“The burnt person must have been very determined, not letting go even after breaking a hand bone. Once we learned their names, we had to offer incense to them…”
“Stop talking about it, it’s bad luck…”
“They must be close brothers, or else how could they protect him so fiercely?”
“Not just brothers, even many years of marriage might not lead to such selflessness. Who knows…”
“Stop arguing, lend a hand to get them on the carriage, let’s take them to the city’s clinic! Hurry up, they might not make it if we’re too slow!”
Half-awake, he listened to the cacophony of voices.
In his semi-conscious state, he tried to piece together the information from these voices.
He couldn’t recall having a brother, only that he and Fu Zhen were holding each other, choosing to perish together in the raging fire.
Could the burnt person be Fu Zhen?
His consciousness was in such a haze, and after contemplating for a while, exhaustion overtook him, and he once again fell into a deep sleep.
In the middle of December, every household in the capital was busy preparing for the upcoming New Year. Children gathered at their doorsteps, imitating the adults as they stirred rice paste together.
Chu Zhaoyi lowered the curtains inside his sedan chair and didn’t bother to look at the streets filled with fireworks and festivities. His eyes were dull, staring downward.
“I let him go because I saw him so despondent in the palace, always brooding about this matter. I thought that with Captain Han as the leader and with Chu Qianqi by his side, he wouldn’t have the opportunity to act alone…”
Chu Zhaoyi’s voice was very wooden, abruptly falling silent.
“He has already been found, and the physicians from the clinic said he’s fine. The imperial physician also said that his life isn’t in danger; he just needs careful attention on the way back. I didn’t want you to feel sad when you saw him, so I didn’t let you approach.” Ze Wang’s voice remained as gentle as ever. After speaking, he hesitated for a moment before continuing, “Chu Qianqi has already led part of the imperial guards back to the palace, and Fu Nineteen, Fu Bie, and the person who was burnt beyond recognition have been brought along as well. The physicians from Yunnan have figured out a way to revive the gu worms inside Fu Nineteen’s body, so he should wake up soon.”
Chu Zhaoyi hung his head. “There’s no need to verify whether that charred person is that old man or not. I always feel that it’s not that simple. As for those two living individuals, let Ah Nian decide for himself once he’s better. What about the snow disaster in the south? The last letter said there was improvement, and the people’s emotions have been calmed. However, the next day, we received a joint petition saying that they’ve seized the official grain and refuse to distribute it…”
Before he could finish, Chu Zhaoyi turned his head and coughed twice.
“You only just arranged for Minister Dou to go south the other day; it’s impossible for a reply to arrive so quickly.”
Chu Zhaoyi: “That’s right.”
Ze Wang: “Moreover, can you request that when Fu Nineteen wakes up, he helps you remove the gu poison from your body?”
Chu Zhaoyi didn’t respond.
There was no way to resolve it.
The matter of taking the gu over for Fu Nian, he had kept it a secret from everyone all along. It was only after Fu Nian’s death that he was forced to let the Little Royal Uncle and Li Gonggong know the truth.
However, they only knew that he had taken the oath for Fu Nian, dabbled in some occult arts, and displayed some eerie behavior. They didn’t know that once this kind of gu was planted, the poisonous gu worms it carried would gradually erode the host’s internal organs, gradually replacing the functions of their organs. Once someone tried to remove the gu worms, it was equivalent to tearing out a person’s heart and letting them continue to survive.
“Lord Fu has probably yet to find out that you took it for him, Your Majesty?”
“Your Majesty, are you listening?”
Chu Zhaoyi was listening.
His thoughts returned to many years ago when Fu Nian first suffered from the poison, on that day when all the court physicians shook their heads and couldn’t offer a prescription.
Even though Fu Nian hadn’t mentioned it, Chu Zhaoyi could probably guess who had taken such drastic measures.
That year was also a gloomy day like today, with no snow or rain, just a gray mist enveloping the Chengyuan Hall.
Chu Zhaoyi would never forget that day. At midnight, when the court physicians were unable to find a solution, a wandering sorceror suddenly appeared, claiming to have brought a miraculous medicine.
When Chu Zhaoyi saw the young man in a moon-white robe, possessing martial skills yet dressed like a scholar, he had his doubts.
Many years ago, before he and Ah Nian had any issues, Ah Nian had talked about his close senior brother, someone with an unconventional character who paradoxically liked to dress as a scholar despite his personality. He even carried out killings with a righteous air, reciting scriptures for the deceased afterward.
Even back then, his Ah Nian had been stabbed with a sword by his senior brother from years past and had come close to death but Ah Nian didn’t pursue it further… Chu Zhaoyi wasn’t a fool; he could understand the unspoken bond between these brothers. But at that time, Ah Nian loved him and unconditionally obeyed his orders, submitting to all his emotions. He didn’t care how many good senior and junior brothers Ah Nian had.
Because Ah Nian was loyal to him, he was confident.
That night, the atmosphere was heavy. Chu Zhaoyi, dragging his tired body, listened to the young man in a moon-white robe explain the so-called “antidote.” He asked in doubt, “You mean, as long as someone is willing to plant this… whatever you call it, the life gu for him, Ah Nian will be safe?”
“Yes, but this gu is extremely dangerous. The person who plants the heart-connecting gu must be physically fit to withstand the gu worms and the strong poison. There is no turning back. During the poison outbreak, there will be severe pain in the chest, high fever, and even a sensation of being devoured by a swarm of ants. If the person cannot endure it, they can choose to end their life, and the mother gu will undoubtedly die too. In other words, the person you referred to as Ah Nian will also die… But for him, if someone plants the gu for him, it can be considered a once-and-for-all solution. As long as he lives comfortably without worries for the rest of his life, only the person who planted the gu will suffer.”
