Jing Lin fastened his waist sash. Fortunately, “Zuo Qingzhou” did not use that much force, so his clothes were still intact. It was only after Jing Lin secured his flowing silver hair behind his head that Cang Ji turned around.
The collar was still unable to cover Jing Lin’s neck. The spots that have been sucked red were all the more striking in the darkness. Fortunately, the night luminous pearl was not bright enough, allowing Cang Ji to snap back to his senses. Jing Lin sat back on the rug. All the desires earlier had been sealed away under firm ice, suppressed until there was no sight of it left.
“This place is like Lord Dong’s ‘illusion’. It’s an illusory scene of another person that the copper bell has replicated. It led us here to point out that Zuo Qingzhou is Qianyu’s ‘suffering.’1” Jing Lin paused for a moment before continuing, “Le Yan changed the Life Registry out of his own selfish interests. What was Zuo Qingzhou’s original fate?”
“The top scholar.” Cang Ji leaned against the bookshelf. “Zuo Qingzhou was supposed to be the top scholar this year. Chu Lun and Zuo Qingzhou were both at the site of the imperial examination. Could they have some kind of relationship?”
That was hard to say.
Jing Lin sensed a big change in the way the copper bell was acting now. It was more urgent than the previous two times. But why was that? Was it because these two matters could not be delayed any longer, or was something making it impatient? But what had these matters got to do with him? What was worth forcing them to experience this “in the flesh”?
Jing Lin mused. “Le Yan saw Zuo Qingzhou’s fate. This man was not someone who would die prematurely. Not only was he not a short-lived person, but he was also born under a lucky star and had a good life with a successful official career. Even if such a person were to die, there must be a reason for it.”
“He specifically mentioned the name ‘Zuo Qingzhou’. Presumably, it’s not that simple.” Cang Ji backhandedly picked up Zuo Qingzhou’s book and flipped over a few pages. He said, “Since Zuo Qingzhou went for the imperial examination at the same time with Chu Lun, Le Yan should have seen this person before. Since he thinks so much about Chu Lun’s top scholar title, he must have checked out Zuo Qingzhou to see who he is. Perhaps…”
Cang Ji’s voice came to an abrupt stop. There were a few strands of hair sandwiched between the pages of this book. These should be Jing Lin’s hairs that had inadvertently come off when Cang Ji had been passionately caressing him earlier. Following his earlier impulse, Cang Ji felt a rush of heat shooting down his abdomen. He immediately closed the book and bent up a leg.
“… Le Yan was afraid there was a change to the Life Registry, so he made the first move and killed Zuo Qingzhou.”
Clueless about Cang Ji’s thoughts, Jing Lin said, “Le Yan might have lied, but he wouldn’t kill humans.”
“You haven’t seen him in five hundred years. How can you be sure he wouldn’t kill?” Cang Ji scoffed. He had no sympathy for the brush demon.
“I don’t believe him, but I trust Yining.” Jing Lin’s wrist bone was apparent as he gathered his sleeves. The dim light accentuated the smoothness of his silhouette. He said, “Yining and Zui Shan Seng are on good terms with each other. Both of them detest evil to the point of hatred. Many times, they have lamented about not making each other acquaintances earlier. Yining is not the kind of person who is hard on others but not himself. On the contrary, he is extremely harsh on himself. He might have cast Le Yan down to the Human Realm, but that does not mean that he would totally turn his back on him. If Le Yan dares to kill a man, he will definitely not stand by and do nothing.”
“Then, what untruth has Le Yan said?” Cang Ji asked. “You said he was lying.”
“He was contradictory in his account of Chu Lun.” Jing Lin raised his eyes to look at Cang Ji and suddenly asked, “What are you doing so far away?”
Cang Ji said, “Just in case the need arises. If the copper bell comes again, would you still be able to make a run for it if I’m too close to you?”
“It’s so big here.” Jing Lin tilted his head slightly, and the night luminous pearl cast a soft glow over his facial features. He said lightly, “It has already made its point clear. It won’t do that kind of stuff again.”
“And what stuff is that kind of stuff?” Cang Ji covered his lap with the book. “Eating someone?”
“I don’t know.” Jing Lin answered.
Cang Ji asked, “Have you ever done it with others before?”
Jing Lin said, “… Le Yan’s desire to save Chu Lun is real. But he wants Chu Lun to get the title of the top scholar. They must be hiding something.”
“That means you have done it before.” Cang Ji cut him off and asked, “With whom?”
“If I’m the one who taught you to probe until you get to the bottom of things,” Jing Lin said, “then throw that all away right now. It’s not a good habit to have.”
Cang Ji looked at him for a moment and said, “You couldn’t have forgotten, could you?”
