The door clicked open, and the jail wardens entered with lamps in their hands. They just had a satisfying meal. Before shutting the door, they selected someone to stand guard at the door. A warden hauled Cang Ji up by his hair and shone an oil lamp on his face.
“Have you thought it through today?”
Cang Ji’s face was ghastly pale. He burst out laughing and said, “I’ve forgotten it all after taking a sleep.”
These wardens were no ordinary men, but men dressed in flying fish attire1 with tablets2 hanging on their waists. If Jing Lin was beside him, he could tell Cang Ji who these people were. Maybe he would not have to suffer that much then.
As soon as Cang Ji said so, the warden smashed and pressed his head down onto the ground. A hiss escaped Cang Ji’s throat. The impact was so great his forehead hurt. The next instant, the man hauled him up by his hair again. One of the wardens held the swinging lamp before Cang Ji’s eyes while another squatted down to interrogate him.
“Zuo Qingzhou, have you thought it through today?”
Blood oozed out between Cang Ji’s teeth. He licked the blood and spat it out. He said to the man, “Your Honor, I’ve already said I’ve forgotten it all. Can you give me some hints here?”
His forehead crashed back to the ground. The knock held back his curses. The warden pressed his face against the sodden ground while his other hand took over a cup of hot tea. He sipped it and said, “We have been courteous to you these past few days, but you are really not doing us any favors. We found a document in your residence of you bribing the chief invigilator. The evidence is conclusive, and your crime deserves the death penalty. Are you still not going to admit it?!”
Cang Ji attempted to piece together the sequence of events, but he was missing some crucial information. Who did Zuo Qingzhou bribe? Given his talents, there was no need for him to do so at all.
“There’s no need to deceive me.” Cang Ji wanted to push him into saying more. Thus he said, “I’m innocent.”
The warden poured half a cup of hot tea over his head. The scalding water splashed onto Cang Ji, causing him to quiver. He tried to raise himself, but he was forced to endure it until the half cup of tea had all been poured onto him.
“There has never been a mouth that our imperial prison can’t pry open. It doesn’t matter if you insist on not pleading guilty; we still have a way. It’s just that, Zuo Qingzhou, our buddies have been courteous to you thus far only on account of His Excellency Liu.” The warden placed the teacup on the back of Cang Ji’s head and said, “Now that His Excellency Liu needs to avoid arousing suspicions, there’s no one to look after you.”
Cang Ji answered the warden with his own question. “His Excellency Liu?”
“Inspector-General Liu Chengde. Isn’t that His Excellency Liu?” The warden patted Cang Ji on the back of his neck. “If you tell the truth, you might still be able to obtain a pardon once we get to the bottom of the case. But if you remain stubborn, then don’t blame us for being hard on you.”
The teacup at the back of Cang Ji’s head trembled because of the pain. There was no other reason. At the same time the warden was talking, a sharp pain hit the pit of Cang Ji’s legs. These people were really “courteous”. They did not even give prior notice when meting out torture; they simply pinned the person down and did it. The chains on Cang Ji’s wrists chafed against his hands so much that they went limp. He bit the tip of his tongue as his breathing grew urgent.
The warden rose to his feet and paced with his hands behind his back. He said, “It’s fine if you won’t say it. I’ll help you understand it. Before the examination, you invited the chief invigilator for a private banquet and asked him to reveal the examination topic to you. At first, he did not agree, but you made use of your family fortune and paid him three hundred gold to buy the topic. It would have been fine if that was all, but after the examination, you found out that he had given you a fake topic, and so you beat him to death while he was traveling at night.”
Cang Ji said craftily. “I’m afraid it’s impossible for a scholar like me to hit someone to death.”
“Naturally, you can’t.” The overbearing warden partially turned around with malice in his eyes and kicked Cang Ji’s wrists. “But you have a fox demon.”
Cang Ji was yanked up. Chains circled his arms as the warden hung him up. Hanging by both arms, he felt the sweat burrowing into his eyes. But he could still see the light dimly illuminating the corner where a wooden cage was being dragged out. The wooden enclosure was only half the size of a human being, and it was padded with hay. A bound man with a white tail huddled within.
“Damn you,” Cang Ji choked on his words. “How dare you—”
Screw this copper bell. Even until now, he had never laid a hand on Jing Lin like this!
Jing Lin was burning up so much that both his cheeks flushed red. He was unable to stretch in the cage. Both his ears drooped, and there were wounds inflicted by a whip on his back. Cang Ji could tell at a glance that it was no ordinary flogging; it was the brutal work of an experienced torturer.
“You raised a fox demon privately and threw the capital into turmoil. You even disregard the law and clubbed the chief invigilator to death. With such irrefutable evidence against you, how dare you still deny it?” Holding on to the wooden cage, the warden looked inside and said, “Your luck in the romance department is pretty good.”
