“So why did you brothers fight in Jinglun Pavilion?” With his hands on his knees, Lord Jiu Tian sat high above and said to the two brothers, who were as different as the waters of Rivers Jing and Wei1, kneeling at the foot of his seat. “All the world’s records are collected within. If you aren’t careful and end up damaging the books, there will be no way you can make up for it even if I remove you both from office and punish you.”
“We have let our emotions get the better of us.” Li Rong kowtowed. “We deserve death for the sin of worrying the Supreme Father.”
“There are no outsiders here today.” Lord Jiu Tian laughed in spite of himself. “Yet you are still so punctilious. Jing Lin, tell me. What caused you brothers to come to blows with such disregard for your dignities?”
Jing Lin said, “The Demarcation Division in the north has sent in a report.”
Lord Jiu Tian scrutinized them for a moment and said, “I was wondering what the big issue is. So it’s about this matter. Li Rong, although Jing Lin’s conduct was improper this trip, he acted in accordance with my orders. Just give him a warning or two. Coming to blows with one another is truly making a mountain out of a molehill.”
Li Rong bowed before saying, “Since I’ve been appointed to the post, I’ll treat everyone on equal footing. Jing Lin’s executions in private are, after all, against the rules.”
Lord Jiu Tian said, “What you’ve said is true. Jing Lin, your brother did this for the sake of impartiality. This matter isn’t that big of a deal. There’s no need for both of you brothers to be angry with one another over it. It would run contrary to Father’s original intent if a rift were to form between you both.”
Jing Lin kowtowed too and said, “I’m the one who is at fault this time. Xiongzhang.” He tilted his upper body a little and gave Li Rong a slight bow. “I’m sorry.”
Li Rong quickly helped him up and said ashamedly, “It’s shixiong who didn’t think it through.”
Both men’s eyes met that very instant, and they immediately averted their gazes. Li Rong tightened his grip on Jing Lin’s arm. Pretending to smoothen his sleeve, Jing Lin brushed away Li Rong’s hand in an almost inadvertent manner.
All Lord Jiu Tian saw from the top was the camaraderie between brothers. He subconsciously smiled and said, “This is the way it should be. Unity is strength; Brothers can cut through metal if they are of one mind and heart. There will be an errand in a few days that will need both of you to carry out together. You mustn’t let the unhappiness fester because of this incident.”
“This son understands.”
Both of them said in unison.
Jing Lin rose to his feet and took his leave. Just as he was about to step out of the hall, he heard Li Rong say to Lord Jiu Tian, “Has Father’s headache subside? I’ve especially sent someone to Zhongdu to find…”
◈ ◈ ◈
By the time Li Rong stepped out, it was already several hours later. He went down the stairs along the lotus pond, and sure enough, he saw Jing Lin sitting at the edge of the platform waiting for him.
Li Rong slowed down. “Since our Ways are different, what else is there you want to say?”
“The headache.” Jing Lin leaned on his sword and tapped his fingers on his knees. “Someone who has already attained the Great Accomplishment Stage still suffers from headaches.”
Li Rong stopped in his tracks. “Father has been hard at work day and night ever since he was crowned Supreme Father. It’s not surprising for him to be in ill health.”
Jing Lin said, “He was already at the Great Accomplishment Stage when I attained the Perfection Stage. There’s definitely no ill-health to speak of for a ‘divine body’ with a lifespan as long as Heaven.”
Li Rong looked at him. Right at this time, Fan Tan’s evening drum2 sounded, startling away the white cranes among the lotus pond. Specks of light fell upon Jing Lin’s hair. He seemed to be holding something in his palm, looking a little absent-minded.
“To what extent do you want to probe?”
“Brothers have to pull together in times of trouble.” Jing Lin’s face was expressionless. “Naturally, they have to say all they know and say it without reserve.”
“Father went to great trouble and effort to raise the Blood Sea in captivity.” Li Rong lifted his chin and motioned for Jing Lin to take a look at the Ninth Heaven Realm. “‘Fame’ has been achieved, but where is the ‘gain’? Qing Yao often stayed in Father’s courtyard and was fed with so much blood and flesh. She cannot avoid lending Father a helping hand. How many years did it take for Father to reach the Great Accomplishment Stage from the Perfection Stage? I’m sure you have no idea. You are already an unsurpassed talent. But Father took only three hundred years.”
