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I awoke with a yawn the next day to discover my bed in a mess. There was a delicate fragrance by my pillow, and a small quantity of ashes that seemed to be the remains of a incense stick for calming and soothing the nerves.
Who put it here?
I looked around, bending over to put on my shoes as I got off the bed. Draping my clothes over my shoulders, I went to the room next door. Fang Hua’s bedcovers were neatly folded, and he was nowhere to be seen.
The sun shone through the window lattices as it spilled into the room. The surface of the writing desk was empty, and the objects lying there last night had also disappeared, as if…
I suddenly realized I had overslept.
The doors opened lightly from outside, and Little Li entered with a basin of water, his head lowered. I turned around, still looking unpresentable, and scratched my head in perplexity. “Do you know where Lord Hua went so early?”
When the young eunuch saw me, his expression was clearly shocked. A shaking finger pointed at me. “It’s already midday and you’ve only just got out of bed?!”
In the end, he placed his hands in his sleeves, clicking his tongue and smiling as he circled me two or three times. “Lord Hua was called away very early in the morning to treat the emperor’s illness at the main hall. You really are something, waking up after your master.”
It’s not like I wanted to…when I figure out who used that incense on me, then they’ll have a good show…
The young eunuch had enough of ridiculing me and was now in profound thought. While staring at me, he suddenly knelt on the ground. Surprised, I backed away, but he only gave a knowing smile before wringing out a wet washcloth from the basin and wiping the floors.
So he was here to clean the floors…I thought he was bowing to me.
It was a novel sight, so I kneeled next to him and raised my own sleeves. “Doing work? How about I help too?”
“Hey, stop…stop that,” he raised his eyebrows, looking around before pausing on my disorderly bedcovers with a dubious smile. “I can do it myself, so there’s no need to trouble you. Or else, who knows how I’ll be punished?” This fellow, he couldn’t be thinking that last night Fang Hua and I…?
Curses, what kind of thoughts did he keep in his head?!
Helplessly, I left the room without a word. After the wind blew on me, I realized my stomach was empty and I was starving. I searched and pilfered through the rooms before resigning myself to the fact that the court ladies and eunuchs hadn’t left me any food.
My gloomy, dejected wanderings led me to who-knows-where.
Before me now was an expanse of peach blossoms blooming splendidly. A few delicate beauties as fine as jade stood in their midst, surrounding a male figure. A horse with a white mane pawed the dirt on one side with his hooves, whinnying occasionally.
Eh? Is horse-riding allowed inside the palace?
I used my sleeves to brush aside the branches, looking over a few more times. This horse was rather handsome with strong, robust legs. I wondered if they’d taste good if I roasted them. Two or three court ladies stood with faces flushed, the peach blossoms setting off their looks to make them all the more beautiful. These figures and those faces, as well as the gazes full of tender, timid affection…were really a captivating sight.
“Imperial physician, my master felt unwell upon waking up today.” What a pleasant-sounding flirt.
“Imperial Physician Nong, my master felt dizzy last night. No matter what you say, you should come over to our place first.” This one sounded soft and dainty.
Nongyu stood wordlessly smiling between them, his hand stroking the white horse like a virtuous sage as he gently muttered to himself, irresolute. “I’m busy attending to the emperor’s well-being, so I need to leave the palace to handle some affairs.”
“Really? That’s so unlucky,” the court ladies lowered their heads and held their handkerchiefs, exchanging glances with each other.
“Your masters’ illnesses will be seen to by other imperial physicians,” Nongyu seemed not to have noticed, his smile filled with modest courtesy on his gentle face.
Faker. He looked like a well-read scholar of the Confucian classics, but he was really a bad-intentioned weasel. Those girls were still young, so they didn’t understand…tsk, tsk.
I sighed with emotion and prepared to leave, but he suddenly lifted his face and raised his eyebrows, moving apart from the others…to rest at my face with a thoughtful smile. My expression shifted and I exclaimed, not good!
