“Occasionally, I overheard it when submitting my task from the Gonggong, but most of it was just my own speculation,” Fu Nian noticed Chu Zhaoyi pausing and hurriedly added, “I have exceeded my boundaries, and my daily tasks have been too idle, which led to idle thoughts about your troubles. It was indeed an unwarranted intrusion, but please rest assured, I had no ill intentions.”
After saying this, he then nervously picked up a silver fork and didn’t care about appearances. He mechanically speared some dishes and quickly put them in Chu Zhaoyi’s plate. “Eat before it gets cold.”
Even after stacking a small heap of food on Chu Zhaoyi’s plate, Fu Nian didn’t see him touch his chopsticks, so he had to slow down the pace of serving.
Fu Nian was taken aback.
Whether it was a figment of his imagination or not, the way Chu Zhaoyi said his name felt more melodious than usual. It even made him momentarily feel as if he were back in the Wang residence on a snowy day, with Chu Zhaoyi sitting on the wall, calling him to join the “ambush” against a fluffy orange cat that was attempting to steal some preserved meat.
Returning to his senses, Fu Nian realized he had been lost in thought and quickly picked up the silver fork again. “Your Majesty, is there something the matter?”
“Thank you,” Chu Zhaoyi replied while looking straight into Fu Nian’s eyes, trying to hold his gaze. “To be cherished by you like this…”
He didn’t finish the sentence but let out a gentle laugh.
In the corner of his eye, Fu Nian noticed the change in Chu Zhaoyi’s expression.
Originally, Chu Zhaoyi was good-looking, and even though he rarely indulged in emotions and desires, he had a unique charm.
Seeing him smile like this today… Fu Nian suddenly understood why some people would go to great lengths, even engaging in battles, just to make their beloved smile.
“I’m, I’m just doing my duty,” Fu Nian replied softly, unable to resist stealing another glance at Chu Zhaoyi’s rarely seen smile.
“But in the future, I hope Ah Nian can openly care and ask me directly. It’s more genuine than hearing it from the Gonggongs,” Chu Zhaoyi thought for a moment and added, “You can ask anything, even about state affairs or anything else. As long as you want to speak, I’m willing to listen.”
Fu Nian looked up, still somewhat skeptical. “Really?”
“The emperor does not jest. When have I ever lied to you?” Chu Zhaoyi said.
As long as his Ah Nian could be like he used to be, willing to talk to him, and with their foundation of love still intact, there would be a day when things would return to normal.
Fu Nian still looked at Chu Zhaoyi with doubt.
After a moment of hesitation, Fu Nian finally spoke, “Your subject dares to inquire, Your Majesty… regarding Fu Zhen’s whereabouts, have there been any leads… yet?” He didn’t finish his sentence, as he saw Chu Zhaoyi’s smile slowly disappear. He had no choice but to trail off.
A Dutchman’s pipe can blossom for a fleeting moment, but Chu Zhaoyi couldn’t.
In the silence, Fu Nian sighed quietly.
Hadn’t he just lied a moment ago? He couldn’t help but wonder.
“My apologies,” Fu Nian quickly lowered his head. “The food has gone cold. I’ll reheat it for you.”
With that, he hastily stood up and placed the tray back on the cart as if escaping a disaster.
“We have leads. Give me a bit more time… at most three days, and I will finalize the plan and departure time. I’ll resolve this matter before the New Year,” Chu Zhaoyi replied with determination after a long silence.
Fu Nian hadn’t expected Chu Zhaoyi to actually respond, and for a moment, he felt a bit overwhelmed. “…”
He wanted to say something but ultimately decided against it.
“No need to reheat the food; it’ll take too much time. If it’s too cold later, you can have the eunuchs reheat it for you, or even make a fresh one.”
Fu Nian didn’t dare to disobey.
It seemed like he had said something wrong.
Now, it felt like he was complaining that Chu Zhaoyi wasn’t doing his job properly. It wasn’t just insubordination; it was almost as if he were acting superior to the emperor.
But looking at Chu Zhaoyi eating in silence, Fu Nian dared not speak. If he didn’t eat, it would seem like he was truly picky. The feeling of guilt made Fu Nian pick up his silver fork.
