Chapter 16
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"Why did you make me wait for so long?" Ning Qinghuan complained, her cheeks puffed up.

"Don't be angry, Big Sister. I was clarifying some things with the fourth prince."

Jun Zishu smiled and gently poked at Ning Qinghuan's cheeks.

"What did you talk about?"

"His Highness asked if I wanted to marry him just now."

"What? I knew he was aiming at you!"

Ning Qinghuan slammed her palm onto the tea table in the carriage, a furious expression appearing on her face.

Ning Qinghuan had long since sensed that the fourth prince held thoughts about her cute little sister. Take the pendant incident, for example. Even though he could've returned the pendant the day after he picked it up, he chose to keep it with him for several months and only return it after he had personally met her little sister. Today's meeting was another example. The fourth prince could've left the capital without saying a word, yet he had gone out of his way to ask her little sister to send him off. His thoughts were obvious to everyone!

"You didn't agree to his proposal, right? What good is there in marrying him? Although you have me as your backing, men are usually unfaithful bastards. There are also plenty of people who can push you around in the palace. Take that princess consort of his, for example. She's not someone to mess around with. If you go against her, you'll suffer."

Ning Qinghuan's mind was in a mess, and she didn't even know what she was saying right now. Even so, her mouth still continuously spouted logical and analytical words.

"Don't worry, Big Sister. I didn't accept his proposal. I naturally have to discuss something as important as marriage with Big Sister before making a decision. Also, I don't wish to marry anyone. I only want to stay by your side, Big Sister. I don't hold any romantic feelings for the fourth prince."

"Good, then."

Ning Qinghuan let out a sigh of relief. However, even she did not know why she had reacted so angrily and anxiously just now. For a moment, she felt as if her little sister was about to be snatched away. Though, technically speaking, if the fourth prince married her little sister, wouldn't he be snatching her little sister away from her?

At this point in time, Ning Qinghuan absolutely refused to let anyone marry her little sister.

Several days later, the fourth prince left the capital with his troops. Meanwhile, Jun Zishu had Little Fairy keep a constant eye on the fourth prince's expedition.

The fourth prince's expedition lasted for months.

In the meantime, Jun Zishu continued living peacefully in the Ning manor. Inwardly, though, she kept on worrying about the situation over at the fourth prince's side. It would be terrible if the fourth prince still declared GG like in the original plotline.

After the fourth prince left for two and a half months, Little Fairy finally relayed a piece of good news to Jun Zishu.

[He avoided that place, Host. He is currently resting in another location. However, he doesn't seem to be hurrying back to the capital. Instead, he's observing the situation of that place.]

It'll probably be a while longer before he returns. This is a good opportunity to further raise his reputation, so he would naturally take advantage of it.

Like Jun Zishu anticipated, the fourth prince did not return to the capital even after recovering from his injuries.

After finding out about the plague from Jun Zishu, the fourth prince sought to use this foreknowledge to his benefit. If he could help out with the plague and win the hearts of the empire's citizens, he would be able to return to the capital with two achievements under his belt.

Had the fourth prince hurried back instead of capitalizing on this foreknowledge, Jun Zishu would have to consider whether she had chosen the wrong person for the throne. After all, someone aiming to accomplish big achievements couldn't have such a small brain. Although combating the plague came with certain risks, the returns were also considerable.

After having her worries over the fourth prince eased, Jun Zishu resumed worrying about her cousin.

Ning Qinghuan had been in a very bad mood recently because Madam Ning was forcing her to learn needlework.

"You're 14 years old already, yet you call this embroidery? These things you embroidered don't look anything like mandarin ducks! The purse you made looks nothing like a purse, either!"

When Madam Ning said these words, her eyebrows had wrinkled to a point where they could squeeze a fly to death.

Meanwhile, Ning Qinghuan only silently mumbled some complaints to herself, not daring to refute her mother at all. Then, as soon as Madam Ning had left, she collapsed onto the table with a look of liberation on her face.

Rather than needlework, Ning Qinghuan preferred playing with swords and spears instead. She had also been training in martial arts since a young age, and she had never missed a day of training. Although Madam Ning found the situation preposterous and unladylike, she couldn't hold back her daughter's persistence.

Moreover, General Ning was also happy that his daughter liked martial arts. So, he happily trained Ning Qinghuan every day.

However, despite being skilled with various weapons such as swords, spears, and whips, Ning Qinghuan was an utter failure when it came to feminine arts such as embroidery.

"Argh, it's so annoying," Ning Qinghuan moaned with a bitter face. Then, seeing that Jun Zishu was focused on embroidering, she quietly sidled up to her adorable cousin.

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"You need to be patient when embroidering, Big Sister. If you can't calm yourself, your embroidery naturally won't turn out well."

Jun Zishu nimbly manipulated the embroidery needle as she spoke, a helpless expression on her face.

"I was very calm just now, but embroidery is just too difficult. Why must I learn this, to begin with? It's not like I'll be making my own clothes and purses."

Ning Qinghuan couldn't understand the purpose of learning such feminine arts. She wouldn't be using any of them in the future, after all. And even if she had a use for these feminine arts, couldn't she just have her maids do it for her?

"This…is probably a representation of women's abilities?" Jun Zishu answered.

