The little stone figure did not reply to him and simply closed its eyes and stayed still with its arms hanging at its sides. No matter how Cang Ji shook it, it ignored him. Left with no choice, Cang Ji gave up and turned back to look at Jing Lin.
Cang Ji asked, “Was it originally able to speak?”
Jing Lin’s dizziness had passed. He replied in an even tone, “Perhaps.”
Cang Ji stuffed the little stone figure into his sleeve and stepped back to size Jing Lin up. He asked, “It couldn’t be your double,1 could it?”
Jing Lin was unaffected and calm. “If you think it is, then it is.”
On the contrary, Cang Ji was uncertain. Because the little stone figure and he could be considered comrade-in-arms. Not only had they plucked Ah Yi’s feathers together, but they had also even joined forces to help him gnaw on Jing Lin’s fingers during the fight with Hai Jiao Zong Yin… They had been up to so many misdeeds that Cang Ji could not transpose Jing Lin’s face over the stone figure. But he inexplicably felt guilty, so he scrutinized Jing Lin for a moment.
The summer heat had just made its first showing, but Jing Lin never sweated even as he stood under the sun. He said, “The copper bell is heading west. We are walking in the opposite direction.”
Cang Ji’s doubts had yet to be cleared when Jing Lin raised his hand to lead him by the arm towards the other side. Cang Ji kept on walking and seized the chance to ask, “If it’s really your double, then you’ve been using it to watch me day and night. Hey, don’t tell me you intend to eat me too?”
An unperturbed Jing Lin replied, “Yeah.”
Cang Ji asked. “You’ve plenty of chances all this time, but I’ve never seen you make a move. Why is that?”
Jing Lin said, “Old men’s teeth are too feeble to gnaw on you.”
Cang Ji grasped him back and asked menacingly. “Are you deceiving me?”
Who would expect Jing Lin to reply as usual? “Yeah.”
Flummoxed by Jing Lin, Cang Ji decided not to ask him again, because he could not distinguish the truth from the lies in his words. Yet Jing Lin was such an old hand at teasing the fish that he could not stop himself.
◈ ◈ ◈
Both of them left the mountains in the north and traveled all the way west. Along the way, they passed through the famous spots in Zhongdu as they headed up the river. Although Cang Ji was a valiant general in the water,2 he had such motion sickness on the boat that he had bouts of vomiting and diarrhea.
Cang Ji collapsed on the couch3 with his arm hanging to the ground. Uncertain if he had fallen asleep, the hired servant from the boat carried the basin to his side and wiped the sweat from his nape.
Cang Ji asked in a muffled voice, “Where is he?”
The little servant was young, but he was quick-witted. Upon hearing this question, he immediately understood who Cang Ji was asking about. He cleaned the handkerchief and answered, “The young master has gone to ‘Ting Yuan Fang’. Before he left, he instructed me not to prepare dinner. I’m afraid he’ll only be back at night.”
Cang Ji retracted his arm and rolled over to lie on his back. He said, “How heartless. I’m half dead here, and yet he still went to have fun with others. He wouldn’t even return home!”4
The little servant said hurriedly, “The young master had sent someone to reserve porridge for you so you can have it at your convenience.”
Cang Ji sneered. “He wants to dismiss me with a few pots of porridge.” He rolled up the quilt and sat up, “What does one do at ‘Ting Yuan Fang’? Drink wine? Sip tea?”
The young servant stammered.
Cang Ji propped himself up and stared at him with cold eyes. “Don’t deceive me.”
The young servant broke out in a cold sweat and said, “It’s the pleasure boat of Xijiang’s courtesan,5 You Xiangwan. Every spring and summer, Ting Yuan Fang would sail on the river. Renowned scholars from all over would be invited for a literary meet. It was grand every year, and common folks were barred from entering. Although this Lady You was born in a brothel, she’s talented. Those qualified enough to be her guests are mostly famous scholars and talents from all over the world. I’ve seen them paying repeated visits to the boat. Lady You must have picked the young master out when she passed by the boat.”
