In the imperial palace, within the East garden, Huang Rang was carefully cultivating Double snake fruit trees. These trees had never been cultivated by her outside of her dreams before. Now, in her dreams, they demanded a great deal of her attention.
Di Yiqiu had not come yet, and neither Li Lu nor Bai Qingyun had visited again. After waiting for several days, Huang Rang sent Dai Yue to inquire, but even Dai Yue couldn’t find Di Yiqiu—he was not at the Celestial Court.
On this day, Dai Yue once again returned empty-handed.
Huang Rang could no longer sit still. She walked out of the East garden. The palace maids at the entrance saw her and said, “Miss Ten, this is a restricted area. You cannot wander around freely. Where are you going?”
Huang Rang was friendly with the palace maid too. She handed her a silver coin and smiled, saying, “The Double snake fruit seedlings are about to mature, but there is something urgent I need. Please take me to see Fu Gonggong.”
If it was to see Fu Gonggong, then naturally, it was acceptable.
The palace maid accepted the silver coin, feeling that Huang Rang was kind, and she also smiled and said, “If it’s urgent, we can’t waste time. Miss Ten, please follow me.”
Huang Rang followed her, walking along the small path surrounded by palace walls. Occasionally, palace servants passed by, all hurrying along without glancing around. Not knowing the layout of the palace, she couldn’t tell where she had arrived.
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Outside the door, Lu Gonggong, who was dozing off while guarding the candle, suddenly woke up and said, “Chief?”
Di Yiqiu said, “These clothes are too tight on me.”
“Oh… Oh.” Lu Gonggong quickly said, “Indeed, Chief has been swelling up these days, and the clothes must be uncomfortable. Please take them off first, and I’ll find you a looser robe.”
That was easy to say, but how could the official uniform of Di Yiqiu be easily taken off?
It was tightly bound to his body, like another layer of skin.
Lu Gonggong brought a black robe, but he had no choice but to use scissors to cut it open for him. As the scissors cut through the fabric, the skin beneath Di Yiqiu’s clothes was fully exposed. His purplish-black, blood-like skin had lost any semblance of humanity.
The winding, twisted snake scales were horribly shocking.
Di Yiqiu stared at the fine scales all over his body, then his gaze was drawn to the scissors. The scissors were small and not very sharp, but the candlelight made them glisten.
He reached out, trembling, and held the scissors in his hand.
His hands and feet were all locked together with complex chains. Given his current condition, it was impossible for him to break free. But now he had a pair of scissors.
Days of suffering and mania erupted at this moment. He needed to get out and leave this place!
He clenched the scissors, trembling as he tried to open the chains on his wrist. Each chain had nine locks inside, requiring a specially-made key to open. Di Yiqiu struggled to break the scissors in half and then used one part to sharpen the other.
His hands were shaking, and his body was in pain everywhere. He felt like he was rotting away, but he kept grinding the makeshift key frantically. There seemed to be a voice in his ear, repeating over and over again, “Leave this place.”
Such a complex key, and he had only spent half an hour grinding it.
His breathing became erratic, and his eyes seemed to have lost their focus. But the crude key still managed to fit into the lock. He gently turned the other half of the scissors, his mind in chaos, not thinking about anything.
Yet his hand seemed to have a mind of its own.
With a click, the lock opened. Di Yiqiu’s breath became increasingly rapid. Using the half-key, he unlocked the remaining shackles one by one. Then he rushed out recklessly.
On the first floor of Yuanrong Tower, Qiu Shengbai was writing prescriptions and checking today’s medications. Suddenly, a dark figure rushed up from the lower level of the tower. Qiu Shengbai was stunned, and it took him a while to react before shouting loudly, “Stop him! Quickly stop him!”
Di Yiqiu couldn’t hear the voices around him. Blood rushed to his head, and his mind was in chaos. He only knew he had to run forward but had no idea where to go.
His official uniform was torn and tattered, and his skin was swollen and purplish, covered with snake scales. His coronet had been taken away to prevent him from harming himself. His hair was disheveled, and he didn’t even have a robe on.
He ran barefoot on the palace path like a wild beast, like a ghost. But he no longer looked like a human.
Qiu Shengbai and his men chased after him, but as a doctor, he had no strength for such a pursuit. He ran too fast and fell to the ground, shouting, “Capture him quickly! At this moment of poison outbreak, he must rest or else the toxins will attack his heart, and he will go mad and die!”
The men heard him and went after him, but Di Yiqiu seemed to have boundless strength now. The guards didn’t dare to hurt him, so how could they catch him?
He had lost all sense of direction; his mind was deranged, and he was just running aimlessly through the palace. As the palace people chased after him, he leaped over a palace wall.
At the same time, on the path below the wall, Huang Rang was being led by a palace maid towards Fu Gonggong’s residence.
She was in a hurry, and unexpectedly, something jumped down from the wall and crashed into her. Caught off guard, she was knocked down and fell to the ground, her vision filled with stars. If she hadn’t practiced martial arts for years, this blow would have been enough to cause serious injuries. Rubbing her chest, she said, “What is this—”
But at this point, her vision cleared again.
