Cang Ji settled himself in the chair. On hearing that, he steeped a cup of tea for himself and said, “Make yourself clear.”
“Aren’t you going to invite your guest who has come from afar to take a seat first? The wind outside is so biting cold that it makes me shiver.” Dong Jun entered through the window as he spoke. Rubbing his hands, he took his seat without anyone asking and said politely to Qianyu, “May I ask for a cup of hot tea? Let me take a breather.”
Qianyu served him tea and tactfully retreated out of the room. Dong Jun took a few sips of the tea and said, “The coast of the Eastern Sea is where the affinity between both of you begins. As they said, what goes around comes around. Now that everything is going smoothly, it’s Heaven’s Will that you should return to the Eastern Sea.”
“What exactly are you scheming?” Jing Lin asked.
“Oh, man.” Dong Jun said, “Don’t say it like that. All the incidents you encounter this second time have something to do with both of you and nothing to do with me. I’m merely just here to use the opportunity for my own end.”
“That’s hard to say.” Cang Ji said, “Chu Lun once said that he had met a man in a painting. The appearance he described is pretty similar to yours. And you intervened in Qianyu and Zuo Qingzhou’s matter. Besides, how do you know about the ‘eight sufferings’?”
“Everyone in this world who wants to commit evil deeds has a customary habit.” Finding it boring, Dong Jun pushed the fan around. “That is, to turn into ‘Dong Jun’. I have no father, no mother, and no one else to stand up for me, so I can only suffer in silence. I saw how pitiful the fox was, and it just happened that I had nothing to do, so I took pity on him and lent him a hand out of kindness. As for the eight sufferings, of course I know about it. That copper bell was something that went missing right from my hands.”
“The copper bell was originally forged by Lan Hai out of the leftover materials he gathered from Po Zheng Spear. It hung under Qing Yao’s eaves for several hundred years. After Qing Yao passed away, I picked it up among the ashes of the Fire of Heaven.1 It was indeed in your hands when I was in seclusion. But when I woke up…” Jing Lin paused. “Were you the one who saved me?”
Dong Jun replied, “Not me. I don’t do such a thing.”
“Gathering spirits and sculpting bodies are your fortes.” Cang Ji said, “If not you, then who?”
“I’m originally an evil form, one that would avoid both of you like the plague. Wouldn’t saving you be akin to digging a hole for myself?” Dong Jun huffed at his hands. “Lan Hai was the one who forged it, so Lan Hai was the one who knew best what exactly it is. I kept it for some time when it landed in my hands. But it ran away on its own when you died. This thing isn’t a spirit.2 On the contrary, it has the aura of a ghost. It eats ‘sufferings’. When it was in my hands, I had to feed it suffering from the human world. But following you both now have starved it for a few hundred years. So it’s no surprise that it has run out on its own to look for food. However, it has such a soft spot for you that there’s clearly some underlying obsession driving it. If you want to get to the bottom of the matter, then you must complete this journey.”
“You said there’s still one last suffering.” Jing Lin said. “Which is it?”
“I’m waiting for you to tell me.” Dong Jun spread out his palms innocently. “How am I supposed to know what sufferings both of you have gone through? I merely did a count, and it’s just one short.”
Jing Lin tapped his finger on the lid on the teacup, and Cang Ji said, “Let me ask you one last question.”
“Heaven’s secrets cannot be divulged.” Dong Jun had already guessed what he was going to ask. He said, “Life and death are all predestined. I don’t know who’ll live and who’ll die either. It will all be clear once the time comes. But from my prediction, there’s going to be a revolutionary change in the east. When I do something, I don’t ask for peace of mind, just returns. Since both of you have received my favor, then I’ll cut to the chase.”
“Let’s hear it.” Cang Ji said.
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“Hai Jiao Zong Yin3 has disappeared.” Dong Jun said, “The wind and snow in the Eastern Sea Sea are out of whack. If we can’t find him before spring, the east will be flooded.”
“That’s Zhui Hun Prison’s responsibility.” Jing Lin said, “Zui Shan Seng is now acting in Li Rong’s place as the commander. He should be the one investigating and handling this matter.”
“Zui Shan Seng’s inner demon has yet to be exorcised. He has already immersed himself in the Brahma Altar’s lotus pond to meditate and enter seclusion. If he can make it through this stage, he will truly be at the Great Accomplishment Stage.”
“There are countless deities in Ninth Heaven Realm. This matter is of crucial importance. There are surely some other potential candidates.” Jing Lin said, “Why do you have to ask us?”
“Because of Demon Slayer, Lord Linsong.” Dong Jun tapped his folding fan and said to them in a heavy voice, “I, alone, have observed an anomaly occurring in Can Li Tree. A great demon is about to be born in the Eastern Sea. This matter is closely connected to the copper bell. So, are you going or not?”
◈ ◈ ◈
A few days later.
