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The imperial palace was extremely luxurious.
The old man emperor lived in a main hall that was resplendent without measure. Wherever the eyes looked, everything glittered…the dragon pearls embellishing the walls were extremely huge, and really made a person drool with envy.
The common people were suffering, but he sure knew how to enjoy himself, though that had stopped now.
A fine vermillion canopy screened a bed from view, its fabric embroidered with gold dragons baring their fangs and claws. A hazy form could be seen within, accompanied by the loud noises of someone gasping for breath.
He sounded very uncomfortable…
For a person confined to bed with a weak body, it was important to maintain proper airflow. With this gauze in the way, wouldn’t it only exacerbate his sickness?
“Your servant pays respects to His Imperial Highness.”
The sudden voice frightened me after I had finally managed to steady Fang Hua’s medical instruments in my arms. Peering from behind, I saw Nongyu catch my eye with a smile that wasn’t quite a smile.
Strange, he was here too.
His medical knowledge was exemplary, so he should know these things. Even if the servants had forgotten to open the windows and draw the screens, he should remind them. Why wasn’t he interfering or paying the matter any attention now?
Han Zichuan swept his robes, filled with the imposing air of a crown prince. “Rise. How is father’s illness?”
“After a months-long coma, he awoke briefly to mutter a few things before losing consciousness. Now that Lord Fang Hua’s come to personally treat him, the emperor’s illness will certainly get better.” Nongyu’s expression was one of sincerity, his sleeves spread open in a bow. His figure was infused with ceremony and propriety the whole time he led us to the monarch’s bed.
A servant lifted aside the bed-curtains. Inside was a roughly 40 to 50-year-old man with emaciated features lying on the bed. His face was deathly pale, yet his lips were a blackish red, and the space between his eyebrows seemed a bit dark. As for the original eyebrows, they were already gone.
This was the current emperor? It looked like he was close to dying…
I gave a glance and noticed that Fang Hua had already pulled up his sleeves to lift aside the bedcovers. He didn’t take a pulse, but just pressed on the body in random places. There was no way to know the status of his diagnosis.
An indistinct sound rose as a torrent from the patient’s lips. Fang Hua knitted his brows and didn’t move, but reached behind him towards me… His finger shook impatiently two or three times. I blinked my eyes and fell into thought…
My head lowered to look within the pouch and its varying sizes of acupuncture needles. Which one did he want?
As it turned out, he lost patience waiting and slowly turned to give me another silent look. Those fingers moved over and past me to plunder the bag and take out a handful of needles. There were thick ones and thin ones, long ones and short ones. Their silvery light glinted back and forth in his hands as he poked the emperor like a doll. Casting all caution to the winds, the needles swooped down…until every single point had a needle in place.
I was silent…
Nongyu looked as if he hadn’t processed everything yet, and Han Zichuan was completely floored.
In the beginning, the emperor still had a breath…now there wasn’t a sound. How tragic. Although the emperor had snatched resources from all under the heavens, Fang Hua had now pricked him black and blue all over into silence. That’s why the saying went, ‘no matter who you offend, never offend a doctor.’
Fang Hua sat down and waited for a while. Han Zichuan and Nongyu must have had plenty of faith in his medical skills because neither expressed any anxiety or misgivings. Instead, both retreated to the sides to talk about state affairs or the price by weight of medicinal ingredients.
My head drooped as I held the cloth bag in my arms, bored into drowsiness. Suddenly, a sleeve flashed before my face, startling me awake…just in time to see Fang Hua extend his hand, warm it up a bit, and start pulling out the needles.
The silver needles had flashed when they were stabbed in and still gleamed as they were pulled out, with no changes in color.
Just by looking at the emperor’s face, he was definitely poisoned…but there was no way to scope out the source. I held my cloth and reached out to receive the needles, but Fang Hua brushed me aside, shaking his head as he gave me a cold glance. While I was trying to puzzle him out, he blew on a needle held between his fingers.
The shiny needle immediately turned black, giving one a sense of dread.
“This poison is very odd and hard to perceive. The needles I stuck inside….most of them changed colors. I’m afraid that the poison has already hurt his internal organs.”
