It was as if a stone had dropped into Jing Lin’s heart, stirring up a wave that hit him so hard it muddied his mind. He said with trepidation, “What a debt collector.”
Cang Ji was confused. “I haven’t even demand repayment yet.”
Jing Lin grasped the silver pearls and said, “I will not interfere with whatever Qianyu wants to do.”
“Uh.” Cang Ji sat upright and said, “That’s not what you said earlier.”
“That’s all I’ve heard myself saying.” Jing Lin rose to his feet. “Let’s go.”
Cang Ji strode over to his side, and both of them walked out together. Standing under the awning, Cang Ji opened the umbrella and sighed. He said in a bleak tone, “I knew you were a very cunning person.”
“You’ve simply outdone yourself.”
Both of them stepped into the rain, shoulder to shoulder. Cang Ji said, “Three streets away, there’s a red-light district. The scent of classics1 showed up there before. Qianyu is probably there.”
“He is trying to think of ways to get close to Liu Chengde.” Jing Lin said, “He couldn’t reveal his true form, nor could he make his intention known.”
“Since Qianyu has gotten his hands on Zuo Qingzhou’s box of letters, then he must know that Chu Lun once spoke highly of this Excellency Liu. If he wants to know more about Liu Chengde, all he needs to do is to look for Chu Lun, doesn’t he?” Cang Ji asked.
“That’s right.” Jing Lin said. “But he rather seeks far and wide for an answer instead of looking nearby for Chu Lun.”
It suddenly hit Cang Ji. “Could it be that he knew about the brush demon’s modification of the Life Registry?”
“Not only that.” Jing Lin wrung the corner of his robe dry. “He doesn’t trust Chu Lun. He might have learned of something and thus came to regard Chu Lun as the other party’s man.”
“Wait, let me reorganize this.” Cang Ji said, “In the tenth year of Tianjia2, Chu Lun recommended Liu Chengde to Zuo Qingzhou in his last letter and asked Zuo Qingzhou to consider this person. Because there was no way they could push these cases forward based on just their combined efforts and power. As they say, having a man in the imperial court would grease the wheels and make their work easier. So, Zuo Qingzhou acknowledged Liu Chengde as his teacher and made use of their teacher-student relationship to let Liu Chengde participate in their investigation. But then, the situation took a critical turn, and Zuo Qingzhou and Chu Lun broke off communications. Yet Liu Chengde was still able to access Zuo Qingzhou’s residence as usual. Why would Zuo Qingzhou put his trust in this Liu Chengde?”
“Liu Chengde probably brought him some hard-to-get news.” Jing Lin said, “The best way to win the trust of another is to prove that you are on his side. No one dared to investigate this case, and the news is blocked from reaching this place. Someone in the capital specially thwarted and concealed it. If Liu Chengde used his capacity as Inspector-General to provide information that Zuo Qingzhou could not obtain, then he would have made it clear that he was willing to risk his head to participate in the investigation. Furthermore, there’s Chu Lun to add fuel to the fire. It’s not a surprise that Zuo Qingzhou trusted him.”
“Don’t tell me Chu Lun is really the other party’s man?” Cang Ji thought it over. “The brush demon wouldn’t tell the truth about Chu Lun’s real cause of death in the Life Registry. What else are we missing?”
“He doesn’t seem to be…” Jing Lin hesitated. “As the Sage Yining’s brush, Le Yan will certainly be unwilling to conspire with the corrupted. The reason he took a fancy to Chu Lun was most likely because Chu Lun had integrity. However, the Chu Lun in Zuo Qingzhou’s case is just too full of flaws. Just the fact that he holds Liu Chengde in such high esteem is truly beyond my understanding.”
“So what you are saying is.” Cang Ji said. “Chu Lun shouldn’t have recommended him? But there’s indeed something suspicious about this. Chu Lun is far away in Dongxiang. He is a commoner. How would he get to be acquainted with Liu Chengde, a high-ranking official in the capital?”
Jing Lin stepped over a puddle of water and said, “You aren’t aware of the workings of the imperial court. Although Liu Chengde is now a third-grade official, his position is that of the Inspector-General Vice-Censor-in-Chief. He has both the opportunity to go on inspection tours around the various lands, and the responsibility to supervise hundreds of officials in the capital. If he puts on a show of being an upright official, he would have fit the requirements of Zuo Qingzhou and Chu Lun back then.”
“Then, what is it that you don’t understand?”
“What I can’t understand is,” Jing Lin frowned and said, “how the timing of Liu Chengde’s appearance is too perfect. It’s as if Heaven specially sent him over to assist them. As the saying goes, too much of a good thing is a bad thing. And Chu Lun sensed nothing off about this?”
“If Chu Lun is the other party’s man,” Cang Ji said, “then his action is merely taking advantage of the situation to send Zuo Qingzhou on his way.”
“That’s not right, either.” Jing Lin said, “If he’s the other party’s man, then he wouldn’t have failed the imperial examination twice. Since the other party is in a position of such influence and power, it would be a piece of cake for him to put Chu Lun’s name on the scholar list.”
