With this realization, Fu Nian picked up a handkerchief and gently wiped away any traces of the coughed-up medicine from Chu Zhaoyi’s mouth.
After cleaning up, he stole a glance at Chu Zhaoyi’s sleeping face.
Indeed, it was the face he had liked in his youth. Even after so many years, time hadn’t left any noticeable marks on this visage.
“Just administering medicine…”
Fu Nian whispered to himself. Holding his breath, he swiftly poured a mouthful of medicinal soup into his mouth.
The taste of the medicine was even stranger than he had imagined. Fu Nian bent closer to Chu Zhaoyi’s lips, gently guiding the medicine into his mouth, all while maintaining a soothing touch on his chest.
This time, Chu Zhaoyi didn’t cough up the medicine.
Fu Nian breathed a sigh of relief and tried to suppress the bitter taste and queasiness, finishing the medicine as gently as possible.
After administering the medicine, Fu Nian discarded the bowl and ran out of the sleeping palace without looking back.
Running out the door, Fu Nian only dared to loosen his steps, stumbling and running forward for a few steps. He placed his hands on a beam and couldn’t help but dry heave.
The strange, bitter taste of the medicine lingered in his mouth for a long time.
The joints of his hands, which were supported by the red wall, had turned slightly white from the force, and his body continued to spasm involuntarily.
Fu Nian gritted his teeth and tried to control the sudden discomfort by taking deep breaths.
After a long while, Fu Nian slowly stood upright.
But before he could stabilize himself for a few seconds, “Ugh—”
Stomach acid surged and burned his throat, forcing its way out uncontrollably. Fu Nian tried to suppress the sound.
His slender left hand’s knuckles gradually clenched, and with the movement of his shoulders, the crimson fingertips spasmed slightly.
“Imperial Guard Lian?”
Even if he tried to muffle the noise, there was still a sound. After a long time, Fu Nian heard a palace maid nearby speaking softly.
“Are you… Are you alright?”
“I’m fine.” Fu Nian sniffled, his voice involuntarily carrying a hint of a sob. “I accidentally choked.” After speaking, Fu Nian, suppressing the slight tremor in his left leg, stood upright. “I’ve already administered the medicine to His Majesty, but I haven’t had the chance to clean up the bowl and spoon yet.”
“So, you managed to administer it so quickly?” The palace maid couldn’t help but be surprised.
Administering medicine, especially in a way that didn’t disturb His Majesty’s sleep, typically took half an hour or more.
“Yes. I’ve done this kind of task many times before, so I’m proficient at it,” Fu Nian explained. Then, he felt his throat constricting and quickly added, “Please don’t inform His Majesty about the medicine administration. If he asks about it, you can say it was my fault, but there’s no need to report it if you are rewarded.”
After rinsing his mouth and cleaning the impurities from the stone tiles in the sleeping quarters, it was getting late.
With candied fruit in his mouth, Fu Nian lay on the bed, gazing at the canopy, contemplating his life.
When had he become so weak that he couldn’t even bear the bitterness of medicinal broth? Had he become too accustomed to the pampered life in the palace to endure even a bit of discomfort?
The sweetness of the candied fruit gradually faded until it disappeared.
Tomorrow, he decided, he would wake up earlier than the palace guards’ stipulated time, just like when he was still at the sect. Whether it was morning exercises or daily training, he would have to work harder than anyone else to become stronger. Otherwise, he would find even the bitterness of medicinal broth unbearable. With these thoughts in mind, Fu Nian finally closed his eyes.
Today, Fu Nian rose early as usual. The sky was cold, and it was not even five in the morning, with the morning bell yet to toll. The vast training ground was empty, with only him present.
Fu Nian practiced his swordsmanship, following the well-memorized techniques in his mind.
Except for the first night when he had a humiliating experience vomiting after giving medicine to Chu Zhaoyi, Fu Nian made sure to carry anti-nausea pills with him from then on. After administering medicine to Chu Zhaoyi, he might experience some nausea and dizziness for half an hour, but it wouldn’t be as bad as the previous day when he couldn’t even get up.
Yesterday, Fu Nian noticed that there were no assignments or nameplates for him at the instructor’s office. It was only after the morning training session that he returned to his room and saw the Great Shadow Guard’s official seal on the table. The seal even retained the marks and scratches from many years ago when he returned it upon leaving the palace.
Thinking back to how he returned the official seal when he left the palace and how it had now returned to his possession, Fu Nian couldn’t help but feel a sense of irony.
Along with the official seal, there were the light armor and standard attire of the Great Shadow Guard, some concealed weapons he used to carry, and the daily orders that were pinned to the wall.
Generally, the tasks assigned to the Great Shadow Guard were specified in these orders, and if they were required to work on a day of rest, it would be clearly mentioned. For confidential missions, there were special seals, and a personal meeting with His Majesty was necessary for further discussion.
However, this time, Fu Nian’s order contained no specific tasks or missions, only four words – “Safe and Happy.”
He practiced his swordsmanship until the first light of dawn, panting heavily as he finally stopped.
Although there was no one supervising him, he trained for a time that was only slightly longer than others, never shorter.
Before heading to the eatery, Fu Nian returned to his room, changed out of his sweat-soaked undershirt, and washed up with cold water.
As expected, when he returned to his room, there was a sealed order on the table once again.
Fu Nian picked up the order but didn’t rush to open it.
It was highly likely that there were no significant tasks for him this time, Fu Nian thought.