“Is there any possibility of a cure?” Han Zichuan’s face sank as he hurried over.
“I’ll write a prescription first to temporarily restrain the poison. The rest will be left for afterward.” Fang Hua turned his glance towards me, and I took the hint to start grinding some ink from the inkstick.
He raised his sleeves without a second thought, writing words with a brush like floating clouds and flowing water as he recorded the name of the ingredients and its various weights. I cast a sidelong glance and saw that it was a medicine he rarely prescribed… I used to jokingly call it a miracle pill, and had sold it for a high price to Nongyu.
Nongyu took the formula into his hands and carefully reviewed it, before calling for the eunuchs to bring over the stove.
He really was lazy, insisting on making his inferiors labor before him. I wanted to help, but Fang Hua lightly held me back, quietly shaking his head. Then he lowered his head and went about his own business, drinking tea. Han Zichuan stared at me with shining eyes, before giving a thoughtful gaze towards Fang Hua, and sat down on a chair to play with a ring on his finger.
Two or three eunuchs carefully followed the formula to measure out the weights for each ingredient. Nongyu directed them from the sides and frequently jumped in to do the job himself. I couldn’t hold back a yawn as I closed my eyes, though I suddenly caught a glimpse of a certain young eunuch briefly raising his sleeve. I looked down and fell silent.
A decoction of medicinal ingredients had been cooking for around four hours, enough to fill many small bowls. The eunuchs handling the bowls had to drink first, then the imperial physicians, before it reached the emperor. Each of them looked as if they were drinking a rebirth elixir, their eyebrows knitted as they held their bowls while shaking in fear. I really wanted to laugh…
They were a bunch of fools. The good fortune they’d cultivated in former lives allowed them this chance to drink such a treasured medicine. Just one sip would prevent light poisons from entering the body for half a year.
I pursed my lips and walked over, getting myself a bowl. Abruptly, I felt a heated stare at my back that put me ill at ease. I started, uncomprehending, before lifting a bowl to take a whiff….before my eyebrows knitted and I took a sip.
This taste was wrong.
The prescription was accurate, but this decoction was missing a certain element.
Nongyu used a sleeve to wipe his mouth. “There are no issues with the medicine. Take it to use on the emperor.” I gave him an astonished glance. Fang Hua’s expression was serene as he raised the bowl to take a whiff. Whatever thoughts he had, he didn’t utter them.
My heart sank slightly as I looked at the ruler on his last breath. A wry smile appeared on my lips. With so many people who wanted you dead…how could you not die?
Nongyu had once bought the pill version of this particular medicine from my very hands. If he had given it to you timely, your illness wouldn’t have dragged on so long or made you suffer so much. Now there was medicine, but someone had intentionally left out one of the ingredients.
What was the use in taking it?
How could an imperial physician have such gall? Looks like someone was instigating him behind his back. My eyes drifted past to the filial crown prince on one side, presenting tea and pouring water, and was caught in his gaze. Han Zichuan sat on a chair, his head propped on his hands as he looked at me with a smile that wasn’t a smile. My scalp turned numb, and I made do to slowly lower my head, my hands holding an empty bowl as I stared absently at the ground.
The imperial palace…
Maybe it really was as Fang Hua said, and more complicated than the jianghu.
Six hours finally passed. Watching them hurrying up and down, dismantling the pot and stove, shutting the bed-curtains and closing the doors, I felt a bit faint. I forcefully roused myself and stuck it out for a bit, but my heart felt much more carefree when we left.
The sun set as willow catkins swirled in the air. I closed my eyes. The affair was over, and the circumstances had shifted. Everything seemed to suggest that things had remained the same, but the people had changed.
“These unaffected pear blossoms in the mist, the numerous willow catkins floating in the air, isn’t this a fine scene?” a soft and gentle voice drifted over from behind me. I paid it no mind, but continued walking forward at my own pace. Then, someone clapped me from behind and painfully caught me by the shoulder.
I turned my face, expressionless.
