Jing Lin fell upon the bed. Li Rong signaled with his eyes, and Yun Sheng placed the medicine bottle for injuries on the table. For a moment, all three men said nothing. The water droplets at the edges of the eaves dripped onto the water puddles below. Even closed windows could not keep out the cold.
Jing Lin’s hair had yet to be wiped dry, and the water soaked through the bedding under his body. He did not bid both men farewell, nor did he look at them. The searing sensation on his back burned. His injuries were pretty bad.
Yun Sheng found the atmosphere heavy, so he took the lead and said, “The whip has spiritual intelligence, and each lash struck you hard. You will have to apply the medicine on the wounds.”
He had only just stood up when Li Rong said, “The punishment by flogging has been carried out. Go and inform Father.”
Yun Sheng understood this to mean that he wanted to have a word with Jing Lin, so he nodded his head and retreated out of the door before closing it for them.
Li Rong waited for Yun Sheng to walk out of the courtyard, then looked at Jing Lin and said, “You can’t take it lying down because shixiong1 hit you, so you wouldn’t even look at me. It doesn’t matter. We are brothers. If not today, then tomorrow. Even if the bones are broken, they are still connected by tendons.2 But if you carry on like this, it’s your own body you’ll end up wrecking. Cultivating the Way isn’t easy. Think about it.”
Jing Lin propped himself up. Red welts colored his shoulders and back. It looked exceptionally horrifying when contrasted against his fair skin. He looked back at Li Rong with a particularly frosty expression.
“Since you are going to be self-reflecting behind closed doors, then there is no need for you to run back and forth. You don’t have to worry about the remaining issues in the north.” Li Rong tapped the rim of the porcelain cup on Jing Lin’s table and turned it over to pour cold tea. After tasting the bitterness in his mouth for a moment, he asked, “But tell me honestly, what is your relationship with Emperor Cang?”
Jing Lin promptly turned his head back.
Li Rong said, “You are thinking, ‘shixiong is so gullible he even believes those words’, am I right? Let me tell you then, I don’t believe them. But let these words float around out there, and everyone will soon take it as the gospel truth; as they say, three men can make a tiger.3 You know it in your heart that Father will no doubt rap you for this, and yet you still have to be so obstinate! If you don’t endure this beating, then there will be even harsher punishments waiting for you. You feel you have made great progress, and you are now formidable enough to shoulder this twice or thrice. But are you aware that Father remembers every single incident in his heart?! He can tolerate you once or twice out of love, but can he let you off seven times, eight times, or even dozens of times? You did wrong today, and I hit you for it. But it wasn’t because you killed Tao-di.”
Li Rong fell silent. He leaned back against the chair and fiddled with the cold cup between his fingers. With his eyes under the shadows, he actually exuded a certain degree of enigmatic dignity. He gradually raised his neck back, portraying a rarely seen state of relaxation.
“Jing Lin.” Sighs interspersed with Li Rong’s words. “Human desires are hard to eliminate. There are no deities in this world, only humans. As everyone’s cultivation deepens, they will be able to summon the rain and command the wind, move mountains and fill the sea. But they are still, after all, human. Ninth Heaven Gate flourishes and thrives with each passing day. The eight brothers are all Father’s sons. Who doesn’t want to be addressed as ‘my lord’? Father has been addressed as such, and now, you. You have told others many times that Father is the supreme lord, and you wouldn’t dare to accept such a title. But ‘Lord Lin Song’ is still renowned all over the world. It’s no longer important who started it and spread it around. The crucial thing is what Father called you last night. He called you Lord Lin Song. Jing Lin, haven’t you realized something from his address of you in such a way?”
As Li Rong said that, he turned the teacup upside down to set it aside. The hand he had used to hold his spear was not flawless. Turned it around for a look, and it was covered in layers of calluses and scars. These were all traces left behind over the years from being on the go dealing with the sect affairs. Jing Lin had injuries on his back. But was he not the same too? With brothers not opening their hearts to one another, his medicine for injuries over the years had never come from the hands of others. Jing Lin never consumed pills, so he could simply turn them down. But he couldn’t. He never turned any one of them away. But only he himself knew how many of those he actually ate.
“I know more about Tao-di’s deeds than you do.” Li Rong’s eyebrows were tightly knitted as he spoke wearily and heavily. “Having been spoiled and coddled to such an extent, he could no longer be considered human. Go and listen to the voices in the north, and you’ll know that everything he did was way worse than the evil spirits invading cities. But why didn’t I deal with him? Because, Jing Lin, you and I both can’t do it! Bringing the blade down on him is gratifying. But if you kill him, then what would everyone under the Heavens say from tomorrow onwards? Every one of them will commend you, Lord Lin Song, for placing righteousness above family loyalty. Then what’s to become of Father’s reputation? The more heartless you are, the more your reputation will spread. You are already being addressed as ‘my lord’. How much longer will it take for you to overshadow Lord Jiu Tian? Thousands of people kneeled down to receive punishment last night for Lord Lin Song. You have already become everything the public wants and yearns for. How much longer do you think Father can put up with this?”
