“Speak up. Perhaps I’ve been too lenient with you, allowing you to embezzle even these items?”
Normally, at this hour, this busy individual would be immovably present in Chengyuan Hall, handling state affairs.
Unless there was something exceptionally important and urgent, it was rare to disturb this “Buddha” from his seat.
To think that just a blade was enough…
Fu Nian had never seen Chu Zhaoyi value an object so much.
Although weapons at hand were as precious as a loyal wife, Fu Nian didn’t want to lose his head over this matter.
If the search was intense… it might be better to return it and keep his head safe.
Even with a weapon as handy as this, thinking about it being a symbol of their past love made it feel less so.
“…I dare not. Truly, I don’t dare. They’ve only searched one courtyard of guards so far; what if he resides elsewhere…”
“If it can’t be found, I’ll hold you accountable.” The harsh voice continued, then turned to a nearby eunuch and ordered, “Note down the names of the missing guards in this courtyard and proceed to the next courtyard for Chu Yao’s identification.”
Fu Nian let out a sigh of relief.
Listening to the receding footsteps, Fu Nian emerged from behind the water barrel.
Just as he emerged, he heard the eunuch call his name from outside, “Lian Nian! Has Lian Nian returned?”
Fu Nian immediately discarded the idea of leaving and instead followed the semi-open part of the bathhouse, deftly climbing over the courtyard wall.
Avoiding the guards’ quarters and the places where shadow guards might be lurking, Fu Nian arrived at a bustling courtyard before daring to jump down from the wall.
Seeing the young guards crowded together, each occupying a sleeping mat, it seemed like a temporary residence for the new palace guards.
As Fu Nian was considering his next hiding place…
“Why did you take so long to come back?”
Before he could react, a clear voice suddenly sounded from beside him.
Fu Nian instinctively reached for a hidden weapon, only to find his hand empty. He turned his head and realized it was the same young man he had met earlier in the queue.
Seeing the young man struggling to carry a washbasin in his hands, with a somewhat forced smile on his face, Fu Nian relaxed his guard slightly.
“I…” Fu Nian quickly lowered his hand to his side, concealing his earlier movement to reach for the hidden weapon.
Since he had been discovered, he had two options: either bring this young man into the fold or…
Fu Nian glanced at the obedient Rendong and said, “Is there a hiding place around here? I can help you wash these clothes later.”
“Hiding place? What’s wrong with you?” Rendong asked curiously, putting down the washbasin.
Fu Nian quickly improvised, “I owe money. Unexpectedly, I encountered them in the palace. They were about to beat me, so I needed a place to hide. I’m new here and not familiar with the layout. It’s quite a bother. I’ll definitely repay you handsomely once this is resolved.”
“How much money do you owe? I can lend you some—” Rendong offered.
“No need, no need,” Fu Nian hurriedly refused. “Just finding a hiding place is enough.”
Rendong thought for a moment, then walked toward the well with the washbasin in his arms. He pointed to the stones placed around the edge of the well. “You can step on these stones in the well. I’ve seen people who got caught for gambling sneaking out from here.”
“Thanks.” Fu Nian thanked him and promptly stepped onto the raised stones in the well without hesitation.
He could wait here until the search was over.
Based on his past experience, Chu Zhaoyi wouldn’t linger for too long even if he personally conducted a search. In this man’s eyes, nothing could surpass the importance of the grand affairs of the realm.
Fu Nian adjusted his posture and quietly listened to the sounds outside, assessing the situation.
The new prosthetic limb wasn’t a perfect fit, and supporting himself on the stones in the well caused some discomfort. Especially since the wounds had only recently healed, he prayed that he wouldn’t start bleeding again; it would be a hassle to clean up.
After hiding for a while, Fu Nian heard voices from outside the well.
“Did you find the blade from the wanted notice?” The voice was sharp, and Fu Nian immediately recognized it as the brash young man who had thrown a stone at him earlier that day.
“You haven’t finished washing the clothes. Why are you so useless? Hurry up and find that blade. The eunuch is about to search our courtyard. If we’re too late, we won’t have a chance to claim the bounty. Don’t you understand? Without the bounty, your monthly allowance for this month…”
Fu Nian listened in silence.
Since someone was so eager to take this hot potato, he wasn’t really framing anyone. Besides, that person had thrown a stone at him without any explanation earlier…
“Don’t pull my ear! Ouch, that hurts—”
“Did you hear me?”
