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    Since their marriage at sixteen, they had been bound together for over two decades.

    He seemed to have never feared that she would poison the food she served him.

    The room was illuminated by bright lights, casting an unhealthy glow on his face, a complexion often seen in those chronically ill.

    In truth, he was strikingly handsome. The reputation of the seventh prince, Xiao Yan, as a beauty had not spread merely because he lived a reclusive life, rarely revealing his true appearance to others.

    It was only on their wedding day, when he lifted Qi Zhen's veil, that she truly saw his face.

    That night, she had drugged their shared wine. He soon fell into a deep sleep after drinking it.

    The next morning, he took the wedding handkerchief, pricked his finger, and said gently to her, "There's no need to drug my food anymore. I won't touch you. I didn't intend to consummate our marriage yesterday."

    Back then, Qi Zhen was on high alert, assuming his words were out of anger or embarrassment.

    Only later did she realize that he spoke the truth.

    He didn't enjoy competing with others nor did he like to snatch things from them. Even when he went to Taiyuan Prefecture to become a feudal lord, he went with nothing but a clear conscience, unlike other princes who traveled with groups of beautiful servants and carts full of wealth, parading extravagantly along the way.

    Taiyuan Prefecture was not far from the capital. Despite that, their journey, filled with pauses, took nearly a month to reach his fiefdom.

    Throughout the trip, Qi Zhen rarely spoke to him. Xiao Yan seemed indifferent, content to admire the passing scenery with an air of leisure and ease.

    Leaving the capital was a delight for him.

    In fact, Xiao Yan would have preferred his fief to be even farther away. Given his unprivileged status in the palace, he should have been assigned to a more remote and less prosperous region.

    But it was only because he had married her that he couldn't freely choose the fief he desired.

    Taiyuan Prefecture, a fiefdom proximate to the capital, was chosen by Prince Qiyuan for Qi Zhen.

    Finishing the ginseng soup, Emperor Jiayou looked at Empress Qi, who seemed hesitant to speak, and said warmly, "As a child, I often suffered from illnesses that prevented me from attending lessons with the other prince in the Wenhua Palace. Upon learning this, my tutor would come to the Yutang Palace every other day to instruct me personally."

    The "mentor" Emperor Jia Yu mentioned was none other than the former Minister of Justice, Fan Zhi, who was currently confined in the Dali Temple prison.

    The Jade Hall is located in the western part of the Ninth Palace, quite secluded and distant from the Wenhu Hall. For an elderly gentleman, such a journey would indeed be a laborious endeavor.

    Emperor Jiande had initially advised the elderly minister not to worry, as he ultimately held no great expectations for his ailing son. Once he came of age, they could simply grant him a fiefdom to pass his days.

    The elderly minister, however, was insistent, stating that he came to the Wenhu Hall to teach all the princes equally and impartially.

    Empress Qi Zhen had also heard Prince Qiyuan mention this before. She recalled that after only half a year, the Seventh Prince returned to the Wenhu Hall for his studies.

    "Teacher said in the Yutang Palace that one can hide their talents, be patient, and bide their time, but they must not be willful or give up on themselves," Emperor Jiayou smiled. "He knew I was avoiding the Wenhu Hall due to my dislike of it, so I pretended to be ill and skipped lessons."

    Empress Qi's heart sank.

    Emperor Jiayou coughed softly and continued, "Teacher doesn't have much time left, and I don't wish to disappoint him."

    Empress Qi lifted her gaze, staring fixedly at Emperor Jiayou. After being married for so many years, she understood at that moment that there was no turning back for the Qi family now.

    Indeed, the favor she had shown by poisoning Prince Qiyuan had long been repaid by Xiao Yan over the years.

    Exiting the Yangxin Palace, Empress Qi looked at the magnificent palace with even heavier steps than when she entered.

    Before her father passed away, he had held her and her brother's hands, asking them to protect the Qi family and their clan well.

    But she could no longer do so.

    Half a month had passed in the blink of an eye.

    It was September, with the sweet scent of osmanthus filling the air and the colors of autumn—orange and green—abundant.

    The people of Yang State Prefecture, having survived a calamity, were still immersed in the lively festivities of the Chongyang Festival.

    On the thirteenth day of the ninth month, just after noon, several merchant ships slowly docked at the shore.

    Shen Zhi, worn out from his journey, stepped off the ship. Manager Jiang personally came to greet him. Once he was seated in the carriage, Jiang recounted in detail the incident involving Rong Shu and Mother Zhang's assault.

    Upon hearing this, Shen Zhi furrowed his brow. "What is the current situation? Have they caught the perpetrator?"

    "We did catch them," Manager Jiang replied. "The authorities sent someone to inform us that the lone pirate, disguised as a fisherman from Great Yin, attempted to abduct the young lady for a large ransom. Miss Rong is now safe and sound, but as for Mother Zhang..." He let out a soft sigh. "Mother Zhang suffered severe injuries and has yet to regain consciousness. The physician says it's uncertain whether she will wake up."

    Physicians were typically cautious with their words, so by the sound of it, did that mean Mother Zhang would never awaken?

    Shen Zhi's frown deepened.

    His mission to Fu Jian had been a success. The Water Dragon King had previously introduced him to a firearms merchant from Folang Kingdom. This trip to Fu Jian was to meet with this individual, and if all went well, the new batch of weapons would arrive early next year.

    With the matter handled smoothly, Mother Zhang would undoubtedly speak well of him when she returned to the capital, which might earn him an opportunity to meet the Young Master next year. However, considering Mother Zhang's current state, she might not wake up even by then. Moreover, since she was injured in his presence, the Princess might blame him for it. The Princess had only arranged for Mother Zhang to be with Zhaozhao. Now that Mother Zhang was unconscious, he needed to find a way to send someone else to attend to her.

    Upon this thought, Shen Zhi asked, "What about Miss? Is there anyone attending to her now that Mother Zhang is absent?"

    Manager Jiang replied, "This old servant intended to assign an elderly nurse to Miss, but she said that she has Miss Luan Yan by her side and has also hired a female bodyguard from Ciying Lane. She doesn't need anyone else."

    As the Shen family's carriage raced towards Shen Yuan, Rong Shu had just left the study in the Three Reflections Hall.

    Both she and Luan Yan were free of the residual poison four days ago, and they had returned to Shen Yuan on that same day from Pingnan Street. In the past few days, Rong Shu and Luan Yan visited the study almost daily. The wooden chest they had taken out from the study needed to be returned, and all the handwritten letters left behind by her maternal grandfather shouldn't remain in the study.

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