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    In the face of a formidable adversary, Liang Xiao could only utter a sigh of resignation.

    Just then, a military officer led Pan Xueliang to Gu Changjin and announced, "Lord Gu, the boat is ready."

    Gu Changjin drew a sharp short dagger from his waist and handed it to Pan Xueliang, asking, "Are you afraid?"

    Pan Xueliang replied that he was not, his bright eyes filled with trust in Gu Changjin.

    "I, a humble citizen, have faith in your lordship!"

    Gu Changjin nodded subtly, fastening the armor on him and saying, "Be adaptable when the time comes. The Dragon Phoenix will surely make an appearance tonight."

    The sea vessel departed leisurely from the shore, its hull gently kissed by the waves, creating clusters of shimmering white foam. It halted upon reaching a barren rocky island, seeking shelter in the shadows cast by its backside.

    Gu Changjin stood at the bow of the ship, his robe billowing in the sea breeze, his profound eyes concealing a subtle sharpness within their depths.

    Pan Xueliang followed closely behind, his heart pounding like thunder but dare not utter a single sound.

    Soon, the distant rumble of rushing water grew steadily closer.

    Fleets of sturdy ships sailed past the island's coastline, their hulls pounding against the waves. Laughter and whispers were intermittently carried by the wind amidst the overwhelming sounds of the sea.

    Knowing who was aboard those vessels, Pan Xueliang held his breath, his every action careful and restrained.

    When the waters ahead calmed, Gu Changjin spoke, "Set sail."

    The night sea was even darker than the starry sky above.

    After an unknown duration, two ships suddenly appeared in the distance, with a flag depicting a dragon's head fluttering on one of the mastheads. These were the ships under the Water Dragon King's command.

    Just as Gu Changjin was about to instruct his men to launch a small boat, a Warrior Camp soldier reported, "Sir, someone is approaching us."

    Fixing his gaze, Gu Changjin indeed saw a small boat gliding swiftly towards them on the moonlit sea. It carried only three people. One of them wore a dark red tunic, with a red cloth tied around his head. Standing with his hands behind his back on the boat, his heroic features exuded the calm determination of one who had seen countless battles.

    As the small boat drew near, the man strode aboard and asked Gu Changjin, "Are you Lord Gu?"

    "It's indeed me, Gu Changjin," he replied. "Are you Pan Hongfeng or the Water Dragon King?"

    Pan Hongfeng lifted her gaze and stared at him steadily, smiling. "There's no need for your honor to test me. I've been the one sending letters to the garrison commander all these years. If I weren't Pan Hongfeng of Great Yin, why would I come looking for you after receiving your verbal message?"

    Gu Changjin's lips curved slightly. "In that case, as the Right Assistant Censor-in-Chief and Secret Investigator of Great Yin, I offer you, Lady Maple, the chance to serve the imperial court. Would you be willing?"

    Pan Hongfeng didn't answer immediately. Instead, she pointed to the warships beside her. "Many people on those two ships were originally captured by the Water Dragon King and forced to become pirates on Four Square Island. Thanks to their help, I was able to kill the Water Dragon King and seize his position. Since your honor is representing the court to grant amnesty, please clarify: After accepting the amnesty, will my followers and I be exempt from past transgressions?"

    "Should this mission to Four Square Island prove successful, it would be a great achievement. Not only will your past crimes not be held against you, but the court will reward your efforts," Gu Changjin said solemnly. "Moreover, Lady Maple has been passing messages for General Liang these past few years. The Emperor is wise and just, and he won't mistreat you or your subordinates."

    Pan Hongfeng remained silent, her gaze drifting past Gu Changjin to rest on Pan Xueliang.

    She had noticed him when she boarded the ship.

    After all, he was her child. Even after so many years, she could recognize him in an instant.

    Her features were sharper than most women's, but they softened involuntarily upon seeing Pan Xueliang.

    "I heard you were imprisoned for cheating in the imperial examination. Is that true?" she asked, looking at Pan Xueliang.

    Pan Xueliang lifted his gaze in surprise, and a wave of bitterness surged in his heart at the instant their eyes met. This was his birth mother, who had been only sixteen when she gave birth to him and then disappeared for over two decades after being kidnapped by pirates.

    Though she was merely forty-three years old, her appearance made her seem like an elderly woman in her sixties.

    She must have suffered greatly on Four Square Island all these years.

    "Yes, it's true, but I didn't cheat," Pan Xueliang replied. "It was Lord Gu who saved me; he is a man of his word. I hope... Lady Hongfeng trusts Lord Gu and helps our Great Yin, helps Yangzhou."

    "If you didn't cheat, then it's my fault that you got involved," Pan Hongfeng smiled, speaking frankly. "I'm also from Yangzhou in Great Yin! How could I not help our Great Yin? Lord Gu, please stop. Come with me to Four Square Island!"

    The moon illuminated the main streets, and thousands of sparks rained down like fireflies.

    The booming sounds of cannonfire echoed continuously, as if flames were erupting from the depths of the sea, reaching up towards the sky.

    Even the citizens in the inner city could hear the sounds of war.

    Rong Shu had just taken refuge in the City God Temple at the foot of the city walls.

    Lu Shiyi held a copper gong and struck it loudly, roaring, "Pirates are attacking the city! Find shelter quickly! Those who aren't afraid of death, follow me to fight the pirates! Don't forget, Yangzhou belongs to Great Yin, to all of us!"

    The deafening explosions just now had abruptly awakened the citizens engrossed in their riddles. Hearing Lu Shiyi's cry, they quickly realized the situation.

    The massive crowd scattered like startled birds and beasts, hastily rushing back to their homes.

    Yet, some brave souls remained, grabbing weapons and following Lu Shiyi as they ran out of the city walls.

    Among them were burly men, idle troublemakers who dabbled in cockfighting and dog racing, as well as emaciated beggars dressed in tattered clothes.

    With a grave expression, Guo Jiuniang told Rong Shu, "We can't return to Shen Yuan. These pirates clearly came prepared tonight. If they breach the city walls, places like Shen Yuan would likely be their first target."

    Yangzhou was prosperous, and the majority of the wealthy in southern China resided there.

    These wealthy households had their own guards, but even with numerous guards, they might not stand a chance against pirates armed with firearms. The notorious pirates from Four Square Island were infamous for their brutal acts of arson, murder, and plunder. It would actually be more dangerous for Rong Shu to stay at Shen Yuan.

    Rong Shu understood this reasoning all too well.

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