Innumerable dwellings in the capital had collapsed after the disaster of that rainy night. The public opinion that it was due to the wrath of Heaven gradually started making its rounds in the imperial court, but the emperor simply carried on as usual. The beauties held in captivity in the imperial prison were routinely delivered into the palace, while traffickers in the various lands continued to operate as usual.
It was near dusk by the time Xiyan found the derelict courtyard. The little fox stepped forward to knock on the door. After a few knocks, the desolate and gloomy scene before him rippled like water as it turned into an entire garden bustling with activity. He carefully tiptoed and leaned against the door.
“Sorry to impose on you!”
◈ ◈ ◈
After entering, Xiyan sneaked a peek at Ah Yi, because Ah Yi was pretty, and he looked androgynous in his brocade robe and with his hair tied up. Ah Yi was proud. He knew the fox was full of admiration and envy, and so he was itching to puff up his tail feathers and spread out his wings to strut before Xiyan. Cang Ji sent him away, but he stubbornly refused to. Instead, he made his way back through the window, determined to hear what they were saying.
Instead of sitting down, Xiyan held the tea with both hands and drank it all up before he said to Jing Lin. “The Lady Boss sent me here to inform you that you no longer have to fear that Hui An. He was merely making a trip here so that he can report back. He will do the Lady Boss a favor and not make things difficult for you both again.”
“He came at us so viciously.” Cang Ji said, “He doesn’t look like he will leave easily.”
“It was initially a thorny issue, but something happened. Even if he’s Hui An, he can’t take matters into his own hands. His urgent need to return to the Ninth Heaven Realm is far, far more pressing than capturing both of you.”
“The evil spirit hidden in the capital devoured half of the Goddess Shengyue’s body. That Goddess Shengyue is no ordinary deity. If Hui An delays his report, he will have to bear the blame for it.” Cupping the teacup with both hands, Xiyan put it back and said, “The Lady Boss said, if this matter is reported to Ninth Heaven Realm, both of you will get drawn into it. If you have already found what is missing, then leave as soon as possible. In addition, both of you have been of great help in helping us to find back Qianyu-gege. The Lady Boss is willing to assist you to the best of her abilities to repay this favor.”
“The object is still in the capital. If we can’t get it back, then we can’t leave.” Cang Ji said. “That evil spirit had fled in fear. Why did he return this fast?”
“Hui An saw him with his eagle eyes.” Xiyan put on the appearance of a troubled adult. “But he has been concealing himself ever since he entered the capital, so Hui An was no longer able to find him. And now, we don’t know where he is hiding.”
“His eagle eyes can only see through evil spirits of human origins. Hui An’s inability to find a devil1 comes as no surprise.” Jing Lin said.
Ah Yi listened for a while behind the chair, then popped his head out and said. “Those eyes of Hui An are nothing. My Ah Jie’s and mine are better. I can see him even if he hid himself in the soil.”
Cang Ji pressed his head back and asked, “What has it got to do with you?”
Ah Yi pushed his head up and said in a huff, “It’s so boring for you guys to just stay here! You might as well take me along to subdue evil. The five-colored birds2 are the best when it comes to searching for people! But if you want to borrow my eyes to look for that evil spirit, you’ll need to remunerate me for it.”
Cang Ji considered it and felt that they might really have to rely on Ah Yi to look for that evil spirit, and so he released his hand and asked, “What remuneration do you want?”
Ah Yi said with a serious expression, “It’s not a problem to help you on account of my Ah Jie. I only hope that if we get investigated in the future, you will not implicate her. Just push all the responsibility to me.”
Jing Lin looked at him and said, “Worrywart.”
“I only have this one elder sister. Of course, I’ve to worry!” Ah Yi said impatiently. “So, do you promise or not?!”
“Find the evil spirit first before we talk about it.” Cang Ji said.
But Ah Yi did not fall for it and said to Cang Ji, “I know you are cunning! If I don’t get a definite answer from both of you today, then I won’t go anymore! You are free to find someone else!”
“I promise you.” Jing Lin said, “If we end up being investigated, the five-colored bird clan will not be implicated.”
Ah Yi folded his arms and motioned to Cang Ji. But Cang Ji merely poured tea slowly and said, “I’ll do as Jing Lin says.”
