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    Fan Zhi raised his head slightly, smiling gratefully. "This humble official thanks Your Majesty for your understanding."

    Emperor Jia You gazed at him calmly. "Why put yourself through this, Teacher?"

    "Having received the emperor's wages, I am loyal to the emperor's cause," Fan Zhi replied with a smile. "I hope Your Majesty will grant me one more favor and entrust this case to Young Master Gu to investigate."

    "Do you wish to save Pan Xueliang?"

    Emperor Jia You's voice remained devoid of any emotion, consistently calm.

    Fan Zhi said, "It's not about saving him or not. I just don't want that child to die without knowing why."

    The emperor did not comment, only asking, "Does Teacher have any other unfinished wishes? In two days, I'll have Pei Shunnian bring Huai'an to see you one last time. As his first teacher, he should pay you respect."

    The 'Huai'an' mentioned by Emperor Jia You was Xiao Huaian, the posthumous son of the Ninth Prince.

    Back then, when the princes had besieged the capital, Crown Prince Qiyuan had nearly killed all his siblings, sparing only Emperor Jia You and the then nine-year-old Ninth Prince, Xiao Ying. When Emperor Jia You ascended the throne, Xiao Ying was only twelve, and he passed away at twenty-two from an illness, still with Xiao Huaian in his mother's womb.

    Xiao Huaian was taken into the palace by Emperor Jiayou even before his birth, and is now barely ten years old.

    Fan Zhi is Xiao Huaian's esteemed mentor who has taught him for six long years.

    "I cannot, Your Majesty. This minister has no face to meet the Crown Prince again. My crimes are unforgivable, and Academician Lin Ci can replace me as the Crown Prince's tutor. Minister Sun informed me that my days are numbered, so I humbly request the Emperor to grant me the punishment of decapitation," Fan Zhi said, kneeling once more.

    Emperor Jiayou remained silent for a long while.

    Spotting the chess game on the table, he walked over and lowered his gaze onto the board, where black and white pieces were entangled in a deadlock.

    Fan Zhi did not disturb him. Emperor Jiayou was an exceptional chess player, and could likely deduce each move made by both Fan Zhi and Gu Changjin from this game.

    "Is this the chess match between you and Lord Gu?"

    "Yes, it is," Fan Zhi replied with a smile. "Young Lord Gu is much like Your Majesty in the past, unwilling to abandon any piece."

    Emperor Jiayou stared at the chessboard without speaking, recalling the boy's bright eyes when he first entered the Golden Hall. He couldn't help but chuckle.

    "Teacher says it doesn't matter whether I save or not, but in my eyes, you still wish to save him," Emperor Jiayou picked up a black chess piece from the board, saying, "I shall grant your wish, Teacher."

    Chapter 41

    That night.

    The imperial litter stopped at the entrance of the Nourishing Heart Palace. Pei Shunnian approached respectfully and said, "Your Majesty, we have arrived at the Nourishing Heart Palace."

    Emperor Jia You gazed at the jade steps outside the palace, fell silent for a moment, then instructed, "Head to the Kunning Palace."

    Kunning Palace.

    A senior concubine rushed into the inner chambers with a lantern in hand and reported to Empress Qi, "Your Majesty, the Emperor's litter will arrive at the Kunning Palace momentarily."

    Empress Qi had just taken off her hairpins. Startled by the news, she looked at the maid in the copper mirror and asked, "Do you know where His Majesty has been today or whom he has met?"

    The maid replied, "This servant only learned that His Majesty left the palace. As for where he went and who he saw, those from the Supervisor of Ceremonies are as tight-lipped as clams; it's impossible to pry any information out of them."

    Empress Qi furrowed her brows slightly.

    While pondering, Emperor Jia You had already entered the inner chambers. The palace servants inside and out knelt on the ground.

    "Everyone, leave," he said gently.

    Once the attendants had filed out of the inner palace, Empress Qi stepped forward to help Emperor Jia Yu undress, smiling as she asked, "Why didn't His Majesty send word to the Kunning Palace earlier?"

    The man held her hand, his voice warm as he replied, "I've only come to spend some time talking with the Empress. I'll be back in the Nourishing Heart Palace shortly."

    He then led Empress Qi to sit down beside him.

    "Miss Qi Wu has entered the palace today, hasn't she?"

    Miss Qi Wu, Qi Ying, was the daughter of Left Commander Qi Heng and Empress Qi's favorite niece.

    "Indeed," Empress Qi replied with a smile in her eyes, her peach blossom eyes sparkling. "It's almost been a year since Little Five married into Baoding. I hear she misses home dearly. She was raised under my care, so naturally, I want to see her now that she's back."

    Emperor Jia Yu curved his lips into a smile, reaching up to tuck a strand of loose hair behind Empress Qi's ear. He spoke softly, "Now that she's returned, let her stay in the palace for a few more days to keep the Empress company."

    Empress Qi agreed with a smile, "Of course. Today, Little Five told me she's learned a new dish and plans to cook it for me and the Emperor tomorrow."

    After chatting like this for about fifteen minutes, Emperor Jia Yu patted Empress Qi's hand, gave her a few tender words of advice, and then rose to leave the Kunning Palace.

    The emperor's imperial litter had traveled far before the palace attendants waiting outside the inner chambers dared to enter again.

    Auntie Zhu picked up the jade comb and, as she brushed Empress Qi's hair, said, "It's already so late, why didn't His Majesty stay the night in the Kunning Palace?"

    Sighing, she continued, "Why doesn't Your Majesty ask him to stay? If you were to speak up, His Majesty might change his mind and not leave. That would surely irk that Lady of Longxin Palace."

    Longxin Palace was where Concubine Xing resided.

    Empress Qi, however, seemed oblivious, her gaze fixed on her reflection in the bronze mirror, a delicate face like a spring flower or autumn moon. An inexplicable unease stirred within her.

    Was Xiao Yan planning to act against the Qi family?

    ...

    The next day, Gu Changjin went to visit Pan Xueliang.

    Compared to the day before, his spirits were even more dampened. A shadow of stubble covered his jaw, and a hint of gloom lurked beneath his stubborn gaze.

    "Lord Gu, there's no need for you to continue advocating on behalf of a commoner like me. I will not confess, but I also don't wish to burden you because of this," Pan Xueliang said with a self-deprecating smile. "In the end, it's just one life."

    Yesterday, when he was brought into the Taiji Temple prison, he realized that the revocation of his scholarly rank would not appease the anger of the scholars outside. It seemed his head was doomed to roll.

    Pan Xueliang had once been an innocent scholar, devoted solely to studying the classics and harboring noble aspirations for the country and its people. However, the experiences of the past month had utterly extinguished his hopes for a career in politics and his grand ambitions.

    After a sleepless night, he concluded that it would be better to take his own life rather than await someone else's judgment. At least this way, the world would know he remained steadfast in his innocence until the end.

    But there was one thing he wished to do before he died: see Gu Changjin again. He knew the official would come to visit him.

    With a plan in place, Pan Xueliang found himself more composed and at peace than ever before. Though filled with sorrow, resentment, and unfulfilled longing, he now had control over the manner and timing of his demise.

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