Cang Ji went down the stairs and stepped out from behind the bookshelf to see the attendant standing at the foot of the stairs. He raised his arms to let the man change his clothes for him. Then he descended the stairs, walked past the flowerbed, and headed for the front hall. All his earlier tenderness was swept away as he put on a composed demeanor.
“When did His Excellency Liu arrive?”
“To answer Young Master, an hour ago.” The attendant quickened his pace to follow him. “The moment Old Master received his calling card,1 he invited His Excellency Liu to the hall to meet him. He only sent someone to call for you a while ago.”
His Excellency Liu?
Inside the body, Cang Ji thought back to the letter he had just read. In the last message in the tenth year of Tianjia2 that Chu Lun had sent to Zuo Qingzhou, Chu Lun had mentioned “His Excellency Liu”. Could they be the same person? He wanted to question further, but “Zuo Qingzhou” was silent the entire way, deep in his own thoughts.
Cang Ji left the garden to walk past a corridor, then crossed the bridge. It was only after passing through a wall opening3 that he walked into his father’s courtyard. When the maidservant waiting in the hallway saw him enter, she raised the curtain to welcome him in.
Cang Ji stepped through the door. Two men of similar age, making small talk from the host and guest seats4 in the hall, paused in their conversation and simultaneously turned to look at him. Cang Ji scrutinized them through the eyes of “Zuo Qingzhou” as the latter said his greetings.
“I’m sorry to have kept Teacher waiting.”
The man with a goatee sitting on the guest seat put aside his tea and said to Cang Ji, “Xijing,5 there’s no need to stand on ceremony.”
The moment he opened his mouth, Cang Ji heard the copper bell ring violently. In that very instant, the scene before his eyes turned into a hazy blur. The distorted surroundings let out a “crack” as if the scene was about to shatter. Cang Ji regained control of his body. However, this strange feeling only lasted for a moment before Cang Ji felt his divine consciousness suppressed once again under this body as control returned to “Zuo Qingzhou”.
Cang Ji fixed his eyes on the other party.
◈ ◈ ◈
Jing Lin was still “Qianyu”. He had gotten ahold of the box again, but did not manage to open it because Qianyu was not interested. Jing Lin rose to his feet and pulled out a book from the shelf, turned it over, and put it back. He was not interested in these, but he handled them gently as he maintained his original form for “Zuo Qingzhou”.
Jing Lin leaned against the bookshelf. While “Qianyu” was daydreaming, Jing Lin swiftly glanced around out of the corners of his eyes to find the reason he was kept here. But to his regret, “Qianyu” covered his cheeks and gave a silly grin as he lay back on the rug to think about Zuo Qingzhou.
Jing Lin moved in tandem with “Qianyu”. He could wholly feel “Qianyu’s” high spirits and joy. For some reason, Jing Lin felt exceptionally patient today. Perhaps it was because he had seen their ending, so he felt pity for them. The deeper “Qianyu” lost himself in it, the more Jing Lin’s heart sank.
If Zuo Qingzhou’s death was as he expected, then how would Qianyu be able to face it? This naïve fox suffered the painful loss of his lover. He would surely bare his claws out of rage because of this. Such a blazing love, after losing Zuo Qingzhou to hold him together, would inevitably turn into the most blistering hatred. His “suffering”6 arose out of love, and his vengeance appeared out of the blue; it was bound to engulf everything in its path.
Jing Lin mouthed the word in silence. He tilted his head to look at his fingers. All the previous traces of having held a sword had been hidden. Jing Lin slowly lifted and spread out his index finger. He was as cold as ice in the face of “Qianyu’s” blissfulness. The warmth Cang Ji had given him earlier gradually dissipated until there was nothing left.
“Qianyu” had fallen asleep, but Jing Lin was still wide awake in the dark. He sat idly in this body and listened to the rain outside as it pitter-pattered its way into his heart.
Qianyu slept soundly. His sleep sweetened as Zuo Qingzhou’s scent enveloped him, and he became more luscious and enchanting like a honey peach coddled by Zuo Qingzhou. Even though Jing Lin’s refined features had substituted his face, it was still hard to conceal that captivating allure of “Qianyu’s” androgynous charm. This was a beauty bestowed upon him by the word “love”. It radiated from deep within him.
Sometime later, just as Jing Lin was getting drowsy, he heard the sound of Cang Ji ascending the stairs. The rain was making a din outside. It was only when Cang Ji picked up Jing Lin that Jing Lin could open his eyes. But Cang Ji was obviously in a bad mood. Jing Lin could tell that he was tense.
Was Zuo Qingzhou feeling tense, or was it Cang Ji?
