Several copper pearls rolled on the ground, and a weathered man bent down to pick them up. One by one, he wiped them clean before placing them into his money pouch. It let off a tinkling sound as he closed the pouch. The old man standing opposite him flicked the beads on his abacus, making a series of clanking noises.
“Please leave if you’re done.” The old man casually waved him off without raising his head. “Make way for those behind you.”
Without saying a word, the man turned and pushed through the crowd to make his way to the streets. Along the way here, A-Yi had been flung around so much that everything had turned dark before his eyes. At the moment, he could only lie on the ground with scarcely any breath left as he was weighed, watching as the culprit blended into the crowd.
The man secured a hat1 over his head, hiding his reticent face under its shadow and revealing only a slight contour of his frosty face. He looked straight ahead as he moved through the jostling crowd like a stone shuttling through the bustling street—uninterested and inconspicuous. He cut into an alley and pounded on a small, narrow door.
The door opened slowly, stopping midway to reveal a woman’s tired face. The rouge on her face had already partially faded away. Huadi leaned against the door, not even bothering to put on an outer garment. On seeing the man, she said, “Another futile trip, and your pocket is now empty, am I right? Jerk, aren’t you pushing your luck treating this place like an inn?”
Although Huadi was swearing at him, she still stepped aside for him. The man sidestepped her, and a wave of fragrance hit him in the face as he entered. He removed his hat and sat hunched over on the woman’s couch. Wine and porridge were simmering on the small stove; he could finally warm up his frozen hands and legs.
Huadi slipped into the quilt with her back to him and closed her eyes for a moment. Hearing no movement behind her, she chided him again. “Have you forgotten how to eat after a trip to the wilderness?!”
The man brewed the wine and gulped it down. He sat civilly with eyes half drooping. The house was quiet. As soon as he stepped into the house, he had seen the sundries that had not been put away and knew that Huadi had received patrons last night. His Adam’s apple bobbed, and a low sigh escaped. He fell back and curled up on the small couch, then closed his eyes.
“Are there any news from the north?” The man kept his voice down and asked.
Huadi opened her eyes and stared at the gaudy drapery. The mirror hanging above was so small it could only show one of her eyes and the fine lines at the corner of that eye. She lifted a finger and smoothed her sideburns. Her reply was sharp. “I thought you’ve given up. You’ve not asked about it for half a month. So you’re still concerned, huh?”
There was no space for the man to turn over, and he cut a sorry figure stooping over on the narrow couch. But he looked as if he was already used to it.
He said, “I have only one daughter.”
There was a lump in Huadi’s throat, and she hurriedly pressed down on the corners of her eyes. Pushing herself to harrumph in a steady voice, she said, “Your wife is dead, and you are so poor you can’t even make ends meet, who would be willing to follow you? How many daughters do you expect to have if you can’t even get a wife?”
The man replied, “I’m content with just one.”
Huadi said, “No one has come from the north yet. It’s hard to trudge through the snow. It will take a few days more. Moreover, the lands of Zhongdu are vast. It won’t be that easy to find those abducted children. Do you still not understand?”
The man stopped talking and went to sleep. It was not easy for him to run all the way here, after having realized that there was a demon chasing after him. Fortunately, he had a treasure on him that could hasten speed, and that was how he could make his escape. Now that he has reached the city, he need not worry about the demon following him as long as his scent mingled with those in the city.
Cang Ji’s nose twitched slightly as he said, “I can’t trace him anymore. This place is too packed with people. It’s hard to tell him apart from the others once he has melted into the crowd. Jing Lin, where is your bell?”
Jing Lin’s eyes swept through the crowd and said, “It’s gone.”
This place was under the supervision of the Demarcation Division at the top, while it relied on the mortals’ state bureau to suppress evil at the bottom. There was also an assortment of countless human and demons, and the layers of obstruction meant that the odds of sensing the copper bell were weakened.
“This town isn’t small. Finding a copper bell is undoubtedly trying to find a needle in a haystack.” Cang Ji said, “My guess is that he will definitely not dare to venture out at will, so there’s no need for us to be anxious for the time being. Hey, I’ve been on the move for the whole night. I’m starving. “
Jing Lin picked up the little stone figure and walked along the street. When he closed his eyes slightly, he could sense demonic aura all around him. Demons donning human skin could be seen everywhere. Not only that, he could even detect the deity-in-charge of this place patrolling between the temples with alert eyes.
This proved to be even more tricky.
“Can I eat?” Cang Ji suddenly leaned over from the side and spoke into Jing Lin’s ear. “Give me food, or I’ll hunt for my meal. There are so many people here, it won’t be strange if one or two go missing.”