Jing Lin’s fingers paused.
Li Rong said, “He was that fast. Do you understand now?”
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“He’d have an unstable foundation.” Jing Lin pondered it over, “And a spiritual sea is so superficial that it looks impressive but lacks real worth.”
“If Qing Yao could live a little longer, Father would have no such fear of future consequences. Back then, during the crisis of the Blood Sea, canglong fell out with us several times. Yet, Father paid him no heed.” Li Rong paused for a moment when he spoke to this point. “It is precisely because there was no way we could be his equal that we had to do it under the pretext of the Calamity of the Blood Sea. Once canglong is dead, there is nothing that will hold us back anymore.”
“You killed canglong.” Jing Lin looked at Li Rong. “How could you have been able to kill canglong?”
Li Rong was silent for a long time, “Confuse his mind, and take advantage of his difficulties. The dragon’s reverse scale3 lies under his throat. Success is possible if an attack is launched while he is caught off-guard.”
Jing Lin stared at him.
Li Rong said, “Father has been laying this trap for a very long time. I’m merely a pawn.”
He did not finish his words.
As are you.
“Father is often ill in recent years, mostly from headaches.” Unable to bear Jing Lin’s gaze, Li Rong averted his eyes and continued, “This matter isn’t made public, and only a handful of people know about it. Besides, even though Father’s body isn’t well, his mind is still very much lucid. In other words, he becomes even more suspicious. The control of the Three Thousand Heavenly Armors is in my hands, yet I stand guard in Zhui Hun Prison. Meanwhile, there are one thousand guards in Father’s main hall, all of whom Yun Sheng is in charge of. Compared to you and me, Father trusts him more.”
“You have been searching for medicine for Father.” Jing Lin said.
“Even if I hand him my medicine, he won’t consume them that readily.” Li Rong scooped up a handful of the lotus pond water and washed away the sweat in his palms. “This kind of insidious trick won’t fool him. You’re forgetting he is Father.”
“You’ve played the despicable scum once.” Jing Lin said, “And you still want to do it a second time?”
Li Rong casually wiped his hands and shook his head lightly. “Even if you want to do it in an open and aboveboard manner, you still have to see who your opponent is. Let shixiong give you one last word of advice: don’t be easily taken in; don’t lose your temper for this; and don’t draw your sword at him. Killing him is easy, but the aftermath is tough to deal with. Lord Jiu Tian is already the leader of the righteous way in the world. He’s the Supreme Father of the various deities. If there’s no irrefutable evidence, no one will be able to kill him arbitrarily. Everyone with a conferred title in the Three Realms is in his hands. Just the word ‘Father’ alone is enough to prevail over you and me. Mere words without a factual basis will only make it hard to appease public wrath.”
Jing Lin landed on the ground and made to leave.
Li Rong sat down where he had sat earlier and asked, “What are you holding in your palm?”
Jing Lin looked back and tossed up the prayer bead in his palm. It landed back safely in his palm. The bloodstains had already settled into a dark brown color. Yet the sight of it shocked Li Rong.
“An old bead.” Li Rong said. “Give it to me?”
Jing Lin ignored him.
Li Rong asked in a loud voice, “What are you keeping it for?”
Without even looking at him, Jing Lin put the prayer bead into his mouth. Li Rong abruptly stood up, but Jing Lin had already swallowed it. The taste of blood permeated his mouth; it was so acrid that it made him frown.
“This is mine.” Jing Lin shot a glance at him and said so.
◈ ◈ ◈
A few days later, both men went down for Lord Jiu Tian’s assignment and headed south to supervise the Demarcation Division in constructing new temples. The deities-in-charge of the various lands would now be replaced or switched from time to time. So naturally, the local temples would have to be replaced along with the deities. This task was not dangerous or urgent, yet two great divine lords had been called together to assist in the job. The local deities-in-charge all thought Ninth Heaven Realm was conducting a reassessment of their duties, so they had bucked themselves up long before both men arrived.
Jing Lin felt that something vaguely off about this matter, but he could not put a finger to it, so he could only journey together with Li Rong for the time being and descended to Zhongdu with him to begin their supervision and inspection.
The lands near the capitals were all in Jing Lin’s name. Although it had not been long since he started managing its affairs, he was methodical. But there was not a single temple of the Goddess Shengyue within the opulent lands of the capital.
