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    The most practical solution was to have Rong Shu send Li'er out.

    After all, the girl loved her morning naps the most.

    Back when he rose early for his duties, she would always half-open her eyes to help him dress. Once he left, she wouldn't even bother with breakfast. She would simply lean back, hugging her crescent moon pillow, and fall asleep again.

    Gu Changjin suddenly paused in his steps.

    Back then?

    Whose past was he referring to?

    Seeing that he had stopped, Mama Zhang assumed Gu Changjin had something to instruct her. "Is there anything you need, Second Master?"

    Gu Changjin regained his composure, pressing his lips together before responding, "Nothing, Mama. Go about your business."

    Mama Zhang acknowledged his words hastily and left the corridor.

    Inside, Rong Shu was combing her hair. Hearing the commotion outside, she told Yingyue, "You're no longer needed here for my hair. Check on Miss Xu in the eastern chamber to see if she's awake yet."

    Rong Shu woke up early, or rather, she hadn't slept the entire night.

    After rescuing Xu Li'er, her mind was in a state of extreme excitement, tossing and turning on the bed without any intention of dozing off.

    Deciding to get up, she hesitated for fear of disturbing Yingyue in the neighboring room, thus not bothering to have a lamp lit.

    When Yingyue left the chamber, Rong Shu rose from her rosewood chair and greeted Gu Changjin with a smile, "Did you see Mother Zhang just now? She's gone to the small kitchen for breakfast and will be back soon. It's still early, so please have some tea in the meantime."

    This young lady's words were truly like a gentle spring breeze, spoken with a mild tone, at a leisurely pace, and always well-organized, capable of warming one's heart.

    Yesterday, when she spoke to Xu Li'er, it was in precisely such a manner.

    She seemed like an entirely different person from the girl who, in his dream, had blindly tugged at her undergarment.

    But they weren't that different after all.

    Perhaps it was the influence of those absurd dreams that made him lose his usual clarity and rigor when he saw Rong Shu, and this confusion was something he typically avoided at all costs.

    Gu Changjin shifted his gaze slightly and softly acknowledged with an "mm," deliberately averting his eyes from her right shoulder.

    For fear that the vividly seductive scenes he had struggled to recall might inadvertently resurface.

    The room fell silent for a moment. Recalling his injury, Rong Shu asked politely, "Has your injury improved, Sir?"

    Gu Changjin lifted his gaze and nodded, his voice calm and distant. "Just a minor wound."

    Indeed, it was a small injury compared to the one he had sustained on Changan Avenue previously.

    After her polite inquiry, Rong Shu did not prolong the conversation. When Mother Zhang returned, she said, "Sir, please have your meal first. I'll go and visit Miss Xu in the eastern annex."

    With that, she hurried away, showing no intention of sharing the meal with Gu Changjin.

    Xu Li'er had spent half the night chatting with Rong Shu the previous evening, allowing her a rare, peaceful sleep. With her spirits restored, much of the lingering sorrow and distress in her heart dissipated.

    Upon seeing Rong Shu enter, Xu Li'er's face lit up as she greeted her warmly with "Madam Gu."

    Time was short. Rong Shu could only spend about a quarter of an hour with Xu Li'er in the eastern annex before Yingyue came to remind them that the carriage was ready.

    When Xu Li'er left Songsi Courtyard, she was exceptionally reluctant to part.

    For she alone knows, her future lies elsewhere.

    Miss Xu was meant to live with unassailable dignity all along. In this world, there are many young women who, like you, have stumbled through confusion and despaired at times. The better you thrive, the more strength you will impart unto them. I firmly believe that Miss Xu will inevitably become a beacon of hope for those very ladies.

    Xu Li'er once believed that her existence was a disgrace.

    But Madam Gu's words seemed to unlock a door for her, revealing the subtle understanding that the path available to a woman might be broader and longer than she had ever imagined.

    Realizing this, her heart was struck fiercely by an invisible force.

    In this world, women lead a more challenging life than men.

    For those women who, like her, have lost their innocence and reputation, if they are fortunate enough to be born into wealthy families, they might spend the remainder of their days in seclusion, tending to the lanterns and ancient Buddha statues in the family temple.

    But for those, like her, born into poverty with no close kin to rely on, their lives resemble winter's floating duckweed—bereft of vitality and utterly devoid of hope for the future.

    Madam Gu said that if she could thrive, she could become a beacon of hope for those lonely and distressed women.

    And so, she wishes to give it a try.

    Before stepping into the carriage, Li'er bowed solemnly to Rong Shu and sincerely said, "Li'er thanks you, madam."

    Rong Shu had been up all night and was beginning to feel weary. However, Li'er's respectful bow invigorated her once more.

    After a moment of stunned silence, she smiled warmly and gracefully accepted Li'er's gesture. Then, she bowed in return, "I also thank Miss Xu."

    How could she not be grateful?

    Li'er's survival instilled in Rong Shu the belief that she too could survive for another three years and even accomplish more.

    The sky had already turned a pale blue, with golden sunlight pouring down upon her head like molten gold. Amidst the autumn glow, the young maiden smiled radiantly.

    Gu Changjin leaned against the carriage wall with one hand, gazing down at her.

    Li'er wore a simple linen robe, and Rong Shu donned a plain dress, just as they did the day before. Neither adorned with golden hairpins nor tinkling jewelry, their appearances were unembellished.

    Yet, in the soft morning light, Li'er's face, bare and unadorned, appeared as beautiful as a painting come to life from a masterpiece.

    Her heart pounded like a drum, thump, thump.

    Gu Changjin knew now that his heart palpitations were no longer without cause.

    "Master, it's time to go," Chang Ji prompted.

    Gu Changjin acknowledged with an "Mm," then looked at Rong Shu. "My lady, you should return home."

    Her skin was too fair, and the dark shadows beneath her eyes could not be concealed. After a sleepless night and her delicate nature, she needed to rest and catch up on her sleep.

    The carriage swiftly vanished down Wutong Lane, and by the time they reached the Ministry of Justice, the sky had brightened.

    Gu Changjin led Xu Li'er into the ministry's offices, while Chang Ji parked the carriage and hurried out of Xuanwu Gate's main street, turning into a bustling alleyway.

    In this alley was a centuries-old donkey meat bun shop, whose owner's skills were exceptional. The donkey meat was tender, the buns crisp, and when dipped in the aged broth, each bite was heavenly. Whenever Chang Ji had free time, he would come here to savor three or five of these delicious treats.


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