The matter was still not resolved, so Jing Lin did not sleep for long. Before dawn the next day, both of them were up and running on the streets. Xiyan led the way with a lantern in hand and came to a stop before a fork in the road.
“Qianyu-gege left from here.” The little fox scratched his ear. “And then he disappeared.”
“There’s the lingering scent of the classics1 here.” Cang Ji sniffed the cool breeze of a new morning. “He even took along Zuo Qingzhou’s writings.”
“Qianyu-gege said that they are all of crucial importance. He had to take them with him.” Xiyan wore a troubled look. “There’s now Wu Ying standing guard outside the city, while bad guys abound within. Qianyu-gege is unable to use any of his skills. But he’s of the firm opinion that Zuo-lang2 has been wronged. He insists on clearing Zuo-lang’s name before ending his own life. “
“He has done nothing wrong. Why does he need to kill himself?” Cang Ji said, “Since we can’t go out, then we will make a ruckus and turn the capital upside down. The more they want to cover this up, the more I want to dig up the truth.”
“That’s true. But Qianyu-gege’s tail is broken. He doesn’t have long to live.” Xiyan extinguished the lantern and wiped off the dew with his tail. He said, “The person who framed Zuo-lang is a man named Liu Chengde. If you can find him, perhaps you will be able to find Qianyu-gege too.”
Now that Xiyan’s words had reached this point, all that remained was the powerlessness to help. The little fox bowed several times and said, “Lady Boss is being suppressed by the Ninth Heaven Realm. She is not in a position to intervene for fear of attracting the attention of Zui Shan Seng and the likes. So we can only implore both of you to find Qianyu-gege and bring him back to the inn as soon as possible. Lady Boss’s nine tails are powerful. She is willing to give up one tail to help him wake up to reality and forget his past relationship.”
“She wants Qianyu to forget Zuo Qingzhou?” Cang Ji’s chest felt heavy. He said, “Qianyu wants to be together with Zuo Qingzhou. And that’s his intention. Even if Huachang has his best interests at heart, she shouldn’t make him forget his past ties.”
“Even so.” Xiyan heaved a long sigh like a child wise beyond his years. He said to Cang Ji, “How would Qianyu-gege be able to live on if he can’t forget? He will definitely not want to remain alive alone.”
“If you want him to forget,” Cang Ji said, “you might as well let him die.”
Xiyan did not understand the meaning behind Cang Ji’s words. In his confusion, all the little fox could think of was whether there was anything else worth cherishing more than staying alive. He tugged his ears again. Eventually, he bowed to them a few more times before heading back on his own.
Cang Ji saw Jing Lin standing amidst the morning mist with his hair slightly damp. He asked, “Cold?”
Jing Lin looked back at him and replied, “No.”
Cang Ji found the way Jing Lin looked when he compliantly answered questions adorable. He could not resist taking a couple more glances at him, but Jing Lin merely kept staring at him. Thus, Cang Ji asked, “What are you looking at?”
Jing Lin said, “If he can’t forget, then he will never be able to let go. If he can’t let go, then he will never forget. The wheel of life and death turns ceaselessly. Zuo Qingzhou is dead. His soul will return to the Underworld. By this time, he has probably entered the path to reincarnation. Qianyu can’t forget him, nor will he ever catch up to him. This is torture.”
“By the time Zuo Qingzhou forgets him, he would also forget Zuo Qingzhou. Both sides meet again as if they are strangers. No one gets hurt.” Cang Ji said, “Do you think this is good?”
Jing Lin stood silently for a moment and said, “Good.”
Cang Ji’s heart stopped. Jing Lin’s “good” caused his mind to go blank for a moment. After a while, he said, “How boring.”
The wind rose amidst the fog. It started to drizzle.
