The light fragments of the illusory realm fell like rain onto their shoulders and melted away into the night, becoming one with Heaven and Earth. Cang Ji was still grasping Jing Lin’s hand. He surveyed the surroundings and finally saw the capital again. It seemed as if they had been dreaming all night as they stood holding hands with each other amidst the sea of people and lantern lights.
The din swept over their ears like tidal waves. Both of them simultaneously released their hands at the same time. Cang Ji’s palm felt empty. He asked, “… And that’s all?”
“The copper bell hasn’t rung yet. Nor has it left.” Jing Lin turned back and searched among the crowd. “This matter remains unresolved.”
“When we entered the realm, this place was still a mess. Don’t tell me this is still the illusory realm?” Cang Ji followed behind Jing Lin and pushed his way through the crowd.
Jing Lin combed through the faces of the people in the crowd and said, “This place is real. They are all commoners. This is no illusory realm. However, the capital is different from other places; you cannot judge it using common yardsticks.”
“Where are you going?” Cang Ji caught hold of Jing Lin by the wrist again and stepped to the side to block the way of the passersby around Jing Lin, thereby creating a space so that others could not touch him.
Jing Lin swept his gaze past the spot Cang Ji was grasping, but he did not shake his hand off. He said, “To the inn. Qianyu knows that nine-tailed fox. She must know what happened after.”
“How are we going to deal with the brush demon and Chu Lun?” Cang Ji said, “The brush demon changed the Life Registry for selfish purposes, which led to Zuo Qingzhou’s ‘inability to let go’. Don’t tell me we are going to overlook the brush demon’s actions and let him continue?”
“Le Yan’s fate lies with Chu Lun, and Chu Lun’s fate is tied to Zuo Qingzhou’s in the Life Registry. Getting to the bottom of Zuo Qingzhou’d death will clear up those issues concerning Chu Lun.” Jing Lin swung his wrist lightly and led Cang Ji back.
“There’s something I can’t figure out. Qianyu is able to change form. Presumably, his cultivation is completed. Under such circumstances, what’s the harm in killing those people? Why would he put up with it to such an extent? “Cang Ji asked.
“In that realm, you and I couldn’t mobilize our spiritual energy. The copper bell must be pointing this out on intention.” Jing Lin said. “Qianyu was held captive in a wooden cage. His wounds did not seem to be inflicted by the common man.”
Jing Lin paused for a moment and leaned in close to Cang Ji’s ear.
“The copper bell left out the starting and the ending and erased many key points. This doesn’t seem to be its original intention. It’s more like it had no other choice.”
“So.” Cang Ji said, “Deities are involved in this. But what’s the purpose of them committing such atrocities?”
Jing Lin turned his eyes to the inn and said, “Who knows.”
For no reason, Cang Ji thought of Jing Lin’s “My Way1 has disintegrated.” He could not help but feel bitter. Amidst the jostling crowd, his five fingers slipped down and, almost as if by accident, touched Jing Lin’s fingertips.
◈ ◈ ◈
Facing the mirror, Huashang affixed the flower embellishment.2 When she was done, she saw Xiyan entering. Before Xiyan could say a word, Huashang gracefully went down the stairs. She stopped midway and leaned against the railings and watched as Cang Ji and Jing Lin stepped through the entrance.
“My inn is too delicate to stand up to even a gust of wind.” Huashang frowned. “Both of you gentlemen sent the wind blowing until it gave my heart the jitters. I thought you have already left. I’ve never expected you to be still in the capital. What? Don’t tell me you want to enforce justice on behalf of Heaven too.”
Jing Lin accepted the new cup of tea the little fox offered and took a few sips before he said, “I’m not worthy enough to mete out justice on behalf of Heaven. It’s just that I’ve lost something important and needs Lady Boss’s advice.”
“Now that you have something to ask of me.” Huashangsnorted softly. “You’ve turned so eloquent.”
“Jiejie, look at him. He hardly even gives me face. You can tell he’s originally a cold-hearted person. So why get angry with him over this?” Cang Ji sat on the chair with familiarity and smiled at Huashang. “It’s true we have something to ask of you.”
