Although moving with one hand and one leg didn’t pose significant obstacles, it made him stand out during the daytime on the streets.
Fu Nian disliked the stares from passersby, treating him like a freak, so he chose to take a more secluded path.
In less than a quarter of an hour, Fu Nian recognized the city from the streets and the accent of the people around him.
It was a northern town near the border. He had stationed here for almost a year. After a severe injury, Chu Zhaoyi probably feared he was gaining too much power, so he recalled him to the capital. It seemed Chu Zhaoyi was determined to keep him within the palace, never letting him venture out.
Fu Nian realized he was reminiscing about the past again and quickly shifted his focus, attempting to divert his attention to other things.
The carpenter’s shop at noon had few customers. After a quick observation, Fu Nian noticed there was only one person inside the shop.
He silently entered the shop and sneaked up behind the man who was intently carving wood.
“Excuse me.” Fu Nian stood behind him and spoke expressionlessly.
The man, who was carving wood, jumped in surprise. The piece of wood almost slipped from his hand. He turned around and saw a well-featured youth, but his pupils were darker than others’, reflecting minimal light. With his lack of expression, he appeared somewhat lifeless at first glance, exuding a cold aura.
“Cu-customer, what can I do for you?” The carpenter froze for several seconds before managing to force out a smile.
“Have you seen a pair of prosthetics? A hand and a leg, the joints are finely crafted, made from stone.” Fu Nian asked calmly, “A woman sold them to you. For a dozen taels of silver.”
The carpenter hesitated for a moment, struggling to speak.
In that moment of contemplation, he noticed the limp sleeve hanging down Fu Nian’s side, and the lone boot beneath his robe.
“Have you seen enough? If you’re done, could you please answer my earlier question?” Fu Nian glanced at his own empty side and continued speaking.
“Apologies,” the carpenter snapped back to attention, hastily apologizing. He thought to himself that this young man before him wasn’t ordinary; with one hand and one leg, he managed to silently approach from behind without a sound. He was definitely no ordinary person. “I’ve seen them. However…”
Fu Nian prompted, “However?”
“They were… sold,” the carpenter stammered, “Sir, I’m not driven by greed… The person who bought your prosthetics was from the Imperial Army in the capital. They’ve been searching everywhere for these stone prosthetics. They’ve asked the stonemasons and carpenters in several nearby towns and offered high prices for anything similar. When they came to me, I happened to have your prosthetics… I knew they weren’t cheap from the moment I received them from that woman. Before I could fully study them, the Imperial Army came directly, and they gave me ten taels of silver to take the prosthetics away… Not only did I not make a profit, but I also owe that woman a few taels of silver.”
“The Imperial Army? Why would the Imperial Army be interested in those prosthetics?” Fu Nian continued questioning.
“It is said… It is said that the current Emperor…” The carpenter halted midway, suddenly stopping himself. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t say this—”
“Go on. The Emperor wants them?” Fu Nian pressed on.
“Sir, it would be presumptuous for a commoner to speculate about the Emperor’s intentions. Please don’t put me in a difficult position…” the carpenter stammered.
Fu Nian said, “Speak. Speak freely. There’s no one else here besides you and me. If you don’t talk, before the officials come for you, I’ll make sure your head is off.”
The carpenter’s face turned pale upon hearing this threat, but as he looked at the young man before him—swift in movement, with a cold expression—he really did seem capable of carrying out such a threat. So, he lowered his voice and said, “Yes, it’s for the Emperor… The Emperor has been collecting similar prosthetics from all corners of the realm. Rumor has it that it’s for the newly-wed Empress… As for anything else, I don’t know.”
Upon hearing this jarring word, Fu Nian’s heart clenched.
Yes, he had heard about Chu Zhaoyi’s upcoming wedding, which was why he had hurriedly returned to the capital from his fief. But on his journey back…
“Is the current Emperor named Chu Zhaoyi?” Fu Nian’s usually calm voice suddenly grew stimulated as he leaned closer to the carpenter, pressing him for an answer.
