Jing Lin put on a “feeble and powerless” appearance as he made a show of submission. Liu Chengde was so anxious that his moustache was soaked with sweat. He wiped the sweat away with his handkerchief, occasionally brushing aside the window curtain to look back. He feared that Wu Ying could not stop that demon who had gone berserk.
The sedan-bearers used their legs as wheels and ran so fast they were almost flying. It was clear they were not mortals. They dodged left and right, picking all the obscure paths along these interwoven streets to make their escape. They did so with such ease and familiarity that they were like mice burrowing through mouse holes.
Jing Lin realized that they were merely taking the circuitous route as a smokescreen. There was only one destination all along—the towering, magnificent palace in this capital.
Liu Chengde’s sedan chair stopped before a secluded doorway. His legs were still shaking as he got off the sedan chair. After huffing and puffing for a bit, he directed the little demons who were carrying the sedans to lift the curtains and get the men off. Both Jing Lin and Qianyu were asleep. The little demons looked hideous and comical as they kicked out their legs and lengthened their arms to squeeze inside the human skins. Forming two teams, they hoisted Jing Lin and Qianyu up before making another dash for it with their long, slender legs in shoes too large for their feet.
Jing Lin caught a waft of the fragrance of lotuses as the chilly breeze brushed past his face. The little demons made an all-out effort as they scurried along the palace corridors and alleys. Liu Chengde, who was also being supported by the little demons, did not dare to pause for a rest. And so it was in this way they rushed to their destination in one breath. The human skins of the mob of demons had all gone wrinkled after soaking in sweat.
Liu Chengde collapsed to his knees with a “thud” on the ground at the bottom of the stairs. He fell so hard that the impact shook some leaves off the potted flowers and plants at the sides. He steadied his voice and called out cordially, “Your Majesty, this old subject1 has not failed you. I’ve brought the men back for you!”
It was dim inside the palace hall. Eunuchs stood under the shadows, rooted to the ground like dead men. They did not announce his arrival, nor did they come down the stairs to welcome or greet him. Every single one of them hung their heads down with their sleeves drooping at their sides as they stood motionless.
Liu Chengde was stricken as he kneeled. He was keenly aware that the time had been delayed tonight, and he had delivered the men late. He was afraid that he had incurred His Majesty’s wrath, and so he watched his steps and words even more. He did not even dare to wipe his sweat.
About less than an hour later, he heard a soft voice from the palace hall. “Bring them up and show me.”
Liu Chengde responded and turned around to let the little demons put down the two men. The eunuchs inside walked out, woodenly and rigidly, and lifted both men to send them in. It was sweltering hot at the moment, but there were heavy drapes hanging in the hall. The eunuchs entered in a single file. Only then could one catch a glimpse of a faint glint of light through the opening.
Jing Lin was placed on a woven mat, side by side with Qianyu. The tabletop was so spacious that it could even accommodate two more people without a problem. Set up at the side were an incense burner and talisman papers with the cinnabar2 on it running along the rug to leave what seemed like a trail like blood leading further inside. The faint smell of residual smoke from something incinerated permeated the air. There was also a stench concealed under the thick, heavy aroma of sandalwood.
The eunuchs withdrew one after another, and the hall regained its furtive atmosphere. The flames from the candles never burned bright, as if an unknown person was pinching their candle wicks. Someone with their shoes on ambled to the side of the mat. That body reeking of decay was already aged, and his wrinkled hands were like withered, rotting leaves. The old emperor scraped his knuckles across Qianyu’s cheek and squinted his eyes to stare fixedly at him for a moment. Then he shivered and moved over to look at Jing Lin.
“How young.” The old emperor’s voice sounded pinched. He wiped the drool he could not stop with his handkerchief. Hunching over at the waist, he lamented, “So fresh and juicy. Just a pinch, and they seemed as if they would ooze water. From how I3 see it, these are better than the ones delivered from the previous batches.” He continued speaking alone in the hall. “This one. This one looks good.”
Jing Lin looked solemn with his eyes closed. The old emperor felt a thirst in his heart when he saw that tint of red on Jing Lin’s lips. As if he was in discussion with another person, he said, “You,4 when you’re finished, leave me a mouthful of rouge.5 This one is rare. I have yet to get a taste of this before.”
