“Your praise is too kind, too kind. With such a compliment, I shall accept it,” Fu Zhen responded shamelessly after hearing Fu Nian’s words, laughing heartily.
After his laughter subsided, he suddenly lowered his voice, leaned closer to Fu Nian’s ear, and hissed, “The person who last praised and belittled at the same time has already been mixed into the feed for the imperial beasts. I advise you to speak your mind clearly in the future.”
Fu Nian stood still, his expression unchanged.
Threatening words were something Fu Nian had developed a callous ear for since he was young, all learned from this man.
But after a moment of contemplation, Fu Nian thought it would still be best to convey some fear.
“It sounds really terrifying,” Fu Nian said in a calm tone.
“…” Why wasn’t Senior Brother saying anything? Clearly, he acted frightened just now.
After a long silence, Fu Nian thought it over and decided that directly criticizing the other’s handwriting as excessively messy might hinder future cooperation. “My literacy skills are limited. Could you please read it for me, Lord?” After speaking, Fu Nian respectfully handed back the stack of prescriptions with both hands.
“Sure, but for an extra fee.”
“Alright.” Fu Nian didn’t object, agreeing readily.
From childhood to now, Fu Nian had always found it incredible that even though no one else could read Senior Brother’s handwriting, when Senior Brother read it aloud himself, he could smoothly interpret it.
For so many years, his appearance, voice, and personality had all changed drastically, but whenever Fu Nian saw his handwriting on paper, he could confirm that the person in front of him was indeed Senior Brother.
As he listened to Fu Zhen meticulously reading the prescriptions, Fu Nian simultaneously tried to identify any suspicious points.
However, by the time the last piece of paper was read, Fu Nian hadn’t detected anything odd.
It seemed that Ze Wang’s illness was truly like that of a fragile and sickly child from a young age, and they had been using frost-cold ginseng as a medicine from his childhood.
“Finished reading. Won’t charge much, just an extra fifty taels of silver.”
“Alright.” Fu Nian was lost in thought, so he didn’t think much before agreeing.
Perhaps frost-cold ginseng was indeed only used to treat ordinary old illnesses? But it didn’t make sense to gather almost all the frost-cold ginseng in the world and bring it into the palace…
After pondering for a while, Fu Nian decided to break out of this peculiar thought loop. Not everyone who took frost-cold ginseng on a regular basis was necessarily the one he was looking for; he should seek other clues.
“Thank you.” After thinking for a while, Fu Nian expressed his gratitude, “There’s another matter I’d like to request your help with, but I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to mention.”
“Clear your debt from this time first, and then bring up the next request,” Fu Zhen preempted without waiting for Fu Nian to speak.
“I understand.” Fu Nian had no complaints about this arrangement. However, the fifty taels of silver seemed to have been wasted, as he hadn’t gained any useful information. It made him feel a bit regretful. “About that book earlier… I was curious—”
Before Fu Nian could finish, the figure in front of him had disappeared from sight. He could only sigh.
Perhaps it really was a taboo, something that couldn’t be seen.
After bidding farewell to Senior Brother, Fu Nian’s mind was preoccupied with where to find so much money.
In the short term, aside from the martial arts competition during the Mid-Autumn Festival, there didn’t seem to be any legitimate means.
But he truly wanted to pay off the debt so he could ask for help with the next task.
He had to see the true face of the Empress, who was deeply in love with Chu Zhaoyi and hadn’t left the palace since their grand wedding.
At present, judging by the grasp capacity of this prosthetic limb, he couldn’t infiltrate silently. Even if he took advantage of Chu Zhaoyi leaving the palace, sneaking in wouldn’t guarantee success.
With a heart full of regret and frustration, coupled with Fu Nian’s habitual light sleep, he hadn’t slept well for several days.
Fortunately, the Mid-Autumn Festival was approaching, and the Emperor had kindly granted second-ranked and below guards two days of leave.
Work had ended early today, and after finishing, Fu Nian didn’t rush back. Instead, he jogged over to the notice board and carefully read the details about the martial arts competition during the Mid-Autumn Festival.
On-site registration was required, and the rule was to wear a bell on the right shoulder. Whoever had their bell knocked off first would lose. All weapons would be wooden. The venue was the Imperial Training Grounds to the west of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, and the competition would start on the day of the Mid-Autumn Festival before the hour of si on the Chinese traditional time system.
After reading it three times, Fu Nian finally moved his gaze away from the notice.
Since it was on the day of the Mid-Autumn Festival, and it wasn’t mentioned that the busy person in question would be attending in person… After some thought, Fu Nian recalled that during past Mid-Autumn Festivals, Chu Zhaoyi had rarely made an appearance… Besides, Senior Brother didn’t seem like someone with free time. Plus, since they were all using long wooden weapons, the majority of his accustomed blade techniques would have to be discarded.