“I still have something to take care of, so I’ll be taking my leave,” He gracefully mounted the horse, the black robes and white jade hairpin evoking the image of an immortal. Pulling back on the reins, his eyes swept towards me with an expression full of tenderness.
I lowered my head and silently walked away.
A burst of horse hooves unhurriedly swept by me. I gave a start and braced myself, but he didn’t even look at me before waving his whip and stalk off, leaving…a big cloud of dust. I heaved a sigh of relief. Thank goodness he was far off now, I thought he’d try something again. He’d scared me enough to set my heart pounding, always touching this and touching that without my permission.
Then my ears pricked up, and an ominous feeling rose from the depths of my heart. Why was the sound of horse hooves getting louder and closer…? The court ladies nearby also sucked in their breaths.
My head turned numb.
Suddenly, a pair of hands found themselves around my waist. There was a light laugh, and someone’s breath tickled the hair on my temples. I blinked, and before I could react, my body was whisked off the ground, into the air…
While I was still badly shaken, a light jacket wrapped me tight in its embrace, its white down tickling my face immensely. Wind rushed past my ears, mixed with the laughter of the court ladies.
“Stupid Nongyu, what are you playing at?!”
“Shh, I want to take you somewhere before I leave the palace…don’t make a fuss. Be careful your noise doesn’t attract the guards.” his finger lightly caressed my face, elegant eyebrows arching towards his temples in a wide smile.
His was an exceedingly handsome face that concentrated all his looks in one point. The sun shone upon it as he looked down at me…the light making it hard for me to open my eyes.
It was a bumpy ride atop the horse. With no way to grab the reins, I was tossed about dizzily, and my empty stomach ached.
“Ah, we made it.”
I practically slid off the horse to fall painfully on my butt. The earth was damp here, and a thick fragrance of flowers hovered nearby. I took a deep breath and found myself in the midst of a sea of blossoms.
“Do you like it?” Nongyu smiled as he stood by my side.
“More than like it, this is simply…” Too exciting.
I swallowed wordlessly, so happy I had to use a sleeve to wipe away my drool as my tongue clicked. These flowers were enough to feed Fang Hua for years. If yifu was brought here, he’d definitely find it hard to contain his joy. Then pour him some wine, and maybe he’d voluntarily pledge marriage to someone… These thoughts made me more and more excited as they galloped off without my will.
“Oh, that’s right. Someone asked me to bring these to you.” Nongyu pulled out a cloth bundle from the horse and tossed it to my arms, smiling as he looked at me. “Open it up and take a look.”
I lowered my head uncertainly, weighing the package in my hands. It didn’t feel too strange, and the material was also extremely familiar…
“I have to leave the palace for a trip again today, so I’ll be back at night.” he said, voice like the sound of flowing water.
What did that have to do with me? Fellow brother, you don’t need to tell me these things. It’s fine even if you don’t come back for three years. Not the least interested in his talk, I sat down and untied the knot of the bundle. In turn, golden powder spilled onto my clothes, and the faint forms of a jade ring and butterfly hairpin could be seen within. Still a bit uncertain, I reached in and found a container of rouge as well.
“The emperor’s illness is still missing a certain ingredient to treat it, so I had the idea to look for it around Fang Hua’s house. I’ve heard that many rare and difficult-to-find medicinal plants grow there. And so…when your yifu heard me talk, he told me to bring these things to you.”
I lowered my head and silently dug into the bag.
Finally…I found something edible. My eyes brimmed with tears.
Nongyu sat down beside me, raising his robes to give me a rapt look as I devoured the food, speaking in a low tone. “Have or haven’t you been listening? What misfortune did I incur to meet a personality like yours…”
I curved my eyes into a smile and bit off another large mouthful, my words jumbled. “You try being hungry for half a day without food. I bet you’d be no better.”
His gaze grew increasingly soft as his hands reached behind and around my shoulders to tenderly stroke my hair. “When I return, I’ll tell them they can’t starve you.”