“I’m here to pass on the words of the Goddess. She has heard of the Supreme Father’s decree.” Shengyue’s maidservant sat behind the curtain. “However, the Goddess’s benevolence is so ephemeral that it’d be inappropriate to carry out such a monumental construction in her name. She hopes the two Lords will report back to the Supreme Father to give a special exemption to the building of temples in the capital.”
Li Rong nodded. He still had to give consideration to the Demarcation Division in this place; thus, he retreated and left after exchanging some conventional greetings.
Jing Lin sat upright outside the curtain. The aroma of the hot tea lingered in the air. He originally wanted to withdraw too, but the maidservant unexpectedly leaned over and said softly on the other side of the curtain, “The Goddess has specially sent me to send her regards to you. My Lord has been in seclusion for hundreds of years. Blessed is the Great Accomplisher.”
Jing Lin said, “I’ve only just transcended the Perfection Stage. It’s still uncertain whether I’ll attain Great Accomplishment.”
“In the so-called cycle of cause and effect, My Lord would have to go through tribulations to know of suffering and misery. The realm of Great Accomplishment is like the abyss of the Way. It’s also plain and clear, like the Way. Enlightenment will surely dawn on My Lord in the days to come.”
Jing Lin touched the cup with his fingers and asked, “… My past has passed. That still doesn’t count as knowing of suffering?”
“There are eight sufferings in life.” The maidservant’s pearl hairpin swayed vaguely behind the curtain. She continued in a soft and unhurried voice, “My Lord will understand after experiencing them.”
Jing Lin said nothing.
The maidservant then bowed down and retreated. Silence descended upon the room. Jing Lin sat alone idly, with the dimly discernible steam from the tea before him. There were layers of pearl curtains hung in the room, and the doors and windows were not shut. The wind entered uninvited.
Jing Lin sat for an unknown period of time. It was only when he heard the sound of rain pelting the banana palms that he realized it had begun to rain. He turned his head to look at the sparse greenery at the foot of the stairs as they took a pounding in the wind. Suddenly, the sound of hurried footsteps rang out on the veranda, accompanied by a flurry of wind and rain that felt faintly ominous.
Jing Lin held up the cup and drank up the cold tea as Li Rong entered the room. Remaining indifferent, Jing Lin asked, “What happened to Father?”
“Sick in bed!” A cold aura wrapped around Li Rong. “He fainted during the hall assembly yesterday. His headache affliction can no longer be covered up.”
“He dispatched both of us here to guard against us.” Jing Lin said.
“Not unless he already knew he was going to be ill in the near future.” Li Rong said a little anxiously, “This matter is so steeped in half-truths and falsehoods that it seems more like it’s intended to lure someone into taking the bait.”
Jing Lin asked, “Are you biting?”
Li Rong closed his eyes for a moment and said, “I’ll head back right at once. I have to see it with my own eyes before I can make a decision. Even if he’s truly ill, we can’t let him die now!”
It was only before he set off that he exchanged garrison duty with Yun Sheng. The Three Thousand Heavenly Armors now stood guard at the various entrances of the main hall. If Lord Jiu Tian really fell ill, then his being in the lands of Zhongdu at this moment would simply look like an attempt to cover it up only to make it even more conspicuous! With Yining and clique watching covetously like a tiger eyeing its prey, the consequences of the masses rising in revolt was by no means something Li Rong was willing to shoulder the responsibility for.
Li Rong withdrew in a hurry. He had only just left when Jing Lin got up to bid farewell to Shengyue’s maidservant. He braved the rain and passed through the capital to step into his own fief.
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The rainstorm did not soak him. Jing Lin’s sky blue melted into the rain. He always seemed to be faced with choices when it was raining hard. Like how he now stood before another person and unfolded a long sheet of list in his hands.
“It’s at the behest of My Lord that I’m stationed here to guard this place.” Shuran wiped off the rain on his face. “Using the identity of the deity-in-charge, I’ve launched an in-depth probe into the various lands. The place names recorded on this page are all places that had their original names destroyed, and they are all places which had taken in the children on Ninth Heaven Gate’s orders nine hundred years ago—No exception.”
This entire page was densely packed with words. Jing Lin brushed away the water droplets and said, “Thank you for the trouble.”