“I never use a stick to kill people.” Cang Ji no longer wanted to play along with the copper bell. “I’m not playing anymore!”
The copper bell remained hidden and silent.
The warden was dumbfounded at first, then he burst out laughing. “Zuo Qingzhou, have you gone mad?”
Cang Ji yanked on the lock of the chain and said in a frosty voice, “Release him!”
The warden waved a finger, and the wooden cage opened. He grabbed Jing Lin by the ankle and dragged him out. Blood seeped through the outfit on Jing Lin’s back as his body scraped against the hay from the dragging. Cang Ji could hardly bear to see the warden touching Jing Lin. His wrists pushed against the chains forcefully as his body swung in the air.
The warden picked up Jing Lin’s tail and threw it back. Then, he clicked his tongue and turned his head to look at Jing Lin’s face. He said, “It’s a pity to raise such a fine specimen then make him kill for you. What a waste of Heaven’s gifts.”
Jing Lin seemed to be still unconscious. Cang Ji saw his tightly furrowed eyebrows and realized that it was the copper bell’s doing; it was delaying the moment Jing Lin regained consciousness. He truly hated the copper bell to the core right now! In the twinkling of an eye, he saw the warden taking the whip and blurted out, “What do you want me to admit to? Release me from this chain now, and I’ll admit to it!”
The warden brushed the whip across Jing Lin’s face and said to Cang Ji, “You have held on for half a month. Why are you so obedient today? I don’t really believe you.”
He sneered. Standing in the dimness, he flung out the whip. The crack of the whip on flesh made Cang Ji gnashed his teeth. His heart gave a sudden jump on seeing another slash appear on Jing Lin’s back. It was as if he was the one who had been whipped. It wrung his heart so much he felt flustered.
Cang Ji said in a hoarse voice. “Why lash out at him? It doesn’t hurt me the slightest. Since I’m the murderer, it’s only natural for me to pay with my life. You whip… Stop it. I’ll flay your skin!”
He had yet to finish his words when saltwater was splashed at him right in the face. Searing pain overwhelmed him. Having suffered this treatment, Cang Ji’s feral nature broke free. He glared at the man until his eyes were nearly red. The twisting and jolting of his wrists turned violent, shaking so much that the entire chain clattered. Who gives a damn about these eight sufferings,3 nine sufferings?! Cang Ji wanted the copper bell to show its face, now!
The trickling of the water droplets into his wounds felt like the prickings of needles. Cang Ji’s spiritual sea was frozen and deathly still. He was utterly reduced to being “Zuo Qingzhou”. Half a month earlier, Zuo Qingzhou had been hanging in his spot, watching on as every single lash fell on Qianyu’s body. Each lash sliced through Zuo Qingzhou’s heart until it was all bloodied. His solitary bravery turned into rivers of cold sweat streaming down his eyes until his entire face was wet.
Cang Ji found himself choking with sobs. This was not his voice. This was Zuo Qingzhou. It was the Zuo Qingzhou the copper bell wanted to tell him about. Zuo Qingzhou jerked his trembling hands feebly. He heard Qianyu calling out for him, “Zuo-lang.”4
What had Zuo Qingzhou done wrong?
Cang Ji involuntarily cried out. He asked himself in resentment, what had Zuo Qingzhou done wrong? He was looking into the case that merited an investigation the most under the sun. What he wanted was the person who loved him most in this world. What sin had he committed that he had to suffer such a death? Zui Shan Seng spoke of the decree of Heaven and Earth. What kind of decree was this? Deities and immortals were stationed in all parts of the country. Yet they permitted such a thing to continue uninterrupted and allowed a man like this to pay with his own life.
Cang Ji’s chest was pounding. His original form slowly turned in the frozen spiritual sea. That brocade carp with protruding horns slapped its tail. Wisps of spiritual energy stirred, and the spiritual sea that had been suppressed by the copper bell instantly broke out in turbulent waves. His body grew as it turned back into “Cang Ji’s” body.
The shackles broke immediately, as did the scene. The surging of Cang Ji’s spiritual sea made the copper bell shriek in pain as it swung wildly. It could no longer maintain the original scene.
Jing Lin abruptly opened his eyes and felt the stabbing pain on his back. His limbs were bound under a layer of spiritual sphere that rendered his entire body weak. There was initially no wind in this realm, but Jing Lin felt a breeze brushing against his face. He watched as his silver hair faded into black along with the cleansing of the wind.
Scratch marks appeared on the wardens, prison, and the copper bell. The warden, who was still lashing out with the whip, was still smiling. The distorted and warped scene resulted in Qianyu’s splattering blood flowing back from top to bottom. It trickled past Zuo Qingzhou’s tightly clasped fingers, then onto his face.
Hanging in the darkness and drenched in Qianyu’s blood, Zuo Qingzhou mumbled to himself like a man gone insane.
