“In the ninth year of Tianjia, Chu Lun headed for the capital to take the imperial examination. It was the second time he failed to make it to the list of successful scholars, so his return journey was mainly to distract himself. Instead of taking the Xijiang waterway route, he took a horse carriage south. He left the capital with empty pockets. Zuo-lang gave him some traveling expenses and even helped to bribe the relay stations along the way to ease his journey. There was initially nothing out of the ordinary that year, but after turning it over in my mind later, it was that particular year Chu Lun got to know Liu Chengde.”
Qianyu leaned against the side of the coffin and sprawled over to gaze at Zuo Qingzhou. He had hidden Zuo Qingzhou’s body under Huachang’s inn, preserving it with ice and incense. Zuo Qingzhou’s collections of books were piled up all around them.
“How do you know it happened that year?” Cang Ji put on the new clothes Xiyan had brought him. As he secured his waist sash, he cast a sidelong look and saw Jing Lin dozing with his head propped up in his hand. Except that he was not really dozing.
“I checked the Inspector-General’s travel logs. In the ninth year of Tianjia, Liu Chengde went on an inspection tour to the south. It wasn’t just his route that coincided with Chu Lun’s; his timing coincided too. Both of them made each other acquaintances in the south. It was also after this trip that Chu Lun repeatedly mentioned in his letters how Liu Chengde could be trusted.” Qianyu said softly, “The situation was critical at that time, as people in the capital were already beginning to suspect Zuo-lang. Liu Chengde’s appearance was too timely. He appeared at a time when Zuo-lang was in urgent need of help. Through Chu Lun, he met Zuo-lang and told him that the difficulty in the case was not with the traffickers, but with the imperial court. Because of this first encounter, Zuo-lang came to believe that Liu Chengde was a man of integrity, and so he formally acknowledged Liu Chengde as his teacher. Using the name of teacher and student made it convenient for them to act.”
“Since he could fool Zuo Qingzhou, then it wouldn’t be surprising for him to fool Chu Lun too.” Cang Ji sat down and asked, “What happened later?”
“It was the tenth year of Tianjia. With the help of his father and elder brother, Zuo-lang presented a memorial to the emperor to impeach the Imperial Censure on inspection for his incompetent supervision and for turning a blind eye to the rampant trafficking taking place in the various lands. Back then, the emperor would still hold court sessions. When he heard about this incident, he summoned all the local government offices implicated in the case to head for the capital to make their reports. However, everyone he met insisted that there was no such incident. As a result, the Zuo clan’s reputation took a beating, and they were denounced.” Qianyu said, “Zuo-lang is prudent by nature. He would never act rashly unless he has concrete evidence. At that time, Liu Chengde was backing him in secret, and Zuo-lang was filled with even more gratitude to him. But it was also at this time that Liu Chengde persuaded Zuo-lang to cut off communication with Chu Lun temporarily. He ended up being the one to relay all the future information Zuo-lang and Chu Lun had.”
“Bridge.” Jing Lin abruptly opened his eyes and piped up.
“Bridge?” Cang Ji thought about it and recalled their conversation in the copper bell’s illusory realm. Jing Lin had once guessed that Zuo Qingzhou and Chu Lun had remained in contact with each other after the tenth year of Tianjia. Only that they no longer relied on letters, but some other communication channel. Who would expect it to be Liu Chengde?
“Why didn’t I think of it?” Jing Lin frowned and pinched the middle of his eyebrows with his fingers. “As the Inspector-General Vice-Censor-in-Chief, Liu Chengde would be able to enter and exit the capital freely by using his duties as an excuse. Both of them trust him deeply. The one with the ability to pass on the messages could only be him.”
“That’s right. It could only be him.” Qianyu said, “All the information in the eleventh year of Tianjia was passed on by Liu Chengde. The situation became more and more tense. There were already people in the imperial court targeting Zuo-lang. The Zuo Clan found themselves in an even more precarious position in the capital. The case pressed on ahead at full steam. The standoff lasted only a few months. Acting under orders, Liu Chengde headed for Dongxiang on an inspection tour. Once again, he met up with Chu Lun. But this time, he did one thing.”
