As Cang Ji had said, Jing Lin was released eight days later. First, he listened to the admonishments outside Lord Jiu Tian’s door. Then, he went to Qing Yao’s residence. Dong Jun was afraid that he would go bonkers again, so he beat an expeditious retreat and fled.
Qing Yao was resting on the chair on the veranda, where the bell was jingling. She wearily listened to Xue Mei’s1 whispers, but even smiling took her a lot of effort.
“I have many older brothers.” Qing Yao said softly to Xue Mei, “You are much older than me, so you are also considered my older brother.”
Xue Mei leaned on the chair. His face was surreal, and every movement he made brought along falling snowflakes in its trail. Contrary to expectations, it was not at all at odds with this cold, frosty weather. On hearing her, he creeped over and gently pressed his head against the chair’s armrest to look at Qing Yao.
Qing Yao smiled and said, “When can I grow up? I’ve never gone out before. What does it look like outside? I want so much to take a look too.”
Xue Mei said, “Once you recover from your sickness, I’ll take you out for a look.”
“Okay…” Qing Yao stared blankly as the tears trickled down. She said, “That’s what Lan-ge said too.”
Xue Mei kneeled on the ground to catch hold of Qing Yao’s tears. But his cultivation was shallow, and the tears passed through his illusory palms to splash onto the armrest. He retracted his finger, at a loss what to do.
Jing Lin strolled onto the veranda. Xue Mei feared his sword aura and prostrated himself on the ground to retreat to a corner. Qing Yao turned her head over and looked at Jing Lin without saying a word.
Knowing that he had frightened her that other night, Jing Lin did not insist on it. Instead, he crouched down and said, “Jiu-ge has come to apologize.”
Qing Yao looked at him timidly, “Is Jiu-ge mad at me?”
Jing Lin spoke in a low and unhurried tone, “How could I get mad at you?”
Lying on her side with her head pillowed on her hands, Qing Yao said, “Jiu-ge.”
Jing Lin bent his head down. “Here.”
With reddened eyes, Qing Yao said, “I dreamed of you… I often dream of you. When you go out next time, will you come back earlier?”
Jing Lin uttered an acknowledgement, and Qing Yao stretched her little finger out to make a pinky promise with Jing Lin. Jing Lin saw how exhausted she looked and accompanied her until she fell asleep. The copper bell in the veranda swayed with the wind. Xue Mei quietly raised his head to peep at this Lord Lin Song that everyone knew. Jing Lin’s eyes suddenly turned to look towards him, and Xue Mei hurriedly lowered his head in a fluster. He was so frightened that he did not dare to take another peek.
But Jing Lin did not make things difficult for him. He merely sat for a while before he took his leave.
◈ ◈ ◈
A few days later, a dispute rose in the north. Tao Zhi was detained and held in custody by Linlang. The reason was still unknown. Eager to save him, the disciples of the Ninth Heaven Gate came to blows with Emperor Cang’s men. Yun Sheng was the one who reported the news, which was then taken over by Li Rong. Lord Jiu Tian dispatched Jing Lin to accompany him.
“Aren’t you thinking of going north?” Lord Jiu Tian gently nudged aside his teacup. “Then go and take a look. It doesn’t look too good to keep restraining you. You have never handled internal affairs of the sect, so you don’t know the ropes as clearly as Yun Sheng. This order was given hastily, and I’m afraid that you might be caught unprepared. Why don’t you go with Li Rong? I can set my mind at ease with him looking out for you.”
Jing Lin nodded, and Lord Jiu Tian said again, “There’s only a fine line between the Perfection Stage and the Great Accomplishment Stage. At your current cultivation, you should do your best for the masses. Although I’ve achieved the Great Accomplishment Stage, there will come a day when I’ve utterly exhausted my energy. When the time comes, you will be your brothers’ role model. Don’t let your temper get the best of you again.”