“We are father and son.” Jing Lin’s voice grew hoarse. “Father and son!”
“When will you grow up?” Li Rong closed his eyes and stayed silent for a long time. “If one day.”
Li Rong’s throat felt dry. He said darkly and hoarsely.
“If one day, your Way of the Sword were to fall apart, then you will no longer be Lord Jiu Tian’s son. If you had spared Tao Zhi and took him into custody instead and escorted him back to the sect, he would not escape death this time. Why do you think Father took in this eight son? There’s you before him with an extraordinary original form, and Dong Jun after him who has repented from his evil ways. Father’s reputation has already spread far and wide. Tao Zhi had neither outstanding talents nor a rare form, yet Father still took him in. Not only that, he even doted on him. Why was Tao Zhi able to throw his weight before you all these years? Because he had Father’s backing! And now, he had grown into such a condescending, lawless person. You can already say words like ‘Father’s shielding him’ at the entrance of the courtyard. But why can’t you think more in-depth about it?”
Clenching his bedding tightly, Jing Lin looked at Li Rong in shock, feeling as if this person was a stranger.
“Wasn’t it also due to Father’s painstaking guidance that you have become the way you are today?” Li Rong leaned over and buried his face into his palms. “The might and power of the purest sword are infinite. If you want to be the purest sword, then you have to sever all feelings and desires according to Father’s words. Even if you really fall in love with someone, you have to hide it, endure it! Jing Lin, the moment you change, Yan Quan Sword can no longer be called the Number One Sword in Heaven and Earth. To Father, you will no longer be a beloved son, but a useless son.”
He suddenly showed his eyes. The pain and struggle in them settled down like sediments, turning them both pitch black.
“Do you know what a useless son is? Lan Hai is one. As is Tao Zhi. Everyone who has died on the frontier frontline is one. Jing Lin, if you become useless, then you are worthless. And Ninth Heaven Gate doesn’t retain worthless people.”
The table and chair were suddenly knocked down. Jing Lin hauled Li Rong by the front of his clothes and flung him down onto the ground. He threw out a punch, causing blood to spurt out of Li Rong’s nose and mouth. The teacup and teacups instantly shattered as Li Rong fell among the fragmented pieces.
“You knew it a long time ago.” Jing Lin bellowed. “You watched Lan Hai die. You watched Tao Zhi do wrong. You watch tens of thousands of men deployed to the frontline at the borders! How can you put up with it? How can you stand it?!”
“You want me to stand up and condemn him. You want me to be as tough and unyielding as you are.” Li Rong turned his head sideways to spit out the blood, then said in a subdued tone, “Do you think this is defending the Way? Do you understand? If I didn’t punish all those thousands of men who kneeled down last night, then all of them would have been dispatched to the frontline this morning! You step forward to stand up for what you believe to be righteousness. How impressive. But the one to lose his life will never be you! Father won’t kill you, but he can single out others to punish. You can save one life, but can you save thousands upon thousands of lives? Without withdrawing our forces at the border frontline, I’d not have the Three Thousands Armors in the sect under me today! Without putting up with Tao Zhi, I’d never have gained the disciplinary power to decide one’s life and death today! Being steadfast and tough for a moment is your idea of the righteous Way, but bearing it in silence with these responsibilities on my shoulders is incompetence?!”
Both men knocked over the wooden chairs. Li Rong coughed. Fragments of broken porcelain scattered all over the floor were crushed into powder from their exchange of blows. It was a total mess in the room. Li Rong backhandedly dragged Jing Lin by the collar a short distance away.
“When will you grow up? The moral principles you embrace and defend are worth nothing! What else do you have other than the increasing burden of your reputation? What are you going to use to investigate?! Since its establishment, Ninth Heaven Gate has been standing for hundreds of years. The water here is so muddied that you can’t even fish in troubled waters!4 If you stop at nothing to dig further at this time, you will only cause the others to die even faster! You foolish lad!” Li Rong yanked at him and lashed out, “When will you understand my pains?! I’m telling you now not to investigate anymore!”
Jing Lin’s back was bleeding. He abruptly shoved Li Rong away and fiercely wiped away the blood that Li Rong had punched out between his lips. He said, “My principles are worthless, but how much are yours worth? If Father is guilty of wrongdoing, then you and I are both accomplices!”
