“So you’re a pair of brothers.” Shan Yue offered the tea and nodded her head delightfully. “I have a younger brother at home too! He’s a little younger than this brother here, and he’s being raised on the outside. I haven’t seen him in a long time.”
It was only then Cang Ji understood what Jing Lin meant. He stared at Jing Lin. He was unwilling to withdraw his hand, but it was also absurd for him to continue holding on to Jing Lin. Thus, he said, “I only have this one younger brother. He’s a treasure as precious as pearls and jades. No matter where he is, I can’t feel reassured.”
“It’s good to have siblings.” Shan Yue was about to busy herself when Zong Yin stopped her to sit her down. It was inconvenient for her to move around, so she held on to Zong Yin’s arm for support as she took a seat. She said to Cang Ji and Jing Lin, “At the very least, both of you can look after each other when you’re away from home.”
Cang Ji grasped hold of the wayward pinky finger under his sleeve to stop Jing Lin from making mischief. He turned calmly to Shan Yue and smiled. “That’s true.”
How could Jing Lin have been able to bully Cang Ji? Instead, his little finger was caught by Cang Ji, who stroked it against his fingertip in an extremely erotic way, resulting in a faint blush materializing on Jing Lin’s neck.
Jing Lin bumped Cang Ji lightly with the side of his thigh. Cang Ji said, “What’s the matter? If there’s something on your mind, tell gege. We are among family here.”
“We only have plain tea at home.” Shan Yue hurriedly attempted to rise to her feet to change tea for Jing Lin. “If you aren’t used to drinking it, I’ll swap it for a cup of hot water for you.”
Jing Lin said, “There’s no need to busy yourself with it, Madam. I can drink this. It’s hot in this room. Is there a charcoal brazier set up in there?”
“I don’t know what kind of charcoal it is, but it’s indeed sweltering.” Shan Yue said, “Zong-ge was the one who carried it back. There is still plenty stored in the woodshed. I’ll get him to pack some for you. Bring it home for your brazier, and it won’t be that freezing cold at night.”
“It’s fine. Please keep it for your own use.” Cang Ji said, deadpan.” It’s hot back at home too. Especially at night, when it’s so stiflingly hot that it makes one sweat buckets. Plus, he’s so afraid of the heat that he cannot bear it when he gets close to just that bit of scalding heat.”
For the first time, Jing Lin could not cut into the conversation. He knew what was being said. He was too thin-skinned to take it, and he was afraid that they might sense something if he so much as opened his mouth. So he could only step on Cang Ji’s foot.
“Are both of you from the same hometown as Zong-ge?” Shan Yue smiled. “Zong-ge fears the heat too.”
“Not only from the same hometown.” Cang Ji looked at Zong Yin and said, “We will be from the same clan soon.”
Shan Yue immediately said in delight. “Then that’s brothers of the same ancestry!” She looked at Zong Yin, “Why didn’t you inform me earlier that your brothers are coming? Coincidentally, you hunted a wild boar today. I’ll prepare some dishes to go with wine for your brothers.”
“There’s no hurry.” Zong Yin answered, “I’ll do it. You take a seat.”
The little stone figure turned circles in his sleeve. Cang Ji shook his sleeve and said to the husband-and-wife pair, “Why stand on ceremony? We came today to pay the Madam a visit. So how could we let you strain yourself further? We’ll leave in a while, but we’ll return the next time to try Madam’s culinary skill.”
“It’s so cold out there, and you leave without even taking a bite. This isn’t the way to treat one’s guests.” Shan Yue stroked her stomach and said, “Back in the village, I frequently see women heavy with child farming in the fields. Zong-ge is just over-worrying now that I’ve married him. I’m not that pampered and delicate.”
Jing Lin looked at her abdomen. The common woman would begin to show when she was six months pregnant, and her movements would start to become a strain, but Shan Yue was obviously much bigger.
“The weather is cold, and the ground is frozen and slippery.” Jing Lin said, “Even if Madam is delicate, it’s only right. The reason we came today was to meet Madam and to discuss some trivial matters with Zong-xiong.1 Please do not take offense. In the future, we brothers will have more frequent interactions. We will have to impose on you then.”
Zong Yin read between the lines and immediately stood up. Supporting Shan Yue, he said, “Take a rest inside. I’ll go with them to put away the wild boar. There will be plenty of opportunities to invite them over for a drink in the future.”
Shan Yue held Zong Yin’s arm and uttered an affirmation, then gazed at him and replied in a soft voice, “I’ll wait for you.”
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Zong Yin moved to help her in, so Cang Ji and Jing Lin stepped out on their own.
◈ ◈ ◈
The north wind scraped past their ears in the courtyard. The door had only been lightly covered up when Cang Ji picked Jing Lin up from behind. Jing Lin could still hear Zong Yin’s voice inside. He held on to the door for support, and heard Cang Ji said while keeping his voice down, “Who were you teasing and playing dirty tricks on earlier?”