“What a mess.” Cang Ji was baffled. “Why is it that the more we investigate, the more dead ends we get?”
Both men crossed the street. Jing Lin reached out a hand to catch the rain and noted that the rain was thinning. He said, “But I’m now clear of one thing.”
“Liu Chengde is a third grade Imperial Censor. There are few in the capital who can command and manipulate him. Only a few people above him can do so.” Jing Lin lowered his fingers and let the raindrops slide off them. He seemed to recall something. “Speaking of which, I’ve looked into this kind of case before.”
“How long ago was that?” Cang Ji stopped in his tracks and looked at his side profile.
Jing Lin replied, “Five hundred years ago. Perhaps even earlier.”
“Demon Slayer Lord Lin Song even investigate cases?” Cang Ji’s interest was piqued.
Jing Lin raised his eyes to look at the sky and said, “The reach of that case was so widespread. There was no one I know who wasn’t a participant in it.”
“What about yourself?” Cang Ji asked.
Jing Lin drew his fingers back into his sleeves and said to Cang Ji, “I’m not important.”
Cang Ji thought that he seemed somewhat different. So he drew out his voice and looked as if he could barely understand. “So, did you get to the bottom of the truth in the end?”
Jing Lin stepped out of the umbrella without answering. Cang Ji held up the umbrella and looked at him. For some reason, he felt as if the case Jing Lin was talking about involved that Supreme Father of his. The contours of Jing Lin’s shoulders and back were smooth. Cang Ji recalled the way Jing Lin looked like in his youth. The youth in a white robe and a silver crown could still show a slight smile when he turned his head back, like a real person.
Not hearing the sounds of footsteps, Jing Lin turned back to look at Cang Ji.
“If you smile at me,” Cang Ji closed the umbrella and said to Jing Lin, “then you need not make any promise. I’ll come to collect the debt myself.”
The rain had stopped, and the layers of clouds gradually parted. Sunlight shone through the clouds and fell upon Jing Lin’s shoulders. As if he could not bear this intense warmth, he took a step back, wanting to avoid it. He did not expect Cang Ji to put his arm around his shoulders and led him forward.
“Let’s go.” Cang Ji said. “I detect the scent of classics.”
◈ ◈ ◈
The scent of classics overlapped with the fragrance of rouge. Cang Ji sneezed the entire way. He tugged at Jing Lin’s sleeve to cover his nose and mouth. The smell of rouge powder overwhelmed him so much his eyes were red. He could hardly bear it. As Jing Lin spoke to the procuress, Cang Ji stood behind him and glared at the others with his eyes, frightening the procuress so much that her heart pounded.
“Where are we going?” Cang Ji hurriedly pulled Jing Lin’s sleeve and asked in a muffled voice when he saw that Jing Lin was about to head upstairs.
“Going in.” Jing Lin turned and looked at him. “Various parties are invited to the banquet today. Liu Chengde might make an appearance. Qianyu is likely hiding among them to make use of this opportunity to get close to him…”
Cang Ji nudged Jing Lin into his embrace and raised an arm to ward off the passionate gazes of those ladies. He sulked, “Change your appearance.”
Jing Lin glanced at him with his peach blossom eyes3 and said, “Men like Lord Dong only incur jealousy and not love among women.”
Cang Ji was about to argue back when he felt someone’s delicate hands pinching the back of his waist. It made his hairs stand on end. He instantly shoved Jing Lin, still in his embrace, up the stairs. They squeezed their way out of the mass of rouge into a wave of men.
The boys here were all pretty and tender like scallions. Cang Ji ascended the stairs and made his way through the crowd. He felt them groping all over his back again and heard someone laughed and said, “What a sturdy master!”
Cang Ji’s fur was about to explode,4 but a pity he did not have fur, so his scales were about to explode. It was not easy for him to squeeze his way into a booth with Jing Lin. When he saw that the others outside were about to follow them in, he promptly tugged the drapes shut to indicate his desire not to be disturbed.
“What is this?” Cang Ji poured himself some tea to clear his throat. “All these male patrons of the brothel with their slim waists!”
Jing Lin noted that the entire second floor had their drapes down. There was a space with a flower-depicted stage half the size of a man in the hall. Obviously, they were going to make a song and dance about the banquet that night. The booths were all close to each other, with only a thin screen5 and a flimsy drape on each side that could barely cover anything. He sat down at the table and said, “Those are from the brothel.”
“From the brothel?” Cang Ji sat down beside Jing Lin, right next to a vase of painting scrolls. He leaned back and rocked his chair. Pinching his stuffy nose, he wondered, “What? So men do ask for men?”
Laughter rang out from the booth beside them. Some male courtesans probably had yet to find a patron, and so they boldly responded, “There’s much pleasure to be had when men look for men. Why don’t you choose one of us to try it out?”
Cang Ji propped up his leg and said, “Exactly what kind of pleasure is there? Let’s hear it.”
The male courtesans huddled over in laughter across the screen. They traced out the shadows of one tantalizing figure after another on the screen and said, “What kind of pleasure, huh? Why don’t you just choose one of us? We will take turns to serve you. We’ll guarantee that you will be floating on air when you leave later.”
