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    The young man's gaze was open and fearless, and Emperor Jia Yu met it quietly. After a while, he asked, "Why don't you want to be Xiao Yan?"

    "It's too exhausting and painful to be Xiao Yan," Gu Changjin seemed to hear the voice of that youth again. "When Guardian Ni told me my father was Prince Qiyuan, I was only four years old. Before that, I thought Guardian Ni was my father. I even planned to follow in his footsteps and join the military one day. But when I learned the truth about my origins, that Prince Qiyuan was my biological father, everything changed."

    Gu Changjin took out the jade pendant from his robe. "People say that Prince Qiyuan allowed evil cultists to disrupt the empire and was prone to killing, with the blood of countless innocent children on his hands. I didn't want my father to be such a person, and I often feared that the blood flowing through me would eventually drive me mad as well. I'd rather be the son of a guardian than Xiao Yan, but I had no choice. They were forcing me to be Xiao Yan."

    Emperor Jia Yu already knew who 'they' referred to—Ni Huan and Princess Yun Hua.

    Fixing his gaze on the jade pendant carved with the character 'Yan,' he studied it for a moment before lifting his eyes and speaking softly, "You are not like your father."

    Abandoning the intimidating aura of an emperor, Jia Yu now appeared like a gentle, ordinary elder.

    "I am also not like my predecessor. I know I can never be the kind of emperor he was. One's bloodline doesn't determine who they will become. In this, you are the same as me." A smile tugged at the corner of the emperor's mouth. "Do you hate Princess Yun Hua?"

    "For a time, yes. When Suiguan died of the plague, I took his place, but my aunt still couldn't rest easy. She burned alive those who killed Suiguan," Gu Changjin paused slightly, as if seeing the flames again. "Their deaths were because of me, and I hated my aunt for it. But she was also a pitiful person. She dedicated her life to ensure I could rightfully claim my place as a member of the Xiao family. However, she never understood that I preferred to be Suiguan, walking the path he wanted to take."

    Emperor Jia Yu listened silently.

    "When I said I wanted to join the military like Guardian Ni when we were young, Suiguan told me he wanted to be a top scholar and an upright official," Gu Changjin's eyes wandered into the distance, a hint of a smile in his brows. "I went to the capital to take the imperial examination not because of my aunt's command, but to fulfill Suiguan's dream. To become a top scholar and an upright official."

    Emperor Jiayou smiled faintly. "You have done so already."

    He looked at Gu Changjin and suddenly turned serious. He said solemnly, "You carry the blood of the Xiao family and will inevitably return to your roots. You said you don't wish to be Xiao Yan. Today, I order you to be Xiao Changjin. Xiao Changjin is my second son, the legitimate child of the Empress. Are you willing?"

    This "order" left no room for Gu Changjin to choose.

    Both he and Emperor Jiayou were well aware of this.

    The inner chamber fell silent once again. The emperor, with his gaunt face, gradually wiped the smile from his expression.

    Just as his smile was about to vanish entirely, Gu Changjin finally bowed his head. "This subject obeys the imperial command."

    Emperor Jiayou nodded gently and a hint of a smile returned to his lips. "Leave now. Wang Dehai will take you to the Imperial Hospital, and Grand Censor Sun will tend to your injuries."

    But Gu Changjin didn't rise. Instead, he said, "This subject has one more request, and humbly asks for Your Majesty's favor."

    Meanwhile, on Empress Qi's side, after leaving the main hall, she went to the adjacent side hall. Although it was just a short distance away, she could hear nothing from the main hall.

    Aunt Gui paced back and forth in the side hall with a worried look on her face.

    Empress Qi rubbed her temples and said, "Auntie, please stop pacing; it's making my head spin."

    "Ai, how can this old servant not be anxious when I have no idea what His Majesty is discussing with that person?" Auntie Gui sighed. "I also don't know what the Emperor has in mind. Since he acknowledged the child in front of so many officials, I thought His Majesty had made up his mind to accept him."

    "Exactly because the Emperor acknowledged the child in front of so many ministers, there's no way this matter will change," Empress Qi said, changing into an ordinary robe embroidered with eight coiling phoenix motifs on a stone-blue sheer fabric. She sat on a couch and spoke softly. "Soon, we'll receive news from the main hall."

    As expected, half an hour later, Emperor Jiayou left the Kunning Palace. Immediately after, the Minister of Rites was summoned to the Yanging Hall. Before noon, the news that Prince Xiao Changjin had been found and returned to the palace spread from inside to outside the palace walls.

    Just as Empress Qi finished her lunch, Wang Dehai rushed back to the palace from the Ministry of Rites to meet her at the Kunning Palace.

    "The Emperor asks me to inform Your Majesty that you needn't concern yourself with Second Prince's marriage. His Majesty has his own plans."

    Empress Qi had intended to arrange a marriage for Gu Changjin after he ascended to the Eastern Palace, using it to bind him with the Qi family's former retainers.

    To her surprise, Emperor Jiayou seemed to have seen through her intentions and sent Wang Dehai to convey a message.

    After Wang Dehai left, Empress Qi summoned Auntie Zhu and asked, "I remember that the young lady who was supposed to marry Second Prince was from the Cheng'an Marquis Estate. Check which young lady she was, and why they divorced?"

    After marrying into high-ranking families in the capital, noble ladies became outer court ladies and were registered in the Office of the Ladies. As Auntie Zhu oversaw the Office, it took her less than half a day to return with an answer.

    "The one who married the Second Prince was Rong Shu, the legitimate daughter of Duke Cheng'an. They were wed during last year's Mid-Autumn Festival and separated this March."

    "Iron Empress" Qi murmured the unfamiliar name softly, questioning, "Duke Cheng'an's favored concubine was once the legitimate daughter of former Minister Pei, and I have some recollection of her. But I've never heard about his legal wife or their legitimate daughter, nor have I seen them."

    Granny Zhu replied, "Duke Cheng'an's legal wife is the daughter of a prominent merchant from Yang State Prefecture, Shen Huai. Their relationship has always been rather distant. Their only daughter was sent away to her maternal grandparents in Yang State Prefecture because her birthdate was considered inauspicious and clashed with the elderly matriarch of the family. Your Majesty wouldn't have heard of her."

    Inauspicious birthdate?

    Empress Qi gently furrowed her brow, disliking the idea of sending a child away due to such superstitious reasons. However, no matter how much she disliked it, it was still an internal matter of another family, and even as the Empress, she couldn't easily intervene.

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