“And so you are going to kill him?” Li Rong said through clenched teeth. “Are you capable of it? Father is already in the Great Accomplishment Stage. Unless the timing is perfect, no one will be able to touch him otherwise!”
Jing Lin bent forward and spat out blood. Gasping unevenly for breath, he suddenly asked, “Do you know who the Blood Sea is?”
“I don’t know.” Li Rong said quickly, “But the south has been gathering children for as long as several years. I am—”
There was a momentary jolt in the air. Stirred by the wind, the branches in the courtyard started to rustle and sway. Both men instantly looked at each other. Then, Li Rong turned over and rose to his feet to rebuke, “Hitting you is for your own good! You show no respect to your elders, and you even dared to contradict Father! Don’t you deserve to be hit?!”
Jing Lin’s forehead broke out in cold sweat. He had received an entire night of lashing and soaked in an entire night of rain. So the pallor in his face at the moment was not at all feigned. He leaned back against the edge of the bed behind him to prop himself up. His breathing had already calmed as he looked coldly at Li Rong.
Li Rong looked down at him from above and reproached him in a bitingly cold tone. Footsteps rang out in the courtyard, and Yun Sheng knocked on the door. After getting a clear look at the interior, he instantly got a headache and said, “My dear brothers, why have you come to blows again?! Father has summoned Li Rong over. Hurry up and go.”
Li Rong kicked aside the broken porcelain and rolled up his sleeves. He probed, “Why did he summon me now? Give me a hint.”
“Emperor Cang has taken action in the north.” Yun Sheng said, “Myriads of demons have headed out of the wall! According to our disciple’s report, even the eastern and southern fronts have been blocked in. It’s not known what he’s planning to do along the frontline of the Blood Sea. But the scale of his movement is so grand that I’m afraid trouble is about to brew.”
“Emperor Cang.” Li Rong swept a glance across Jing Lin out of the corner of his eyes, but he did not continue speaking.
Jing Lin’s heart stirred on hearing this. He rose to his feet and draped his outer garment over himself. But Yun Sheng took a small step over and said, “You can’t step out of the door. Just Li Rong alone will do.”
Jing Lin’s movements slowed. He said, “Okay.”
Thus, Li Rong left together with Yun Sheng. Jing Lin stood indoors and watched as both of them left. After about an hour, he suddenly pulled his clothes apart, poured the medicine for the injuries all over his back, and bandaged it quickly before putting on a clean, white robe.
◈ ◈ ◈
Without having the time to change his clothes, Li Rong headed right for Lord Jiu Tian’s courtyard. When he arrived, the remaining brothers were already all standing in order. Lord Jiu Tian was feeding a bird. With his back to him, he said, “That vile spawn did wrong, and still dare to pull a long face at you! Wipe your hands. How unbecoming.”
Li Rong took the handkerchief handed to him from the side. With red, swollen eyes, he forced a smile and said, “Jing Lin is still young. There are many things he doesn’t understand. Father is doing this for his own good. Detain him for two days to let him cool his head, and he will soon come to understand.”
Lord Jiu Tian said, “I’m afraid he’s still unconvinced. What does it matter if Tao Zhi did wrong? He would not be able to escape his deserved punishment. Am I that kind of man who can’t tell right from wrong? What irked me last night was that Tao Zhi failed to live up to expectations and did such conscienceless deeds! And it vexed me that Jing Lin took matters into his own hands and killed him. The sect rules are already in place now. If everyone were to act on their own like him, then it will erupt into chaos sooner or later!”
“Father is wise.” Li Rong went along with it.
“The north has always been a territory forcibly occupied by the demons. This matter has been eating at me for many years. Originally, for the sake of giving the masses a chance of survival, we have been striving to seek and form alliances while acquiescing to Emperor Cang out of courtesy.” Lord Jiu Tian slowly peeled the shells of the melon seeds and fed them patiently to the bird. He said, “But you know best what an asshole that Emperor Cang is! He occupies tens of thousands of li 5 worth of fields, but refuses to cede them over and instead allow countless commoners to starve to death beneath its walls. Time and again, he seizes Ninth Heaven Gate’s cities, while we repeatedly put up with it. I heard last night that the north has turned out in full force, and I’m afraid that he’s scheming something big. The reason I summon you over today is to send you there on a mission.”
