“Mmm,” Fu Nian responded with a gloomy expression as Rendong discussed the mother of Chu Zhaoyi. He didn’t reveal his thoughts and simply listened quietly.
A doting mother, gentle and virtuous…
“…It’s really quite moving,” Rendong said without noticing Fu Nian’s change in expression, speaking to himself. “By the way, Big Brother Lian, I’ll be leaving the palace for a few days to handle some outside matters, probably at a nobleman’s residence in the West City. I need to retrieve something for the Imperial Attendants Bureau, but I can’t recall the details.”
Fu Nian probably knew which “nobleman” he was referring to but calmly said, “Take care on your journey.”
After saying this, Fu Nian seemed to remember something and displayed an unusual expression of reluctance.
This morning, when he put on his clothes and looked in the mirror, that scene was deeply imprinted in his mind. Therefore, during morning training, Fu Nian went back to the small crevice where he used to hide.
What was once just enough space for him to squeeze into now felt quite cramped.
Fu Nian immediately remembered the “outrageous” diagnosis and comments made by the physician in the civilian clinic in the capital.
“What’s wrong with you?” Rendong noticed Fu Nian’s troubled expression and couldn’t help but ask.
After contemplating for a while, Fu Nian shifted his gaze, which had been wandering, and said with a solemn expression, “This time, when you leave the palace on your assignment, will you have some free time? I need your help to bring something into the palace.”
Rendong was quick-witted and immediately realized that it was crowded here with many eyes. He led Fu Nian to a secluded bamboo grove outside the Imperial Attendants Bureau.
On a snowy day like this, such a quiet place, devoid of almost all sounds except the occasional rustling of leaves, was ideal for a clandestine meeting.
Fu Nian, after ensuring there was no one around, hesitated and said, “I need you to go to the Eastern Market in the city and visit the book stalls. Help me bring two books into the palace, don’t worry, they are not subversive materials.”
“Could have just said it was for buying books, I thought it was something else,” Rendong sighed with relief upon hearing that it was about books. “I’ve got it covered; I can discreetly bring two books into the palace.”
Fu Nian nodded and handed him a piece of silk with a pre-recorded book list and a hidden message. “Show this silk to the booksellers at the stalls, and they will understand.”
Rendong opened the silk, examining the unfamiliar characters. “What does it say? I’m not very familiar with these characters. Can you give me a rough idea of what’s written so I can confirm with the booksellers?”
“Ahem… One of the books is about the records of individuals throughout history who possessed both male and female reproductive capacities, especially men’s ability to conceive life. It’s a medical book with illustrations, and even if you can’t read, you can tell from the pictures,” Fu Nian explained while looking down at the accumulated snow beneath his feet. “The other book could be described as an amorous novel, and it’s also about men conceiving. There are illustrations as well…” As he continued, Fu Nian’s voice grew quieter.
After finishing his explanation, Fu Nian raised his eyes and nervously glanced at the frozen Rendong, who still wore the same smiling expression as before, holding the cloth.
“Ah?” After remaining frozen for a while, Rendong finally voiced his question.
“Ah,” Fu Nian mimicked Rendong’s tone and added, “You didn’t hear me wrong.”
With that said, Fu Nian felt that the atmosphere between the two of them was colder than the wind and snow.
They stood there, facing each other, and if not for the occasional flight of birds overhead, it would have seemed as though time had stopped.
“I, uh… One of my colleagues asked for these,” Fu Nian tried to save the situation when he saw that Rendong was genuinely shocked. “It’s not for me. Why would I be interested in such things? We’re under the same roof, and there are many places I can ask for help in the future.”
“But… didn’t Big Brother Lian just receive the official token for the Grand Shadow Guard? The previous head of the Grand Shadow Guard was practically a superior within the palace, and although you may not necessarily compare to the previous head, who among your colleagues would dare to mess with you?” Rendong asked.
He had almost forgotten.
He gritted his teeth and continued, “I said they were colleagues, but in reality, I’ve become acquainted with a high-ranking official at the royal court. He has a background in martial arts and used to serve in the Imperial Guard, so I loosely referred to him as a colleague.”
“….” Rendong didn’t respond, and his frozen expression seemed to have eased slightly. He was trying to convince himself to overcome the shock of this enormous revelation.
After a moment, Rendong suddenly spoke with concern. “By the way, I’ve heard about some courtiers who, while appearing virtuous and upright in front of His Majesty, secretly engage in inappropriate relationships with palace maids. They specifically target the pretty male palace attendants and guards. I’ve overheard the older palace attendants in the Imperial Attendants Bureau talk about this. Please be careful, Big Brother Lian.”
Seeing Rendong’s face filled with concern, Fu Nian considered his options and decided to withhold the true situation. “Don’t worry, I have my martial skills. I won’t encounter such situations.”
After exchanging a few more pleasantries, Fu Nian left the Imperial Attendants Bureau.
If Rendong were to discover the true identity of the Empress, as well as the complex emotional entanglements between him and a certain man from the past… Fu Nian was afraid this young man might faint on the spot.
In a snowy day, the daylight period was particularly short, and as the sky gradually darkened, there were almost no courtiers moving to and from the Imperial Study.
Starting today, he would be having dinner with Chu Zhaoyi.
Fu Nian glanced at the bright lights of the Imperial Study.
In his previous life, during their shared dinners, Fu Nian was mostly the one being fed, even in less affectionate moments. It was not something meant to be witnessed by outsiders.
Now that he had taken up the responsibility of dining with Chu Zhaoyi once again…
The distance between them.