“My Lord!” Shuran said, “The various deities under Lord Sha Ge’s command are also investigating. They have already razed all the old temples in the various lands to the ground. If My Lord wants to take Him down, then just this list alone will be ineffective.”
Jing Lin folded the paper page and said, “I know.”
Shuran stepped forward and said, “Having once received the Emperor Lord’s great kindness, I’ve remained behind here for nine hundred years to wait for My Lord. My Lord! This trip will not be an easy one. So how can I just stand by and watch?!”
Jing Lin said, “You are Buddha’s beast. You are not destined to die. Although Fan Tan is now constructed in the Ninth Heaven Realm, the lotus pond in the old temple of Nan Chan is still around. So go. Return to where you came from.”
Shuran fell to his knees with a “thud” and said, “I’m acting under the Emperor Lord’s command…”
“There is no longer an Emperor Lord in this world.” Jing Lin said, “This man you speak of… I know not of him.”
Shuran could hardly suppress his sobs. He suddenly grabbed the corner of Jing Lin’s clothes and said, “My Lord, why don’t you endure it for a few more days? The odds are certain to be against you if you go this time.”
Jing Lin dusted his clothes and turned around. Standing dazed in the rain, he suddenly said, “It’s raining so hard. I actually feel like I’m waiting for a person.”
◈ ◈ ◈
The towering main gates had already shut, and the various deities outside the main hall waited respectfully. The Three Thousand Heavenly Armors stood ready for battle, while the Four Lords kept guard at the sides. Li Rong was even standing in his armor.
“Father fell ill for no reason. How could that have happened if it weren’t for someone poisoning him?!” Yun Sheng stood forth to rebuke him.” What’s your motive in obstructing us here? Li Rong! What do you want to do?!”
“All the brothers can get close to him. Before we ascertain who the culprit is, everyone must step back!” Li Rong held out his spear in a horizontal position.
“Since everyone is a suspect, then why are you excluded as one?” Dong Jun said, “Open the main hall and let the various deities attend to him from the sides. You, me, and the other brothers will all retreat. It’ll be open and aboveboard this way, no?”
“I’ve only left the realm for a few days, and Father is already lying on his sickbed. We are at the critical juncture now. It’s still hard to be certain who would take advantage of the chaos and make their move.” Li Rong refused to budge. “I’m responsible for guarding the main hall. I won’t back down!”
“You’re afraid to bear the notoriety of committing patricide and regicide. Thus you pull such a stunt to frame someone else.” Yun Sheng pressed in on him. “Father fell ill the moment you left the realm. You were also the one searching for medicines in the past. You already won’t be able to explain your way out of this!”
“Although you and I have differing political views all these years, our friendship has always remained the same. So is there a need for you to be so aggressive?!”
“Perhaps that’s your guilty conscience talking because of the ulterior motives you harbor!”
As they disputed with one another, a loud noise rang out from the hall gates. Dong Jun took a few steps towards the sound and asked, “What’s the matter?!”
The bleeding guard from outside the gates tumbled in and replied in a severe tone, “My Lord! Lord Lin Song has forced his way through the gates armed with his sword. He’s already closing in on us!”
Li Rong suddenly shoved the others aside and said, “Who did you say it is?!”
Azure light suddenly burst out of the sea of clouds with a thunderous sound, while a strong wind swiftly swept through the entire realm. On hearing this sound, the Blood Sea under the Zhui Hun Prison billowed in fury. Red spread towards them from a distance away.
Dong Jun suddenly shoved a handful of people and bellowed, “What are you in a daze for? He’s on the verge of crossing into the Great Accomplishment Stage. No one here is his match! Hurry over to Fan Tan and ask the True Buddha over!”
Credits: Many thanks to kotoni and Alex for the help! ♥
泾渭分明 as different as the waters of the Jing River (clear) and the Wei River (muddy), i.e., poles apart from one another
- (晨钟)暮鼓 lit. (morning bell,) evening drum, symbolizing monastic practices
- 逆鳞 reverse scale; a piece of scale that is reversed on a dragon’s throat or neck that’s considered to be precious and important to them. It’s said that the dragon will kill anyone in fury if they touch that scale. It is now used to refer to someone’s weakness, sore spot, or most cherished and important thing. For example, touching one’s reverse scale is an idiom that could be said to be touching someone’s sore spot, attacking their weakness, or rubbing someone the wrong way, etc.