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    Rong Shu genuinely did not have affection for her family, nor did she particularly like many people within the Cheng'an Marquis Estate. However, she had always held a fondness for her elder uncle's family, including her aunt and her cousin.

    In Rong Shu's eyes, her elder aunt was perhaps the only one in the Rong family with true backbone.

    As a noble estate, the Cheng'an Marquis Estate was entitled to its own landed properties, providing annual revenues in the form of grain, currency, silk, satin, gauze, and cloth for both summer and winter.

    If her elder uncle had not passed away, then her cousin would now be the heir apparent to the marquis title, and it would be he who would inherit the Cheng'an Marquis Estate in the future.

    It was common knowledge in the capital that the Rong family's rise to nobility was owed to the efforts of her late grandfather and Rong Jun.

    After Rong Xun was bestowed the title of Cheng'an Marquis, he showed no greed for the meager fief and sustenance associated with it. Instead, he allocated four parts to the eldest branch, three parts to the second branch, and the remaining three parts to the third branch.

    Lady Rong, who was usually oblivious to major affairs, seemed to have gained clarity for once, likely due to her golden daughter-in-law. She had never shortchanged the items that should have been allocated to the first and second wives from the family's public funds.

    Lady Zhu relied on her meager dowry and the portion of the family's income allocated to her to raise her elder cousin.

    Her father was a former Deputy Minister of the Grand Ceremonial Academy, a fact that imbued Miss Zhu with a distinct air of nobility befitting a lady from an esteemed family.

    I shall not seek favor with Madam Rong for mere personal gain, nor cultivate an artificial friendship with Madam Shen. Neither will I indulge in excessive intimacy with Qiuyun Hall on account of Pei Yun's connections with the Pei family's old acquaintances.

    She maintained a distant and composed demeanor, confining herself within the Tranquil Ivy Courtyard without seeking attention or competition.

    In truth, Rong Shu trusted Madam Zhu more than Rong Xun.

    Upon seeing Madam Zhu, her eyes instantly reddened, but she managed to suppress the sting in her nose. "Doctor Sun from the Imperial Medicine Court has examined Mother. Although she's out of danger, we still don't know when she'll regain consciousness."

    The young girl had not taken a single sip of water all day, and her voice was still hoarse. Madam Zhu studied her carefully before sighing.

    As a woman herself, she knew all too well how difficult Shen's life had been.

    Shen had lost her husband and her family, leaving her to raise her child alone as a widow. But Shen still had a husband and a family, yet her life was even more difficult than that of a widow like Madam Zhu.

    Approaching, Madam Zhu took Rong Shu's hand and consoled her, "Third Sister-in-law is blessed by fate and will surely overcome this adversity. Zhaozhao, don't worry too much."

    Madam Zhu still carried the rich scent of sandalwood on her. Rong Shu softly acknowledged with an "Mm," holding back her tears. "Aunt, you've been busy at the temple all day. You should go rest now. Otherwise, when Mother wakes up, she'll scold me for being disrespectful."

    Madam Zhu spoke gently, "Third Sister-in-law dotes on you the most. How could she bear to do that?"

    Noticing Rong Shu's pale complexion, she continued, "I'm covered in dust; I should change my clothes. If you have anything to attend to, send word to the Tranquil Ivy Courtyard. Don't worry about disturbing Aunt, she has nothing else to do anyway."

    Rong Shu consented gracefully, escorting Madam Zhu out of the Qingheng Courtyard personally.

    Madam Zhu's visit had surprisingly alleviated much of the barely contained wrath within Rong Shu. She leaned against the bed frame, holding hands with Madam Shen, and slowly closed her eyes.

    Nightfall gradually descended.

    Silver moonlight poured down through the gaps in the old locust trees outside the Ministry of Punishment's main gate.

    An old, green-curtained carriage was parked beneath those very trees.

    Gu Changjin gracefully lowered himself into the carriage, and Chang Ji promptly offered him a cup of iced tea.

    Lately, His Lordship has developed a fondness for iced tea. He purposely prepared it two quarters of an hour earlier so that it would be perfectly chilled by now.

    Gu Changjin took the tea, moistening his dry throat, and asked, "How is she?"

    Chang Ji found it perplexing to discern whether "she" in this context referred to Lady Hou or Young Lady Hou.

    Pondering for a moment, he said, "Physician Sun arrived just in time, performing an incredibly perilous procedure that barely managed to keep Lady Hou's life hanging by a thread. However, whether she will regain consciousness and when that might happen remain uncertain at present. According to Physician Sun, she must receive acupuncture treatments at the Hou Mansion for at least another fortnight, after which we should have a clearer understanding of her prospects for recovery. As for the young Madam, I too was unable to see her; it is only reasonable to assume that she must be enduring considerable distress at this juncture."

    Gu Changjin remained silent.

    Her relationship with her mother had always been close; Madam Shen was half of her life. How could she bear to see her mother on the verge of death?

    He asked coolly, "Did you give her the medicine?"

    Chang Ji's eyelids twitched. Mustering his courage, he replied, "Madam has never left Qingheng Courtyard. I didn't have the chance to give her the medicine."

    Gu Changjin lifted his gaze, his dark eyes fixating on Chang Ji.

    This was the expression that Chang Ji feared the most. Deciding to come clean, he said, "There were only five pills from the old physician. I, Heng Ping, and Shiiun each took one, leaving two for our master. This is a life-saving pill, and I don't wish to waste it. Besides, with Madam's cautious nature, how could she risk administering medicine to Lady Hou without first having it examined by Doctor Sun? She would certainly have it checked before allowing Lady Hou to take it."

    Sun Daoping was young and might not know who had prepared the medicine. However, his astute grandfather would surely be aware.

    Chang Ji couldn't let his master take such a risk.

    He could be called cold-hearted or ruthless, but in his opinion, Madam Shen's life wasn't worth wasting a pill that could save his master's life at a critical moment.

    Chang Ji would rather endure physical punishment than waste the pill.

    "I acted without permission, and I beg for your lordship's punishment."

    Gu Changjin remained silent, his gaze descending slowly.

    How could he be unaware of what Chang Ji was saying? It was just that when he learned of her mother's critical condition, considering the deep bond between them, he had subconsciously instructed Chang Ji to deliver the medicine.

    That act seemed more like an instinct beyond rational thought.

    And indeed, he shouldn't have done so.

    "Go fetch Heng Ping for twenty strokes of the cane."

    Chang Ji heaved a sigh of relief. With his rugged constitution, twenty strokes were merely a night's rest for him. His master had indeed shown remarkable mercy this time.

    However, before he could celebrate for long, Gu Changjin continued, "For the next half month, you'll only be eating steamed buns."

    Chang Ji: "...."

    Chang Ji endured a full fortnight of a diet consisting solely of steamed buns, while Sun Daoping spent the same duration enduring acupuncture sessions at the Qingheng Courtyard.

    Each day, Rong Shu arrives at dawn and departs at noon.

    For the past half-month, she has been attending to the preparation of medicines in Qingheng Courtyard. When weariness overcomes her, she takes a rest on the imperial concubine's couch beside the batub bed.

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