Cang Ji’s illness came and went quickly. So Jing Lin bid Yining farewell two days later. Unwilling to give up the southern borders so easily, he decided to head south.
Yining’s face was lean. He was originally a general in the east, and now he had been deployed over to the west to relieve the critical situation there. This person’s position was far removed from the others; he did not rank below that of the Supreme Father’s eight sons, and he was a direct subordinate of Lord Jiu Tian. He held the authority to impeach and supervise. There was no one in Ninth Heaven Gate who did not fear him.
After hearing Jing Lin’s farewell, Yining simply drank his tea without saying a word. After a while, he said, “There are thirteen cities remaining on the southern front. Among them is the City of Xuanyang, where the great demon, Shuran, is suppressed. If you persist in heading south, you must kill it before the Blood Sea engulfs the city of Xuanyang. Otherwise, once the seal is broken, he will return to the human world and bring disaster upon it.”
Jing Lin said, “Four cities on a route. With walls to obstruct, and Ninth Heaven Gate to guard. It can still hold out for several more years.”
But Yining gave a slight shake of his head and said, “Even if it can obstruct for a few more years, it cannot solve the root of the problem. The Blood Sea is pouring in from all directions. If we cannot find a way to expel it back as soon as possible, then Zhongdu will fall into the hands of the evil spirits sooner or later.”
“Is the east already at such a critical stage?”
“If it weren’t for the situation being critical, why would the Supreme Lord deploy the phoenix over so urgently? At present, there’s a famine on the inside and the approaching Blood Sea on the outside. No matter where we focus our energy on, we cannot cope with one without sacrificing the other.” Yining said.
Both men lapsed into silence together. Their relationship was pretty bad in the past because Yining could not stand Jing Lin’s aloofness. But now that Zhongdu was in a moment of crisis, Yining had been having trouble sleeping for several days, and his zeal had cooled down by half. After thinking back and forth, all he could do was to confide in Jing Lin.
“The Supreme Father’s mind is hard to fathom, and it’s becoming even more unpredictable in recent days. All my strategies to resist in the south have been rejected. The current disciples of the sect are a motley crowd of good and bad, and the loyal and dedicated ones have all been dispatched to guard the frontline, where more than half of them have died. When I withdrew towards the western end, disciples who died in the line of duty to protect the commoners could be seen in every deserted city I passed.” At this point, Yining suddenly stood up and irritably paced back and forth. He said, “But why? Was it a move to sacrifice the soldiers to save the commander to keep the main forces of the sect in Zhongdu so that they can put up a last-ditch fight when the time comes?”
Jing Lin felt a chill when he saw the window covered with white frost. He said, “Entering the sea means certain death. This move is tantamount to throwing an egg against a rock.”
The remnants of lotus in the pond under Yining’s window were wilting. Covered in frost, they looked downhearted. He lifted up his eyes to gaze at them, and sorrow and desolation overtook him. But in the end, he could not say too much to Jing Lin. So he shut the windows in a futile endeavor and said, “Take care on your journey.”
Jing Lin indicated his understanding and turned to leave.
Frost and dew dampened his clothes. Cang Ji was just recovering from a minor illness and being stifled in the wet robe made him uncomfortable. It had already been a few days since he last entered the water and revealed his original form, so he was now squatting on a woodpile and seeking out ants to vent his anger. The ants were one thing, but there was still a thread secured around his little finger with a little stone figure tethered at the other end. It was squatting opposite him with its head lowered as it poked the ants.
Both of them jabbed at it until the ants’ nest collapsed and scattered. The stone’s grass crown was damp, and there was nowhere for it to wipe its muddied hands. So it could only raise its head and look blankly to Cang Ji for instruction.
Cang Ji put up his hand and wiggled his little finger. Thus, the stone jumped across the ants and climbed up onto Cang Ji’s pile of wood. Cang Ji felt around his chest. He could not bear to use Jing Lin’s handkerchief, so he pulled out a silk handkerchief. He did not know how long he had been flattening it, or who gave it to him. It was wrinkled, and there were even an embroidered pair of butterflies flitting among flowers at the top. He used this handkerchief to wipe the stone’s hands. Noting that the stone kept holding on to its grass crown, he folded the handkerchief a few times and wrapped it around the stone’s little head to press down on the grass crown before he tied a knot. With the handkerchief on its head, the stone figure looked like a little thief.
Cang Ji could not resist it and burst out laughing at the stone. The stone shook its head. When it saw that its grass crown did not fall off, it did not get angry; on the contrary, it liked it.
Cang Ji looked up and saw Jing Lin leading the horse as he stood, so he rose to his feet and jumped off the woodpile. He asked, “Are we leaving?”
Jing Lin gave a horse to him and said, “If we speed our way there now, we will still be able to reach the City of Qingpu by dusk.” With that, he shot a glance at the stone. “Spirits love to stir up trouble. Maybe you should throw it away.”