Jing Lin held up the umbrella he had been carrying the entire way and shielded Cang Ji from that bit of rain. He said, “Look at them both. From now on, they will suffer more than they will bask in happiness. It will hurt them to think of it, and it will hurt them to reminiscence about it. Unless Qianyu has a heart of stone, how would he be able to live with the agony of loneliness for hundreds or even thousands of years to come? If he can’t remember, he would still be able to live a free and carefree life. This…”
Cang Ji abruptly grasped Jing Lin’s hand that was holding up the umbrella. The umbrella tilted over and cut off Jing Lin’s retreat path. Rain suddenly pounded onto his features. Cang Ji’s eyes were so sharp and intimidating as he lowered his head to stare at Jing Lin that Jing Lin took half a step back. A pity Cang Ji closed the gap right after with a mere strode forward. Jing Lin bumped into the stone wall. The back of his hand was hurting from Cang Ji’s grasp. Cang Ji blocked his way and pressed in towards him, asking in a deep voice.
“Are you Qianyu?”
Jing Lin replied. “… I’m not.”
“You aren’t.” Cang Ji tightened his grip on Jing Lin’s hands. “Since you aren’t, then on what grounds do you get to care about whether he’s hurting or not? Don’t tell me you and Huachang get to decide for him just because you feel that he will be in pain? He lives to such an age, and he can’t even decide how to live his own life, huh? There is no one in Heaven and Earth who can do such a thing on behalf of others. If he won’t forget, then he won’t. That’s Zuo Qingzhou and his own affair. It’s not something bystanders can interfere with or do on his behalf. Because other than themselves, no one else is worthy.”
“As they said, deep love can withstand several cycles of reincarnation.” Jing Lin’s eyelashes grew heavy with raindrops. He looked at Cang Ji. “Even if they die one after another for ‘love’, they would still never get to have a moment of reunion. Under the circumstances—”
“Under the circumstances.” Cang Ji raised his voice. “You still shouldn’t forget his past on his behalf! Since his love is as deep as the ocean to the extent that he could break off his tail to prolong Zuo Qingzhou’s life and suffer all those excruciating tortures with him, then who gives a shit about the pain?! Do you think he never expected that? He was willing.” He wiped Jing Lin’s eyes roughly with his thumbs. “What are you telling him to forget? Zuo Qingzhou? I’m telling you, even if you and Huachang went ahead and do so, he still wouldn’t live long. Those so-called deeply etched love doesn’t stay in the memories, but in here!”
Cang Ji yanked over Jing Lin’s hand and pounded it on his chest. That was a heart beating in there. Once someone made their way in there, how would memories alone be enough for it to pretend that nothing had ever happened before?
Jing Lin’s fingertips came into contact with the vivid, scalding heat. The heat transferred to his palm amidst the thumps and made its way all the way to his own chest. Both of his eyes have been rubbed red by Cang Ji. In the rain, it almost looked as if he had been bullied.
Jing Lin’s fingertips shrank back slightly. He wanted to escape. But, Cang Ji was pressing down on his hand tightly, with his five fingers dug in between Jing Lin’s fingers, forcing his palm to receive this searing punishment.
“You said Qianyu would not kill Zuo Qingzhou because he loves Zuo Qingzhou. But if you tell him to forget Zuo Qingzhou, then that’s no different from asking him to kill Zuo Qingzhou.” Cang Ji’s shoulders had been soaked through. He snapped, “You are instigating him to kill his beloved, you know?”
Jing Lin stared transfixed at him for a moment. Cang Ji saw that his eyes had been rubbed raw, and his hair was dripping wet, so he restrained himself and put up the umbrella again.
“You know absolutely nothing about the ‘love’ you’re talking about.” Cang Ji looked into the distance in the rain. “In the future, you should just call me shifu.”
Jing Lin lowered his head and sneezed.
◈ ◈ ◈
The scent of the classics eventually dissipated at the corner of the street, with the carriages, horses, and people trampling all over it until it was no longer distinguishable. Cang Ji shut the umbrella and leaned against a door pillar to watch as Jing Lin sat under the awning of a tea stall to drink a bowl of ginger tea.
His eyes were still red. He looked really pitiful.