With these considerations in mind, Fu Nian realized that money was more important.
On the day of the Mid-Autumn Festival, Fu Nian arrived at the training grounds early, went to the judge’s stand to register, and after receiving a bell and a cord, he hadn’t even had the chance to select a long weapon to practice with.
“Lian Nian! Didn’t you say you weren’t going to participate?” A familiar voice suddenly sounded from behind.
Fu Nian didn’t turn around, but he recognized that it was Rendong.
He had come earlier specifically to avoid encountering people he knew, but ironically, he had been caught red-handed.
“Yeah… considering there’s nothing else to do during the Mid-Autumn Festival, and since so many skilled people from the palace are participating, the important thing is to join in. With my limited skill, if I can win one or two rounds, I’ll be lucky.”
“I knew you’d come. I believe in you,” Rendong said, then paused for a moment, hurriedly searching his sleeves. After rummaging around for a while, he pulled out a sharp-edged stone. “Here, I found this specially over the past few days. A senior who entered the palace first mentioned that although the weapons are made of wood, sharpening them a bit can improve your chances. The bells on the shoulders are tied with ropes, and it requires a lot of force to knock them down directly. If you make the blade sharper, it can cut the ropes during combat.”
Fu Nian looked at the stone in Rendong’s hand. While he knew the other person meant well, he still didn’t reach out to take it.
When facing a regular palace guard in combat, he didn’t need such tricks. Even if the opponent had a real weapon, he was confident he could handle it barehanded without being struck.
“Thanks, but it’s not necessary. I’m not comfortable with these sorts of manipulations in combat,” Fu Nian said politely.
“I know you’re straightforward, but since everyone else is sharpening their wooden weapons, I’m afraid you might be at a disadvantage.”
Describing him as straightforward, it was the first time Fu Nian had heard someone describe him that way.
It seemed that for now, he was still successfully concealing his true identity among his colleagues.
“No worries, I came here out of curiosity to give it a try. Winning or losing is just normal; I’ll take it as it comes.”
After speaking, Rendong made a face and casually threw the stone into an unoccupied area in the distance.
“Did you specifically pick this up for me?” Seeing how determined Rendong was about throwing the stone, Fu Nian couldn’t help but ask curiously.
Rendong: “Of course, why else?”
Fu Nian didn’t rush to respond.
Could someone genuinely consider his well-being without expecting anything in return?
After thinking it over, Fu Nian realized that he hadn’t done anything favorable for Rendong, and he didn’t possess any value that could be exploited by the other person.
“Why… are you so concerned about me?” Fu Nian hesitated and asked.
Rendong answered without hesitation, “Because you’ve been kind to me.”
After speaking, Rendong suddenly lowered his voice and whispered, “Big Brother Lian, about that incident with the Fuguang Blade… Did you deliberately throw the blade next to me for that person surnamed Jiang to pick up?”
Fu Nian frowned upon hearing this.
So even Rendong knew… Despite his usual appearance of not being too bright and easily bullied.
“Such a precious item couldn’t just appear near me out of nowhere. At that time, I guessed it was you, but since you didn’t bring it up afterward, I thought maybe you had some hidden difficulties…”
In the past, someone as clever as Rendong would usually be the first one Fu Nian took action against to prevent future troubles.
“I didn’t do anything so unnecessary.” After thinking for a while, Fu Nian denied it unequivocally. “I haven’t helped you with anything either.”
“Then let’s just assume I got it wrong.” Seeing Fu Nian not admitting to it, Rendong didn’t press further and retreated a few steps, raising his head and saying, “You continue preparing, Big Brother Lian. I’ll go rest over there!”
Fu Nian didn’t respond, watching Rendong run off.
From the beginning, Fu Nian hadn’t expected the incident with the Fuguang Blade to be a seamless cover, but Rendong knowing the truth, enduring silently without telling anyone, and even reciprocating kindness, was something Fu Nian hadn’t anticipated.
Turning his head, Fu Nian looked at Rendong, who had already blended into the crowd, playfully roughhousing with a few peers.
Having suffered from the betrayal of those who weren’t loyal to him in his previous life, Fu Nian intended to avoid repeating the same mistake this time.
“Next up, Lian Nian! Feng Dashan!”
Fu Nian was in the middle of practicing his blade techniques when he suddenly heard the judge on the platform call his name.
He steadied the bell on his shoulder and walked confidently towards the platform after picking up the wooden weapon he would be using for the match. After saluting each other, Fu Nian and his opponent, a taller man, awaited the judge’s command in silence.
As the gong and drums sounded, Fu Nian gripped the front half of the wooden weapon and attacked his opponent as if it were a short blade.