“You mustn’t mention the Emperor’s name!” The carpenter’s face turned anxious, and he almost pleaded, “Please, speak more quietly! I beg you!”
Upon hearing this, Fu Nian’s heart sank. “Then, who is the current… Empress? Is it the princess from the Northern Kingdom or the princess from the Western Frontier?”
“I don’t know either…” The carpenter was cornered and had no choice, “No one knows what the Empress looks like. It’s said that since she entered the palace after her marriage, she hasn’t left His Majesty’s chambers. No one knows who she is, what she looks like, or which family she comes from. It’s only been rumored that His Majesty and the Empress have shared joys and sorrows together, and their affection is unwavering…”
The carpenter continued to ramble on, but Fu Nian didn’t pay attention to the rest of what he was saying.
Sharing joys and sorrows with Chu Zhaoyi, an unwavering affection…
After pondering for a moment, Fu Nian realized that he couldn’t remember any such woman by Chu Zhaoyi’s side.
But then he thought again—when he met Chu Zhaoyi, Chu Zhaoyi was already in his teens. Before that, there might have been a chance for innocent young love.
“Sir… Are you alright?” The carpenter saw that Fu Nian went from roaring with anger to looking as wilted as a leaf in a matter of seconds.
“… ” Fu Nian remained silent.
The opportunity for his rebirth came about due to his lingering attachments in the mortal realm.
Apart from repaying the person who had planted the heart-connecting gu on his behalf and checking on his senior brother’s well-being, the matter of Chu Zhaoyi’s grand wedding weighed heavily on his mind.
After all, it was during that sudden onset of poison that he had met his end.
After a moment of silence, Fu Nian finally spoke again, “Thank you for telling me all this.”
With that said, he searched his clothes, hoping to find something of value. However, after a while, he found nothing.
After contemplating for a moment, he asked, “Do you have paper and a pen? Although I can’t repay you at the moment, I can sign a document as a promise—”
“No need, no need. Please don’t mention it,” the carpenter quickly stopped him.
He had already said too much, and he didn’t want any evidence to linger. He didn’t dare to covet even a small amount of wealth now, as it might jeopardize his future.
“Then, is there anything else you need help with? My master taught me that we must repay kindness. While you did sell my prosthetics, I know it was unintentional. When you saw my severed limbs, your first reaction was to apologize and avert your gaze. You even told me about the information I inquired about.” After pausing for a moment, Fu Nian continued, “Within my capabilities, I will do my utmost.”
The carpenter hesitated for a moment and then asked in a low voice, “Are you planning to head south to the capital? Considering your earlier inquiries about the Emperor and your appearance, you seem like a martial practitioner…”
“That’s correct,” Fu Nian didn’t hide his intentions.
He never really cared if others knew of his whereabouts. Even before following Chu Zhaoyi, he was like this. Even if someone knew his plans and movements, they had never been able to thwart him. In fact, many times, he deliberately disclosed his plans, allowing his opponents time to prepare.
However, after joining Chu Zhaoyi, he had started concealing his whereabouts for Chu Zhaoyi’s safety.
“In that case… I have a small and earnest request,” the carpenter sighed, “My son is about to travel south to the capital for his studies. He has been frail since childhood, and I fear he might encounter difficulties on the journey. Could you kindly accompany him? Of course, you won’t need to worry about transportation, accommodations, or other expenses along the way. Everything will be taken care of.”
Fu Nian didn’t rush to respond.
He was currently empty-handed, and without his prosthetics, traveling back to the capital exposed to the elements posed a significant challenge. While returning to his previous occupation was an option, he had returned this time to atone for his past actions. He wasn’t afraid of becoming a wandering spirit or ghost, but he feared that if he resumed his old ways, he might never achieve closure and be trapped in this realm forever.
Whether this was an act of generosity or a trap, he could only give it a try.
After all, it was quite challenging for an ordinary person to kill him using ordinary means.
Fu Nian: “Alright, when do we depart?”
“In two days. During these two days, my son will be busy saying goodbye to relatives and mentors. I hope you can be patient. Also, if you don’t mind, you’re welcome to stay at my house temporarily.”
