Cang Ji lifted Jing Lin to his side amidst the billows of demonic aura. The stall’s benches and tables broke. The long street was suddenly emptied, leaving only the wind raging on endlessly. The wind shoved Jing Lin back. Cang Ji reached out an arm to grab him by the back of his waist and pressed him against his chest, then he turned his back against the wind to block it off.
The wind howled. Cang Ji was like a safe harbor. Pressed against his chest, Jing Lin could clearly hear his heartbeat. Cang Ji’s breath intimately surrounded him. All he could smell was Cang Ji’s scent.
Le Yan had been blown until he was pressed up against the wall. It was only because he had turned into a brush and fell into a gap that he was not blown away. The mournful cries of the fox gradually tapered off into broken sobs. Jing Lin listened to the urgent sound of the copper bell; it was clearly urging them on. But there was nothing he could do at the moment; it was both equally hard to retreat or advance.
Wu Ying was caught off guard. The demonic wind sent him toppling over to the ground. The sound of the cries had unexpectedly sent a wave of sorrow over him.
The fox in the inn limped forward and turned into a tall man covered in human blood. He kowtowed repeatedly to Huachang.
With a heavy expression, Huachang caught hold of the fox’s hands and sat down to whisper to him, “Silly lad, he’s dead.”
Blood had splattered on the fox’s face. He hummed and hawed in a hoarse voice several times, wanting to speak. But all that gushed out was blood. Huachang pointed to his chest and commanded, “Take the man away.”
The little foxes all came up together, but the fox held on tightly to the man, refusing to release him. It was as if his chest was hurting. He kneeled on the ground, embracing the man without relenting. His heart hurt so much he almost retched.
“Hua-niang…” The fox’s voice was hoarse. “… Save him…”
“He has long stopped breathing. Release him quickly.” Huachang could not bear to see him like this, thus, she was gentle with him. Disregarding the blood on his face, she cupped his cheeks and said firmly, “Qianyu, he’s already dead.”
The copper bell chimed. The entire capital seemed to reverberate with the toll of the bell as it rang through the night. Jing Lin’s mind jolted. He clenched on to Cang Ji’s clothes, feeling as if he was being channeled elsewhere.
Jing Lin said, “This situation—”
He stopped mid-sentence. The past flashed in his mind. In that instant, it actually seemed as if Heaven and Earth had been turned upside down, and he had plunged into a sea of clouds. Every scene before his eyes was illusory, and every sound besides his ears was hallucinatory. Chu Lun and Le Yan’s scenes shattered, and the luminous light scattered. As Jing Lin sank into darkness, he saw Cang Ji’s figure receded into the distance until he was all but gone from his sight.
◈ ◈ ◈
Raindrops plopped onto the tip of his nose.
Jing Lin instantly woke up. He felt dizzy upon waking up and knew that the copper bell had stolen his spiritual energy again. Fighting back his nausea, he looked up and found himself trapped in a narrow corner. He could not help but lean forward. But then, when he moved forward, he extended not his hand, but a furry paw.
Jing Lin was stunned. His ears involuntarily shuddered. He shook off the water droplets, climbed out of the narrow corner, and looked into a pool of water, only to see that he had turned into a snow-white fox.
Jing Lin shook his head in alarm and stamped his paws where he stood. He could barely keep his composure. He had done everything in Heaven and Earth, but he had never been a fox. Swinging his head made him realize that there was something weighing down his tail. He leveled his tail for a look. To his surprise, it was that elusive bell.
Jing Lin fixed his eyes on his surroundings and walked along the rocks to make his way down the long corridor. This was a large courtyard, even bigger than the one he lived in with Cang Ji in the past. Elegant setups could be seen everywhere. It seemed to be midsummer now. As Jing Lin shook off the water droplets on his fur, he took cursory glances at both sides. He did not know why, but it was as if something was urging him on along the corridor into the library1 amidst the flowerbeds.
The library was permeated with the scent of the classics.2 Lure by the fragrance, Jing Lin trod into it, not noticing that he had left his paw prints on the white rug. He jumped onto the bookshelf.3 Then, as if recognizing all the words, he dug out the book he wanted with his mouth and nudged it onto the carpet to read.
Jing Lin frowned. On seeing that the content was a script for a play, he wanted to shut the book. What he did not expect was that his body remained unmoved no matter how hard he “thought”. He was trapped in this body, forced to play the role of another soul.
The fox read with relish, even rolling around on the carpet when things got interesting. Jing Lin did not want to laugh, but he had to perform the act of rolling around too, so he rolled awkwardly for a few rounds, thinking he looked stupid as hell. In his distress, he heard someone coming up the stairs and changing his shoes before the door.
Jing Lin swiftly squeezed into a pile of books and exposed a tiny part of his ears to eavesdrop. He heard the person murmured “leave” to his attendants, then wiped his hands clean before entering. Jing Lin sprawled onto the ground with both paws and lowered his head to conceal himself.
That person should be a man. A small gust of wind rose beside the hem of his robe as he stepped past the pile of books. As he searched the bookshelf for books, he saw the paw prints. He turned his back to flip the book even as he spoke, “Book thief, have you finished reading the previous book?”