“With the Blood Sea pressing on to the borders, he would not dare to act against Heaven at this juncture.” Li Rong pondered it over and revealed a wry smile. “Besides, Emperor Cang may be arrogant, but it’s not without basis. I’m only near the threshold of the Perfection Stage at present, I’m afraid…”
“If you can’t do it alone.” Lord Jiu Tian looked back and said with a shadow of a smile. “Then take along your Three Thousand Armors. Don’t tell me a bunch of dogs can’t bite a wolf to death? He is planning something big, and it’s likely for him to be beset and distracted with a multitude of issues and problems. This is the perfect opportunity.”
Li Rong stalled for a moment, and his eyelids twitched incessantly. He braced himself and forced himself to maintain his expression.
“All of you, leave.” Lord Jiu Tian said. “I will discuss it in detail with your eldest brother.”
The men on both sides filed out of the room, leaving only father and son inside.
With his hands at his back, Lord Jiu Tian paced around Li Rong and said, “Emperor Cang is cunning and difficult. It’s hard for even the True Buddha to be his equal. He is a thorn in my flesh. You know best how I think. Naturally, you understand what this trip entails.”
Li Rong said, “I…”
“Jing Lin is my beloved son.” Lord Jiu Tian suddenly changed the topic. “Ever since he entered the sect, I’ve taught and guided him personally. It took years of honing him with all my efforts to cast this Number One Sword in Heaven and Earth. You are magnanimous by nature, and yet I told you to cultivate the Way of the Asura. Do you understand why?”
Sweat soundlessly trickled down the side of Li Rong’s temples. Holding himself up under the intimidating aura of one at the Great Accomplishment Stage, he replied unhurriedly, “Because I don’t like to kill.”
Lord Jiu Tian let out an inexplicable laugh. He patted Li Rong’s shoulder. Each pat seemed to carry a hint.
“That’s not it.” Lord Jiu Tian said, “I let you cultivate the Way of the Asura because of your tenacity. You seem bighearted, but in fact, you are steadfast. If you follow this path, your resolution will not waver, nor will you indulge yourself wantonly. You are similar to Jing Lin. It’s just that you just lack his original form. Moreover, compared to Jing Lin, you are more transparent, tolerant, reasonable… and sentimentally loyal.”
The corners of Li Rong’s lips twitched. He said, “I don’t deserve the praise…”
“Jing Lin isn’t sensible enough to know any better.” Lord Jiu Tian said, “He doesn’t understand my pains. I’m not telling him to sever his feelings and desires for real. How could I? As a father, I just want him to be well. But I’ve restricted him so much in the past that it has instead caused him not to understand how difficult the word love can be. That Emperor Cang is nothing good. As his eldest brother, surely you can’t watch on as he ruins his cultivation over that man.”
Li Rong’s hair suddenly stood on end. He looked at Lord Jiu Tian with some difficulty.
Looking awkward, Lord Jiu Tian said, “That bastard Tao Zhi made some despicable stuff from the medicine hall in the compound. I initially turned a blind eye to it, but I never expected him to use it on Jing Lin. He’s truly a beast! Good thing the beast is now eliminated. There’s still a chance for Jing Lin to turn back. The Three Thousand Armors under your command have been training for quite some time and has never been deployed out to battle before. So why not use this opportunity to get them off on a good start?”
Li Rong felt as if he could not breathe, but his palms were shaking. Using all the endurance he could muster, he slowly showed a resolute expression to Lord Jiu Tian and said, “This son understands.”
“You must kill him this trip.” Lord Jiu Tian looked at him. “For the sake of the common people, I hope you will spare no effort! As they say, evil will not prevail over good. Once you reach the north, you will understand that it is not difficult to kill him. The one he has to do everything in his power to deal with at this juncture is someone else. Po Zheng can penetrate through all living creatures, and his weakness has already been thoroughly exposed. You just have to seize the opportunity.”
Li Rong’s Adam’s apple bobbed. He did not know how he answered, but when he retreated, he heard Lord Jiu Tian’s instruction.
“Li Rong, you must slice off his scales and extract his tendons, so that he can never, ever re-enter the wheel of reincarnation.”
Lord Jiu Tian teased the bird and let out a few laughs.
“Father shall wait for you to return in triumph.”
- Jing Lin and Li Rong are both adopted sons of Lord Jiu Tian. At the same time, they are also both from the same sect (Ninth Heaven Gate). That makes them brothers as well as shixiong and shidi.
- 打断骨头还连着筋 literally, broken bones are still connected by tendons. Even if there are conflicts or disagreements, blood is still thicker than water.
- 三人成虎, literally three men make a tiger. i.e., three people spreading reports of a tiger would make one believe that there is really one around. Basically, a repeated rumor becomes a ‘fact’.
- 水浑得连鱼都摸不到 from the idiom 浑水摸鱼, which is to fish in troubled waters.
- 里 li, ancient measure of length, 1 li = approx. 500m