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    In the household, all the younger siblings admired their amiable elder brother. When Rong Shu arrived, Second Brother, Third Brother, Fourth Brother, and Third Sister were all present. Only Younger Sister Rong Hui was absent from the Rong family's younger generation.

    Rong Shu had barely taken her seat when Rong Qi inquired, "After Elder Sister brought Second Sister back to the Hou Residence last time, she remained secluded within her quarters for two whole days, refusing to see anyone. Elder Sister, where on earth did you both go that day?"

    After the New Year, Rong Qi had turned twelve, yet her nature remained as innocent and inquisitive as ever, always seeking answers to both appropriate and inappropriate questions with relentless curiosity.

    Rong Shu smiled and said, "We went to the Linjiang Pavilion to admire the lanterns on the river. Perhaps Second Sister caught a chill from the river breeze that day, causing her headache. Besides, the wedding is just around the corner; she might be feeling nervous too."

    With a subtle and clever remark, she deftly changed the subject, diverting it from its original course.

    Rong Shu speculated that Rong Hui probably didn't even mention the incident at the Lingjiang Pavilion to Concubine Pei, for fear that she would seek justice from the Jiang family. She was an extremely competitive woman; how could she bear to let others laugh at her?

    His absence from the Chen Yin Court today is most likely due to his desire to avoid seeing her.

    Rong Shu, on the other hand, was indifferent. She had come to see her elder cousin, not Rong Wei.

    Engaging in casual conversation with Rong Qi for a while, Rong Shu noticed her younger brothers finally leaving. Swiftly, she picked up a wooden chest and approached Rong Ze, presenting it with a bright smile. "This is Zhaozhao's belated birthday gift for Elder Brother," she said gracefully.

    Rong Ze's birthday fell on the very day of the Lunar New Year's Eve. With Lady Shen absent from the Marquisate, Rong Shu naturally did not attend the family banquet held on that occasion, thus depriving her of the opportunity to present Rong Ze with a birthday gift.

    Rong Ze smiled in gratitude. "I thought you were still angry with me and wouldn't come to see me."

    "How could I?" Rong Shu chuckled. "I could be angry with anyone, but not you or Aunt."

    Pausing for a moment, she added out of curiosity, "Why didn't Brother participate in the Imperial Examination this year?"

    Rong Ze had passed the provincial examination last year, so it was expected that he would take part in the imperial exam this year.

    Rong Ze replied, "My teacher said my accumulation wasn't enough, and it's not suitable for me to take the exam this year. Not just me, many students from the Imperial Academy who passed the provincial examination didn't participate either."

    Rong Shu was surprised. Could it be that the scholars from the Imperial Academy didn't allow her eldest cousin to take the exam?

    It was like a blind cat had stumbled upon a dead mouse.

    In the twenty-first year of Jiaoyou, there was a major scandal during the imperial examination. Those who did not participate in the exam had unknowingly avoided a disaster.

    At that time, Rong Shu was relieved that her eldest cousin hadn't taken the exam. Now, hearing his words, it seemed that most students from the Imperial Academy didn't participate this year?

    Was this... too much of a coincidence?

    She had an inkling that something was amiss.

    But she was, after all, a lady confined within the inner chambers, distant from the world of politics. Even if she sensed something odd, she couldn't grasp the underlying reasons.

    So she decided to suppress her concerns and not mention them further.

    Rong Ze studied Rong Shu's expression attentively and said gently, "How is Lord Gu treating Zhaozhao? If he isn't treating you well, don't keep it to yourself. You can tell your elder brother."

    Although Rong Ze had only met Gu Changjin on their wedding day, he had heard the man's name echoed like thunder in his ears.

    Gu Changjin had won the highest imperial examination before reaching adulthood and dared to risk his life to expose corruption in Jinan, bringing down a multitude of corrupt officials. After entering the bureaucracy, he remained unyielding in the face of power, upholding justice by rescuing Xu Li'er from the hands of the East India Company's guards.

    Such was the model for scholarly officials in the world.

    No wonder Father had repeatedly expressed his admiration, saying that he hadn't encountered such a young talent in a long time.

    It was also no wonder that when Grandmother and Third Uncle were initially hesitant about Zhaozhao marrying Gu Changjin, Mother had sighed, criticizing their shortsightedness.

    Rong Ze genuinely admired Gu Changjin, but admiration aside, as her elder brother, how could he stand idly by if Gu Changjin mistreated Zhaozhao?

    Among his younger siblings, Rong Ze cherished Zhaozhao the most.

    Hearing the protective tone in Rong Ze's voice, Rong Shu felt a warm sensation in her heart. She smiled and replied, "It's fine. Lord Gu is an excellent official, and Zhaozhao truly admires him."

    Rong Ze detected the distant tone in her words. He raised an eyebrow, about to respond, when Madam Zhu's voice interrupted from behind.

    "Everyone is here today. It's rare for your elder brother to be home. You should all stay and have your meal with Auntie Zhu."

    Upon hearing this, Rong Shu's eyes curved into a smile as she played along. "Then Zhaozhao will shamelessly stay, since Auntie Zhu's steamed cheese is the most delicious."

    Distracted by the two sisters, Rong Ze swallowed back his words and only shot a glance at Rong Shu.

    The genuine joy in Zhaozhao's smile couldn't be faked. Perhaps the young lady was just being shy, he thought.

    After finishing the lively meal in Chen Yin Courtyard, upon returning to Qingheng Courtyard, Mama Zhang came to inform Rong Shu that Miss Second had arrived.

    Rong Shu's mind raced. Could it be that Rong Wei still didn't want to leave Qingheng Courtyard for marriage?

    Considering this, she passed the steamed cheese in her hand to Mama Zhang and said, "Take this cheese to Mother's room. I'll go meet Rong Wei."

    Chapter 35

    Aside from the main residence where Madam Shen lived, Qingheng Courtyard also had several annexes on its east and west wings.

    Rong Shu resided in one of the eastern annexes. Her previous residence in Yang State Prefecture was known as Yi Lanzhu, and now this annex in Qingheng Courtyard shared the same name.

    A cluster of Xiangfei Bamboo grew beneath the corridor of Yi Lanzhu. Rong Wu sat on a stone bench beside them, gazing blankly at the lush green stalks.

    "What brings you here to find me?" Rong Shu asked softly.

    Rong Wu's eyelashes fluttered slightly. She stood up, her neck stiff as she said, "I came to tell you that I'll be leaving Qingheng Courtyard for my marriage. Not because of the dowry, but because... I'm willing to depart from here."

    Their last meeting was on the sixteenth day of the first lunar month. Compared to then, Rong Wu had lost considerable weight, and her complexion was far from rosy. There was no sign of the joy that typically accompanied an unmarried girl about to wed.

    Despite her obvious lack of enthusiasm, she refused to admit defeat in front of Rong Shu. Her lips were pressed tightly together, and her back was straight as an arrow.

    Rong Shu smiled faintly. "Very well."

    Her smile held no trace of mockery or disdain; it was simply amusement at Rong Wu's demeanor.

    Due to their respective mothers, the two of them had been at odds since childhood. Both appeared to be gentle-natured, but in reality, one was stubborn while the other was arrogant, neither possessing an amiable disposition.

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