“You can try.” Jing Lin said, “The deity-in-charge of this place is Hui’an, who is under the command of Lord Shage, Li Rong. He has eagle eyes bestowed by Heaven which can discern a demon’s original form, unobstructed by illusions. Plus, he has vast spiritual consciousness. He will watch each of your actions like a hawk when he isn’t sleeping or at rest.”
“Isn’t that an invasion of privacy? What virtue is there to speak of?” Cang Ji said and touched his chest. “Can he see through clothes?”
Jing Lin threw him a look, as did the little stone figure.
Cang Ji raised his chin slightly. “Don’t hesitate to speak up if you want to see too. But for someone like him, won’t his eyes swim? There are more humans here than demons.”
Jing Lin said, “He sees only demons when his eyes are opened and only mortals when his eyes are closed.”
“Then, if he wants to see you, should his eyes be opened or closed?”
Jing Lin replied, “Blinded.”
“It’s just a little chat.” Cang Ji held on to Jing Lin’s shoulders, as if supporting him, and shielded him under his body. “Why are you nervous?”
“When you start being touchy-feely,” Jing Lin raised his hand to brush off Cang Ji’s hands. “it ceased to be just a chat.”
“Are you a prude or just stubborn? You and I have known each other for such a long time; it’s normal to be on such intimate terms.” Cang Ji draped an arm over Jing Lin’s shoulder. “Come closer. You are now the meat closest to my heart; I can’t afford to lose you.”
“Then, I’ll have to trouble you.” Jing Lin said. “Lead the way.”
Cang Ji led him through the crowd, occasionally meeting gazes that harbored malicious intentions. Cang Ji sized them up in his mind: this one is too thin; that one is too fat; all of them are too ugly. He could not stomach any of them.
Jing Lin followed Cang Ji’s eyes and saw a bashful and smiling leopard cat. Her ear tips flushed red as Cang Ji stared at her, and a pair of eyes coquettishly gazed back at Cang Ji.
“The size is just right.” Cang Ji said, “But it’s not convenient to decapitate it and eat it raw. There is nowhere here to bury a head.”
“You just want to eat her?” Jing Lin asked.
Cang Ji gave him an expression of “what else do you expect?”, then said in understanding, “It’s unsightly to eat it raw, so I won’t eat it in front of you. However, you and I cannot be separated. You can just close your eyes while I’m having my meal. Or do you still have compassion for demons?”
“No.” Jing Lin answered and asked no further questions.
Cang Ji was initially fascinated as he walked along the street, but then he grew bored. Those who came and went were human, and their conversations and activities did not cater to his preferences. He could barely comprehend them. He felt as if he was still on the mountain, looking at humans from a distance. He did not understand why humans laughed or blushed. The heart beneath his skin was cold and hard, and he did not find humanity beautiful, nor did he yearn for it.
Jing Lin entered an inn. His altered appearance was average like a commoner and no longer as captivating. He looked nothing out of the ordinary. Cang Ji knew he was concealing his looks. He watched as Jing Lin handed over a silver pearl, then followed him up the stairs.
“Do humans live here?” Cang Ji plopped down on the bed, rolled around once, then propped his head up to look at Jing Lin. “It’s no different from home.”
Jing Lin said, “Since there is no difference, go to your room.”
“It’s not a problem if you want me to leave. Just pick me up and cast me away like what you did in the past.” Cang Ji raised his hand and grasped a corner of Jing Lin’s clothes, tugging it. “You know a lot about the human world. Have you ever been here before?”
Jing Lin did not respond. The little stone figure leaped onto Cang Ji’s stomach. Cang Ji raised a finger to flick it away without even thinking about it. He continued to pull Jing Lin.
Jing Lin took off his outer garment and turned to leave. Unexpectedly, Cang Ji swiftly got up and held Jing Lin between his arms as he gripped both Jing Lin’s hands and pulled him into a hug.
“Even after we came all the way here, you still don’t understand.” Cang Ji dangerously leaned against the side of Jing Lin’s head. “You and me, who is the master now?”
Jing Lin’s sleeve slipped down slightly, revealing his wrist that had reddened from Cang Ji’s grip. He said lightly without changing his expression. “It won’t do you any good to bring superiority into every single matter.”
“What’s good for me is all here.” Cang Ji said, “In my hands. Other than myself, no one else can decide for me.”
“How very gratifying.” Jing Lin said at a neutral pace.
Cang Ji resented Jing Lin’s attitude. He dragged Jing Lin onto the bed and pressed down on Jing Lin’s back to pin him down on the bedding. Cang Ji lowered his head, revealing a trace of malice. Yet he was smiling. “You have no intention to submit to me at all. You aren’t even afraid. This reminds me. You were like this too when you threw me away; there was neither sorrow nor pity. I wonder now whether you really have a heart. Are you even considered a human?”