His words were encouraging, but his sons all had varied expressions upon hearing this. Jing Lin’s cultivation was real, but he had never been popular. The way he conducted himself was even worse than that of Li Rong and Yun Sheng. Lord Jiu Tian’s sudden words threw them into a panic, as they could tell a little from his words that he had the intent to let Jing Lin succeed him. For a moment, they all looked at each other in silence.
Jing Lin should have expressed his gratitude tearily in response, but he merely accepted his orders and withdrew. After standing outside for an hour, he finally waited for Li Rong and Yun Sheng.
Yun Sheng had yet to change his summer outfit. The wind was cold outside, and he could not help but shiver. He stood by the side of the tree and said to Jing Lin, “Father’s anger has finally subsided. Lan Hai hasn’t been found yet. I know you are concerned about it, so I’ll do another round of checks carefully on my end. Although I don’t know the intention of the person who stole the body, I can’t condone it. As soon as I find out, I’ll definitely inform both of you immediately.”
“There probably won’t be any issues with you in command back here.” Li Rong said, “I don’t know how long this trip with Jing Lin will take. The Winter Alliance Assembly is fast approaching. If Emperor Cang keeps playing tricks, it will probably drag on until next year.”
“It’s inconvenient for all parties to move and act in winter. No matter how insane and wild he is, he can’t stir up trouble.” Yun Sheng rubbed his palm carefully and looked at Jing Lin’s sword sheath. “Lan Hai was the one who created this sheath. Looking at it now really makes one sad.”
Li Rong said, “It was one of the rare occasions where the brothers all got along the day he gifted the sheath. I remember that you were the one who gave him this sword tassel.”
Yun Sheng smiled. “I initially thought Jing Lin would throw it away. Who would have expected him to adorn his sword with it for so many years?”
Jing Lin held the sword sheath with his hand. That red tassel swayed gently in the wind, fluttering along with his white sleeve at his side.
“As they said, one smile to dispel all enmity.” Yun Sheng said, “I hope that your return this time can end all those pettinesses with the brothers. We are family. At this juncture, we shouldn’t act with split minds. I won’t say anymore. Both of you may go on ahead.”
Jing Lin and Li Rong bowed to him together and turned around to prepare their horses for the descent.
◈ ◈ ◈
The weather turned colder on their journey north, but the snow still did not fall. Li Rong and Jing Lin spurred their horses on as fast as they could, and it took only three days before they hurried their way to the north. Li Rong dismounted from his saddle and met up with the Ninth Heaven Gate disciples. Without even needing to rest, he set about dealing with the issue.
Jing Lin drew attention as he walked behind Li Rong. All the disciples fell over each other to catch a glimpse of that Yan Quan Sword. But Jing Lin did not smile, and so the others did not dare to act impetuously and could only watch as he passed by them.
“I’ll go over to Linlang’s side to meet them. Wait for me here.” Li Rong instructed Jing Lin. “Emperor Cang’s men are everywhere around here. Don’t come to blows with them over trivial matters. He is very protective of his own people. Ordinary people won’t be able to gain any unfair advantage in his territory.”
Jing Lin noted that the road outside the window was already jam-packed with starving commoners. He observed carefully, but did not see that many children, so he merely uttered a word of acknowledgement to Li Rong.
Li Rong hurried away.
“Linlang always goes by the rules when she detains a person. She wouldn’t do it without reason. What did Tao-di do? Don’t lie. Tell me the truth.” Li Rong wiped his hands with a handkerchief and asked the disciple accompanying him.
The disciple looked pale. After several glances from Li Rong, he did not dare to hide it anymore. He said, “Eight Young Master… Eight Young Master previously took a liking to a girl from the City of Li. She was already betrothed, and the disciples tried every means possible to dissuade him, but the Young Master was determined to have her…”
“That bad habit from being too spoiled!” Li Rong flung his handkerchief away and said, “What happened afterwards?”