“Don’t tell me you want to help me remember?” Jing Lin asked.
Cang Ji paused for words. Jing Lin continued. “It’s obvious that the keyword is ‘top scholar’. It’s important to Chu Lun, and also to Zuo Qingzhou. The top scholar title is the key to the changes in both men’s’ fates. We need to know what happened on the days of the examination.”
“But it obviously has no intention of letting you and me out.” Cang Ji flicked the night luminous pearl. “I’m still ‘Zuo Qingzhou’.”
What did the copper bell mean by this?
It could not possibly want them to play along with the actions of “Qianyu” and “Zuo Qingzhou” in order to continue, could it?
They glanced at each other, then simultaneously averted their gazes. The delicate atmosphere lingered in the air. It was so stifling Cang Ji broke out in a sweat. As soon as he shifted his body, the book that his shoulder had been pressing against dropped. Cang Ji realized that this book was different from the others; it was compiled by Zuo Qingzhou himself. He flipped through the pages nonchalantly.
“The old cases of Dongxiang.” Cang Ji turned the book around and pushed it towards Jing Lin. “Chu Lun is from Dongxiang. Didn’t that brush demon mentioned that Chu Lun was looking into the past cases of Dongxiang too?”
Following Cang Ji’s fingers, Jing Lin skimmed over the page. Although there were many things he did not remember, he was still very observant about everything that had happened recently, right down to the smallest details. When his eyes fell upon a certain part, his heart gave a skip.
“Dongxiang is thousands of li2 away from Xitu. What cases would require the presence of the Inspector-General of Xitu…” Jing Lin paused. His eyes darkened during his silence. He said, “The route from east to west is arduous. Xijiang and the capital lie between them. If you take a detour down south, there would be many layers of waterway checkpoints to go through. It’s both energy and time-consuming. The only suitable route would be to take a detour from the north.”
Cang Ji was on the same wavelength. “The connection between Dongxiang and Xitu lies in the mountain ranges in the north that they must pass through.”
Jing Lin turned over the page and saw Zuo Qingzhou’s detailed list of the names of all those involved in the case. All of them were missing cases of women and children. Since the first year of Tianjia, more than a hundred people have gone missing in Dongxiang alone. The constables of the Dongxiang yamen were up to their ears in investigations. But so far, none of the missing have been found. The most peculiar was Zuo Qingzhou’s single-lined annotation in the footnotes.
[Human traffickers run rampant in the four lands. I’ve resided in the capital for many years and not once have I ever caught news of it.]
“That’s strange.” Cang Ji leaned over next to Jing Lin and said, “Isn’t the capital of the mortals the residence of the Emperor? By all rationale, a major human trafficking case that had occurred in all the various places should have been reported to the capital’s central administration, isn’t it?”
“The mountains are high, and the Emperor is far away.3 It’s not impossible to stem the flow of information.” Jing Lin said. “However, if you’re talking about sweeping it totally under the rug, then that’s impossible. The local yamen would report it to their higher-ups, who would then send it forward to the capital. There must be someone in the capital who is intentionally obstructing the course of justice. Someone who can put the clamps on such a major case must be an influential man in a high-ranking position, making it hard for the common man to offend him.”
Cang Ji turned back a few pages. Zuo Qingzhou must have investigated these cases in detail; he even made a special trip to Xitu. Cang Ji’s gaze moved down. He saw an acquaintance in the list of Dongxiang’s personnel transfers to the other localities.
Both of them glanced at each other. Jing Lin said, “Gu Shen was transferred from Dongxiang to Xitu. He was originally pursuing these cases.”
“Gu Shen knew Dong Lin. Then what about Zuo Qingzhou and Chu Lun?” Cang Ji connected the books to form a line. “Dong Lin was constantly on the move for this, as were Gu Shen, Zuo Qingzhou and Chu Lun. The city in the mountains has been destroyed, but these cases remain unresolved because most of the missing people are dead—in that case, the thread of investigation has been cut off. “
“No.” Jing Lin pressed his fingertip on the last book. “It hasn’t. Because the copper bell is still in pursuit, and the eight sufferings remain incomplete. All these indicate that these cases are still ongoing. Perhaps, even happening right now.”
“Humans and demons are all involved in this.” Cang Ji warned. “Don’t tell me we still have to deal with the Demarcation Division in the future?”
“There are doubts there too.” Jing Lin raised his head. His neck was exquisite. He leaned slightly toward Cang Ji. “Demons are involved. But why hasn’t the Demarcation Division act yet?”
Cang Ji paused for a moment, then burst out laughing. He wondered, “Could it be that the deities are involved too?”
