Lin Haihai followed the girl from the street to an alleyway. Then they took a few turns and walked through a long interconnected lane. Finally, they stopped before a shabby house. The winding paths they took left Lin Haihai disoriented. Thank heavens that Zheng Feng was with her, or she would’ve gotten lost on her way out.
The wooden door was locked with a long iron rod. The girl gingerly moved it away and pushed the door ajar, saying apologetically, “Please go ahead. I’ll hold it open!”
Lin Haihai threw Zheng Feng a glance, who went up to hold the door without missing a beat. “Allow me to fix it for you!”
“You stay here for the moment then,” Lin Haihai said. “We’ll head inside first!”
“Wait, let’s go together after I get the door sorted out!” Zheng Feng said seriously and stopped Lin Haihai from heading in. She might as well be an infant in need of protection in his mind.
Lin Haihai sighed. I’m not an endangered animal! I did have a bowl of poisoned soup, but that’s all! She stayed rooted to the spot like a drawing compass while Zheng Feng fixed the wooden door with practiced ease. He then clapped away the dust on his hands and told the girl, “It’s all good now. You don’t need to use other stuff to hold the door open from now on!”
The girl looked visibly moved. She lowered her head, her expression turning serious as she said, “Thank you. Apologies for the trouble!”
Zheng Feng walked up to Lin Haihai with an impassive look on his face. “Let’s go!”
Lin Haihai walked slowly inside. Zheng Feng had changed. He had been a young man with an easy laugh and a talkative nature, but now he’d become quiet and aloof. She wondered if something had happened to him.
The house was almost falling apart, but the interior was clean and tidy. A simple wooden table sat in the room. The furniture and windows were completely free of any dust, which made the place much easier on the eyes. On the windowsill was a ceramic pot of aquatic plants, which were blooming with faintly fragrant flowers. Lin Haihai had never seen the plants before, and the flowers smelled really nice. The back of the room was concealed by a large piece of light yellow curtain. She could barely make out the silhouette of a figure lying on the bed.
The girl went through the curtain and said respectfully, “I’ve invited a physician here, Mistress!”
“That won’t be necessary, Juanzi. My illness cannot be treated. You should keep the silvers and stop wasting any on me!”
Lin Haihai concentrated on the voice. The woman sounded calm and deliberate, and her tone reminded Lin Haihai of Empress Chen. The woman couldn’t have been a nobody. How did she end up in this state?
Lin Haihai parted the curtains and approached the bed, on which sat a woman in her thirties. She looked ill, but her illness did nothing to conceal her stunning look. There was an air of nobility about her that piqued Lin Haihai’s interest. She quickly dismissed the possibility that came to her mind. The woman was in her thirties, while Chen Luoqing had said that the empress dowager of Rong was an old woman. She couldn’t be her.
The woman was surprised to see LIn Haihai. The girl explained, “This is Physician Lin Haihai. Everyone in the capital seeks her out when they’re ill. She’s a masterful physician!”
Lin Haihai smiled faintly and sat down by the bed to take the woman’s pulse. In a friendly tone, she asked, “What symptoms do you have?”
The woman covered her chest with a hand and said sorrowfully, “There’s no point in treating me, Physician Lin. It’ll only be a waste of silvers. Please go!”
Lin Haihai frowned. She could tell that the woman had given up on herself. “Your illness isn’t serious. Why have you lost the will to fight for your life?”
“I have nothing to live for!” The woman met Lin Haihai’s gaze. Her eyes shone with incredible despair.
Lin Haihai’s brows furrowed in disapproval. “There is always something to live for. I don’t want you to give up your life so easily!”
“Physician Lin, what is my master afflicted with?” the girl asked worriedly.
“It doesn’t matter,” Lin Haihai said coldly and let go of the woman’s hand. “Without the will to live, anyone would become a walking dead even without any illnesses!”
“Please don’t mind my master’s words, Physician Lin!” The girl dropped to her knees, her eyes reddened. “Please treat her if it’s at all possible!”
“Get up, Juanzi! You mustn’t beg anyone for something so trivial!” the woman snapped at the girl, agitated.
Zheng Feng rushed into the room when he heard their conversation from outside the door. There was an urgency to his voice when he asked, “Your name is Juanzi?”
Lin Haihai heard the unspoken question. She cast an inquisitive look at the girl.
Juanzi panickedly shot to her feet and stood before the bed to protect the woman, staring at Lin Haihai and Zheng Feng with wide eyes. The woman struggled to sit up and levelled Lin Haihai with resentful eyes. “Who are you?”
Lin Haihai gestured at Zheng Feng to leave the room. He nodded and did as she instructed. Then she said seriously, “You must be the empress dowager of Rong. I’m a physician of the Linhai Hospital in the capital, but I’m also the Head of the Imperial Physicians Branch of Daxing!”
“A female branch head?” the woman asked in surprise.
“Let’s not go into the issue of gender,” Lin Haihai said with resignation. There’s nothing strange about it. There has been a female prime minister in the United Kingdoms!
“What do you want?” The woman hadn’t relaxed her guard.
Lin Haihai gently pushed Juanzi to the side and said, “Nothing. I’m a physician, and all I do is treat people!”
“Aren’t you here to capture us?” Juanzi asked in surprise.