Half of Jing Lin’s face sank into the bedding, exposing a patch of white at the back of his neck. His lips were tightly pursed, and he gave a cold laugh when he heard Cang Ji. “Don’t you remember? I’m a dead man.”
“The dead mostly can’t speak.” Cang Ji could not help but stir when he saw that the back of Jing Lin’s neck was within easy reach. He said, “I’ll give you another chance. Let’s have a good talk. Have you been here before? Were you a mortal before you became an immortal?”
“Before I have my meals, I never ask my food how they feel and where their homes are.” Jing Lin looked askance at him. “When it comes to certain aspects, you always seem to be exceptionally…”
Jing Lin closed his eyes and sucked in a breath before he could finish his words.
Cang Ji bit down on the meat at the back of Jing Lin’s neck. It was warm. This untouched and unexplored spot was like a delicacy, so much that Cang Ji was unable to stop himself. As expected, he tasted that kind of unrestrained spiritual nourishment again. The spiritual energy surged forth into his body in such torrents that he could barely hold himself back.
Devour him. As long as he devoured Jing Lin, Jing Lin’s indifference and wariness would all be swallowed into his lower abdomen, never to be seen again.
Cang Ji ground his teeth slightly and broke through the skin. He greedily licked that drop of blood and was about to swallow it when he realized that Jing Lin’s head had drooped and he was motionless.
Cang Ji hastily released his mouth and lifted himself up. Turning Jing Lin over, he found that Jing Lin had fallen into a slumber and was cold all over.
That’s not right.
Cang Ji thought something felt off. It was true that he had wanted to devour Jing Lin all this while. But he had not been this frantic even if he had been lured by the temptation of flesh and blood. Ever since he had been stained with Jing Lin’s blood, he could vaguely feel that the one who seemed to have been consumed was him instead. He needed to get to the bottom of precisely what Jing Lin was. Otherwise, he would feel as if he was just a puppet in someone else’s fingers, dancing to someone else’s tune.
Cang Ji wiped the corners of his lips and gazed out of the window. The little stone figure staggered and fell between the bedding. Cang Ji poked it a few times, noting that it seemed dispirited.
“The one I bit was Jing Lin.” Cang Ji poked his finger against the little stone figure’s face and stared at it. He said, “What are you being all weak for?”
The little stone figure remained motionless and swatted Cang Ji’s finger away, then buried itself in the bedding. Cang Ji picked it up and put it on his chest, then lay on his side to gaze at Jing Lin.
“If only he could not speak like you.” Right at once, he regretted his words and said, “Forget it. He has been like an enigma all along. Hey, how long have you been with him? Why is he so kind to you? We were all raised for him to have fun with, and we still have to be sorted according to seniority?”
The little stone figure turned over to sprawl on Cang Ji and looked at him. Then it turned its head away as if it was going to sleep. Cang Ji forced its head back, prompting it to wrap itself around Cang Ji’s finger to punch it.
Cang Ji played with it for a moment, oblivious to the gradually darkening sky. It was now night, and Cang Ji was drowsy after having eaten his fill.
The wind started blowing in the middle of the night, causing the branches outside the window to sway wildly. Cang Ji suddenly woke up and rolled off the bed. He gently pushed the window open, and the snowstorm came hurtling towards him in the face. Cang Ji warily gazed out into the night and caught a whiff of an unusually foul stench.
Suddenly, a massive gray crane with white claws and eyes like flashing phosphorescence flew through the night, a stink permeating the air where it passed. Cang Ji furrowed his brows. He did not know what bird it was. He could only see it leaping over the roof, pressing forward through the flying snow and swooping down in the distance. Then the sound of clanking chains rang out from the deserted street as Ghost Guards2 sprinted towards the direction where the huge bird had flown. As they passed by below, one of them sensed something and looked up.
The window shut abruptly. Jing Lin covered Cang Ji’s mouth and nose to conceal his breathing. Cang Ji was slightly short of breath, and he had already revealed his demonic appearance.
Jing Lin’s eyes remained fixed on the paper window.3 Tilting his head slightly, he whispered in Cang Ji’s ear, “Don’t bite. Don’t move. Don’t say a word.”
Cang Ji’s tense body gradually relaxed, and the glow of the scale that had started to emerge on his neck vanished from sight. He remained still in Jing Lin’s arms.
As if praising him, Jing Lin said, “How obedient.”
Credits: Many thanks to saed (@saedee_) for the correction! ♥