“It’s not their fault. I accidentally slept until noon so of course there was nothing left to eat.”
He gave a start, thoughts swirling as he looked at me again. “Fang Hua sure treats you well…”
I peered at the cloth bag with a stupid grin on my face. “Where do you think he dug up that gold powder from?”
He seriously considered the question, falling silent for quite a while before answering honestly. “I was just trying to figure out why the gold walls in His Majesty’s quarters looked so damaged…”
I was speechless. Fang Hua really was uncomplicated when it came to doing things. After burping, I took the chance to weigh the bag’s items in my hands to estimate their worth.
“Did you eat your fill? Hn…” he scooted over, asking quietly.
I continued as before, stuffing the bag into his arms before giving him a simple-minded smile. “The things from the imperial palace really are tasty, so just bring the leftovers to my house. It’s hard to hide these things when I’m living with him…that’s right,” I slowly moved closer to Nongyu and added softly, “Buried beneath the third Wutong tree in the backyard is a jar of fine wine. Just say that I asked you to bring it to yifu.”
“When you open your mouth, it’s always yifu. When have you ever thought of me…?”
I laughed in spite of myself, pulling up a sprig of dog-tailed grass to wave back and forth. “If there’s anything you want over there, just take it yourself.”
“I’m afraid you can’t afford to give me what I want.” Suddenly, the hand around my shoulders tightened as he pulled me into his lap. My eyes widened, and a rain of flowers flew into the air to float about us…as my head sank into the flowering plants, propped up by his hand. He was smiling as he leaned over and whispered gently by my ear, “I want you…”
I narrowed my eyes and looked at him. His gaze seemed to be seven parts joking and three parts serious, a certain banter showing itself through the unrestrained tenderness of his romantic charms.
I raised my hand and quietly touched his face, dumbfounded for a long while. “…why are you so handsome?” Not just handsome, but thick-skinned as well. How could you say such fraudulent words to a virgin girl in broad daylight?
He smiled, holding my hand to his face very comfortably as he gazed at me in rapt attention. Softly he asked, “So you’re pleased with my looks? You like them immensely?”
This was some top-tier stuff… I’ve never seen anyone so shameless.
“Un. Your words aren’t wrong, you’re exceedingly handsome.” I stroked him some more before pinching him. He actually closed his eyes as if he enjoyed it. After a few seconds, I gave him a sidelong glance and concluded, “Hard to tell, but it’s probably one of your face masks.”
He seized up before reacting, his expression completely dark. Rolling aside, he drew himself up and gave an embarrassed smile. “You really know how to ruin the mood.”
I kept my head lowered to dust off my robes, speaking casually. “You’ve already had your joke, so it’s time to get serious. Which medicinal ingredient are you missing that you have to look for at my house? Is the emperor’s illness still treatable?”
He lifted his eyes to look at me. “What if I said it’s all very official business?” His tone was light before he finally spoke with a grin. “Between everyone else under Heaven, only you would reject me like this.”
I stilled. His face drew near to gaze fixedly at me, the pupils lit with a depressing air that resembled pale moonlight. It was as if I’d done him a great wrong.
A sham…this was all a sham. I told myself secretly, but that couldn’t ward off the handsome man. His stare made me lose my bearings as he silently crept closer, a hand resting on my shoulder as he suddenly stole a kiss from my face.
I blinked a few times before I could react. The sensation vanished just as quickly, leaving a coolness behind when he pulled away his lips. His eyelashes hid his gaze as he turned away, using a hand to prop up his head to stare at me anew. I touched my face and looked at him doubtfully. His eyes were particularly bright.
So much for that hint of anxiety from before….I’d gotten tricked again.
“Y-y-you, just wait…!” I bent down and started grabbing poisons from my sleeves.
See if I don’t poison you!
He held me still, waving an index finger impressively. “I wasn’t taking advantage of you. That kiss was a token to pledge my love. Who knew you would wear this face mask every day? Each time I see it, I feel so touched that I can’t control myself.”
