Shi Qianshan noticed the two of them deep in thought and casually said, “Although I am new to this esteemed place, I have heard quite a bit about Master Tao. One particularly interesting piece of information is about a certain magistrate.”

Tao Mo was startled and looked up.

Old Tao watched him cautiously.

Shi Qianshan grinned and said, “But it’s just hearsay, most likely not true, right?” His face was round, and when he smiled, his skin pushed upward, making his cheekbones more prominent, round and shiny, indescribably comical.

Old Tao asked cautiously, “What did you hear?”

Shi Qianshan replied, “I heard that a while ago, Master Tao was invited to the magistrate’s yamen in Tan City. Is this true?”

Old Tao secretly breathed a sigh of relief and said, “The magistrate of Tan City is my young master’s immediate superior. It’s normal for him to visit the magistrate’s yamen.”

Shi Qianshan laughed, “I see. It seems I was overthinking. I heard rumors in the streets about being imprisoned, and I thought Master Tao had a conflict with the magistrate. Now that I think about it, I must have heard it wrong. Please forgive me, Master Tao.”

Tao Mo was not good at lying and could only bow his head and remain silent.

Shi Qianshan continued, “But if that’s the case, it seems that Master Tao hasn’t offended anyone and there wouldn’t be anyone wanting to harm him. So, my previous speculation is invalid. It seems that it’s not someone wanting to harm both of us, but rather someone solely targeting me.”

Old Tao quickly said, “Do you know who it might be?”

Shi Qianshan scratched his round chin with his round fingers and said, “Unlike Master Tao, I have offended countless people in my lifetime. If I were to name just a few, it wouldn’t be easy.”

Old Tao asked, “Didn’t you say earlier that your friend is from the imperial family in the capital?”

Shi Qianshan confirmed, “Indeed.”

Old Tao asked, “Which member of the imperial family?”

Shi Qianshan teased, “Do you really want to know?”

Old Tao replied, “Yes.” He knew that Shi Qianshan was trying to pique their curiosity, and it was difficult for them to distance themselves from the matter once someone had targeted Tao Mo. It was better to understand each other than to confront in secret.

Shi Qianshan glanced at Tao Mo and said, “Does Master Tao also want to know?”

Tao Mo replied, “I want to solve the case as soon as possible.”

Shi Qianshan said, “In that case, I’ll tell you. That person is the Ninth Prince, who is currently the emperor’s favorite.”

Upon hearing that it was a prince, Tao Mo’s expression changed. The highest-ranking official he had encountered in his life was a magistrate. A prince was as distant as the moon in the sky.

Old Tao, on the other hand, remained calm. He had prepared himself when he heard Shi Qianshan mention the imperial family.

Shi Qianshan said, “However, this matter is most likely directed at me, so both of you need not worry.”

Old Tao said, “But I just heard you say that this case might be targeting both you and the young master.”

Shi Qianshan replied, “I originally thought that Master Tao had offended someone, which is why they deliberately chose your territory to frame me. Now it seems that Master Tao is simply unlucky, getting caught up in my troubles.”

Tao Mo listened to his candid words and couldn’t pretend to be ignorant anymore. He said, “It could also be because of my connections.”

Shi Qianshan widened his eyes as if to express his surprise. “How did that come about?”

Tao Mo looked at Old Tao.

Old Tao said, “I wonder if Mr. Shi has heard of Huang Guangde?”

A glint flashed in Shi Qianshan’s eyes, and he leaned back slightly against the chair, smiling faintly. “I have heard of him.”

Old Tao said, “He had some grievances with the young master.”

Shi Qianshan said, “With that said, I have some clues now.”

Old Tao asked, “Please tell us more.”

Shi Qianshan said, “I’ll be frank with you. After spending so many years in the capital, I’m quite knowledgeable about the affairs there. Although Huang Guangde is just a magistrate, his network of contacts in the capital is broader than many governors.”

Tao Mo and Old Tao both looked at him eagerly.

Shi Qianshan continued, “It’s not uncommon for people from the Ninth Prince’s residence to have dealings with him.”

Old Tao said, “Are you implying that Huang Guangde and the Ninth Prince are behind all of this? But why would a Ninth Prince resort to such despicable methods to trap you?”

Shi Qianshan smiled wryly and said, “I don’t ask why you have a conflict with Huang Guangde, and you don’t need to ask about my grievances with the Ninth Prince.”

Suddenly, Tao Mo spoke up, “I want to solve the case, not delve into the past. If you don’t want to speak, I won’t force you. However, this case is full of suspicions, and it’s not in your favor. If you can’t provide a reasonable explanation, it will be difficult for you to extricate yourself.”

Old Tao looked at Tao Mo in surprise. Just a moment ago, he almost fell into Shi Qianshan’s trap, but Tao Mo remained so clear-headed.