Cang Ji rubbed his thumbs gently on the umbrella handle. He felt as if he could not use even a tiny bit of force on Jing Lin. A moment of inattention, and he would leave a clear imprint on his skin.
Cang Ji felt a little listless. But he did not know what was wrong. It seemed as if the rain had messed up all traces of Qianyu. In any case, he was in low spirits as he leaned against the wooden pillar without looking at Jing Lin again.
This feeling was very unpleasant, like a punch on cotton.
Jing Lin drank his ginger tea and frowned at the overwhelming aroma of ginger. His mouth tasted entirely like ginger. Gingerly, he swallowed the last mouthful and placed his palms at the sides of the bowl to counteract the heat he had felt earlier with the warmth of ginger tea.
The warmth relaxed his body that had been held hostage by the cold.
Jing Lin sat for a long time. He organized Dong Lin, Gu Shen, Chu Lun, and Zuo Qingzhou in order, then turned their cases over and over in his mind, one at a time.
There was a deity hiding in the capital. Perhaps he was the instigator behind the abductions and trafficking in Zhongdu. He even killed humans because of this. But for the deity to go around in such circles, he was definitely not doing this for a mere moment of gratification. What was the lure in there for deities to kill humans? What they wanted often transcend the illusion of life and death, and what they sought were all elusive desires. Furthermore, for deities to partake in the worldly affairs in Zhongdu, they had to pass the scrutiny of the Demarcation Division first. Perhaps a deity could commit such atrocities, but not every deity in Heaven were fools. This kind of matter must never see the light of day. So this deity lay hidden in the deepest recesses and pushed out mortal after mortal to be his chess pieces until it got to the point where he was willing to kill off Zuo Qingzhou to protect his perpetrator of a chess piece.
Liu Chengde killed Zuo Qingzhou. This person first appeared in Chu Lun’s letter, and he had even won Zuo Qingzhou’s trust. Then, was he already long aware that Zuo Qingzhou’s fate would be exchanged with Chu Lun?
If he knew of it, then why would he rather Chu Lun survive but not Zuo Qingzhou? Was it just because Zuo Qingzhou’s entry in the Life Registry indicated that he would get to the bottom of all the trafficking cases in the future? That he would unearth all the chess pieces in the capital, and mess up the game of the deity behind it? Couldn’t Chu Lun do the same? Chu Lun and Zuo Qingzhou were clearly united in their hatred for the same adversary, and Chu Lun even had the same evidence in hand. If this were the case, then Qianyu was a variable. He was inseparable from Zuo Qingzhou, so he was sure to avenge Zuo Qingzhou. Since the mastermind had the capability to capture Qianyu, then why didn’t he kill Qianyu as well to stamp out the source of all future troubles?
There were too many questions.
Looking at the pattern markings of the old wooden table, Jing Lin felt that this series of cases were like those disordered markings thrown in together. Everything was so disorganized that they were like the sesame seeds on sesame balls3. It was unbearable to be without leads, but having too many clues was a kind of torment too. The various leads were so obvious, it was as if they had been specially leaked. They lured Jing Lin closer step by step, encircling him even while he was relentlessly dismantling each clue.
Jing Lin loosened his grip on the tea bowl. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a dog demon sniffing Cang Ji’s back. He looked wretched and repugnant. Jing Lin cast a frosty glance over, but that dog demon seemed not to notice him.
As the dog demon sniffed Cang Ji, Cang Ji raised his hand to hurl him forward. He let out a succinct word, “Scram.”
Instead, the dog demon kept on sniffing him. He said, “No can do! Buddy, you have the scent of classics on you. It smells nice.”
Cang Ji said, “Why? You want to take two bites out of me?”
The dog demon tucked his tail between his legs and said something to Cang Ji in a submissive manner. Cang Ji’s expression relaxed. He cast Jing Lin a look, then turned his body sideways and said something to the dog demon.
Jing Lin could not hear a word. His tea bowl was refilled with fresh tea as he sat, unperturbed.