A perfunctory snort rang out from the inner part of the hall.
The more the old emperor looked, the more his heart itched. He said, “Why have I never heard those underlings mention the existence of such a looker? They, they have certainly kept me waiting for so long!”
“They are always giving you the runaround.” Someone inside said. “They love to fob you off like this. You think you are the master of the world, but they think you are old and useless.”
The old emperor sat down with resentment and said, “I have been diligent ever since ascending to the throne, but they are never satisfied. Those people, those people’s greed knows no bounds!” He stamped his feet in indignation. His chest heaved as he pronounced the word “greed”.
“If they give you the runaround,” The person inside laughed. “Then kill them all. Who can lord it over you? You’re already the ruler of all the lands under Heaven! Kill one to make another submit to you until they all kneel to you in subservience. By then, the foundation for your so-called empire would be unshakable, wouldn’t it?”
“Kill one.” The old emperor’s face lit up with joy. “Kill one to make another submit! Contemptible wretches, deserve to die!”
“Just like the one with the surname Zuo.” The man inside lowered his voice. “He was the most abominable.”
“He was hoping for me to die!” The old emperor stood up and paced restlessly. “He saw that I’ve grown old. He saw me…”
“Uh-huh.” The man inside continued. “They all think you are old now.”
“No! I’m not old! “The old emperor raised his voice. “How could I be old? I don’t want to be old! I should live a long life to protect my empire!” His breathing was urgent as he scrambled on his knees to make his way inside. He whimpered as he kowtowed. “Please enjoy these, then give me some men I can use. I want to capture them all! Who does Zuo Qingzhou think he is? Anyone who hinders me from selecting tributes6 for you, anyone who forbids me to prolong my life… I’ll kill them all!”
Mocking laughter from within bounced wildly across the hall. The man compassionately lowered his fingers and lifted the old emperor’s face.
“You fear old age.”
The old emperor nodded his head in a fluster.
“You want me to keep on prolonging your life for you.”
The old emperor acknowledged it in a trembling voice.
“Then don’t ever stop hunting for tributes. Send me all the beautiful men and women you have in Zhongdu. Tell those minions of yours to kill every obstacle in the way.” The man raised the old emperor’s face with his fingers and said, “I’m doing it all for your own good… They are all waiting for you to grow old, but I want you to live longer, look younger.”
“You are doing it for my own good.” The old emperor wept with gratitude. “You are a deity of Heaven. I’ll do everything you say!”
“Good dog.” The man released his hand and stroked the old emperor’s hair. “Good dog.”
The old emperor was so choked with gratitude that he fawned over him like a dog wagging its tail, even barking out several “woof”.
Following “illness” and the “inability to let go”, “old age” was also close at hand. Three sufferings7 were all so embroiled together, they made Jing Lin’s mind stumble.
Jing Lin and Qianyu were both dragged into the deepest recesses of the darkness. There was finally a face put to that foul stink—the stench of blood sediment. The stone platform was stained brown with blood. Countless people who had been kidnapped away from their loved ones were picked by the human traffickers and delivered here, batch by batch. Those screened out would be sent to the city in the mountains, while the ones selected would be presented as tributes here. There were simply too many beautiful women that it became tough to find attractive men. It was as if all the men and women in the entire world could be livestock and objects as long as the master of this place desired so.
How was this a deity? It was clearly a devil.
The candles around them were removed. Without windows in the inner chamber, all traces of light were kept out. The darkness was like thick ink shrouding their bodies. It seemed as if they had sunk into the deep, bottomless sea as they gasped for breath like the lowly beings they were.
A flush crept up Qianyu’s face as if he had caught a chill. He seemed to be suffering in his dreams as he choked with vague sobs. Zuo Qingzhou’s brush and ink clung to his chest. They were the only remaining treasures he possessed now.
The old emperor was still on his hands and knees, imitating a dog. The darkness made it inconvenient to crawl, and he bumped around a few times. Uttering an “oh, my”, he rose to his feet while supporting himself against the wall. He asked fearfully, “Aren’t you going to light the lamps here?”