Shi Qianshan sighed, “I made a foolish mistake after drinking and offended the Ninth Prince. As for the specifics of the offense… if the Ninth Prince were to know that you know about it, he wouldn’t spare you either.”

Old Tao said, “So, according to your understanding, the Ninth Prince wanted to punish you and sent a trusted subordinate to scheme against you. It just so happened that this subordinate was acquainted with Huang Guangde, so they devised a plan that served both purposes—to trap you and to anger our young master, thus incurring the wrath of Master Shi?”

Shi Qianshan said, “That’s how it seems.”

Old Tao asked, “But how could Huang Guangde dare to offend Master Shi?”

Shi Qianshan lowered his head, sighing as if full of regret. “Uncle Bo has more than one nephew.”

Old Tao said, “But you are his most beloved nephew.”

“Beloved?” Shi Qianshan chuckled self-mockingly. “The reason he favored me was because of Yao Guang. Now that Yao Guang is dead, whenever he sees me, he thinks of Yao Guang and feels overwhelming sadness and pain. How could he still favor me?”

Old Tao was surprised. He never expected such an insider story.

Shi Qianshan said, “Enough of these troublesome matters. If Master Tao has anything else you want to know, I will surely tell you everything.”

Tao Mo said, “How can we find the Ninth Prince’s trusted subordinate?”

Shi Qianshan hesitated and asked, “Do you want to find him as a witness?”

Tao Mo replied, “He is a crucial piece of evidence.”

Shi Qianshan said, “Although that may be the case, I advise Master Tao to give up on that approach. The Ninth Prince is the emperor’s most beloved son, and his temperament is inevitably arrogant. If he wants to punish me, I will endure silently. But if you target his residence, it’s likely to implicate you.”

Tao Mo said, “If we can’t find evidence to clear your name, you may end up being accused of adultery and murder.”

Shi Qianshan fell silent and said, “If we truly can’t find evidence to clear my name, then so be it.”

Tao Mo was astonished.

“Besides, even if Uncle Bo despises me, he wouldn’t allow the reputation of our entire family to be tarnished.” Although he didn’t say it explicitly, his meaning was clear. As a last resort, Master Shi would definitely intervene to protect him.

Old Tao said, “Aren’t you afraid that the Ninth Prince will obstruct your efforts?”

Shi Qianshan sighed helplessly. “In his eyes, I am just a pawn he can summon and dismiss at will. If he feels like toying with me, he won’t go too far at once, so as not to lose the pleasure next time.”

Old Tao frowned. Judging from his tone, it seemed that he had quite a grudge against that Ninth Prince.

Shi Qianshan said, “Of course, I don’t want to alarm Uncle Bo if I can avoid it.”

Old Tao said, “If that’s the case, you should reveal everything you know.”

Shi Qianshan said, “I have already said a lot.”

Old Tao didn’t speak but silently stared at him, as if trying to dig out all the secrets from his face.

Shi Qianshan sighed and said, “Very well. Since it has come to this, I won’t keep any more secrets. Among Huang Guangde’s connections in the capital, there are also a few of my cousins. Before coming to Tanyang County, I had heard some rumors about the conflicts between you and Huang Guangde. I assure you, if Master Tao can help me clear my name, I will wholeheartedly assist in punishing evil and upholding justice for Master Tao.”

After leaving the inn, Tao Mo asked Old Tao, “Do you believe he is innocent?”

Old Tao said, “Although he spoke sincerely, there were still some things left unsaid. Since he knew about the conflicts between Huang Guangde and the young master, how could he not know about Gu She and the young master? Perhaps his grudge with the Ninth Prince is real, and he was indeed set up, but it’s unclear whether he was knowingly set up.”

Tao Mo asked, “What do you mean?”

Old Tao said, “I think… he willingly fell into this trap.” This also explained why he didn’t intervene when Wu Gu was in danger and why he cooperated so well in court. He already knew everything. “The Ninth Prince set the trap, and he jumped into it willingly. Huang Guangde may be real or may be fake. He intentionally involved him, hoping that the young master would clear his name.”

Tao Mo asked, “So, how can I prove his innocence?”

Old Tao said, “Young master doesn’t need to prove his innocence. Just stick to the original plan and uncover the truth of the case.” Unspoken was the fact that with Shi Qianshan’s identity, even if the truth couldn’t be found, Master Shi would still have Master Tao’s support. The only concern was whether Master Shi would be angry at Tao Mo because of this.

Suddenly, a carriage stopped in front of them.

Gu Xiaojia sat on the carriage shaft, smiling at them.

Tao Mo’s eyes lit up as he rushed forward to lift the curtain, but his hand abruptly pulled back, and he softly said, “Xianzhi, we still cannot meet.”