A new bed was added to the room right beside the window, making the interior look even more crowded. Seeing as it was already midnight, Cang Ji hastily ate some food and rinsed his mouth before rolling onto the couch.
Jing Lin was completely awake. He had never slept in the same room with another person, so he turned to his side to look at the edge of the bed as he recited a hundred kinds of incantations in his heart. The moonlight was like water streaming down upon the woven mat, and it was in this lake that Jing Lin soaked himself in. Gradually, he forgot that there was still a man behind him as he immersed himself wholeheartedly in the word—progress.
After his spiritual sea was born out of his original form, it swirled around Yan Quan like a windy fog. At first glance, it was difficult to see its bottom. All that could be seen was the cold, lifeless glow of Yan Quan as it towered in his chest without even tilting once.
Cang Ji looked at Jing Lin from behind and saw his smooth, fair, and unblemished nape. He let out a soundless laugh. He had watched Jing Lin for several days on the Ninth Heaven Gate’s Ming Jin Stage, so he already knew Yan Quan’s appearance by heart. Other than that Evil-Subduing Way of the Sword, he was even more interested in Jing Lin. Who would expect a man with a sharp sword concealed in his chest to be so soft to hug?
The first time Cang Ji had seen Jing Lin was actually not on Ming Jin Stage.
A year ago, Jing Lin had beheaded the great demon, Tiger-head Owl, in the northwest. This owl was located in the marshy wastelands slightly west of the Northern Lands. It was originally a general under the command of Emperor Cang, who had installed him in the west to fight against the Blood Sea. But for some reason that had remained unclear to this date, it plundered and killed the commoners from three cities of the Northern Lands. Bearing his sword, Jing Lin set forth on his own to behead the Tiger-head Owl before the Blood Sea and lured out a monstrous wave of evil spirits and devils. When Emperor Cang arrived, all he saw was that robe of white sealing the sea with a strike of his sword. Countless of massive waves that had been charging towards him halted in their tracks. Before Yan Quan Sword, no devil could overstep their boundaries.
Emperor Cang asked those beside him, “Who is that person?”
The little demon shrank back and replied, “The Emperor Lord doesn’t know him. He’s that invincible and unrivaled sword of Ninth Heaven Gate that wanders over Zhongdu, Jing Lin!”
Several months later, Emperor Cang received yet another invitation from Fan Tan and headed for the ancient temple in the south to engage in spiritual discourse. He sat with the Buddha side by side. As he drank the coarse tea, he caught a glimpse of a little stone figure sitting cross-legged by the lotus pond fishing with a chopstick in its hands. Sleepy amidst the chanting of sutras, it kept nodding off.
Emperor Cang’s heart stirred as he watched it from his peripheral vision. It sat for a moment, then abruptly abandoned the chopstick and leaped to its feet. It sprawled over the edge of the pond and grabbed a cup to scoop up the fishes. There were merely a few red carps the size of a finger in the pond. It was only then the budding and adorable voice reciting the scriptures took on a life of its own. Each of the carp circled the little stone figure’s tiny cup, amusing it so much that it stretched forward even further. Eventually, it plunged headlong into the pond with a “plop”. With a lotus leaf still on its head, it shook away an entire head of water.
Cang Ji asked the True Buddha a sudden question. “With a little lease of life, can a stone also cast off its old shell and be reborn as a man?”
The true Buddha smiled. He did not answer but merely said, “The sword lies hidden in the chest. The truth lies concealed in the Way.”
“Where does one seek the Way?”
“The Way naturally exists in the divine. The Way naturally exists in Heaven and Earth. Everything that the eyes can see, and the ears can hear, can be called the Way.” The True Buddha sipped the tea and smiled as he said.
Emperor Cang leaned back with a sneer and said, “The whole world cultivates the Way. But where is my Way?”
The True Buddha said. “It’s only by breaking away from the old that you can start afresh.”
Instead, Emperor Cang asked, “So, is my tribulation happening soon?”
“The Emperor Lord is perceptive and insightful.” The True Buddha nodded.
The intent to kill flashed through Emperor Cang’s eyes. “Who is it?”