The evil spirit8 kicked the old emperor back on to the ground with one foot and said, “I’ve missed the hour today. I need to wait.”
The old emperor crawled forward. There was a weight on his back as the evil spirit sat down on him. The old emperor chortled with laughter as he crawled a few steps with both hands and feet. He said, “I’m basking in your divine aura, basking in your divine aura!”
The evil spirit said, “How is that a mere dog can speak human language?”
The old emperor wiped his sweat and looked up. “Woof, woof!”
“As expected, you are a miserable wretch too.” The evil spirit hurled abuse at him in a soft voice. “Look at how willing you are to suffer the humiliation of crawling under another man’s crotch, all for the sake of a miserable life.”
The old emperor concurred. “You cannot compare my crawling between your legs with anything else. This is a blessing, a blessing! If you bestow favors on me, I will carry your shoes for you to serve you.”
“There’s no need to.” The evil spirit made a show of kicking him. “You just have to slouch on your throne and do a proper job of choosing tributes. Seeing as you are obedient, I’ll give you another way to prolong your life.”
The old emperor could not help but “woof” a few times to show his delight.
“I know that they are still selling children underground. Why don’t you ask them to pick a few pleasant-looking ones and send them in together? Although you can’t lay your hands on these lovely tributes, you can still have fun with those exquisite children.” The evil spirit salivated and said greedily, “I’ll eat a few mouthfuls less and save them for you.”
The old emperor hurriedly acceded in response, then asked with some apprehension. “But these, these children will die the moment we are not careful…”
The evil spirit said, “Then, so be it. Throw them into the lotus pond to feed the demons. Someday we might even raise a ferocious creature to play with. You reside deep in the palace. It’s inevitable for you to be ignorant and out of touch. Do you know who is the most ferocious person between Heaven and Earth?”
The old emperor toadied to him and said, “Of course, you are the most formidable.”
The evil spirit was amused and said, “Naturally, he would fall short if we are comparing who is more formidable. But when it comes to being fierce, it’s tough to beat him. You are the True Dragon Son of Heaven,9 while he was the True Dragon Cangdi of the Three Realms. Both of you are dragons. But if you meet him, you would have to greet him as grandpa.”
The old emperor was about to fawn on him when the evil spirit kicked him back. There was a sudden change in the evil spirit’s expression as he said coldly, “He only came to be because of all the things he ate. He devoured everything he came across. If he set his eyes on you, there wouldn’t even be a piece of bone fragment left of you.” He spoke in a furious tone. “If it were not for the fact he had died a long time ago, I would have cut off his flesh like Li Rong did.” Then, he swerved away from the topic. “How are you considered a dragon? Are you even worthy?!”
The old emperor said with thick skin, “I’m just your lapdog, the ant at your feet! I’m not considered a dragon. Nope, not a dragon!”
The temperamental evil spirit said in agitation, “How spineless can you be?! You don’t even dare to refute me? If this is the way you are, then who out there will be willing to submit to you? “
The old emperor endured a few kicks and said in a panic, “I dare not! How can you be compared to those pigs and dogs? You are a deity of Heaven. You are like my second parent!10 Where, where in this world would a son refute his father?”11
The evil spirit said with contempt, “You look dignified, but you turned out to be so low-class. All those outside pay homages to you and regard you as their father. If they are pigs and dogs, then what are you?”
“I’m a dog of yours!” Currying favor with him, the old emperor raised his hands to his bosom to imitate the front paws of a dog. He panted. “Everyone in the world is my dog. At the end of the day, we are all your dogs!”
The evil spirit was as pleased as punch. He rose to his feet with his hands behind him and kicked the old emperor. He said, “If I were to have dog meat for every meal, would you be willing to comply?”
The old emperor’s legs were trembling. How would he dare to say “no”? All he wanted was to be an emperor who lived a long, long life.12 How he wished this evil spirit would eat more and well so that he would restore his youth and prolong his life for hundreds of years to come. So he wiped away his sweat and said, “Yes, yes. Just pick anyone, and I’ll catch them here for you.”
“What should you do if they said you are fatuous and tyrannical?”
“Kill!” The old emperor let his hands fall and smiled. “Grab all of them to the imperial prison. Flay their skins and force them to confess their crimes. Then, break their legs and throw them into mass graves alive to feed dogs. I’ll kill whoever dares to say that about me!”
