Jing Lin swallowed the clear water. The icy cold water poured down his throat, finally washing down the cloyingly sweet taste clinging to it. Yet it felt as if flames were leaping around in his abdomen, teasing him as they sent waves of heat surging through his limbs and bones. Jing Lin was burning up so much that he was sweating profusely. Even his fingertips had reddened.
Cang Ji looked at him. He already knew what was in the wine, yet he still had to pretend not to know. He asked considerately, “How do you feel now?”
Jing Lin’s cheek had flushed red. Still, he forced himself to remain calm. Without a change in expression, he nodded to Cang Ji and said, “… Still okay.”
Cang Ji said, “I have a residence in the alley that comes with two or three servants. It’s a resting place that’s very quiet and secluded. If you trust me, I’ll lead you there.”
Jing Lin was fully aware that the medicinal properties had yet to be dispelled. All along, he had always walked and worked alone. He had never spoken to his brothers about romantic affairs, and so he was totally unaware of what an underhanded method this poison was. No matter how close to perfection one’s cultivation was, as long as he was still of mortal flesh, he could not escape from its effects. At this moment, he just wanted to head back to relieve himself on his own, so he gave a slight shake of his head.
“Thank you for your kindness.” He dug his fingers into the wound on his palm to keep himself awake with the pain. “I wouldn’t dare to impose on you.”
Cang Ji smiled and raised his fingers to gesture to him that he was free to leave of his own will. Jing Lin turned around and took a few steps, only to collapse and slid down against the wall. Before he could hit the ground, Cang Ji held him up from behind in his arms.
Cang Ji’s chin brushed across Jing Lin’s hair as if by accident. He said, “Looks like the poison has already spread through your entire body. I’m afraid there’s no way it will dispel by itself. I’ll be the good guy to the end and give you a ride.”
With that, he fished him up in his arms and stepped into the alley. Jing Lin was burning up so much that his fingertips had gone numb. Sweat soaked his clothes, causing the arm Cang Ji had over his waist to press up distinctly close against him. Cang Ji’s face was hazy as Jing Lin looked at him through half-closed eyes. His divine consciousness was now in a state of primal chaos, and his words had been reduced to mere murmurs. His entire body had gone soft. Yet he clutched his hand and dug into the wound on his palm, refusing to let the parching heat engulf him. Retaining a tiny bit of lucidity, he vaguely uttered a word of “thanks” to Cang Ji.
Cang Ji raised his leg to kick the courtyard door open and passed through the corridor to take a turn. This courtyard was indeed quiet and secluded; there was not even a soul in sight. All that he had said about “two or three servants” was made up on the spur of moment. Carrying him, Cang Ji stepped down the stairs and pushed against the door of a room to open it. The interior was fine and exquisite, completed with a screen1 and bed. However, Cang Ji carried Jing Lin around the screen and lifted the curtain to cross through a wall opening.2 There was a hot spring steaming with water mist within.
Cang Ji saw that Jing Lin was so feverish that his forehead was covered with fine beads of sweat. His collar was half open. However, he took his time and asked, “I’ve heard a little about this poison… Do you need me to help?”
Jing Lin was already so warm he was huffing out air with his mouth. And now he was sweating profusely in this steamy and stifling heat. He narrowed his eyes and clenched his collar tightly as he pressed against Cang Ji’s chest.
So Cang Ji released him and placed him in the water. As Jing Lin suddenly entered the water, the current of heat made him go so weak that he had to support himself with his arms to lean over the edge. The cold water he had just drunk earlier was now boiling hot, and the cloying sweetness that permeated his throat and mouth made him powerless and restless. He steamed in the water mist until the hair on his temples were soaked. For a moment, he could not tell where he was.
Cang Ji had already taken off his outer shirt. He crouched down and held up Jing Lin’s injured hand before his eyes to scrutinize it. He let out an abrupt laugh and said, “I returned the gold pearls to you and even brought you here. Am I considered a good guy?”
A soaking wet Jing Lin raised his eyes to gaze at him and saw him pushing the gold pearls one at a time into his sleeve. Those pearls slid in along his arm. His clothes that had been licked wet by the hot water clung to his body, and the pearls pressing into them made it difficult for him to bear. Cang Ji seemed to know how terrible he was feeling. His long fingers followed the pearls into his sleeve, titillating Jing Lin as he felt around inside his sleeve to search for them.
Jing Lin was so startled by his fingers that he shivered. Urgent sighs escaped from his throat. He retreated, wanting to flee. With a turn of his hand, Cang Ji grasped hold of him firmly. He teased, “I’m hot to death. Since you don’t want me to help you, then you’ll help me. Treat it as my reward for being a good guy thus far.”
Cang Ji’s fingertips caressed him as he withdrew his hand. He led Jing Lin’s fingers to his lips and suddenly bit down on him. Yet it felt like a welcome rain after a long drought3 to Jing Lin. Even if he wanted to withdraw his hand, it was too late. He was being clutched by the nape of his neck, with his face raised to receive Cang Ji’s sucks and kisses from top to bottom. Something detonated in Jing Lin’s mind, turning it abnormally fuzzy. He was caught amidst the sloshing waves of water as waves of heat gradually slapped at the sides of his waist.