Jing Lin did not continue this thread of conversation. Cang Ji noted that his face had turned pale as if he had thought of something. Jing Lin pursed his lips tightly and suddenly began to cough. He covered his mouth and bent over. Cang Ji extracted a handkerchief to cover it for him. Cang Ji embraced Jing Lin, because Jing Lin coughed so hard his entire body shook. He concealed the portion of the handkerchief that had been stained with blood.
“The top scholar.” Jing Lin suddenly grabbed Cang Ji’s hand. “The top scholar! Chu Lun and Zuo Qingzhou both wanted to top the examination to win the title of the top scholar. Because all along, the top scholars have always been in the ministry’s good books. After spending several years at the Hanlin Imperial Academy,4 they can join the central administration for an official post. By then, they would have authority. Once their luck reaches the point where they are officially a part of the ministry, all the power and influence in the world will be within reach. They are not only investigating these cases, but they also want to redress the grievances in all these cases.”
Jing Lin lifted his eyes to inspect the bookshelf and said, “The copper bell arranged for us to come here because this place is important. All records of Zuo Qingzhou’s investigation are here. For him to take this up with others… He must have found the crux of the matter. Le Yan said that his entry in the Life Registry indicates that he would be ‘successful in his official post’. That’s right. These words form the basis of who Zuo Qingzhou is. His top scholar title was erased, but still, it shouldn’t be to the extent that he has to die. With his talent and knowledge, his destiny would still prevail even if he takes the imperial examination in the coming years. But he’s dead. Because he was discovered.”
“The top scholar title was his protection. The person he was investigating discovered him. Going by his original fate, the other party would have been indisposed to silence him because he had scored the top scholar title and had the eyes of tens of thousands of people on him.” Cang Ji said in a deep, heavy voice. “But the brush demon changed his fate.”
Then, what about Chu Lun?
Jing Lin turned to the last page. “Chu Lun and Zuo Qingzhou are acquainted with each other.”
However, these two men were far apart from each other, and there was a disparity in their status. How would they get to know each other? Chu Lun was a gifted scholar from Dongxiang, but his family was poor and he still relied on farming to scratch out a meager existence even while selling his literary services.5 He had come to be aware of these cases only because his circumstances had forced him to work as a legal counsel. Zuo Qingzhou was born in the capital. His family was well-off, and his courtyard had been specially equipped with a library for his collections of books. He was very well-read. Obviously, someone of his father’s generation was working as an official in the imperial court. The only thing was that he was not a high-ranking official. Because the setup in his courtyard was quiet and secluded. Most likely, he was from a family of scholars.
How did they come to know each other?
Cang Ji said, “Zuo Qingzhou addressed Chu Lun as ‘Shenzhi’. They not only knew each other, but were also on familiar terms.”
“If they were on familiar terms,” Jing Lin said, “how could Le Yan not recognize Zuo Qingzhou if he has been with Chu Lun for a year?”
“Perhaps, there was no written correspondence between them this year.” Cang Ji rose to his feet and began to search according to Zuo Qingzhou’s archival order. “Based on what you have said, they are both pursuing these cases, which implicates high-ranking officials in the capital. If someone had set their eyes on them, then breaking off communication to play it safe would be a sound strategy.”
“In that case, the best opportunity would be the day of the imperial examination.” Jing Lin said, “Scholars from all over would assemble in the capital. Chu Lun’s arrival would not cause someone to launch a probe into it. At the same time, it would be just the time for fellow students and countrymen to socialize with one another. Even if Chu Lun and Zuo Qingzhou happened to sit at the same table, they would not arouse suspicion. ”
Cang Ji inclined his body and said with some regrets, “From how I see it, someone has already suspected Chu Lun. The brush demon said he would have originally died of sickness all alone on a boat. If he were to die of sickness, the brush demon only had to give him a few mouthfuls of spiritual energy and he would be able to live for a few more days. But the brush demon just had to go to the Underworld. ”
“He did not die of illness.” Jing Lin said.
The other party very likely had something to do with the original “Death of Chu Lun” in the Life Registry. Le Yan was very well aware of this, that’s why he had risked condemnation to modify the registry.
“Interesting.” Cang Ji said, intrigued. “Why do I find the schemings of the mastermind behind this deception so familiar?”
Jing Lin said softly, “It’s like going through it all over again.”
- 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’.
- 里 li, an ancient measure of length, approx. 500m.
- 山高皇帝远 i.e. difficult to get justice because central authorities have little influence over local affairs. Also often used in reference to corruption.
- 翰林 Hanlin, refers to academics employed as imperial secretaries, forming the Hanlin Imperial Academy 翰林院.
- 卖字 literally to “sell words”, or one’s own literary skills. Many common folks in ancient times were illiterate, and sometimes, scholars and learned men would offer to help the common folks with reading or writing such as penning letters, affidavits, and so on in exchange for some money.