Jing Lin’s wet hair was spread out over his body. His lips had been bitten until the skin broke, but the blood had all been licked away. His complexion was pale. He cut such a sorry figure that he did not look like Lord Lin Song at all. Lord Dong’s words did not move him, because he was certain that Lord Dong was only trying to unnerve him.
Lord Dong had taken a solid blow. The front of his outfit was wrinkled. When he saw Cang Ji stupefied after hearing Jing Lin’s words, he immediately struck a palm out between Cang Ji’s arms and watched as the latter retreated. With his eyes covered by Jing Lin, Cang Ji could only distinguish the directions with his ears. As soon as he landed on his feet, he dodged. Without waiting for Zui Shan Seng to strike with his staff, he took Jing Lin and leaped a few li1 away.
“Neither human nor demon.” Cang Ji was burning hot all over. His abundance of spiritual energy made him impatient. He was itching to find the exit. Holding his breath, he dashed and asked, “Then what is he?!”
Jing Lin slipped down Cang Ji’s back. Cang Ji hauled him back up. He sank his head into the side of Cang Ji’s neck and said drowsily. “He was originally one of the evil spirits of the Blood Sea.”
“Evil spirit?” Cang Ji sprang into the forest and raised his voice. “He’s an evil spirit!”
“His true form is his original appearance.” The wind hurt Jing Lin’s lips. He released his hand and said, “This is the reason your true form retreated in alarm.”
It was also for this reason that a shock wave rippled through the Three Realms the day the Supreme Father appointed Lord Dong. If not for Fan Tan’s consent, this matter would still be up for discussion.
The moment Jing Lin finished his words, the air behind him tensed. He propped himself against Cang Ji’s shoulder and loosened his grip to slide down. Cang Ji stepped on the stone and caught hold of Jing Lin. Both of them spun around; they were already forced into the corner at the steep side of the mountain. Zui Shan Seng descended from the sky, and Xiang Mo Staff struck the ground. The mountain split. Cang Ji slipped and fell with Jing Lin in his arms.
Zui Shan Seng wanted to give chase, but the roots of the Mountain Deity broke through the ground and sealed off the cracks.
“You can’t even fend for yourself, and you still want to shield others.” Zui Shan Seng smashed his staff.
The vines of the Mountain Deity entangled with its roots, and the soil in the mountain disintegrated like flowing water. He did not seem to understand Zui Shan Seng’s words. He bundled up the ball of mud with Jing Lin and Cang Ji trapped inside into a dumpling and stuffed it under his body with its vines grasping them as it buried them. It looked as if he was eating them.
Zui Shan Seng furrowed his brows, but he did not move to take them down. He looked back from where he was standing and bellowed, “Come out!”
Lord Dong poked his head out. “What?”
“I asked you to help me take them down!” Zui Shan Seng said, “But you let them get away.”
“When did you ask me to help you? It’s clear you told me to investigate. I did investigate. I even set up an illusory realm. Not only do you not praise me, but you also blame me.” Lord Dong felt very wronged.
“That fish has already feared your true form. If you were willing to use your godly speed earlier, he wouldn’t be able to walk a single step away, let alone flee!” Zui Shan Seng was furious and itched to strike him with his staff.
“Will he spill it all out if you catch him?” Lord Dong turned and asked again, “Do you think this is something you and I can solve if you catch hold of him?”
Xiang Mo Staff was suddenly pointed at Lord Dong’s nose. Zui Shan Seng glowered at him. “You said, ‘I understand’. What have you understood?!”
Under the intimidating pressure of Xiang Mo Staff, Lord Dong raised a palm and answered frankly, “Nothing. I was just fooling him.” As he watched the color of Zui Shan Seng’s complexion change, he added, “I seem to understand a little now.”
Zui Shan Seng said, “So, do you understand or not?!”
“I understand. I understand.” Lord Dong said. “Even though he answered smoothly and it was hard to tell if his words were true or false, there’s still something strange about it. No matter who he should be, he shouldn’t be this weak. It’s always the fish who saved him the few times he was in danger. It’s truly bizarre. If he’s Jing Lin, he would have to reach the Great Accomplishment Stage in order to escape death. Since it’s the Great Accomplishment Stage, how would we be able to catch him? Even if I reveal my true form, I might not defeat him. However, his actions are frivolous, he doesn’t reveal his real face, and he had also deliberately passed himself off as Lord Lin Song. It’s just that…”
Lord Dong said, “It sounds really nice when he calls me gege.”
“Don’t digress! What do we do now?” Zui Shan Seng looked at the Mountain Deity. “We can’t kill him or get rid of him. Don’t tell me we have to leave him here?”
“Weren’t you yelling about capturing him and taking him back? I want to see how you’re going to capture him.” Lord Dong said. “The mountains here are all his body. You have to hoist them all back to Zhuihun prison for it to count as a ‘capture’.”
Even if he was Zui Shan Seng, he could not hoist the mountains to Heaven.
“I sought a pardon for him because I thought he was compassionate towards the children. Plus, we can also consider it as subduing an evil. However, if we indulge him and let him be, we may have trouble again in the future. In that case, it is better to help him with his tribulations and ascension.” Lord Dong said.
