Cang Ji looked through the bookshelf in chronological order and found a small box at the top of the fourth frame.1 He took it down, turned it over in his palm for a look, and noticed a small iron lock on it. Tilting his ear towards the box, he gave it a slight shake and wondered, “This area is full of documents and case files. Why is there a box?”
“Can you tell what’s inside?” Jing Lin asked.
“Papers.” Cang Ji replied. “He put a pile of paper inside.”
“It’s letters.” Jing Lin said with absolute certainty. “Only letters would require him to hide them away like this.”
Cang Ji sat back down. He used two of his fingers to break open the small iron lock and opened the box. It was exactly what Jing Lin had expected. Sure enough, he saw papers of letters in the box, neatly organized from the latest to the oldest, with detailed annotations of the date and time. Jing Lin picked up the top bundle of letters and saw the word “Xijing”.
“Zuo Qingzhou.” Jing Lin said, “Courtesy name, Xijing.”2
“Shenzhi.” Cang Ji looked towards the end of the page and said, “This is a letter from Chu Lun.”
It was the last letter in the tenth year of Tianjia3 that Chu Lun had sent to Zuo Qingzhou from Dongxiang.
Many thanks for xiong’s4 concern. Di5 has found a job and no longer has to worry about livelihood. When di headed south along the river during springtime, di could hear the news of this case everywhere di passed by. Xiong speaks of the truth. This case has been dragging on for many years. It implicates over a hundred people, and there are spies everywhere from east to west. As much as the in-depth investigation is appalling, we must not act impetuously.
With the pointers given by xiong, di has headed south and met with Gu-xiong.6 Gu-xiong is well-aware of the intricacies of this case. He is willing to follow the trail of the traffickers and has asked for a transfer to Xitu to continue his investigations in the north. It’s just that after years of conniving by the imperial court, this case has now ballooned into a monstrous beast. It’s hard to crack down on this deeply entrenched atrocity in Zhongdu. After thinking it over, di hopes that xiong will give His Excellency Liu’s matter further consideration. This case is an arduous undertaking; it cannot be eradicated without the various powers joining forces.
Di knows that xiong’s mind is made up, but di would still advise xiong to go slow on this. The imperial court is crafty and cunning, and this case involves too much. Not only are our lives at stake, but also the lives of our families and clans. If we make one wrong move, we will lose the entire game.
“According to Chu Lun’s letter, Zuo Qingzhou had wanted to make a move two years ago.” Cang Ji said, “Two years ago, both of them were mere commoners. Even if Zuo Qingzhou had someone in the imperial court, he would still not be able to shake up the mastermind. How would he dare to strike out at them?”
“Not strike. At most, a light rap.” Jing Lin folded back the original letter and smoothed it carefully between his fingers. The gears in his mind turned. He said, “Although Chu Lun’s letter did not mention it outright, we can tell that they had gotten to the crux of the matter in their investigations. Even if they had yet to identify the mastermind behind this, they were getting close. It’s precisely because of this that they broke off communications with each other. Zuo Qingzhou must have realized that he was being watched, that was why he didn’t reply.”
“They must have other communication channels that would allow them to exchange information.” Cang Ji said.
“Hmm?” Jing Lin was surprised. “Why do you think so?”
“Chu Lun went for the imperial examination despite his sickness. Even the brush demon could not dissuade him. Do you still remember the brush demon’s words the night before Chu Lun’s departure in his statement to us?” Cang Ji said, “He said, ‘you know it’s impossible, and yet you still do it.’ This shows that Chu Lun was aware that he would most likely die on the way to the capital. If he could come to that realization, then he must have gotten some reliable news. He risked his life to come, perhaps because the communication channel was no longer available, and he had to make a special trip down to inform Zuo Qingzhou of some crucial information. Based on the timing, when Zuo Qingzhou died, Chu Lun had already been in the capital for several days. The fact that they had not been able to meet those few days shows that the matter had reached the point of urgency. The other party had already discovered the connection between them.”
“Of all times, the other party had to make a move at this precise moment.” Jing Lin pondered, “They must have done something to enrage the other party during the preliminary round of imperial examinations. That’s why the other side could wait no longer and have to silent Zuo Qingzhou.”
“In that case, we must first know how Zuo Qingzhou died.” Cang Ji said, “What did the man with the whip say? He said that the fox demon killed Zuo Qingzhou.”
“The fact that Zuo Qingzhou is Qianyu’s ‘suffering’7 is enough to show Qianyu’s deep love for Zuo Qingzhou. Furthermore, from what we can see of the situation earlier, both of them are not only mutually in love, but also very intimate with each other. I fear they have already promised themselves to each other.” Jing Lin thought back to the sound of Qianyu’s wails and said, “It won’t be him.”