Cang Ji was about to open his mouth when he felt dizzy. Even if he did not know what a courtesan was, he could still more or less guess.
When the servant saw this, he said out of consideration. “The young master said that you are too sick to venture out. All you need to do is to wait for him to return. If you want to leave the boat to take a breather, you have to eat the porridge first.”
Cang Ji’s stomach churned as soon as he heard the word “porridge”. He waved the servant out. The servant had only waited for a moment outside the door when he heard Cang Ji talking to someone.
Cang Ji pinched the little stone figure’s cheeks and said, “Speak! What is he busy with these days? I thought he went to catch the bell. It turns out he went to look for women. “
The stone figure had been a lot more obedient ever since that day onwards. It sat on the couch and let Cang Ji pinched it. Anyway, stones were sturdy. It was not afraid of being pinched.
Cang Ji asked again, “Why is he looking for women?”
The little stone figure blinked, looking as if it had no idea.
All of a sudden, Cang Ji was affable. He patted the little stone figure and drew it nearer to the tip of his nose. He said, “Although we are buddies, we have never been on intimate terms before. Now that Jing Lin is not around today, we might as well make use of the chance to get close to each other. Your clothes are almost tattered. Why don’t we change it?”
On seeing the change in Cang Ji’s expression, the little stone figure knew that things did not bode well for it, so it turned around and got to its feet to make its escape. Before it could jump off the bed, Cang Ji picked it up by the back of its collar and hauled it back. He rubbed his palms, wanting to strip it. The stone figure would rather die than yield. Cang Ji hooked away its waist belt with a finger. It tugged at its inner garment and raised its arms to cover its face. It actually looked as if it was about to cry between Cang Ji’s palms.
Cang Ji flicked a finger at its grass crown and said, “I doubt you’re Jing Lin.”
How would Jing Lin make this kind of expression? It looked so pitiful.
The stone figure seemed to be wiping away its tears. Cang Ji moved his head closer and said, “Just teasing you…”
Before he could finish speaking, the little stone figure raised its hand to punch him, catching an already seasick Cang Ji off guard. As the world blurred before him, he dimly saw the stone figure slowly fastening its belt and straightening its back as it sat up.
◈ ◈ ◈
Jing Lin held the cup for a moment. The maidservant at his side urged him to drink the wine. Jing Lin placed the cup down. He swept his gaze through the various people, finally finding a reserved young man dressed in a blue robe among the crowd of chattering courtesans.
“May I ask,” Noble Young Master Jing Lin shifted his peach blossom eyes,6 sending a light wave of ripple across the maidservant’s face. “Who is that?”
Even if the maid was used to seeing various countenances, she was defenseless against such a marvelous face. She moved her knees slightly and whispered to Jing Lin, “To reply Young Master, that’s His Honor Chu from Dongxiang. His first name is a single character of Lun. He’s the new top scholar on this year’s list. Lord Chu has been well-known in Dongxiang ever since he was young. His essay7 was lauded by the Emperor to be a splendid piece. He’s the new Hanlin8 upstart this year.”
Jing Lin pondered for a moment as he tapped his slender fingers on the edge of the table. He smiled. “Tonight, the “Double Yuan”9 gather and dazzle. But since Lord Chu is here, I probably won’t get to see Xiangwan tonight.”
The maidservant responded with a smile. “Young Master, why belittle yourself? The Lady has been waiting for you for days.”
A pity Jing Lin only had eyes for Chu Lun. With his acute sense of hearing, he could hear the copper bell swinging along with the movements of the man. He was just about to pay closer attention when he felt a heat in his left ear.
Cang Ji seemed to be speaking into his ear. “Lead the way. We are going to look for Jing Lin. If you can find him, I’ll let bygones be bygones.”
“If Young Master feels warm, I can lead you outside to get some fresh air.” The maidservant saw that Jing Lin’s ears were red as if he was feeling hot.
Jing Lin turned her down and rose to his feet to drink the wine. Then, he refilled the cup and walked over to Chu Lun.