“Everyone who tried to advise the Eight Young Master against it was thrown to feed the dogs. That girl was forcibly kidnapped back here. Determined to die, she ate and drank nothing. From the looks of it, she didn’t have long to live.” The disciple gasped and continued, “The lad whom she was betrothed to pursue her all the way from the City of Li right to our doorstep. Eight Young Master, Eight Young Master…”
“What?” Li Rong’s face was ashen.
The disciple stomped his foot in anger, “Dragged him inside and forced him to dress up as a woman and did them all together! How could both of them still live on after suffering such a humiliation? Their families couldn’t bear it either. The girl’s old mother ran on foot for hundreds of li2 to demand for her body back. But just because she spat on Eight Young Master’s shoe, Eight Young Master rode his horse dragging her in tow until she died!”
Cracking sounds rang out between Li Rong’s teeth. He could not even curse. Gritting his teeth, he said, “There’s no news about this at all in the sect! Why didn’t anyone report it? No one can tolerate this beast for what he has done!”
The disciple immediately kneeled down and replied with tears in his eyes, “Who would dare to deliver the news? Eight Young Master chopped up anyone who dared into pieces right before their buddies’ eyes and fed them to the dogs. So who would still dare to do it?! If he had not infuriated Linlang this time, we probably still can’t do anything about him!”
“How did he rile up Linlang?”
“The Eight Young Master took a fancy to that nine-tailed fox’s younger sister. How could this pair of sisters be that easy to deal with? They are both women with authority under Emperor Cang’s command! Eight Young Master used some despicable tricks to drug her drink and was caught in the act by Linlang’s disciple. He gave him a beating and they fought until it was chaos all over. Linlang took him right into custody once this incident made its way to them!”
Li Rong could no longer listen further. He stepped into Linlang’s supervisory bureau. The demons on guard had apparently got the message and so they did not stop him. He went straight in and heard Tao Zhi cursing even from afar with a railing separating them.
Having been locked up for several days, Tao Zhi’s clothes were already smelling sour and looking wrinkled as it stuck to his body. He had obviously been taught a hard lesson as he lay on the ground with his mouth still cussing mercilessly.
“A fox who drapes herself with human skin is still effing smelly even if you remove your dress! How dare you lock me up, slutty whore, despicable bitch! Even if you let me screw you for free when I get out, I won’t want to either!” Tao Zhi said in a cold, sinister voice. “You are just a slut under Emperor Cang’s command, and you still want to fucking act like a chaste heroine?! Don’t all those filths on your side play around more than I did? Linlang! How dare you whip me?! Someday, I will skin you! Nine-tailed foxes are hard to find, but aren’t white-fur foxes easy? When the time comes for you to cry and beg me to fuck you, I’ll spit in your face!”
Before he could finish swearing, he heard a thunderous “thud”. He looked back and saw Li Rong striding in with an air of murderous aura.
Tao Zhi’s expression changed as he rolled and crawled over with tears in his eyes. He shouted, “Xiongzhang, save me! Emperor Cang is intentionally screwing me over. He set up a trap for me to fall into! That fox kept seducing me, and I, I lost my mind for a moment… Xiongzhang, save me!”
“You didn’t lose your mind.” Flying into a rage, Li Rong stomped his foot on Tao Zhi’s chest and grabbed a wooden stick to rain blows on him. “Have your conscience been eaten by the dogs?!”
Tao Zhi knew that he could hide it no longer, so he hugged Li Rong’s leg and cried bitterly, “I was in the wrong! Xiongzhang! I know my mistake now! I didn’t mean to hurt her. I, I truly wanted her! I wanted to treat her well, but I was too anxious!”
Li Rong struck Tao Zhi so hard with the stick that the latter cried out and went tumbling. Li Rong said, “Things have already come to such a stage, and you still dare to prevaricate!”
How could Tao Zhi withstand Li Rong’s physical strength? He was beaten until bloody welts erupted all over his body. He covered his head and choked with sobs, “I realize my error! I’m in the wrong! I’ve really done wrong! Xiongzhang, don’t hit me… I admit my mistakes!”