“Why not?” Cang Ji suddenly drew a slash with his finger before Jing Lin’s neck and said, “Killing intent exists even between you and me, what’s more them? What trickery has love resort to that even demons succumb to it? Is it really that powerful? I don’t believe this absurdity.”
“If you have the chance, you can give it a try.” Jing Lin answered
“You and me.” Cang Ji said, “I doubt you understand it either. Isn’t this just perfect?”
Jing Lin said, “How do you know I don’t?”
“If you did, you wouldn’t blush at just a mere touch. Although there was Qianyu to cover it up for you earlier, your inexperience was still obvious.” Cang Ji reflected on it. “You have never done this with anyone before at all.”
“You sound like a connoisseur.” Jing Lin tapped the surface of the letter lightly. It was a very subtle move, but it clearly revealed his displeasure.
“But even if we look at it from another way.” Cang Ji retracted his hand, “I have no idea why Qianyu wouldn’t kill Zuo Qingzhou either. Because in my opinion, if I’m him, as long as you get friendly with others, you can expect me to eat you up.”
Jing Lin gave a small sigh. “Qianyu will not eat Zuo Qingzhou.”
“If you like someone, then you should devour him into your belly.” Cang Ji said, “Otherwise, others will snatch him away.”
“If there’s someone you love in the future.” Jing Lin said, “He must be a very competent person among all the three realms.”
“Thank you for the compliment. If I really have one in the future, I’ll pass along your words to him.” Seeing Jing Lin close the box, Cang Ji asked, “Aren’t you reading anymore?”
Jing Lin rose to his feet with the box in his arms. “I’m going to the courtyard for a look. Zuo Qingzhou must have left some clues.”
“Haven’t you noticed?” Cang Ji said. “It’s as if the time here has never changed.”
When Jing Lin descended the stairs, he realized that Cang Ji was right. When he woke up, it had been drizzling, and the time was near noon. Both of them had remained in the narrow spaces for several hours, but the sky outside was still the same.
“This copper bell is different from before. In the past, when it made use of human dreams, you and I can only watch by the side and not experience it first-hand. We can still walk away if we sense something wrong. But now, our divine consciousness is trapped in someone else’s body, let alone talk about leaving easily.” Unable to mobilize his spiritual energy, Cang Ji asked, “What else does it want to tell us?”
Jing Lin had no idea either.
Both of them walked through the veranda and went around the Zuo clan’s courtyard. The pitter-patter of raindrops continued endlessly, but the sky never turned dark. It was until they were on their third round around the courtyard that Cang Ji sensed something off.
“Earlier on, when we passed by this place, I’ve plucked the Chinese flowering crabapple8 here.” Cang Ji’s eyes focused on the spot. “But just one round later, it had grown back on its own.” Jing Lin was about to speak when Cang Ji took a few steps away from him and asked, “Why have you shown your ears?”
Jing Lin was stunned. Sure enough, he discovered that his own furry ears had revealed themselves. He frowned and said, “I’ve never…”
Before he could finish his words, he saw Cang Ji suddenly growing bigger. Everything around him grew longer. As Jing Lin was having second thoughts, his tail reappeared with a “poof”. He turned back into a fox almost instantaneously. The box in his hand tumbled to the ground. Cang Ji abruptly vanished before him. Just as he realized that things did not bode well, he blacked out.
◈ ◈ ◈
Raindrops plopped onto the tip of his nose.
For the second time, Jing Lin woke up again. He was still as dizzy as before. He shook his furry ears again, made his way to the long corridor and started to head for the library. The fragrance of the classics9 permeated the air. Jing Lin watched coldly as he rolled over with laughter while reading the script of the play. The sounds of footsteps heading up the stairs of the library rang out. Cang Ji’s lines were exactly the same as the last time. He picked him up and tousled his fur again.
Unable to control himself, Jing Lin stretched out his paws in pleasure. At the same time, he was inwardly struggling with himself. He realized to his shock that his divine consciousness seemed to have been chained with shackles so heavy that he could not snatch back control of his body. Cang Ji had already picked him up to ascend the stairs. Jing Lin’s heart leaped to his throat. The situation that had just been demonstrated earlier was now pressing in on them!
What exactly did the copper bell want to tell them?
Jing Lin broke out in a cold sweat as he quickly searched for an answer.
Zuo Qingzhou? What else had Zuo Qingzhou hidden during this time that he had not yet noticed? Or, did he and Cang Ji have to do what Zuo Qingzhou and Qianyu had done to the very end?
Once again, Jing Lin’s fingertips scraped the back of Cang Ji’s waist. The repeated kiss came again. This time, Jing Lin could even feel the sturdiness of the thighs he was touching. Cang Ji was lithe yet powerfully built That heat seeping through his clothes was so scorching that Jing Lin shuddered.
