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    Rong Shu drew in a sharp breath.

    Earlier, when they were in the water, had he been protecting her back to prevent her from getting hurt?

    She clenched the small flask in her hand and knelt behind him, reaching out to touch the sharp piece of metal on his back. She whispered, "Gu Changjin, bear with it."

    Gu Changjin groaned softly. His consciousness was already fading, but he was forcing himself to stay awake, not wanting her to worry. Sensing that she was removing the metal, he moved his hand to take off his upper garment.

    The strong alcohol flowed slowly over the wound, yet he didn't show any sign of pain. He handed her the red-hot dagger and said, "Burn each wound separately. It's the fastest way to stop the bleeding."

    As he spoke, he added in a low voice, "Be careful not to burn yourself."

    Some of his blood had stained Rong Shu's chin. She wiped it hastily and, looking at the glowing dagger in the fire, took a deep breath before calmly pressing it onto the spot where the metal had pierced his skin.

    With a hiss, the blood from the wound coagulated.

    The wooden cabin was small, and the warmth from the fire soon made the enclosed space feel like spring. The blazing logs crackled and sparked, casting flickering light.

    Gu Changjin's vision began to blur as the flames before his eyes doubled and then tripled. His eyelids felt heavy as lead, but he knew he couldn't sleep – not just yet.

    For a long while, only when the girl behind him softly said, "It's done," did Gu Changjin finally give in. His eyes closed, and he slumped forward.

    His consciousness felt trapped in quicksand, sluggish and numb.

    Time seemed to have halted at a particular moment, yet it also raced by like a torrent unleashed, flooding one instant with an ocean and the next with a field of reeds.

    A gentle pattering of rain roused him from this endless haze.

    Raindrops fell in a dense flurry, thickening the curtain of water beneath the eaves.

    Looking down, Gu Changjin noticed that his clothes were dry. Chang Ji had rushed through the Moon Cave Gate and approached, panting. "Master, Madam went to the Dali Temple Prison. The guards there wouldn't let this servant enter."

    In that instant, countless memories flooded his mind.

    Upon returning from Qingzhou, he was immediately summoned to the main hall of the Kunning Palace by Xie Hushen. The emperor and empress sat inside, accompanied by Prime Minister Xing Shicong, Left censor-in-chief Meng Zong, Academician Lin Ci from the Hanlin Academy, Chief Justice Li Meng of the Dali Temple, and all six ministers.

    As Gu Changjin stepped into the main hall, all eyes were on him.

    Emperor Jiayou looked at him and said calmly, "Draw blood."

    The head of the Imperial Hospital, Sun Bailong, promptly stepped forward and used a silver needle to extract a drop of blood from both Emperor Jiayou and Prince Gu Changjin, placing them into a jade bowl and gently stirring the contents.

    Silence fell upon the hall, so still that even the sound of a pin dropping could be heard.

    Prince Gu Changjin kept his eyes lowered as he knelt on the ground. Before entering the palace, he had already consumed the secret medicine left behind by the elderly imperial physician. Now, whether his plan succeeded or failed was left to fate.

    He only hoped that Chang Ji would find her soon. If not, there was still a chance to smuggle her out through the secret passage in the Sishi Garden and into the forbidden area of Daci'en Temple.

    After a short while, light footsteps sounded nearby.

    Sun Bailong raised the white jade bowl above his head, presenting it before the emperor and empress. He bowed respectfully and announced, "Your Majesties, the blood has merged."

    Upon hearing Sun Bailong's words, Empress Qi shot up from her seat and walked over to Prince Gu Changjin. She took his hand gently and called out, "My child."

    Prince Gu Changjin, startled, rose to his feet and lifted his gaze to meet the emperor sitting high above.

    Emaciated Emperor Jiayou was also staring at him intently.

    His gaze was deep and gentle as it slowly scanned Prince Gu Changjin's face, as if trying to discern the familiar contours beneath it.

    For a long moment, he turned his gaze to the newly appointed Minister of Rites and spoke in a gentle voice, "Instruct the Imperial Astronomer to choose an auspicious day to solemnly welcome the Crown Prince back to court."

    The words "Crown Prince" were like a thunderbolt, stunning even Empress Qi who looked at Emperor Jia Yu in shock.

    Within half an hour, the news that Gu Changjin was the son of Empress Gu spread throughout the entire court.

    The Qi family was surrounded by the Imperial Guards and the Palace Guards, arrested for disrupting the royal lineage. The former Second Prince was also confined by Emperor Jia Yu in an imperial retreat, with no one allowed to visit him.

    As he left the Kunning Palace, Gu Changjin was no longer the Gu Changjin from Wutong Lane; he was now Crown Prince Xiao Changjin of Great Yin.

    The palace attendants held umbrellas over him respectfully, while the rumble of thunder echoed through the majestic and solemn palace grounds.

    Behind him, Nanny Zhu followed and said respectfully, "Empress Dowager has taken note of your filial piety and specially instructed this servant to escort you back to Wutong Lane to bid farewell to your foster mother."

    Gu Changjin glanced at the unfamiliar palace nanny and replied, "Thank you for your trouble."

    The carriage, adorned with hexagonal palace lanterns, hurried along the corridor. Gu Changjin recalled everything that had just transpired in the hall. When Emperor Jia Yu declared him as the "Crown Prince," two individuals remained calm: the Left Supreme Censor Meng Zong and the Grand Secretary of the Academy, Lin Ci.

    It seemed that these two had already anticipated that Emperor Jia Yu would appoint him as the Crown Prince today.

    Perhaps it could be said that the current situation was the result of their behind-the-scenes maneuvering, forming a separate faction among the literati to secretly aid him.

    Gu Changjin's palm rested on the jade pendant hidden in his clothes, and the old physician's words echoed in his ears once more.

    "That imperial city is the most exalted yet cruelest place in this world." The old physician held a white chess piece, his wise eyes gazing at him thoughtfully as he said, "Child, do you know what path you're walking?"

    "Yan'er knows." The young boy with refined features held a white jade chess box, his expression calm as he made a move.

    The old physician looked at the new chess piece on the board and sighed. "The road you walk is too difficult."

    It was indeed challenging; every step had to be precise. One misstep would lead to a cascade of errors. Now, he only had one final move left.

    Gu Changjin lifted the carriage curtain, gazing at the capital, drowned in thunder and rain, his gaze cold.

    Only by reaching that position would he exact the ultimate revenge on Xu Fu.

    Emperor Jia'you's health wouldn't last much longer. With the Qi family's fall, Empress Qi acknowledging him was to protect the remaining Qi family members beyond Qi Heng and the second prince.

    Those who had previously supported the second prince would now rally behind him, including the Qi family's former loyalists.

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