The True Buddha, however, clapped his hands and laughed out loud. He threw a prayer bead1 into the pond and said, “The predestined affinities within the waters of the eight hundred lotus ponds of Nan Chan are not to be probed. If the Emperor Lord wishes to figure it out, then why don’t you take a stroll to look for it on your own?”
Emperor Cang suddenly stood up, only to hear the True Buddha advising him with a stern countenance.
“One’s predestined fate and affinity are all impossible to predict. The thoughts of the Emperor Lord are unfathomable. Instead of seeking it out, why not let it run its own course?”
“He’s my tribulation; therefore, he’s my life.” Emperor Cang stood concealed among the mist. “I’m the only one in Heaven and Earth who can proclaim himself Emperor. I cannot afford to give him this life, so I can only kill him first to forestall what’s to come.”
Emperor Cang went over along the edge of the pond. Amidst the lingering chants of sutras, he saw that prayer bead sinking into the water and flowing south along with the water current. At the southernmost part of the lotus pond, there was a small boat parked between tens of thousands of flowers. Two people sat opposite each other on the boat. One was an old monk holding the Buddhist scriptures to explain the Way, while the other was a man with an azure wide-sleeves robe draped over him.
The old monk kept prattling on and on in a tedious and boring tone. The man with hair scattered over his shoulders was meditating as he sat upright and listened in silence. That azure sleeve slid into the pond and cut out a patch of the sky in the water as it steeped in the fragrance of the lotus. Jing Lin’s side profile was apathetic, with nary a trace of impatience or weariness. The surface of the pond was like a mirror as its ripples reflected the heavens. The instant Cang Ji gazed over, he had the impression of Jing Lin sitting upright amidst the clouds in the clear sky.
Yan Quan was Jing Lin, and Jing Lin was Yan Quan. The purest nature in the world forged this number one sword in Heaven and Earth, and the cleanest rain fused to become this number one visage in Heaven and Earth. His heart was untainted, and so his countenance was unconventional.
Emperor Cang brushed aside the mist to look into the distance, spellbound.
The little stone figure suddenly climbed up from the pond. It sat upright behind the old monk and swung its head in circles as it imitated the old monk.
The old monk’s reading slowed down until he could not help but let out a belated cough and said to Jing Lin, “Have you gotten bored?”
Right at once, the little figure turned back into a stone with a “poof”. The prayer bead it was grasping in his hands tumbled and spun its way beside Jing Lin’s hand. Jing Lin’s expression was just the same as he bowed to the old monk in apology.
The old monk said, “This monk knows that the scriptures are dull, but it can’t be helped. The heart of the young master cultivates the Way of the Sword, and impulsiveness is the worst taboo you can commit. When you return, you must be sure to recite this daily.”
Jing Lin picked up the prayer bead with his fingers and said, “It looks like I have an affinity with Buddha. The Venerable One needs not worry.”
The old monk said, “The young master is distant from the secular world. Although your cultivation has grown, your heart is lone. The most haunting thing in the world is not evil spirits, but the word “love”. A heart that cultivates the Way of the Sword may seem to transcend worldliness, but in fact, it is treading on thin ice. One wrong move, one broken faith, one devastated heart—will consign you to eternal damnation with no hope of reprieve. So the Doctrine for the Tribulations of Deities goes.”
Jing Lin said, “The affection between fathers and sons, and the camaraderie between brothers, are all love.”
“And this is why.” The old monk looked at Jing Lin. “I said that the young master still does not understand the world.”
Jing Lin was confused, yet he said, “If ‘love’ is a tribulation, then just vanquished it with your own hands.”
The old monk let out a long sigh. Without responding again, he lifted his hand in a courtesy gesture and turned around to head ashore.
Jing Lin remained sitting. The prayer bead between his fingers had dried, but he felt a sudden chill. The stone reverted to its original form with a “poof” and sat together with Jing Lin.
Emperor Cang watched for a long time before he departed in silence.
◈ ◈ ◈
Cang Ji shut down his thoughts and saw that Jing Lin had already turned around and was looking at him. He put on an apologetic look and said, “Am I too noisy for you?”
Jing Lin stared at him silently.