Qianyu propped himself up and went over to the table to pour a cup of tea. Picking it up, he raised it towards Jing Lin and said, “Liu Chengde gave Chu Lun a brush.”
Jing Lin’s heart sank, but his expression remained unchanged as he repeated. “A brush?”
“It was that demon who brought about the change.” Qianyu raised his head and gulped down the tea. “Although I’ve never probed into Chu Lun’s fate in the Life Registry, I’ve a very clear idea of Zuo-lang’s. According to the Life Registry, Zuo-lang would be conferred the title of the Top Scholar in the twelfth year. In the seventeenth year, the emperor would pass away suddenly, and Zuo-lang would get to the bottom of these cases in the third year of the new emperor’s accession to the throne. No one in the various lands among Zhongdu would escape! Dongxiang, Xitu, Qunbei and Nanxia—every single official involved in the case, major or minor, would all stand before the Highest Judiciary. The imperial court would be purged, and all the injustices of the old cases would be redressed. Because of this case, Zuo-lang would reach the peak of his career in the central administration. He would be open and above board for life! Chu Lun is not involved in this whole thing, nor should he be involved. But at the most crucial juncture, Liu Chengde gave Chu Lun that brush.” Hatred filled Qianyu’s eyes. “That brush tampered with the Life Registry and messed up a mortal’s fate. As a result, Zuo-lang was unjustly framed and thrown into prison. He had to suffer all kinds of tortures in there!”
“That brush.” An even bigger guess vaguely took hold in Jing Lin’s mind. Once again, it overturned the conjecture Jing Lin had been confident of thus far and threw it all into disarray like the seeds on sesame balls.1 He frowned and asked, “How did you know that that brush has the ability to tamper with the Life Registry?”
“I didn’t.” Qianyu supported himself on the table and leaned in, his foxy eyes vicious. “If I knew, I would definitely kill Liu Chengde first, then break that brush. It was precisely because I didn’t know that I let him fall into Chu Lun’s hands. It was later when I went to the Underworld again that I discovered the Life Registry had been touched and changed beyond recognition. The only one in this whole world who could have such a brush with this kind of special ability is the Sage Yining! But it’s really strange! Is the Sage Yining totally in the dark about this? He was the one who cast this brush away into Zhongdu—Don’t tell me the deities in Ninth Heaven Realms have fallen so low that they now interfere with human affairs and abet evildoers?!”
Jing Lin said, “Yining is an upright person. There are perhaps some other complications in this matter.”
“I don’t believe it.” Qianyu enunciated each word, “I don’t trust every single deity and demon in this world. I only believe my eyes. If they are all involved in this case, then even if it’s the Sage Yining, or Divine Lord Jiu Tian, I will sort them out one by one and make them pay with their lives to avenge Zuo-lang.”
Jing Lin’s fingers half-covered his narrow eyes as he stared at Qianyu and said, “If you had that kind of capability, Zuo Qingzhou wouldn’t have died in prison.”
Qianyu’s lips reddened. His breathing quickened, and his fingers tightened into fists.
“You formed illicit ties with a mortal, and indiscriminately killed the living. If you get hunted down and captured by Zhuihun Prison or the Demarcation Division, you’ll be sent to reincarnate through the Path of the Beasts.2 If they add a few more strokes to your fate in the Life Registry, then it would be hard for you to preserve your life even if you were to be a beast, let alone a demon.” Jing Lin closed his eyes wearily. After a while, he continued, “Do you know why am I here?”
Qianyu averted his head and said in a hoarse voice, “I heard it’s because of a bell.”
“That’s just an excuse.” Jing Lin said, “I’m here because of Zuo Qingzhou.”
Qianyu immediately retreated and stammered, “You, you…”
Jing Lin’s eyes were cold and cheerless when he opened them again. He said, “Truth be told, both of us have been entrusted with a task. Zuo Qingzhou has entrusted me with only three words. If you can remain calm, I’ll tell you.” Qianyu looked at Jing Lin, but Jing Lin flipped over his teacup and turned the conversation around. “But you can’t follow us to persist in your investigation.”
“I won’t give…”
“How long can you put Zuo Qingzhou’s body here for? A month? A year? He is already dead, through and through. “Jing Lin said callously, “He will rot and disappear before your eyes. You won’t even have a chance to summon his soul back to his body.”