“You want to make him a deity?” Zui Shan Seng was astounded. “Stop joking! We have to report this to Ninth Heaven first and let the Lord…”
Lord Dong said casually, “I’ll tell him later. It’s not a big deal if it’s just a mere deity-in-charge.”
Zui Shan Seng hesitated and endured it for a moment before he leaned over to Lord Dong’s ear and whispered. “If you act first and report later, the Lord will not be happy.”
Lord Dong whispered back. “When have you ever seen him happy before? Don’t worry about it; he’s my brother.”
Zui Shan Seng spoke no further when he saw Lord Dong’s insistence. However, after being led around in two circles, he forgot to ask how he should deal with those two men who had been swallowed up by the Mountain Deity. When he finally remembered later on, he could no longer find Lord Dong and had lost all traces of Jing Lin and Cang Ji.
Lord Dong had smilingly coaxed Zui Shan Seng until the latter’s mind was in a muddle, but throughout it all, the hand that had touched Cang Ji had remained behind him. Zui Shan Seng was unaware of the half-exposed white bones on that hand, with its skin and flesh burned and melted away.
◈ ◈ ◈
Jing Lin propped himself up on the ground to regain his composure. Beside him, Cang Ji had curled up into a ball like a brocade carp chasing its tail. He had devoured too much, and Lord Dong’s ferocious appearance had intimidated him. This made it hard for him to maintain his human form, so he had to change back to his original form to digest. Jing Lin collapsed to one side and listened to the sound of roots digging into the soil. It dawned on him that they were trapped in the confined intersection of roots and mud. Not only were they sinking deeper, but it was also getting darker.
Jing Lin’s body felt heavy, while his arms felt light. He wrapped his arms around Cang Ji; it was as if he was cradling a pool of water between his arms. The brocade carp slid into his arms and remained still. Jing Lin fell into a slumber, embracing an expanse of water. Water droplets dripped off the Mountain Deity’s vines. Jing Lin felt as if he had also turned into a fish trapped in warm water. The more he soaked, the dizzier he felt. Lord Dong’s words echoed in his ears.
“Among the brothers, he was the most unlikable.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Cang Ji felt nauseous by the swinging of the copper bell. As he sprawled over the desk, he saw a youth in a white robe and a silver crown passing by with a sword. His stomach was busily churning at this point in time, yet he still found this lad familiar.
Isn’t this Jing Lin?!
Cang Ji rolled off the desk and stepped on the window to lean out for a look. He said, “Why are you so…”
The sunlight was glaring. Cang Ji squinted his eyes to observe. Jing Lin’s face was young, and he was a lot shorter than he was now. He only reached Cang Ji’s chest. Cang Ji guessed that the memory this time was none other than Jing Lin’s.
The youth, Jing Lin, cut an elegant figure in his white robe. When he reached the foot of the steps, he removed his sword and kneeled on one knee. Cang Ji got his wish to hear his childish voice.
“Father.” With one of his arms on his knee, the youth, Jing Lin, bowed his head and reported, “I’m back.”
Several people came out of the hall atop the stairs, and Jing Lin’s brothers, who were similarly dressed in white robes and silver crowns, split up to stand at both sides. The man in a dark purple robe in the middle came down the steps with steady strides and personally helped Jing Lin up.
“How did the trip go?”
The youth, Jing Lin, replied. “It went fine.”
The man then asked with concern, “Were you hurt?”
The youth, Jing Lin, paused for a moment and said, “Never.”
The man then patted his shoulder and commended him. “Father has been waiting for you for a long time. Let your various brothers entertain you with a welcome back dinner.2 Your merit is immeasurable this trip south! If there’s anything you desire, just tell me.”
There was silence on both sides. Each of their expressions was unreadable.
Cang Ji found it strange. Even though he did not have brothers and did not understand the beauty of reunion, he also knew that this was not how the atmosphere should be like when brothers reunited.
Only the two lads on the direct left and right side of the man came forward. One of them was dashing and radiating with vigor. He raised a hand to grasp Jing Lin’s arm and threw him a private smile.
“I predicted that you would be home any time now.” He said a little smugly. “Yun Sheng said you’ll take longer.”
“I didn’t know you’d move this fast. As long as you’re back.” The other one looked delicate and pretty, giving one the impression of spring breeze. Cang Ji never thought that this lad would later go on to be Lord Cheng Tian, Yun Sheng.
They led the youth, Jing Lin, into the chamber. A head popped out from behind the screen.3 A little girl with glittering black eyes waved to Jing Lin from a distance away.
“Qingyao mustn’t cry anymore.” Li Rong said, “Your Jiu Ge is finally back.”
Qingyao covered her ears and said, “I’m not listening. Si Ge’s4 chanting sutras!”
Feeling his heart softening, Cang Ji clutched his chest and froze. However, it hit him right away that this feeling was not his, but Jing Lin’s. In the past, they had also accessed other people’s dreams, but they had never shared the feelings of the dreamer. Finding this novel, Cang Ji pressed his chest.
This must be the younger sister Jing Lin mentioned.