“Qianyu” wrapped his arms around “Zuo Qingzhou’s” neck. Puffs of warm breath tickled Zuo Qingzhou’s neck as Qianyu snuggled up against him, still half-dreaming. Jing Lin could not make out his vague mumbles, but he knew the fox was acting like a spoiled child. “Qianyu” was not even willing to get off the bed and had to be carried down by “Zuo Qingzhou”.
The sky outside had darkened. Cang Ji walked at a steady pace. There was something he had to tell Jing Lin. But “Zuo Qingzhou” had such complete control of his body that there was no opening Cang Ji could exploit.
Cang Ji returned to the courtyard with Jing Lin in his arms. When he took off his shoes, Jing Lin felt a pressure on his feet. He saw the bulging veins and the sweat trickling down Cang Ji’s forehead as the latter raised his head to look fixedly at him.
Cang Ji had something to say.
Jing Lin waited for him to continue, but then he suddenly relaxed and turned back into “Zuo Qingzhou”. Jing Lin figured that Cang Ji had been trapped yet again under the body.
Resting his head between the quilt, “Qianyu” hugged “Zuo Qingzhou’s” waist as he nibbled on his ear and whispered, “What happened?”
Jing Lin felt Cang Ji’s palms sticking against the back of his waist. They were so close they were inseparable.
“There has been a change in the situation. Teacher wants me to wait a little longer.” Cang Ji’s fingers brushed aside the wisp of hair covering Jing Lin’s cheeks and traced them over his facial features. “But… I feel uneasy.”
Zuo Qingzhou felt uneasy? Who had he gone to meet?
Jing Lin had not given it much thought when he saw Cang Ji’s eyes right before him. He leaned his head over and kissed his eyes like a cat. Jing Lin knew it was not him, but he still burned up under Cang Ji’s gaze.
Zuo Qingzhou obviously would not reveal too much to Qianyu. As he went along with Qianyu’s kisses, he noticed that Qianyu had burrowed his way into the crooks of his arms. He could no longer tell if he was the one embracing Qianyu, or vice versa. He contemplated a lot that night, but not once had he ever said a word.
Both of them slept embracing each together, but Jing Lin and Cang Ji were wide awake. Cang Ji kept trying to wrestle back control. It was only until “Zuo Qingzhou” was sound asleep that he suddenly squeezed Jing Lin’s waist.
“Liu…” Cang Ji’s chest heaved as he grasped Jing Lin’s waist tightly and struggled to squeeze out his words through clenched teeth, “Liu… kill…”
His Excellency Liu? Who did His Excellency Liu kill?
Jing Lin broke out in a sudden sweat. He felt as if the bed had become extremely heavy as the darkness penetrated their surroundings. As if stirring up trouble, the copper bell rang again, causing both men to break out in goosebumps.
Cang Ji sluggishly spat out the words, “… Kill… His Excellency Liu killed Zuo Qingzhou!”
The tilting foot of the sinking bed came to a stop after Cang Ji finished his sentence. There was a release in the pressure around them as the copper bell “jingled” briskly as if praising them both.
Both of them exhaled at the same time and immediately broke away from their embrace. If he kept touching him, Cang Ji’s back would be utterly soaked through!
“His Excellency Liu, His Excellency Liu.” Jing Lin swiftly recalled. “Chu Lun mentioned this person. Who is he to Zuo Qingzhou?”
“Teacher. Zuo Qingzhou addressed him as ‘Teacher’.” Cang Ji sat up and saw that the furnishings around him were nearly smashed. Even now, he still felt as if his hands and feet were a little slow to react. He asked, “What is the copper bell trying to urge you and me to do?”
Jing Lin was still lying on the couch. He raised his hand to wipe off the sweat from his forehead and said, “His Excellency Liu, His Excellency Liu. Chu Lun mentioned this person before. Since he is Zuo Qingzhou’s teacher, why would he kill him? Killing Zuo Qingzhou means that he is on the other party’s side. In that case, what would he have to do in order to kill Zuo Qingzhou?”
The bed beneath Cang Ji abruptly sank. Inch by inch, the darkness started to swallow it up. The room was being crushed to smithereens by the darkness. The copper bell rang relentlessly.
Cang Ji lifted Jing Lin. “This fellow has turned into a spirit!7 It wants to make use of the illusionary realm to swallow us! “
Their surroundings were becoming more and more cramped. Cang Ji and Jing Lin crowded at the head of the bed. The darkness started to devour their legs.
“It won’t.” Jing Lin was still thinking about His Excellency Liu. But the ruckus the copper bell was making muddled his mind. He did not know why he was sweating, but he guessed that no one would ever feel comfortable to be consumed by darkness.
“It’s changing its method. It’s not satisfied with us being onlookers. But what does this matter has to do with you and me? It used such a way to force us to be participants. What else does it want to tell me besides these cases? “Jing Lin quickened his tone. “What have I forgotten…”
The parts where Cang Ji had been engulfed felt like mire. He simply stood still and raised his arms to lift Jing Lin up. He said, “It has gone bonkers. It’s treating us as if it’s making a sport out of us. Haven’t you realized it? It sneaked these people into the illusion. It definitely wants us to figure everything out in order to avoid being put into a predicament.”