He had many questions he wanted to ask Chu Zhaoyi, but when they were face to face, he didn’t dare to say a word.
“Fish ball and winter melon soup, clear chicken broth, stir-fried fresh bamboo shoots…” After Li Gonggong listed the names of the dishes and exited the room, Fu Nian began to taste each one.
In the past, when Fu Nian ate at the eatery, his most common dining style was to not care if the food was too hot; he just poured it into his mouth. At most, he would use a spoon to scoop it up a bit, a quick and decisive approach.
Even with his newly acquired sophisticated prosthetic limbs, Fu Nian’s movements were still rather stiff as he held the chopsticks.
Suddenly, Fu Nian focused his concentration and gathered his energy, gripping the chopsticks as if they were a short blade. With a sudden forceful motion, he attempted to use the chopsticks.
“Crack!” The crisp sound of porcelain shattering echoed as the dishes remained untouched, unaffected by Fu Nian’s attempt.
Chu Zhaoyi looked up, observing Fu Nian’s broken chopsticks and his hand still in a knife-holding posture, his expression solemn.
He didn’t say anything but smiled slightly, then picked up his own chopsticks and selected some dishes to put in Fu Nian’s bowl.
“It should be this servants’ responsibility to serve you. This isn’t appropriate. Please wait; I’ll fetch a new pair of chopsticks.” Without getting up, Chu Zhaoyi gestured for him to sit back down.
Fu Nian had no choice but to obediently sit back down.
“Husbands should feed their wives, it’s only right. Eat, don’t harm the chopsticks again,” Chu Zhaoyi said. Afterward, he pushed a specially made fork and spoon set toward Fu Nian.
Fu Nian didn’t move.
It wasn’t that he intended to compete with Chu Zhaoyi in this regard. He simply felt a bit nauseated looking at the food, and he didn’t want to pretend to take a few bites.
Seeing that Fu Nian didn’t react, Chu Zhaoyi also put down his chopsticks, placed both hands on the table, and nervously looked around the room. “Ah Nian, I know that you must still hold some grievances about the past. If you have something to say, please say it. Otherwise, if you continue to brood in silence every day, who can guess what you’re thinking? I’m not asking you to forgive and forget overnight, but… please don’t stay silent like this.”
Fu Nian was momentarily taken aback and then replied, “I’m just not hungry, it’s not that I hold any grievances against you.”
Chu Zhaoyi rarely displayed such significant emotional fluctuations before, and this sudden change had no warning signs.
“You don’t have to be so formal… I’m starting to understand how it feels when kindness turns into a burden,” Chu Zhaoyi paused.
When they first met as teenagers, Fu Nian was indeed reserved, but not as cold and distant as he was now. It was more like he had a lot to say but didn’t know how to express it. He would deliberately share things he encountered or small animals he found, always trying to find something to talk about. However, back then, Chu Zhaoyi often found it annoying, considering him too talkative, childish, and sometimes responded with indifference.
As they grew older, when Fu Nian couldn’t hide his feelings anymore, Chu Zhaoyi wasn’t surprised at all. He continued to enjoy the unwavering loyalty from Fu Nian. Whether it was willingly sharing a wedding ceremony, or the intimacy they shared behind closed doors, Fu Nian always followed his lead, afraid of displeasing him.
Gradually, he couldn’t remember when it had started, but his Ah Nian was no longer willing to talk idly. He was still loyal as ever every day.
As they continued their meal, Chu Zhaoyi gradually realized that Fu Nian wasn’t even willing to ask for his help when encountering issues. This continued even when Fu Nian was poisoned and coughing up blood. He still tried to salvage the image of the Shadow Guards in front of Chu Zhaoyi, begging him not to see him in such a pitiful state.
In the end, whether through confinement, pleading, or declarations of love, Chu Zhaoyi could only watch as Fu Nian distanced himself further and further.
Chu Zhaoyi had reflected on this relationship for a long time. However, in this lifetime, it seemed they were stuck on the same issue once again.
Ah Nian didn’t want to talk to him. On the surface, he remained obedient, but it felt like the precursor to leaving the palace in the previous life.
Managing the country and the military, Chu Zhaoyi had always been diligent and studious since childhood, reading many books, consulting his mentors, and gaining practical experience. These issues could be resolved.
However, when it came to dealing with the person closest to him…
All Chu Zhaoyi could think of was to treat Fu Nian the way his Royal sister, his royal mother, and those who had once loved him did, in hopes of reaching him.
“Why… aren’t you eating?” Fu Nian noticed Chu Zhaoyi’s prolonged silence and asked curiously.
“I’m worried about state affairs.” He thought about it countless times in his mind, but the only words that came out were those.
Fu Nian tactfully chose not to inquire further. “I see.”
“…Don’t you want to ask? Don’t you want to know why I’m worried?”
Of course, Fu Nian didn’t want to ask.
Based on past experiences, he knew that if he did ask, Chu Zhaoyi would only tell him to mind his own business.
“This year, the heavy snowfall came early, and His Majesty is concerned about the snow disaster in the south. Agriculture has been affected, and with the New Year approaching, the common people won’t be able to store enough food due to the snow disaster. Moreover, His Majesty’s health has been ailing, making it difficult to handle many matters. Add to that the troublesome old man… it’s making things even more challenging,” Fu Nian said without asking any questions. “I cannot interfere with state affairs, and in the past, attempting to alleviate your worries only seemed to burden you more.”
He clenched his fists under the embroidered dragon sleeves.
After speaking, Fu Nian turned his head away.
It seemed that he had accidentally revealed things he had secretly observed during this time. That wasn’t good.