Ah Yi found his words vague, but after mulling it over, he found nothing wrong about it. Thus, he nodded and said, “I sensed something off with this place the moment I entered the capital. He is like a deity and a devil, and yet he is neither. It’s really odd. So he ate Shengyue. No wonder it’s so difficult to trace him down. But since I have agreed to it, I’ll have my ways. All you two have to do is to follow me. But if we leave, then what’s going to happen to that brush demon and that invalid?”
Jing Lin covered his teacup with the lid and said, “A mountain dweller naturally has his own plans.”3
◈ ◈ ◈
The next day, the “Chu Lun” who had taken leave for several days to recuperate from his illness returned to Hanlin. He was in great spirits, and his complexion looked good. Chu Lun entered and presented his name card4 before heading into the academy without a hitch. There was nothing unusual in his exchange of conventional greetings with the others; on the contrary, he was a lot more pleasant to socialize with than before. Lifting his robe, he stepped into the chamber and took his seat to listen to the discourses and exchanges around him while he waited. But then, his sleeve stirred a few times.
Cang Ji occupied most of the territory within the sleeve. Ah Yi was furious, but he did not dare to voice his displeasure. The five-colored bird hung his head in dejection as it huddled into a ball and squeezed into a corner, crestfallen.
“What are you worried about? Search for him properly. Dage will reward you.” Cang Ji put an arm around the back of the bird and said, “I’ll even share half of Jing Lin’s sleeve with you.”
Ah Yi snorted, feeling that this “dage” was truly hard to utter. But he was too used to suffering under Cang Ji’s hands, and so he could only grit his teeth and shouted, “… Thank you, dage. But I’m not worried at all.”
Cang Ji said, “Look at how unwilling you sound.”
Ah Yi immediately tilted his head like an innocent chick5 and gnashed his teeth to call out in a cheerful tone.“Dage!”
“How do you feel after coming in here?” Cang Ji asked.
Ah Yi said, “It’s brimming with evil aura. As expected, this evil spirit is hiding in the palace. I’m afraid we have to head further in.”
Jing Lin was listening to them ‘waxing philosophical’ with one another when he saw a sudden flash of figures at the wall opening.6 Four or five eunuchs accompanying Liu Chengde entered. He recognized those few eunuchs as the little demons carrying the sedan chair that other night. Using Chu Lun’s appearance, he paid his obeisances to Liu Chengde from afar. Liu Chengde took a few steps up the stairs and exchanged civilities with the others before he sat down beside Jing Lin. The eunuchs stood guard at the bottom of the stairs. It was obvious that they were here to protect Liu Chengde.
Tao Zhi must be truly lacking in people to use if he could even treat a chess piece with so much care.
“I7 heard that my dear younger brother8 has been bedridden with illness a few days ago. This elder brother has been especially concerned, so I’ve sent someone to deliver some top quality medicinal herbs to you. I wonder if my dear brother has put them to use? By all reasoning, I should have paid you a visit in person. But there are too many trivialities to attend to in the capital these days that it was hard for me to get away.” Liu Chengde said and carefully sized Jing Lin up. He nodded and continued, “You seem to be more spirited now compared to the past few days.”
Jing Lin could barely hear what he was saying over the din both men were making in his sleeve. So he took the chance to shake his sleeve and said to Liu Chengde, “It’s all thanks to dage’s concern. I’m already much better.”
Cang Ji thought, this person really doesn’t take it to heart when he’s pretending to be someone else; he could even greet “dage” with such sincerity!
Liu Chengde let loose a few sighs and said, “To be perfectly honest with my dear brother, I have been disheartened ever since Xijing departed this world. It’s only when I see you getting better now that I feel I have not failed what has been entrusted to me back then.”
Ah Yi muttered. “This man not only looks benevolent; he’s also a loyal friend.”
Although Ah Yi knew about Le Yan’s usurpation of fate, he knew very little about Zuo Qingzhou. Thus, he did not know who Liu Chengde was. He thought that Liu Chengde was still missing the wronged and deceased Zuo Qingzhou.
Cang Ji, however, was sick and tired of it and started to instigate Jing Lin, “We mustn’t let this man off easily once this is over. Look at how loathsome that crafty look of his is. You might as well just feed him to me.”