Heavy snow sealed off the roads and obstructed their horse carriages from moving on ahead. With a cloak draped around him, Cang Ji went with a person to choose medicinal herbs at the inn en route their journey. His hair was tied up and secured with a golden crown, and he was luxuriously dressed. He cut a distinguished figure.
“Cao Cang.” Cang Ji was scrutinizing a handful of coptis chinensis.4 When he heard the voice, he turned his head to the side to let out an unhurried smile at the comer.
“Young Master Cao.” The man with the goatee tidied up and gave Cang Ji a slight bow. He said, “I heard yesterday that Young Master Cao wishes to purchase medicinal herbs, so I’ve specially invited the young master here for a meet. It’s freezing cold, so please come this way inside, Young Master.”
Cang Ji raised his hand and said, “I have Dong Lin to thank for Master She’s willingness to see me. There’s no need for the tea.”
Uncertain, She Hui asked, “May I know what the Young Master wants to buy?”
Cang Ji sniffed the coptis chinensis and said casually, “My wife has been in poor health ever since we returned from the north. I heard of how there are many immortal mountains5 on the coast of the Eastern Sea that are most suitable for recuperation. Although Dong Lin and I couldn’t be said to be friends while he was alive, we were still acquainted with each other. I’ve heard him repeatedly mention how well-informed Master She is, so I’d like to ask if the east is really that good? I wish to take my wife to the seaside to stay for a while and make plans again once there’s improvements.”
She Hui followed Cang Ji as the latter took a few steps and said, “If it’s not convenient for your esteemed wife to travel long distances, then it’d be best for the Young Master to choose a warmer town. Those talks of immortal mountains have lured countless people over, but demons have been running rampant lately, and there is no deity to oversee and keep watch on it. I fear that it’s unsafe.”
“I heard that Hai Jiao is in charge of the Eastern Sea.” Cang Ji put on a slightly puzzled expression. “So how can demons be running rampant?”
“Hai Jiao has hardly been active since the start of summer.” Master She knew the happenings of the various places like the back of his hand. He said, “When we delivered the medicine to the capital, we saw that the demons in the east had all run to the capital. It’s obvious that the Eastern Sea is in a chaotic mess now. Leaving all else aside, the Eastern Sea used to snow for merely half a month in previous years, with an abundance of cold rain. But this year, there’s not even a drop of rain in sight, and the snow has already been falling for a month!”
Cang Ji put a gold pearl in the fellow’s tray and said with regret, “That’s truly a pity. My wife was looking forward to staying in the mountains and choosing a courtyard by the sea to plant flowers.”
On seeing this, She Hui said hurriedly, “May I know what medicine your esteemed wife normally takes? Now that the weather is cold, you must take care to keep her warm to expel the cold.”6
Cang Ji said, “I’ll hand Master She the list later for a look.”
Cang Ji sighed and said, “It’s so cold outside. Let’s talk about it when the weather warms up in a few days.”
She Hui hastily said, “Of course. If the Young Master is willing, then all you need is to just call for me, and I’ll pay you a visit to take a look for your wife.”
Cang Ji smiled in agreement. When he left, She Hui personally saw him out. Top-grade ginseng and fur were all loaded onto the carriage at the back. Without saying another word, Cang Ji got into the frontmost carriage.
◈ ◈ ◈
Warm air came assailing Cang Ji in the face at a lift of the thick cotton curtain. Cang Ji lowered his head and entered, then tucked in the corners of the curtain. He saw his “wife” leaning inside with a book in hand, dozing under the faint light of the luminous pearl.
Cang Ji’s hands were cold as he edged his way into Jing Lin’s sleeve to reach his wrist.9 He rubbed it gently in his palm and lowered his head to look at Jing Lin’s expression.
Jing Lin loosened his grip on the book. His wrist felt both cool and warm from Cang Ji’s rubs. He opened his eyes and asked, “What did he say?”
“He said that he would call on us to take your pulse once the weather warms up in a few days.” There was still an air of chill surrounding Cang Ji. He tilted his body to lean against the wall, partially trapping Jing Lin before his chest. He had a hobby that was increasing in its intensity these days—he liked to caress Jing Lin when he could. His wrist, his lower back, everywhere. As long as he was near that icy cold skin, he would try every means to rub away at it until Jing Lin turned red and hot.
Jing Lin’s fingertips were sticking inside Cang Ji’s sleeve too. He said, “You deceived him just to learn this?”
“Nine out of ten of what I said to him was the truth.” Cang Ji said.
“The moment you said this, you are already deceiving me.” Jing Lin looked at Cang Ji.
Cang Ji could not suppress his smile. He said, “Are you growing in my stomach?”10
Jing Lin said, “… Then, do you want me to call you ‘mother’?”
“Go ahead.” Cang Ji slid his hand back, took down the pearl, and covered it with his cloak to cover up the light.