“What has this got to do with you?! I have my ways.”
“It has nothing to do with me.” Jing Lin said, “But it has something to do with what Zuo Qingzhou has entrusted me with.”
“You are lying to me.” Qianyu glared at him. “Zuo-lang and I are inseparable. He will not entrust a task to someone else without telling me.”
“Just like you thought nothing would go wrong with the Life Registry.” Jing Lin said.
Shaken and uncertain, Qianyu said, “If you truly want to help me, then why won’t you let me investigate?!”
“I’m not doing this to help you.” Jing Lin said, “This mortal body of Zuo Qingzhou is already useless. Your most urgent task on hand isn’t in this place. Even if I allowed you to investigate, you can’t go any further. As a fox demon, you have already overstepped your boundaries. And now you’re also investigating this matter. Not unless you are like Huachang with extra lives to spare. But your fox tail is already broken, and you will only end up hindering my investigation. I’ll point you a way out as Zuo Qingzhou asked of me. Bury this corpse. Go to the Underworld and wait for a person at the entrance of Li Jin.”
Jing Lin replied with a shadow of a smile. “Who you would wait for this life.”
Qianyu suddenly widened his eyes. He grabbed Jing Lin’s sleeve and said in an urgent voice, “The Ghost Guards took his soul. By the time I chased my way to the Underworld, I had already missed the time. Don’t tell me he has yet to be reincarnated?”
“Who knows?” Jing Lin pulled his sleeve out of his hand and said, “The Ghost Guards have always been fond of loafing on the job. Just wait. Perhaps so.”
“If you lie to me,” Qianyu said. “You…”
Jing Lin suddenly put on a severe countenance and said, “The souls passing through Li Jin are aplenty. If not ten thousand, there would still be around eight thousand. You have to search for him, and identify him, a soul at a time. But if you miss even this chance, then you will truly never meet him again.”
Qianyu looked dazed. Jing Lin rose to his feet and said, “Zuo Qingzhou only entrusted me with three words.”
Qianyu said, “… Tell me.”
Jing Lin said, “Can’t let go.”
Qianyu’s eyes suddenly reddened. He turned his head to gaze towards the coffin with a lump in his throat, more or less already believing Jing Lin’s words.
◈ ◈ ◈
When they came out, Cang Ji bumped into Jing Lin and pressed his chest against half of Jing Lin’s shoulder. He whispered, “Didn’t you say Zuo Qingzhou was long gone?”
“Yes.” Jing Lin said, “That’s right.”
Cang Ji looked at his composed expression and let out an “ooh”, then said, “You tricked him, huh?”
“Yeah.” Jing Lin said.
“Whatever for?” Cang Ji said, “If he can’t find him, wouldn’t that hurt much more than not looking for him in the first place?”
“Didn’t you say,” Jing Lin raised his head. “not to let him forget Zuo Qingzhou? If that’s the case, then let him remember him to his death.”
“That’s not right.” Cang Ji took advantage of his own height to block Jing Lin’s way. He said, “You saw that this case has been traced to the Sage Yining. You fear that too many people would be implicated in the ensuing investigation, and he would end up getting silenced. So, this case really concerns those from the Ninth Heaven Realm?”
With some difficulty, Jing Lin moved the corners of his lips. Seeing that the rain had no intention of abating, he stood beside Cang Ji under the eaves. After a moment of pondering, he said, “In the brothel, Liu Chengde set forth a door guardian deity to obstruct you, is that right?”
“The horsewhip deity.” Cang Ji said. “Tastes like paper.”
Jing Lin looked at him, driven beyond the limits of his forbearance. He asked, “You ate him?”
Cang Ji got a bad feeling about it, and so he deliberated over his answer. “… I ate him midway, then spat him out.”
“That was indeed paper.” Jing Lin thought about it. Then, without batting an eyelid, he patted Cang Ji on the back of his shoulder in silent comfort.
Cang Ji’s face turned ashen as he blurted out, “Paper?!”