Having observed from the sidelines for a long time, Fu Nian had noticed that everyone else was holding the wooden weapons by the middle or back end, very few like him, holding the front end and using it like a short blade.
During the first exchange, Fu Nian had roughly gauged his opponent’s strength.
Just a palace guard.
For the next move, Fu Nian forcefully aimed at the bell on the opponent’s shoulder. Relying on brute strength, he managed to knock the bell straight off his opponent’s shoulder.
As the gong and drums sounded again, Fu Nian put down his wooden weapon and straightened his clothes.
“Lian Nian wins!” the judge declared, prompting loud cheers from below.
Fu Nian didn’t react much, he collected his waist token and walked off the platform.
The subsequent matches continued in the same pattern.
“Lian Nian wins!”
“Lian Nian wins!”
“Lian Nian wins…”
When there were only eight people left, the judge announced a brief halftime.
Fu Nian also didn’t engage in conversation with anyone, choosing to sit quietly in a corner beneath the platform, waiting for the next round to begin.
He hadn’t been sitting there for long when Fu Nian heard the voice and looked up.
“Why did you come?”
“Here! When it started, I picked up the sharpened stone again, traded it with someone for a bag of sour plum soup. But it’s sweetened.”
Following this, Fu Nian saw a water pouch placed in front of him.
“Thanks for your kindness.” Fu Nian remained instinctively cautious of unfamiliar food, so he had to find an excuse, “Sweet things can make my throat uncomfortable; I still have more matches to fight. I’ll drink it after the competition…”
“Yeah, you’re right.” Rendong didn’t suspect anything, he took the water pouch back and drank a few sips on his own, saying, “I’ll try to leave you a few sips, it’s really tasty.”
After finishing the sour plum soup, Rendong continued, “By the way, I heard them saying that the Emperor will come to watch the competition later.”
Fu Nian’s heart sank.
This year’s Mid-Autumnn Festival, Emperor Chu Zhaoyi was unexpectedly free…
If he had known, he should have caused some trouble a few days ago, trying to keep Chu Zhaoyi busy.
Rendong had just spoken, and before Fu Nian could respond, he saw the other seven participants forming a group and walking towards him.
However, they were acting hesitantly, pushing each other, trying to approach Fu Nian but holding back.
“What’s going on?” Fu Nian noticed the unusual behavior from their side and nodded to Rendong before calling out to them.
After speaking, Fu Nian felt that they seemed even more afraid.
Fu Nian suddenly realized that his face looked quite fierce.
Although the scars on his face had healed to a large extent, the fierceness in his eyes wouldn’t fade with time.
“Do you… have something to discuss?” Fu Nian softened his voice as much as possible and asked again.
“Well, are you Lian Nian?”
“Later… when it’s our turn against you, we won’t fight back. Can we split the prize money with you, a total of two gold coins? His Majesty will be watching the competition later, and your strength just now was evident to all of us. We don’t want to look especially pathetic in front of His Majesty,” one of the men said, glancing nervously at a nearby colleague who had just been defeated by Fu Nian and could barely stand straight.
Emperor Chu Zhaoyi would be present later…
Fu Nian was still worrying about how to hide his attack strategy.
He hadn’t expected the others to come forward with their offer first.
“Alright, I agree.” After pondering for a moment, Fu Nian readily agreed, “After it’s done, each of you will get one gold coin. But let’s make it clear: loosen the bell before entering the field. I want to finish it quickly.”
After speaking, Fu Nian felt Rendong tug at his clothes.
“Okay, okay, okay, I’ll follow your lead. Please be merciful during the match.”
“Sure.” Fu Nian acknowledged, indicating that he heard Rendong, then turned back to him and asked, “What’s up?”
Rendong was puzzled and anxious as he asked, “Big Brother Lian, why did you agree to their proposal? You… clearly can defeat them and take all the prize money.”
Fu Nian responded, “I’m tired. I don’t feel like fighting. Why bother doing it myself when I can pay to get it done?”
“But seven gold coins isn’t a small amount either.”
“Sure.” Fu Nian didn’t argue.
Indeed, with his limbs disabled, the compensation wouldn’t be much more than seven gold coins.
This time, the other participants were merely asking him to go easy on them and offering seven gold coins to avoid a tough fight.
Fu Nian also felt it wasn’t worth it, but after some consideration, he realized that it was a good deal not to reveal his true martial skills in front of Emperor Chu Zhaoyi. Seven gold coins sounded quite reasonable.
“… ” Rendong was about to say something more, but looking at Fu Nian’s indifferent expression, he decided not to press further.
Fu Nian, on the other hand, closed his eyes to rest.