The commotion above continued. After considering for a moment, Fu Nian decided to remove the blade from the prosthetic limb, calculating the distance and giving it a precise toss. The blade landed right at the edge of the well.
“What’s this? Didn’t you find it? You still want to hide it and take the reward for yourself?” the voice shouted.
Then, he heard the sound of hurried footsteps retreating.
Fu Nian hadn’t expected that this hot potato would be tossed away so easily.
Fu Nian glanced at his empty right arm and inexplicably felt a sense of emptiness within himself. Well, he regarded his sword blade as his wife. Handing his beloved wife over to someone else was undoubtedly an unpleasant feeling, Fu Nian thought to himself.
After a while, Fu Nian heard the sound of Chu Zhaoyi and his entourage entering the courtyard where the new guards were staying. Just as he was considering whether he should find another hiding spot, he suddenly sensed someone peering into the well.
“Come up quickly. The eunuchs are here to search. They say they want to search the body… and it seems that His Majesty is also here. Come out, don’t worry. With so many dignitaries present, your creditor won’t dare to make a move when they see you.”
Before he could even respond, Fu Nian heard the eunuch’s shrill voice, “Whoever’s over there, come here quickly!”
Fu Nian: …
He shouldn’t have lied to Rendong that he was hiding from debt collectors.
“Come, I’ll pull you up,” Rendong said, reaching his hand into the well.
With Rendong leaning in like that, it was difficult for Fu Nian not to be noticed.
After some consideration, Fu Nian thought that crawling out on his own was better than being pulled out. Even though he knew the other party had good intentions, he couldn’t help but feel a bit annoyed.
“Thanks.” Fu Nian coldly grasped the offered hand and climbed out of the well with a somewhat willing expression on his face.
As soon as he got out, Fu Nian heard Rendong start speaking, “Did you see just now? A blade somehow fell right next to me. It looked quite similar to the one in the wanted notice…”
“Mm,” Fu Nian gave a perfunctory response.
As he ran into the courtyard, everyone was kneeling in neat rows. Only one man dressed in a dark gold embroidered dragon robe stood upright in the courtyard, with Li Gonggong, who was covered in dust, standing beside him, hunching over.
“Your Majesty, Chu Yao hasn’t arrived yet. Wait for him to come before identifying—”
“No need. Begin the search directly. When he crawls over is none of our concern. We’ll settle his accounts once he gets here.”
Chu Zhaoyi had indeed arrived. He had actually gone to such lengths for a single blade…
Before Fu Nian could even revel in this misfortune, he was pulled by someone next to him.
Only then did he realize that while everyone else was kneeling, he was the only one standing boldly before the man in the dragon robe.
Fu Nian quickly attempted to kneel down.
Unexpectedly, the new prosthetic limb wasn’t fitting quite right. While his arm was fine, his leg had some difficulty suddenly bending at the knee.
For a moment, he not only failed to kneel, but almost ended up falling to the ground.
Seeing Rendong’s anxious expression, Fu Nian supported himself on the ground and whispered, “The prosthetic, the joint got stuck, and the fabric’s caught…”
The crime of disrespecting the court was certainly lighter than receiving a beheading, but the more anxious he became, the more the fabric stuck inside the prosthetic seemed to resist being pulled out.
Seeing Rendong trying to help, Fu Nian was about to stop him when he suddenly felt his body become weightless.
Immediately afterward, his neck tightened. He was actually lifted up by someone.
“Your Majesty, his leg is a prosthetic. It got stuck just now, it wasn’t intentional disrespect—” Rendong was quick to respond, hastening to explain.
Before Rendong could finish, Chu Zhaoyi coldly interrupted, “This Emperor isn’t blind. I can see.” After saying that, he instructed the guard holding Fu Nian, “Take him inside.”
Fu Nian dared not struggle and could only stiffen his body as he was carried into a storage room by the guard.
When he was finally put down, Fu Nian leaned against the wall for support before managing to stand somewhat steady.
Just as he was about to kneel, he heard the man in front of him speak coldly, “No need for courtesy.”
Only then did Fu Nian dare to maintain his standing posture, but he still hunched his back and didn’t dare to stand upright. “This subordinate apologizes for the disrespect…” Before he could finish his sentence, Fu Nian felt a sharp gaze on him, as if the person in front of him found his words annoying.
