The rain had almost stopped by the time they arrived before the building. As Jing Lin kept away the umbrella, Cang Ji raised his head to survey the wind still howling among the clouds. He said, “Who will they send from the Ninth Heaven Realm? If it’s Zui Shan Seng, we should be seeing him by now.”
“Wu Ying was able to take charge of an area even before being conferred a title. There must have been someone eminent in the Ninth Heaven Realm showering favors on him.” Jing Lin gently tapped the water off the umbrella and said, “This is no small matter. Even if the one who comes isn’t Zui Shan Seng, you and I will still have a hard time.”
The two of them ascended the stairs and saw the rain-soaked lanterns at the head of the stairs dripping with water. Jing Lin went around the railings, turned, and arrived at Chu Lun’s door with Cang Ji right behind him.
“There’s no one.” Cang Ji wiped a finger on the lock and pushed the door open. “The scent of the brush has long dissipated. That little demon was prepared for this.”
The decor in the room remained unchanged. Jing Lin placed his hand on the body of the teapot on the table and said, “It’s still warm. They haven’t left for long. We can still catch up.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Le Yan held his breath as he watched with rapt attention. He waited for a moment. Once he was convinced that Jing Lin and Cang Ji had left, he rolled out from under the bed and dragged Chu Lun out.
“Shenzhi? Shenzhi! “Le Yan pushed Chu Lun, “Are you alright? Do you feel unwell anywhere?”
Chu Lun was still feverish. He said vaguely, “There’s no need to be alarmed.”
“How did you become like this all of a sudden?” Le Yan pressed his forehead. “You were still fine before sleeping.”
Chu Lun felt cold one moment and hot the next moment. He did not look too good. His legs were so weak as he lay back on the bedding that it was hard for him to move. Le Yan picked up his legs to place them on the bed and hastily covered him with a quilt. He said, visibly distressed, “You’ve been falling ill ever since you’ve entered the capital. Even if you were made of iron, you wouldn’t be able to withstand it.”
Chu Lun placed his hand on the back of Le Yan’s hand and said, “It doesn’t matter. In the future, I’ll get a stipend every month. There is no longer a need to fret over the lack of money for medicine.”
Le Yan said, “The commotion in the imperial city is pretty serious this time. If anything were to happen to the emperor, what would happen to you?”
“The Hanlin Imperial Academy has already nominated me. There is no mistake about it.” Struggling to turn over to face Le Yan, Chu Lun said, “Wait another two years. Once I take office, we will be able to have our own courtyard. You can do whatever you wish in it every day. You won’t have to worry about the way others look at you. “
Le Yan perked up with joy, only to wilt again in dejection. Lowering his head to their holding hands, he said, “But I feel uneasy. I keep having a bad feeling.”
Chu Lun gently brushed aside Le Yan’s hair with his fingertips and said, “You are clearly doing this all for my change of fate, and yet you torment yourself day and night.”
“Your worries are mine too.” Le Yan said, “… It’s just that I’m still afraid. The Demarcation Division is guarding over the lands of Zhongdu. I’m worried that they will find out about our ties sooner or later. ”
Chu Lun said, “No matter what, you and I will always be together.”
Le Yan merely nodded his head, still on tenterhooks.
Right then, they heard a stone falling off the roof. It let out a string of intermittent sounds as it tumbled and eventually dissolved into a laugh.
Cang Ji knocked on the door and asked, “Everyone should be in now, huh?”
The color drained from Le Yan’s face. He turned his head back to see Jing Lin standing by the door. All at once, he rose to his feet and asked, “My Lord, why do you keep pestering us?!”
“Who’s pestering you?” Cang Ji picked up the pot to pour himself some tea and said, “You are the ones who went around in circles to mislead others. You’ve worn Jing Lin and me out by making us run all over the place.”
“I…” Le Yan propped himself up on the edge of the bed and said, “I’ve already told you the truth…”
“That’s debatable.” Jing Lin said coldly.
Gritting his teeth, Le Yan glared at them with tears in his eyes and said, “Zuo Qingzhou is already dead! There is no way to turn this around. Even if My Lord investigates further, you won’t be able to save him!”
Jing Lin set the umbrella aside and said, “So?”
Le Yan shielded Chu Lun. His tears finally flowed as he pleaded. “So, I beseech you to please have mercy on us!”
