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    As for the reason behind choosing a passenger vessel over an official boat, Rong Shu had only learned about it from Shen Yizhen the previous day.

    Eunuch Liu Yuan, along with Lady Pan and Pan Xueliang, encountered an ambush by a group of black-clad men during their journey back to the imperial capital to report their mission. All of them sustained injuries, some minor and some severe. If not for the valiant royal guards aboard the official vessel who fought fiercely to protect them, the incident would have certainly ended in fatalities.

    Those black-clad individuals were all devoted assassins; upon being captured, they bit open the poison pouches concealed in their teeth and took their own lives.

    Hence, it would be more perilous for Gu Changjin to return to the capital on an official vessel; it would be wiser for him to conceal himself among the passengers on a merchant ship, just as he had done on his way here.

    Aware that time was of the essence, Rong Shu picked up her skirt and reluctantly stepped into the cabin, glancing back every few steps.

    Upon the deck stood a figure, attired in a simple robe of pea green homespun fabric, with a wide-brimmed straw hat adorning his head. The extensive shadow cast by the hat concealed half of his face, obscuring his features from clear view.

    Most sailors along the river were folk from humble backgrounds, their skin tanned by years of exposure to wind and rain, accustomed to stooping with heads bowed.

    However, this man before them had a pale, cold complexion, stood tall and straight, exuding an elegance reminiscent of a pine or bamboo. Even the crudest of clothing could not mask the air of clarity and grace that radiated from him.

    It was the first time Rong Shu had seen Gu Changjin in such attire, and she found herself stealing more than one glance at him, desiring to speak but holding back.

    As if sensing her gaze, Gu Changjin lifted the brim of his hat, revealing a pair of eyes as deep and cold as a tranquil pond. "Is there something?" he asked.

    Rong Shu pondered for a moment before suggesting, "My lord... you should come to the cabin and serve me." With that, she turned around, stepped onto the wooden ladder, and entered the cabin.

    Gu Changjin watched her frost-colored skirt disappear up the stairs before following suit.

    Inside the cabin, Rong Shu said, "My lord, it would be best if you ventured outside less often."

    This was the finest guest ship in the Shen family's fleet. It had over a dozen cabins, along with a spacious dining cabin in the center, which held three long huanghuali wood tables. On either side of these tables were numerous official hat chairs, capable of accommodating scores of people for meals.

    At that moment, they were the only two occupants in the vast dining cabin. Gu Changjin sat down in a chair beside Rong Shu and asked, "Did I not disguise myself well enough?"

    Rong Shu nodded honestly, "Indeed, it doesn't seem so."

    The cabin window behind her was open, and the river breeze blew in, gently sweeping aside her jet-black forehead hair.

    Gu Changjin paused at the rim of her reddened eyes and said, "I heard that Lady Hou visited the Shen family's ancestral home yesterday?"

    "Mm-hmm, Mother went to inquire some matters from our respected ancestors," Rong Shu replied with a smile while fanning herself with a white fan embroidered with green clover blossoms. "Reclaiming the Shen family from Uncle won't be easy. Mother needs more time to carefully plan. Fortunately, many of the Shen family's managers and shopkeepers are loyal to Grandfather. Plus, Uncle Shi Yi, Aunt Guo, and Shiiun are there to support her – Mother is not fighting this battle alone."

    Gu Changjin gazed into her shimmering eyes and nodded, "I left a letter for Shiiun. In case of necessity, he will take it to General Liang for assistance."

    Rong Shu paused in her fanning, gazed at him, and then sincerely said, "Thank you, Your Excellency."

    No sooner had she spoken than the boat gave a gentle lurch.

    They were setting sail.

    The sound of boisterous footsteps and voices echoed from the deck outside.

    Luo Yan entered, holding a large bunch of cornel, followed by Chang Ji, who carried two bamboo boxes.

    "Lady, Elder Guan asked me to bring these to your cabin. He says that for a September voyage, every passenger cabin should hang cornel for safety."

    Chang Ji took up the conversation with a smile. "Not only do we hang cornel, but we also need to continue eating chongyang cake today to ward off water evil spirits."

    Seafarers had their customs, and Rong Shu, being a newcomer, adapted accordingly. She took the cornel from Luo Yan's hands and hung it on the door of her own cabin.

    This cornel had been freshly picked from the mountain earlier that day. The bright red, oval berries still shimmered with droplets of water. Looking at the hanging fruits, Rong Shu couldn't help but recall the Chongyang Festival seven days prior.

    Chongyang Festival was a significant holiday in Great Yin. The night before, her mother had even asked if she had celebrated it.

    Rong Shu accepted it gracefully, for she truly did possess such qualities.

    That year's Double Ninth Festival was spent on Pinan Street with Gu Changjin.

    Of course, it wasn't just Gu Changjin; Luo Yan, Shiiun, Chang Ji, and Heng Ping were all present as well.

    Due to Mother Zhang, Rong Shu didn't have much intention of celebrating the festival. However, Chang Ji and Shiiun, skilled in social etiquette, had prepared chrysanthemum wine, Double Ninth Festival cakes, and cornel bags two days in advance.

    In the Great Yin, people would inevitably climb mountains and bid farewell to the greenery on this day, followed by picking cornel, drinking chrysanthemum wine, and eating Double Ninth Festival cakes—none of these customs could be skipped. (1)

    As Rong Shu had just recovered from her illness, she lacked the energy to partake in the traditional mountain-climbing. On the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, she planned to bid Gu Changjin farewell and return to Shen Yuan.

    Unexpectedly, upon opening the door early in the morning, she found a wooden stool reaching up to her calf placed outside.

    Gu Changjin stood outside the door, looking at her and saying, "Step on it."

    She stared at him blankly, momentarily unsure of his intentions.

    Perhaps her puzzled expression appeared amusing, as the man lowered his gaze slightly and smiled, curving his lips. "You can still climb high at home. By stepping on this stool, you'll surely be free from calamities and troubles this year."

    "Today is... when everyone ascends to great heights?" she wondered aloud.

    "Mm," Gu Changjin replied. "Heng Ping and Miss Luo Yan climbed trees this morning, while Shiiun and Chang Ji stepped on rooftop eaves."

    Trees and rooftop eaves...

    Rong Shu opted for a wooden stool.

    The young maiden obediently lifted her skirt and cautiously stepped onto the footstool Gu Changjin had placed outside the door. "How long do we have to 'ascend' to this 'height'?"

    "Half a cup of tea."

    Rong Shu had no intention of staring at Gu Changjin for that long, so she was about to dismiss him when he suddenly said, "Shiiun and Chang Ji have prepared chrysanthemum wine and Double Ninth Festival cakes. Why not return to Shen Yuan tomorrow with Miss Luo Yan?"

    Rong Shu's gaze paused. How did he guess that she wanted to return to Shen Yuan today?

    As if anticipating her response, Gu Changjin added nonchalantly, "Luo Yan's lingering poison has just been cleared. It would be best for her to stay another day to avoid any unforeseen circumstances."

    After a moment of deliberation, Rong Shu had no choice but to say, "Then Sister Luo Yan and I will trouble you here for one more day. Thank you for your hospitality, Your Excellency."


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