Cang Ji was baffled. He had not revealed his true form, nor were his scales showing. But still, he fastened his clasps under Jing Lin’s gaze. He said, “I never had the chance to ask for your name before we parted that other day.”
Jing Lin said, “Jing Lin.”
“A welcome rain after a long drought.”2 Cang Ji said solemnly, “No wonder my body and heart feel so at ease when I encountered you.”
Jing Lin said, “That night, I…”
“You dropped your money when you went drinking with others. I found it and returned it to you.” The gold pearl was still pressing against the side of Cang Ji’s waist. Without even blinking his eyes, he said, “Then, I took you back for a night’s rest. You left on your own after.”
Jing Lin frowned. “Why is it that I can’t recall anything?”
“That’s how it is when you drink with others.” Cang Ji said, “You can’t hold your liquor well. In the future, you shouldn’t drink unless it’s with someone close to you.”
Jing Lin asked, “May I ask your esteemed name?”
“I don’t deserve the honor. My lowly surname is Cao, and my name is Cang.3 I started cultivating late in life and learned some spells in the north. My cultivation isn’t up to scratch, so I have yet to build up a spiritual sea or evolved out an original form. Because of my lack of talent, I’ve severed the idea of cultivating the Way. Now I’m just a trader of spiritual stones and spiritual herbs trying to get by in life.” Cang Ji placed his arms behind his head and conversed pleasantly.
“Brother Cao.”4 Jing Lin called out to him.
Cang Ji nearly laughed out loud, but he maintained a straight face in the darkness and said in a steady voice. “I’m older than you by a few years. How about you call me gege?”5
Jing Lin was thinking, I have already succeeded in my cultivation and lived for so many years. Wouldn’t it be an upheaval of social order if I were to call him gege?
But Cang Ji was thinking, considering when the canglong that is me first came into this world, your father can already call me father. Letting you call me gege is elevating your seniority.
Cang Ji sighed and turned over. With his back to Jing Lin, he continued, “However, my cultivation is shallow. Letting you call me gege would be an aggrievement to you. There’s no need to stand on ceremony. You and I can just address each other by name.”
Having received his help so many times, Jing Lin could not help but open his mouth when he heard how low he sounded.
But Cang Ji said, “I’ll look for another place to stay first thing tomorrow morning. If you are also heading south, I can…”
“Gege.” Jing Lin said under his breath. After saying it, he paused. He had never even called his brothers back at home this way before. For a moment, he felt his throat constrict as he hemmed and hawed. Burying his head into the quilt, Jing Lin said in a muffled voice, “It’s not an issue if we stay together. Let’s sleep.”
Cang Ji still felt unsatiated with this “gege”. At the very same time he was feeling that this lad was truly worlds apart on the inside and outside, he was also wondering why he had never taught him to call him gege earlier.
The man amidst the splashing of water had been pounded until he let out vague sounds of grunts. If he had said this word with his lips, then even if he was held up in his arms close to his bosom, Cang Ji could still thrust into him until he shivered and went weak.
What a pity. What a pity.
◈ ◈ ◈
Jing Lin was feeding the horse at the first glimmer of dawn the next day. This horse of his was not a common horse. It had a hide of bluish-white color and could tread on water and ride the clouds. After spending the night with the other common horses, it was now pacing and trotting around Jing Lin.
Cang Ji grabbed a basket of hot, steaming buns with thin skins.6 Jing Lin washed his hands and stood with him at the side of the potted pine plant to dig into them. Cang Ji looked on as Jing Lin sucked the scalding hot broth until his thin lips were glossy and red. He began to think about certain indecent acts.
Jing Lin noticed Cang Ji staring and could not help but gaze back. He ate soundlessly. Even as he was sucking the hot broth, he could do so in silence—quietly and speedily.
Cang Ji feigned composure and flawlessly maintained his appearance of a caring big brother. He picked up a steamed bun and brought it to his mouth to chew and swallow it carefully. Once he was done, he said, “I have yet to tell my dear brother7 about this in detail last night, but I’m bringing a batch of herbs down south. Evil spirits created havoc in the City of Huaishu8 in the south a few days back, resulting in countless casualties. There is an urgent need for spiritual herbs and medicine, and that is the purpose of my journey there. Where are you heading to?”