“That’s the art of drawing deities.” Jing Lin said and raised his hand to illustrate it in mid-air for Cang Ji. “Pour spiritual energy into brush and ink, and the drawing will come to life. Most of the powerful people from the Ninth Heaven Realm can draw objects without paper. Zui Shan Seng can’t do it, but Lord Dong can.”
Azure light swam along with Jing Lin’s fingertip and suddenly turned into a fat carp amidst the curtain of rain. The carp leaped into the rain with a “plop” and swam in mid-air for a moment before it transformed back into green light and dispersed.
“In other words.” Cang Ji leaned against the pillar and looked at Jing Lin with lowered eyes. “Only the divine lords can draw objects without paper. But that horsewhip deity that day was on paper.”3
“That’s where the mystery lies.” Jing Lin said, “Even though it was just a painted object, not everyone can paint it in such intricate details. There aren’t many people in Ninth Heaven who have such drawing skills.”
“Since that evil spirit is your brother, couldn’t he have drawn it?”
“Tao-di has been willful and mischievous since young.” Jing Lin paused, then said to Cang Ji, “Other than being pretty good in drawing old tortoises,4 everything else he drew would all turn from cats to rats and wolves to rabbits. Even if he were to live for another five hundred years, he would not necessarily be able to draw a door guardian deity with details so meticulous that every single line and pattern on the armor was fully rendered.”
Cang Ji gazed at the rain and said, “As expected, this is going to implicate the Ninth Heaven Realm.”
“Not only that. We know much more than that.”
Jing Lin wiped away the raindrops splashed on the back of his hand and said, “As far as I know, there is only one person who can draw to such an extent.”
Cang Ji asked, “The Sage Yining?”
Instead of answering, Jing Lin said, “I haven’t seen Zui Shan Seng for several days. I kind of miss him.”
“Do you miss Zui Shan Seng or his integrity?” Inexplicably enough, Cang Ji laughed. “Looks like even our Jing Lin will be proven blinded for once.”
Jing Lin folded his arms and said, “I don’t know him that well to begin with.”
Cang Ji parroted him. “Who was the one who swore ‘I don’t believe Le Yan, but I trust Yining’? Not a single one of your old acquaintances is reliable.” He patted his own sturdy arm to show his magnanimity and willingness to let bygones be bygones.
Jing Lin kicked him in the calf, and Cang Ji retreated to dodge him. Jing Lin advanced a step and managed to get his kick in. But Cang Ji reached out to pull Jing Lin’s upper body into the crooks of his arms. Covering their heads with his wide-sleeves clothes, Cang Ji led Jing Lin out into the rain.
After taking a few steps, Jing Lin said, “… I have an umbrella.”
Cang Ji gazed at the night rain and said to Jing Lin, “It’s just a few steps away.” He paused for a moment, then continued, “This is how it looks to have ‘our scents entwined’.5 You have me in you, and I have you in me. Get rid of the fox’s scent of classics on you without delay. My scent is the best.”
Jing Lin jabbed the umbrella into the middle of Cang Ji’s waist. Then, with a “thud”, he unfurled that plain, paper umbrella.6
麻团 Sesame Balls, a fried Chinese pastry made from glutinous rice flour and coated with sesame seeds.
- 畜生道 Path of the Beasts. The Six Paths or Realms of Reincarnation is a cycle of death and rebirth in Buddhism, where a person is reincarnated into one of the six realms depending on their accumulated karma from their past life. They are the Path/Realms of: (Bad) Hell (Underworld), Hungry Ghosts, Beasts and (Good) Asura, Humans, Heaven.
To recap, a door guardian deity is door god or divine guardians whose main duties were to protect a building, threshold, or household against evil influences or to encourage the entrance of positive ones. Stickers or papers of these deities are usually pasted on doors to signify their protection.
Drawing pictures of tortoises, mostly to stick on others’ backs. Lianyin always did this as a kid. (●‘ω｀●)ゞ
- He uses the word ‘气味相投’ here which is actually an idiom for being two of a kind, or kindred spirits, but literally translated, it also means scents (气味) on each other (相投), i.e., his scent is on Jing Lin, and Jing Lin’s scent is on him. Cang Ji not only means they are kindred spirits but that it’s by being this close together, with Jing Lin in his arms, that it will seem as if they belong to one another (marked with each other scents).
May come in different colors