It was then Huashang continued down the stairs and sat down on the other side of the table. She folded her arms and said, “With that face of yours, how could I turn you down? Go ahead and say it. What do you want to ask of me?”
Cang Ji poured tea for Huashang and said, “We saw a snow-white fox that night and reckoned that he’s jiejie’s friend. I wonder where he is now?”
Huashang was about to take the teacup when she pushed it back with her fingertips. She said, “Why are you asking about him?”
“Because the color of his fur is rare.” Jing Lin replied. “It’s truly beautiful.”
Cang Ji inwardly snorted to himself. He thought, my whole body is gold and red. It’s no less rare and pretty than that shiny white fox. Yet I don’t see him praising me? But he still put on a smile and went along with it. “I’ve been to the lands in the East and West, and I’ve never seen it either.”
“If both of you can spit out the truth this smoothly, I can think about it.” Huashang said in a light tone. “There are men of hidden talents in this capital. It’s hard to tell who’s genuine or fake. If you use lies to fob me off, then I fear we can’t even be friends. Now, what’s the important thing you have lost? Don’t tell me it’s still on Qianyu’s body?”
“It’s indeed on Qianyu.” Cang Ji gave a wry smile. “… This is really damn hard to explain.”
Naturally, Jing Lin could not tell her the truth. Thus, he said that he had a bell that had turned into a spirit3
and was fond of following others. They had been in pursuit of it for a long time, and it was now on Qianyu.
Whether or not Huashang believed him was another story. But it seemed as if she had some difficulties and needed outside help. So she said, “Qianyu is not here now. Even if you find him, you won’t be able to recognize him.”
Cang Ji asked, “We just saw him only a few days ago, and now he’s no longer here?”
“The night you saw him was a month ago.” Huashang said, “Have you both gone senile?”
Jing Lin asked, “… Then, where did he go?”
Huashang turned her eyes to Xiyan, and the little foxes immediately lowered the screen and closed the door. Huashang said, “Let’s not talk about where he has gone first. I only have one question for you. Are you determined to get your hands on that bell?”
Cang Ji replied, “Yes. Jiejie, is there a problem?”
Huashang raised a leg and leaned her hand on it as she covered her face with the feathered fan. She looked at Jing Lin coolly and said, “Not so much a problem. It’s just that I find this gentleman very familiar as if I’ve seen him somewhere before. It puts me in an even more of a fluster. He couldn’t be someone from above, could he?”
Jing Lin’s thin lips spread in a smile, and his peach blossom eyes raised slightly. More or less imitating Dong Jun’s demeanor, he said, “Look at how empty my spiritual sea is. How could I be an immortal?”
Huashang scrutinized him. “You resemble Dong Jun, and yet you are not like Dong Jun. Of all people to impersonate, you had to pick the one who is the hardest to imitate. From what I see, your spiritual sea is not empty. It has clearly yet to heal from a serious blow. Like a fine jar with two open ends, it4 can only flow without being stored.”
“Heaven doesn’t have a personality like me.” Jing Lin said. “If you look at the quality of this fat fish, you will know that he’s a demon. He’s one of us.”
Huashang said, “You want to find Qianyu, but he is truly not here.”
“He left the capital?” Cang Ji asked.
“He still has unfinished business. He can’t leave the capital as long as he still has grievances.” Huashang’s face sank. She said, “Besides, the outskirts of the capital has been surrounded by the Demarcation Division. How would he be able to walk away? Didn’t Wu Ying himself make use of the interval before he received official anointment as a deity to enter and exit the capital to find Qianyu?”
“He’s in the capital.” Jing Lin’s expression changed. “He’s… seeking vengeance?”
Huashang said, “A mortal kills his darling and expects to get away scot-free by banking on the protection of the deities? That’s right. He’s seeking revenge. “
Cang Ji said, “Of all times, the Demarcation Division has to surround the capital this crucial juncture. Even ghosts would not believe it if you say that they have never condoned all that happened.”
“There is still much I don’t understand.” Jing Lin said to Huashang, “I hope jiejie can advise me. What law had Qianyu broke that the Demarcation Division has to surround the capital in order to investigate?”