This new top scholar was not like what he had heard; he was even a little timid and shy. The young man sat upright, with his back as straight as an arrow. Somehow, that posture looked uncomfortable. He still did not know how to refuse a toast, and now he had drunk so much that both his cheeks were flushed.
Jing Lin made his way before Chu Lun. Unexpectedly, Chu Lun looked terrified when he saw Jing Lin. With his figure under the shadows, Jing Lin furrowed his eyebrows.
Chu Lun went weak in the knees when he saw Jing Lin frowned. He even jerked back, knocking the seat over to its side. He looked at Jing Lin with increasing panic. Then, for some reason, he covered his face with his sleeves and said in a fluster, “The, the wine has gotten to my head, so, so, so, I’ll take my leave!”
Jing Lin set aside his wine cup on the table and said, “Your Honor looks pale.”
“I, I’ve caught a slight chill outside earlier.” Chu Lun was scared out of his wits by Jing Lin. He pulled the maidservant beside him and pleaded with her in an almost sobbing tone. “May, may I trouble this lady to lead, lead, lead me…”
Jing Lin reached a hand out and said, “I’m willing to lead Your Honor.”
Chu Lun was so terrified he hiccuped. He said, “I, I, I wouldn’t dare!”
With that, he clambered off and fled. The others merely laughed at him for being drunk as a bunch of maidservants crowded around him to lend him a hand. Chu Lun resented not being able to extract himself from the crowd. He flailed around and struggled like a drowning landlubber. All that was left for him to do was to yell “let me out”!
Jing Lin placed a firm hand on Chu Lun’s shoulder and soothed him, “Stay calm, Your Honor. I’ll lead you.”
At this touch, Chu Lun unexpectedly plopped to the ground. He pointed at Jing Lin with his teeth chattering. Then, as if realizing he was being impetuous, he bit his finger. Tears streamed down his face.
“Lord, Lord, Lord…” Chu Lun cried. “Please spare me!”
Jing Lin’s expression was unreadable. The maidservants snickered. On hearing the din, You Xiangwan came out, helped up Chu Lun and said in a gentle tone, “Your Honor is drunk. This is Young Master Jing of Donghai.”10
Chu Lun looked as if he was about to hide under You Xiangwan’s sleeves. He was so scared that he was inarticulate and incoherent. “He’s Lin, Lin, Lin, Lin…”
Chu Lun did not dare to say his name out, so he simply hugged his head and wailed. Everyone at the banquet found him comical and absurd. Who knew that he was tottering on the boundary between life and death? One careless move, and he would be consigned to eternal damnation with no hope of reprieve.
Jing Lin wanted to make his move. He did not expect the sheer fabric in the banquet hall to flutter in the wind as someone pounced inside. Jing Lin was weighed down from the back as someone hugged him from behind. Chu Lun grabbed the opportunity to flip over the railing and throw himself into the water.
Jing Lin staggered as he leaned close to the edge. He said, “Release me!”
Cang Ji clasped him tightly and said in a fierce voice, “Where are you running off to again?”
Before he could finish his words, Cang Ji felt Jing Lin’s body toppling over. He turned and took a stride to move him back. But because he felt nauseated from the rocking, he stepped onto the empty air instead and splashed into the water with Jing Lin. Cries of alarm rang out from the boat as the women’s chaotic shouts reverberated along with the water ripples.
Cang Ji felt comfortable all over the moment he went into the water. He caught hold of Jing Lin and swam away from the boat, emerging from the water at a secluded spot. Both of them were thoroughly drenched. Hugging Jing Lin, he waded through the water to a shallow spot. But instead of going ashore, he cornered Jing Lin in the water under the dense weeping willows.
“No more than ten mutual steps away.” Cang Ji wrapped the luminous thread around Jing Lin’s wrist several times and pulled his hand before him. “And yet you want to elope with another man?”
The river was so cold Jing Lin’s face turned white. He said, “The copper bell is nearby, but you let it away.”
Cang Ji said, “Then let it go. You can’t run from me.”
Jing Lin pursed his thin, cold lips and stared at Cang Ji. Then he suddenly pinched Cang Ji’s chin with two fingers and pulled it down towards him.