Jing Lin could feel some part of him hurting. It made him raise his head and gasp. He was imprisoned between the wall and the water, unable to escape. Gradually, even his toes curled up. He vaguely felt as if his body had turned into the water itself, drifting with the current amidst the poundings of the massive waves.
A wall as solid as iron was blocking him. Jing Lin felt as if he was being crushed by it. His silver crown teetered as if it was about to fall off, and the water waves spread his hair out. His heat – his scalding heat – was all being toyed with in another man’s fingers and palm. This wall was still pinning him down, urging him to open his mouth.
Jing Lin’s arms clambered up the wall as a word of “hot” was pressed back into his throat and swallowed.
◈ ◈ ◈
Jing Lin suddenly opened his eyes and saw the familiar roof before him. He turned over and sat up, facing his window of pines. The sky was still dark, so he touched his temples in the half-darkness. They were dry. There seemed to be something happening intermittently deep in his subconsciousness, but all he could remember was that the water was scalding hot.
Jing Lin lifted the quilt and saw his own clothes intact. The silver crown was placed on the small table. Even the direction it was facing was consistent with his usual arrangement. He furrowed his brows. There were no signs of anything wrong with his body except for a slight soreness in his waist.
When it was morning, Jing Lin went to pay his respects to his father and bumped into Li Rong in the corridor. On seeing him, Li Rong grabbed a cup of hot tea and handed it to him. He asked, “I told you to go out. How did you end up drinking with others?”
Reacting slowly, Jing Lin thought back to it. He could no longer remember those ruffians from last night clearly. He drank the hot tea and said, “We fought until we ended up drinking.”
“As long as you aren’t hurt.” Li Rong said, “Father will assume the role of the Alliance Chief these few days. You mustn’t get too complacent and slack off.”
Jing Lin uttered an acknowledgment and asked, “How did I get back last night?”
Li Rong looked at him and laughed. “My good lad! Have you drunk yourself silly? You came back by yourself.”
Jing Lin had no awareness of it at all. “Myself?”
“You’ve forgotten so much after this one sleep.” Li Rong descended the stairs with him and said as he walked, “You slept for a whole day! And you still think it’s yesterday, huh.”
Jing Lin was truly stunned. He parroted, “Slept for a whole day?”
Li Rong pointed at him and said, “Drinking will only hold you up!”
Jing Lin put on a rare display of astonishment, but his face turned cold again very quickly. He said, “Then why didn’t you call me up yesterday? I fear Father has already gotten impatient from all the waiting.”
“Father understands that it has been hard on you on Ming Jin Stage the past few days, so he said not to disturb you.” Li Rong said, “After this incident, you have to be more careful about what you say and do. Don’t let the other brothers get a handle on you. Since Father dotes on you, he will punish you even more severely than the others when punishment is due.”
“I have no duties.” Jing Lin said, “There’s nothing to punish me for.”
“Even so.” Li Rong hesitated for a moment and said, “I went to the north to negotiate with Emperor Cang the last time and did a haphazard job of it. Yet he sent us an invitation yesterday.”
Jing Lin had never seen a dragon before. He was preoccupied with thinking about something else, so he did not answer. Just as both of them were about to enter the hall, Li Rong suddenly asked, “How did your nape get bitten?”
Jing Lin looked puzzled. Li Rong had only glimpsed a flash of red under his back collar. Barely having the time to scrutinize it, he dismissed it and said, “It’s probably a mosquito.”4
Jing Lin felt the back of his neck with his fingers and said, “Perhaps.”
They entered the hall. The Supreme Father was listening to Tao Zhi as the latter spoke and gesticulated. On seeing them, he pointed to Tao Zhi and said, “Listen.”
Tao Zhi puffed out his chest to both of them and said, “Si-ge, Jiu-ge, Father is sending me to the north to guard the lands!”
The Supreme Father had adopted eight sons. By right, Jing Lin should have ranked seventh. But he did not get along with the various brothers above him and they often bumped down his seniority behind his back. Qing Yao, who was still learning to speak at that time, heard them and began calling him Jiu-ge.
Li Rong said, “Although Tao-di is astute, he does not have the experience. Father…”
The Supreme Father moved aside the lid of the teacup and said, “It has already been decided; there’s no need for further discussion. Jing Lin, you’ve done a wonderful job of defending on Ming Jin Stage a few days back. I’ve been thinking of rewarding you something these days. Is there anything you desire?”
Jing Lin replied, “No.”
The Supreme Father placed his hands on his knees and smiled as he said, “Silly boy. How many times can Father reward you in a year? You are usually on the go and have been so thus far. It’s fine even if you wish to ask for a rest day.”
But Jing Lin said, “The demons in the south have not been dealt with, and canglong in the north is still standing. There is no need for me to rest.”
The Supreme Father scrutinized him and said, “What’s the status of your cultivation now?”
