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    Yet Gu Changjin's single sentence dispelled the resolve he had painstakingly gathered.

    "Scholar Pan, do you wish to know why this incident happened to you in particular?" Gu Changjin seemed to have seen through his hidden thoughts and spoke slowly, enunciating each word. "Do you want to know why the former Minister of Rites confessed?"

    Pan Xueliang looked up in astonishment. He had believed that all of this was mere coincidence.

    "Does Lord Gu know why the former Minister of Rites admitted guilt? Why such a thing would happen to a commoner like me?"

    "I don't know either, but I will investigate," Gu Changjin replied, gazing into his eyes. "Until I uncover the answer, if you were to die, the trail would be severed, and even if I wished to investigate further, I couldn't."

    Pan Xueliang gritted his back teeth, flaring his nostrils slightly as he took a deep breath. "What does my lord require of this commoner?"

    "To stay alive. If you truly believe yourself innocent, then don't confess," Gu Changjin instructed. "In addition, tell me about your affairs."

    "My affairs?"

    Gu Changjin hummed in response. "Your story, your family, your close relatives, your childhood friends, and every detail of your experiences since young – all of these, you must share with this official."

    Gu Changjin's inquiries lasted over two hours. By the time they emerged from the Taiji Temple Prison, it was nearly noon.

    Assuming there would be some clues in Pan Xueliang's words, I found nothing out of the ordinary.

    Pan Xueliang was the younger son of Pan Wan, a merchant from Yangzhou. His mother, a concubine, passed away after giving birth to him. As Pan Xueliang was Pan Wan's only son, with a modest family background, his father arranged for a tutor when he turned three and later invested heavily to send him to the renowned Ling Shan Academy.

    It was common for an entire clan to support one scholar, and merchants aspiring to enter politics like Pan Wan were not uncommon.

    So why was an ordinary merchant's son, a typical scholar, dragged into this matter?

    Back at the Board of Censors, Hu He handed a thick stack of letters to Gu Changjin and chuckled. "The Chief Censor said since you're taking care of the Pan Xueliang case, see it through properly and don't disgrace our Board. These letters were seized from the former Minister's residence. Sort them carefully and don't lose any."

    "Yes," Gu Changjin replied, taking the letters and sitting down to read.

    The sun climbed high and then sank low.

    As the workday neared its end, half of the letters on the desk had been read. Gu Changjin was about to get up for more tea when a few letters fell from his sleeve. Glancing over, his gaze sharpened as he pulled out two letters from Yangzhou.

    A letter arrived from the Elder Mountain Scholar of Ling Shan Academy, none other than Yu Jing, whom Pan Xueliang had previously mentioned, and another was penned by Liao Rao, the Governor-General of Jiangzhe Province.

    Piracy had long been rampant along the coastal provinces, with the most severe troubles occurring in Jiangzhe and Fujian.

    Liao Rao had originally served as the Left Vice Minister of War. In the ninth year of Jiayou, Emperor Jiayou appointed him as the Governor-General of Zhejiang, entrusting him with the military affairs of both Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces.

    Gu Changjin set down his teacup and returned to his official's hat chair to open the letters.

    After reading both, he tapped his fingers on the table, pondering over every word in the messages.

    Both Yu Jing's and Liao Rao's letters were exceptionally ordinary.

    In Yu Jing's letter, he invited the elderly Vizier to visit Ling Shan Academy for a leisurely mountain stroll, and while doing so, offer some teachings to the young scholars there.

    The other letter was likely written upon hearing about the Vizier's ill health, expressing concern and care. At the same time, Yu Jing couldn't help but mention his recent victories against maritime pirates in Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

    Yu Jing was a fellow classmate of the Vizier, who after passing the imperial examinations, served only a few years in the Hanlin Academy before returning home to establish an academy. Given their deep friendship, it was natural for him to extend such an invitation to the Vizier.

    As for Liao Rao, he had once served under the Vizier and even married the latter's niece, thus forming both a former hierarchical relationship and a familial connection. It was understandable for him to write a letter of consolation upon learning about the Vizier's poor health.

    The elderly Minister mentioned an old friend's request, and Yu Jing was Pan Xueliang's mentor. In this context, the "old friend" seemed to be referring to Yu Jing himself.

    Yet, Gu Changjin couldn't shake off the feeling that he had overlooked something crucial.

    Unconsciously, he clenched the corner of the letter, only to release it in the next moment.

    This wasn't his usual habit; it was something the young lady did.

    He pursed his lips slightly and put down the letter.

    Yesterday, when he saw her figure in Caomaoer Lane, his heart almost stopped, fearing that if he was too late, she would be hurt.

    It wasn't until he firmly grasped her wrist that he felt truly alive again.

    Gu Changjin lifted his sleeve and gazed at the scab on his forearm.

    When that hairpin pierced his skin yesterday, his anxiety was so intense that he didn't feel any pain at first. It was only later, when he felt the ache, that he realized how much strength the young lady must have exerted.

    That was as it should be.

    In times of peril, one must not hesitate; use all one's strength to safeguard one's life above all else.

    It was time for her to return to Minglu Yard, wasn't it?

    She had been startled yesterday, but by today, she had likely regained her composure.

    That young lady had never been one to be easily frightened.

    The man's stern expression softened, and the irritation brought on by the Pan Xueliang case gradually dissipated.

    Gently massaging his temples, he refilled his teacup and continued to unfold the letter. Halfway through, his movements suddenly paused as he went back to examine Liao Rao's words more carefully.

    Liao Rao had once been the Left Minister of the Military Affairs Department, deeply devoted to studying military tactics. He had even invented a formation known as the "Paperclip Formation."

    Recalling the pattern of the "Paperclip Formation," Gu Changjin deciphered Liao Rao's letter, word by word, according to its structure.

    Finally understanding the peculiarities, Liao Rao's matters mentioned in the letter were excessively trivial, almost jarring in their detail. It was a clever method to conceal hidden messages.

    "Rao has a favor to ask of Uncle, I humbly request your assistance."

    Candles flickered, and Gu Changjin fixated on the letter, an indistinct notion forming in his mind.

    What exact connection did Pan Xueliang have with Liao Rao, the Governor-General of Jiangsu and Zhejiang?

    ...

    After several spring showers, the days in the capital grew increasingly warmer. Rong Shu exchanged her spring attire for freshly tailored summer clothes.

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