In that fourth lunar month of the mortal world, she saw the person who collided with her also fall to the ground. Although his tattered clothes were dirty, if you looked closely, you could see their original color.
… It was purple.
He lay there with his unkempt hair covering his face, and Huang Rang couldn’t see his expression.
She didn’t approach, and the palace maid beside her held her hand and said, “Miss, don’t look; let’s go quickly!”
The creature on the ground no longer moved, lying quietly, until the palace people caught up and pinned him down. They used heavy shackles to lock his hands again, but he didn’t struggle, keeping his face hidden beneath the tangled hair.
As Huang Rang passed by him with the palace maid, he remained motionless, as if dead.
The palace maid whispered, “He’s really frightening.”
“Yes, very frightening.” Huang Rang lowered her gaze as she passed by him, seeing his hands swollen and deformed, with even the nails painted black. How could that be a human hand? She stepped over the path near his hand with her embroidered shoes. The palace path was clean, making his hand, covered in dirt and with countless snake scales, even more terrifying. She whispered, “I may know who he is.”
She followed the palace maid and walked forward until the commotion behind them had receded. Then she slightly turned her body. Right behind her, the guards had secured the man, lifting his arms and dragging him away.
He was barefoot, and his toes were scraped by the palace bricks, leaving a long and thin trail of blood.
She had to exert considerable effort to maintain her smile.
Fu Gonggong was not on duty today.
As Huang Rang entered, he was leisurely drinking tea. She smiled faintly and greeted him with a bow, saying, “Fu Gonggong, I hope all is well.”
“Oh, why did Miss Ten come?” Fu Gonggong set down the teacup and asked hurriedly, “Has the Double snake fruit tree matured?”
Huang Rang smiled gently and said, “Regarding that matter, the Double snake fruit tree is about to take shape. The Huang family has finally lived up to His Majesty’s expectations. However, there is still one unresolved issue, and I have no choice but to seek an audience with Lord Di or His Majesty.”
“Seek an audience with His Majesty?” Fu Gonggong seemed surprised but still asked with a smile, “I wonder what Miss Ten needs to discuss with His Majesty?”
Huang Rang took a light breath, making her voice sound calm. She said, “To be honest, just a month ago, Lord Di went to Xiancha Town and publicly proposed to marry a maid of the Huang family. But now, as the wedding date approaches, he has disappeared without a trace. As you know, for a girl, this is a matter of a lifetime. Huang Rang has no choice but to seek His Majesty’s intervention. Or perhaps I can speak to Lord Di and demand an explanation.”
A fleeting look of difficulty flashed across Fu Gonggong’s face, and Huang Rang certainly noticed it. She said, “Is there something troubling you, Gonggong?”
“Ah.” Fu Gonggong took a while to respond: “In these recent days, Lord Di… I’m afraid he may not be able to see Miss Ten. Let me personally inform His Majesty on behalf of Miss Ten.”
Huang Rang bowed to him and said, “Then I shall trouble you, Gonggong.”
Fu Gonggong had been ordered by Shi Wenyu to cultivate the Double snake fruit tree. There had already been complications, and he was quite anxious. Now that the seedlings were about to mature, he didn’t want any more disturbances.
Thus, he decided to report to Shi Wenyu.
When Fu Gonggong entered, chaos had broken out inside.
“What happened here?” Fu Gonggong’s expression turned serious.
Qiu Shengbai was also in distress. He had dragged Di Yiqiu back into the prison cell at the bottom of the tower. Di Yiqiu made no resistance, looking like a lifeless object devoid of strength.
Seeing him like this, Fu Gonggong was even more troubled, saying, “Alas, Miss Ten just mentioned wanting to meet Lord Di…”
“Miss Ten.. Isn’t she busy cultivating the Double snake fruit? Why would she want to see Lord Di?” Qiu Shengbai commanded the guards to relock the first autumn, and he also had Lu Gonggong carried out. Lu Gonggong was not seriously injured and didn’t need medical treatment, just waiting to wake up.
Fu Gonggong said, “I heard it’s about his marriage with the Huang family maid. Now, I can only inform His Majesty on her behalf.”
As the two were talking, suddenly the person in front of them moved. Qiu Shengbai froze, and Fu Gonggong was so frightened that he took several steps back.
“Don’t let her see His Majesty.” Di Yiqiu’s voice was weak and almost imperceptible.
Fu Gonggong asked, “Lord Di, are you awake?”
He thought Di Yiqiu had fainted. Di Yiqiu said again, “Don’t let her see His Majesty.”
This time, Fu Gonggong understood and said, “But Miss Ten is devoted to cultivating the Double snake fruit for His Majesty. If she doesn’t put her heart into it, I’m afraid…”
Di Yiqiu’s lips moved. “I… will go see her.”
Fu Gonggong suddenly felt very troubled and said, “But Lord Di’s current condition…” He naturally felt that something was off and hurriedly added, “I’m afraid going outside might expose him to wind and cold, which is not suitable for his condition.”