How would Liu Chengde know what the “Chu Lun” before him was currently listening to? He immersed himself deeper into his role. “Before Xijing passed on, he knew that it would be hard for him to escape, and so he secretly sent some men to my residence and handed those ‘letters’ over to me. My dear brother, from now on, there’s only you and me left. If there’s any headway in this case, we need to think of a plan together. You mustn’t act presumptuously on your own again.”
Jing Lin sighed and said nothing.
When Liu Chengde saw this, he simply thought that Chu Lun was still harboring guilt over the matter. So he whispered, “All that talk about changing fate is just nonsense. My dear brother mustn’t take it as gospel. It isn’t your fault that Xijing ended up in such a state. If you have to blame, then let the blame falls on this murky water9 that’s so fathomless the few of us have to risk our lives for it.”
Cang Ji saw how hard he was trying and could not help but think of Zuo Qingzhou whom he had met once in the illusory realm. Despite all of Zuo Qingzhou’s scheming and planning, he never expected the people around him to harbor ulterior motives. Perhaps one day, his suspicions might be roused, but fate never gave him that opportunity.
Jing Lin saw Liu Chengde’s hand on his sleeve to hold him up and surreptitiously moved it away. He wanted so much to fish out his handkerchief to wipe it clean. But Liu Chengde showed no signs of moving back. So Jing Lin said, “Dage is right. It’s just that I’ve been sick for so many days and have no idea how the case has been progressing.”
Liu Chengde wiped away those few drops of tears and said, “This isn’t the place for discussion. It isn’t too late to come to my residence to discuss in detail after we knock off today.”
Ah Yi had caught a waft of something fishy when Liu Chengde held him earlier and said, “Go with him! Jing Lin, there’s incense ash between his fingers. He must have seen that evil spirit!”
Thus, Jing Lin nodded and responded, “Then, I shall obey.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Liu Chengde’s residence was located on Fenghua10 Street. It was not the kind that was imposing and opulent. Instead, it was simple, refined, and extremely quiet, with few servants serving in a residence with bamboo and plum blossoms. It even looked a little impoverished. If one did not know this person’s true nature, he would have been easily fooled by this pretense of his.
Jing Lin had entered the interior for only a moment when he saw Liu Chengde, who had already changed into his usual clothes, stepping out to welcome him. He sent someone to set up a table of wine and dishes, then led Jing Lin to his seat. As he poured wine for the latter, he said, “It felt as if my heart had been stabbed with a knife when Xijing left this world. How I regret never taking the opportunity to drink and chat merrily with him back in those days! It’s really too late for regrets now. Shenzhi, there is no need to restrain yourself tonight. This elder brother knows of your pain.”
Jing Lin touched his chopsticks as a gesture but did not pick up the food to eat. Instead, he accepted the wine and said, “I’ve been in the dark these days because of my illness. I wonder what crimes were the Zuo clan charged with after Xijing’s death?”
Liu Chengde raised his head to gulp down his wine before he let out a long sigh. “What crime is there to speak of for people dealt with in the imperial prison?! You have no idea, but the instant Xijing was taken into prison, I went around trying to bribe them. But those people only accept gold and silver and wouldn’t even leak any information to me. The half month Xijing was in prison, I wasn’t even able to find out anything.” At this point, the tears started streaming down his face.
Jing Lin scrutinized Liu Chengde as if he had seen a rarity. But he was not in a position to reveal too much, and so could only pretend to be wistful and at a loss for words.
Liu Chengde lifted his sleeve to wipe away his tears and continued, “Acting on this matter in the capital is like treading on thin ice. There is no room for carelessness. Now that you have joined Hanlin, you and I will have to look out after each other in the future. As time passes, you will begin to understand the struggle in many of these matters. Although you are determined to eradicate evil, you must not be impatient. ”
Jing Lin lowered his hand and said, “Dage always warns me not to be impatient. But the situation is so pressing now that it has become a major problem. People who have lost their families and children abound everywhere in the east and the west, and the various local yamen are unable to stop the voice of grievances. You and I already have the evidence in hand, and yet we still have to endure this without saying a word or acting on it. Then, in dage’s opinion, when can we make a move? Don’t tell me you want Xijing to lose his life in vain while we pretend nothing happened.”
As if he did not understand, Liu Chengde asked, “What evidence?”
Jing Lin looked at him and said, “All of Xijing’s ‘letters’ are in dage’s hands. Yet dage doesn’t know of the evidence?”
