Cang Ji jolted awake. The sound of water subsided. Even his robe had dried on its own. He could not remember where he was. So he focused his eyes and listened to the hubbub of voices around him.
Unable to make any sense of this, Cang Ji glanced to the side and saw Huachang sitting at the side drinking wine and gambling with dice. The proprietress did not seem to be the same as the one he had seen in the capital. She was wearing a double-edged fine-toothed comb1 inlaid with pearls. Dressed in pink and white, she was the very embodiment of a lotus out of the water; a budding beauty in her prime.
“Master made a special trip here just for this. So be sure to look at the correct person later.” Huachang had gambled with the others until the smile on her face bloomed like a flower. From her tone, she seemed to be on familiar terms with him; she was not in the least treating him as an outsider. She said, “Those few under his command are all characters that are tough to deal with. Li Rong is one thing; we saw him before in the northern lands. But you have never seen Jing Lin before. It really hurts when Yan Quan left its sheath! He’s the one who wanted to take down my elder sister the last time.”
She had only just said that when she saw someone lifted the curtain and entered. This person was luxuriously dressed, and refined and demure in appearance. Although she bore about eighty percent resemblance to Huachang, she had a kind of calmness and indifference that the latter did not have. The moment she entered, Cang Ji suspected that he had gotten the wrong person; this should be the Huachang he saw in the capital. When this woman opened her mouth, her tone was charming; it was very similar to Huachang’s lazy tone a few hundred years later.
“Are you talking about that ‘spring water over precipitous rocks; azure clothes among cold pines.’2 Jing Lin? “She smiled as she paid her obeisances to Cang Ji and said, “I do not dare to forget even a moment of our last encounter.”
“What’s it that you dare not forget?” Cang Ji pressed down on the mouth of the cup with his fingers and gazed outside. The words flowed as if they had been recited hundreds and thousands of times. “All his elder brothers look like wolves and tigers. How much better would he be?”
“He’s really good-looking.” Linlang said, “He’s far thinner and frail than that Li Rong, and is rather aloof. But he’s young. From how I see it, he has yet to be acquainted with affairs of the heart and is still not worldly-wise.”
“It’s these kinds that are the most loathsome.” Cang Ji disdainfully leaned back and took in the entire view of the high stage. He said, “He looks like an adult, but his mind is still like a child. He sees and deals with others as if they are either black or white. He neither understands the unforeseen nor knows the ways of the world. If Ninth Heaven Gate truly wants to negotiate, please don’t ever send him.”
“It’s rare to see Master being so open with your feelings. Could it be that you have seen him before?” Linlang asked.
Cang Ji immediately replied, “Nope.”
“He shouldn’t have seen him before.” Huachang counted the gold pearls one by one and put them back into her embroidered pouch. She was smiling so much her eyes had turned into crescent moons. “It’d be terrible if he had seen him before! Most likely, they will fight until the world is plunged into chaos.”
Cang Ji, however, lowered his eyes and brushed aside the teacup. He said, “I’m a hundred years older than him. What’s there to fight with him?”
“You are also older than Li Rong by a hundred years.” Huachang asked in puzzlement. “But didn’t you still beat the crap out of him?”
Linlang could vaguely guess what Cang Ji was thinking, so she spoke out to stop Huachang. She chided, “You think you are the only one who remembers it clearly? Drink your wine and speak less.”
Just as the three of them were conversing, they heard that the stage platform suddenly rose and widened several times over. The discussions all around ceased immediately, and for a moment, silence reigned as everyone looked attentively at the white marble stage. Yun Sheng and Li Rong went up the steps together and cupped their hands in a greeting all around them.
“Today, the Blood Sea is pressing in on the borders, and evil spirits and devils are causing a disturbance in the east, west, north, and south. Taking the lead, our Ninth Heaven Gate has been on the move for many years in preparation for our cause to suppress them. Knowing ourselves and our own abilities in the early years, we did not dare to claim credit and declare ourselves to be the best. But the situation is now getting urgent to the point that it would not do for everyone to be modest and give way to one another. We need to push out a party to lead the battle. Today, we have partitioned this Ming Jin Stage to invite all the heroes in the world to a challenge. We must decide on the best among us.”
“Their invitations were sent to the various powerhouses all over the world. Everyone with fame and prestige is here.” Huachang leaned over the window and said, “The only one missing is our Northern lands.”
“The Ninth Heaven Gate is ambitious. Since they are determined to compare strength, that means they have made up their mind to be the champion.” Linlang guessed Cang Ji’s expression and said, “But Master has resided in the north for so many years. Who doesn’t know the name of Emperor Cang? You want the demons to pay allegiance, but how would they bow down to a mere mortal?”