Jing Lin wiped his hands and responded, “I’m going the same way as gege.”
Cang Ji said, “Are you going to the City of Huaishu too?”
Not suspecting anything, Jing Lin said, “The City of Huaishu was originally under the jurisdiction of the phoenix in the south. The phoenix has shifted east recently, and the situation in the south is now as irreconcilable as ice and hot coals. It is time for Ninth Heaven Gate to contribute.”
Cang Ji instantly smiled and said, “What a coincidence. If we head south together, we can look out for each other.”
Jing Lin saw the sincerity in Cang Ji’s eyes and noted that he was not given to rash acts. Furthermore, he was prudent with his words, and his heart was in the right place. Compared to Li Rong, he seemed to be even more of an “elder brother”. Thus, Jing Lin could not help but soften his countenance and nodded his head to say, “Yeah.”
As Cang Ji led the horse, Jing Lin handed him a porcelain bottle9 from his sleeve. Cang Ji brushed his little finger across Jing Lin’s palm as he took it. Without waiting for Jing Lin to recover his senses, he took a light sniff at the porcelain bottle in an open and aboveboard manner.
“What is this?”
“Pills from home.” Jing Lin said, “It’s inexcusable for gege to lose sixty gold pearls for nothing last night, especially since gege is heading south to give away medicine. Although this pill cannot be compared to a friendship, it can be exchanged for something else. It’s also possible to bring the dead back to life if it’s used on a mortal.”
“How very precious.” Cang Ji removed the stopper and shook the bottle under his nose. He smiled and said, “The aroma of tofu. An abundance of spiritual energy. Looks like this is a treasure of an immortal clan. Isn’t it a big waste to give it to me just like this?”
Jing Lin flipped atop the horse and said, “You are worth it.”
Cang Ji was smiling when he caught a sudden whiff of an odor. His five senses were far superior to others; even the common demons could not be compared to him. This medicine was indeed brimming with celestial spiritual energy. Yet when he leaned in closer to take a careful sniff, he could vaguely catch a hint of blood.
But Cang Ji revealed nothing on his face as he sent it back into his sleeve with the hand that was about to make a courtesy gesture. With the same smile on his face, he mounted the horse and said to Jing Lin, “How can I not be touched when you treat me so well? Since we are now brothers, there is nothing for me to hide from you. I live in the north, and I have no father, mother, wife, children, or relatives. I’m a legit loner. My dear brother—” He clicked his tongue softly. “Now, that sounds distant. How about I call you Jiu-lang?”
佛珠 Prayer beads, or Mala beads, are stringed together in a kind of rosary that Buddhists used to count mantras and prayers with.
- 霖 The ‘Lin’ in his name means a period of continuous rain. 久旱逢甘露 also refers to the satisfaction of a long-felt need.
- The name Cang Ji gave to himself here is Cao Cang, 曹仓. 曹 (a surname) and the 艹 in 曹 are both read as Cao (but with different intonations). So 艹 + 仓 = 苍 which is the 苍 in his real name Cang Ji 苍霁. 艹 also means ‘fuck’ in net lingo.
- 曹兄弟. Cao xiongdi, brother (as in bro) or buddy. Lianyin finds this funny because 曹兄弟 = 艹兄弟 (as explained in the previous footnote) = fuck bro/buddy (Cang Ji). (Or I could just be reading too much into it. _(:3」∠)_)
- 兄弟. Xiongdi vs. 哥哥 Gege. Xiongdi is literally brothers (non-age specific) and is typically used between peers/buddies. It’s just like a slightly polite version of “bro”. Gege specifically means “elder brother” and could be used as a term of familiarity or affection for an older blood brother, an older close/intimate friend, or an older lover. There is some sense of distance when using xiongdi compared to calling someone gege.
- 贤弟, or xiandi (or my worthy/dear younger brother) is a deferential term to address a close friend or sworn brother who is younger.
- 槐树 Also known as the Chinese scholar tree or pagoda tree.
Medicines were often stored in small, portable porcelain bottles. (Ignore the lighter, it’s just there for size comparison.)