Jing Lin looked at the contours of his shoulders as they moved and inexplicably called out, “Mother.” It was only after calling him that he sensed something off, so he immediately corrected himself and added, “… ’s mother!”
Cang Ji moved to scoop him up. Jing Lin had nowhere to shift his legs, and Cang Ji grabbed him by the ankles and dragged him towards him. Jing Lin’s knees pressed against Cang Ji, who had already come pressing down on him.
“You addressed me as mother when I told you to.” Cang Ji swiftly grabbed hold of Jing Lin’s waist. “Then why didn’t you do so when I told you to scream other words?”
“I’ve nothing to lose.” Jing Lin’s fair cheek scraped against the cushion. “Didn’t you call me father before too?”
“What a mess.” As Cang Ji spoke, he lowered his head. “Why are you thrusting against me?”
All at once, Jing Lin’s knees could neither move up nor down. They remained stuck between Cang Ji’s abdomen. Something in his sleeve rustled and tried to poke its head out, but Cang Ji clenched the opening of his sleeve shut with one hand.
“I don’t want the stone.” Cang Ji closed in on him. “I want you to say it.”
Jing Lin said, “What did you find out?”
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“Zong Yin has disappeared since summer.”
Jing Lin’s heart gave a jolt. He asked, “The Demarcation Division of the Eastern Sea didn’t investigate?”
“You are a little greedy.” With his abdomen being prodded, Cang Ji raised his eyebrows slightly. “I’ll only answer one question at a time.”
Jing Lin turned his head away under Cang Ji’s gaze, completely exposing the graceful arc of his neck. Cang Ji exerted some force. His gaze blazed in the darkness. It was so scorching that Jing Lin had the feeling that someone was caressing his neck.
“I answer one question. You answer one question.” Cang Ji guided him methodically. “Give and take, and affection lasts forever.”
“Go on.” Jing Lin shifted his gaze back.
“Is the stone your double?”
“Yes.” Jing Lin replied speedily. “A double from the past.”
“You used the stone to deceive me.” Cang Ji frowned slightly from being poked against. “So, that means you have been eavesdropping on me all along before?”
Jing Lin raised his head slightly and said to Cang Ji with a little distance between them, “One question for each person.”
Cang Ji lowered his eyes to stare at Jing Lin and said, “Fine. Your turn.”
“Are you canglong?” Jing Lin stared at him.
“Yes.” Cang Ji bumped his abdomen forward. “I’m also Cao Cang.”
Jing Lin had been pushed until his head was almost hitting the wall. He asked, “Did I forget something?”
“One question per person… How about this? Since you and I are always forgetting, then why not set another rule? The one who asked an extra question has to fork out a little something. For example, letting me… “Cang Ji paused at the perfect moment. “Behave myself obediently. I’ll even do that.”
Jing Lin nodded and said, “Ask away.”
“Does it feel good to be sticking ’em up against me like this?”
Jing Lin was stumped for a moment before he answered, “… No. Did I forget something?”
“You merely dozed off.” Cang Ji said, “You will reclaim everything you’ve lost without fail. You want to prod further down instead?”
Jing Lin shifted his legs away and said, “No. Do we know each other in the past?”
Cang Ji murmured a sigh and said, “Yeah, how the times have changed. Back then, Lord Linsong pursued me for several hundred li11 all because he wanted to marry me.”
Jing Lin suddenly sat up and asked in astonishment, “Really?”
Cang Ji instantly revealed his wickedness. He moved his head closer and whispered, “First offense. Jing Lin, I want you to bite me.”
- 天火 literally Heaven Fire; a fire caused by natural phenomena, e.g., by lightning, or a fire whose cause can not be ascertained.
- Spirits are those that originate from non-human sources such as plants, animals, and objects. So if a bell were to gain consciousness and intelligence, it’d be technically called a (bell) spirit (which Dong Jun said it’s not.)
- 海蛟宗音 literally Sea Jiao (Dragon) Zong Yin
- 黄连 Huanglian, coptis chinensis, or coptis root, also known as goldthread. It’s an herb used in traditional Chinese medicine and is very, very bitter.
- 仙山 mountains on which immortals dwell. But may also refer to secluded and tranquil places far from human traffic.
- 驱寒 in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it refers to expelling the cold (that seeps into your body as winter approaches)
把脉 pulse diagnosis is one of the major clinical diagnostic methods in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). It has been used by TCM doctors to assess patients’ health conditions for several thousand years.
- In those days, it wasn’t really proper for a man to have physical or close contact with a woman unrelated to him, especially alone. (男女授受不亲). That’s why he’s asking for permission and also to do the reading through a curtain or a screen for propriety’s sake.
腕骨 specifically the area where the carpal bones are
- An allusion to 肚子里的蛔虫 a worm in one’s belly, i.e., to know what a person is thinking as if one were a worm/parasite inside that person’s stomach; a mind reader
- 里 li, an ancient measure of length, 1 li = approx. 500m