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    In one fell swoop, it pierced his heart like a thousand cuts.

    Gu Changjin pressed his face close to hers, tears sliding down the corners of his eyes.

    What should he do, Gu Changjin? She was crying out in pain.

    In a daze, he seemed to see Ah Chai again.

    It had been drugged and lay on the ground, twitching gently with froth at its mouth, its eyes staring blankly.

    It looked at him with a plea in its eyes that had never been there before—its once proud and untamed gaze now filled with despair.

    The mastiff, which had grown up with him since birth and had never shown weakness even to the alpha wolf, was now pitifully begging him to end its suffering.

    As the short dagger pierced its heart, it let out a soft whine, and a tear rolled down from its clear eyes.

    That was Ah Chai bidding him farewell.

    And now, she was crying out in pain.

    She was crying out in pain, Gu Changjin.

    Gu Changjin tightly shut his eyes, suppressing the uncontrollable sobs that escaped between his clenched teeth.

    He raised his cold fingers, gently caressing her bloodied hair with lips that longed for her touch. Then, he softly pressed against the faint pulse behind her ear and whispered into it, "Our Zhaozhao, the pain will be gone now."

    The girl in his arms slowly closed her eyes.

    Gu Changjin released his grip and buried his head in the crook of her neck.

    --- "Gu Yunzhi, if I'm the tail that trails behind, then you'll be the... the big bad wolf."

    --- "There are rules for every season, Gu Yunzhi. I want you to be bound to me for the rest of your life."

    --- "Do you know that affection has an expiration date? Gu Yunzhi, there will come a day when I no longer like you."

    --- "Gu Changjin, don't you have anything to say to me?"

    He loved her so deeply, so profoundly.

    Yet those unspeakable depths of affection and the love buried too deep to utter were forever lost to her ears.

    Gu Changjin held Rong Shu motionlessly, like a statue.

    Thunder rumbled, and the wooden door stood ajar, allowing rainwater to pour in from the veranda.

    Shiiun stepped over the threshold and stood silently behind Gu Changjin. After a long while, he managed to choke out, "Master, Chang Ji is dead."


    The rain ceased, and the clouds dispersed. Dawn's light began to shine from the east.

    Gu Changjin opened his eyes amidst searing pain.

    He stared at the ceiling beams, gasping for air. Suddenly, a sweet sensation rose in his throat, and he vomited a mouthful of blood, which trickled down the corner of his lips.

    A log in the fire crackled, but apart from him, there was no one else in the wooden cabin.

    Gu Changjin burned with fever, his mind muddled. The memory of her dying in his arms intertwined with the memory of her tending to his wounds, causing his temples to throb relentlessly.

    For a moment, the man slowly turned his head to look at the wooden door, enduring the searing pain in his back as he got up from the bed.

    Just then, the door creaked open.

    The young lady, her body damp with morning dew, entered with a crude, chipped wooden basin in hand.

    Her hair, like silk, flowed loosely over her shoulders. Her porcelain-white face still held dewdrops that rolled down like plump pearls, as if she were a newly awakened spirit of the mountain and water. Standing elegantly in the early dawn, her fair skin and beautiful features glowed, her gaze darting around with animated vitality.

    Upon seeing him awake, she raised her eyebrows in surprise, about to ask if he was feeling better when she heard the man in front of her softly call out, "Rong Zhaozhao."

    His voice was hoarse, and his eyes were reddened, their rims seemingly rusted red.

    Rong Shu was taken aback by his call.

    Spotting his pale face, reddened eye sockets, and bloodstained lips, she was even more perplexed. She hesitantly began, "Gu Chang..."

    "I've been to the Sishi Garden."

    Rong Shu was startled.

    Gu Changjin gazed at her, his throat constricted, as if someone was gripping his heart tightly.

    "I heard you crying out in pain."

    Rong Shu clenched the wooden basin in her hands.

    "After I sent you to the Sishi Garden, I went to Yangzhou. When you were in trouble, I was in Wanping County. On the eighth of September in Jiaoyu twenty-three years ago, I didn't receive Chang Ji's letter. By the time I rushed to the Sishi Garden, you had already been given 'Three O'Clock Nightshade.'"

    Looking at her, Gu Changjin said, word by word, "I came too late. I failed to protect you."

    He referred to the Sishi Garden and that fateful ninth of September in Jiaoyu twenty-three years ago.

    Rong Shu's fingers holding the basin trembled slightly. "Gu Changjin, do you know what you're saying?"

    "Yes," Gu Changjin's pale lips curved up slowly. "I often dream about you. In my dreams, we never divorced, and you always lived in the Songsi Courtyard until the seventh of July in Jiaoyu twenty-three years, when I sent you to the Sishi Garden. At first, I thought it was just a dream, but it felt so real that I believed it was another Gu Changjin's memory. Now, I realize it wasn't another Gu Changjin's memory, but mine."

    All the joyful and painful memories he had with her belonged to him.

    "You loved pine nut candy, picking fallen petals for paintings, and sweet wine. After getting drunk, you liked to call me Yunzhi. I planned to make you a longevity noodle dish when I went to fetch you from the Sishi Garden."

    Gu Changjin gazed at Rong Shu with an unwavering determination in his eyes. Barefoot, he stepped towards her, one by one.

    "Rong Zhaozhao, have you ever dreamed of our past? Is that why you insist on divorcing me and leaving Songsi Courtyard without regard for anything? It's because of those dreams that you came to Yangzhou to investigate your uncle and so confidently declared the Cheng'an Marquis Estate guilty."

    With a clatter, the wooden basin in Rong Shu's hands slipped and water splashed across the floor.

    She hurriedly crouched down to retrieve it, but her wrist was gently held by him.

    "Rong Shu—"

    "I haven't had any such dreams," Rong Shu lifted her eyelashes, meeting his intense gaze head-on. She stated firmly, "Gu Changjin, there is no past life between us. Those were just dreams."

    Gu Changjin stared at her intently. After a moment, he lowered his gaze, took her lightly trembling hand in his, and pulled her into his embrace. He inhaled her scent from the tip of her nose, almost greedily absorbing her essence.

    "It doesn't matter whether it was a dream or not, or if you've actually dreamed it. Rong Zhaozhao, let's start anew." His slender fingers, calloused from work, stroked her hair as his thin lips brushed against her earlobe. He whispered softly, "This time, I'll protect you and ensure that no one else hurts you."


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