Jing Lin said, “My hand was aching.”
“Tickling my palm, huh.” Cang Ji said, “Since you are so gutsy, then why don’t you tickle my thigh?”
Pushing the door, Jing Lin said quickly, “That wasn’t tickling!”
Cang Ji said, “Then that was hooking—seducing.2 You even made use of the stone to nibble me. Didn’t you see that my face was already red?”
Miffed, Jing Lin blurted, “… Bullshit!”
Cang Ji suddenly burst out laughing. He held him back and said, “Say it again? The voice you used to cuss people is so soft and squishy I could pinch water out of it. Why is that that you don’t sound angry to me at all?”
Jing Lin squeezed his way around to cup Cang Ji’s cheeks and gave him a few kisses on those lips of his. His kiss was hasty, and his action, brash. He ended up knocking himself so hard that his eyes watered. Even the tip of his nose reddened from the impact.
“Take it in.” Teaching him, Cang Ji lured out the tip of that tongue and sucked it a few times on it, licking it until Jing Lin tingled with numbness again.
While Jing Lin’s tongue was still numb, Cang Ji suddenly held him by the waist and led him down the stairs. Holding him up by the arms, he turned around.
Right at the same time, Zong Yin opened the door to the room and headed outside.
Jing Lin forcibly held back the breath he was about to exhale and swallowed it back down.
Unaware of the surge of undercurrent between them, Zong Yin hurried down the stairs and led them to a corner. Zong Yin stood still and said, “My Lord has already seen Ah Yue. What should I do from now on?”
After a moment’s pause, Jing Lin said, “You said she’s six months pregnant. But she clearly looks to be eight or nine months pregnant to me.”
Zong Yin said, “I once asked an elder in the sea. He has no idea why either. Inter-realm couples who have given birth to a child in this world are few and far between. After Ah-Yue got pregnant, I searched the various lands, but there was no one I could ask.”
“Must you really have this child?” Cang Ji suddenly asked.
Zong Yin said, “… I worry that he’s an evil being.”
“Since you’re worried that he’s an evil being…” Cang Ji asked again, “… then why did you keep him until today?”
Zong Yin stood quietly in the snow for a while before saying, “I have been among deities for years on end. The Demarcation Division had always listed adultery and fornication as a felony that can lead to the birth of evil beings. But Ah-Yue and I are both extremely fond of this child from the time we got married. I can’t bring myself to speak of abortion. But if this child is truly evil and comes to threaten his mother’s life in the days to come, then I’ll have to implore both of you to lend me a helping hand.”
“Inter-realm couples producing evil beings isn’t Heaven’s Will.” Jing Lin said, “It’s what the Supreme Father said when the Ninth Heaven Realm was first established. For thousands of years, the Demarcation Division has strictly prohibited this, because everyone is afraid of making the same mistakes. But looking at this now, this child might not necessarily turn out to be evil.”
“Your original form is a hai jiao. At most, Madam will give birth to a little jiao dragon.” Cang Ji raised his hand to fiddle with the snow on the wall and said, “How could it be an evil being? But what we are afraid of now is not this matter, but that she is pregnant with a jiao dragon in a mortal body. Do you still remember how you were born?”
Zong Yin hesitated and said, “… I was born in the eastern sea. My mother was not a hai jiao, but an old-world sand boa lady.”
“You have already passed your tribulation to become a jiao dragon. Thus, she’s pregnant with a jiao dragon. That’s the troublesome thing.” Cang Ji rubbed the fragments of snow. His smile faded. “I’d advise you to make a trip to Can Li Tree in person. You must invite the Five-Colored Bird, Fu Li, over by hook or by crook.”
“Fu Li?” Zong Yin immediately asked.
“Fu Li was born in Wutong3 Nest. When the phoenix moved eastward, she was adopted by Lord Jiu Tian and immersed in the the Brahma Altar’s lotus pool. When she broke out of her shell as a bird, she met my wife who had happened to come out of seclusion. She was then kept by my wife at my wife’s side. She guards Can Li Tree, the source of life in the world. She’s the only divine bird among the Three Realms bathed in the scent of Buddha incense and aura of the sword. If she can hold a Can Li Tree branch in her mouth and circle around Madam to guard her, there will be no danger to Madam’s life even if she is pregnant with an asura.”4
“I’ll set off now.” Zong Yin said.
“But if she comes.” Cang Ji cast a sidelong glance at him. “Then, the charge of a capital felony will hang over her head. Moreover, whether this child is a jiao dragon or not, anomalies will surely occur in Heaven and Earth when he is born. By that time, everyone in the Three Realms will be in the know. Zhui Hun Prison, the Demarcation Division, and all the major demons will swarm over. If not to kill him, then to snatch him.”