“Then go.” The evil spirit stood in the darkness and instigated him. “Go. Skin those two men on the platform. Don’t you like to get a taste of the rouge of beauties? After peeling off their skins, you can hold them in your hand to satisfy your cravings.”
On hearing this, the old emperor rose and supported himself with the tables and chairs as he bumped and crashed his way to the bottom of the platform. Steadying his royal crown with a trembling hand, he clambered up and groped towards the surface of the platform. As his fingers brushed past the icy surface of the platform, he asked suspiciously, “Where, where are they…”
“Here.” With a light tap of Jing Lin’s fingertip, an azure light lit up the platform. He had been sitting all alone for a very long time. All that remained on his frosty face sans makeup was a murderous aura so cold it was imposing.
The old emperor was caught off guard. He cried out in alarm and stumbled back hurriedly. As he crawled backward, he bumped into the evil spirit’s legs. The latter kicked him back as if he was kicking a ball. The old emperor rolled over to the table leg, then covered his face and said, “It’s not me. This isn’t my doing!”
Half of the evil spirit’s body was hidden in the shadows. A thick, heavy cloak slid down beside his legs. Remaining fixed in place, he suddenly burst out laughing. The more he laughed, the more savage his laughter became. He laughed until the door to the dark room slammed shut with a “thud”. He laughed until Jing Lin furrowed his eyebrows in a frown.
“You are utterly devoid of conscience. You hide here, manipulating a monarch that rules above all to harm ten of thousands of lives.” Jing Lin said, “Who are you?”
The evil spirit’s stature gradually took on a change in the dim light. He bent over to step out of the shadows, revealing his face as though he was stepping out from behind a raised curtain.
“I’m Jing Lin.” Those facial features that bore a striking resemblance to Jing Lin were aloof and cold, with a streak of savagery. “I have come bearing Yan Quan, for the purpose of slaying demons.”
Jing Lin raised his eyes in a split second.
- 臣 chen, an official, minister, or subject of the emperor. It’s also used to refer to oneself while conversing with the emperor, it has the same connotation as “I, your servant/subject”
Talismans are usually drawn with cinnabar (or sometimes black ink).
- Emperors actually used the word 朕 (Zhen) when referring to themselves. I’ll just be using “I”, “me”, “my”, etc, in the text for easier reading, but the human emperor in this novel always uses “zhen” when referring to himself.
- The emperor here uses 您 (nin) whenever he addresses this person. 您 (nin) is a more respectful “you” than the regular 你 (ni). You can thus see the dynamic between the emperor and this person from this since it’s typically others who have to show respect to the emperor.
- 胭脂 rouge but may also refer to women. e.g.,. 胭脂马 refers to an untamed woman.
- The word he uses is ‘tributes’ but it’s really more like sacrificial offerings.
- Refers to the eight sufferings the bell is leading Jing Lin through. So far, we have Dong Lin’s ‘Death’, Gu Shen’s ‘Parting’, Chu Lun’s ‘Illness’, and Zuo Qingzhou’s “Inability to let go”.
- 邪魔 an evil spirit or a devil. A devil has its origin in human souls that have turned evil (Soul → Evil Spirit → Devil according to one source; for details and clarification of the terms demons and devil, please refer to the glossary). Immortals and deities may also descend into evil and turn into a devil. In this novel, I’ll use the terms devil and evil spirit interchangeably.
- 真龙天子 literally “true/real dragon, son of heaven” The people in ancient times believed that the emperor was the son of Heaven and the incarnation of a dragon. The dragon thus came to be a symbol associated with rightful emperors who are considered to be the “mandated son of heaven” acting as Heaven’s representative on earth to do good for the people. Emperors also wear a dragon robe to reflect this ‘belief’.
- 再生父母 refers to one’s great benefactor who is like a second parent.
- Filial piety was (and is still) a thing in those days. Children were expected to obey their parents without question back then.
- 万岁 literally ten thousand years old, but it’s used to refer to a long life when paying obeisance to the emperor. E.g. his subjects and the commoners would shout “long live his majesty” (万岁, 万岁, 万万岁)