“Qianyu was on close terms with a mortal, but the cause of the man’s death was unclear. Someone instigated Wu Ying, making him believe that Qianyu was the culprit.” Huashang scoffed at this point. “But this Wu Ying had always been very astute. Why is it that, when it comes to this matter, he had become a fool willing to be deceived and used as a tool by others?”
If it was not because he had turned into a dimwit overnight, then it must be that the person who wanted to use him as a tool was someone he did not dare to resist.
“Can a mere fox demon,” Cang Ji cast a questioning gaze at Jing Lin, “attract the attention of such a character?”
Jing Lin lowered his eyes and said nothing. Huashang said, “Both of you are unaware, but the capital is close to Xijiang, and the lands surrounding Xijiang are all under the control of a deity-in-charge. Five hundred years ago, ‘Shao Luan’, who was guarding this land, was a deity under the command of Lord Lin Song, Jing Lin. He had always been strict and impartial; he would not allow demons to create troubles, and no deities had been sighted acting presumptuously either. Later on, everyone under Lord Lin Song ended up implicated. Other than the five-colored bird Fu Li, the other deities were all demoted and sent to be reincarnated. This land ended up vacant, and so it was handed over to someone else to make arrangements for it. Coincidentally, this Wu Ying happened to be in someone’s favor. He took over this land even before he was conferred a title. My guess is that this lad has a backer in Heaven. And his current orders to take down Qianyu comes from above too.”
“Just Qianyu?” Cang Ji asked, “Is there no mention of a brush demon named ‘Le Yan’?”
“They only want Qianyu.” Huashang revealed a look of displeasure. “There’s something strange about this matter. It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence.”
Of course it did not seem to be a coincidence.
They pursued the copper bell here, and now they ran into the Demarcation Division. Even the Ninth Heaven Realm was involved. Had it not been for Jing Lin’s lack of doubt, Cang Ji would almost believe that the copper bell was doing it on purpose, like a hand nudging them towards the Ninth Heaven Realm.
Jing Lin drank the tea to compose himself. He said, “The Goddess Shengyue guards over the capital. Others will not be able to lay a hand on it easily. Qianyu will be safe as long as he does not leave this place. But I’m curious. Qianyu wants to seek revenge. How does he plan to do that?”
Huashang smiled coldly. “If you ask me, just kill that man.”
Cang Ji said, “Clean and efficient. Don’t tell me he’s going to use another method?”
Huashang almost flew into a rage, but she kept her fury down and said, “That’s what’s so strange about it! Based on his cultivation, even if he seized Zuo Qingzhou by force, he would still be able to escape with his life. And yet he was unable to.”
Cang Ji pondered over it. “It didn’t work?”
“When he wanted to get a move on, he felt all his spiritual energy dispersed. It was even tough for him to maintain his human form. Leaving Zuo Qingzhou’s fate aside, the way I see it, it’s as if someone had their eyes on him, determined for him to die! There must be an enlightened man5 helping behind the scenes of this shady business. It’s just that this person has never revealed himself. I can’t ferret him out.”
But, was Zuo Qingzhou worth it? He was investigating mortal cases. Originally, it was supposed to be a case of government corruption, but now, it rooted out something else. This had truly answered their guess. Even nine-tailed fox Huashang could not uncover his identity. This person was by no means an ordinary villain. Since he was no ordinary villain, why would he make a sport of a mortal’s life and death in such a roundabout way?
Cang Ji suddenly clenched Jing Lin’s sleeve. He had a sense of foreboding.
Jing Lin filled his stomach with cakes on the table and wiped his hands. While the other two were silent, he said, “Jiejie has made a pretty good guess. But in my opinion, the mastermind behind this is not an enlightened man, but a real deity.”