Zong Yin said, “But if he’s just a human…”
Cang Ji raised his hand to cut off his words. He said, “The day you married her, you should have thought of the fact that your offspring will never be human. There’s no way you can hide from this the way things stand now.
Cang Ji spoke so mercilessly that it left a stunned Zong Yin rooted to the spot. The snow intensified as the night deepened, completely blanketing the small, few-feet-wide courtyard.
◈ ◈ ◈
They were sharing a pillow at night when Cang Ji felt wetness and heat on his neck. So, with his eyes closed, he hugged the man in his arms. Early the next morning, as he was getting dressed, he saw some redness on his own neck. They covered up the traces of his fight with Zong Yin.
“Who did this?” Cang Ji repeatedly yawned as he opened up his collar.
Jing Lin poured over the teacup and said, “You must have been dreaming.”
Cang Ji said, “I touched something soft and hot last night.”
Jing Lin said, “You must have been drunk.”
“I even fell sick.” Cang Ji sniffed the teacup Jing Lin had just heated up.5 “Otherwise, why did I still hear someone muttering in my ears in the middle of the night?”
Jing Lin draped his outer garment over himself. On hearing that, he said, “… I was dreaming.”
Cang Ji pondered over the bite marks on his neck and said, “It’s fine even if you did something else. You were sound asleep, and you were dreaming. But why didn’t you just bite a ring around me in your sleep? Puppy fangs feeling around silently in the dark and gnawing away at random, biting everywhere it pleases. It’s pretty painful to the touch.”
Jing Lin had already walked to the door when he turned back and head-butted Cang Ji’s back. Cang Ji had not intended to draw his collar tight. On seeing this, he looked back partially.
Jing Lin pressed his cheek against Cang Ji’s broad back and said, “I tossed and turned last night, unable to sleep, and I recalled some matters. Do you still remember the time we met the Luo Cha bird?”
“We had only just descended the mountain then.” Cang Ji said, “Dong Lin slaughtered the Chen household and attracted Luo Cha bird over when he dismembered them.”
“There are homicide cases everywhere in Zhongdu.” Jing Lin said, “Yet it’s only the grievances from the corpses of the Chen household that was able to attract the Luo Cha bird. That Luo Cha bird was even hiding a fake copper bell in its stomach. To date, the copper bell has never returned to my hands. It’s like we have fallen into someone else’s trap with this opening move. The other party used ‘death’ as the prelude but used ‘life’ as the finale.”
Cang Ji looked fixedly at the mirror and asked, “Who do you suspect?”
Before Jing Lin could answer, he heard the arrival of visitors outside the house. Zong Yin led a person into the courtyard and raised his voice to announce, “My Lord! Fu Li is here!”
Fu Li kneeled at the steps and kowtowed to say, “Jiu-ge! It has been many days since I last saw you. I’ve been thinking about you. I don’t know if Ah Yi has passed on the message I told him to deliver the last time. Lord Cheng Tian decided that I would be transferred away from Can Li Tree to stand guard at the Brahma Altar for a time. The monks are astute, so I didn’t dare to look arbitrarily for you in case I expose your movements. Did Jiu-ge’s trip to the north go smoothly?”
There was silence inside for a moment. Then the door suddenly pulled open.
Fu Li looked up. The delight on her face gradually turned into astonishment, but it lasted only a fleeting moment. She gave a slight nod of her head and reined in her joy to say to Cang Ji in a lukewarm tone, “… Didn’t expect you to be still here.”
Cang Ji said in a leisurely and carefree tone, “Jiejie, are you looking for my wife?”
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Fu Li paused, then frowned and asked, “You’ve gotten married?”
“Of course.” Cang Ji said. “That’s thousands of li6you’ve been journeying through the night. You’re fast.”
But Fu Li was still asking, “Who did you marry?”
Cang Ji finally felt invigorated. He squatted down and said patiently to Fu Li, “You’re familiar with my wife. Weren’t you still calling him ‘Jiu-ge’ earlier? In the future, I’m your Jiu-sao. Why are you kneeling? There’s no need to pay such a big respect when you see me. It has been truly hard on you to travel day and night to hurry your way over. Zong Yin is an old friend, so there’s no need for you to adhere so rigidly to formalities. Come on up and sit with us.”
- 宗兄 Elder Brother Zong
- 勾 The word he used here is to hook, but could also mean to seduce.
- 梧桐 Chinese parasol tree, also sometimes known as a phoenix tree.
- 修罗 Asura are powerful but often amoral beings (or demigods) in Buddhism, since they are primarily driven by envy and greed for power.
- In brewing tea, the first step would be to heat the teacups by pouring hot water over it. This is to raise the temperature of tea sets and ensure a relatively stable temperature of the tea.
- 里 li, an ancient measure of length, one li = approx. 500m