A short while later, the little stone figure felt its way out of Jing Lin’s sleeve. It ran past human feet and stool legs, sprawled behind Cang Ji’s leg, and poked it head out to listen. It was just in time to hear the dog demon whispering something along the lines of “that’s right” and “exactly”. The little stone figure could not help but stood on tiptoes to lean in closer.
Without even turning his eyes, Cang Ji grabbed hold of the little stone figure. He picked it up with his fingertips and swayed it. He asked, “Did you come here to eavesdrop on his behalf?”
The little stone figure’s legs swung as it shook its head.
The tip of the dog demon’s nose twitched. It said, “Gee! Buddy, this stone of yours is so unusual. Whose is…” There was a chill on his back, and he inexplicably turned his head back to see a grim-faced young master looking askance at him. He immediately shivered and said, “Then… then, it’s a deal.”
On seeing that the dog demon was leaving, the little stone figure was at a loss; it could not make heads or tails out of their conversation. Cang Ji picked it up, put it into his sleeve, and said, “Let’s go. It’s time to bully Jing Lin.”
Jing Lin looked on as Cang Ji flung down a few silver pearls and sat dauntlessly on the stool. His leg bumped into Jing Lin’s leg.
“I have some idea of Qianyu’s whereabouts.” Cang Ji said, “This news doesn’t come free. If you promise me one thing, I’ll lead you there.”
Jing Lin said, “The demons from these street stalls are tainted with human aura. When it comes to being unscrupulous, they are no less inferior. The news you bought with gold pearls is naturally available to anyone else who can pay for them. ”
Cang Ji pressed the tip of his tongue against his teeth and smiled at Jing Lin. “Why not you just conjure out the money?”
Jing Lin picked up the silver pearls and said, “It doesn’t matter if you won’t tell me. We can split up and act separately.”
“Don’t even think about splitting up.” Cang Ji said, “I don’t have to give a damn about this matter. To hell with the copper bell’s eight sufferings. If I want to take you away, who can stop me?”
Jing Lin asked, “You don’t want the copper bell anymore?”
“It wasn’t mine to begin with.” Cang Ji kicked aside the stool at the side that someone was about to sit on. “I didn’t understand when I first left the mountain, but from how I see it now, it’s just too lame. If it wants to leave, let it go. It can’t run far if you are by my side.”
Jing Lin could only say, “What do you want me to promise you?”
Cang Ji looked at him. “Promise me that even if we find Qianyu, you won’t tell him to forget his past.”
“I’m not related to him in any way. My words mean nothing.”
“No.” There was an abyss in Cang Ji’s eyes. “I only want you to promise me that you won’t make him forget Zuo Qingzhou.”
Jing Lin released his fingers, and the silver pearls tumbled onto the table. He asked, “Do you want me to promise you that I won’t make Qianyu forget Zuo Qingzhou, or do you want me to promise you that I won’t forget you in the future?”
The silver pearls rolled off the table and bounced to the ground.
Jing Lin turned his head to look Cang Ji right in the eyes.” You’re very persistent when it comes to this.”
Even when Jing Lin touched his raw nerve, Cang Ji remained composed. He said, “Then, promise me.”
Outside, raindrops splattered all over. The travelers on horses that galloped past all became part of this table’s backdrop.
Jing Lin said, “If I die, my soul will be all but gone. There’s nothing to say about forgetting or not.”
“I just want you to say it.” Cang Ji said, “Who cares about life and death?”
“What if I can’t fulfill it?”
“That would mean you lied to me.” Cang Ji stared at him. “If you lie to me, Jing Lin, even if you turn to ashes, I’ll piece you back together and force you to come back and pay it all back to me in full.”
Inexplicably, Jing Lin seemed to have heard a particular phrase before.
“This is the debt you owe.”
If you’re confused by Cang Ji’s reaction, read this again after you’ve finished the novel. (◑ω◑)
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.
- 郎 Lang, young man; a form of address. Also used as a term by a woman (or a man in this case) to address a lover or husband.
麻团 Sesame Balls, a fried Chinese pastry made from glutinous rice flour and coated with sesame seeds.