“It is not a bad thing to join forces and unite as one to expel the Blood Sea.” Cang Ji said, “It’s just that if all the powers under the world were to unite under Ninth Heaven Gate, then it’d be even harder than ascending Heaven when they want to split up again after the Blood Sea retreats. Once you have a taste of being the leader, you will never be able to quit. The Ninth Heaven Gate leader, Lord Jiu Tian, recruited talents from all over. Although he has no sons of his own, he took in eight adopted sons. His intent is already clear. Others are still preparing for the Blood Sea Battle, but he’s already plotting for a hundred years later.”
As Cang Ji spoke, he picked up the folding fan on the table to fiddle with. Pressing it between his fingertips and pushing it open little by little, he stared at the man on the stage and said, “Besides, the world only needs one dragon.”3
The words had only just left his mouth when he saw, from afar, Lord Jiu Tian sitting at the top of the stairs with white-robed men lining up in a row on both of his sides. Yun Sheng and Li Rong returned among them. A sharp-eyed Cang Ji noted that even Li Rong had to move a step down and empty out the spot beside Lord Jiu Tian. The person occupying this position was, at this point in time, kneeling on one knee to kowtow at the bottom of Lord Jiu Tian’s seat. Bearing his sword, he lowered his head to listen to his father’s command.
The moment Cang Ji saw this person’s back, he let out a light snort. But his eyes lingered on that man’s back, unable to tear themselves away.
The man kneeled for a while. When he rose to his feet, his white robe fluttered in the wind. He turned around and stepped up to the white marble stage. In an instant, mist shrouded the mountains as the soughing of wind among the pines rose in waves. It was as if millions of breeze all moved at the prompt of a snap of his fingers, while thousands of hectares of the sea of pines answered only to the draw of his sword. He stood alone on the stage, his eyes indifferent and untainted, and his countenance, frosty and aloof. Letting the waves of wind wash over him under the gaze of the crowd, he raised his hand slightly and unsheathed Yan Quan from an angle.
“I, alone, will take up the challenges on this stage.” He said in a mild tone. “Anyone here not convinced, come on stage to enlighten me.”
His remark caused an uproar all around the moment it left his mouth. It had to be said that eight or nine out of ten of those here on this day were all renowned figures in Zhongdu. But even they could hardly bear to witness such arrogance on his part in using Yan Quan Sword to intimidate them!
“How arrogant of this lad!” The crowd was enraged. They had never thought that Ninth Heaven Gate would be so conceited that they only sent this one person to monopolize Ming Jin Stage. The entire mob could not help but spat out sounds of scorn as they refused to yield.
Cang Ji suddenly let out a laugh. Despite already knowing the answer, he asked, “Who’s that?”
Linlang smiled too. “That’s Jing Lin.”
A tempest rose, and pine needles assaulted the window. Cang Ji noted Jing Lin’s expressionless face. His haughtiness was overpowering, and yet he concealed that wildness deep in his eyes and made an effort to maintain a neutral look. Cang Ji could not help but move his joints and let out a soft harrumph as if he had thought of something.
◈ ◈ ◈
It was a few days later when Jing Lin withdrew. The chasm between brothers deepened when they saw him defeating the various heroes all on his own. By the time he entered the courtyard after taking his bath, the food had already been cleared, and the pots, scrubbed clean. Li Rong had been waiting for him for a long time. On seeing him, he stuffed him some gold pearls and told him to venture out for his meal.
The few pearls spun around in Jing Lin’s palm. He lowered his eyes and said, “It’s fine even if I don’t eat.”
Before he could finish his words, his stomach growled.
“Father has already gone to take a rest. He should be rewarding you tomorrow. Have a good meal tonight. You’ve been on the stage these days. Even a man forged in iron won’t be able to stand it. “Li Rong rose to his feet. When he saw Jing Lin looking at him, he could not help but say in embarrassment, “Although I want to go with you, there are many guests these days. I even have to entertain them with Yun Sheng at night.”
Jing Lin nodded and turned around to head out. Just as he was about to step out of the door, he heard Li Rong advising him from behind, “You’ve put on an impressive display of power at Ming Jin Stage. You beat them hands down, and you also spoke arrogantly while belittling them. Be very careful when you venture outdoors later.”
After acknowledging his words, Jing Lin went down the stairs and passed through the pines. Bearing his sword on his back, he descended the mountain. Because of Ming Jin Stage, the inn at the foot of the mountain was enjoying brisk business. The night market surged with crowds of people of various types and shapes. There were even quite a number of demons among them.