Before me stood Han Zichuan with a slight smile, though his gaze was slightly uncertain. He gave me a fixed stare before asking in a low voice, “Shao’er, it’s you, right?”
“Crown Prince, your highness.” I respectfully hailed him, “Your servant doesn’t quite understand your words.”
He slowly released his grip, eyebrows furrowing as he looked at me in surprise.
“Why is it like this….? You don’t look alike or sound alike,” he seemed disappointed as he muttered to himself, “But…why do your figures from the back look so similar?”
He circled me as if wanting to say more. I only smiled with an innocent expression. Fang Hua was walking ahead, but turned to look back and speak in a light tone. “Let’s go.”
My heart eased, and I couldn’t help but hasten my steps to catch up. The whole way I tried to fathom how much Fang Hua had heard, but he didn’t speak a word, nor did he look at me once. When we returned to our rooms, Fang Hua’s expression became noticeably fatigued, and he sat on the bed with a blank face.
I was led aside to have a meal. Since the court ladies and eunuchs had already eaten, there were only leftovers. Fortunately, Little Li had left some wheat flour mantou for me. Though they smelled delicious, their taste had no flavor in my mouth.
Yifu’s behavior today was a bit weird, which made me very restless and uneasy. I chewed on my last bite while I washed my hands, lost in thought for a short while. Then, I slowly carried over some hot water and a clean washcloth to his door and knocked a few times.
“Come in.” The voice was chilly.
The wooden door had a heavy sound.
I raised my eyes to see Fang Hua changed into a plain white inner robe, sitting blankly on the bed. In that moment it was as if he’d stolen my breath away…
He was still in the same position as when I’d left him, leaning completely against the wall as he sat on the bed. His expression was lonely and desolate, hand propping up his head as he looked out the window. The whole scene seemed as placid as water. Hazy moonlight shone on his body, and the snow-white robes seemed to emanate a light glow. His eyebrows were especially gentle and soft…
Right now, he seemed to be filled with an indescribable sorrow that weighed him down and made my heart ache.
“Lord Hua, your servant carried over some hot water for you to soak your feet.”
He started, looking at me as if finding it hard to believe, before slow replying with, “Thank you.”
I managed to smile with difficulty, meekly walking forward to set down the basin and quietly keep watch from the bed, raising an eye to look at him. Fang Hua’s expression seemed to hesitate as he lowered his legs from the bed, shifting his snow-white robes upwards while placing his pretty feet over the basin, but not in the water.
I carefully wrapped his feet in the cloth and wiped it lightly with warm water. He shook a bit but didn’t flinch back…
I know he didn’t like touching people, so I avoided directly brushing his skin. From what I heard from the court eunuchs, masters really enjoyed it when servants waited upon them this way. The hot water helped a person to relax, and the various positions on the foot could relieve stress when pressed…though I had yet to learn them, I still wanted to do something for him.
Although this was all I could do now…
It was very clear that my movements were clumsy and awkward.
“I’ve troubled you,” he lowered his head and lightly smiled. I only felt exceedingly embarrassed, and my face started to burn. My hands didn’t know where to go either and waved a few times, splashing water on myself. He sat upright, the corners of his mouth still pulled into a smile. Beneath the moonlight, his expression was particularly temperate and mild. My heart pitter-pattered out of control as I quickly looked away.
Hazy forms rested against the walls, one big, one small. One was sitting, while the other was leaning in by its feet. As the shadows weighed down, a section of hair swept past my face and a delicate fragrance entered my nose. Surprised, I had no time to duck aside.
I only saw a pair of white slender fingers move towards the front of my robes and touched them lightly. He conveniently drew out a red lotus, its petals scattered and near the point of wilting away.
 floating clouds and flowing water (????) ?xingyun liushui, idiom for something natural and spontaneous
 ring on his finger (??) ?banzhi, ornamental thumb ring, usually made from jade and originally worn by ancient archers to protect their thumbs when drawing a bowstring.
 rebirth elixir (???) ?toutaiyao, in which ‘toutai’ describes the spirit undergoing reincarnation after the body dies, and ‘yao’ is medicine/pill/etc.
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