“If I wanted to run, I’ll stew you first. After puking for several days, did you even puke your brains out somewhere? If you are still not sober yet, then I’ll help you. “
Cang Ji was subdued by his frosty voice. He clasped Jing Lin’s wrist and said, “There are countless major demons here. Every one of them can smell you! Before you have time to flee, they would have already butchered you. And you still dare to rave given your current state?”
Cang Ji grasped Jing Lin so hard that Jing Lin’s wrist hurt. Both of them faced off each other without conceding. Cang Ji flew into a sudden rage. He pressed his head against Jing Lin’s and said, “Even if your heart is loftier than Heaven, you are but a caged bird at present.”
The water droplets between their foreheads dripped onto a single spot. Cang Ji watched with his own eyes as the fury in Jing Lin’s eyes receded, like the calming of a tempestuous wave. Wet hair stuck to his neck. He did not even need to use force to snap that neck, and the wrist in his palm was beyond frail. In Cang Ji’s eyes, Jing Lin was gradually becoming a man who was both contradictory and hard to understand. No matter how others made Lord Lin Song out to be omnipotent, he was always this fragile in Cang Ji’s hands.
They did not understand each other at all. It was as if they were living in two different worlds. Jing Lin did not remember Cang Ji’s past, nor was Cang Ji well-acquainted with Jing Lin’s history. They were only connected by the word “devour”. Cang Ji’s devouring of Jing Lin’s flesh and blood, and Jing Lin, Cang Ji’s warmth.
Each with his own needs. Each with their own ulterior motive.
Cang Ji heard Jing Lin say.
“That’s a good point.”
Jing Lin loosened his fingers and disengaged his hand from Cang Ji’s palm. He turned around and waded ashore. Behind him, Cang Ji looked at the nape of his neck and recalled how he had been covered with wounds in his youth. He also recalled the scars on his back now. Each of them had a story he had never known. They were all inextricably linked to Jing Lin. Across hundreds of years, they had witnessed how Jing Lin had changed from a person who still had warmth into someone without.
But Cang Ji knew nothing about him.
For the first time in his life, he understood that even if he ate Jing Lin, they would not become one, not to mention never to part from each other. Jing Lin had tempted him, but those desires were still a stranger to him. Such subliminal seduction gave Cang Ji no outlet for the intensity of his emotions. He could not fathom it, nor could he figure it out.
Cang Ji’s palm gradually turned cold. He stood a long time in the water. His gaze was apathetic as his eyes followed Jing Lin’s back.
But he was not wrong.
It was not wrong of him to desire Jing Lin.
This is the end of Book 1. Book 2 starts next chapter!
- 分身 a double or doppelgänger. Double here refers to the same person but in separate form. E.g. he may split himself into two identical selves or take on a different second form from his original, but they are both him.
- 水中猛将 literally a valiant general in the water, a warrior who fights bravely in the water. Refers to his battle with Dong Jun earlier and also with the jiao when he was still a carp, etc.
榻, a long and narrow wooden couch that also functions as a bed.
- Cang Ji is jesting here. He said “连门都不回了” 回门 is also the first return of the bride to her parental home after the wedding.
- 花魁 Huakui, or “queen of flowers”, a term used to refer to a famous courtesan.
桃花眼 lit. peach blossom eyes, a shape of eyes said to have an exceptional ability to attract the opposite sex.
- 策论 essay on current affairs submitted to the emperor as policy advice.
- 翰林 Hanlin, refers to academics employed as imperial secretaries in the Hanlin Imperial Academy (翰林院).
- 双元 “Double Yuan”. In the past, the imperial examination system was split into various levels, the provincial exam (乡试), metropolitan exam (会试), and the final imperial exam (殿试). The titles for the top scholar in each exam were known as the Jieyuan (解元), Huiyuan (会元) and Zhuangyuan (状元). These three are known as the “Triple Yuan”. A “Double Yuan” would either be a scholar who had came in tops in the imperial exam and one of the other two exams, or two people who had ranked first in either one of the exams.
- 东海 Donghai, also Eastern Sea