, the noble demeanor of an imperial family member, and the knowledge acquired through years of tutelage by the empire's most esteemed scholars and generals were not qualities she, Rong Bi, possessed.

    The valuable traits that Zheng Changyuan admired might indeed grant her success in the confines of a grand residence, as they were talents suited for governing a nation and maintaining order. But they were not who she was. Rong Bi, born into a farming family, sought nothing more than simple meals and tranquility. She had no intention of entering the wealthy household to engage in hidden conflicts.

    Zheng Changyuan sighed. " Governing a great nation is like cooking a delicate dish. Concubine Rong, you are the most talented woman I have ever met. If you were a man, you would be a general in battle and a statesman in court. You are still so young... It is premature to speak of retirement. Please reconsider?"

    He continued in a low voice, "My late wife was too weak to manage affairs. I was away studying at the time and not often at home. She could not cope alone with the intricate family dynamics and eventually fell ill, passing away at a young age. That is why I initially decided against remarriage, until I met Concubine Rong."

    Rong Bi lowered her eyelashes, hiding her shimmering eyes, and smiled warmly. "Thank you, Lord, for your kind words."

    "Lord is young, accomplished, and ambitious. You will surely find a suitable partner."

    Her voice was short and composed, but Zheng Changyuan perceived her resolve. He knew it was futile to persist. Being an intelligent man, he wisely decided not to mention it again. "Thank you, Concubine Rong. As previously agreed, we will not speak of this matter anymore."

    Fixing his gaze on Rong Bi, he smiled faintly after a moment's contemplation. "Actually, it seems Lady Rong doesn't hold any interest in me. Today, I've suddenly realized that there is indeed a distinction between Lord Rong in men's attire and Lady Rong in women's garb."

    Rong Bi was startled, lifting her eyes to meet Zheng Tanhua's. The Scholar was undeniably handsome, well into his thirties with an irresistible charm. His features bore the distinct depth of a southern man, and today he donned a green velvet robe, its dark green fabric shimmering with luxury. He wore a jade belt, clearly having dressed up meticulously for the occasion. Normally witty and insightful, he was a man of remarkable talent.

    She simply felt herself unworthy of him...

    But Zheng Tanhua felt that he could no longer remain silent about these feelings. Seizing this opportunity, he ventured forth, perhaps unconsciously hoping to sway her heart. "Lady Rong, your quiet disposition might stem from your long life within the palace, where caution and vigilance are paramount. When I proposed to you the other day, although surprised, your scrutiny held a condescending yet approving air. Wearing the attire of Lord Rong, your gaze was one of assessment, as if evaluating a subordinate. I was confident then, believing I could be an excellent partner in any aspect."

    "Whether it's noble titles, wealth, or a large family, I'm confident that I can surpass most men."

    Rong Bi was taken aback; it was the Crown Prince who had been assessing Zheng Tanhua.

    Zheng Tanhua met her clear gaze. "But today, as you wear a hairpin and dress, the way you look at me is with the eyes of a woman looking at a man. You're not considering the advantages or disadvantages of marriage, my possessions, or future prospects. You're not even pondering whether to court me for the sake of the Crown Prince or Princess. You see only Zheng Changyuan."

    "Regardless of my wealth, talents, or looks, Lady Rong, you have never been enamored with me nor do you plan to marry Zheng Changyuan for those reasons."

    "And your conditions are the hardest to fulfill."

    Looking back at Zheng Tanhua, Rong Bi remained puzzled.

    Zheng Tanhua smiled. "Concubine Rong, you don't inquire about the prospects of marriage, nor do you seek a dowry of a thousand gold pieces. Instead, you declare your aspiration to dwell in the tranquility of the countryside."

    "This is a request for a deep understanding and eternal companionship."

    "Concubine Rong, what you desire is indeed the most challenging to attain."

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