Jing Lin poked his head out. Seeing that the man had yet to turn around, he changed directions with light steps, wanting to make his escape. Unexpectedly, the moment Jing Lin moved, the copper bell on his tail rang. Before he could stride forward, the man caught and lifted him by the fur at the back of his neck.
“I don’t see you eating the food I left for you in the library.” The man rubbed his furry ears. “Are you only here to steal books to read?”
Jing Lin’s spine tingled with numbness as the man stroked him with his palm. He did not want this! But his tail kept wagging involuntarily, and his front paws trod the air in pleasure and comfort. He rubbed himself against the man’s palm, trying to ingratiate himself with him. The man turned him around and embraced him in his arms. Jing Lin raised his head to look at the man and nearly dropped his tail in shock.
The fair-complexioned “Cang Ji” had a smile in his eyes as he sandwiched Jing Lin between his arms and lifted his robe to climb the steps. The wooden steps led to a narrow space at the top which was surrounded by books. Instead of lighting a candle, Cang Ji took out a night luminous pearl the size of his palm from his sleeve.
Jing Lin was set down onto the ground, and his paws stepped upon an even softer rug. He lay down beside the night luminous pearl to watch Cang Ji put the books in place. The scent of the classics saturating the room intoxicated him. Jing Lin had nothing to do, and so he sized this Cang Ji up.
It was as if Cang Ji was aware of his gaze. Even if he did not incline his head, he still had to say, “You stole the books, and refused to admit your mistake. I have punished you to face the wall and reflect on your mistakes. Why are you still looking at me?”
The fox gave a bark as in defiance and openly inspected his surroundings. He trod behind Cang Ji and leaped onto his shoulder. With both paws pawing at Cang Ji’s clothes, he poked out his head to look at the opened book on his thighs. Cang Ji raised his hand to stroke his neck. It was so comfortable he tumbled down from Cang Ji’s shoulder into his arms.
The narrow space was still and quiet. The night luminous pearl thawed Cang Ji’s penetrating aggressiveness into a different kind of softness. Jing Lin lay on his lap, realizing only now that “Cang Ji’s” face could also be this gentle.
Jing Lin was thinking about it when he saw himself reach his paw out. He placed his paw gently below Cang Ji’s chest and slid it about as if it was a finger.
Jing Lin immediately wanted to retract his paw, but his body did not obey him. He watched as that furry paw turned into fingers. Long arms and legs gradually revealed themselves, and silver threads cascaded over his body like a waterfall. He could see his own face in Cang Ji’s eyes. But that face showed an unfamiliar expression he had never shown before.
What was the most terrifying thing in this world?
Jing Lin did not know in the past. But now, he knew. It was to see “oneself” becoming another person. Like tearing down all his previous masks, baring himself stark-naked to do stuff he had never done before.
“He” was seducing “Cang Ji”. His fingers slid into the front of Cang Ji’s clothes and veered down his chest towards the back of his waist.
Jing Lin did not know why he was sweating. He suspected that the fox had put a spell on him, but yet, he could feel the texture of those muscles under his palm. Jing Lin wanted to avert his gaze in consternation, but there was nothing he could do. He can only stare at Cang Ji, gradually drawing closer to him.
The night luminous pearl was nudged aside by his toe. The silver-haired fox curiously leaned in close to Cang Ji’s face and blew a gentle puff of air at Cang Ji. With a “thud”, Cang Ji was pinned against the bookshelf. The book between his legs crumpled under Jing Lin’s weight. Cang Ji looked at Jing Lin’s rosy cheeks as the latter’s fingers scraped the back of his waist imperceptibly.
Damn this to hell!
Cang Ji wanted to grab hold of Jing Lin’s chin, but he discovered that he could not move. He had become another man. And yet he was obviously being intimate with Jing Lin. Even his temperature and the way he felt to the touch were the same.
The copper bell is ruining me!
Both of them silently swore in unison.
Jing Lin was so close to him he could not be any closer. Not only was his face sticking close, but even his legs were sticking to the sides of Cang Ji’s waist. He sat on Cang Ji’s thighs, still sizing him up as if his curiosity had not diminished in the slightest.
Cang Ji felt his throat throb as Jing Lin lifted himself. He almost thought Jing Lin was going to kiss him. But Jing Lin did not. His narrow eyes were lowered and reserved as he opened his mouth to take a nip at the tip of the Cang Ji’s nose.
For a moment, Cang Ji could not tell whether he should heave a sigh of relief or simply sigh. The next moment, he returned Jing Lin’s embrace and wrapped his arms around Jing Lin’s waist. Then, sticking his cheeks to Jing Lin’s, he kissed him on the lips.
The wet and hot kiss took place in a narrow, dim corner, but it was also because of this that the kiss was even more intense. Holding Jing Lin’s back, Cang Ji lifted him from the bookshelf and kissed him hard. They should have done it countless times before. That was why they were moving with such ease and familiarity. Even their mutual scents were no strangers to each other.