In the previous life, their relationship had reached an irreparable point when he was relieved of his various assignments. To outsiders, he had obtained a comfortable position with substantial income, even holding military authority. However, only Fu Nian knew that being relieved of his duties meant that the other party had more capable and suitable agents, rendering him no longer needed to sacrifice his life.
In this life… Fu Nian sighed and thought, it’s just right—leisure and a good income, with no need to get too close to that man. He used to be ignorant of the good fortune he had while surrounded by blessings.
Fu Nian opened the order, intending to toss it into the charcoal basin, but he found that it contained not a written order but a folded plum blossom flower.
The pale yellow flower bud was adorned with a thin layer of frost, exuding a subtle and understated fragrance. Its branches were neatly pruned. Fu Nian held this sprig of plum blossoms, hesitating for a moment, before inserting it into a porcelain vase on the table and pouring some water into it.
A few days ago, Fu Nian had planned to visit Hengchang Palace to see the place where Chu Zhaoyi had spent his childhood.
However, Hengchang Palace had long been deserted, and in recent days, overgrown weeds and branches obstructed the entrance.
It wasn’t until last night that Fu Nian had cleared a path through the thickets.
The vermilion palace walls had faded significantly, covered in lush vegetation, and when Fu Nian pushed open the main door, the dust particles floating in the air were visible to the naked eye in the dim light.
The furnishings were covered in a layer of dust so thick that the original colors of the items were no longer discernible.
Fu Nian surveyed the surroundings and murmured to himself, “This should be the Imperial Consort’s room.”
As he walked further inside, Fu Nian noticed that there were only women’s jewelry and ornaments, and the only piece of fabric with a name embroidered on it belonged to a woman surnamed Chu. There were hardly any items related to Chu Zhaoyi in the entire room. Fu Nian left the room somewhat disappointed, closing the palace door behind him.
Entering a side room, Fu Nian confirmed from the carved markings on the door that this was where Chu Zhaoyi had lived during his childhood.
There were still several books on a shelf, and Fu Nian approached to take a look. They turned out to be basic calligraphy practice books and some illustrated stories.
Although Chu Zhaoyi’s room had also fallen into disrepair, everything inside was neatly arranged, as if it had been tidied up before his departure.
Fu Nian approached the bed and touched a concealed compartment at the headboard.
Inside were many crumpled papers.
Fu Nian unfolded one of them, and the handwriting was crooked and uneven, with occasional ink smears, indicating that it was written by someone just starting to learn to write.
“I don’t want to take medicine.”
Continuing to open the papers:
“Why do I have to take medicine when I’m not even sick?”
“Why did you tell Father that I’m weak and sick, unable to see anyone?”
“I’ve been locked up again. She said it’s for my own good, out of love and to protect me… I need to chisel some light into the confinement room.”
“Thank goodness Royal Sister came to visit secretly, although I was locked up for a few more days… I love Royal Mother…”
When Fu Nian reached the last crumpled paper, he set down these scraps and reached deeper into the compartment.
This time, when he looked at it, Fu Nian instinctively pulled his head back.
It was a cloth doll embroidered with Chu Zhaoyi’s name.
Different from common dolls, this doll had no face, was covered in protective amulets, and had a large “death” character embroidered on its body. It was also filled with silver needles, making it look eerie and unsettling.
While Fu Nian didn’t believe in such things, he understood that this was a common form of cursing.
Staring at the neatly embroidered name of Chu Zhaoyi on the doll, the meticulous craftsmanship was evident, indicating that a great deal of effort had been put into making it. The fabric had many bite marks, confirming its age.
Who could harbor such hatred for a young Chu Zhaoyi…
Fu Nian examined the doll carefully, and just as he was about to look for other clues, he found a stained piece of paper hidden within the doll’s “leg.”
Unfolding it, the handwriting was clearly from Chu Zhaoyi’s childhood.
“Mother really loves me. She even made a doll with my name embroidered on it! But why didn’t she tell me herself? I found it secretly… She got so angry, but it’s evident that I really like this doll. She told me to burn it so no one else could see it. Of course, I won’t burn it. This is the first thing Mother has ever embroidered for me, so she wouldn’t want anyone else to see it.”
The later part of the note had deteriorated due to time, making it difficult to read, but it was clear that Chu Zhaoyi had been very happy when he wrote these words.
Fu Nian looked at the cloth doll in his hand, filled with protective amulets and silver needles, his emotions complex.
What was the purpose of such a doll? Chu Zhaoyi must have known.
Fu Nian temporarily put down the eerie item he had found and decided to deal with it later. In the northern corner of Hengchang Palace, he finally discovered more traces of Chu Zhaoyi’s past.
There was a small hole in the room’s floor that allowed light to shine through. Thinking back to the notes Chu Zhaoyi had written, this was likely the place where he had been confined during his childhood.
It was a tiny storage room, extremely narrow, dark, and quite deep. Even for someone as petite as Fu Nian, squeezing inside was a tight fit. It could barely accommodate a young child for movement.
From this cramped space, Fu Nian retrieved one toy after another: a tambourine, small sandbags, dried bamboo butterflies, normal cloth dolls without embroidered names or writing, and even shoes that only a prince would wear.
Digging further, Fu Nian heard many rats scattering in all directions, prompting him to light a flintstone.
Upon closer inspection, there were many damaged bowls and plates on the ground, covered in dark stains. It was clear they had once held food, and there was still some remaining.