The taste of the food touched his taste buds, but it didn’t bring joy; instead, it was an indescribable strangeness.
Fu Nian chewed his food without changing his expression, and after finishing a bite, he took another.
While Chu Zhaoyi ate with dignity, before long, a plate of food had almost disappeared from his sight.
Seeing Chu Zhaoyi stand up, Fu Nian had not yet spoken.
“I still have some official matters to attend to; you can take your time with your meal,” Chu Zhaoyi spoke without even waiting for Fu Nian to address him by his title. His figure faded away.
Fu Nian had not swallowed the food he had just pretended to chew and lowered his head in contemplation, staring at the table full of food.
He had grown used to the days when Chu Zhaoyi treated him like a dog, using the people around him as he pleased, looking down on everyone with selfishness.
Now, he could see that Chu Zhaoyi was consciously restraining his violent temper when he was around.
Tonight, Fu Nian had been waiting in the palace earlier than usual.
The bed had been warmed for several rounds, and the incense burner had accumulated a thick layer of ash from the incense.
It was past three in the morning, and Fu Nian had yet to see Chu Zhaoyi’s figure. He put down the tools he had been using to repair hidden weapons and walked toward the door.
Those who stayed up on a snowy night would inevitably become lazy, and Fu Nian saw a eunuch who had been dozing off not far from the entrance to the heated room.
“Right, I was just thinking about something. What do you need?” Feeling someone approaching, the young eunuch on the ground quickly got up.
“May I ask—”
“It’s over, it’s over, it’s over.”
Before Fu Nian could finish speaking, the young eunuch in front suddenly knelt down and kept kowtowing.
Fu Nian was a bit bewildered.
“I’m really sorry, Lord Fu, I’m really sorry. His Majesty sent word earlier that he’s busy with state affairs and won’t be coming back to rest… I, I forgot to inform you! I didn’t expect you to still be awake even until the third watch…”
Fu Nian: “It’s alright.”
Before the little eunuch could continue apologizing, Fu Nian closed the door to the palace and walked back to his room in the courtyard, where he lived with his colleagues.
Even though he had only slept a short while before three in the morning, Fu Nian woke up before the sky had fully brightened.
The snow on the training grounds was already knee-deep, and it was clear that morning training had been canceled. Fu Nian obediently joined the others and helped shovel the snow from the ground.
The heavy snowfall had stopped, but the sky remained overcast, as if another merciless snowstorm could come at any moment.
After shoveling the snow, Fu Nian looked at the gloomy sky.
This time was when Chu Zhaoyi was busy meeting with courtiers.
Fu Nian thought for a moment, but he ultimately entered the kitchen.
At noon, he planned to go see Chu Zhaoyi because he couldn’t shake off his uneasiness.
It wasn’t that he was being overly sentimental; he just had a feeling that if he hadn’t mentioned Fu Zhen’s ill-fated name yesterday, Chu Zhaoyi, no matter how busy he was, would have spared a couple of hours to sleep.
Fu Nian knew that he wasn’t skilled in cooking, so he had prepared extra ingredients.
If he couldn’t make pastries and meals well, he thought he could at least prepare some simple sweet soups.
Half an hour later…
Fu Nian looked anxiously at the recipe while simultaneously watching the pot.
The osmanthus wine dumplings, which should have been clear in color, had inexplicably turned very turbid. They were now bubbling slowly and emitting an indescribable odor as they simmered.
No matter how Fu Nian used the soup ladle like a dagger and attempted to burst those large bubbles, he couldn’t save the slightly burnt ingredients.
After struggling for a while, Fu Nian finally gave up and, feeling frustrated, obtained two pastries from the palace kitchen, stuffing them into a food container.
When he arrived at the West Pavillion, Fu Nian didn’t rush in. He waited for a while to confirm that there were no court officials inside discussing state affairs. Eventually, he knocked on the door.
Hearing permission, Fu Nian entered.
When Chu Zhaoyi saw the food container, his hand, which had been holding a brush, visibly stiffened for a moment. While he didn’t show fear on his face, the ink on the snow-white paper had indeed spread into a large inkblot.