Liu Chengde was shocked. He feared he might have let slipped something. But then, he remembered that Zuo Qingzhou made no mention of it during the execution. Afraid that Chu Lun might have found out something, Liu Chengde put on a troubled frown and said, “If I have the evidence, why would I ask you to wait? Did Xijing tell you something?”
Jing Lin suddenly smiled. Even though he was borrowing Chu Lun’s face, he still looked strangely bewitching. He poured the wine onto the ground11 and said, “Of course Xijing told me. I saw him repeatedly calling out for dage when he was thrown into prison, so I thought he had told you something.”
Liu Chengde stood up in fright and retreated amidst the sound of a “clatter”. His expression was ghastly. “Xijing was in the imperial prison. How did you get to see him?!”
Jing Lin threw away the wine cup. When he raised his head, he had already become “Zuo Qingzhou”. He said coldly, “Didn’t you come to see me too? You did not even frown when that kind of torture fell upon my body. We were once teacher-and-student, but why have we become so estranged?”
Liu Chengde tried to flee, but the door remained tightly shut. He pounded on the door in terror and called out to the demons outside. Cang Ji squatted at the entrance of the door and listened to the incessant thumping behind him. With a “crunch” between his teeth as he chomped down on something, he told Ah Yi to draw on the door for fun.
Ah Yi did not stand on ceremony as he wrote “Return Me My Life” in blood with a flourish. Finding it not intimidating enough after he was done, he added a fish monster that did not look like a fish at the end.
“You eat so much in one meal.” Ah Yi stuck out his tongue and whispered. “How does Jing Lin even feed you enough?”
Cang Ji merely smiled and said, “He has his ways to feed me.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Liu Chengde looked back and saw that “Zuo Qingzhou” was now standing under the lanterns. His shadow caged him in, cutting off all his retreat paths. He pretended to be calm on the surface, but his legs had gone as soft as cotton; he could not even stand straight.
“Xijing…” Liu Chengde’s voice trembled. “Xijing! You can’t blame me! I was also forced into a corner. I had no choice but to do so!”
Jing Lin said, “I’m now a lonely wandering ghost. I’ve been backed into a corner too. On account of our teacher-student relationship, it’s not too much to demand you to pay with your life.”
“No! That won’t do!” Liu Chengde’s face was red as he panted and brandished his arms wildly. “You don’t know it yet. You weren’t aware! But His Majesty has received pointers from a deity to live a long life! You kill me, if you kill me! You won’t be able to escape from His Majesty’s clutch!”
Jing Lin’s eyes were frosty. His hand was on the side of his waist. There was clearly nothing there, yet Liu Chengde seemed to hear the sound of a sword blade being drawn out from its sheath. He was petrified when he saw the scene before his eyes shook. Then, there was a “thud”, and his head landed on his own lap.
The corpse toppled over onto the ground, and his similarly headless soul was gradually pulverized into sand so fine he could not even get to be a ghost.
Jing Lin kicked the door open and strode across the threshold.
- 魔 devil vs. 邪魔 an evil spirit. A devil has its origin in human souls that have turned evil (Soul → Evil Spirit → Devil according to one source; for details and clarification of the terms demons and devil, please refer to the glossary). Immortals and deities may also descend into evil and turn into a devil.
- 五色鸟 – technically, the words would translate to a barbet bird. But here, it refers to a mythical creature in Chinese mythology (to be revealed in later chapters, but the hint was already dropped). For now, I’ll stick to the original text and label it a ‘five-colored bird’).
- 山人自有妙计 basically mean “I have an idea/a plan”. I left it as the literal translation as Jing Lin once lived in the mountains, so he’s literally referring to himself.
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.
洞门 An opening in a wall separating different courtyards within a residence or palace, etc.
- He refers to himself as 愚兄, or yuxiong (or this older brother), which means “I” in a modest form when addressing someone younger in the same generation.
- He refers to Chu Lun as 贤弟, or xiandi (or my worthy/dear younger brother), which a deferential term to address a close friend or sworn brother who is younger.
- Refers to the case
- 风华 also means magnificent, elegant
- In Chinese customs, rice wine or tea is poured onto the ground (usually in front of an altar or tombstone) as an offering to the deities or in honor of the deceased.