“Why lower yourself to a child’s level?” Cang Ji mounted the horse and stuffed the stone into his bosom, exposing only its head. He said, “I’ll keep an eye on it. I won’t let it make trouble.”
Jing Lin frowned and looked at the stone in the eyes. After a moment, he flipped over and mounted the horse, looking as if he was running out of patience with the stone.
“Why did you provoke him?” Cang Ji smiled and blew on the stone. “Hold on tight. I’m taking you to play.”
◈ ◈ ◈
The City of Qingpu and the City of Xuanyang were not that far apart, but there were three mountains obstructing the way in between, and it would take some time to take a detour around them. Jing Lin was initially riding along the bridle path, but the rainstorm at night washed out the road and impeded them for a whole day. The downpour continued relentlessly the next day, so they could only climb over the mountain and head straight for the City of Xuanyang.
The mountain road was winding, and both men braved the rain and took a meandering path forward. It was wet and slippery on the mountain, and this horse could not grow wings and fly, so they could only dismount and seek temporary shelter.
Jing Lin could dry his clothes any time, but not Cang Ji. He picked up firewood and started a fire in the mountain cave. Then, with his back to Jing Lin, he took off his clothes and hung them out to dry with his bare arms. Jing Lin sat with him, facing the fire. Cang Ji’s upper body was well-built, and he was actually several times more buff than Jing Lin. But because he was usually clothed, and because he had the intent to conceal, this sight had never once seen the light of the day. It was undoubtedly very eye-catching now that he had bared it.
Drying their field rations over the fire, Cang Ji watched the fire and said, “That Dong Jun I saw a few days back, the one with a folding fan in his hand and who did not use a sharp weapon. What Way1 is he cultivating?”
“It was initially the Way of the Asura.”2 The fire warmed Jing Lin’s fingers. He said, “Dong Jun was originally a devil of the Blood Sea. What’s more, he was its violent and ferocious ‘evil’ form. He used his red eyes to enthrall and obliterate deities, and he killed Buddhas and ate humans by the strength of his malicious intent. Later, the True Buddha sat down by Nan Chan’s lotus pond and extolled the scriptures for forty-nine days until his mouth was parched. Only then did Dong Jun repent and gave up his evil ways. His enlightenment begot him a heart of compassion out of his evil form. Summoning spring and awakening the spirits is now his Way.”
“So I see.” Cang Ji seemed to smile. He asked again, “Then, what’s Li Rong’s Way?”
“Way of the Asura.” Jing Lin turned his hand and said, “Li Rong is mellow and calm by nature. He’s the perfect choice to cultivate the Way of Asura since he can still maintain his inherent nature even as he slays demons and subdues evil amidst the twin desires to kill and to outdo others.”
“I know yours.” Cang Ji said, “The Evil-Subduing Way of the Sword.”
Jing Lin lowered his eyes. The flames cast shadows over his hands. After a long pause, he said, “My original form is a sword. I was born to subdue evil.”
His expression was bland, being neither jubilant nor downcast.
Cang Ji listened to the heavy downpour outside the cave and took in all of Jing Lin’s expressions. He broke apart the biscuit3 that had been baked until it was scalding hot and handed half of it to Jing Lin. He said, “You are on the go all the time and show no interest in the affairs of the martial fraternity, so you aren’t aware. Of all the countless cultivators in the world, you are the most legendary. Even talentless and ambitionless people like me are familiar with your deeds.”
Jing Lin said, “Everything you hear is made up. They are all not me.”
Cang Ji finished the biscuit in a few mouthfuls and said, “It’s indeed not alike, but there are some similarities. How about this? I have already told you about myself earlier. So why don’t I talk about the Jing Lin I know, and you can tell me if there’re any inaccuracies. That way, the one I know will be the real you.”
Jing Lin bit the biscuit and nodded his head.
Cang Ji wiped his hands and propped them on his knees. He said, “I heard that you formally entered Lord Jiu Tian’s command at the age of thirteen. When you kneeled and kowtowed, the pines in Heaven and Earth rose in waves, and in that instant, you attained your original form. Where were you from before that? A minor demon from the mountains?”
“Not a demon.” Jing Lin spread out his palms to show him. “I don’t remember where I was from, but I was wandering around Zhongdu, fatherless and motherless. When I was eight years old, I fought with a dog for food and accidentally strayed into the ancient temple of Nan Chan. I fell into the lotus pond and was saved by the chanshi.4 When I was thirteen years old, the True Buddha brushed the dust off my mortal robe and pointed me towards the north. So I walked along the route north and eventually ascended the mountains to Ninth Heaven Gate, where I met Father.”