I couldn’t speak. How else could I infiltrate the palace without wearing this mask? When did it become a love pledge token?
You’re trying to con me again, huh?
That’s right, this dear friend of mine was trying to change the topic. I caught his sleeve and pulled tight. “Why has the emperor’s illness dragged on for so long? Is it still curable?” If it was difficult, then what was the point? Better to take yifu home instead.
“Affairs of the world are hard to ascertain. Many things aren’t as simple as you think,” he smiled a bit. “Actually, it’s not hard to cure at all…besides, Fang Hua’s here, isn’t he?”
I smiled briefly, but didn’t speak. Just from my observations these past few days… There were no problems with Fang Hua’s prescription, but the results were like that…whether or not the real medicine even ended up in the emperor’s stomach was hard to say.
“You can say what you like,” he gradually withdrew his smile, picking up his loose clothing to recover his respectable appearance. His gaze was gentle and soft. “Even if you’re full of ideas, your thoughts are written all over your face. It’s rare to find such a simple person.”
I only forced a smile, lightly rapping his shoulder. “What’s up with you today? You’re acting a bit off.”
“Perhaps, but you should listen to my advice.” The laughter in his eyes was replaced with sincerity. His gaze was brilliant. “No matter what you see or hear inside the palace, don’t say anything publicly. It won’t do you any favors.”
I looked at him, completely uncomprehending.
He laughed like the first time I met him, virtuous and sagely, his expression considerate and cordial. “The complexities of the court are ever shifting. It’s hard to read people’s hearts. I don’t know if I should allow you to continue living here, this choice might’ve been a mistake from the start…”
His hand stroked my hair.
“Shao’er, listen to me. You’re not suited for this place.”
I wasn’t used to this. I grew familiar with his dishonest self, but this was the first time he was using such time and energy to advise me. Without even including the strange behaviors of the eunuchs who prepared the emperor’s medicine, his single line here made it seem that a major crisis was imminent at court.
“No more chitchat, it’s already getting late,” he stood up, not even bothering to shake the bits of grass from his robes. “Although this is a fine steed, it’ll still take me over half a day to run back and forth from Fang Hua’s house.”
“You finally remembered that someone’s waiting for you to fetch medicine, huh.”
His lips quirked as he mounted the horse, pausing before he spoke. “Suppose the emperor got well, what would you do afterward?”
I raised my eyes to stare at him. “I want to stay with yifu. Where he goes, I’ll follow.”
He smiled, bending down to look at me beneath the sunlight. “I have vast holdings of fertile land and numerous residences. My accumulated properties aren’t flimsy at all. Moreover…” he drew nearer, as if discussing business. “I have no parents nor siblings, and I’ve yet to marry. Do you want to give me some consideration?”
“Imperial Physician Nong, if you don’t leave now…I’m afraid the emperor’s body won’t hold out much longer to take your medicine.”
The horse seemed impatient as well as it shifted from side to side. He held the reins and gave me a smile. “Shao’er, you have to remember my words.” In the end, that smile was filled with deep meaning and urged one to think things over. Before I could react, he whipped his horse and left, leaving me with a face full of dust.
After spitting, I stood stupefied. Something didn’t seem right, but I couldn’t figure out what until some time had passed. Grr, seriously…to think one way and act another…
Using those words to describe him was way too appropriate.
Nongyu, oh Nongyu, you look so mild and gentle, but your heart was ruthless. Such a long road back, and you tossed me here…how was I going to get home?
The plants grew with no signs of human habitation. Where the heck was I? I fumbled about the boundless sea of flowers until the sunlight started to fade. I didn’t know when the setting sun starting shining on my back and made everything melancholy.
A fine steed, truly worthy of its title. When Nongyu took me captive on his horse, I was only jostled around on my stomach for a while. After I found the palace on foot and returned to Fang Hua’s quarters, it was already late at night…
 dog-tailed grass (????) ?gouweiba cao, most likely a form of Setara viridis, or wild foxtail millet.
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