"Abilities? I guess that's true. Some people I know can play the zither, write calligraphy, and draw art very well. Actually, I know all of those things as well. It's just that I'm not very good at them," Ning Qinghuan said, smiling. Then, she picked up the embroidery needle on the table and started messing around with it.

"Stop playing around and do it properly, Big Sister. Otherwise, you'll be in trouble once Auntie returns."

"I know, I know."

At the end of autumn and early winter, the fourth prince returned triumphantly with two achievements. When the emperor found out about the fourth prince's achievements, he gave the fourth prince ample rewards. He also started placing even more importance on this son of his.

Jun Zishu had also started exchanging letters with the fourth prince. Of course, their interaction was handled in secret, and nobody but them knew about it. Even Ning Qinghuan, who slept together with Jun Zishu every night, did not notice a thing.

Jun Zishu was standing on the fourth prince's side in her own name instead of doing so on behalf of the Ning family.

General Ning undoubtedly had his own considerations when it came to who to support for the throne. So, Jun Zishu maintained her image as a frail and ignorant girl on the surface. Nobody would ever believe that she would have any ties with the empire's political struggles.

Meanwhile, since Jun Zishu had Little Fairy to support her, she could get her hands on many secrets. Combined with her plots and strategies, she quickly won the fourth prince's trust.

Subsequently, another year passed by. Ning Qinghuan and Jun Zishu both turned 15.

The empress happened to be celebrating her 60th birthday this year, and many people racked their brains trying to get themselves an invitation to attend her birthday celebration.

As Ning Qinghuan grew older, more and more people started setting their sights on her as well. Although she was still a little too young, she had already reached marriageable age.

Meanwhile, whoever Ning Qinghuan married would also represent which faction General Ning and the Ning family supported. Of course, if Ning Qinghuan didn't marry into the imperial family, the Ning family could continue maintaining its neutral stance in the empire.

Everyone believed that Ning Qinghuan would marry the fifth prince. After all, with her status, she definitely couldn't become someone's side concubine. Meanwhile, both the crown prince and the fourth prince already had their respective princess consorts, while the fifth prince didn't have his. Not to mention, Ning Qinghuan and the fifth prince had known each other since young, so their relationship should be good.

However, everyone in the General's manor knew that Ning Qinghuan definitely wouldn't be marrying the fifth prince. This was because the fifth prince had welcomed Pei Xiuyun as his concubine a few months ago.

Indeed. Pei Xiuyun had only become the fifth prince's concubine, not his side concubine.

Although Concubine Xian doted on this niece of hers, Pei Xiuyun was incapable of bringing any substantial benefit to the fifth prince. Hence, there was no way Pei Xiuyun could become the fifth prince's side concubine.

This outcome was different from the one Jun Zishu had learned from Little Fairy. According to the original plotline, Pei Xiuyun would only marry the fifth prince after Ning Qinghuan. Moreover, the marriage would only happen years later. Yet, now, Pei Xiuyun had married the fifth prince far sooner than she should have.

Jun Zishu guessed that the two youngsters had probably developed their relationship much more quickly due to Ning Qinghuan's absence.

Regardless, Ning Qinghuan contemplated on what she should perform during the empress's 60th birthday banquet. Then, after pondering at home for an entire day, she eventually decided to perform a sword dance.

Although Ning Qinghuan knew a thing or two about art and music, her proficiency in these departments wasn't anything to write home about. Her shortcomings would only be made worse if others did the same performance. Rather than humiliating herself, she might as well do something she was good at.

Ning Qinghuan's suggestion had eased both General Ning's and Madam Ning's hearts. Meanwhile, since the empress's birthday was only a short time away, Ning Qinghuan ramped up her daily training.

When Ning Qinghuan was practicing her martial arts, Jun Zishu would spectate from the side and point out the flaws in her movements.

Jun Zishu sat on a chair and watched the girl in the courtyard dance with a blade in hand.

Even though they ate the same food, Ning Qinghuan's growth far surpassed Jun Zishu's. This was especially true in the height department. When Jun Zishu first came to this world, she was only one or two centimeters shorter than Ning Qinghuan. Now, she was at least half a head shorter than her cousin. Jun Zishu was heartbroken over this situation.

Personally, Jun Zishu felt that this might be a genetics problem. General Ning was a very tall man. Madam Ning was also above average in height for a woman. Hence, it made sense that Ning Qinghuan was tall as well.

In comparison, Jun Wan'er's father was average in height while her mother was below average. Hence, it was only natural that Jun Wan'er's body couldn't grow very tall.

Ning Qinghuan's figure looked elegant as she danced about with a sword. Every move she executed gave off a sense of agility. Even though she wielded a sword, the aura she gave off felt soft and gentle, complimenting the flexible sword.

However, Jun Zishu knew that this was but the image Ning Qinghuan created for her performance. The real Ning Qinghuan had a much sharper aura.

Amidst falling leaves, Ning Qinghuan stepped on a tree trunk, executed a light backflip, and landed in front of Jun Zishu.

Jun Zishu looked up and saw Ning Qinghuan's smiling face. She could also sense the soft blade propping up her chin.

"I find you pleasing to my eyes, fair lady. Why don't you consider marrying me?"

Ning Qinghuan put on a mischievous smile that was as radiant as the sun. Paired with the falling leaves in the background, she was a mesmerizing sight to behold.