Cang Ji touched the tip of his nose. This was not quite what he expected. Although there was some awkwardness around the table, it could still be considered harmonious. If that was how it was, then he could not figure it out.
Why did Jing Lin kill the Supreme Father?
The side profile of the youth, Jing Lin, was much more immature than it was at present. He was so quiet it was as if he was a soul drifting in the sky. Cang Ji could tell from his silence that his mind was elsewhere. He only answered the questions the Supreme Father asked. He never bantered with his brothers nor looked at them.
The meal went faster than expected. Yun Sheng and Li Rong sent the young Jing Lin back to his residence and stood in the courtyard to speak for a moment. Cang Ji saw the gingko above Jing Lin’s head hanging down onto his hair. Jing Lin grasped it with a mild smile. There was some change in him now; he was a lot more relaxed now than he was during the banquet.
His voice remained the same, but his tone was now a little lighter. “Although there are many demons down south, they are all minor demons. To make headway, elder brothers should head north.”
“We will swap around the upcoming month. You’ll supervise the studies at home, while I’ll make a trip to the north for a look.” Li Rong was taller than both of them, and his strength was faintly evident in his arms. He said, “The phoenix lies under Can Li Tree in the north, while the dragon wanders among the sea and clouds. Father wants to join forces with both of them to battle the Blood Sea. I’ll sound them out.”
“The phoenix is fine, but that dragon.” Yun Sheng said in a mild tone. “I’ve heard he’s arrogant and wild. I’m afraid he would be hard to deal with.”
“The east has now fallen into enemy hands, and the Blood Sea is pressing in on us. No matter what, we ought to notify him.” Li Rong said. “If it doesn’t go the way we want, then forget it.”
The youth, Jing Lin, twirled the gingko with his fingers and said, “If it doesn’t work, I’ll go.”
“What’s the hurry?” Li Rong patted Jing Lin on the back and looked at him and said, “Father hasn’t said anything yet, so you’ll just stay and wait at home. I have already discussed with them this time. They won’t make things difficult for you again.”
“You should smile more at them.” Yun Sheng said, “As brothers, we shouldn’t be so distant with each other. Even if the bones are broken, they are still connected by tendons.5 The situation now is getting more dangerous. It’s better for us to stabilize our familial relations.”
The youth, Jing Lin, nodded his head and said nothing. The two of them then left together. Cang Ji followed Jing Lin into his chamber. It was cold and cheerless. How very boring. He lay on Jing Lin’s bed and propped his head up with a hand to watch Jing Lin take off his sword, loosen his garment, and carried water into the bath bucket6 himself.
Cang Ji picked up the gingko that Jing Lin was holding earlier and smiled. “As expected, he’s still the same. Even his habit of taking a bath has never changed.”
Jing Lin filled the bucket with cold water and sat on the edge of the bed. With one eye closed, Cang Ji watched as the youth with his back to him shed his clothes. A body eighteen or nineteen of age was tempting. Other than eating it raw, frying it also seemed to be a good idea. Cang Ji watched on as that white robe slid to the ground, exposing the wounds on his back.
Those intersecting wounds of various sizes and depth revealed how it had not been easy to travel while bearing a sword. What had he said about “never”? When Jing Lin tore off the gauze, new wounds overlapped the old like a hauntingly beautiful pattern on white satin.
Cang Ji’s throat was dry. He could not help but turned to get up. He watched as Jing Lin doused himself with cold water and wiped himself with familiarity without even using a mirror. The blood droplet trickled down and dripped into his slightly concave back dimple right before Cang Ji’s eyes. It was as if Cang Ji could hear the intriguing sound of the drop of blood sliding down. Carrying with it enough power to kill a man, it gently and delicately slid into the dent that could accommodate the caress of his thumb.
Cang Ji recited the words silently. It was as if he did not recognize it. Yet it also felt as if he was well acquainted with it.
The youth, Jing Lin, was still wearing the crown. He abruptly looked back with a freezing gaze. Cang Ji met his eyes and pressed the tip of his tongue against his teeth.
A laugh escaped his throat as he repeated in a low voice.
“This is the desire you’ve taught me.”
As if he had learned something, Cang Ji lay back on the bed and laughed on and on. He turned over to look at Jing Lin again, feeling as if the young man was caged in light. It was as if Jing Lin was both within and out of his reach. Even though Jing Lin’s expression and gaze were frosty, Cang Ji still somehow felt that his heart was soft and tender.
Credits: Many thanks to Cheshire (@ivory_and_horn) for pointing out the inconsistency in the naming of stages!
- 里 li, an ancient measure of length, approx. 500m.
- 接风洗尘, literally ‘to welcome the wind and wash the dust off’. i.e. to welcome someone (usually who come or return from afar) and relieve their tiredness with a meal, wine, or other forms of leisure.
屏风, a single screen or folding screen that typically serves as a partition, e.g., before the bed and so on.
- 四哥 Fourth (Older) Brother
- 打断骨头还连着筋 literally, broken bones are still connected by tendons. Even if there are conflicts or disagreements, blood is still thicker than water, and they are still family after all.
In the old days, people used a big wooden bucket or basin as a bathtub for bathing.