Di Yiqiu tried hard to stand up, and Fu Gonggong moved to assist. However, Qiu Shengbai on the side hurriedly said, “Don’t.”
“What’s wrong?” Fu Gonggong asked.
Qiu Shengbai whispered, “Last night, Xiaochunzi helped support the Seventh Young Master and got his neck bitten.”
Fu Gonggong shuddered, knowing well that these people had undergone a dramatic change in temperament and couldn’t be understood using normal standards. He wanted to approach but didn’t dare.
Di Yiqiu managed to support himself and stand up, the handcuffs clattering as he did so. He said, “Prepare a quiet room. I… want to talk to her from behind the curtain.”
Due to his swollen tongue, his speech was unclear. Fu Gonggong glanced at Qiu Shengbai, and he could only say, “Alright, but keep the foot and wrist restraints intact.”
Thus, Di Yiqiu wore the black chain cuffs and made his way to the first floor of the tower.
When he stepped out of the tower’s entrance, there was no sun outside, and the light wasn’t strong. In his previous madness, he hadn’t noticed, but now that his senses were returning, he subconsciously turned away from the light.
Under the sudden daylight, he saw the dirt on his body. He had just captured vipers and snakes before immediately entering the palace, and after days of imprisonment and experimentation, the blood and dust had already become one with him.
When Lu Gonggong cut open his robes earlier, he was already covered in tattered clothes, bearing no resemblance to a human anymore. He looked like a monster that had hidden in the darkness, struggling to survive, and had suddenly appeared in the daylight.
He staggered into a quiet room, remaining silent all the way. Fu Gonggong pulled a curtain for him, blocking the faint daylight and the sight of the scenery blessed with the fourth lunar month sun; he dared not look at it directly.
Once the curtain was drawn, Di Yiqiu sat down in the quiet room, and only then did Fu Gonggong go to fetch Huang Rang.
During the waiting interval, Qiu Shengbai remained worried, and he asked, “How do you feel, Lord Di?” Naturally, he was trying to ascertain if he was genuinely in his right mind. After all, during his previous madness, he should have lost consciousness and died from exhaustion.
How did he suddenly regain his sanity?
Di Yiqiu seemed to sense himself and said, “Blurry senses, light aversion, uncontrollable limb tremors. Pulse like burning fire.”
Though his speech was unclear, his consciousness was quite clear. Qiu Shengbai recorded his symptoms in the medical records, wanting to ask him how he had recovered his sanity but also fearing to distress him.
Before long, footsteps sounded outside the room. Di Yiqiu instinctively sat up straight, lifting his head to see a figure approaching from behind the curtain. The distance was short, but each step felt like a heavy weight on his heart.
“Lord Di, are you well?” The woman’s voice came through, as if passing through numerous obstacles. Di Yiqiu could only vaguely hear the content, but he knew it carried a tone of laughter and sweetness.
Every word he spoke was slow but clear: “The engagement between me and Dai Yue is canceled. Once you cultivate the Double snake fruit, return to Xiancha Town. His Majesty’s reward will be sent to the Huang family.”
Qiu Shengbai stood beside him, hearing his speech much clearer than before. In fact, his tone sounded the same as usual. How was this possible?
Huang Rang stood outside the curtain, her smile like clear water. “I see. Lord Di will disappoint Daiyue. She has been thinking about you these days.”
Behind the dense curtain, she could only see a vague figure. The person sat upright, still and silent, with no response.
Di Yiqiu’s voice spoke again: “Miss Ten should focus on her responsibilities. You may leave now.”
Huang Rang smiled faintly and said, “Lord Di, you are truly unfeeling. Well, then let’s meet again next spring planting season.”
Next… next year? The person behind the curtain remained silent.
Huang Rang continued, “Speaking of which, I’ve learned to brew a kind of wine using the fragrance of roses with a mellow taste. During next year’s spring planting season, I invite Lord Di to drink with me. How does that sound?”
Rose-scented wine? Through the curtain, Di Yiqiu gazed at the blurry figure. She was truly beautiful; even this unclear silhouette exuded an unparalleled charm. Meanwhile, his own face was swollen, his skin was turning purple, and the scattered snake scales growing all over him emitted a strong snake-like odor.
He said, “No need.”
“If you don’t come, I’ll personally bring it to you.” Huang Rang’s voice sounded like a soft, sweet whisper.
This soft and gentle whisper was like honey.
Di Yiqiu remained silent. Huang Rang bowed again and stepped back a few steps, looking at the figure behind the curtain. There was only one person behind that curtain, sitting still and silent, offering no response.
She turned around and walked out of the quiet room.
In the fourth Lunar month, the flowers and trees were verdant. But her footsteps felt as heavy as a thousand catties, making it difficult to move forward. Even if she knew this was just a dream, even if she knew he would surely overcome this danger, how could she act as if nothing happened?
The late spring wind brought a chill, stirring up the traces of time and intertwining past events.
Di Yiqiu, this is the second time I’m inviting you to drink.
Please… you must come.