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    Ying Que still trembled from the recent incident. With Heng Ping staying, she felt much more at ease. She hurriedly said, "Miss, Miss, Lord Gu is quite skilled in martial arts. Since we're unarmed, it's best if Heng Ping remains here."

    Rong Shu didn't say anything further.

    It was indeed inconvenient not to have a skilled warrior by her side.

    When Mu Nijing returned, Rong Shu had planned to ask for a capable female bodyguard to accompany her back to Yangzhou. After today's encounter, she realized that one might not be enough.

    She should at least request another for her mother. Today's incident, which occurred merely during an accounting check, showed that Jingdu, the capital city of the Jiaoyou Emperor, might not remain peaceful as the emperor's health worsened over the next two years.

    The three of them waited inside the room for a full hour before hearing knocks on the door.

    The pattern of knocks—three long and one short—prompted Heng Ping to immediately open the door and say, "Master."

    Gu Changjin entered, supporting someone with one hand.

    The person's hair was disheveled, and their clothes were stained with speckles of blood. Their right arm hung limply by their side.

    Gu Changjin glanced at Rong Shu first, reassured by her safety, then turned to Heng Ping and said, "Help Scholar Pan sit down."

    Handing Pan Xueliang over to Heng Ping, Gu Changjin split open a wooden chest on the ground with one hand, took out two pieces of wood, and used them to secure Pan's right hand. He then lifted the official robe, tore off a strip of cloth, and bound it around Pan's arm.

    "I'll find a doctor at the Board of Supervisors to set your bones when we get there."

    Pan Xueliang smiled bitterly. "It doesn't matter if my wrist is fixed or not. My reputation is already irreparably tarnished. Let it be broken."

    Gu Changjin replied, "If you firmly believe in your innocence, grit your teeth and hold on until the day the truth is revealed."

    Pan Xueliang looked up tragically. "The former Minister of Rites has already confessed. How can I ever hope to see the truth come to light?"

    Seeing his hopeless expression, Gu Changjin suddenly recalled the young man's stubborn sincerity in the detention cell at the Board of Supervisors that day. His heart sank slowly.

    In this case, the former Minister had admitted to framing Pan Xueliang, but Pan refused to confess.

    That day after leaving the detention cell, he had eagerly returned to Scholar's Lane, visiting each association to clear his name and vindicate the former Minister. Despite his voice becoming hoarse from speaking, no one believed him.

    If not for Heng Ping's protection those few days, his hand would likely have been crippled long ago.

    Later, when the former Minister regained consciousness from his coma, he didn't wait for others to question him. He immediately confessed, claiming he had acted on behalf of an old friend to rig the exam.

    This confession sparked a tremendous uproar.

    If not for Gu Changjin's timely arrival today, Pan Xueliang might not have even kept his life.

    Without a word, Gu Changjin secured his right hand and stood up. He looked at Pan Xueliang and said, "If you don't confess, I'll fight for the chance of a joint trial by the three judicial departments on your behalf. If you wish to give up today, I can also send you to the Supreme Court to plead guilty. The Emperor is merciful; he will only strip you of your titles and scholarly status. For the rest of your life, you would merely be unable to continue as a scholar."

    Unable to continue as a scholar?

    Pan Xueliang lifted his head to stare intently at Gu Changjin, momentarily lost in thought.

    He couldn't help but recall how his father had taught him to write his name stroke by stroke, how he had studied under the lamp amidst the rustling pines in the academy, and how he had felt the rush of excitement and ambition when his name appeared on the golden list of successful candidates.

    He had always been a scholar, born with his father's expectations upon him, learning to read and write from an early age, hoping one day to serve the people.

    Aside from entering officialdom through scholarship, he had no idea what else he could do with his life.

    Pan Xueliang's wandering gaze gradually focused, and he spoke firmly, "Lord Gu, this commoner does not wish to plead guilty."

    Gu Changjin looked into his eyes for a moment before nodding. "If you don't want to plead guilty, then don't. I'll strive for a joint trial by the three departments on your behalf."

    A gentleman's promise weighs as heavy as thousands of tripods.

    Pan Xueliang stared blankly at Gu Changjin.

    He was no fool.

    The scholars outside were enraged, wishing to tear him apart. The officials in the court were also plotting to pin the blame on him, so they could save the old minister's reputation and close the case with minimal damage.

    For Gu Changjin to secure an impartial trial for him, he would offend the scholars who once looked up to him and the officials in the imperial court.

    Pan Xueliang had heard about Gu Changjin's heroic act of risking his title of the top scholar to denounce a hundred officials on the day of the proclamation for the good of the people of Jinan. He had also heard about how Gu Changjin went to the Golden Hall for Xu Li'er and nearly lost his life on Changan Avenue.

    His heart had surged with admiration, but he never imagined that one day, this great man would go to such lengths for an insignificant person like himself.

    Gu Changjin's future was boundless. Was it truly worth it for him to do this for an unworthy person like Pan Xueliang?

    And was it really worth it for Pan Xueliang to fight for an abstract notion of justice?

    In his daze, Gu Changjin helped him up and said, "I hope Scholar Pan doesn't forget what a scholar's hands are for."

    Pan Xueliang's heart jolted.

    The hands of a scholar.

    They were meant to hold a pen, to criticize society's ills, draft wise governance strategies, and uphold justice for the people. Such a pen was indispensable.

    Lord Gu had such a pen in his hand.

    In that fleeting moment, Pan Xueliang recalled the old Minister's smiling words at Ling Mountain Academy —

    "You young lads, always remember that the black silk hat on your head in the future is not just a hat. It's a promise you make to the Emperor, the people, and the prosperity of the kingdom. A gentleman's word is as heavy as a thousand tripods!"

    Pan Xueliang struggled to steady himself, supporting his right hand with his left. "Lord Gu, rest assured. Even if my right hand is ruined, I still have my left."

    Seeing his renewed determination, Gu Changjin nodded slightly and was about to speak when the door was rapped on with a "taptap" sound—

    "Is Lord Gu present?"

    It was someone from the Board of Censors. Presumably, the chaos outside had been quelled.

    Gu Changjin stepped forward to open the door.

    Outside, a carriage with a green canopy was parked, and Hu He was inside, his usually plump and fair face unusually flushed with anxiety. He had been at the Board of Censors when he heard from his subordinates that this man had rushed to the Scholar's Alley to save someone, and his heart had nearly leapt out of his throat.

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