His face was pale and streaked with tears as he cried. He still looked young, just like he used to be when he stirred up troubles and erred in the sect. He was younger than Jing Lin, and he was accustomed to acting like a pampered child with his elder brothers. He was far more likeable than Jing Lin. His cries and wails now reminded Li Rong of the past, where he had then led his younger brother personally just like this in cultivating the Way.
Sorrow overcame Li Rong, and his eyes reddened too. He lashed out at Tao Zhi even more heavily. “How did you grow up to be like this? You are playful by nature, and there’s no fault in that. But you shouldn’t have been so utterly devoid of conscience! You forcibly took a commoner woman, dishonored her betrothed, and killed her mother. How are you still of the righteous Way? You evil beast! You have clearly fallen into the Way of the devils!”
Tao Zhi choked on his blood. He curled up into a ball and sobbed, “I’ve realized my error… I’ll change! I’ll definitely change… Xiongzhang, don’t hit me anymore…” He cried out sorrowfully, “Does gege want me to die?!”3
Li Rong hit him so hard that his stick broke. He said, “Can you still live after doing such a thing? The brothers in the sect will not tolerate you! You are almost the same age as Jing Lin, and yet you just have to sink into this evil path! How do you expect Father to endure this?!”
Tao Zhi’s body spasmed all over. He said, “Father… I’ll return to the sect… and let Father deal with me… Gege… I have done wrong!” He endured the pain and suddenly struggled to crawl, “But I’m not the only one in the wrong! Jing Lin… What capabilities does Jing Lin have?! Love affairs led me astray. He can’t avoid it either!”
“Nonsense!” Li Rong raised his hand to hit him. “Jing Lin is focused on cultivating the Way of the Sword. How would he be the same as you?! You don’t realize the errors of your ways at all. You still want to bring down others with you in an attempt to mislead and confuse!”
“I’m telling you the truth!” Tao Zhi suddenly said savagely as he choked on tears and blood. “I, I once drugged Jing Lin with ‘Amorous ‘til Death Do We Part’. If he hadn’t done that, then how could he still be alive?!”
Something detonated in Li Rong’s head. It was as though he had been struck by thunder. He suddenly propped himself up against the wall and said with some difficulty, “You… You are really…”
“He had illicit sexual relations with that Emperor Cang!” Tao Zhi shouted uncontrollably. “Ever since I’ve arrived here, Emperor Cang has been making things difficult for me everywhere! Xiongzhang! It’s true I committed a grave error, but Jing Lin… What about Jing Lin? Has he ever told you about it? He guards this secret so closely. He has already betrayed the sect. He has long been in secret correspondence with Emperor Cang!”
Li Rong was dumbstruck. He could not conceive it. He could not even think! Who was it that Tao Zhi was speaking of? Jing Lin! The face of Ninth Heaven Gate. The younger brother who gave him the least trouble all these years! And who was Emperor Cang? The demon who forcibly occupied the north to create major havoc! How could Jing Lin fall this low? How could he?!
“Shut up…” The murderous intent in Li Rong’s eyes boiled over. His fingers left gouges in the wall as he dug them across. “Shut up!”
Tao Zhi threw himself onto Li Rong’s legs and tugged at his clothes. The gratification of taking his revenge instantly swept over him. He cackled in a hoarse voice and said in a jarring tone, “He slept with a demon! How is he haughty and aloof? He is the most low-down and contemptible! Xiongzhang… Xiongzhang! Jing Lin has long betrayed the sect and turned his back on the Way!”
- 雪魅 xue mei, a snow incarnate or a snow demon. I’ll use “snow incarnate” if referring to snow demons in general, while “Xue Mei” will be used to refer to this particular snow incarnate.
- 里 li, an ancient measure of length, 1 li = approx. 500m.
- 兄长 Xiongzhang, i.e. respectful term for an elder brother. Unlike gege, it doesn’t carry an ‘intimate’ connotation between men. Even between brothers with familial ties, gege sounds closer, so Tao Zhi here is trying to use ‘closeness’ to plead for leniency.