Jing Lin clutched the gold pearls in his palms. As he walked along the road, he saw a great variety of food. He hesitated for a moment, selfishly wanting to eat all of them. He was already widely known for his reputation of slaying demons and subduing evil. Now that he was standing before the shop, the people around him pointed at him and tried to get a glimpse of him. Unconcerned, Jing Lin raised his foot to leave. He had only just taken a few steps when he looked back.
“Are you all following me,” Jing Lin asked, “to give me further pointers?”
“Listen to how arrogant his tone is!” A man carrying a pole beside him stood behind Jing Lin. From the way he dressed, he was from the south. He laughed and said to the people on his left and right, “If we hadn’t known, we would have really thought him to be some big shot.”
“The name of his sword is so illustrious. How is he not considered a big shot?” An unkempt monk in tattered clothes at the side touched his bald head and said, “Or could there be some other unknown reason?”
“Of course.” The ruffian with the pole raised his voice. Cupping his fists in a greeting all around, he spoke in a loud voice, “This man is the master of the sword Yan Quan of Ninth Heaven Realm. He’s the beloved son of Lord Jiu Tian! All along, he has been acting in the name of slaying demons and subduing evil. But he took a trip to the north half a year earlier, and in the name of eliminating demons, took liberties with the nine-tailed white fox under Emperor Cang’s command! Would you dare to acknowledge such a shameless thing?”
Jing Lin pursed his thin lips as frost encased his cold eyes.
On the other side, Cang Ji pushed aside the lantern, having drunk until his face was hot. He was looking at that smear of white from the window. Propping his head up, he watched silently at the movement in Jing Lin’s sleeves. That was when he knew the latter was about to strike. He burst out laughing and said to Huachang behind him, “I was worried he wouldn’t make a move. Yet he just has to fall into the trap.”
“It isn’t too much to slap someone with a filthy mouth.” Huachang fumed. “Some people are even saying that jiejie is Master’s beloved concubine! So they are the filthy ones who spread the rumor around like wildfire!”
“Just you watch.” The smell of wine on Cang Ji scattered in the wind. “He should be getting the worst of it soon.”
“He’s so capable.” Huachang wondered in surprise, “And he will still stand to lose?”
◈ ◈ ◈
Jing Lin turned over his palm to grab the man. He did not even have the desire to draw his sword, as afraid as he was of being dirty. He seized the ruffian and swept a foot out. The kick sent the man flying upside down and crashing onto the ground.
“Ouch!” The ruffian rolled a few times in great pain. “Is the Ninth Heaven Gate using its power and influence to oppress and humiliate me right on the street?! And to think you have the nerve to declare yourself to be defending the Way.4 Where’s your comradeship?! What now? Are you going to fly into a rage out of humiliation?!”
Jing Lin said nothing. A flash of his white robe. Another kick. The man clutched his stomach and rolled across the ground. His head knocked against the stone slab, and a mouthful of blood came spurting out of his mouth. Mindful of his identity, Jing Lin had exercised self-restraint and did not strike out too heavily at him. Yet the man lay paralyzed on the ground moaning, causing the crowd all around to get into battle formation and hit out at him in unison.
Jing Lin was not a fool. He was acutely aware that if he beat someone to death tonight, he would be the one at fault even if he had been initially justified. Besides, he was wholeheartedly bent on defending the Way; thus, he was unwilling to kill arbitrarily. Amidst the attacks of the crowd besieging him, he lashed out at them and sent numerous people before him flying.
A whip with thorns suddenly wound around Jing Lin’s waist and pulled him off the ground. As soon as Jing Lin’s feet left the ground, he promptly turned his body over and tapped his feet twice or thrice in the air to flit up atop the roof where he stood. The crowd in the street immediately sprang up and stormed at him with a bellow. All kinds of weapons greeted him. With a whoosh, a spiked club5 stirred up a gush of wind beside Jing Lin’s temple. Jing Lin turned sideways, and the bandit behind him cleaved a blade down at him. Jing Lin whirled around and leaped. With a raise of his leg, he kicked the other party right in the chest. The other party choked and coughed out blood before he went tumbling down. After that, Jing Lin slid his body away and made a sudden grab for the thorny whip. The pain bore into his palm, but he did not even blink his eyes as he jerked it in the air. A strong gust of wind went assaulting the other party and shocked him so hard that he hurriedly let go of the whip. Before he could dodge, the brazen wave of spiritual wind slammed into him and sent him crashing onto the ground with a cry of pain.