Cang Ji laughed. “Without seeing the real moves, it will be hard to say who will end up floating on cloud nine.”
“Then, why don’t you let us have a taste of it?” A male courtesan leaned against the screen and hooked a finger at Cang Ji’s direction as if seducing his soul over.
Cang Ji raised his eyebrows and glanced at Jing Lin. Jing Lin was stirring his bowl of sour plum soup and did not lift his head. Cang Ji leaned over and pressed his arm against Jing Lin’s back to whisper, “Do we choose one?”
Jing Lin coldly looked askance at him and said, “Sure.”
Cang Ji thwarted Jing Lin’s fingers and snatched away the spoon from his fingers. Then he raised his hand and gulped down Jing Lin’s sour plum soup. He said in a clear voice, “Unfortunately, I’ve already booked a cold-faced master who loves to put on airs.”
Jeers rang out behind the screen. Jing Lin took back his spoon and shook off Cang Ji’s arm. Cang Ji conveniently leaned back against the chair and stopped fooling around. The taste of sourness filled his entire mouth. He took a light breath and said, “How very sour.”
Jing Lin looked at his empty bowl and put the spoon away.
Cang Ji propped up his head with a hand and asked, “So what would you consider the relationship between Qianyu and Zuo Qingzhou to be? Is it the same as this?”
“It’s not the same.” Jing Lin said. “There’s a little difference between loving someone and toying with someone.”
Instead, Cang Ji asked, “Do you like men or women?”
Jing Lin turned the bowl and thought it over for a moment. He said, “I don’t feel anything towards either.”
Without rhyme or reason, Cang Ji recalled Jing Lin’s panting in the illusory realm. He felt for the tea and drank it all. He wanted to ask, you don’t hate it when we were being Qianyu and Zuo Qingzhou, do you? But until now, he still did not understand what Zuo Qingzhou and Qianyu were going to do. What could they do with their clothes pried apart?
Boil each other to eat?
◈ ◈ ◈
The lantern lights in the hall were extinguished, and people appeared on the stage. It was then Jing Lin understood what was going on tonight. So, putting up new chicks for sale was an old rule of this brothel. But would Qianyu be able to meet Liu Chengde by coming here?
Jing Lin wiped his sweat with his fingertips and continued to wait patiently.
Cang Ji stayed under the darkness. In his boredom, he kicked the vase of painting scrolls. He pulled out a few scrolls at random, but he could not see them clearly when he spread them apart, so he raised his hands to look at them against the light.
Jing Lin was not paying attention to what Cang Ji was doing. He felt for the tea, wanting to pour a cup for himself. But then, he saw Cang Ji abruptly sitting up straight and turning towards him.
Jing Lin asked warily, “Hmm?”
With a “swoosh”, Cang Ji spread his arms and pulled out a scroll painting. Presenting it to Jing Lin for a look, he asked, “Is that what they were going to do that day?”
Jing Lin tilted his head to fix his eyes on it and nearly spat out his tea all at once. His ears burned red as he raised his hand to cover his mouth to cough until even his face turned red from all the coughing.
Cang Ji really could not get a clear look at it, so he moved in closer and asked, “Can you see it?”
The little stone figure jumped onto the table and turned around in circles with its face buried in its hands. It bumped its head into Cang Ji’s arms and attempted to stuff the painting back. But Cang Ji was unwilling and raised his arms to lift the painting up as he rocked his chair and said, “That’s why I said you’ve never done it with anyone else.” He pondered, “How would you be willing to let someone do…”
Jing Lin stuffed a cake into Cang Ji’s mouth with a hand. Cang Ji raised his head to gobble it up before grabbing Jing Lin’s wrist to pull him over. He maintained his grip on Jing Lin’s wrist as he sandwiched Jing Lin’s waist between his knees. He stared at him and asked, “This is what you meant when you kissed me that time in the water—you wanted to peel off my clothes?”
Jing Lin turned his wrist over and swatted Cang Ji’s fingers away. Cang Ji tightened his knees around him. He could hear Jing Lin’s breathing.
“Tell me.” Cang Ji breathed on him. “Did you want to?”
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.
- 天嘉 The Era of Tianjia, 560-566, during the Chen Dynasty, also known as The Southern Chen Dynasty
桃花眼 literally peach blossom eyes, the shape of eyes is said to have an exceptional ability to attract the opposite sex.
炸毛 literally explode or puff up fur, i.e., fur standing on end, which usually happens when a feline is frightened, angry, startled, or threatened. Also refers to a character losing his temper or is very emotional and prone to outbursts of anger in the same situation.
屏风, a single screen or folding screen that typically serves as a partition, e.g., before the bed and so on.
- 《我一见你就笑》” I smile when I see you” is a song by Teresa Teng (邓丽君). Link.
- 雨过天晴 the sky (will) clear up after the rain.
霖 The “Lin” in Jing Lin refers to a continuous period of heavy rain.
霁 The “Ji” in Cang Ji refers to the sky clearing up after a period of rain or snow.