“Uh-huh.” Jing Lin could not reach the ground with his feet. Still turning something else over in his mind, he asked, “Why are you carrying me?”
“So you can think of the answer fast!” Cang Ji hoisted Jing Lin onto his back. “As long as you guess what it wants, it will not continue. I don’t want to be Zuo Qingzhou anymore!”
Jing Lin was hoisted so high he almost plunged headlong into the darkness. He said, “It’s no good. I can’t think of anything.”
Cang Ji had been swallowed up to his thighs. He said out of the blue, “I’m suspecting that it’s acting out of its own selfish interests to put me on the spot!”
If he sank through and this whole thing replayed all over again, the one stuffed in his embrace would still be Jing Lin. Then, should he devour Jing Lin, tear Jing Lin apart… or seize the opportunity to kiss Jing Lin?
“If you are the one who offended it, why do I have to start over again as well?” Jing Lin’s fingertips were dangling into the darkness. He tried to lift them and found that the darkness was like wet sediment.
“Exactly what…” Cang Ji’s voice was indistinct. “… answer does it want…?”
“No idea.” And so, Jing Lin sank into the darkness with Cang Ji still hoisting him. At the very last moment, he even comfortingly patted him on the back and said, “Zuo Qingzhou is still “alive” in this scene. If nothing goes wrong, then the purpose of the upcoming scene will be for us to understand how he died… You… take care.”
The layers of sediment stacked upon each other, and both of them plunged into the shattered scene. The ringing of the copper bell reassembled. They saw Qianyu’s smiling face shattered instantly while Zuo Qingzhou’s body melted into the darkness. Cang Ji was clearly grasping Jing Lin’s hand tightly, but as he went under, he sensed his hand being pulled away from Jing Lin’s until he could no longer feel it.
This cursed copper bell.
◈ ◈ ◈
Cang Ji woke up sprawled on the ground. To his surprise, he was no longer superseded by “Zuo Qingzhou” and could move at will this time. He climbed to his feet in silence, but his hands had only just moved when he realized that he was chained to the ground. Cang Ji had never really given a damn about the mortals’ shackles and chains. But when he raised his arms, his limbs lacked strength, and his spiritual sea remained frozen in place.
He fucking got sealed again.
Dejected, Cang Ji loosened up and raised his eyes to look around. It was dark all around. Under the light cast by the oil lamp, he could see fingers scratch marks on the mottled gray walls. A thick stench permeated the air from even darker places. The ground was wet, with various kinds of torture racks erected on it.
Cang Ji smelled the stench of blood on the ground. The salty, metallic stink of fresh blood mingled with the acrid odor of dried blood. It made him lose his appetite.
Cang Ji could only hear the sound of his own breathing. Although he had not turned into “Zuo Qingzhou” again, he was now “Zuo Qingzhou’s” body”. He turned over the wrist stuck in the shackles and saw that it was already severely mutilated from the chafing. It seemed as if he had lost a lot of weight.
Cang Ji’s vision was fuzzy. He bent his elbows to prop up half of his body but realized that his left leg was weak. He moved the shackles and shifted over to the torture rack amidst the clank and clatter. He bumped into it and leaned below it, then he turned over to drag his legs over.
But his left leg.
Cang Ji was stunned.
Where had his left leg gone?
名帖 (also 拜帖), a name card (or visitation card) written or paper or wood used by officials, nobles or distinguished people to notify the other party of their visit. It would usually indicate his name, position, and so on. It’s like a name card in the modern world.
- 天嘉 The Era of Tianjia, 560-566, during the Chen Dynasty, also known as The Southern Chen Dynasty
洞门 An opening in a wall separating different courtyards within a residence. (e.g., Zuo Qingzhou and his father very likely stayed in different wings with their own courtyards.)
The host usually sits in the center, with the guests at the side, although exceptions may be made for nobles and high-ranking officials as a sign of respect. For example, the Emperor will usually take the ‘host’ seat even if he’s a guest at a residence.
- Xijing is Zuo Qingzhou’s courtesy name, a name bestowed upon one at adulthood in addition to one’s given name.
- 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’.
- 成精 literally, become a spirit. For example, when animals and even objects have cultivated enough, it might gain intelligence and turn into a spirit. A common non-living spirit example in Chinese mythology is the Pipa Jing (琵琶精), or pipa spirit.(although technically, this pipa spirit will be classified as a demon; for a clarification on this you can refer to the glossary.) It’s also used to say someone is intelligent or skilled, but in a derogatory way (i.e., to belittle someone).