Jing Lin cast aside the whip. Warm blood dripped down between his fingers. He coldly looked down at the crowd below, compelling them to retreat. Without saying a word, Jing Lin turned around and leaped off the rooftop to leave. He had only taken a few steps when he came to a halt and suddenly turned his head back. His eyes were so cold that the crowd around him shuddered.
He had lost his gold pearls!
Jing Lin clenched his fist silently. He was starving to death. He usually did not have that much money on him when he ventured outdoors. The moment he returned to the courtyard, Tao-di would come up with excuses to borrow away all his money to gamble. Right now, he could not even fish out a copper coin. As the aroma of the sweet pastries beside him assailed his nose, he turned even colder.
That rascal of a monk took a few sudden steps forward, and said in a thick-skinned attempt to smooth things over, “It was rude of us earlier. Sorry, Young Master! Why don’t you follow us to have some wine? Let us bury the hatchet with a smile! We will all be members of the Ninth Heaven Gate in the future. All of us are running around all for the great cause to save the masses. We still have to rely on you!”
Jing Lin looked at them heaping on the smiles as they fawned on him. Thus he lifted his chin slightly in a gesture for them to lead the way.
◈ ◈ ◈
Linlang pushed open the door and entered, but she did not see anyone except Huachang poking at the lamp wick. She asked, “Where’s Master?”
Huachang replied, “He said he has yet to drink to his heart’s content. So he went out again.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Jing Lin lowered his head and ate. All the words the others said went in one ear and out the other. The monk proposed a toast under pretense and said, “We wouldn’t dare to delay Young Master’s important work, so we will just toast a cup as a gesture of our goodwill. Tonight, we were blind not to recognize what a great man you are. We hope Young Master will be magnanimous enough to forgive us.”
Knowing that it was inadvisable to reject them too much at this point in time and ruin his father’s great plan, he accepted the cup and drank it. As he downed the wine, he found it sweet instead of astringent; the cloying sweetness lingered in his throat. He had also eaten a lot, so even by the time they dispersed, he did not really say more than a few words.
When he left the shop, he felt his body a little hot. Out of the corners of his eyes, he noticed that rascal of a monk giving instructions to a person. The group stood under the eaves and looked at him as if they were waiting to see a good show.
Jing Lin’s heart thumped. The wave of heat that flared and shot up within him was so scalding that beads of sweat seeped out from his temples. His spiritual sea went haywire. It did not respond when he mobilized it; instead, it ran rampant at the whims of this hot current that made his heart itch. With quick steps, he brushed past the passers-by. His breathing grew heavier as he forcibly pushed several people out of the way and made his way forward in a muddle.
He did not expect to be tripped by someone and ended up falling forward. Yet the man who tripped him did not turn aside to dodge him. On the contrary, he opened both of his arms and caught Jing Lin in a hug.
“Was the wine good?” He asked in a hushed tone.
Jing Lin wanted to push him away, but the man grasped his hand tightly between his fingers. Jing Lin exhaled and raised his head. In his trance, he saw this man’s plain face. It was a face he had never seen before. He could not help but frown and pulled his hand back to retreat. But then he noticed that the other party was exceptionally tall; he was even a little taller than Li Rong. Grabbing hold of him was simply a piece of cake.
“Hey.” With the look of an upright gentleman, Cang Ji modestly and courteously held Jing Lin steady. He lifted his hand to reveal a few gold pearls. “I saw you going drinking with the others, so I waited here for you. These are yours, right?”
Jing Lin was so hot he was dripping sweat. He kept his voice down and said a word of thanks before reaching for the gold pearls. But the man suddenly raised his hand high to prevent him from touching them. Jing Lin let out a perplexed “huh”.
Cang Ji noted that Jing Lin’s eyes were hazy and glistening with water as the latter gazed at him. He was already a spent force. Cang Ji was well-aware of it, yet he lowered his head and whispered to Jing Lin, “You look like you are not feeling well?”
Jing Lin pursed his lips so hard they reddened. He sighed to Cang Ji, “Hot…”
After a moment of silence, Cang Ji said, “So am I. How about we go together to dissipate the heat and sober ourselves up?”
篦子 double-edged fine-toothed comb; it can also be used as a hair decoration.
- 泉咽危石, 松冷青衫 a variant of the line Le Yan once recited: “Spring, spring water weeps over precipitous rocks; morning light shrouds green pines in frost.” (泉声咽危石，日色冷青松), which is a line from the poem 《過香積寺》 Passing By Xiang Ji Temple by 王維 Wang Wei.
- 龙者 also refers to someone who reigns supreme.
- 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).