Lin Haihai gave them a reassuring smile. “I don’t get involved in court matters. If you place your trust in me and come with me, I’ll arrange a residence for you. I promise no one will be able to find you!”
“There’s no need. We’re fine as we are.” The empress dowager turned Lin Haihai down. Although the young woman didn’t seem to wish her any harm, she had long learned to distrust anyone and everyone.
“So be it then,” Lin Haihai said seriously. “However, you must get yourself treated. Life is precious no matter the circumstances. You shouldn’t give up on yours!”
“There is no difference between life and death!” the empress dowager murmured with disinterest. She had been through the highest high and the lowest low in her life. Her only son ended up dead at his hands. Although her son deserved to die, he was her child. She had given birth to him after ten months of pregnancy, and he was the only thing tethering her to the world. Now that her anchor was gone, it didn’t matter if she lived or died.
“Please don’t lose hope, Empress Dowager! Perhaps His Majesty is still alive!” Juanzi pleaded ruefully. “This servant has said before. The regent still cares about you!”
“Don’t ever bring him up before me!” the empress dowager snapped icily.
Lin Haihai now knew for sure that the woman was the empress dowager of Rong. She wondered why the empress dowager seemed so young. “Would you let me examine you?” she asked. “I’ll determine if you should be treated. After all, I’m the physician here!”
The empress dowager looked up at her. “You’re very young for a physician!”
“I’m not young. I’m quite old!” Lin Haihai laughed. She was telling the truth. She had been about to turn thirty before this life.
“Are you really a physician?”
“I am.” She turned to holler at Zheng Feng, “Get me my medical kit, Zheng Feng!”
Zheng Feng rushed in with the medical kit. The empress dowager could see the deep yearning in his eyes. That man used to look at her with the same gaze, but now, all he could see was power.
“Is he your husband?”
Lin Haihai chuckled, her eyes shining brilliantly. “He isn’t. He’s like a brother to me. I’m with someone else!”
Her stunning smile stung Zheng Feng’s eyes more than all the violence he had witnessed before. He turned away from her. There was a prickling pain in his heart, but also joy. At least she considered him her brother.
A shadow passed through the empress dowager’s face when she saw the joy in Lin Haihai’s eyes. What a wonderful thing youth is! One can love and be loved free of worldly concerns. She had been young once, but time flew by in the blink of an eye.
Lin Haihai took out her stethoscope to examine the empress dowager thoroughly, who looked at it with curiosity. “What is it?”
Lin Haihai didn’t respond. After a good while, she put away the stethoscope and said, “You’re more or less fine, but your heartbeats are irregular. Do you often feel tightness and pain in your chest?”
“That condition has been with me since my youth,” the empress dowager said carelessly. “Besides, death is out of anyone’s control!”
“I suggest you get a thorough checkup. You’re perfectly fine except for the condition of your heart!” Lin Haihai didn’t approve of her pessimism.
“Your concern is appreciated, Physician Lin,” the empress dowager said coolly with her eyes closed. “However, I know my condition well. There’s no need for any checkup. Please walk Physician Lin out, Juanzi!”
“No!” Juanzi pleaded. “Physician Lin, Her Majesty not only has a heart problem, she’s also afflicted with a gu poison, which acts up on the fifteenth day of every month and makes one wish for death!”
“Gu?” Lin Haihai tensed. “What kind of gu is it? Who did it to her?”
“It’s a Gold Caterpillar Gu!” Juanzi said. The revelation shocked Lin Haihai. She didn’t expect the empress dowager to be suffering from such a serious poison.
Frowning, Lin Haihai racked her brains for the properties of a Gold Caterpillar Gu and the method with which the venom was administered. A Gold Caterpillar Gu was made on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, when poisonous qi was the most abundant. Twelve different kinds of venomous creatures were placed in a pot so that they would devour each other until only one was left.
After consuming all the other venomous creatures, the particular vermin would transform, and its venom would become incredibly potent. Victims of a Gold Caterpillar Gu would feel a twisting pain in their stomachs when the poison acted up, and they would die in less than a year. When they died, hundreds of worms would crawl out of all their orifices. It was a horrifying way to go!
“That’s why I said there was no point in holding on to this life. The Gold Caterpillar Gu ensures me a terrible death. I won’t wait until it claims me!” The empress dowager smiled weakly, and her voice was trembling.
“How long has it been since you were poisoned?” asked Lin Haihai.
The empress dowager was still smiling, and her eyes were bright. “I have only two months left. I’ll begin to ache all over my body starting next month, and the pain will last a full month until I die a terrible death!”
After a stunned silence, Lin Haihai said, “Would you come to the Linhai Hospital with me?”
Li Junyue was a man with a wealth of knowledge and experience. Perhaps he would come up with a solution.
“Thank you, but only the one who poisoned me could cure me. There’s no other way!”
“Not necessarily. I remember reading an ancient text that said there was a way to cleanse Gold Caterpillar Gu!” Lin Haihai suddenly remembered reading about Gold Caterpillar Gu in the autobiography of a wandering doctor in her grandpa’s study.
“Is that true? Is there a way to cure her?” Overwhelmed with relief, Juanzi grabbed Lin Haihai’s hand with joy in her eyes.
Lin Haihai turned to the empress dowager and said, “I’m not sure yet. Please give me some time. Would you come with me?”