Wiping his fingers clean, he touched the spot where there was a remnant of a callus and sank into deep thought. Seeing the fatigue on his face, Cang Ji guessed that the copper bell’s illusory realm had siphoned the spiritual energy off Jing Lin again. So he asked Huashang for a room and took Jing Lin back to rest. Before Jing Lin slept, Xiyan brought him some hot water. Thus, Jing Lin took a bath behind the screen. Cang Ji lay on the bed and looked at him through the screen.6
“Isn’t it too simple if Chu Lin is ‘illness’?7 Might as well say it’s Le Yan’s ’sickness of the heart’, because he had been touched by worldly desires and was willing to stake his life on Chu Lun. But he’s from Ninth Heaven Realm. Doesn’t he know the decree? It would be far more appropriate to beg the Sage Yining than to make changes privately. But he still did so, and so Zuo Qingzhou died.” Jing Lin leaned against the edge of the bath bucket8 as his skin reddened from the steam. He shut his eyes for a moment before he continued, “This is not a coincidence. It’s the inevitable result of someone’s instigation. Zuo Qingzhou must die—Why? Do you still remember the Life Registry Le Yan recited? If Zuo Qingzhou were still alive, he would ‘eliminate corruption and clean up the imperial court’. He would have gotten to the bottom of those cases and exposed the mastermind. Leaving aside mortals, the deity behind this must have expected it, so, Zuo Qingzhou had to die.”
“But why does a deity need to abduct and peddle mortals?” Cang Ji looked at the shadow projection of Jing Lin’s shoulder. His gaze followed his shoulder down.
“The city in the mountains.” Jing Lin buried his face in his arms and said, “They kept the humans in the city and fed them to evil…”
“Do deities eat humans too?” Cang Ji saw his shoulder bones dip.
Jing Lin did not answer or move.
Cang Ji waited for a moment, then rose and headed past the screen. Sure enough, he saw that Jing Lin had fallen asleep sprawled against the edge. The steaming water had turned the corners of his eyes red, and his shoulders and back were exposed under Cang Ji’s gaze. As Cang Ji carried Jing Lin out of the water, he could not help but feel his back. Cracks littered the white porcelain, so shattered that it made his heart tremble. Cang Ji watched for a moment, then pulled his clothes apart to wipe him down before bundling him back in his clothes. Then he hoisted him over his shoulders and placed him back onto the bed.
Cang Ji’s robe was soaked. Before getting onto the bed, he cleaned himself with Jing Lin’s water. As he tugged the quilt and rolled over, he pressed down painfully on an object. He fished it out for a look. It turned out to be the little stone figure he had not seen for a long time. The little stone figure was also sleeping with its head cocked. Cang Ji stuffed it into Jing Lin’s embrace and noted how similar this master and slave looked like while they slept. He could not help but pinch the tip of Jing Lin’s nose.
With his breathing obstructed, Jing Lin opened his mouth slightly even as he was sleeping sweetly. The tip of his tongue was faintly discernible between his teeth.
Cang Ji suddenly squeezed Jing Lin, along with the little stone figure, into his arms. He stroked Jing Lin’s hair and tightened his embrace.
Jing Lin guessed that there was a deity behind this matter. But Cang Ji guessed that the intention of the person behind this had been Jing Lin all along. After being Zuo Qingzhou once in the illusory realm, Cang Ji felt as if a change had overcome him, somehow, somewhere.
He could not explain, nor could he fathom it.
In his arms, Jing Lin partially opened his eyes and remained still.
Credits: Many thanks to Cheshire (@ivory_and_horn) for pointing out the inconsistency in wordings!
- 道 Dao, or the Way, is an important concept in Daoism where one archives spiritual enlightenment by cultivating the Way, or ‘walking the (right) path’. It’s a bit hard to explain all the nuances in Daoism succinctly but for this novel, you can understand it as cultivating one’s moral principles to defend what one believes in (one’s Way or Path to enlightenment). There are typically several paths that one can choose to cultivate. A common one that appears in wuxia and xianxia novels, especially among sword users, is the Heartless or Merciless Way (无情道).
花钿 known as huadian, these are flower embellishments affixed or painted onto the forehead for cosmetic purposes. Flowers are common patterns, although there may be others.
- 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. (Technically, this pipa spirit will be classified as a demon; for 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).
- Referring to his spiritual energy from his spiritual sea
- 得道之人 literally an enlightened man or a mortal who has achieved the way (to ascend to immortality). It’s also used to refer to an official with power and influence.
屏风, a single screen or folding screen that typically serves as a partition, e.g., before the bed and so on.
- He’s talking about Chu Lun’s suffering among the eight sufferings.
In the old days, people used a big wooden bucket or basin as a bathtub for bathing.