Waking up early was truly tiring. After receiving the prize money and repaying his debt to his Senior Brother, he planned to go back and sleep.
Today, Emperor Chu Zhaoyi hadn’t left the palace to visit the ancestral temple, so there probably wouldn’t be an opportunity to infiltrate the Chengyuan Hall.
While Fu Nian had his eyes closed, he suddenly heard the voices of the crowd.
“Long live Your Majesty, may the Dragon’s body be peaceful…”
The rest of the long chant was too much for Fu Nian to bother listening to, but he opened his eyes to find Rendong kneeling on the ground, bowing towards the south.
Emperor Chu Zhaoyi had arrived…
Fu Nian had completely missed this while his eyes were closed.
Before he could get up, Rendong stopped him, saying, “It’s alright, Big Brother Lian. The angle you’re at is shielded from the view of His Majesty and the others by the platform, so they won’t see you. I didn’t disturb your sleep or ask you to get up to pay your respects.”
Indeed, the height of the platform completely obscured his body.
Thinking this, Fu Nian felt relieved and closed his eyes again to rest.
After hearing Li Gonggong’s command for everyone to rise, the judge then had them draw lots to determine the order for the remaining rounds.
According to the agreement, the last round would take a bit longer than the previous ones.
“The final two contestants, please step forward.” The judge looked at the two remaining participants on the field.
After exchanging greetings with his opponent, Fu Nian picked up his short weapon.
This time, during their exchange, Fu Nian clearly sensed that his opponent wasn’t adhering to their agreement and was deliberately trying to defeat him.
Fu Nian had anticipated that someone might go back on their word, suddenly changing their mind in the last round, attempting to take all the prize money for themselves.
He hadn’t expected the exposure to happen so soon.
Fu Nian didn’t say anything, he simply dodged each move his opponent made, refusing to strike back, but also making sure not to provide any openings for his opponent to attack.
“Li Gonggong, is this the same Lian Nian who had his hands and feet crushed by a carriage last time?” Seated on the elevated platform, Emperor Chu Zhaoyi watched the fight on the arena and suddenly inquired, “The one by Xi Wang’s side.”
“That’s correct. This is the guard you personally selected to enter the palace, Lian Nian.” Li Gonggong promptly replied.
After observing for a while longer, Emperor Chu Zhaoyi spoke again, “His combat skills were quite ordinary just now. He didn’t retaliate at all in this round, but how did he manage to endure until the final round?”
Li Gonggong was perplexed, “Even I don’t know.”
The man in the dragon robe didn’t say anything more; he continued to watch the fight on the arena.
One side launched fierce attacks, while the other side refused to retaliate and instead focused on evading.
This despicable style of combat was quite infuriating.
After a few more minutes, Emperor Chu Zhaoyi became increasingly frustrated watching, so he stopped paying attention to the situation on the arena. Just as he picked up his teacup, intending to take a sip and relieve the heat, the judge unexpectedly shouted, “Lian Nian wins!”
He hastily put the teacup down, only to see the side that had been attacking throughout suddenly collapsing on the ground. Not only had they lost their bell, but a chunk of flesh was also missing from their shoulder, blood uncontrollably seeping out.
In the span of a moment, something had happened…
“Li Gonggong, how did this Lian Nian suddenly reverse the situation?” Emperor Chu Zhaoyi inquired, his brows furrowing.
“Even I didn’t see it clearly.”
Emperor Chu Zhaoyi’s expression grew more puzzled, his head tilted as he observed the scene on the arena, trying to understand what had just transpired.
The victorious contestant didn’t display any excitement either; they simply wiped the bloodstains from their wrist guards in silence. After cleaning the wrist guards, they switched to another cloth to wipe the blood from their face.
“Tell the judge to add another hundred gold coins. Let Chu Yao go up and fight against him. This time, use real weapons. I want to see how this extraordinary person employs their moves.”
“Chu Yao!” After speaking, Emperor Chu Zhaoyi shouted and blew the jade whistle hanging from his finger.
In a matter of seconds, Chu Yao landed on the nearby ground, bowing his head and awaiting orders.
Emperor Chu Zhaoyi gave a few instructions. Seeing Chu Yao’s furrowed brows, he asked, “What’s wrong? Unwilling?”
“This, don’t you think his movements resemble—”
“Are you trying to remind me?”
Chu Yao sealed his lips, though his face was marked with reluctance.
“If you can defeat Lian Nian, the insignia and official seal of the Grand Shadow Guard will be awarded to you. The things you did in the past, I’ll pretend they never happened. The incident with the Fuguang Blade you lost and the incident where you withheld tribute silver coins are also cleared.” Chu Zhaoyi’s voice turned icy, “But if you’re unwilling—”
“I will obey your orders!”