Jing Lin fell silent and did not answer. He watched until Le Yan’s eyes reddened from crying. Chu Lun coughed incessantly. Compared to the first time they met, Chu Lun was now sick to the bone. If It weren’t for Le Yan changing his fate, he would have already been buried a long time ago.
But Cang Ji tossed the teacup aside and sat on the table to look at Le Yan from a distance away. He said, “Have mercy on you? You got to save your sweetheart, but you made that fox suffer a pain worse than death.”
“Life and death in the Registry of Human Life are all accounted for. Save one, and another will die. I had no other alternative but to make such an unwise move. But I have never plotted to take Zuo Qingzhou’s life.” Le Yan said. “I’m willing to pay with my life for his.”
“He has already gone cold.” Cang Ji said lightly. “Isn’t it a little too late for you to talk about paying with your life now?”
“This happened all because of me.” Chu Lun propped himself up with some difficulty. “If we have to atone for it with a life, then it should be mine… Please…”
Jing Lin raised a finger, abruptly cutting off Chu Lun’s voice. On seeing him making a move, Le Yan could not help but stumble backward in a retreat as he looked at him nervously. Jing Lin did not approach them but remained standing where he was. It was only when both of them had calmed down that he said, “Cut the small talk.”
“Let me ask you.” Jing Lin’s gaze was penetrating. “How did you die?”
Chu Lun felt the temperature in the room dropped. He could not help shivering. The barely discernible sound of the rain beyond the window sounded far away. There was nothing around them except Jing Lin’s emotionless question. Chu Lun lowered his eyes to look at the bluish-green patch of skin at the back of his hand. After a moment’s pause, he spoke.
“In the twelfth year of Tianjia.” He said gloomily. “Autumn.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Chu Lun did not die alone on a small boat, as Le Yan had said. On the contrary, according to his records in the Life Registry, he was originally supposed to emerge as the tanhua1 in the imperial examination in the twelfth year and enter Hanlin together with Zuo Qingzhou. During the imperial banquet in Autumn, he would incur the emperor’s wrath by boldly admonishing him. Then, taken into custody and imprisoned, his old ailment would flare, and he would pass away within a few days.
“Le Yan couldn’t bear for this to happen, so he took up his brush to change my fate.” Chu Lun looked askance. “Only that, neither of us expected the person who ended up paying with his life for mine to be Xijing.”
“You never expected it.” Jing Lin did not mince his words. “Or did you already come to a tacit understanding?”
Chu Lun coughed as Le Yan held him. He wiped the blood with his handkerchief and said to Jing Lin, “Xijing and I might be far away from each other, but we are as close as real brothers. We have neither old grudges nor unhappiness between us. Why would I do him harm?”
Jing Lin took no notice of his words and merely waited for him to continue.
Chu Lun rested for a moment, then continued, “If I had known it could come to this today, I would not have let Le Yan rush all over the place for me.” His eyes reddened. “I really deserve death for causing Xijing harm.”
“Le Yan is the Sage Yining’s brush. How could he have fallen into your hands?” Jing Lin asked.
Chu Lun’s eyes met Jing Lin’s gaze. He covered his mouth and said slowly, “… Several years back, His Excellency Liu gifted me a brush when he saw that I was so poor I had to use my brush repeatedly until it was just a bald stick. That brush was Le Yan.”
Jing Lin nodded his head as if in understanding and asked again, “Are you on good terms with Liu Chengde?”
“His Excellency Liu is a man of high moral standing. Although he is a member of the imperial court, he would rather break than bend.” Chu Lun said, “Xijing and I joined forces to investigate the case, but it was only through the help of His Excellency Liu that our investigations could continue until now.”
“There’s something I don’t understand.” Jing Lin suddenly changed the topic. “You are but a mere mortal. How did you get to know about your fate in the Life Registry?”
Chu Lun paused for a moment. He was about to speak, but his words stalled in his mouth when he saw Jing Lin’s deep and unfathomable gaze on him. He coughed a few more times, his expression chilling a few degrees.
“… His Excellency Liu told me during a chat when he got drunk after drinking.”
“You even believed the nonsense he spouted in his drunken state.” Cang Ji rapped against the rim of the cup to amuse himself. “Both of you are even closer than we thought.”
Although Chu Lun was the one who made the recommendation, the one who acknowledged Liu Chengde as his teacher was Zuo Qingzhou. The camaraderie between teachers and students could hardly be compared to that acquaintances. So, by all logic, this made no sense at all.