“I plead guilty.” Zuo Qingzhou stared into the darkness and swallowed his blood. “I pleaded guilty. I failed to bribe the chief invigilator and clubbed him to death in the lane at the city south. I deserve to die for my sins. I deserve to be beheaded in accordance with the law.” The clattering sound of his teeth amplified the despair in his voice. “I plead guilty… Stop hitting him. Don’t hit him anymore.”
Blood soaked Zuo Qingzhou all over and dripped from his remaining toe. He had been hanging for too long. Salt congealed on his wounds. He could hardly pronounce his words clearly. In this very short moment, he seemed to have reached the end of his life, and yet he did not get the release he wanted.
“I…” Zuo Qingzhou’s chapped lips quivered, “I plead guilty…”
Qianyu’s cries permeated the air. The fox gnawed on the chains, but he could not help Zuo Qingzhou down.
Zuo Qingzhou’s eyes turned, and his gaze fell upon the fox. Tears fell as he opened his mouth to call out, “Qian…”
Qianyu had chewed on the chains until his lips were torn and bloodied. The fox dragged the chain around his wrist. Zuo Qingzhou lay flat. White bones protruded from his wrists under the shackles. He lay amidst the rubble, so unkempt that he did not look like a man from the Zuo Clan. Qianyu dragged him out of the debris with the latter’s blood in his mouth. Zuo Qingzhou’s body slid along, creating a trail of blood in its path.
Zuo Qingzhou’s breathing was weak, and all he could see was darkness. He could no longer see where Qianyu was. But his cracked open fingers touched Qianyu’s fur. That silky and soft fur was like a mass of cloud as Qianyu nudged against his fingers with force, staying with him for his remaining lifespan.
Zuo Qingzhou’s consciousness was fading. He summoned the strength to call out urgently, “… Qianyu…”
He cupped Qianyu’s face in his palms and raised his head. Qianyu’s warmth pressed against his forehead as his soaked hands embraced his cheeks. He lowered his head to drop a kiss on his eye.
Zuo Qingzhou clung to Qianyu’s knees and said, “… Go…”
Qianyu choked on his sobs as he shook his head and embraced Zuo Qingzhou tightly. He said, “Where am I supposed to go? I’m not leaving you.”
Zuo Qingzhou tapped on Qianyu’s wrist with his fingers and pushed him gently to drive him away, “… Leave…”
Qianyu glued himself to his cheek and shook his head stubbornly and helplessly. He said, “I want to be with you. I want to be with you forever. I don’t want to leave you.”
Zuo Qingzhou’s lips moved slightly. He sighed intermittently in a hoarse voice. Qianyu’s tears slid onto his cheeks. Even when Zuo Qingzhou breathed his last, Qianyu feigned ignorance. He limped as he embraced and dragged the upper half of Zuo Qingzhou’s body, mumbling, “I know the way to the Underworld. I’ll catch up with you. Wait for me. I’ll break my tail off for you. Then we will share a life, never to part forever. Zuo-lang… my Zuo-lang is unparalleled in the world… No one can take you away.”
Wu Ying’s abrupt bellow quashed the illusionary scene. Jing Lin saw Qianyu picking up Zuo Qingzhou in his mouth. Before the scene could continue, he saw the urgent ringing of the copper bell. Cang Ji landed beside him.
“The scene has been shattered.” Cang Ji ran his palm over Jing Lin’s back. It was only after seeing that he was safe and sound that he turned Jing Lin’s face to him and shouted into the fragments of light. “Have you gone silly from the whipping? Jing Lin? Does it hurt?”
Jing Lin touched Cang Ji’s cheek with the back of his hand. Cang Ji’s warmth returned him to his senses.
Cang Ji grabbed hold of Jing Lin’s hand and said, “Hey.”
“We’ve gotten it wrong.” Jing Lin looked at the disintegrating light as Zuo Qingzhou’s face dispersed like a dream. He said, “This suffering isn’t Qianyu’s, but Zuo Qingzhou’s inability to let go.”
飞鱼服, literally “Flying Fish Attire” (no idea what its official name in English is). It’s the official outfit of the imperial court’s secret service (锦衣卫), who not only serve as elite bodyguards but were also given authority to overrule judicial proceedings in prosecutions with full autonomy in arresting, interrogating and punishing anyone, including nobles. (Extra Pic).
腰牌 literally waist tablet, it’s a small tablet hung at the waist to prove one’s identity, especially for people in governmental posts or acting in an official capacity.
- Refers to the eight sufferings the bell is leading Jing Lin through. So far, we have Dong Lin’s ‘Death’, Gu Shen’s ‘Parting’, and Chu Lun’s ‘Illness’.
- 郎 Lang, young man; a form of address. Also used as a term by a woman (or a man in this case) to address a lover or husband.