“Very well. Come.” After listening, Chu Zhaoyi didn’t waste any extra time considering. He immediately agreed, “What needs to be done?”
“So quickly, Your Majesty has already found a suitable person to plant the gu?”
“I’m right here. Is there anyone more suitable than me?” Chu Zhaoyi could guess the identity behind the mask, but he didn’t expose it. He responded calmly, with unwavering determination that left no room for doubt or fear.
“Your Majesty, it’s possible that you didn’t listen carefully to what I said just now. If you plant this gu, all the suffering will be borne by you. During the poison outbreak, there will be severe chest pain, persistent high fever, and even a sensation of being devoured by thousands of ants…”
“I heard clearly. I’ve known Ah Nian since we were young. Over the years, he has been a loyal subject and my lover. How we are bound to each other doesn’t need to be explained to outsiders. Plant the gu.” Chu Zhaoyi’s tone remained calm, but his determination was undeniable, and no fear could be detected.
“In that case, I will proceed.”
After several hours of blood-feeding, the gu worm had grown from their initial size, roughly the size of a fingernail, to the size of a finger.
Watching the gu worm burrow into Fu Nian’s body, who had been unconscious for a long time, he moved his fingers slightly, and his complexion regained some color.
Chu Zhaoyi laid on the bed, allowing the gu worm to slowly consume and gnaw at the skin on his chest. He frowned and closed his eyes.
The sensation of the worms gnawing at him was extremely difficult to endure. Chu Zhaoyi knew that someone was watching, so he tried to remain completely still.
Soon, another bloody hole appeared on his well-defined honey-colored chest muscles. The blood stained his partially open inner robe and the black embroidered dragon ceremonial robe underneath. Beads of sweat also formed on his forehead, and his damp hair accidentally stuck to his engorged, glistening lips.
“Are you not afraid… that I deceived you when I came in?”
Feeling the gu worm gradually burrowing into his body, Chu Zhaoyi couldn’t help but clench his fists, and at that moment, he heard the taunts of the young man in a moon-white robe above his head.
“Fear. But compared to death, I fear Ah Nian leaving even more,” Chu Zhaoyi confessed.
“Before entering, this humble one did not disarm his sword. Aren’t you afraid?”
Chu Zhaoyi didn’t answer.
If he guessed the other person’s identity correctly… as an assassin, it was indeed possible for him to commit regicide. However, the prerequisite was that regicide wouldn’t affect Fu Nian’s life.
Now, even if he could wield a sword, and even if he found him disagreeable, Chu Zhaoyi was a hundred percent confident that the other person would not harm him.
The gu worm had completely entered their bodies, and Chu Zhaoyi could still feel their wriggling. He sat up on the bed, casually straightening out his disheveled clothes and took a deep breath.
The sensation of coexisting with the gu worms was hard to ignore, even before they became poisonous. There was an occasional itch.
After more than a day of turmoil, Chu Zhaoyi finally had Li Gonggong bring him some pain-relieving medicine.
“They say that the emperor in the imperial city is a son of the dragon, different from ordinary mortals. Today, upon seeing you, it seems that you are indeed extraordinary. In the past, warriors who willingly planted the gu were never to return. Only you are an exception.”
Chu Zhaoyi sipped the bitter medicine slowly and glanced at the young man in front of him. “It’s quite a rare success. As a healer, you should be happy. You’ll definitely receive your reward, and from now on, you will be a honored guest in the palace, free to come and go as you please.”
“It’s not that I regret it… but Your Majesty’s fate is now in the hands of this person who won’t wake up. I hope you will be careful with your words and actions towards him in the future.”
Chu Zhaoyi treated this provocatively worded threat as if he hadn’t heard it. His expression remained calm, and he smoothly changed the topic, asking, “You are from the martial world, aren’t you? Have you heard of a faction east of Shuzhou that practices sinister and unorthodox methods and makes a living from assassination? The sect leader’s surname is Fu?”
Upon hearing this question, the young man in the moon-white robe hesitated slightly. “Of course, I’ve heard of it. The disciples of the Distant Moon Sect are known for their brutal killings and rarely fail. During the reign of the previous emperor, they had a good relationship with the royal family. Since Your Majesty ascended to the throne, they have hidden in the martial world, and the Fu surname is well-known throughout Jiuzhou. What would Your Majesty like to ask?”
“Nothing, the palace is suffocating, and I wanted to hear some tales from the martial world to relieve the boredom. I’ve heard that the leader of this Distant Moon Sect, the one with the Fu surname, enjoys picking up homeless children and taking them in as disciples. He teaches them martial arts from a young age until they can kill without blinking an eye. When they grow up, he releases them to gain experience until they become adults to test their loyalty. These ‘loyal’ disciples often consider him as a sworn brother, and some even see him as a father, but none of them can escape from his control, both physically and mentally. Yet in the end, no matter how deep the ‘master-disciple bond’ was in the past, they all die by his side in various strange ways or end up as playthings for him.”
“Your Majesty, I don’t quite understand where you’ve heard such malicious rumors. Lord Fu is benevolent and treats all the children he takes in as his own. His disciples are loyal to him out of gratitude for raising them, and there’s nothing sordid or filthy as you mentioned.”
Chu Zhaoyi didn’t rush to speak, but cast a suspicious glance at the young man’s expression.
Through his tightly sealed mask, a rare trace of guilt flickered in the young man’s otherwise unrestrained expression.
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