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    The former Minister had described him as a man who wouldn't turn back until he hit a brick wall.

    Yet here was this scholar, whose hand had been severed during the uprising and who still refused to confess in the dark, sunless prison, willingly and gladly admitting his guilt at this very moment.

    All for the sake of his profound sense of patriotism and loyalty to his country.

    Liu Yuan revealed the truth to Gu Changjin today precisely so that, through Gu's words, Pan Xueliang would understand and, if necessary, willingly become a disposable pawn.

    Gu Changjin didn't turn around; instead, he gazed steadily at the red-painted door ahead.

    He had been mistaken, he realized.

    He had read Pan Xueliang's examination papers from the county, provincial, and metropolitan tests, as well as the imperial examination. Back then, he had believed that this talented scholar from Jia You twenty-one was rigid and inflexible.

    Not so. He knew how to adapt.

    But the kind of "adaptation" he was displaying now was not what Gu Changjin desired.

    "What crime did Liao Rao commit? He shall be punished accordingly. I will find evidence of Liao Rao's collusion with the enemy," Gu Changjin said softly. "Candidate Pan, do you remember what I told you? If you believe yourself to be innocent, then do not confess."

    As he finished speaking, Gu Changjin pushed open the door and strode away.

    When the carriage reached Wu's Brick Bridge, he instructed Shiiun to stop. He alighted and strolled alone along the bridge's edge.

    The crescent moon hung high in the sky, and although the boats beneath the bridge had changed, the melancholic melodies still echoed. Amidst this bustling world, some reveled in fleeting pleasures, while others carried their burdens forward.

    The old man selling pine nut candy was still there.

    Recalling the moment he walked with that maiden on the cobblestone path, holding a paper bag of pine nut candy, Gu Changjin seemed to smell the sweet fragrance that had fermented on that hot summer night.

    His heavy steps quickened.

    The old man was just about to pack up his stall when he caught sight of Gu Changjin. With a smile, he said, "Did the gentleman accompany a lady to buy my pine nut candy today?"

    Gu Changjin acknowledged with an "Mm."

    The old man still remembered Rong Shu. He took out the freshly packed pine nuts and asked, "Would the gentleman like another bag?"

    Gu Changjin responded with another "Mm" and added, "Please add more pine nuts, if you don't mind."

    "Very well," the old man chuckled in response. "Is that young lady the object of your affection, sir? She's been fond of my pine nut candy since she was a child."

    The old man had sharp eyes; he'd spent his entire life selling pine nut candy on Wu's Brick Bridge and had witnessed countless lovesick couples. The way this young man gazed at the girl under the willow tree today, it was clear he was deeply smitten.

    It was an amusing sight: the girl's eyes were filled only with the pine nut candy, while the young man's eyes held only her.

    Gu Changjin's lips curved upward slightly.

    The night breeze softly blew past, dispersing his barely audible "mm" into the moonlit night.

    At Number 18 Pinan Street at that moment, Chang Ji stood in the courtyard awaiting Gu Changjin. Upon hearing footsteps, he hurried forward to open the door, saying eagerly, "Master has returned."

    As he spoke, Chang Ji couldn't help but wrinkle his nose and steal a glance at the pine nut candy in Gu Changjin's hand.

    Gu Changjin responded with a faint "mm," then caught sight of Chang Ji's face. A sudden flash of insight struck him.

    In his dream on Shen's guest ship, what Chang Ji had said was—

    "I've already delivered Pan Xueliang's burial site to the Taiji Temple prison. Lady Feng mentioned that she wishes to see him before the execution."

    While in the capital, Gu Changjin had already investigated Pan Xueliang.

    Pan Xueliang's father was named Pan Wan, and his aunt was... Pan Hongfeng.

    Hongfeng.

    Maple.

    Gu Changjin's gaze sharpened.

    Wrong.

    In the dream, Chang Ji didn't call her "Feng Lady," but "Maple Lady."

    Betrayal was what Chang Ji despised the most in his life. If Jiao Feng truly betrayed Great Yin, he would never address her as "Maple Lady" with respect.

    Feeling the intensity of Gu Changjin's stare, Chang Ji's face began to ache, leaving him momentarily bewildered.

    "Why are you looking at me like that?" He touched his face, unsure.

    "You've actually helped me clarify something," Gu Changjin said, stuffing the pine nut candy in his hand. "Here, have the candy. Tomorrow, I need to meet General Liang. You'll come with me."

    It was only Luo Yan in the Shen Yuan who knew about Rong Shu's meeting with Gu Changjin. No one else was aware.

    Shen Zhi naturally didn't want to speak of it. As for Mother Zhang, Rong Shu didn't intentionally hide it from her; she just didn't want Mother Zhang to overthink their relationship with Gu Changjin.

    Rong Shu sought out Gu Changjin and confided her suspicions about Shen Zhi because she trusted him.

    This trust had nothing to do with romantic feelings; it was a simple conviction in his character, much like Xu Li'er and Pan Xueliang's trust in Gu Changjin.

    Before setting off for Yang State Prefecture, Ama Zhou had held onto Rong Shu, insisting that her divorce had been too hasty and hoping that she would reconcile with Gu Changjin.

    If Ama Zhou found out that Rong Shu had encountered Gu Changjin in Yang State Prefecture and even crossed Wu Family's Brick Bridge while sharing pine nut candies, who knew what she might say?

    Thus, Rong Shu kept her lips sealed around Mother Zhang.

    Three days after returning to the Shen Yuan, Rong Shu still hadn't seen Shen Zhi. Upon hearing that he had returned from outside, she hastily lifted her skirt and hurried to the Three Reflections Hall.

    To her surprise, when she arrived at the hall, not even a trace of Shen Zhi could be found.

    Housekeeper Jiang explained, "There's a matter of business that Lord Shen needs to confirm personally. That's why he didn't even have time for a cup of tea before rushing off again."

    Rong Shu wondered, "Why is Uncle so busy? I've never seen him like this before."

    Housekeeper Jiang smiled and said, "Right now, it's the flood season, and many areas within the Great Yin are suffering from floods. Lord Shen is delivering food supplies to those cities. The Shen family is known for their benevolence; their family motto is to receive from the people and give back to them. Lord Shen would never forget that principle for a single day."

    Indeed, Shen Zhi had lived up to this principle admirably.

    Back then, Grandfather had donated most of the Shen family's assets to the national treasury, and half of what was left went to Mother as her dowry, leaving Shen Zhi with only a few million taels of silver.

    Compared to two decades ago, the Shen family's assets had multiplied by at least several dozen times.

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