“Pastries made by the palace kitchen,” Fu Nian said, unaware of Chu Zhaoyi’s subtle change in expression. He happened to add, “I……”
He hadn’t finished his sentence when Fu Nian stumbled again. When he thought about how Chu Zhaoyi had stayed up all night, working tirelessly and wearing himself out, he found it difficult to express his concern.
Chu Zhaoyi listened and sighed with relief, setting down his brush, yawning, and rubbing his temples.
The incense burner emitted a soothing scent of peppermint, and Fu Nian stood there, somewhat at a loss.
“Why… why are you alone here? I was waiting outside for a while, thinking you were busy with state affairs.”
The words he spoke had nothing to do with his concern, and Fu Nian pinched the palm of his hand to stop himself.
“Who else would be dealing with state affairs at this hour? Even if they are loyal ministers, they are still human. You have to eat something by noon, and a little nap won’t hurt.”
Chu Zhaoyi muttered as if complaining softly and then yawned again.
“Aren’t you human too?”
Not really… what he wanted to say was that Chu Zhaoyi was also a human being with flesh and blood, and he needed rest. With his body already weakened, staying up all night like this was worrying.
“What I mean is, if you haven’t slept all night, it’s good to take a rest. Earlier, I spoke without thinking, so please don’t be upset…”
Chu Zhaoyi stopped writing as well.
He silently watched Fu Nian, who was explaining in a fluster, sometimes clenching and then relaxing his artificial hand. Fu Nian’s gaze never dared to meet his.
His words were clumsy, and his emotional awareness was slow, but in reality, he was very good at taking care of people…
Seeing Fu Nian’s bewildered words and incoherent explanations, as if afraid of causing a misunderstanding, Chu Zhaoyi didn’t know why, but he started to have a bit of a teasing attitude.
It wasn’t that he really wanted to tease him.
He just wanted to see how the guy who only knew how to wield a knife and slash enemies would react.
“Quite angry,” after a long silence, Chu Zhaoyi said in a stern voice.
In this state, just sitting there, he exuded an aura that was enough to intimidate courtiers, even without getting angry.
“The mint in the incense burner is running out; add some more.”
Fu Nian stood up straight, tense, and his mind raced, trying to figure out what to say.
“I apologize for my disrespect… This peppermint can indeed refresh one’s mind, but it’s cold and too much inhalation isn’t good for the body.”
“Even if it’s not good for the body, it can still refresh the mind.” After saying this, Chu Zhaoyi deliberately coughed twice. “Add the remaining five qian to the incense burner.”
Burning another five qian…
No wonder, when he entered the room, the scent of peppermint was so strong that it made his head ache.
“If you’re not burning peppermint; are you going to help me stay awake?”
After Chu Zhaoyi said this, he noticed that Fu Nian’s expression froze, and he belatedly remembered something.
Back when he was still in the Wang Mansion, during a certain period after he had developed a taste for it, he didn’t hesitate to use the excuse of wanting to “refresh his mind” to induce Ah Nian, who wasn’t interested in his studies, to join him in acts that were unworthy of their master’s teachings.
Fu Nian stood in place, clenching his fists.
“Burn the peppermint,” Chu Zhaoyi added softly, trying to cover up his embarrassment.
His little scheme to tease the other person didn’t succeed; instead, it created an awkward situation.
Finally, when Fu Nian took the initiative to come and see him, he got too carried away with himself.
This kind of thing… was it also a part of his duty?
Fu Nian tried hard to recall the initial instructions he had received. Were there any requirements for the Shadow Guards to do such things?
It should be within his duties, or else Chu Zhaoyi wouldn’t have mentioned it.
“…I’m not feeling well and can’t fulfill my duties,” Fu Nian bowed his head and said apologetically, “but really, mint is not good for you.”
Chu Zhaoyi frowned.
It seems he unintentionally struck gold, hasn’t he?
He raised his head and looked at the man who was taking it all in stride. The lightweight armor of the Shadow Guards didn’t make him seem cumbersome; instead, it highlighted the well-defined muscular lines on his body. With his missing limbs and these sharply defined, sculpted features, he exuded a peculiar sense of beauty.
Chu Zhaoyi couldn’t help but grip his brush a little tighter, as if wanting to crush or destroy something.