Jing Lin wanted to open his eyes, but this dumb fox closed them instead. Immersed in the darkness, he could sense everything even more distinctly. He touched Cang Ji without a single trace of reservation. He could sense Cang Ji brushing apart the silver hair over his shoulders. Then, his wide-sleeved garment slid to the ground.
Jing Lin did not even have the time to express his shock. He was like the silky smooth satin being folded over wantonly. He was simmering with rage. The copper bell hung between his hair. But all he could do was to gasp for breath with his mouth.
This was no substitution.
This was them both. Because the caressed spots all felt undeniably familiar.
Jing Lin heard Cang Ji breathed out the name “Qianyu” as his warm mouth took in Jing Lin’s ear. Jing Lin could not help but lift his arm to hide his face, wanting to block away this cursed shame. The copper bell started to swing. Jing Lin seemed to be caught in a tug-of-war with his body. Cang Ji turned him over and shoved him against the bookshelf. Jing Lin tightened his grip on the edges of the bookshelf, but there was no spot he could grasp on to maintain his footing. Jing Lin raised his head, and Cang Ji kissed him from behind.
Jing Lin took all his grit in the past and bet it all at this very moment. He abruptly turned his head away and felt Cang Ji’s scorching heat pressed up against him. Kisses rained down on the nape of his neck. Jing Lin’s eyes were icy. Like a child learning to walk, he controlled his body and stiffly pulled his fingers away from its original action towards the other side.
Behind him, Cang Ji suddenly weighed down on him. Jing Lin heard the curses in his throat, restrained yet unbearable. This was none other than Cang Ji, who was similarly pulling himself back.
One of Jing Lin’s hands had already left the bookshelf. While he was breathing heavily, Cang Ji had already stripped away his inner garment, exposing his collarbone and shoulders. Cang Ji pinned him down, and Jing Lin swiftly grabbed the copper bell between his hair.
Jing Lin shouted out the name in a hoarse voice.
“It’s Zuo Qingzhou…” Jing Lin blurted. “The man who died is Zuo Qingzhou. I now know what his relationship with the fox is! You can stop it now!”
The copper bell disappeared from his palm with a “poof”.
Jing Lin’s body slackened against the bookshelf. Behind him, Cang Ji was already poised for action. Cang Ji braced his arm and lowered his head to pant for breath. Both of them felt as if they had a close brush with death. Just a little more and…
Cang Ji struggled to avoid Jing Lin’s body. This was his first and only time to cut such a sorry figure. It was even his first time to let such an unfamiliar impulse dictate his actions. He stared darkly at Jing Lin’s bare nape. He felt as if “Zuo Qingzhou” still existed within his body. Because he was burning to continue to do what he did not know and what he had never experienced before.
Cang Ji hastily pulled back his clothes and wrapped Jing Lin up, refusing to reveal even a tiny bit of Jing Lin’s skin.
Cang Ji cursed. “Let it die.”
Jing Lin brushed aside his hair and turned his head. Without any hesitation, Cang Ji pushed Jing Lin’s face back. Jing Lin’s lips were slightly hurting from the kiss. He knew he did not look too good at the moment. He brushed his thumb across the corner of his lips and rose to his feet.
“It wanted to tell us,” Jing Lin said calmly, “that ‘Qianyu’ and ‘Zuo Qingzhou’ had this kind of relationship. A fox demon forming an intimate bond with a human… but Zuo Qingzhou is dead.”
“Zuo Qingzhou.” Cang Ji stepped away from his body and said, “This name sounds so familiar to me.”
“The brush demon, Le Yan, revised the Life Registry, and Chu Lun became the top scholar. Because of this, Zuo Qingzhou lost his life.”
Cang Ji raised his hands to fasten the clasp and said, “You mean the man who died in place of Chu Lun is Zuo Qingzhou?”
Jing Lin tapped his forehead on the bookshelf with his forehead and said in a deep voice. “It won’t be that simple… As they said, every cause has its effect, and every effect has its cause. You and I first need to figure out what the fox’s suffering4 is, and how Zuo Qingzhou died.”
With their backs to each other, Cang Ji picked up the night luminous pearl on the rug. That tantalizing, unique scent in that narrow corner had yet to dissipate. Cang Ji did not know what that smell was, but he had no desire to open his mouth to ask.
“Before figuring others out, you and I need to get out of here first.” Cang Ji said as he passed Jing Lin the waist sash that had just been pulled off.
Jing Lin took it, and a delicate, sobering atmosphere promptly descended upon them.
- 书阁 literally a book pavilion but it also refers to a physical archive, or library.
经(香) could refer to literary classics or scriptures , i.e. books and scrolls. Books and scrolls in the old days were written in brush and ink. Thus, the scent is similar to brush (and ink), except it also has the smell of paper (or bamboo for scrolls) too. Refer to this image for an example of the inside written in ink.
- Example of how a bookshelf looks like in those days.
- Refers to the eight sufferings the bell is leading Jing Lin through. So far, we have Dong Lin’s ‘Death’, Gu Shen’s ‘Parting’, and Chu Lun’s ‘Illness’.