Fu Nian obediently shut his mouth.
The sky was already getting dark, but there was still some light in the courtyard. However, the room inside was dim as there were no lights.
Although Fu Nian was accustomed to traveling at night, he hadn’t mastered the art of observing facial expressions in the dark.
“Li Gonggong, when this Emperor was in a deep sleep and couldn’t wake up, was guard Lian Nian once been arranged by Royal Uncle to enter Chengyuan Hall?”
“It’s absolutely true. This servant has checked the records upon arrival,” Li Gonggong responded.
Fu Nian felt the unfriendly tone of the person in front of him, causing his heart to sink even further.
Indeed, they were already suspecting him. Fortunately, he had managed to quickly pass the hot potato to someone else just now.
“Sit.” Chu Zhaoyi’s face remained stern as he pointed at the table in front of him.
Fu Nian hesitated for a moment, then realized that the command was directed at him. He took a step back to the edge of the table, used his hands to steady himself, and then sat down.
The table was high, and as he sat down, he became significantly taller than Chu Zhaoyi.
He could only lower his head and hunch his back as much as possible, not knowing what the sly old fox in front of him was plotting.
As he stared at the ground, Fu Nian suddenly felt his prosthetic limb on his right arm being grabbed.
Immediately after, the man in front of him swiftly untied the cuffs of his sleeves.
“If there’s a search to be conducted, let this servant do it—”
Hearing the indifferent “no need,” Fu Nian hadn’t even had time to react when he felt a large hand slipping inside through the sleeve.
The surroundings were dim and lightless, and Fu Nian didn’t dare to lift his head. However, that hand… inch by inch, it explored his severed limb, the sensation was crystal clear.
“Subordinate, subordinate has never seen the sacred item mentioned in the notice. I have never harbored such intentions…” As he felt the hand sliding up his sleeve, nearly reaching his chest, Fu Nian had to bow his body to prevent the hand from continuing its actions. Clenching his teeth, he spoke in a low voice, “And I have never privately kept anything…”
“Whether you kept something or not is not for you to decide. Sit up straight.” The man in the dragon robe’s command was still cold, leaving no room for retort.
Fu Nian could only sit up straight.
The sensation of that hand was clear and familiar, whether it was the calluses, warmth, or the feeling itself. Even though he knew it was just a routine search, memories involuntarily resurfaced in his mind.
Fu Nian could only try to hold his breath as much as possible, not allowing himself to feel, clenching his left fist, and silently repeating to himself: It’s a dog touching me, the one in front is a dog, it’s a dog…
Thankfully, when the search reached his waist, the hand withdrew in time, not continuing further downward.
Just as he let out a sigh of relief, Fu Nian felt his right leg being grabbed and lifted, and the boot on his prosthetic limb was forcibly removed.
Fu Nian didn’t dare to move at all. While he couldn’t see the person’s expression in front of him, he could imagine just how indecent his current position was.
Feeling the hand slipping into his pants leg and through the prosthetic part, touching the edge of the severed limb, Fu Nian clenched his teeth.
Just as the hand was about to touch the base of his leg, suddenly, Fu Nian heard hurried footsteps from the doorway.
“Report! The blade with the inscription ‘Fuguang’ has been found. The eunuch from the Imperial Secretariat has confirmed it to be the missing Fuguang Blade. The thief has been apprehended. Please deal with it, Your Majesty.”
“Found?” There was surprise in Chu Zhaoyi’s tone. “Who was it found on?”
“Upon inquiry, it was the person recommended by Minister Jiang of the Ministry of Rites, Jiang….”
“Drag him out!” Chu Zhaoyi growled in a low voice.
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Fu Nian heard commotion from outside the room.
Soon, the voice of someone protesting their innocence arrived as expected. “Your Majesty, I have been wronged—”
“Someone gave me the blade. I was on my way to Chengyuan Hall to report it when Your Majesty arrived—”
“I am truly innocent—”
Before they could finish protesting, their voice abruptly stopped.
Fu Nian maintained an expressionless face as he listened, hesitating for a while before speaking. “Indeed, it was not stolen by me…”
Having gently reminded the situation, Fu Nian felt that the hand still hadn’t left his pants leg, and his forehead was now sweaty.
He certainly couldn’t openly ask, “Your Majesty, could you please move your hand from my leg?”