Jing Lin was pinned against the bookshelf. His breathing was urgent. Cang Ji’s touches almost shattered his composure into pieces. Jing Lin felt his consciousness clouding over, as if he had caught a cold. For a moment, he could not tell whether he was Qianyu or himself. Cang Ji pressed against him from behind, gripping his arm so hard that it hurt. His kisses were as pressing as the times he was devouring his meals. Jing Lin even broke out in a sweat during his intermittent gasps for breath.
No, not hot!
It’s Zuo Qingzhou’s, Zuo Qingzhou’s what? Zuo Qingzhou had laid out all his cards here. He was already on the trail of the other party. For what reasons would he die of? For what reasons…
There was a coolness on Jing Lin’s shoulders. And the nape of his fragile neck tingled with waves of numbness from the stimulation. He could sense where Cang Ji’s thighs were now pushing up against.
Jing Lin was sweating profusely, as was Cang Ji. Cang Ji was sweating even more than him. His sweats slid down his temple and dripped onto the pit of Jing Lin’s neck. It was so searing that Jing Lin sucked in a breath in a low voice.
There was a sudden shout from an attendant at the bottom of the stairs.
It was as if Jing Lin was jolted awake from a dream. Cang Ji stopped his actions. Their bodies and breathing were intertwined, and the drops of sweat melting between their glued skins turned abnormally viscous and sensual. “Zuo Qingzhou” bent his head to nudge against “Qianyu’s” cheek. They exchanged a wet, passionate kiss. Then, Cang Ji pulled up Jing Lin’s clothes and asked,
“What’s the matter?”
Since there had been a precedent before, Jing Lin did not dare to relax out of fear that the copper bell would come at it again. Fortunately, the copper bell did not ring or appear. The attendant at the bottom said, “His Excellency Liu is here. He’s waiting in the front hall.”
Cang Ji arranged his clothes while Jing Lin leaned against the bookshelf. It seemed as if both men were loath to part, but the attendant butted in just in time. “Old Master is urging you on.”
It was then Jing Lin heaved a sigh of relief. But before he could let it all out, he was picked up in a hug. He was secretly horrified. Aren’t Zuo Qingzhou and Qianyu done yet? Just a short moment, and yet they couldn’t bear to tear away from each other.
Cang Ji’s fingers swept through Jing Lin’s hair as if soothing him. Jing Lin was expressionless—yet one of his fingers hooked on to a wisp of Cang Ji’s hair, refusing to let him go.
“Let’s have a meal later together.” Cang Ji lovingly brushed aside Jing Lin’s silver hair. His gaze sent a tingle down Jing Lin’s spine.
Cang Ji’s action also sent a tingle down his own spine.
Both of them could not bear to look into each other’s eyes, yet they had to continue to gaze at each other with such tenderness.
Jing Lin felt his chest thumping. This should be how “Qianyu” was feeling. The fox was so full of adoration for Zuo Qingzhou as he and the mortal soaked in each other tenderness, unable to extricate himself. Even though Jing Lin had never experienced it, he could understand Qianyu right this very moment—this was how much he loved Zuo Qingzhou.
They could have been together. Even if the law did not permit them to, they could still be intimate in this narrow space in the library, exchanging words of love.
Cang Ji had already turned sideways and stepped down the stairs. Jing Lin propped himself up into a sitting position on the rug to watch him. He looked on as Cang Ji suddenly took a step up and beckoned stiffly to Jing Lin. Jing Lin thought there was something he wanted to say, so he turned his ear to him. Unexpectedly, Cang Ji dropped him a light kiss on his ear. Then, he whispered into his ear.
“This is from me.”
Jing Lin was stunned as he saw Cang Ji descended the stairs with his eyebrows raised.
Jing Lin remained blank where he was for a very long time before it dawned on him who the “me” was. His hands flew up to cover his face, as if he could no longer tell himself apart from “Qianyu”.
- Example of how a bookshelf looks like in those days.
- 字 A courtesy name, also known as a style name, is a name bestowed upon one at adulthood in addition to one’s given name.
- 天嘉 The Era of Tianjia, 560-566, during the Chen Dynasty, also known as The Southern Chen Dynasty
- 兄: Xiong, Elder Brother. In this letter, it refers to the recipient, i.e. Xijing, aka Zuo Qingzhou.
- 弟: Di, younger brother. In this letter, the “di” refers to the letter writer, Chu Lun.
- Gu-xiong, then it literally means (Elder) Brother Gu
- 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’.
海棠花 Haitang, Malus spectabilis, or Chinese flowering crabapple
经(香) could refer to literary classics or scriptures , i.e. books and scrolls. Books and scrolls in the old days were written in brush and ink. Thus, the scent is similar to brush (and ink), except it also has the smell of paper (or bamboo for scrolls) too. Refer to this image for an example of the inside written in ink.