Jing Lin hesitated a little and said, “Just a little more to achieve the Pinnacle Stage.”
The Supreme Father nodded and complimented him. “You are indeed faster than the others when you hold the Way of Heaven in mind and put all your focus on it. Once you reach the Pinnacle Stage, you will shake off your mortal flesh and gain the ability to abstain from food.”
“That’s exactly so. I hope Father will send him out on a mission.” Li Rong said, “He cultivates the Evil-Subduing Way5 of the Sword, carries and conducts himself with integrity and righteousness, and even turns his heart into Yan Quan. The closer the critical juncture approaches, the more he needs to be put in dangerous situations. If you make him stay at home, he might not break through this stage even if he goes into seclusion for a hundred years.”
Jing Lin listened to them as they spoke, but his mind was wandering. He felt as if he had forgotten something important. He tried to probe further, but all he drew was a blank. Had he met someone the night before? How was it that he could remember nothing? Who tampered with his mind?
“Jing Lin.” The Supreme Father summoned Jing Lin’s consciousness back and said, “Let’s do this. You shall head for the south again.”
Jing Lin accepted his orders and withdrew.
◈ ◈ ◈
Cang Ji yawned and leaned against the wall to watch the sky darken. Huachang picked out the dishes to her liking and ate them. On seeing him yawn, she asked, “Master, are you still going out tonight? If you are going to be sleeping outside again, then I’ll hunt for food myself at night.”
Cang Ji said, “I’m so chaste and pure. Am I the kind of man who would frequently spend the night outside?”
Unable to pick up the peanut, Huachang abandoned the chopsticks and used her hand. She threw the peanuts into her mouth and drank a few mouthfuls of wine, feeling content. When she heard this, she asked, “Then where were you the night before? Your robe was so crumpled it had all but become a fried dough twist.”6
Cang Ji signed and said, “I sold my body for the deliverance of another.”
How would Huachang believe him this readily? Cang Ji ignored her. Grasping a plain gold pearl between his fingers, he looked at it again and again against the backdrop of dusk and let out a cold snort. He had been snorting out of the blue lately. Who knew who he was humphing at?
Huachang said, “The invitation has been delivered. Jiejie has gone over too. If we come across those from Ninth Heaven Gate in the northern lands later, do we fight them or not?”
Cang Ji pressed the gold pearl between his fingertips and rolled it around. He said, “The oath of alliance in the south is a done deal. Strike a blow and it will stir up a hornet’s nest. Tell Linlang this, and she will understand what to do.”
Huachang sensed something amiss and asked, “Aren’t you going back with us?”
“I have places to go.” Cang Ji gazed out at the clouds of mist among the mountains. “Lord Jiu Tian has been sharpening a sword for years. And he has only polished this one sword to the point its brilliance is all but ostentatiously dazzling and unstoppable.”
Huachang kicked out her legs and said, “If he wants to use this sword for a longer period of time, the best policy is to have it keep a low profile. Yet Lord Jiu Tian made him make enemies out of so many people. He calls him his beloved son, but it doesn’t seem that way to me. Furthermore, the original form of this Jing Lin is actually a sword. The Evil-Subduing Way of the Sword he’s cultivating is different from others. He’s staking everything on it. His life is bound to this one Way and sword. If there are any unforeseen turn of events in the future and he loses his Way, then his sword will break. When the sword breaks, his body will be destroyed. Once the body is destroyed, his heart will die— and then he will be beyond saving.”
“That’s right.” Cang Ji’s eyes revealed a hint of a demon’s cunningness. “To break this person, the wise move would be to target his heart instead of aiming for his body. His original form is a sword. He can treat all kinds of assault as a way to toughen up himself. And because his heart is similar to the sword, he’s absolutely free of impurities. That’s why he can subdue evil for so many years without being violated by them. It’s also why he can unswervingly hold fast to his own Way from start to end.”
“But if he can defend this one heart, wouldn’t that make him all the more valiant the more setbacks he suffers, and even all the more obstinate?” Huachang’s tails suddenly popped out. She pondered it over and said, “Seriously speaking, having a sword for an original form does not count as having a heart. It’s all sharp blades in that chest cavity of his. It is not easy to destroy his will. Otherwise, in all these years, the evil spirits and devils would not have fled upon catching sight of him, nor get so scared that their legs trembled.”
“That depends on who he encounters.” Cang Ji playfully twirled the gold pearl and said meaningfully, “There is always a tribulation.”
屏风, a single screen or folding screen that typically serves as a partition, e.g., before the bed and so on.
洞门 An opening in a wall separating different courtyards within a residence.
- 久旱逢甘霖 a welcome rain after a long drought; i.e., have a long-felt need satisfied
- Cang.Mosquito.Ji: What?
- 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). There are typically several paths that one can choose to cultivate. A common one that appears in wuxia and xianxia novels, especially among sword users, is the Heartless or Merciless Way (无情道). Jing Lin’s Way here is the Evil-Subduing Way of the Sword (降魔剑道).
麻花 Mahua or fried dough twist is a Chinese snack that is fried in peanut oil.