Cang Ji grasped Jing Lin’s hand by his fingertips and pulled his palm to his eyes. He saw a faint lotus pattern on it. If he had not shown it to him, he would have never noticed it at all. Cang Ji scrutinized it for a moment, then suddenly turned his palm over to grasp hold of it. He smiled and said, “A lotus on the palm. So Jing Lin was once a little monk! What happened after you met Lord Jiu Tian? I heard that the brothers split into factions and fought intensely with one another so much that it was all very unbecoming. But our Jing Lin is so spacey; you don’t look like that kind of person.”
Seeing Cang Ji being so open and aboveboard, Jing Lin felt a little embarrassed to retract his hand. It was just that he found the spot where their palms met scalding. He said, “The brothers’ personalities differ. It’s inevitable.”
“I wish for us to treat each other with honesty and sincerity.” Cang Ji gripped his hand and said solemnly, “Why fobbed me off with such words again?”
Jing Lin said, “I’ve never fobbed gege off.”
Cang Ji asked, “Have they ever made you feel aggrieved?”
Jing Lin lowered his eyes and blinked. He countered with a question. “What does it mean to be ‘aggrieved’? Father taught me about moral principles and the righteous way. Many things that happened posed no danger to my life, so they can’t be considered as an aggrievement.”
Cang Ji smiled and merely said, “Lord Jiu Tian is the benefactor who has raised you. It’s just that his foresight when it comes to choosing sons vacillates between good and bad, just like himself.”
“The moment I joined Ninth Heaven Gate, I am a sword of the world.” Jing Lin said, “All sufferings are but merely experience when one sharpens a sword for years. Although there are moments when Father’s opinions are at odds with mine, he still treated me with great kindness.”
“But it benefited him at someone else’s expense.” Cang Ji seemed to be joking. “If I had known earlier, I would have taken that young monk from the south home. From then on, you and I would have been good brothers, and we wouldn’t have lacked all these years together.”
Jing Lin’s little finger curled back involuntarily, but it was not because he had told a lie. Instead, it was a feeling he could not explain himself. Cang Ji felt Jing Lin’s fingertip tickling his own heart again and could not help but hold on to him more tightly. His back almost broke out in a layer of sweat. He thought, this lad is indeed my tribulation. Day after day, he had to send his heart into a beating frenzy. By now, his heart had almost been nuzzled into a pool of water. How he wished to turn into a tenderness pliable enough to wrap around his finger.5 He yearned so much to grab him into his arms, twirl a few rounds, and hear him say a few more words.
Cang Ji turned over Jing Lin’s palm and put his palm side by side with Jing Lin’s palm to show him. When Jing Lin fixed his eyes on them, he saw the lotus motif in his own palm materialize before his eyes. Its petals quivered and dripped dew water. In response, he saw Cang Ji’s palm rippled. A little brocade carp that was golden-red all over leaped out of it with a “plop” and shook off tiny droplets of water before it plunged back into the water and vanished. When Jing Lin looked at their palms again, it had already reverted to normal. But now, there was an additional imprint of a brocade carp on Cang Ji’s palm.
Jing Lin raised Cang Ji’s palm. He suddenly smiled and said, “Amazing. You actually found a catch in the art of drawing deities from that other day and created such a little realm.”
“From now on, if you are the lotus pond’s lotus, I can be the lotus pond’s fish.” Cang Ji saw the delight on Jing Lin’s face. This smile was like the melting of ice and snow. It not only set his heart on fire, but even turned all his covetous thoughts into a boundless sea of desire. All of it was held captive in the square-cun-sized6 palm of this man. Cang Ji had the urge to lower his head and brand a kiss into this palm—a palm that was caressing his heart.
Seeing him pause, Jing Lin called out to him.
Cang Ji said, “… I guess that’s what being good brothers are about.”
- 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.
- 修罗 Asura are powerful but often amoral beings (or demigods) in Buddhism, since they are primarily driven by envy and greed for power.
馅饼 Xianbing a kind of somewhat flat, round biscuit-pastry (some call it pie, some call it pancake) with stuffed fillings.
- 禅师 chanshi, an honorific title for a Buddhist monk.
- 绕指柔 rao zhi ruo, from the line “何意百炼刚，化为绕指柔” from Liu Kun’s (刘琨) poem “Presented Again to Lu Chen” (重赠卢谌). Basically refer to forging a good, quality sword by tempering it multifold until it is not only hard and sharp enough to cut nails and iron, but is also elastic or flexible enough to bend or wrap it around the fingers (i.e. 绕指柔, “rao zhi ruo”, or a tenderness pliable enough to wrap around a finger). An example of this kind of sword is the Pan-gang Sword from the Song Dynasty. The use of “rao zhi ruo” as the name of literary works, etc, thus came to be regarded as an extension of the meaning behind the process of sword forging such as repetition, tempering/strengthening, and fermentation (including of love).
- 方寸 square cun (Chinese unit of area: 1cun × 1cun, or 3⅓cm × 3⅓cm)