“Liu Chengde told you about your fate and even gifted you a brush demon.” Cang Ji stretched out his legs and said, “Your relationship isn’t just good; you are simply ‘as close as real brothers’. If there’s genuinely a sage like him, even I would want to make his acquaintance.”
Chu Lun said, “There is nothing like the mutual appreciation of talents.”
“He didn’t mention Zuo Qingzhou’s fate when he mentioned yours?”
Chu Lun forced a smile. “No.”
“You’re lying.” Jing Lin’s words killed the coughs that were about to leave Chu Lun’s throat. He said, “Not only did you know your fate, but you knew Zuo Qingzhou’s too. You know everything, so why hide it?”
Chu Lun kept his voice under control. “Both of you look menacing, and I don’t know if you are one of the good or bad guys. So I didn’t dare to answer rashly.”
“You are indeed cautious.” Jing Lin said, “Your answers are all watertight.”
When he learned that Zuo Qingzhou had died – persecuted and wronged – in prison, his eyes had swum with tears when he spoke about him. Yet, he had returned to normal after the topic moved on. What was his relationship with Zuo Qingzhou? He was the one who said that they were as close as brothers. If a brother had died, the average man would not have the ability to cooperate to the point it suited his purposes. His answers were as smooth as flowing water. Although he did not look as if he was defending himself, his words absolved him completely. Even if Jing Lin abruptly changed the subject, he could still give a calm, cautious, and fitting answer.
“The Divine Lord has limitless power, so why put us in a difficult spot?” Chu Lun’s cough intensified. Amid Le Yan’s comforting pats, he looked at Jing Lin and said with sorrow, “I’ve barely escaped death, but I’m still an invalid. There is no way I can and dare to fool the Divine Lord.”
“You have yet to realize your ambitions because of ‘illness’. ‘Illness’ was originally meant to be the end of you.” Jing Lin said, “But from the moment Le Yan usurped the life of another, your ‘illness’ was already cured. Because of this, you got a new lease of life. Since you lived, why pretend to be an invalid again? “
Sweat had soaked through Chu Lun’s temples, and he looked despondent. But on hearing this, he was so furious that he wanted to rise. Le Yan held him, not understanding Jing Lin’s words.
Jing Lin continued, “A serious illness that’s cured immediately will arouse suspicions. The way things stand now, you might as well go all the way out. Since you can’t die, why not find ways and means to use illness as your cover? The reason Liu Chengde was afraid of Zuo Qingzhou, but not you, was because you were critically ill. He had no more fear of an attack from the rear after seeing your life sustained with pots of medical decoctions. And so you could execute your plans without a hitch. But how was he to know that it’s no longer your body that’s sick, but your heart?”
“Give a dog a bad name, then hang him.”2 Chu Lun coughed out blood, staining his lips red. He pulled out his handkerchief to press against his lips and stared at Jing Lin. “Just because I lived, the Divine Lord must pin the blame on me?”
“I was merely making a guess.” Jing Lin took the tea from Cang Ji’s hand and sipped it to moisten his throat. “And you already find yourself guilty?”
“Xijing’s death has enraged both humans and deities, but that was definitely not at my behest. I have never plotted to harm a man or even an animal!”
“Of course, you didn’t.” Jing Lin touched the lingering warmth on the cup and said, “I’ve only ever held a sword. It’s only today that I realized that men who wield brushes are even more remarkable.”
“My Lord, what are you trying to say?” Le Yan’s nose reddened as he murmured. “Shenzhi has always been by my side. He has never harmed anyone… even his change of fate was something I did out of willfulness…”
“Because it was you who killed him.” Jing Lin cast him a sidelong glance. “It was Liu Chengde. The emperor. The mysterious mastermind. Everyone except him. He only found out about it by chance. He had no intention of instigating anything.
“I’ve never.” Chu Lun clenched his handkerchief. He was almost gnashing his teeth. “I didn’t!”
“Then it has nothing to do with me.” Jing Lin set down his teacup and got down to business. “I just want to know who was the one who told you about your fate?”
Cang Ji sat up straight and asked with curiosity, “Wasn’t it Liu Chengde?”
“Liu Chengde is merely the tip of the iceberg. Sooner or later, he will end up as a sacrificial chess piece. What he knows is perhaps not even as much as what His Excellency Chu knows.” With that, Jing Lin tapped the table with a fingertip and questioned with an expressionless face. “Then, may I be so bold as to ask His Excellency Chu, who revealed your fate to you?”
Thanks to A. for correction of typos!