“No trouble at all.” Fu Nian replied and then bowed to show his gratitude.
During the few days of temporary residence at the carpenter’s place, Fu Nian remained active. Even though he hadn’t spoken to the carpenter, he took it upon himself to feed and groom the horses, clean the yard of pests and weeds, fetch water and cook, and even go out hunting. In addition to these tasks, Fu Nian also repaired the collapsed walls of the courtyard.
Fu Nian never could have imagined that a significant portion of his life had been spent taking lives, only to find himself doing these tasks one day.
The day they set out was overcast and rainy.
It wasn’t until the two hours before the journey that Fu Nian finally saw the son of the carpenter, as mentioned by the carpenter himself.
Though the young man was already sixteen, his face was still round, his features delicate, and if not for his attire, one might mistake him for a young master from a wealthy family.
Upon their first meeting, before Fu Nian could even speak, he heard the young man ask in a straightforward manner, “I am Pei Zhou. May I inquire about your honorable name, sir?”
Glancing at the surrounding vegetation and moss, Fu Nian casually replied, “Cang Er.”
“What’s your surname?”
“Without surname.” Fu Nian’s answer was concise.
The name Fu Nian… Every time it was mentioned, people associated it with Chu Zhaoyi’s mad dog, the dog that would bite anyone but the master without hesitation.
While he was by Chu Zhaoyi’s side, Fu Nian had been willing to accept the title of “mad dog.” After leaving Chu Zhaoyi, he had been trying to shed this stereotype, but even in death, he hadn’t succeeded.
Since he had been reborn, he naturally intended to adopt a name that truly belonged to him.
“Alright, then I’ll trouble you on this journey,” the youth said with a pleasant smile, then climbed into the dilapidated carriage.
Fu Nian remained silent, bid farewell to the old carpenter, and followed the youth into the carriage.
As the carriage left the city, Fu Nian briefly considered swapping positions with the coachman. He might be able to drive the carriage himself, making the journey quicker. However, he soon decided against it, remembering that the carpenter had mentioned the young man’s fragile health, suggesting that he might not withstand too much jostling.
After a period of silence, Fu Nian finally heard the young man opposite him speak up, “Oh, right, my father asked me to give this to you.”
Fu Nian looked up and saw the young man producing two meticulously polished and well-varnished wooden sticks, resembling human bones.
It was a pair of prosthetics.
The leg prosthetic was obviously hastily made, but the arm… although its craftsmanship couldn’t compare to Fu Nian’s previous intricate stone prosthetic, and its range of joint movement was limited, it was evident that care had been put into its creation.
Seeing that Fu Nian was looking at him, the young man chuckled sheepishly, revealing a pair of small tiger teeth and faint dimples. “It might not fit perfectly, but it’s better than nothing. My older brother was just like you… not physically perfect. He was missing an arm. He disappeared when I was young. My mother was heartbroken, she cried for years, and eventually, she followed him… My father, on the other hand, always believed that my brother would return, so he kept making various prosthetics for him. It’s fortunate that we met; he picked one that matches your physique and brought it along. The arm prosthetic is ready today, and it should be usable.”
Fu Nian was taken aback.
No wonder he hadn’t been called a freak this time, for once.
“Thank… Thank you,” Fu Nian hesitated for a moment before accepting the prosthetic from the young man’s hand.
Fu Nian quickly attached the arm prosthetic, and although he struggled a bit with the leg prosthetic, after a few adjustments, he managed to put it on.
Fu Nian tested the movement of his hand.
Aside from the joints being somewhat stiff and emitting squeaky sounds, there was nothing else wrong with them.
“On this journey, I will obey your father’s orders and protect you well,” Fu Nian promised coldly as he looked at his new hand. He wasn’t sure how to express his deep gratitude with words, so he would try his best to convey it through actions.
Pei Zhou noticed Fu Nian’s solemn expression and continued with concern, “Understood. By the way… you don’t quite look like you’re heading for the Imperial Exam. What are you going to do in the capital?”